Chapter 5: Missed Opportunity - War in the Eastern Sector


The Pakistani nation after independence was divided in a unique position, geographically. Separated by nearly 2000 km of Indian Territory, the eastern wing of Pakistan was a nation by itself. Home to more than 50% of the Pakistani population, the eastern wing mostly composed of Bengali Muslims and Bihari Muslims. In 1965, the East Pakistani was as patriotic as the West Pakistani was. Strangely enough, the defence of East Pakistan was never accorded priority by the West Pakistanis. Pakistan had a doctrine in War that "The Defence of the East lies in the West". The Pakistani ground forces consisted of hardly a division of troops under Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan. The PAF Contingent consisted of a sole squadron of F-86 Sabres based at Tejgaon Airfield. In addition to this, the Pakistani Navy patrolled the approaches with numerous patrol boats and gunships.

Facing the responsibility of military operations in this sector was the Eastern Command of the Army under Lt. Gen. Sam Manekshaw MC, - he had under him two Corps and six Divisions. All facing the Chinese threat from the north. One division, in Nagaland, was embroiled in meeting the insurgency threat from the Naga Rebels. The invasion and occupation of East Pakistan was never a viable option. Facing a hostile population of 150 million patriotic Pakistanis, and virtually no knowledge of the ground topography, an invasion of East Pakistan would have been a foolhardy venture. Moreover it would have left the northern flank open to the threat from the Chinese. This could have been one of the reasons that no offensive operations took place on the ground in the eastern sector.

Facing the lone Sabre squadron in the air were the aircraft of Eastern Air Command (EAC) based at Shillong. Under the command of Air Vice Marshal Shivdev Singh, EAC had a strong network of airfields which were the legacy of WW-II. Most of the airfields were capable of transport operations, including Chabua, Tejpur, Jorhat, Gauhati, Hashimara, Barrackpore, Baghdogra and Kalaikunda. Kalaikunda was the main airfield of the EAC and it was home to quite a good number of strike aircraft.

Contrary to popular belief, EAC had a significant number of modern aircraft. A solitary squadron of Canberras, No.16, was based at Kalaikunda AFB to provide the offensive component of the command. Three squadrons of Hunters were available to meet the Chinese threat. No.14 Hunter Squadron (A coincidence as the Pak Squadron too was numbered 14) was also based at Kalaikunda. Kalaikunda was 7 km from Kharagpur, in Midnapore district of West Bengal, home to the Indian Institute of Technology, and it was situated over 180 km from the East Pakistani border, which is about 20 minutes of flying time, once across the border.

The other two Hunter Squadrons were No.17 (Golden Arrows) at Jorhat and No.37 (Black Panthers) at Chabua. In addition to this, four squadrons of Ouragans - Nos.4, 8, 29 and 47 - and some Vampires were available to the EAC. The Indian Army deployment in the North East necessitated a strong presence of supply dropping transport aircraft including Dakotas and C-119s. A few Dakotas were on lease from the civilian outfit, Kalinga Airways, that flew in the NEFA Sector.

The Hunter squadrons in the eastern sector, were there to counter the Chinese threat. It was never envisaged that they will be used in operations against East Pakistani targets. At best, they would be acting as air defence for Indian installations. Some of the targets against which the Hunter Squadrons practiced before the war, were a number of Chinese installations and cantonments in Tibet. The formations received assistance in the form of maps and photo recce pictures of these installations from undisclosed sources.

The Hunters planned for many eventualities. Once in mid '65, intel reports were passed on to the EAC that the Sabres based in East Pakistan might make a break for it to the west by a long flight in the night. Now this may not be as far fetched as it sounds, given the meager radar coverage that the East and Central India has, and the cover of night, the Sabre would have just enough range to make a ferry flight to the western wing. But this would require it to fly at a certain altitude which could be detected by the radar based in the east, and there would be absolutely no allowance for the Sabre to engage in air combat. Now the problem arose, once these Sabres were detected in the night, how do you bring them down? To test the possibility of using day fighters, like the Hunter for night interception, EAC decided to try it out.

The task of testing the viability of using the Hunter for night interception came down to the two senior pilots of Kalaikunda AFB. Wg. Cdr. P.M. Wilson of the Canberras was to fly a medium altitude mission by night, so that the radar can track him and direct a Hunter from the No.14 Squadron for the night interception. At that time in 1965, the radar was just efficient enough to put the air defence fighters in the proximity of the intruders. The air defence fighter still needed either an airborne radar or visual aids to locate the intruder and intercept it.

Accordingly Wg. Cdr. Wilson got airborne on a dark moonless night, and soon afterwards a Hunter T.66 trainer took off to intercept the Canberra. Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine, CO No.14 Sqn, and his senior most flight commander, Sqn. Ldr. O.N. Kacker were both in the Hunter. The Hunter was directed by the Air Defence Controller (ADC) to the intercept the Canberra, and coming astern of the aircraft, both La Fontaine and Kacker were delighted to spot the orange glow emanating from the Canberra's engines. If they could spot the Canberra at night, they would be able to spot any Sabre that would make a run for it. The Hunter has found itself a new role! Or so they thought.

Wilson then throttled back the engine RPM to a very low, but sustainable level. And both La Fontaine and Kacker watched in disbelief as the glow from the jet pipe died out in the dark and they were faced with pitch blackness. But both were pretty sure that they could just see the outline of the Canberra in the dark. After kidding themselves that they were able to see the Canberra about 500 yards in front of them, they radioed Wilson to switch on his landing lights. And as Wilson did so, got the shock of their lives, for the Canberra was just abreast of the Hunter, far away from where both the pilots were visualising it. In fact, a little bit of confusion could have resulted in a collision in the dark. All the three pilots returned back to base, thoroughly convinced of the impracticality of night interceptions by the Hunters.

"Our ego was in our boots" says La Fontaine of the incident. Later on Kacker left No.14 Squadron and joined No.27 Squadron to fly operations in the western front.

