In the Line of Fire - No 110 Helicopter Unit, IAF

Glimpses of the Role played by No 110 Helicopter Unit, IAF in the Chinese War of  1962 – NEFA Sector: A Tribute by Air Cmde Melville Rego, who participated in the war with the unit as a rookie Signals Officer.


Preamble

The pages of history are replete with the stories of our War heroes, from all divisions of the Armed Forces, during the many wars we have fought since Independence in 1947. If  the War is won, we see tremendous publicity and praise, besides awards and rewards all round, individually and collectively. Certainly, acts of heroism or cases where valuable human lives or equipment are saved, deserve recognition and reward. It will be fair to say that 90% of such cases have been recognized, after due consideration, through the many types of Awards instituted by the Government (fake encounters excluded).

Now, what happens if we lose the war?  The many books written on the subject  and media exposure, reveal the extent of recrimination, witch-hunting, identifying scapegoats, and political and military miscalculations that led(?) to the debacle. What is stated in Parliament is also not comprehensive, for reasons of State Policy, security, Party affiliations and possibly , protection of personal reputations.   The sad part is that the valiant efforts of our fighting forces go in vain and many lives are lost , for reasons beyond their control in most cases. This is exactly what happened  in the context of the Chinese War of 1962.

Recently, one of our local newspapers had the temerity to state, in one of its Editorials that the Air Force took no part in the Chinese war of 1962. I wrote a strong rejoinder, mentioning that, while he was correct insofar as our fighters and bombers were withdrawn from the sphere of action consequent to a high level decision of the Govt, our transport aircraft and helicopters had flown round the clock throughout, on casualty evacuation and supply missions, saving many lives and coming under enemy fire. Several awards had also been given to the personnel of these units. I could testify to this, as I was an active member of a helicopter Unit engaged in these Ops. All quiet on the Editors front thereafter. Our celebrities, like film stars (female ones in particular) and cricketers, get such widespread publicity, that we Armed Forces personnel get rather furious, considering the dangers and deprivations we face. At a public function recently, I had the privilege, as a retired Service Officer, to share the dais with a  reputed Test cricketer. Naturally, he was the focus of attention, especially with the youngsters present – a national hero (Which I will not deny). He had the bad luck to be hit by a ‘bouncer’ in a match ,a month back, and was out of action for some time. Plenty of commiseration  and concern for his health in the media. In my speech, after relating my experience of three wars, particularly the Chinese war, I put a poser to the audience:  “ Whose life is more in danger - the guy who faces bouncers on the cricket field or the one who faces bullets  on the battlefield” . Dead silence all around. They should read ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul (?)'.

Here then is a simple story of courage and commitment of the helicopter crews and technical staff of No 110 HU  who ‘delivered the goods’ during the Chinese War of 1962.  As I understand, there is no official record of the actions of this Unit, during these Ops, I would therefore like to present the situation in perspective, from reliable reports, some background political & military history and my personal experience, as a member.

In view of the facts presented, recognition of the Units achievements or individual efforts, even at this late stage, would be welcome.

It is only now that I have been asked, after nearly 50 years, to write about this sordid era, but my memories of those torrid times still linger. My only regret is that  many of my beloved squadron mates are no longer with us, to beef up this story. (I just heard that one of our star pilots, Nilu Barve, passed away recently in Pune).

I dedicate this article to them as a tribute to their committed efforts and heroism, at risk of their lives, during the Ops.  Due to shortage of time and space,and without access to relevant documents, I am not able to provide detailed Stats. These can best be obtained by deputing an Officer, from No 110 HU, to delve into the Archives at Delhi, namely the Authorization books, MFTRs.the F1500s and F700s etc, so as to get a true picture of the performance record of this Unit, for posterity and inclusion in the Official History of the IAF. A glaring mis-statement in one of the Official Websites of the Armed Forces, is that No 110 HU of the IAF, was formed in  Aug 1963. Could we  have fought the Chinese when the whole show was over? The official date is Sep 1962. I should know, because I was there.

