POST 1971 HISTORY

OPERATION CACTUS..

SQUADRON LEADER A K CHORDIA..


A decade and over a hundred narration later, the memory of the day spent in the Maldives is still vivid in my mind. Many of my friends and avid listeners have prodded me in vain to pen down this memoir. My laziness has always taken the better of me and I have managed to shelve the idea for a later date. Today I am finding it rather difficult to ignore the impulse to write, it being the tenth anniversary of a spectacular operation in which I had the proud privilege to take part. Let me begin at the beginning..

It was November 3, 1988. I was all set to proceed to Pune for a skydiving demonstration at the National Defence Academy. The joyous thought of leading a team of prestigious skydiving demonstration at the Alma Mater was a matter of great satisfaction to me. However, all too soon I was jolted out of the ecstasy by orders from Air HQ cancelling our planned move and asking us to await further instructions. Destination unknown..

By mid afternoon we were preparing to launch para sorties from IL-76 aircraft. Rumours were afloat that we were heading for an operation to assist the IPKF in Sri Lanka. 5 P.M. There was an unusual bustle on the tarmac facing 44 Squadron. Trucks and jeeps were surging past, carrying troops toting arms and equipment. Parachute Jump Instructors could be heard shouting instructions. The ILs were guzzling fuel. The ground crew clinging to the various parts of the aircraft were busy carrying out their checks as the aircrew moved to the two aircraft, signing manifests and form-700 as they paced..

Group Captain AK Goel, the joint Director of Operations (Transports) at Air HQ, had rushed to Agra to lead the Air Force Task Force. Group Captain AG Bewoor, Commanding Officer 44 Squadron was his co-pilot. Settled in the cockpit, the two started their pre-flight checks. In the other aircraft the cacophony of the cargo compartment was interrupted by the crackling of the PA system. It also broke the chain of thought of Brigadier ‘Bull’ Bulsara, the Army Task Force Commander, whose mind was miles ahead of the Task Force, on some unfamiliar island tucked far away -in the Indian Ocean. He was surprised that his aircraft was No 2 in the formation. He sent me running to Group Captain Goel in the other aircraft with a request to change the order; to put his aircraft in the lead. A negative response would not budge the ‘Bull’ who emphasized the operational necessity of his aircraft reaching the objective first. The will to lead from the front was clearly evident in their actions. ..

Group Captain Goel smartly manoeuvred past the imbroglio by interchanging the crew of the two aircraft. The enthusiasm of the commanders was contagious and inspiring. Doors closed. The whine of the auxilIary power unit was soon lost in the roar of the mighty jets. A seismologist in the vicinity recorded a five on the Richter scale. As the sun set on the sleepy, smog-filled city of the Taj, ‘Friendly One’ and ‘Friendly Two’ rose above the horizon. The paratroopers hailed, “Chhatri Mata ki Jai”(long live Goddess parachute). The Indian Air Force and the Indian Army had embarked on a daring airborne operation, 'Operation Cactus’, otherwise known as the Maldives Operations in popular parlance..

The aircraft soon climbed to their cruising altitudes and commenced level flight. Once again, activity reached a high -pitch in the cargo compartment. The Army Officers and JCOs could be seen engrossed in animated discussions. I was amazed to see glossy travel magazines and books on the Maldives instead of the much familiar quarter inch or million maps in the hands of the men in fatigues. The notice had been too short to enable procurement of maps for military use. As minutes ticked by, we came to know the details, by bits and pieces..

Over a thousand miles down south, the fate of a country and its President lay in the hands of a band of mercenaries. President MA Gayoom and the forces loyal to him were fending for themselves. The only hope was the military assistance promised by Rajiv Gandhi. Miles away from the mainland, it was a daring operation undertaken by the Indian Armed Forces at the shortest notice. It was, indeed, a race against time, when the fate of a nation hung by a slender thread.

The friendly formation was still over an hour away from HuIule, the island with runway. I saw a gentleman sitting quietly in the rear part of the cockpit. It was unusual to find someone in ‘civvies’ in the aircraft on such a mission. My -curiosity made me break ice with him. Next minute I was face to face with Mr A Banerjee, the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives—the only man on board the aircraft who knew what the island looked like. Even as the atmosphere became more and more tense, I felt that it was a rare opportunity for me, a Flight Lieutenant of the Ground Duties branch to be associated with operations of that nature and magnitude. I wanted to carry enviable memories. Without much hesitation, I flipped open my scribble pad in front of the HC, “Sir, please pen down your thoughts for me.” Mr Banerjee obliged with, “I hope that everything goes off as planned.”

Finding Brigadier Bulsara deeply engrossed in thoughts, I approached him. “Sir, what’s uppermost in your mind at this instant?” I said and flashed my diary. He wrote, “By l000hrs tomorrow we will secure the President and the airstrip”, and returned the diary with a smile. I could not muster courage to go to Group Captain Goel with a similar request as he was concentrating on flying the aircraft. The runway was considered safe and the Air Traffic Control granted permission to the formation to land. Parachutes were placed aside and the troops prepared to walk out of the aircraft with their equipment after landing. I volunteered to provide assistance to the subsequent aircraft formation in case it was decided to carry out a para drop. MWO Karam Singh joined me. We followed the Army troops out of the aircraft. The troops soon broke into small sections and headed for their objectives. We followed a section of men to the ATC. In minutes after landing, the troops had taken control of the ATC. And then a word of assurance from Brigadier Bulsara to President Gayoom 'Mr President, we have arrived'...

 
Sqn Ldr Chordia's Notepad with the notes penned by Mr. Banerjee, Major Zahir and Brig Bulsara

Troops were soon heading stealthily in small boats towards the Presidential Palace on the adjoining island. Then there was an eerie silence broken only by the occasional landing of the IAF aircraft. Around 3 AM the menacing silence was shattered by the sound of firing of small and medium arms. It seemed there was an exchange of fire between a ship heading for high seas and the Indian troops on the island. Each boom of the gun sent shivers down the spine. One wasn’t really clear about the direction of fire. By daybreak the mercenaries had fled and the situation was under control. The Air Force and the Naval aircraft launched another operation to track down the vessel carrying the mercenaries..

I grabbed the opportunity to visit Male in a speed boat. I met Major Mohammad Zahir, the Chief of the National Security Service of the Maldives who handed me a note of appreciation for the assistance given by the Indian Armed Forces. He gave me his formation sign and cap badge as a souvenir. I thanked him for an invitation extended by him knowing fully well that I would not be able to avail the generous offer to visit the beautiful island archipelago ever again..


The first flight by the Ilyushins were followed by more  An-12s carrying paratroopers and equipment

The capture of the mercenaries brought down the curtain on an action drama. Being left with no further job on the island, I boarded an AN-32 aircraft back to India. Sitting by the window I feasted my eyes on the beauty of some of the most beautiful island archipelagos in the world.

There are varied opinions about the success of ‘Operation Cactus’. Some say it was ‘daring’, others in the media consider it ‘foolhardy’. I have a creepy feeling when I remember that I had spent the eventful night on the island without a personal weapon and that the presence of a mercenary by the side of the runway, even with a small or medium arm, could have inflicted unimaginable losses on the Indian Forces. But then in a war, risk and daring make such a difference. We took it and won. Without this courage and daring, the final outcome would have been quite different...


The author is a Parachute Jump Instructor and has been associated with the training of Army paratroopers and conduct of their peacetime exercises. His name appears in the Aerosport section of the Limca Book of Records for making the first parachute formation over the Indian skies.


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