Planning for the Raids

EAC had its first taste of action immediately after the Indian Army attacked in Punjab. Apparently at the news of airbases in Western Air Command (WAC) being attacked and steps being taken by WAC to retaliate, EAC seems to have also planned for an offensive strike. Plans were laid out to attack targets in East Pakistan and Jessore, Chittagong, Kurmitola and Lal Munir Hat were earmarked for the next days early morning offensive.

Gp. Capt. M.B. Naik, the Station Commander of Kalaikunda AFB received a big shot visitor on the evening of September 6th. Air Vice Marshal Shivdev Singh, AOC–in–C of EAC, came down to meet Naik and the Squadron Commanders, and discuss about the offensive operations in the eastern sector. Air Vice Marshal Shivdev Singh had a plan for missions to knock out the Sabres in East Pakistan.

Shivdev Singh, a bomber pilot who flew Stirling Bombers with the RAF Bomber Command over Germany in WW-II, was said to have ordered the raids without the authorisation of Air HQ. As in the western sector, the number of aircraft chosen for the task was pitifully small. AVM Shivdev Singh had already made up his mind about launching offensive operations. It was only a question of who will carry them out and where. Both senior officers conferred in Wg. Cdr. R.D. "Dicky" Law's office, the CO Flying of the base. Of course, Dicky Law himself was evicted out of his room, as the matters were to be too sensitive for him to know.

Kalaikunda had three squadrons of aircraft. No.14 Hunters was under Wg. Cdr. D.A. La Fontaine, No.16 Canberras under Wg. Cdr. P.M. Wilson and No.24 Vampire FB 52s under Sqn. Ldr. M. Banerji. Wilson of No.16 Canberras, was the first to be called into the room. He was briefed to carry out a two aircraft bombing operation on an East Pakistani target.

The Raid on Chittagong

The target given to be attacked first was surprisingly Chittagong airfield, as air intelligence in a mistaken assumption reported the Sabres of No.14 PAF Squadron to be deployed there. A two-aircraft strike was planned in the early hours of September 7th. The Canberras were armed with two 1000 lb. bombs and ammunition for the forward firing 20mm cannon. Wg. Cdr. Wilson flew the lead aircraft with Sqn. Ldr. Shankaran as his navigator.

The second aircraft was flown by Sqn. Ldr. Karve with Fg. Off. Rajwar as his navigator. Both the aircraft left Kalaikunda in the early hours of September 7th. In the darkness, the aircraft flew over the Bay of Bengal to approach Chittagong from the sea. The monsoon rains made their job even more taxing. Opposition in terms of interception by Sabres was a possibility, so the plan was to attack the airfield individually with a between time lag of ten minutes before the TOT of each aircraft. Chittagong airfield was identified properly and Wilson made his run in to attack the intersection of the runways. Both the bombs were dropped on the intersection after making three runs on the airfield. And much to the surprise of the crew, the bombs failed to explode.

The second Canberra being flown by Karve was called in, and Karve did a good job in placing the bombs on the runways, and this time the bombs exploded. Both the Canberras returned safely back to base. But not before Hunters of No.14 Sqn intercepted and nearly shot them down! Apparently No.14 Sqn was not informed off the raids and they did not have the information of incoming aircraft. The Hunters in fact started the attack run on the Canberras, before realising their identity and breaking off. The strike was disappointing from the start and Wg. Cdr. Wilson noted down the description of the raid with one word. "FIASCO!"

It was the turn of Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine next. Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine had no idea of what the briefing with Peter Wilson was about. Subsequently he never knew about the raid on Chittagong. AVM Singh briefed La Fontaine. Intel reports have indicated that some Sabres were located at Comilla and some may have been flown to Jessore. These conflicting reports never confirmed the exact location. So as to draw the fighters out, La Fontaine is to fly a high level sweep over the Jessore area where radar would plot both the Hunters as well as any intercepting Pakistani Sabres.

Another intelligence report indicated that the Sabres were equipped with Sidewinders (which was false). Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine indicated the possibility of losses occurring, if the Sabres jump the Hunters using these AAMs. To plan for such an exigency, a formation of six aircraft, four in front, with two other Hunters following them a considerable distance away were to be flown. The formation would take off at 0430 hours and land back by around 0630 hours at Dum-Dum airport in Calcutta. Whereupon the Hunters will be rearmed with rockets and additional fuel to fly a mission to Tejgaon. A special Packet aircraft would transport the rockets & ammunition from Kalaikunda to Dum-Dum along with the ground personnel. Accordingly Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine led the first missions of No.14 Sqn, in a high level sweep to draw out the Sabres.

The final briefing was with Sqn. Ldr. M. Banerji, CO of the Vampires. Banerji was assigned Jessore airfield as a target and he was to plan for an attack at around 0500 hours on the target. Banerji decided to do the attack in two waves. Four Vampires, from No.24 Sqn, subsequently carried out the first raid. They encountered an empty airstrip, which was rocketed and strafed. All the four aircraft were recovered back to base.

Before we go into the details of Kalaikunda's offensive operations, A look at other offensive operations flown by other airbases is quite revealing. Two other squadrons were assigned targets in the east, No.37 Squadron flying Hunters and No.4 Squadron flying Ouragans.

Raid on Kurmitola

No.37 Black Panthers Squadron, flying Hunters took on the responsibility of flying the raid on Kurmitola. This Squadron was based at Chabua before the outbreak of the war. Chabua was then under Gp. Capt. E.J. Dhatigara KC, a transport pilot who had earned his laurels in the 1950s flying supply ops to beleaguered Indian Army posts against the Naga rebels. Dhatigara got on fine with the Commanding Officer of No.37, Wg. Cdr. Mc Neil. On the outset of the war, a detachment of four Hunters was sent to the station of Gauhati.