With 3 years experience as Station Signals Officer at a Flying Station and after a 3 months course in Russia (Apr-June 62) on the Mil Mi-4 helicopter equipment, I was posted, as a young Flying Officer, to No 110 HU, based at Tezpur, along with my colleague  Fg Offr JM Kaushal ( Elect). We landed up at the Mess to a rather wet reception, as the monsoon was in full swing, and were shown to our ‘room’- not exactly 5-star, but commonly known as a basha. No sleep that night due to the rain water seeping in, mosquitoes buzzing and miscellaneous insects crawling all over. The next morning we saw that everyone was in the same ‘boat’- a long line of bashas, with a longish one at the end, which was our Offrs Mess. After reporting to our OC  Flt Lt K K Saini, we met our other Sqn mates, Flt Lt VK  Jain (EO), and pilots H N (Hilly) Byrne, N K (Nilu) Barve, V S Kasturi, K K Deb (Debu), P R Marathe, T D Adlakha (Jugal), R Tandon (109HU), who were the work-horses of the Unit during the Ops, all trained with me in Russia. Kenny Dutton, Johnny Dweltz, C D Upadhya, Vidhu Vyas, Leslie Carver, G.K. Awasthi, RK Khosla  K Sanjeevan (E.O) and a few others, joined us later. Others who had been trained with us in Russia, had been posted to units in the Ladakh Sector.

Tezpur was a District HQ, in Assam, about 10 kms from our airfield, with a population of about 3-5 lakhs. The lavish buildings of Project Tusker ( Border Roads Orgn) were the main features besides a few Banks. Otherwise it was like any other Assamese town bustling with activity. Agriculture and small-scale businesses were the main occupations. There was a rail link to Gauhati, an overnight journey. Many retired planters had settled  in the town, while there were many tea estates around, run by both British and Indian Managers. Civil Air Services were provided by Kalinga Airways from Tezpur airfield initially, but  later  by Indian Airlines. We were a happy lot in the Mess, a mix of married ‘bachelors’ and bachelors, with lots of jokes, music, rum and rummy,-after a hard days work. Occasional parties with our Planter friends as guests.


The Chinese Build Up

It is well-known that the Chinese started their build-up on the NEFA and Ladakh borders in 1959, after the Dalai Lama took refuge in India, with the excuse that they were trying to contain the Tibetan rebels. Even before this, the Chinese leaders were spouting at various forums that the Indo-China border along the McMahon Line, including Ladakh was not properly demarcated and claims were made on the NEFA area. Roads, rail lines and communications were developed along the NEFA border and airfields in the Tibetan plateau. With the infiltration of Chinese agents into India, frequent incursions and the massing of troops (5 divisions) right along the  entire border, along the McMohan Line, it became evident that an attack was imminent. Reports of their Air Force capabilities - MIG-15s, IL28s, jet fighters  bombers  and nuclear potential were also widely circulated.  On the Indian side, no one could believe that they would mount a full-scale attack, but when incursions began to increase, statements were being made at the highest level:  “throw them out” etc, assuming that our Army was prepared. The political class thought they knew more than our military experts. This gave them another excuse to attack, as they had planned the whole thing well in advance.  Sadly this was not the case as is clearly revealed in the reports on the Ops in the NEFA sector with the attack and fall of Khinzemane and Dhola  on 20 October.

The IAF was better equipped to join the conflict with its Canberras, Vampires, Toofanis, Packets, Dakotas, An-12s, Otters and its recent acquisitions of Alouette and MI4 helicopters. The transport fleet in particular, had distinguished itself during the Kashmir Ops in 1947 and the capability had improved since. In July 62, A Packet aircraft had landed in Daulet Beg Oldi, the highest landing ground at 17,000 ft., thanks to the HAL developed Jet Pack and skill of our pilots.

Warming up to the Challenge

The assault at Thagla Ridge in early October, was the final proof of Chinese intentions .All our AF units, in these sectors, in any case, had been instructed to gear up and strive for operational readiness at the earliest. We got down to business in right earnest.

? Tasks:  Personnel were briefed about our tasks- supplies to our forward helipads and DZs, casualty evacuation, reccee and rescue missions, detachments to units, coordination with Army authorities regarding sortie requirements  /   intelligence..

