SAGA OF LONGEWALA


Air Marshal (retd.) M.S. Bawa, PVSM, AVSM, VM
From the Indian Air Force Journal, 1997

Longewala will go down in the annals of warfare as a remarkable milestone where a handful of IAF pilots routed a formidable armoured thrust during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. It was indeed the IAF's finest hour, not withstanding what the Bollywood film, BORDER, depicts. When for the first time the IAF joined battle on the ground alone and won the offensive hands down. Here is the full account from the then-base commander of Jaisalmer.  Another article on this Battle by Wg Cdr Suresh is at this link


Bursting of the Bubble

The bubble burst when Pakistan carried out a pre-emptive air strike at sunset on 3rd December 1971 on the airfields of Amritsar, Avantipur, Pathankot, Utterlai, Ambala, Agra, Nal and Jodhpur. Taking a leaf out of Moshe Dayan’s book, the PAF evidently attempted to neutralize the IAF on the ground with a lightning air strike. it was at Longewala that the enemy made his biggest armoured thrust with a view to capture a large chunk of the Indian territory. The Pakistani thrust was blunted entirely by air action alone.

Hunter turns Hunted

In the early hours of 5th December 1971, a radio called the base commander, "This is Tiger, here (Maj. Gen. Khambata, GOC 12 Div). I suspect that an enemy armoured column is making rapid headway for Ramgarh. Our post at Longewala has heard tank noises throughout the night and seen tanks go past it with full headlights towards Ramgarh. I want your boys to investigate as early as possible." The Division Commander's voice on the radio was grave with anxiety.

While the aircrew were being put into the picture, the situation at Longewala was fast deteriorating. Enemy tanks carrying infantry elements had placed a ring around the post and had begun shelling it. Company Commander at the post was Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri.

Faced with this situation and being severely outnumbered and up against an armoured assault, he could at best appraise the Division of the magnitude of threat & clamour for help. He was advised to await the friendly Air Force at first light. Chandpuri kept low in his trench; a thin veil of darkness lay separating life from the death for all the besieged at this lonely outpost in the dark desert.

When the first two Hunters of the IAF arrived on the scene, the enemy was still shelling the post but was yet to hit any worthwhile target. The Hunters came low, scanning the road from Ramgarh; Flt. Lt. D.K. Dass and Fg. Off. R.C. Gosain with eyes peeled, guided by an Air Observation Post aircraft, found the enemy's T-59 tanks. The fight between the IAF and the Pakistani armour began.

They called up and picked on a tank which was closest to the area, not even 50 metres from Chandpuri’s besieged post. "01 Alpha" entered the dive, put his aiming index on the tank and fired half his rockets. The tank lumbered a few meters in the sand, spit and ignited. "Bravo" yelled with joy. "You have got him Alpha! He is burning, the bastard!" He himself was getting into the firing range. He had picked on a tank near the helipad which was quite close to the post. He pressed the trigger for a short time and behold....that tank was shattering into splinters!

But even as these two aircraft were picking up and making their kills, the enemy on the ground was advancing. A few tanks had already reached the helipad, situated at the base of Longewala post. Mission 01 was running short of fuel and ammunition. If the small, but tactically important post at Longewala was to be held, the killing would have to continue. The kill could only be made from the air. For, our armour was nowhere at the scene, and Chandpuri had only one RCL shell! The race has now begun against time.

Back at base, every available skilled man was released from all other duties to help and turn the aircraft around in the shortest time possible. This was the only course of action open to the IAF in the area. As many tanks as possible had to be destroyed during the daylight hours, because if the enemy thrust was not completely foiled during the day time, the threat could assume menacing proportions at night and perhaps even threaten the airfield, as there were no anti-tank defences provided to this airbase.

Even as Mission 01 was turning towards home, yet another pair of aircraft flown by Bali and Yadav was on its way to the target area. The first pair claimed two tanks destroyed and five others damaged. The second mission engaged those menacing monsters on ground and continued till it had exhausted all its war loads. The pilots claimed two tanks destroyed and six damaged.

