Tigers Over Sargodha

This is the story of the only successful broad daylight attack carried out on the famous Pakistani airbase - Sargodha. A raid acknowledged for its audacity even in the official PAF Histories


I returned to India in Sep 64 after five months of gunnery training in the USA immeasurably richer in skills and confidence and was posted to No 1 'Tiger' Squadron, equipped with the Dassault Mystere IVA ground attack fighter, at Adampur, close to Jullundur in Punjab. The squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Om Prakash 'Omi' Taneja. A fighter squadron is divided into two flights of eight aircraft each and Omi's Flight Commanders were Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) Patrick Russel 'Paddy' Earle and Sqn Ldr Denzil 'Denny" Satur.

The Mystere IVA could exceed the speed of sound in a dive and on 12 Oct 64 I broke the sound barrier 17 years after Chuck Yeager had done so for the first time ever over the skies of California in his experimental rocket powered aircraft, the Bell X-1. It was a huge thrill! Operational flying training in the squadron progressed rapidly and when the Indo-Pak war started on 01 Sep 65 I was fully operational and ready for the fray.

For the first five days only the Mystere and Gnat squadrons based at Pathankot to the North of Adampur saw action in the Chamb sector while we chaffed at the bit. No 1 Squadron was sent into action at dawn on 06 Sep 65. After the first search and strike mission in the Gujranwala sector led by Omi Taneja nothing happened for the rest of the morning. At 1 pm we heard Field Marshal Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan, telling his countrymen on Radio Pakistan that the Indian Army had committed aggression by crossing the international border in the Sialkot, Dera Baba Nanak and Lahore sectors and that Pakistan had no option but to defend itself. We anxiously waited for orders to go into action but none came.

The Balloons gone up

Around 5 pm we heard the news that Pathankot airfield had been raided by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and that a number of our aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. As dusk fell we were told to go back to the mess. My room mate 'Frisky' Verma (later Air Marshal, AOC-in-C, Central Air Command) and I got on to Frisky's Jawa motorbike and set off for the mess when there was a loud explosion at the Southern end of the runway and the anti- aircraft guns opened fire. Glowing red balls of tracer shells arced through the fading light and in their glow I picked out the silhouette of a PAF B-57 bomber go past. I yelled 'Frisky, B-57 over us' and we dived into a trench. The Pak bomber carried out a second attack and dropped a bomb near the Air Traffic Control (ATC) building at the middle of the 3000-yard runway. After about 15 minutes the all clear sounded and we gingerly rode back to the mess in pitch darkness because black out had been enforced not only in the base but also all over Punjab.

In the mess pilots from the other two Mystere squadrons on the base and a number of senior flying instructors from Training Command who had been attached to the three squadrons for operational duties were gathered in little knots talking in hushed tones about another PAF raid on Halwara to the South of us earlier in the evening. Some more bad news came in of a Mig-21 parked at the end of our runway being destroyed by the PAF bomber. The only cheery news was that two F-86F Sabre jets of the PAF had been shot down by our Hunter fighters over Halwara. We all knew that the IAF would have to retaliate the next day but we had no idea of where and when. Paddy Earle came to the mess and told all of us to have an early dinner and catch some sleep. I slept fitfully, rolling and tossing in bed not knowing what to expect. We were woken up by a messenger at 0300 hrs and told to report to the squadron briefing room at 0400 hrs. No mission details were given and we could only guess that it was something big.

When we assembled in the briefing room fitted with black out curtains, I looked at the briefing board and saw the formation details for a 12 aircraft attack on Sargodha, the heavily defended PAF base, about 100 miles inside Pakistan. As my eyes ran over the details my heart sank because I saw Frisky's name in the first wave of four aircraft but did not see my name. I was going to miss all the action! Another frantic search and I found my name at No 12 in the list, in the last wave of four - I was to be the 'tail end Charlie'. As enemy aircraft attempting to intercept our formation would have to approach from the rear to bring their forward firing guns to bear on our aircraft the last man in the formation's job was to warn the others about an impending attack. The job required the keen eyes of a hawk and a rubberneck to keep looking as far back as possible. It was a crucial duty and I had been chosen to do it. My disappointment gave way to pride. It could have also meant that I was disposable but I preferred the earlier thought! Two senior flying instructors, one of them Sqn Ldr AB Devayya, were stand bys in case any of the first 12 aircraft dropped out.

