Tempests over Skardu

Wg Cdr K L "Livy" Mathur wrote this article first in 1999 in response to the media coverage of the Kargil War. Wg Cdr Mathur recollects some of the pioneering missions flown in the Poonch and Gilgit area in the 1947-48 Kashmir Operations with No.8 Squadron.


In the July 1999 issue of a national magazine: No Air Force in the World carried out operations at heights above 16,000 ft. No aircraft has been designed for terrain like Kargil. (Incidentally during Second World War the USAF regularly flew from Panagarh to China “Over the Hump” in their 4-engine B-24s).

The two statements sadly do great injustice to the pilots, crew and technicians of the Indian Air Force who during its infancy nurtured the force with courage, dedication, innovative skill, loyalty and faith. This account, given below, is NOT meant to diminish the skill, enthusiasm and bravery with which the Air Force pilots, crew and technicians are performing their duties under very, very difficult circumstances in the J&K area during the Kargil conflict. I admire them, praise them and salute them. I also admire Barkha, Sreenivasan and their colleagues for sharing the hardships of the soldiers and airmen to highlight their good work. Salaam.

The events in Kargil made me recall the days I was with No. 8 Squadron ("Eight Pursoot" - nicknamed by the Americans when we were sharing the AKYAB base with the United States Air Force-USAAF).

The Skardu missions

January 26, 1948 was a fine cold day, clear blue sky above and a gentle breeze. It was 5 AM and the three of us were settling down for breakfast when suddenly a jeep came to a screeching halt (Bollywood style minus Manisha and music). Out came an Army and an Air Force intelligence officer and promptly asked Micky Blake (Uncle) and me to report immediately to the Ops Briefing Tent. We were informed that breakfast would be served during the briefing for an important and urgent operational sortie.

We were briefed to proceed to Skardu straight away to render help to the garrison at the Skardu Fort. We looked for Skardu on our’ million’ map (i.e 1 inch on the map was equal to 1 million inches on the ground), but found nothing. The Army intelligence helped us to locate it on a quarter inch map. Skardu was right across the Himalayas- and no fighter aircraft had ever flown over the area.

During World War II the USAF had flown Flying Fortresses, a four-engine bomber from Panagarh across the ‘Hump’ to China. It was common knowledge that due to adiabatic disturbances the valleys between the high snow covered mountain peaks averaging between 18-25000 fleet caused severe down drafts that could plunge an aircraft 10000 feet or so in a jiffy. Avalanches added to the problem causing sudden mist with snow particles obscuring vision.

There were no support systems possible in that sector, no rescue teams nor Advanced Control Posts (ACP) having trained Army Officers with an attached signals and security element. In another sector we had Banerjee as our ACP- a very competent and a popular officer now a retired Colonel living in Vasant Kunj.

We decided to fly at 25000 feet along a route familiar with us. Taking off from Jammu (then a rolled mud airstrip) we crossed the Pir Panjal range at a point known as “Pope’s Nose.” Crossing the Pir Panjal anywhere is indeed exhilarating. One moment the aircraft is heading for the hills- then suddenly the lovely valley beckons yonder. We overflew Srinagar, then turned right for Drass-Kaskar-Kargil. From Kargil we headed North towards Skardu 150 miles away. I was flying my favorite Tempest 'PR747'. The engine was purring smoothly. Above us the sky was a deep blue and below a white blanket of snow with majestic high peaks rising to the sky on either side. A normal check of instruments showed all was well. The emergency rations given to us was in the pocket (one apple and two chocolate slabs each). The first aid pack was strapped to the leg with a valuable morphine syringe.

Tempest PR747
Hawker Tempest II [PR747] that was flown by Wg Cdr K L Mathur over Skardu. This photograph was taken a couple of years earlier when the aircraft was in service with the RAF No.152 Squadron. By the time of the Kashmir war, some of the Tempest still retained had the two tone camouflage and british roundels - though the squadron codes were painted over. 

Nearing Skardu I checked the armament switches and carried out other normal instrument checks and my eves glanced at the oxygen meter, my heart missed a beat. The needle was on the red triangle indicting that the oxygen was running out. I called uncle on the Radio Telephone ‘RT’ to report the problem. We immediately turned back for base this time straight for Jammu. The oxygen had to be nursed. AT 25000 feet it was essential to be on oxygen. Uncle kept chatting with me. Other aircrafts flying in different parts of the world joined in the RT chatter as usual. “Don’t worry lad I have plenty”. “Shut up man he is in a jam”. I came on RT and blurted out “This is it, this is it, this is heaven on Earth.” These words of wisdom indicated the first signs of oxygen starvation- a feeling of euphoria. I was told about his two days later.