? Ferry-in of Helicopters (HCs): Our HCs had to be ferried in from Bombay  via a circuitous route with many halts to base. Mandatory checks  were done before taking over. As our pilots were unfamiliar with the land route to our base at Tezpur, they had to depend on the Georef maps which were not very useful. On one occasion they had to fly low, to read the name of the Rly station to find out where they were ! By Sep 62, we had 6 HCs ready & serviceable at base and more were to be ferried in.

? Familiarisation with the NEFA terrain: Our Tech personnel had to be on the pre-flt servicing tasks by 5am, so as to enable the pilots to do their respective tasks on time. Then they were off, by 6.30am,  to various helipads and DZs , in coordination with the Army, who had their men right up beyond Bum La. Assam Rifles men were at the outposts.

Our sister Unit 107 HU, with Mil Mi-4s, in the Ladakh sector, was at the same stage and it was a race between us for full operational readiness. The Alouettes & Bell G-47s were used mainly for Reccee missions. Oh boy!, flying in those Alouettes was a real pleasure, thanks to Bobby Johnson & Co. The Mi-4, by comparison, was a tough, rugged  piston-engined Helicopter, termed the ‘work-horse of the Valley. It had a carrying capacity of  7 persons (80 Kg each) besides the crew of two. No guns were mounted, which was a serious deficiency as we realised later. The famous saying in those days : “Fly in comfort by Alouette, but send your luggage by Mil-4” – often taken literally by our Military & even civilian VIPs. I may however tell you that you become used to the ‘bone-shaking’ in due course and I certainly enjoyed all those sorties to outlying helipads & DZs in NEFA, Bhutan & Sikkim. By the end of the Ops, my CO was pleased to approve the award of the ‘Videsh Seva Medal’ to me, by virtue of the number of sorties/landings done to Bhutan, as a volunteer - without Flying Risk Insurance, flying Bounty or hope of compensation in case of accident.

? Procurement of spares, test equipment and documents for various purposes.

? Our pilots had to be fully briefed and be prepared for the hazards they were likely to face while flying in the hilly terrain:

-    Knowledge of the area, location of helipads and DZs, with the help ofMaps

-    Flying characteristics of the MI4, with its limitations in this area.

-    Met. conditions, wind behaviour, down-draughts

- Actions in emergencies

- Intelligence info regarding enemy positions in relation to our helipads

- Common faults and corrective measures

? Winch Operations. Our O I/C Flying, Wg Cdr Arthur Berry organized a Winch operation exercise, with a HC fitted with a Winch and  a trained Winch operator and Pilot. It was a demo for the benefit of our personnel. All precautions were taken  and it was successful.  No scope for using this, however. during the Ops.

? The servicing pattern and procedures laid down by the Russians were made adaptable to those of the British & American  systems. Our servicing crew, of all trades did an excellent job throughout, in follow-up of their training  and HCs were always available. Minor repairs were  attended to, in situ. Bad weather or dummy requisitions were the only constraints.

? Huge red crosses were painted on both sides of all our HCs, since they had no defensive weapons and were being used as Ambulances. This did not however deter the Chinese from firing at us, as you will learn later.

Secondary Duties

When a young Tech Offr joins a Unit located at a Wing HQ, he is usually caught for duties within and/or out of his profession. In my case, my former instructor at AFTC, Sqn Ldr Sandhu , going thro’ proper channels, requisitioned my services for Wing Signals duties under him. In Sep 62, these involved looking after the servicing and maintenance of ground communication equipment, Transmitters, Receivers, Flying Control equipment, Automatic Direction Finder AD200, telephones, Codes & Cyphers besides the communication equipment of the Vampire, Toofani and Mi-4s. I took up these jobs willingly, to learn as much as I could and for the benefit of my profession. I did however continue,, on part-time basis with my squadron duties. Our joint efforts produced the following improvements in the Communication field:

? After erecting a 100ft. mast, the VHF  R/T communication with aircraft was increased to 150 miles (strength 5), for aircraft flying at 20,000 ft (over Bagdogra) and adjudged to be the best in the Valley

? Encoding and decoding messages with the Cypher methods in use at that time, was of vital importance under the circumstances. I had the job of training  officers and checking all signals messages and some serious mistakes were detected, preventing infructuous actions. Gp Capt Aquino, at Chabua, could testify.