This detachment under Sqn. Ldr. Mian Niranjan Singh obviously had a lot of problems with the Station Commander at Gauhati (SCG), who was a Wg. Cdr., right from the outset of the detachment landing there. M.N. Singh, as he was known, joined the No.37 Sqn, after an earlier stint with No.27 Sqn and was an experienced flier on the Hunter. Singh had his own set of ideas on how to use the Hunters, a point, which the Wg. Cdr. SCG refused to see.

Gauhati was primarily a civilian airport, which was hurriedly equipped to fight a war when operations came. The air force installations were far off from the main airfield, which created lot of inconvenience. The airfield was surrounded by a 10-foot high barbed wire fence, which strangely separated access from the pilot's debriefing hut. The pilots devised ingenious methods to circumvent this problem. Instead of moving from the hut to the aircraft in the event of a scramble, pilots on ORP used to wait under the aircraft. When the ATC needed to scramble the pilots on the ORP, they would fire a cartridge. It was a makeshift arrangement, but it worked nevertheless.

Just after midnight on September 6th, Sqn. Ldr. Singh was woken up by a telephone call from the Gauhati Station Commander. Wg. Cdr. SCG was pretty much excited and mentioned about the "green light" given to mount the strikes against East Pakistan. SCG called M.N. Singh and the Army Ground Liaison Officer (AGLO) for a meeting in the Station Commanders office in the early hours around 0200 hrs in the morning of September 7th.

Singh arrived at SCG's Chamber to find the Army GLO has not yet come there for the briefing. Wg. Cdr. SCG was closing the windows and doors of the room. Thereafter, he took out an old photograph from his desk drawer and laid it out on the table. It was a 4 x 2 foot black & white photograph, dated 1946. It showed a 1500 yard runway and some sandbag pens.

Wg. Cdr. SCG said "I want you to look at this photograph." It was a photograph of Kurmitola and surrounding areas. Singh was not observing the photograph and was looking in some other direction, which probably irked Wg. Cdr. SCG.

He said angrily, "This is a top secret photograph and you are not even bothered to look at it?"

Singh replied, " What for? This thing is more than 15 years old. You think the place still looks the same?"

At this point, the AGLO arrived for the briefing and Wg. Cdr. SCG pointed out to M.N. Singh his objectives. The principle objective was to attack the newly constructed airport at Kurmitola AFB and destroy its runway, the ATC and Signal Unit. This would blind the small PAF Detachments from being deployed effectively. The Sabres were at that time based at Tejgaon an airfield further away. Singh pressed for permission to attack Tejgaon, for in his mind the Sabres were most likely to be operating from there. Wg. Cdr. SCG refused permission and put down specific instructions to "avoid flying over Dhaka under any circumstances." Wg. Cdr. SCG had given these instructions, as Tejgaon was considered a civilian airport and at that point of time, civilian targets were out of the question.

TOT over the target was fixed at 0530 hours and the entire detachment of four aircraft were assigned for the raid. Armament would consist of the cannons and rocket pods. When the aircraft were lined up for take-off, the detachment commander's Hunter failed to start. Sqn. Ldr. Singh immediately pulled out a very disappointed No.4 from his formation and took over his aircraft.

The Hunters flew at a very low altitude, flying through the Shillong Hills, the flight to Kurmitola took about 40 minutes. Kurmitola was approximately 300 km from Gauhati and the last 80 miles of the run, it was raining sheets in East Pakistan. The entire ground area appeared flooded and visibility was poor. Moreover, Hunters were flying with a tactical routing to prevent flying over sensitive areas where they would be detected. They flew due south and then west.

The heavy rains and poor visibility prompted No.3 Hunter, Fg. Off. Janak Kumar to decide to abandon the strike. He prompted Singh on the radio calling "Leader". Strict radio silence was being maintained during the entire flight, and though Kumar was calling out the leader's call sign, he was not willing to give a proper call to abandon the strike. Meanwhile Singh just refused to acknowledge the radio calls in the fear it would help the enemy locate them.

After a very long flight, they located and identified Kurmitola airfield, where apparently some construction work was going on. Initially the plan had been for one flight of two Hunters to attack the airfield runway and the other pair to attack the Signal Unit. However in the event of the formation being reduced to only three Hunters, M.N. Singh decided to lead all the aircraft against the airfield. The Hunters let loose their cannons and rockets and after expending the rockets turned north and left.

The effectiveness of the strike was doubtful in view of the circumstances prevailing. During the return leg, Singh noticed a PAF Sabre whoosh past him from the West to East about a 1000 yards in front of the formation. Singh was flying at the edge of his seat, for if the Sabre noticed the Hunters and attacked, the Hunters were at their most disadvantageous position. They hardly any fuel reserves to spare, if they got sucked in to air combat. But the poor visibility aided the Hunters here, the Sabre failed to notice them.

In fact, the visibility and rains were so adverse to flying conditions, the Pakistanis lost a Sabre they sent up to intercept the raiders. On news of Kurmitola and other targets being attacked, a section of Sabres were sent up in the air to intercept the raiders. And the GCI vectored the fighters in the general direction of the raiders. Fg. Off. A.T.M. Aziz, from the No.14 PAF Sqn, announced on the radio that he had spotted the "raiders" and was chasing them. This was at a low altitude and moments later, Aziz spun into the ground and his Sabre exploded. The Hunters did not report any engagements with the Sabres.

On the way back, the Hunter formation pulled up to 10,000 feet altitude. But Janak Kumar had lost contact with the formation. Singh noticed this and called out to Janak, breaking the radio silence. No response was heard. Singh suspected the worst, perhaps Janak had fallen a victim to the enemy. He thought that he had lost him, was feeling bad, tried again when this time Janak came onto the air and radioed he was safe and that he only lost direction. Janak homed in onto the formation and soon reached back to base along with it.

Back at the base, the pilots had just landed and on the debriefing officer’s request were walking towards the hut for the debrief meeting. In the debrief meeting, the pilots sat down in the company of the Wg. Cdr. SCG and the AGLO. The intelligence officer, Flt. Lt. Hande, joined them.

