1971 INDIA PAKISTAN OPERATIONS
BATTLE OF LONGEWALA
Wg Cdr Kukke Suresh VrC (Retd)
Introduction.In the annals of Military History, BATTLE OF LONGEWALA would go down as one of the unique events, where the most significant part in totally thwarting designs of the enemy, was played by Air Power. The battle is a glorious chapter in the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF), where a small number of pilots and their Hunter aircraft not only blunted but also decimated a determined Pakistani Armour Thrust across the Thar Desert. One can be justifiably proud of the fact that IAF demonstrated, as to how effective use of Air Power could decisively change the course of the land war. That Longewala is a precursor to the Gulf War, is clear to any student of military history. Although a lot has been written about the fast paced events of 4th to 6th December 1971. As one of the privileged set of pilots who participated in the famous Battle of Longewala, I would like to narrate my personal experience of it.
A most detailed account of our preparation has been written by none other than Air Marshal MS Bawa PVSM AVSM VM (Retd), then our Base Commander, describing as to how the AF Base at Jaisalmer was built up from scratch, with practically no help. Affectionately called, Minhi Bawa, he was Wingco Bawa to all of us who had the privilege of serving under him. Wingco Bawa, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, prepared the AF Base at Jaisalmer for operations single-handedly. His handling of men and matters had no parallel and the way he inspired each one of us with his outstanding leadership and example is something that can never be forgotten, THE WAR HAD BEEN WON EVEN BEFORE IT STARTED Such was our Morale!.
Air Force is a unique service where only officers do the actual fighting and among them, those few that man the combat squadrons at any given point of time. IAF is also the most forward-thinking, innovative and progressive Service of the armed forces. This trait of innovation has always manifested itself in our very approach to a situation and keen desire to try something different. Therefore, it is necessary that contributions made by each one of my small band of colleagues, towards our operational preparation and tactics must be put on record. Firstly, thanks to NL (Goofy) Gupta, who was the pioneer to recognise special problems of navigating in the desert, which has no features, not to talk of navigational aids. So he came with the dictum, get to know the area of operation, like the palm of your hand He suggested that we sling four tanks on to a Hunter trainer aircraft and carry out extensive reccee, while one concentrated on flying, the other navigated and familiarised himself with the terrain. All of us got so proficient, that we really got to know the area better than our palms. We became intimate with every feature like camel tracks, water sources etc., in the featureless desert, and could fly and navigate under all weather and light conditions.
Pakistan launched pre-emptive strikes on several IAF airfields on the evening of 3rd December, 1971. Somehow PAF did not visit us at Jaisalmer. We at Jaisalmer, with four Hunter aircraft were given a few counter-air strikes on 4 Dec and were standing by to provide close air support to the Army. While returning from a strike mission over Rahim-Yar-Khan, Sherwin Tully and I spotted a few tanks inside Pak territory, well away from the axis, where our own army had planned to launch their offensive. This information was passed on to the Division Commander, but for reasons not known, Army did not give it much importance. They were reported to have even stated that no threat was expected from that direction. Unfortunately, we had no reconnaissance cameras fitted in our aircraft to provide photographic evidence. At that time little did we realise, what we had spotted was the very same Pakistani armour build up that launched the offensive on the night of 4 Dec (early morning of the 5th). Late in the evening, Sherwin and I carried out armed reccee along the axis of Tanot (in our territory) towards Islamgarh (inside Pakistan), where our army was on the move to launch the offensive. We flew as low and slow as possible, in between sand dunes, but found no tanks or troop concentration right up to Rahim-Yar-Khan. We presumed that the whole area had been mined. Information that there was no visible opposition along Islamgarh axis was passed to the Army, which was probably also not taken seriously.
Then came the 4th night and panic hit 12 Division (which had moved towards Islamgarh) when the Pakistani armour came into our territory from Gotharu to Longewala, with the lead tanks reaching Ramgarh. Our Army Division had been completely cut off. In the desert, vehicles cannot go across sand dunes and perforce all movement gets restricted to roads and tracks. The situation that developed on the 4th night was such that our Army would have had to move back and then advance to make contact with the enemy, a time frame of atleast a day and a half, which meant 6th afternoon. In total panic, Div Cdr broke all protocols of communication and on an open channel, started pleading with Wingco Bawa, Minhi, Please do something. Wingco Bawa assured him that our aircraft would take on the tanks at first light, but the Div Cdrs radio calls continued throughout the night. Incidentally, around 0500 hrs on 5th morning, we were visited by a PAF C-130, which dropped 34 bombs, but all of them landed outside the airfield parameter.