? The Automatic Direction Finder AD200 had to be maintained at peak serviceability and performed well, along with other ground equipment.

? The Pye Flying Control equipment served us well, with the famous STR-9X as standby

? The only disappointing aspect was that we could not get long range communication with the HF set installed in the HC.

In early October, I was asked to assist the O/IC AF Canteen, Fg Offr Raju, as he was to go on posting. We had a Manager and 2 assistants.You may ask why this digression to secondary duties. Well, as every serviceman knows, Rum is his daily medicine which even doctors prescribe for good health (and good cheer) in cold wintry conditions! Every month we flew by Dak to collect Canteen Stores from Dimapur, Rum cases filling the whole aircraft.  On one occasion, the lashing was faulty and the whole stock of cases started sliding down, I was fortunately seated at the back and held my foot firmly against the last case right up to the landing didn’t we lash out the lashers!

Then on another occasion, after dropping us at Dimapur, there was no Dak to take us back to Tezpur, reasons unknown, for 3 days. The OC of our AF dett there was a Sardar and had no shaving eqpt. We remained unshaven for this period. When we finally landed at Tezpur, with 3 days growth on our faces   and in the same unclean uniforms, with the ‘booty’, we noticed a large crowd of our personnel on the tarmac;

“See what a welcome we’re getting” I said to Raju. “Don’t be silly man” he replied “they know the Rum has come”

In any case, we  were unrecognisable!. When things started hotting up, on the war front, I informed the Stn Cdr. that we had huge stocks of liquor and other commodities

"Don’t worry" he said “I know what to do. Instead of allowing the Chinese to come and have a free drink ,I’ll get the  Stn Cdrs from other Units to come and take the stuff on payment. Within days Daks & AN-12s were landing up collecting surplus stock.

The balance left showed no deficiency, when a surprise check was made after the  Ops. A small feather in my cap, for integrity, under the circumstances at that time.


When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

It was Winston Churchill who said after the Battle of Britain during the 2nd World War:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many  to so few”

He was talking mainly about his gallant RAF pilots, flying well-armed Spitfires and Hurricanes who successfully resisted raids by the German Air Force

In the context of the Chinese War of 1962, in the NEFA , Ladakh, Leh ,and Bhutan sectors, I would like to modify the above to say: “Never before in the history of  Indian Air Force conflicts have so few risked their lives, as ‘sitting ducks’, under enemy fire, in primitive unarmed helicopters, to save  the lives of so many” This is with due respect to the late ‘Old Man’ and crews of our transport fleet who have distinguished themselves in past encounters.,under similar conditions.

When the bubble burst on 20 October, the demands for HCs from No 110 HU increased tremendously and our boys were flying practically around the clock on varied missions

As I have stated earlier, I am not able to give exact statistics, but the following, from reliable sources, and my personal interactions with the pilots, will give  readers an idea of the Units accomplishments:

? Achieving operational status in a short time, thro’ training and flying experience

? Supply dropping and airlifting supplies to and from remote helipads and DZs.

? Operating detachments in support of the Army

? Rescue/ casualty evacuation and airlift of civilians and troops.

? Flying 3 sorties/pilot/day on an average

? On one day alone, 22 Oct 62, over 60 sorties were flown on various missions

? Repair and servicing of a MI4 HC, . which had been shot down near Walong ( details below)

? Many records broken as to tonnage of supplies dropped, no of casualties evacuated, no of lives saved, no of flying hours, no of landings to deliver supplies

The importance of Tezpur airfield at its strategic location, in Assam, 20 miles from  Foothills on the NEFA border, must have been suddenly realized at the top level. Capture of the airfield (with its defenders, - IAF ground staff of No 11 Wing & No 110HU) would have thrown open the whole of Assam with its oilfields and more. This fact, coupled with the reverses suffered by the Army in NEFA prompted the Govt to set up the High level No 1 Operational Group and 5 TAC  at Tezpur, in mid October, to conduct  Air Force activities, in conjunction with HQ 4 Corps.