Wg. Cdr. SCG was in a very bad mood. Obviously the news of the ineffectiveness of the raid had shaken him and he went on to tick the pilots off for the inconclusive results of the attack. Then he dropped his bombshell. Wg. Cdr. SCG threatened to court-martial Singh for not adhering to his "personal orders to attack Dhaka". Singh was taken aback. First permission had been refused and he obviously missed a golden opportunity to catch the Sabres on ground, now he is being blamed for not attacking Tejgaon.

It was at this moment the AGLO stepped in. He had clearly heard in the earlier planning meeting, that Singh asked for Tejgaon to be assigned the main target and was refused permission by Wg. Cdr. SCG. The Intelligence Officer now intervened in the discussion. He had earlier advised the Wg. Cdr. SCG that the PAF Sabre squadron was based at Tejgaon, and he had also forwarded a report in this regard. Flt. Lt. Hande also insisted that the Station Commander had acknowledged the report by signing on it. Wg. Cdr. SCG denied having seen Hande's report. Hande did not take it lying down. He produced the intelligence report, with the Wg. Cdr. SCG's signature on it. Wg. Cdr. SCG had seen the report but obviously chose to ignore it.

It was then that the news about the PAF retaliatory strikes to Kalaikunda reached them. They only knew that Sabres attacked Kalaikunda, achieving full surprise and inflicted some damage. Singh felt frustrated, if only if his request to attack Tejgaon had been approved, he might have totaled the Sabres as they were being prepared for the raid on Kalaikunda.

This meeting left a bad taste in Singh's mouth. He complained to Mc Neil and EAC HQ about the Wg. Cdr. SCG's high handed ness and the matter was reported to the EAC HQ. And the detachment of Hunters reverted back to the command of Chabua. Stn. Co. Gauhati now had no say in operational matters. The AIR 1 at EAC HQ, Air Commodore A.R. Pandit DFC, now took over the operational matters of Gauhati Station.

No.37 Sqn now stayed out of the operations. A few days later, some of the Hunters were sent to the western front. But they arrived too late to be effectively deployed over there.

Lal Munir Hat

A Pakistani jeep convoy near the East Pakistani village of Lal Munir Hat, was surprised to observe some straight winged Jet fighters buzz them at low level. These fighters then pulled up in a turn to make an attacking run, and let loose with their cannon and rockets. The Pakistanis defiantly answered back with small arms fire, but it was a token gesture. The fighters strafed and rocketed the remaining vehicles in the convoy. Ouragans of No.4 "The Fighting Oorials" executed this raid on Lal Munir Hat.

No.4 Sqn was then based at Hashimara, and undertook the mission by sending a four-ship strike under Sqn. Ldr. M.M. Singh. The Ouragans identified some army installations and rocketed them, claiming destruction of several jeeps and vehicles. Besides the destruction of the convoy, nothing significant was achieved through this raid. Incidentally this was the only time the IAF Ouragans, saw combat in a full-fledged war. Some Ouragans did fly against the Portuguese in Goa in 1961, but it was a similar to a police action. And the Ouragans did not fly in combat again. They were retired in 1967.

The High Level Sweep to Jessore

The last major event before the Pakistani riposte was the high level fighter sweep of No.14 Sqn's Hunters over the Jessore area. The first formation of four Hunters took off to patrol and draw out the Sabres. However the second formation of two Hunters got delayed in taking off, and did not accompany the first formation. Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine took the Hunters to an altitude of 20,000 feet, as the Hunters would be in their element at this height. They flew around for an hour, but got no opposition.

La Fontaine was to learn later that the Indian radar crew tracking the Hunters lost them and could track them only on their finals. There was no way the radar could have located the PAF Sabres taking off or warn the IAF fighters about it. As it happened the Pakistanis did track the Hunters flying around near Jessore heading in the general direction of Dhaka. Several Sabres were scrambled, but they failed to make contact with the Hunters.

La Fontaine Hunters landed back at Dum-Dum at around 0600 in the morning. Slightly perturbed by the fact that the civilian Air Traffic Control at Dum-Dum, neither questioned the Hunters credentials when asked for clearance nor made any effort to identify or check with the air force officials there. Originally, the Hunters were supposed to be refueled with all the four drop tanks and fitted with rockets for the mission to Tejgaon. Then Gp. Capt. Jolly George came into inform La Fontaine that the packet from Kalaikunda has not yet arrived.

La Fontaine called up EAC's HQ. From there, the SASO EAC, Air Vice Marshal Suraj Singh, picked up the line. There were some civilians loitering around La Fontaine, including the Burmah Shell Petroleum Company personnel and La Fontaine did not wish to explain openly his problem, lest information regarding the timings of the raid on the enemy target and details are not leaked out. La Fontaine spoke in code to Suraj Singh,

"Sir, we have landed in Dum Dum. This is in preparation to the party which we were supposed to go for. But the presents that we are supposed to carry, and which were to come from Kalaikunda, did not arrive yet. So without these presents, how are we supposed to go to the party? If there is any delay in the presents coming, I will need a new time for the party."

La Fontaine pretty much pleased with himself for having conveyed the message effectively in code. The response was absolutely shaking. There was an explosion at the other end of the line.

"LA FONTAINE!" drawled Suraj Singh, "What cock are you talking?"

Apparently the SASO himself was not aware of the on goings. But he was prudent enough to guess that La Fontaine's presence in Dum-Dum signified something. SASO told the CO to wait at Dum-Dum and that he would talk to the AOC-in-C at Kalaikunda about his "party" and "presents" about, it and call back in a few minutes. La Fontaine received the SASO's call within minutes. The SASO spoke to Gp. Capt. Naik, the station commander, who told him Kalaikunda was under attack.

