The First Air Battle - 3rd September 1965

Gp Capt Mohan "Manna" Murdeshwar is one of th e'few' , who flew with the elite Gnat Units during the 1965 war. He had the privilege of participating in all of the air combats that No.23 Squadron was involved in, including the historic air battle on 3rd September 1965 when Squadron Leader Trevor Keelor scored the first aerial victory for the Indian Air Force. This is his side of the story.


 

When dawn unfolded on the morning of 1st Sept, 1965, on the Green Fields of Ambala airport, we of No. 23 Sqn. AF did not realize what was in store for us. The “buchi woochies” ( hairy caterpillars) of Green Fields had crept onto our flying overalls and ‘g’ suits and we were busy brushing these off when word was transmitted to detach 4 Gnats to Halwara for ORP duties. ORP duties were routine in those days, so not many eyebrows were raised. Sikand, Pat, Gill and Kitcha were accordingly instructed “to get there!”

On 2nd Sept, 65 at about 1000 hrs, instructions received from WAC named Johnny Greene, Manna Murdeshwar, AJS Sandhu and Trevor Keelor to fly four armed Gnats to Pathankot. Johnny and Sandhu, thus became attached to No. 23 Sqn. We took off in the afternoon of the same day in a low level abreast formation .

We landed at Pathankot, at sunset and while taxiing to the dispersal I was greeted by dejected and sad looking faces of course mates & others standing alongside the taxiway. It was only when we all walked out to the Technical Area, that we learnt of the four Vampires that had been shot down on their attempt to neutralise the large scale Pak Army’s thrust towards Akhnoor.

We were unaware of this major Pak operation and the consequence of Indian Army’s SOS to the IAF for air support that resulted in the rather misguided deployment of the ineffective Vampires from Pune. This , if I may call it, was a foolish endeavour, as it resulted in the loss of four Vampires and three pilots (one bailed out). The apparent intention of the Pak Army was to make a rapid thrust from the Chamb-Jauhria sector to the Akhnoor bridge, thereby cutting off J & K State from India. The unfortunate decision of deploying Vampires against well- armed Pak forces was a reflection of the poor analysis and decision making abilities of our then, rather naive leadership.

When we assembled at the temporary makeshift office given to us, we were pleasantly surprised to find Sikand and his team also present. On their landing at Halwara, they were redirected to Pathankot. Thus, there were eight of us comprising the No. 23 Sqn. Dett. Sikand, though senior most, realised he was not an experienced combat pilot and therefore graciously asked Johnny to become the leader of the Dettachment..

The so called brief given to us on 02 Sept late evening, was only to develop any suitable tactics that would result in at least one Sabre casualty. Two Mystere Squadrons based at Pathankot could also be included to evolve any tactics that would yield the desired results. Johnny with the concurrence of the Mysteres’ Commanders drew out a plan that would draw the Sabres onto the Mysteres flying at about 20,000 ft. whence they would paint on the Pak radar. The Gnats at tree top heights, would then climb up to engage the Sabres. That would be the indication for the Mysteres to swoop low and return to base.

Waiting on the ground
The dimunitive "Gnat". No.23 Squadron was the first in the IAF to equip with this type.

On completion of the plans, we trudged along to the Officers’ Mess where we learnt that no rooms were available for us. It was already about 2130 hrs so we had our dinner, pulled a few charpoys outside a room and slept in our flying overalls. At about 3 am we were woken up, and clutching our flying gear, sleepily trudged along to the dispersal with no vehicle, bearer, or tea in sight! “Wheels up” was scheduled at 0600 hrs. After the Met briefing, all eight of us taxied out and waited for the Mysteres to get air borne. We then took off in formations, fully armed with guns and drop tanks to cater for the low level flight and air combat, that was likely to ensue.

It must be appreciated that the Pak radar was far superior to ours. While the Sabres were always within sight of Pak radars, our 230 SU at Amritsar and the 501 SU at Barnala, were not as efficient to control and guide or warn us of any threat that could develop.

As we arrived at the Chamb sector, the Mysteres at height, were picked up by Pak radar and as foreseen the Sabres arrived to meet them. At 501 SU’s warning, the Mysteres, dropped height and both our Gnat formations moved up to engage the Sabres.

We were in a finger four  aircraft formation, led by Johnny and self, as No.2, Sikand No.3 & Pat No.4. The rear formation were spread out abreast, as normally done, led by Trevor, with No,2 Gill, No.3 Sandhu, & No.4 Kitcha.

Murdeshwar-Log
The logbook excerpt from then Flying Officer Manna Murdeshwar shows the entry for September 3rd, when the first Air To Air Victory of the Indian Air Force was scored by Trevor Keelor. Murdeshwar was in the leading finger four formation that acted as a bait for the Sabre.

In the combat that followed, a lone Sabre was spotted behind me prompting Trevor to call a starboard ‘break’. Siki, unable to maintain position, fell off, and disappeared from sight. Pat, who also ‘got out of phase’, spotted a F104 & turned into him hoping for a possible engagement, but without success. Both Johnny's & my ‘ break’ made the Sabre fall out, placing it in front of Trevor who successfully fired at the Sabre. Sandhu who followed, also fired a few more shots, for luck!

Johnny & I landed together, with Pat & the rest following at intervals. Siki unfortunately was not with us and we learnt later that he had landed in Pakistan. That brought to a close the first day's air battle.

The shooting down of a Sabre brought much joy to WAC. Trevor was recommended for a Vir Chakra (VrC) which was promptly announced in the evening’s News Bulletin over All India Radio. ( But much after the hostilities were over, we learnt that the ‘shot down Sabre’ had purportedly, landed at its base full of bullet holes). Nevertheless, it was a memorable air battle and the kudos were rightly earned, since it raised the morale of the Service and the country!

 

Flt Lt Trevor Keelor and V S Pathania - the original
Sqn Ldr Trevor Keelor (Right) and Flt Lt V S Pathania (Left) of No.23 Squadron with a Gnat fighter. The photo was taken during war time just after one of their operational sorties. Their flight suits still wet from the sweat generated from the enclosed cockpit and overalls at tropical temperatures!

Editor's Notes: As the author indicates, the Sabre claimed as shot down by Trevor Keelor apparently made it back to base in Pakistan, albeit badly damaged.  Few photographs of this damaged aircraft have surfaced - except for one photo showing cannon damage to the tail empennage.