No 11 Wing and No 110HU now came under the functional control of No 1 Group. A Group Liasion Officer (Major)   was positioned at our base with a LMG and a few jawans to protect the airfield.

If war was to be won by Blood and Guts alone- as Gen. George Patton said- was this back-up sufficient? A major decision at this time was to order our fighters and bombers NOT to take any part in the operations and consequently the Vampire and Toofani squadrons were flown out to bases in the rear, leaving No 110 HU to face the music.

The situation in the Subansiri, Lohit and Kameng sectors of NEFA had become hopeless with the fall of important  bastions, but the Army still felt it could hold on to the Se La pass.When this was  cleverly by-passed by the Chinese, the threats to Walong and the  Towang – BomdiLa road increased. As winter had set in and the weather conditions were hazardous, airdropping of supplies could not be carried out effectively, but sorties were done to evacuate casualties, frost-bite cases etc

In retrospect, while  our Transport fleet of Daks, Packets, AN-12s, IL-14s, and Super Connies did a magnificent job, in their spheres of action, the role played by our MI4s  in the mountains of NEFA  by the 110 HU boys was no less praiseworthy.

The incident at Walong

The battles at Walong constitute perhaps one of the greatest acts of heroism in our Army history, where about 3000 officers and men repulsed not less than 15 fierce attacks by a full Chinese division of 15000 men. Eventually, Chinese firepower, manpower and superior tactics prevailed and our forces were overwhelmed, suffering many casualties there. Many cases of bravery and heroism of our Officers and jawans came to light later.

On 18 Nov 62, our OC, Flt Lt K KSaini and Flt Lt K K Deb were ordered to evacuate battle casualties from the Walong area   by landing at a helipad, reported to be free of Chinese troops. As they approached the helipad, the Chinese opened fire and the helicopter was hit at several places.causing severe damage. Flt Lt Saini himself was badly injured in the leg which started bleeding. He used great presence of mind and steered the helicopter to safety, to avoid further damage by enemy fire, thus saving the helicopter and the lives of the co-pilot and himself . Flt Lt Saini was awarded the Vir Chakra for his courage, determination and professional skill. This was one of the few Vr Cs awarded to Mil-4 helicopter pilots. for which No 110HU can feel justifiably proud.

Enter the Dragon

News had got around that the Chinese had cut the road near Bomdi La and were heading southwards. On 18 Nov.the airfield and surroundings were a beehive of activity.

? Daks were landing and taking off at regular intervals. On 18 Nov there were 15 of them, parked nose-to-tail on the tarmac. Our Stn Cdr Gp Capt Bhawnani was all over the place, calm and cool, stoic and giving instructions. Can you believe that he used to personally marshall the a/c after landing, and guide them to their parking spots, for he knew their schedules exactly? Evacuation of civilians went on, in full swing.

? Our HCs were dispersed to nearby Army helipads, where they could be of use  when required. One was left at base, to make a Saigon- like escape!?

? Tezpur was a ghost town that day, deserted and all shops locked up. At the Officers Mess, all cooks, waiters, sweepers, our personal bearers and other civilians had run away. The Home Ministry had, I believe, asked all its staff at Tezpur, to move out and they did so eagerly.The DC of Tezpur also pushed off, for which he was later chastised.. At other places they were to burn the oilfields and Power-plants. The State Bank of India made a big bonfire of all its banknotes and shut up shop.

? Our Servicemens families, back home were desperate for news, but there was no means of getting in touch with them Many had given up hope of our survival

? The Army GLO, his staff, the LMG and  about  50 men, took off, leaving the airfield defenceless.( I am not privy to the decisions taken and by whom but I’m sure Gp Capt Bhawnani would have given a comprehensive report on these events and how we were left in the lurch)

? We were told to place kerosene oil tins, axes etc at all vital installations, in readiness for destruction at short notice.

? In deference to our Service personnel, I must say they stuck to their posts loyally.

? Our Admin and Logistics  staff were ordered not to stick to procedures. No vouchers, for instance when items were required urgently- just a note.