Before La Fontaine could recover from this piece of news, the Station Commander has also told the SASO that they received orders from the Prime Minister's Office prohibiting any offensive sorties against targets in Eastern Air Command. Henceforth, No.14 Sqn is to be relegated to the air defence role with immediate effect. Hunters were already fuelled up with four drop tanks each for the long haul to Tejgaon, and the ground crew struggled quite a bit to remove the outer tanks to bring the Hunters back to air defence configuration, in which the Hunters would carry only the inboard tanks.

The PAF Attack on Kalaikunda

The Pakistani response to the Indian attacks struck the Indian Air Force with a mind numbing force. The small detachment of 16 F-86 Sabres of No.14 PAF Squadron, was led by the CO, Sqn. Ldr. Shabbir Syed. The overall Commander of the PAF Tejgaon, was Gp. Capt. Ghulam Haider. Gp. Capt. Haider was informed, in advance, that he would be on his own once the conflict had started and on hearing about the hostilities, he had planned for a strike on Kalaikunda, with the intention of destroying the only Canberra force of the EAC along with the Hunters of No.14 Sqn. Gp. Cpt. Haider had received a special alert, and instructions for dispersal as early as September 2nd. Sajjad Haider nearly succeeded in his objective.

It was then about 0630 hrs in the morning, the personnel at the airbase were just coming out for the days activities. Every thing seemed so peaceful. About the time, air battles were being fought over Sargodha, the calm at Kalaikunda betrayed the shape of things to come. For at the same time, five Sabres were pulling up over Kharagpur to come in for the attack on Kalaikunda. EAC was short of radar coverage, and thus no advance warning was received about the attack, as the Sabres kept low. The Sabres were led by Sqn. Ldr. Shabbir Syed who had it seemed had come from the direction of the Bay of Bengal, flying over uninhabited territory, where no observation post could relay the approach.

Flying with Sqn. Ldr. Syed, were Flt. Lts. Haleem, Basheer, Tariq Khan and Afzal Khan. They had took off at around 0600 hrs and carried out the 300 km long flight over the sea. Because of the necessity to fly low all the way, the Sabres were required to carry their full load of external fuel in two 120 and two 200-gallon drop tanks per aircraft, leaving only their 0.5" machine-guns available for the attack. The personnel at Kalaikunda AFB were jolted out their routine by the clatter of the machine gun sounds as the Sabres bore in to the attack. There could have been no worse time for the base to be caught in.

Only three ack-ack guns were in position to defend the airfield. The rest of the guns had arrived only the day before and had not yet been positioned and dug in for deployment. As the Sabres streaked over the airfield, the ack-ack opened up, erratically, as there was no time to reorganize the fire. Three guns would hardly make any difference to the AA potential of the airfield.

The Canberras of Wg. Cdr. Wilson and Sqn. Ldr. Karve, which had just returned from the Chittagong raid, were parked in blast pens on one side of the runways. The Canberra, being the massive things they were, just could not escape the notice of the Pakistanis Pilots. The first thing the PAF pilots did, was to attack the two aircraft. The aircraft were already refueled and were being re-armed, when the raid started. And both the aircraft went up in flames.

Four Vampires of No.24 Squadron were lined up on the other side of the runway, which were armed and fuelled up for an attack on Jessore. They were to be the second wave, which was to go. The Sabres made short work of them too.

The Sabres recovered safely to Tejgaon landing back at 0744 PST, some 1½ hours after they had taken off. The Pakistanis claimed 14 Canberras destroyed, 6 others damaged and 4 Hunters damaged. If this claim is true, then the entire No.16 Sqn must have been destroyed. But as we would know it, the Pakistanis probably mistook the Vampires for Canberras.

The Pakistanis missed out on the Hunters as targets. Gp. Capt. Ghulam Haider, who had planned this mission, had submitted it before the hostilities, and it was approved with the clause, if he had heard about hostilities breaking out in the west, he should immediately put it into action. Later after the war, he was decorated for this effort and to put it fairly, he deserved it, cause the raid did strike a blow to the attack capabilities of the IAF in the eastern sector.

No doubt that the Pakistani pilots were overly rejoiced at this good show, but they got carried away and did the same mistake the IAF did over Sargodha, they sent a second mission to attack Kalaikunda, which was now in full state of readiness.

Alfred Cooke's Epic Battle

At around 10:30 a.m., the pall of gloom at Kalaikunda were immediately swept aside at the warning of the alarm at the approaching Sabres. The four Sabres came in low as usual. Kalaikunda records the Pakistani effort as six Sabres, while the Pakistani sources put it correctly at four Sabres led by Flt. Lt. Haleem.

Sqn. Ldr. "Mama" Sahni, radar officer at Kalaikunda, picked up a blip for a moment near Port Canning. He immediately alerted Wg. Cdr. Dicky Law, the CO Flying and informed him of the possibility of multiple aircraft coming in for another raid. Law, looked up his roster, two Hunters were flying a CAP to the north of Kalaikunda, taking care of Dum-Dum and Barrackpore. Law told Sahni to call this section back to Kalaikunda to intercept the incoming raid immediately.

Flt. Lt. Alfred Cooke and Fg. Off. S.C. Mamgain, were the two pilots who were flying the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and at that moment were some 60 miles north of the airfield at about 20,000 feet. On Sahni's call, Flt. Lt. Cooke led both the Hunters in a shallow dive towards Kalaikunda, accelerating all the way. Both the Hunters arrived at Kalaikunda at an altitude of 4000 feet, which was just an ideal height to catch any intruding aircraft pulling up for an attack.

Flt. Lt. Haleem of the PAF was leading the second formation, with Flt. Lt. Basheer as his wingman. Flt. Lt. Tariq Khan and Afzal Khan formed the second pair in the formation. All the four Sabres had pulled up for the final run into the attack, when Cooke and Mamgain in their Hunters, pounced in.

On spotting the Hunters the Sabres split up, two Sabres met the Hunter flown by Cooke head on, while the other two slipped to the side and went into the attack on the field. Though the Sabres were operating on the extreme range of their endurance, it was offset by the fact that they outnumbered the Hunters two is to one.