Uncle kept cheering me. He even sang a WWII favorite “cruising down the river” (sponsored by the BBC). The river Indus below looking like a deep blue ribbon on a pristine white sheet wasn’t of much comfort. We kept losing height. At least the mountains were behind us. A sign of relief. Uncle called up “Angel 19-you OK”- “Yes fine. “We finally landed at Jammu much relieved. Having switched off the aircraft engine I realized I could not get out of the cock-pit. Our squadron doctor Doc Mukherjee a very good friend of mine from Burma days put me on oxygen for half an hour.

Having recovered from the after effects of deprivation of oxygen, the sortie was successfully carried out on 9th Feb 1948, when Skardu and Rondu received due attention. We were warned the aircraft and ammunition was not meant to be used at these heights. And the rockets, bombs and cannons did freeze, initially. Finally after some innovative juggling, the matter was set right and the job done. It was a lovely trip. A day to remember.

The 400 mile round trip flight to Skardu

The mission to Poonch

On 29th March 1948 Poonch was surrounded. An urgent call for close support was received. This time I had to undertake the task as night was closing in and there was no one else qualified for night flying. The Army formation west of Poonch lit straw stacks to indicate their area (Bomb line) and used white smote to indicate the enemy positions. The action was successful, the advance post officer informed me over the RT. “The enemy were on the run carrying their wounded on stretchers and that my aircraft was under very heavy fire an possible hit. That you etc….”.

The return journey to Jammu was difficult. The RT failed, the cockpit was getting filled with smoke. Nearing Jammu, the engine lost power and the aircraft was getting out of control. Finally with the aircraft on fire I landed on the strip but then veered to the right and ploughed through an EME workshop. Later on it was discovered the right undercarriage had been shot and had dropped in the jungles around Poonch. At that time Harbaksh was commanding the Poonch Brigade.

At this point, I would like to make a few observations.

The work done by the Air Force must be recorded now as very few of us are left who were involved in the nitty gritty of the battle in 1947-48 and earlier.

Credit must be given to those who fought against great odds – no clothing for winter and high altitude flying, faulty ammunition, faulty maps, absence of any kind of air safety/ airfield facilities, lack of accommodation etc.

Operating in a hilly are covered with snow which many of us had never seen. Being a Garhwali from Pauri, I had an advantage here.

This narrative encompasses the period between mid 1947 to mid 1948. Hence many others who have served the nation and the Air Force with dedication do not find their names and deeds.

Leaders and Heroes

Now I must mention the deeds of some of our very brave and confident pilots.

(a) Subroto Mukherjee was a great leader. Even under the gravest situation, he was always clam, smiling and confident. He kept up our morale, joining us in the evenings, encouraging us to unwind and listen to us in a relaxed atmosphere.

(b) Arjan Singh at all times was an inspiration to all of us. For him nothing was impossible for the IAF.

(c) Meher Singh was not only a superb and intelligent pilot and administrator, but also always prepared to take calculated risks and encourage us to do the same. He was the force behind operating Dakotas and later other transport aircraft from Leh, against the vehement advice by RAF, USAF and manufacturers of the Dakota aircraft. Later on more airfields were constructed in the region, higher and more rugged than Leh. Due to these initiatives our helicopters which we later acquired got on with high altitude operations against advice from aviation experts.

(d) Des Pushong and Laloo Grewal who landed Dakotas at Poonch at nights with the help of just two lanterns kept at the two edges of the landing strip. They also evacuated refugees from Poonch, Leh etc., at times carrying 125 men and women with their goats and belongings.

(e) D Subaiah, Ranjan Dutt, Deveshar-all ace fighter pilots and leaders who trusted you and whom you trusted. John, Murphy, Zoot Zaheer, Bouche brothers, top class fighter pilots recognized so by the RAF team, Americans and our brotherhood.

(f) Mention should also be made how Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru visited us at Jammu periodically. We had no furniture. The PM would comfortably sit on the floor with us and reel off jokes and limericks. We had only one beer mug in which we could serve drinks. The only bottle of bubbly was served in that historical mug. In return, the next day we received an aircraft full of canned food, cases of wine, books and furniture etc. A great man and a great Prime Minister, till then we had only boiled rice to eat.

It needs to be mentioned emphatically, not withstanding the skill and valour of our pilots, all endeavours would have come to nought but for our technicians, the SNCOs and airmen who cared for the engines, air frames, armaments, RT’s refueling, vehicles, equipment and rations, nursing in the MI rooms and many other facilities, without which neither an aircraft nor a pilot could achieve much.