? From early morning, there was a procession of cars landing up at our tarmac The occupants turned out to be tea planters with their families. They rushed to us, after locking their cars, saying that they wanted to go to various places – Calcutta, Baghdogra, and even UK, many even offering the car keys to us. “Boy, we’re off ,you can have my car” ( I wish I had kept the 3 car keys offered to me)!

Here again, our Stn Cdr was in full control of the situation. He had detailed an Officer to make note of all the cars around, the names of the owners, Regn Nos and even the possessions left behind in the car (as far as possible). Then he directed the menfolk to take their families to a particular Dak depending on their destination. The Daks flew off, one by one. It may be hard to believe, but there were 53 cars parked at the airfield that day.

Army Chief visit to Tezpur (1963)

Gp Capt A S M Bhavnani, Station Commander of Tezpur, seen here in 1963 during the visit of General J N Chaudhari and Air Vice Marshal Minoo Engineer

Around 25  Nov, when the whole show was over, they all returned, asking very sheepishly  “May I have my car please” To the credit of the Air Force and its solicitude, every single car was returned to the owners, as per the list .It was gratitude unlimited, thereafter, between the Planters and the Air Force at Tezpur.


Misery at midnight - The ‘Last Supper’

The night of 19 Nov 62 was perhaps the most traumatic of my life.The Chinese had finally arrived at Foothills, just 20 miles from our airbase. Storming the airfield was imminent. Early evening, we were told to go to our pilots rooms (who were not at base), pack one box each  of their personal belongings and bring it to the tarmac. All personnel were instructed likewise. This gave us the impression that perhaps the plan was to fly all of us out - about 200 offrs and airmen from the Wing and 110HU, after setting fire to and destroying equipment. But certainly there were no aircraft for this. I believe there was a a plan also to destroy the airfield runway, but then how would they fly out?

The tension of waiting to be massacred is definitely worse than going boldly into battle and riding your luck. You see movies or read novels of suspense, but this was the real thing. Gloom and despair all round.  We thought of our families- wives,  children - (my son, just eight months old, may not see his father),  went about bolstering our men’s sagging spirits and wondered what was going to happen to us in the next 12 hours. Then a call came at  around 10pm for all Officers at the airfield, to assemble at the Mess.

Our Stn Cdr was at the head of the table and when all were seated, ‘Dinner’ was served

– just bread and onions, because the cooks and waiters had vanished. Well, we thought, this is going to be our ‘Last Supper’, so lets enjoy!. Then he started talking and his words ring in my ears to this day:

“Boys” he said “This is your last night alive. I can’t do anything more for you. The Chinese are only 20 miles away, thousands of them and they can cover this in one night. Expect them early tomorrow morning.We are on our own and there is nobody to defend us. Now go to your rooms, say your prayers and hope for the best. On the way, go to the armoury, collect a revolver and six rounds. When the Chinese come, kill six of them, then put up your hands. Thank you all for your support. So good night

We all trooped out, quite distraught, no questions asked, knowing he must be at the end of his tether (putting it mildly) and slinked back to our rooms, via the Armoury, with the revolver and ammo. No question of sleep and I just tossed in the bed ,restless.

At about 3am, I heard someone banging at my door.Well, I thought ‘This is it’ I called out “Who is it?”  “Its me, Doctor Verma “( my neighbour  from next door). “They’ve come, they’ve come”  he said, literally trembling. “My God” I said, putting my arm around his shoulder “how do you know?” “ I heard some noise in the bushes”. We locked ourselves inside and peeped through the window. Sure enough there was  a noise in the bushes, about 30 yards away. We listened for some time but I felt there was something strange about the noises- very un-Chinese like!. Then it turned out to be two cats fighting-or whatever(?). We waited to ensure there were no Chinese hiding behind the cats, then went back to bed. Something told me this was a good sign.

Cease-fire

Early on 20 Nov morning, all of us were lined up on the tarmac,with our baggage, wondering what happened to the Chinese. No reports had been received about any advance into the Assam region, including Tezpur, which was the reason why there was no setting fire to or destruction of our equipment. Suddenly, at 7.35am, one of my airmen, holding one of those quaint transistors to his ears, gave a big shout “Sir, sir, BBC has announced that the Chinese have declared a unilateral cease-fire”  We could not believe our ears, but confirmation came shortly from official sources. We just slumped to the ground. God’s ways are truly inscrutable!. The other bit of good news we got was that both the pilots, who had been fired upon, were safe.