Cooke remembers nothing about the air battle except for the fact that there were Sabres everywhere. He got behind one Sabre, fired at it and chased it to such a low level that one could even see the trees in his camera gun film. The citizens of Kharagpur had a grandstand view of the air battle. They witnessed the roaring battle from the top of their homes. the students of the IIT cheered loudly every time the Sabres (or the Hunters, it didn't matter which) seemed to be on the receiving end.

In the confusing scenario, Cooke got behind one of the Sabres in what became a classic dogfight. Both the Sabre and the Hunter did their best to cut speed, fall back, turn and get behind each other. This involved breaking out by accelerating when the speed fell too much, and it was here that Cooke seized the initiative, as the Sabre tried to straighten out of the turning dogfight and break out, Cooke used his better acceleration to catch up and hit the Sabre which broke up in the air. Flt. Lt. Afzal Khan was flying this Sabre.

Meanwhile Mamgain went after the two Sabres trying to sneak in on attacking the ground targets. The Sabres had already finished one attacking run when Mamgain arrived on the scene. The two Sabres immediately turned and engaged Mamgain. In the dogfight that followed, one of the Sabres was hit by Mamgain, who claimed it went down.

Cooke had by then immediately latched onto the tail of a second Sabre jet, and fired at it, damaging it. Cooke himself admits that the air combat was very confusing. He went into a turn, there was a Sabre in front of him. He fired and broke away to avoid the trees, another Sabre came up in front of him. "I fired again." More trees, break away. This went on.

Cooke's gun camera film shows that he had fired at 4 different Sabres and hit three of them. The first Sabre obviously got hit and broke up. A second Sabre was seen with a tank hang-up under its left wing, getting hit repeatedly. The third Sabre had a tank hang-up on the other wing. This is followed up by another Sabre which is totally clean, i.e. no under-wing tanks.

Cooke chased this Sabre only to discover he had run out of ammunition, nevertheless, he stuck to the tail of the Sabre. The Pakistani pilot was unnerved by his presence and disengaged from attacking the ground targets. The Chase took him all the way to the border, whereupon, Cooke disengaged and landed at Dum-Dum airport.

Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine spoke to Cooke after he landed at Dum Dum. Cooke just was not able to recollect any details of the fight. It was only after the pilots saw the Gun Film, A startled Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine has only one thing to say about Cooke's gun camera Film. "It was frightening, bits and pieces of the Sabre were flying off and the trees were scraping the wing tips."

La Fontaine went up to Cooke and said, "Alfred! You fired at four different Sabres."

"I don't know Sir!" replied Cooke, "I just can't remember."

Wg. Cdr. Law reported the apparent lack of seriousness in the second raid. At one point, one PAF pilot even pulled his Sabre into a loop and went ahead to complete it. Much to the amusement of the officers watching on the ground. One possible explanation being the pilot was just making it to clear his tail and on seeing no one went ahead to complete it.

There are conflicting reports about the actual number of Sabres shot down. Wg. Cdr. Law, who watched the entire air combat over Kalaikunda, reported seeing two Sabres go down. One in the immediate vicinity of the airfield and another, which flew, some distance away from the town. The PAF Sabres had in fact circled the Dhudkundi range before coming in to attack Kalaikunda. This coupled with the fact, they had to exit out of Kalaikunda at high speed, with Hunters in the chase burning up the meager fuel reserves of the Sabres.

This is corroborated by some reports from a police station near the border of a lone jet aircraft coming in low, trailing smoke, and the pilot taking to his parachute just across the border. Radio intercepts also reported the ejections due to the low fuel situations of the Sabres. Mamgain's gun camera evidence was inconclusive, but keeping in mind Dicky Law's report of two Sabres being downed, was given the credit for a Sabre shot down.

The PAF, though not confirming these losses, did admit the loss of one Sabre that landed back but was too damaged to be recovered. Incidentally, Flt. Lt. Tariq Habib, who suffered a drop tank hang-up just before the combat, was flying this Sabre. This Sabre, was very much the same Sabre, recorded in Cooke's film.

The Pakistani gamble to capitalize on their earlier success had failed, Kalaikunda remained operational for the rest of the war. Both the pilots took on the enemy twice their strength and got the better of them. However, the second raid too managed to destroy two more Canberras, taking to eight the total number of IAF aircraft destroyed on ground at Kalaikunda that day.

The next day, the local police recovered the grisly remains of Flt. Lt. Afzal Khan. The head was separated from the torso, and was charred. Later the civic authorities gave him a proper burial.

The Case of the Missing Sabre

An interesting sequel to the air combat is narrated by Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine. After Afzal Khan’s body was recovered, the body was sent to the mortuary, where the doctor in charge removed the blood stained 'Bone Dome' and had it sent to Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine 'to keep as a war trophy'.

Better sense prevailed, and not fancying that a blood stained helmet would make an ideal war trophy, Wg. Cdr. La Fontaine called in one of his pilots, Flt. Lt. P.S. Puri , and instructed him to go with a couple of crew men, go to the wreckage and tear out some piece with markings like the crescent and the star, which would make a good display trophy. La Fontaine forgot about it and after a couple of days, on seeing Puri asked him about it. Puri, who was well known for his uncommunicative speech responded in a single statement.

"Its not there."

La Fontaine responded, "If its not there, at least get the panels with the roundels...or some serial number, anything."

Puri left, to be cornered after another couple of days by La Fontaine about the same topic.

Puri answered "Sir, its not there."

La Fontaine was perplexed. "You mean to say the PAF sent in unmarked aircraft?"

"No Sir,replied Puri, "the wreckage itself is not there. We did not find it. This is all we could find," and he held up a burnt rubber gasket.

The wreckage of the Sabre was never found. Strange it may sound, even though Afzal Khan was found, the aircraft was never recovered except for the burnt rubber gasket which was identified as an engine fitting. Three months after the War, Wg. Cdr. Dicky Law, was called in by local police to identify some aircraft parts recovered from a scrap merchant. The aircraft parts were clearly identified as non-Indian, and were presumed to have been from the Sabre.

