Burn the Toofanis! - a story from 1962

How the Indian Air Force came close to destroying eight of its own Jet fighters during the 1962 war. The first ever attempted "Scorched Earth" order in history.  Based on the recollections of Air Marshal Trilochan Singh.  


It was the 19th of November 1962, with Indian forces in full retreat in the ongoing war. The Chinese were inside Indian territory and fast approaching Tezpur, with just the Brahmaputra crossing keeping them at bay. The chinese were literally at the foothills on the himalayas - and within 50 km from AFS Tezpur.  If the chinese had managed to push their offensive and reached Tezpur, it would have had a catastrophic impact to morale.  Tezpur town was a flurry of activity with formations moving out, and civilians in a panic.  At the Officers’ Mess of the Air Force Station Tezpur,  Flt Lt Trilochan Singh (5043 F(P)) sipped a cup of tea, little knowing what lay ahead of him.

Contrary to public perception, the Indian Air Force had prepared well to play the offensive role in this war, should the need arise.  No. 29 Squadron, equipped with the Toofanis (Dassault MD.450 Ouragan) had been stationed at the forward base Tezpur, 11 Wing, with Gp Capt ASM Bhawnani as the station commander and Sqn Ldr P K Kuriyan as the Squadron Commander. In the run up to the conflict, 29 Squadron had a full complement of 18 fully loaded Toofanis. Some of these had been flown in as the conflict became imminent. However, there were only 8 fully ops pilots to man these aircrafts.

Scorpions Line up
Toofanis of No.29 Squadron "Scorpios" lined up at an airfield in the north east in the 60s.  Pic courtesy: Vayu

The pilots had flown many sorties in the preceding months and knew each valley of the NEFA region well. Extensive reconnaissance of the area was done and no Chinese aircraft threat had ben noticed or observed in the preceding days and weeks. With fewer pilots compared to operational aircraft, the pilots could even be called upon to do quick turnarounds after sorties, jumping out of one aircraft and into the other.

But the orders to use fighters for offensive or defensive roles never came about and the squadron remained on readiness but was never used. The helicopter squadrons on the base on the other hand were extensively used for casualty evacuation and remained heavily utilized.

The "war" had been going on for nearly a month. The Chinese forces had come down from the north, and slowly one after the other, Indian army positions fell . After the forward positions of Thag La and Tawang fell, there was a lull in the fighting before the chinese made a second push. By this time Se La and Bomdi La have fallen, and the chinese have reached the foothills - with less than 50km to cover to reach Tezpur

Later in the day, a directive from AirHQ came to the station, which asked the station to fly all available aircraft off to Bagdogra and vacate the base with the imminent threat of the Chinese around the corner. Since they had fewer pilots than the aircrafts, the order also said that all the other aircrafts that could not be flown out  should be destroyed.  This was an  order without precedent, never in the history of the IAF was an order given to destroy its own aircraft to prevent them falling into enemy hands. 

This order cast a pall of gloom on the squadron; the air and ground crew have an emotional connect with the aircraft and to have the same destroyed was unheard of.

It was planned out that all the pilots, except for Flt Lt Trilochan Singh would fly out that very day. A motley crew of technical and ground staff was left behind under Trilochan’s supervision to destroy the Toofanis and vacate the base.

Next morning, 20th November, the Chief Engineering Officer walked in to discuss the possible ways that the aircraft could be destroyed. It was decided to bring in wood on the runway and burn it near the aircraft. The aircrafts themselves had combustible material in their structure and were fully loaded for armament. The fire would spread and consume all the aircraft in the vicinity.

While the technical crew were left to prepare for this, Trilochan Singh drove across the desolate and now abandoned town of Tezpur to pick up a car left behind by his squadron mate. Not surprisingly, there was no car to be found, possibly appropriated by the local population which had abandoned the town.  He happened to be carrying a radio transistor with him and as he was listening in on the BBC on his short drive back to the air base, he heard the report of the Chinese unilateral ceasefire. The news of the ceasefire was a surprise, but it was also a god send - maybe they dont need to destroy their aircraft after all. 

Trilochan rushed back to the base full speed. Arriving just in time to see a teary eyed chief engineering officer waiting for the final go ahead to burn the parked aircraft.  Trilochan broke the news to the him and got him to put a temporary hold on the order.  He also spoke with the station commander, Gp Capt A S M Bhawnani on the news of the Ceasefire.  Since no official change of order had come from AirHQ, they were uncertain. But the desire to save the aircrafts prevailed and the crew took the call to halt the destruction. The news on BBC was indeed accurate and the Chinese had halted their advance just short of Tezpur.

It was a call that saved the IAF from losing valuable assets. But the deeper insight from this interesting anecdote is our understanding of how ready the IAF was to take offensive or defensive roles in the 1962 war.  It is worth considering, if the Toofanis of 29 Squadron  as well as other squadrons of the Indian Air Force had been authorised to engage in offensive operations in the the NEFA valley, maybe the course of the conflict could have turned out to be different, and the outcome on the ground much more palatable.

62 Trilochan ScorpiosA disaster averted - The scorpios celebrating a farewell to their CO - Wg Cdr P K Kuriyan after the war . Kuriyan handed over command on 1st of December. Trilochan is third from right.


Notes:

  • Based on an interview with Air Marshal Trilochan Singh. 
  • Of the aircraft operated by No.29 Squadron at Tezpur during the 1962 war, Toofani IC-554 can be seen today at the Air Force Museum at Palam.