Any tanks set ablaze were claimed as destroyed and those crippled as damaged. The tanks were moving around in circles on the ground trying mainly to offer a moving target to the enemy air and secondly to find protection in the cloud of dust that their movement raised. The effort was futile since the Indian fighter bombers had complete and unchallenged freedom of air.

Gun Camera Pictures showing  the tanks of the Pakistani 22nd Cavalry under attack by the Hunters of Jaisalmer.

Every pilot had to wait for his turn. This was the only sore point among the aircrew at Jaisalmer. So by the time Tully and Suresh got their turn, they were angry. When they ultimately went to attack, it was like attacking injured snakes. The tanks went writhing in circles and yet trying to sting with their anti-aircraft guns whenever the Hunters got near them.

In one, Suresh met the tank head on. Both the tank's and the aircraft's guns fired simultaneously. The aircraft, however won when its rockets hit and blew up the tank. The big flash that followed blinded Suresh for a moment. The pullout from the dive was momentarily delayed with the result that the aircraft scraped the ground with its tail but it continued to fly and was brought back safely to base. The mission claimed 3 tanks destroyed and 7 disabled.

When Tully and Gosain landed at 1400 hrs, they reported that after they had attacked three tanks that they spotted, they had to shift their attacks on to vehicles. This was the first indication that the panzer offensive had been successfully foiled. Only half a day had gone past.

Just then the Indian side, at the Longewala sector on 05 December 1971, intercepted a Pakistani message. An English translation of the message read,

"The enemy air force has been creating havoc - One aircraft leaves and another comes and stays overhead for twenty minutes. 40% troops and tanks have been destroyed, injured or damaged. Further advance has become very difficult. Send air force for help as soon as possible otherwise even a safe withdrawal would be difficult."

After the battle, Burnt out, stranded hulks of T-59 tanks of the Pakistani Army lying in the desert sands of Longewala

By the time the last mission over Longewala had completed its attack, the enemy force lay in shambles. The enemy's morale had evidently been completely shattered. With the plans of over running Longewala, Ramgarh and then capturing Jaisalmer airfield foiled, the enemy’s morale was at its lowest ebb. It is more than a mere conjecture that the enemy, never in his wildest dreams, could have imagined that the small air contingent of the IAF positioned at Jaisalmer would destroy their powerful armoured thrust.

There was no dispute that every single piece of armour and supporting vehicle which lay destroyed, crippled, burned or shattered were purely the result of air action. A prime factor beside absence of air opposition, was the absence of our own troops in the area. Their presence would have induced the problem of recognition and consequently delayed launching or missions in quick succession as was actual achieved in this situation. So the otherwise undesirable factor actually proved to be a blessing in disguise under these circumstances.

The last mission found the enemy dragging his feet on the sandy track leading back to Ghabbar in Pakistan. To make the retreat difficult and deprive the enemy of much needed vehicles, APCs and armour, these were hit all along the track back to Ghabbar. The vehicles lay burning, bogged and abandoned. The enemy prayed for darkness to come, but the sun continued to set the bloody sands of desert ablaze for a much longer time than elsewhere - that's why deserts are deserts.

The action during the daytime, in addition to blunting the enemy attack, provided valuable time to the Divisional Commander to reformulate his plans and effect the redeployment of troops. As the day ended, the air ops and the Company at Longewala confirmed that 20 tanks and a large number of vehicles had been destroyed or damaged by the Air Force. The performance of a handful of gallant pilots had saved the day. The gratitude was most aptly worded in the message received at base from the Divisional Commander, Major General R.F. Khambatta at 10:00 P.M. on 05 December 71.

The message read,

"Personal from GOC for Base Cdr(.) We had excellent cooperation and support today(.) Shooting by your boys had been most accurate resulting in destroying number of enemy tanks and blunting the attack(.) Please convey my appreciation and that of my troops to the pilots(.) Congratulations on excellent performance(.)"