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The Adampur Tigers:   The four pilots in the later daylight raid are standing right to left F/O Rajkumar, Flt Lt DS Brar, Sqn Ldr S Handa.
Wg Cdr Taneja, Sqn Ldr PR Earle and Flt Lt DS Kahai are standing 5th, 6th and 7th from right.

Omi Taneja started the briefing with a serious demeanour. The excitement and tension in the room was palpable. This was the real thing! We had to start up and taxy out to the take off point in the correct sequence in total radio silence on unlit taxy tracks. The runway lights would come only when we were ready to roll. Take off would be in pairs with each aircraft occupying one half of the runway and the interval between pairs was to be 30 seconds to avoid the jet wake of the aircraft in front. We were to take off at 0528 hrs and fly at 300 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) in darkness for 30 minutes and carry out our attacks at 30 second intervals at 0558 hrs just as dawn was breaking over the target. The very low altitude was chosen for the inbound leg to avoid radar detection. Navigation would be only by compass and stop watch as darkness would not permit map reading. Omi would lead the first four aircraft armed with 8xT-10 rockets each, Denny Satur the second four armed with 2x18 SNEB 68mm rocket pods each and Sqn Ldr Sudarshan Handa the last four with 2x1000 pound bombs each. As the target was at the extreme distance the Mystere could go at a height of 300 feet AGL with a full fuel and armament load we had to fly at the optimum speed for range which was about 120 mph slower than the preferred tactical speed for manoeuvring at low level. Each of the 12 pilots was given a specific target to attack on the airfield with preference for aircraft spotted on the airfield.

The first abortive mission

We synchronised watches and the briefing ended at 5 am. Some biscuits and tea had been served during the briefing by junior pilots who were not part of the formation. I quickly loaded my revolver and stuffed it into my flying suit along with some Pakistani currency. These items were to facilitate escape in case of being shot down! I strapped on my back parachute, picked up my flying helmet and checked that everything was in order. Dry mouthed I started walking in the inky night to the pen where my aircraft was parked when the air raid siren went off and the anti aircraft guns started to fire the by now familiar red tracer shells. It was a clear starlit sky and I picked out a moving pinpoint of light overhead and quickly realised it was a passing satellite at a height of a couple of hundred miles but our gunners did not know that! They kept up a barrage of fire for a few minutes. I jumped into a nearby trench and waited for the all clear to sound when I heard Omi's aircraft, which was parked close to where my aircraft was, start up. I flashed the torch on my watch and it was already 0518 hrs, only 10 minutes to go for take off! I ran to my aircraft [IA1334], climbed into the cockpit, started the engine and while it was revving up I strapped up and caught up with the other 11 aircraft which were ghostly shapes on the taxy track. Omi and his four aircraft lined up and took off on time followed by Denny and his four.

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Squadron Leader Sudharshan Handa - who led formation WHITE in a daylight attack over Sargodha, in full combat gear. Note the Tigers motif on the aircraft.

As Handa rolled on to the runway followed by his wingman Flt Lt Darshan Singh Brar I saw the two standby aircraft with their engines running parked to one side of the take off point. My sub-section leader Flt Lt Dilmohan Singh 'Kay' Kahai took up position behind Handa and Handa began his take off. I suddenly saw one of the standby pilots Sqn Ldr Devayya move on to the runway and begin rolling in front of Kay. The second bomb dropped by the PAF B-57 the previous night had exploded to one side of the runway about 1500 yards from where we began rolling. A lot of mud was lying on the runway and the jet wake of the preceding aircraft had created a dense dust cloud. As I raised the nose wheel at about 140 mph I entered the dust cloud and lost all visual reference. After about three or four seconds I emerged from the cloud ready to lift off when I saw this enormous Mystere filling my front windshield. Devayya, who had no business to be in the formation as no one had dropped out, had drifted into my half of the runway and I was about to collide with him! Fortunately for me the Mystere had a characteristic, which I knew about, of yawing to the right if one attempted to get it off the ground before it was ready to fly off on its own. I did exactly that and the heavily laden aircraft yawed and staggered into the air. I quickly raised the wheels to reduce drag and concentrated on staying in the air. The aircraft accelerated slowly and after what seemed an eternity I had things under control but I had lost sight of Kay's aircraft.