Post-Ops

It was by 24 Nov, that we were assured that there was no more fighting and the Chinese were withdrawing. The tasks of No 110HU were not over, however.

? Supply and rescue missions, had to be carried out further, as many of our troops were scattered over the hills. My own cousin was one of the stragglers.

? Servicing and salvage of the Helicopter at Walong. A  few days after the cease-fire, we got the news that the Helicopter which was shot down, was lying near Walong, and appeared to be badly damaged. After getting clearance that the area was clear of Chinese, we mustered a group of officers and technicians  and set off  in two Helicopters, carrying necessary tools, spares and salvage equipment. Everyone thought that we would just be able to salvage the removable equipment and return. When we saw the Helicopter, BZ587, (I still remember the number), the heavy damage was clearly evident: The oleo legs had been punctured and hydraulic oil had leaked out, an explosive device had been planted in the cockpit and the instruments blasted, Electrical and Signal cables had been cut at the junction, the VHF R/T crystals had been removed, and the right side of the Helicopter was riddled with bullet holes.

Why not patch it up, so that the HC can fly with minimum instruments, the engine being OK? All the concerned tradesmen were there, so under the expert supervision of our E.O. Flt Lt Jain,  the servicing and repair of the Helicopter was carried out, over a period of 2 weeks.The nearest Army unit helped with rations and materials necessary for the job. On the hills around, the dead bodies of our brave jawans, of many regiments and communities, could be seen. Flt Lt Jain was given the privilege of flying the Helicopter back to base, (with some coaching from the trained co-pilot) after it was declared airworthy by the pilots.

The scene at Tezpur airfield, as described to us, was something, out of this world. The Helicopters approached in formation, with BZ587 in the lead, peeled off in turn and then landed to tremendous cheers from all the personnel on the tarmac. I’m sure our present Sarang crowd would have been amazed at the heli-batics! Unfortunately, no cameras, cellphones, Webcams etc were available to record the event. Food for thought – Is an airworthy Mi-4 helicopter, costing 5 lacs in ’62, moré valuable than our modern TEJAS, costing 200 crores, in terms of utilization and lives saved?

The reverse flow to Tezpur started with the Planters, POWs staging through in Daks, and civilians. Normal life soon built up. An American C-130 landed and stayed for an hour. I understand that it was on loan to us since Nov.62 after our Govt had appealed to the U.S authorities for supply of  squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft.

Return of the Tribal Chief.

The Tribal Chief and Head of the monastery at Towang had taken refuge in  India  mid-October. Early December, we were told to drop him and his retinue back .We were not sure if Towang was clear of the Chinese and even if the troops had withdrawn, some spies in disguise may still be around.One factor in favour was that the tribals in that area were Buddhists and totally averse to the Chinese especially after the mauling of Tibet. After getting final clearance, Debu and I took off for Towang. As we approached, we saw crowds near the helipad, then they started waving.We then decided to risk a landing. The scene after we landed was like Eden Gardens after Tendulkar had scored a century, or India had won a cricket match..They fell at the feet of the Chief and embraced us. I managed to get  hold of a photo of this historic moment, which I have inserted here.

110 HU flight to Tawang

Fg Offr M C Rego and Fg Offr K K Deb after landing at the Tawang Helipad, carrying the local tribal chief

Our doctors , both at the airbase and at the Base Hospital in Tezpur were kept busy with so many casualties flowing in and did a tremendous job.

Postscript

In view of the facts stated above, my personal experiences and reports from reliable sources, I think it would be greatly appreciated if due recognition is given to No 110 Helicopter Unit, its pilots and Technical Staff, for their professional competence and courage, during this critical phase of history of the Indian Air Force. A special award for Gp Capt Bhawnani for his control and direction, may be considered if not already given. We, in the Air Force, who survived this conflict, owe our lives to them.


Notes and Maps

The Battle of NEFA   - G.S.Bhargava (1964)