Harjinder Singh who rose from a Hawai sepoy to become an Air Vice Marshal, Flt. Sgt. Mukherjee (Chiefi), Sgt Deb, Cpl. Yadav and so many of them worked under extreme adverse conditions to ensure successful air operations. This dedicated and loyal body of the Air Force needs greater recognition. Many have lost their lives in the line of duty. A memorial to them has to be constructed and greater care taken of them once they are out of their proud uniforms.

A word about the great advance made in technology. While I do not subscribe to the idea that old equipment and technologies should be retained and new technical advances ignored, my point is the will to succeed, ability to innovative, imagination, bold decisions, courage and discipline can overcome many deficiencies. Our Armed Forces have won great admiration the world over for these qualities as well as for their magnanimous, courteous and affable nature – even from senior Pakistani army officers.

Two instances of faith and ingenuity are given here. When the Packet aircraft were introduced in Leh, it was found the engines could not safely be depended upon on take off. Khokan Das came forward with the idea of installing a jet engine on the roof of the aircraft for use during take off. It was a great success.

 

Tempest fighter bombers being armed  with rockets during the 47-48 Operations

 

Once while taking off from Jammu with a 4-hour delay action fuse bomb, the bomb fell off on the take off run. The aircraft was brought to a halt. In Jammu we could not find a bomb disposal squad. The bomb had to be removed from the runway. My faithful Sgt Deb with all sincerity pleaded with me to fly the bomb away, that the bomb was now fused and live but would not go off before 4 hours. So on his word I did so. The bomb had to be placed under a culvert on Uri road. Now, the point is, we had no laser or any aiming device to do so except a fixed ring sight. The aircraft (Tempest PR747, 7th Feb 48) was flown 20 to 25 feet above ground level and the bomb neatly placed at the designated spot.

While flying away I kept an eye on Uri road and was surprised to see a straw roof jutting out on the road. It was camouflaged truck. Two rockets ended the charade. Next morning recee showed the culvert blown away together with some vehicles.

I am only emphasizing the fact that one can achieve success even thought handicapped and in danger for lack of modern devices. Although gyro gunsights were used for rocket firing etc., bombing was still a matter of gut feeling. Initially we tried, at lest Ken David and Randhir did, vertical dive bombing, a method we had to use while training in Peshawar and nearby areas. But in J&K it was of no use. The method used was to put the beed of the fixed (reflected) ring on the target while diving in at about 30 to 40 degrees angle then pull the nose up (the target now disappears), depending on the angle of dive and distance the target was away, release the bomb. The accuracy was amazing.

As Ken David who normally accompanied me would comment on the RT, “Right on tit Livy”. Ken was my classmate in Murrary College, Sialkot. Faiz Ali Fazi was a year senior so were the Rai brothers. The elder Rai married a muslim girl whose father shared a sprawling bungalow with my father at 109, Bazar Road, Sialkot Cantt. The Rai’s later moved to Delhi.

It should also be emphasized that the modern devices place a great deal of extra stress on a pilot. His basic requirement of flying by sight, feel and instruments remain. In addition he is now to deal with complicated computers and other packages that restrict his actions where evasion, quick get away etc. are concerned. I should leave it at that. The young aviators today are familiar with computers, radar, laser and other technical advances. They are doing an exemplary job in Kargil-particularly the helicopter air crew. And of course the back bone to the whole operation are the SNCO’s and airmen who man the various services.

In 1948, Bozo, while flying a Dakota with a number of soldiers force landed on the Siachen glacier. The aircraft with everyone in it disappeared till nine years later. The aircraft was sighted miles down from the forced landing sight. The bodies were intact and well preserved.

Our Air Force has had to do with old aircraft and equipment from day one - days of Audaxes, Waptitis to MIG 27s today. But we have done well. Great credit goes to our airmen, the ground crew who has maintained the aircraft in flying conditions. The job done by our airmen would need altogether a separate narration to do justice to their loyalty, dedication, skill and tremendous team spirit-no matter where they came from and what faith they belonged to. A salute to all our technical personnel. “Jai airmen.”

I have not used ranks because most reached high ranks in due course. It is sad to mention most of the names that have been mentioned, with the exception of our respected Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh, belong to those who have passed away. They have left a legacy of which we are proud and like them would “Reach for the stars”.


The author is a retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force who actively participated in air operations during the first Indo-Pak war in Kashmir way back in 1947-48.  The above is a trip down memory lane in light of the recent Kargil conflict.  He also saw action during World War II on the Burma front.

The article was first published in 1999 under the title "The Brave Indian Air Force Family". The article is reproduced here with the permission of the author.