On 5th morning, the first pair ie, DK Dass and Ramesh Gosain took off in darkness and were over the target at 07:02 hrs. Major Atma Singh, who was airborne in his small Krishak aircraft, confirmed that the tanks that were spotted around Longewala were indeed those of the enemy. This was another unique development that emerged so successfully, viz, Air Observation Post (AOP) pilots acting as airborne Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and a very high degree of co-ordination was achieved during the war. Our strike force had a field day bashing tanks, although up against intense ground fire. I still remember both Dass and Gosain, kept sitting in the cockpits (after landing and switching off in the parking pens), stating that they were ready to go again after refuelling and rearming. They had to be forced out of cockpits so that others could also launch attacks.
I took off later in the morning with Sherwin as my leader. It was an awesome sight at Longewala, with several tanks on fire and some still smouldering. We had carried twelve T-10 rockets to be fired in three passes, to be followed by 30 mm cannon attacks. Tanks were going round and round in crazy circles, kicking up dust to hide themselves to the extent possible. During a gun attack, one of the tanks whose main gun was pointing towards me fired a shell. Although the shell did not hit me, the flash and dust blinded me and my aircraft just fell out of control. I hit a sand dune at 420 Knots and I am living to tell the tale. During those fleeting moments I remembered my entire life. As the dust cleared, I found myself flying very low but the aircraft was just about controllable. Sherwin had by then started heading home and I called out to him, since I could not catch up, as the speed was not building up above 250 Kts, even with full throttle. He quickly joined up with me and his talking to me eased all the tension. I flew the aircraft back to base and landed safely with his encouragement. It was unbelievable to observe that about 4ft of jet pipe was missing and even amazing that the engine continued to function, although there was diffusion/loss of thrust. In retrospect, the shell probably disturbed the airflow that led to loss of control. I must also admit that I was a trifle lower to press home the attack. Sherwin Tully was an outstanding example of leadership and professionalism, who let his deeds talk. He did the maximum number of strike missions across the border (among all IAF pilots). Hats off to him for his modesty!
Throughout the day on 5th and 6th our aircraft were over the target continuously and we threw caution to the winds and all of us spent 15 to 20 minutes over the target area. This was possible since there was no aerial opposition. Longewala became a graveyard of Pakistani Armour, while the accompanying Infantry had to retreat because of continuous aerial pounding. On 5th afternoon, Major Atma Singh had to force-land his Krishak near Longewala post (due to engine malfunction, because of dust in the carburettor). He put the aircraft down in no-mans land and was protected by Hunters who would hit any enemy movement towards the Krishak. Atma kept radio contact with the Hunters till his aircraft battery went dead. After nightfall, this aircraft was pushed out to safety with the help of our troops, made serviceable and was back in action on the 6th. Major Atma Singh was awarded the Vir Chakra, the recommendation for which was made by Minhi Bawa and not the Army. On 8 Dec, a Photo Reconnaissance (PR) Canberra (captained by RS Benegal) on a mission to photograph the battlefield at Longewala could not find the place. Dass and I, who were airborne at that time and proficient in desert navigation, escorted the Canberra to the spot. The famous picture of tank tracks in the sand around Longewala, captured at that time by the PR aircraft, adorns the enclosure at the VIP entrance of Vayu Bhavan.
Robin Bali, senior flight commander must be remembered for his organisational skills and Propah approach. Jagbir (Jaggi) Singh displayed his enthusiasm and total commitment to ensure that Pakistan Western Railway did not operate. He was the one who finally pushed the Paki attack out of our borders on the 7th and 8th. DK Dass and Gosain were ever keen to hog all the attacks. GS (Gullu) Kapur and Pawan Kumar with their ready wit and good humour in all situations, even when proceeding on operational missions, kept us all in high spirits. Deepak Yadav ranked second only to Sherwin in terms of professionalism. PK Mukherjee (Mukho) was responsible for a lot of innovation in terms of air combat tactics since he came from Gnat background. I have already mentioned Goofy Gupta.
The Battle of Longewala and our victory would not have been possible but for the leadership of Wingco Bawa. In those glorious days, he more than anyone else, was responsible for our good showing and happy hunting. Jaisalmer did not lose a single aircraft or a pilot, during the entire war.
One fine day in late Feb 72, I took off from Jamnagar in a Hunter Trainer and proceeded to Jaisalmer. My mission was to bring back Wingco Bawa, who was to return to Jamnagar after winding up Jaisalmer. It was a very touching send-off for the Wingco, with almost half the population of Jaisalmer present at the AF Base, besides senior government officials. Sentiments expressed that day can never be forgotten. I took off in the afternoon with Minhi on board and he rightly chose to make a victory pass over Jaisalmer, before setting course for Jamnagar. FOR HIM THE TEARS OF JOY WERE THOSE OF PRIDE AND A JOB WELL DONE THUS THE HONOUR AND GLORY.
PS: If your knowledge of the Battle of Longewala is restricted to having seen the Bollywood film BORDER, you may think that Air Force had no role to play in our victory. Hopefully, this article would set the records right.
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