I headed North West for the Beas river bridge in the hope of spotting the formation but it was an impossible task in the darkness as all aircraft were flying with their navigation lights switched off. I consumed fuel and returned to base with my bombs. About 20 minutes after I landed the formation returned. Devayya was missing and Handa's formation had missed the target due to a navigational error in the darkness and had returned to base with their bomb load. After the debriefing was over Omi Taneja said the performance of Handa's formation was unacceptable. He ordered the formation to attack Sargodha in broad daylight at 0945 hrs! This was a most unexpected order because there would be no cover of darkness for the inbound leg and the alerted defences would give us a hearty reception. The chances of being intercepted by enemy fighters and shot down were very bright but orders were orders and we had to obey.

Daylight attack

After a quick breakfast, Handa went over the briefing once again and Brar, Kay and I listened in stony silence. Since the attack would be in daylight we were given specific targets picked out from an aerial photograph taken by a reconnaissance aircraft some years earlier. We were to carry out a shallow glide bombing attack releasing the bombs at about 800 feet AGL and pulling out by 200 feet AGL. To avoid being damaged by the exploding bombs at such a low height the bombs were fitted with 20-second delay fuzes to give adequate time for the aircraft to get clear. The return leg was to be flown at tactical speed at as low a height as possible consistent with safety.

While waiting to go to our aircraft, I had butterflies in my stomach because I was only 24 years old and did not want to die! Once in the cockpit all fear vanished because one became busy running through a host of checks and procedures, which required the utmost concentration. We took off at exactly 0945 hours aiming to be over the target at 1015 hours. The day was sunny and cloudless with unlimited visibility and after take off we formed up in low-level tactical formation. Handa was in front with Kay about 1000 yards to his right. Brar and I were behind and to the outside of the leaders at a distance of 200 yards. This way Brar could look to his right and clear the area behind me to spot any approaching fighters and I could do the same for him by looking left. As we crossed the international border I saw Brar's gun ports winking as he fired a short burst to check that his guns were working. I checked my gun sight and did the same as Handa descended to about 100 feet AGL. I kept looking behind Brar all the time but did not spot any enemy aircraft. Fuel consumption was as planned.

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Mystere IVa  with 2 x Droptanks and 2 x 1000 lb bombs - the configuration used by Handa's formation for the raid. Incidentally this aircraft IA1334 was the same aircraft flown by the author during the first DNCO sortie.

We hit the railway line about 20 miles to the Northeast of the target and Handa turned left to follow the railway line to Sargodha. This was the briefed moment to open full power, accelerate to tactical speed and turn on the armament switches. Two minutes later Handa's call 'Pulling up' came over the radio and all four of us eased up to 2500 feet and rolled into a shallow dive to the left in a South Easterly direction. As we settled into the dive I saw the Sargodha runway for the first time and quickly scanned the skies for enemy aircraft. After ensuring that there was no immediate threat to the formation I tried to identify my target, which was a missile dump to the South of the runway. The four aircraft were now strung out in a line with Handa in front and me at the top of the dive about 1500 yards behind him. Suddenly I saw a bright orange flash on the ground at the Northern end of the runway and Handa yelled 'Aircraft at end of the runway'. After dropping his bombs on a bulk petroleum installation to the North of the runway Handa had spotted four aircraft, three F-86F Sabres and one F-104 Starfighter parked on the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) at the Northern end of the runway. He had opened fire with his guns blowing up a Sabre with his burst. I shouted 'Sir, you got him' and saw black puffs dot the sky in our dive direction. The anti aircraft guns of Sargodha had opened up. Since I was aiming to drop my bombs on the briefed target at the South of the runway I was not able to point my guns at that juicy target. I released my bombs at the briefed target and fired my guns at what appeared to be aircraft standing on the Southern ORP but there was no explosion indicating they were decoys. During my bombing dive I had lost sight of the other aircraft and as I pulled out of my dive at barely 100 feet AGL I saw Handa's aircraft on the horizon about 800 yards ahead with Brar to his left. Brar called 'Bogey (enemy aircraft) left 8'o clock high'. I looked to my left, saw only black puffs and called out that it was flak (anti aircraft shell bursts).