The shooting down of the Sabre and damage and possible destruction to another two were small consolation to the havoc wrought in the first raid. But it did point out to the Pakistanis, that the IAF was still standing on its feet and was giving as much as it had taken. However even the Pakistanis were not deterred by their losses, for the next coming days, they were to attack IAF fields like Barrackpore, Baghdogra, Gauhati and unused airstrips like Agartala. Many IAF Officers were praise to the way this lone PAF Squadron flew in the East. Wg. Cdr. Wilson, CO of the Canberras at Kalaikunda, viewed the Pakistanis in the East as, "Highly motivated, Well led and Well trained."

Kalaikunda did not receive any raids thereafter, but the two initial raids did a lot of damage both to the airfield as well as morale. Group Captain Ghulam Haider was decorated after the war, deservedly. Kalaikunda did not plan any strikes thereafter. The raid raises numerous questions regarding the practice of dispersal of aircraft in airfields in terms of war.

Panic at Barrackpore, Chaos in Jorhat

Meanwhile at Dum-Dum, Hunters of No.14 Sqn, were put on ORP. La Fontaine had called up the air defence center in Barrackpore and informed that the Hunters would be available on ORP within minutes. The first two pilots on the ORP being himself and Flt. Lt. J.S. Virk, the adjutant of the Squadron as the No.2.

Soon, later as both the pilots were on the ORP, the order came from Dum-Dum ATC to scramble. Barrackpore was under attack, and both these Hunters were to make for Barrackpore fast. Virk's Hunter failed to start up, and La Fontaine scrambled into the air alone. On the instructions from the ATC, La Fontaine screamed off the runway into the air.

La Fontaine looked for a safe place to drop his fuel tanks, and did so safely in a paddy field. Short of Barrackpore, a Packet aircraft was coming in for the finals. The Barrackpore ATC informed the Packet that the airfield was under attack, and asked the Packet to hold its present position. Wg. Cdr. Kamat, CO of the Packet Squadron and the pilot, radioed back.

"Is this an exercise or what?"

"No this is the real thing. We are under attack! Orbit your present position."

"This is Red One!" La Fontaine responded on the R/T. "Tell me where are the Sabres? I will be over there in 30 seconds. Keep my tail clear."

There was silence from the ATC.

La Fontaine came over Barrackpore, and frantically flew in circles and tight turns trying to spot the Sabres. At the same time calling the ATC up to locate the Sabres.

"Red One to Tower!" La Fontaine radioed again, "Tell me where are the Sabres? Where are the enemy Sabres?"

More Silence.

About this time, Wg. Cdr. Senapati, an officer on the ground looked up in the sky to see the ack-ack guns open up on this single jet fighter which to his horror, identified it as a Hunter. With no radio, no telephone, Senapati could but pray for the Hunter not to get hit. La Fontaine of course was unaware of the ack-ack fire, more concentrated in jinking around in the sky try to spot the attacking Sabres.

It was a false alarm. There were no attacking Sabres. La Fontaine never found out why the Barrackpore ATC gave out such a panicky call about the air attack. The Packet then thundered into land, and at the end of the runway, all the crew ran out of the aircraft and jumped into the slit trenches headfirst!

There was chaos in the Air Defence Establishment in the eastern sector. Lot of imaginary enemy air raids and parachute raids were assumed, and Air Defence Controllers lived under constant pressure to separate the genuine from the false alarms. Another incident illustrates the point much better.

It was at the airfield in Jorhat. One particular day, the Air Traffic Controller identified a C-47 Dakota flying low over the airfield, circling it lazily. In peacetime, one would have thought it could have been one of the numerous visitors coming in for a transit stop. But the advent of the war and the effect of a devastating raid on Kalaikunda made the controller become highly suspicious when the Dakota failed to fire the colors of the day, and realization dawned on him. The Dakota was probably a Pakistani attempt to drop paratroopers onto the airfield. Immediately two Hunters from a CAP that got airborne were directed to attack the Dakota.

Sqn. Ldr. Pannu, was an instructor at the Transport Training Wing, Begumpet and he was flying the IAF Dakota laden with Avon engines for the Hunters of No.17 and No.37 Squadrons as well as cannon ammunition for them. The moment he heard the controller yell on the R/T about the parachutists, and the Hunters approach him in a menacing fashion, he dropped his undercarriage and flew away from the airfield. The lead Hunter in fact had already switched on his guns and had the Dakota in the "bead."

Of course Pannu was all the time, shouting on the R/T about the mistaken identity, by sheer coincidence, one of the Hunter pilots recognised Pannu's voice, as his instructor from his days as a cadet at the Air Force Academy. Fg. Off. Bains immediately warned the lead Hunter not to fire. The Dakota landed back safely at Kalaikunda. Sqn. Ldr. Pannu had to be prevented from firing his service revolver in the general direction of the Air Traffic Control Tower, for the goof-up by the ATC.

This was the last scramble and the only day of excitement for No.14 Squadron. For the rest of the war, they were relegated to flying CAP Sorties. Each pilot, put in something like three to four sorties, of CAP flying every day till the end of the war.

Gallantry at Baghdogra

The eastern sector had been relatively quiet after Tuesday, September 7th. Kalaikunda had been the target on that day. Other airbases in the sector within the range of the Sabres at Tejgoan were Barrackpore (Dum Dum), Baghdogra, Guwahati and Tezpur. Baghdogra was a relatively new airbase. Situated in the Siliguri corridor, where the borders of Nepal and East Pakistan were separated by only a 30 km salient of Indian Territory. Being less than 30 km from the border, it was most vulnerable to sneak raids by potential commandos.

Based at Baghdora were several Vampires. The Vampire squadron based here, also had with it a two-seater trainer version. This version carried a crew of two pilots. Baghdogra also served as a transit stop to various aircraft ferrying supplies to the NEFA.