Even as the Jaisalmer element was preparing for the night, a telephone call was received from the Div. Cdr. who said that it was his personal appreciation of the situation whereby he highlighted the possibility of the enemy making a likely thrust against Jaisalmer airfield, bypassing Ramgarh with whatever was left of his armoured forces in the area - roughly a squadron strength of tanks. This was more likely to be resorted to if the enemy had a determined commander.

Tension mounted as the night advanced. Then at 0437 hrs on December 6, Major Atma Singh reported from Ranau that a bomber raid was heading for Jaisalmer airfield at low level. The guns reacted very fast. Although only a silhouette could be seen by the bursting ack-ack, the aircraft was noted to have put on bank and turned sharply away before entering the airfield boundary.

Goofy was the first one to take to air on the morning of December 6th. His task was to check all routes leading to Jaisalmer for any enemy intrusion, specially the routes leading from Shagarh Bulge, as these approaches had remained unguarded. He flew low into the area and checked and rechecked every suspicious object which looked like the enemy and found no trace of him. With a mixed feeling of happiness and disappointment, he proceeded towards Longewala sector, on his second part of the mission - interdiction of the retreating enemy and bring back information regarding his whereabouts for subsequent missions.

The next recce was carried out in the area Sadewal-Sandh-Ghabbar-Longewala, with a view to check if the enemy was attempting a hook from Sandh to Tanot trying to surprise our troops in this area. No trace of the enemy was found and it was rightly assumed that he was still licking his wounds near Longewala on the Longewala-Ghabbar axis.

The mission attacked and destroyed vehicle concentrations near Ghabbar. The pilots, during their debriefing, reported that Ghabbar appeared to be the administrative echelon of the enemy. Disabled tanks lay all along from Kharo Tar to Longewala. The tanks appeared to have been charred and abandoned.

The battle of Longewala in fact was over now. Longewala in this district of Jaisalmer of Rajasthan became the graveyard of Pakistani armour. As was expected, Pakistan met its waterloo here. This was because the IAF took timely and decisive action before the thrust could assume menacing proportions. Emboldened by their experience of 1965 War, Pakistan mounted one of its biggest offensives on our positions at Longewala with a fleet of about 45 tanks and an Infantry Brigade. When the curtain came down, 37 of these tanks were accounted for, not to mention the innumerable APC’s and vehicles that lay scattered all over the area.

Impact of Longewala Battle on other fronts

On the other hand the most significant fallout and the contribution of air operation was that it frustrated General Tikka Khan's planned offensive in the Ganga Nagar sector with his 'Strike Force South'. This destruction resulted in splitting up of 33 Inf. Div. of Pakistan, as the 18th Division at Longewala needed reinforcement on an emergency basis.

33 Inf. Div. was part of General Tikka Khan’s ‘Strike Force South’, its depletion put an end to his planned offensive into the Ganga Nagar Sector for good, which otherwise might have alter the course of war in the west and might have also caused extensive destruction and bloodshed.

Churchill's now famous eulogy is aptly applicable to our pilots at Longwala when he said "...Never before...have so many owed so much to so few." I am told that a BSF post now at Longewala has kept a war diary which gives a vivid account of the battle and sums up by saying that the BSF repulsed the armoured thrust with little support from the air force!

This reminds me of a famous saying from John F. Kennedy, "Victory has hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan!" No wonder, BORDER also has a different tale to tell. In battle, truth seems to be the first casualty.


A Fighter Combat Leader, Qualified Fighter Instructor and the first Squadron Commmander of a Su-7 Squadron, Air Marshal "Mini" Bawa had commanded TACDE, Ambala & Jamnagar in addition to being the Air Attache in the UK and the Air & Ministry Adviser in Sweden. He retired as AOC-in-C, Central Air Command.


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