Mysteres were at the forefront of the attacks on Sargodha. Here a Mystere unleashes a salvo of air to ground rockets, one of which seems to have lost its stability after being fired. Mystere-Rocket.jpg (56532 bytes)

With the bombs gone and the drop tanks empty I was now at 500 mph at less than 100 feet AGL when I saw Kay about 500 yards to my left. Handa called 'Confirm all with me and I replied, 'All with you, sir'. We were now flying in two pairs in broad frontage with Handa and Brar in front and Kay and I about 800 yards behind. I started to look at the fuel gauge with great concern because we had calculated fuel consumption at full throttle for only two minutes during the get away but because of Brar's call Handa maintained full power for almost eight minutes. While still deep inside Pakistan my fuel remaining was considerably less than the planned figure. I reported this to Handa and he eased back on the throttle. We were flying really low and fast at this time because I could see the jet wake from Handa's aircraft cutting a swathe over the standing crop in the fields we were flying over. We must have been no more than 50 feet AGL and we maintained this height till we crossed the border. As per the standard practice I maintained a height of about 30 feet above the leader's aircraft to be able to concentrate on my look out duties. When we were flying to the North of Lahore I saw a glint in the sky above and to the left of the formation. It could only have come from a turning aircraft and I reported 'Bogey, left 7 o'clock' high' and Handa called out 'Buster' which meant opening full power. As we crossed the border my low fuel red warning light came on in the cockpit indicating a fuel reserve of about 10 minutes at the engine power I was using and I reported this to Handa. He replied 'You are over India now and you can eject if you have to'. I had no intention of doing that and we unintentionally flew over the radar unit at Amritsar. Our own anti aircraft guns started firing at us and I saw the red tracer shells coming straight at me and then burning out. Fortunately no one was hit and I called out that I was easing up to 6000 feet AGL to spot Adampur. To my relief I saw the runway from a distance of about 15 miles. I throttled back, descended to traffic pattern height, did a tight pattern and touched down with barely three minutes of fuel left in my tanks.

Tigers over Sargodha

Tigers over Sargodha : A painting done in 2014 by Group Captain Deb Gohain.  Gp Capt Gohain based this painting on conversations with Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar and Group Captain D S Kahai, having been inspired to do so based on this article.

Debrief

Back in the crew room every one clustered around us to hear about the results of our raid. When I announced that Handa had destroyed a Sabre on the ground a cheer went up. Kay had dropped his bombs on the other aircraft at the Northern ORP and Brar had dropped his bombs on an aircraft hangar. We had no idea what damage our bombs had caused because there was no post raid reconnaissance to assess the damage. Ours was the most successful mission of the entire day because we had returned unscathed from the enemy's lair after destroying an aircraft and some installations on the ground. Handa's formation had redeemed itself in style after the early morning mistakes! I grabbed a cup of tea, sat down and noticed that my hands were shaking. The 90-minute adrenalin rush was over.

That night there were reports that Pakistan had dropped some infiltrators by parachute around the airfields in Punjab including Adampur. We were called back to the squadron and spent the entire night guarding our precious aircraft while a furious gunfight went on between our squadron airmen and an enemy who was returning the fire from behind the fields adjoining the airfield perimeter. When dawn broke we were bleary eyed not having slept a wink all night. A search of the fields behind the squadron did not reveal any intruders. It turned out that our fire was being returned by our own airmen in the Mechanical Transport section, which was located behind the fields. We had spent the whole night firing at each other! I can never forget the events of 07 Sep 65.

In 1980 the PAF admitted to an English journalist that they had lost one F-104 Starfighter in combat with a Mystere during the dawn raid by the Tigers on 07 Sep 65. Both aircraft had engaged in a dogfight at low level and shot each other down. The Starfighter pilot had ejected and survived but the Mystere pilot had gone down with his aircraft. As no one else had claimed this 'kill' the aircraft could have been shot down only by Devayya. Air Hq doggedly pursued this case with the Ministry of Defence and on 26 Jan 88 more than 22 years after the event Devayya was awarded a posthumous Maha Vir Chakra for his act of bravery which has ensured him a hallowed niche in the pantheon of Indian air warriors.

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Squadron Leader AB Devayya, in a Mystere Cockpit. He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra almost 23 years after the 1965 War. As far back as in 1980, Group Capt Omi Taneja wrote a letter to the Indian Government recommending Squadron Leader Devayya for a Maha Vir Chakra. Taneja pointed out the admission in Fricker's book and the possibility that Devayya was the victor.

 


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