This day on September 10th, the detachment was briefed to carry out certain missions across the border. The time was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon. The crew were relaxing in the ante rooms. A C-119 Packet of No.48 Sqn. had landed an hour back and was being prepared for dispersal by laying camouflage nets on it. Two Vampires were being readied for the mission which was purely recce in nature.

Sqn. Ldr. M.J. Marston, who had joined the squadron from the Staff HQ of EAC, in the midst of the conflict, was deputed to fly as co pilot to one of the senior flight commanders, Sqn. Ldr. V.B. Sarwardekar. The second Vampire had a crew led by Fg. Off. Mohla. Both aircraft were armed with their front gun ammunition and additional drop tanks under the wings to extend their range. Sarwardekar started his Vampire and taxied the aircraft out of the hanger. He taxied it to the end of the runway, lined up and waited for Mohla to catch up. Mohla had problems starting his engine. Sarwardekar got impatient and called up to Mohla on the R/T. Mohla in turn, informed him that his engine had started and he is on his way. Sarwardekar switched off asking Mohla to catch up fast.

Then suddenly the next moment, the R/T crackled. This time it was the air traffic control tower which said, "We are under attack! No.2 Do not move!" Four Sabres had pulled up from a high speed pass and climbed around to start their first attacking run. Mohla whose aircraft was still in the pen switched off his aircraft and stayed there. However Marston and Sarwardekar, positioned at the end of the runway for take-off, stuck out like a sore thumb against the gleaming concrete surface.

The airmen were running for cover when the first aircraft opened up. With the clattering sound of the machine guns of the Sabres, were soon joined by the exploding shells of the ack-ack defences. The four attacking Sabres employed the classic Pakistani attack formation. They split into two sections of two each. One section went for the Vampire at the end of the runway and strafed it. Pieces and panels flew off the aircraft as the bullets hit the Vampire and the tarmac surrounding it. The drop tanks carried by the vampire were riddled and the aviation spirit that gushed out almost immediately ignited into a blaze. Oily black smoke enveloped the aircraft.

The ground crew had already given up the pilots to be dead. Then the canopy opened. A figure struggled out of the seat harness. It was Sarvardekar. He jumped onto a dry patch just near the cockpit and looked back to see Marston jump down on the other side of the aircraft. Marston lost his balance and fell in the burning fuel. Immediately Sarvardekar went back to pull Marston out and put out the fire caught by Marston's overalls. By the time a fire tender and a crash wagon had reached the aircraft, the aircraft was burning furiously and the ammunition started exploding dangerously all around. Marston already had severe burns. He was evacuated to a hospital.

Mohla, who but for his dud engine, or the ATC's warning, would also have met the same fate as his seniors. Even if the Sabres were just some five seconds late on their TOT, Mohla too would have been caught in the open. Such were the fortunes of war.

Meanwhile, the other two Sabres went in for the C-119 Packet parked at the airfield. An airman was spreading camouflage nets over one of the wings when the air raid started. He was caught in the strafing and died. The Packet was riddled all over with the bullets, but thankfully did not catch fire. The Packet was damaged, but was repairable and was soon recovered by the end of the war.

The raid lasted a little over two minutes. The ack-ack fire hit one Sabre and it flew away trailing smoke. It's fate was not known. But most probably it might have failed to make the 200-mile flight back to Tejgaon. All flying at Baghdogra was cancelled after the raid, till the damage was repaired. Even as the aircrew were retiring to bed, rumours floated in about Paratroopers being dropped near the border. But the rumours remained baseless.

Once again the lessons of the lack of air early warning was driven home to Eastern Air Command. The approach of the Sabres went undetected and no one could take measures to intercept them, even though it was so far away from the Pakistani airbases. Sqn. Ldr. M.J. Marston succumbed to his injuries on September 14th at the Military Hospital. Sqn. Ldr. Sarvardekar received a well deserved Kirti Chakra, the equivalent of the MVC for gallantry not in the face of the enemy, in February 1966.

Also attacked on this day were Barrackpore airport near Calcutta and Agartala airport. The Sabres claimed one C-119, one Dakota and one Canberra. Agartala was attacked, but no worthwhile targets were there. Only the ATC was attacked.

The Sabres of Tejgaon did not fly strike missions again after the 14th. The detachment was given instructions to conserve its strength. This provides credibility to the Indian claims that the detachment suffered at least four losses. PAF claims it lost only three Sabres in this sector. One chasing targets over Kurmitola, the other shot down over Kalaikunda the last one rendered unserviceable due to battle damage. Another Sabre, was supposed to have been lost due to a bird hit before the commencement of the hostilities.

The losses suffered by EAC on the ground amounted to about ten. Though no aircraft were lost in air combat in the East, it is but fair to say that the PAF detachment in the East showed considerable daring, initiative and wit. The Indian pilots, on their part, did not lack in enthusiasm to take on the Sabres and knock them out. It is a sad commentary that they were not given a free hand to try and attempt to do so.

Air Marshal Arjan Singh paid a visit to Dum-Dum after the war. He told La Fontaine that he should have gone ahead and made the attack on Tejgaon on September 7th with the guns, without waiting for the rockets. La Fontaine pointed out that the SASO had informed him of the decision to curtail ops in the east much before his planned TOT over Tejgaon that was 0930 hours. Arjan Singh's disappointment lends credence to the fact that he was not party to the order to hold back and it was more a political decision, that he was against.

If the Hunters of EAC were given a free hand, one can say with conviction that it was only a matter of days before the solitary Sabre Squadron was either knocked out or grounded due to damage inflicted on the airfields by the IAF. A pointer in this direction was the subduement of the same PAF squadron in the '71 Bangladesh war, when the PAF Sqn lost about five Sabres in combat, and an equal number were destroyed on ground, before MiGs from Gauhati rendered the runways unserviceable to ground the surviving aircraft.

This still remains one of the big Ifs of the war.