The Day The Israelis Bombed Osirak

Gp Capt Bewoor was on deputation to Iraq during 1980-82. He recollects some of the memorable incidents, including the day the Israelis bombed Osirak.


Introduction

I was in Iraq from April 1980 to April 1982 under a government agreement to provide flying instructors to the Iraqi air force which went back to the late 1950s. We had instructors there during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It was much appreciated by the Iraqis that the Indians did not want to go back home because of a hot shooting war in Iraq. 

In Sep 1980 I was with 23 Sqn Iraqi Air Force on AN-12s. I flew at night on 10 Sep, right across Iraq, Baghdad, Mosul- let down, overshoot, Basra, letdown, overshoot and back to Baghdad. It looked as though the whole country produced oil, refineries with excess gas being flamed nearly everywhere. Quite a sight.

Iran-Iraq war breaks out

Then on 11th afternoon I was told to" take rest" for a few days and not come to work for a few days.  On 13 Sep Saddam attacked Iran with a Mid day strike contrary to all strategic and tactical doctrine.  Squadron Leader Panicker put me on to An-24s in January 1981 and all the flying was done at an airstrip 37km [23 miles] west of Habbaniya, a former Royal Air Force base.

Suddenly we heard a couple of loud bangs and a huge coloumn of thick black smoke rose menacingly from the city. It appeared that the Iranians had hit the Baghdad oil refinery. By the evening a thick blanket of smoke covered Baghdad with a strong smell of oil. Later we came to know that Iranian Phantoms had failed to hit Osirak. I could be wrong, that was the " langar gup".

I did not fly till 05 Jan 1981 when I was converted onto AN-24s by Panicker. All flying was done at an air strip 37 kms West of Habbanya. It was called Air Strip 37, " sabaa o talateen". Habbanya was the last Royal Air Force base East of the Suez, and the RAF withdrew from there in abot 1964 during the creation of the Trucial States, now called UAE.

Once while flying at about 4 Kms and practicing Single engine, we got the standard message saying, " Jahannam". That meant air raid, and we were ordered back to land. I would have preferred to stay at 4 kms, because the Iranians invariably stayed at deck level, it would have been safer. But they said get back on ground, start descent immediately. One did not argue with Saddams Air Force.

My problem was to get the Flt Engineer to restart the Starboard engine. He failed to do it twice, and was panicking. All this while we were descending, and there was palpable fear in the intercom natter. I finally talked the restart procedure into the hands of the flight engineer, and got No 2 engine running at about 500 mtrs Above Ground Level (AGL). Later I learnt that Iraqis seldom did actual shut down, most were afraid to do so. I remedied that soon.

Panic at the airport

In April we returned to Baghdad Intl airport and continued instr flying. It was mixture of day and night.  I had two sorties for 07 June in the afternoon. Tail number of the AN-24 was 797. The Baghdad Runway is very long, and after the last landing we taxied back using the whole length of the Runway. 

Now starts the action. As we parked, and shut down, I opened the side window, and heard the distinct sound of Anti Aircraft firing. Casually I mentioned to the pupil pilot Capt Riadh and the Navigator, who had been trained in Begumpet, that it looks like an air raid is on near Baghdad because I can hear Anti-Aircraft firing.

Would you believe it, in 20 secs flat I was alone in the cockpit!

The propellors were still turning, the aircraft was still electrically live and fully energised, and this Indian Squadron Leader was in the right hand seat all alone.  It was not possible to deenergise the aircraft because doing so would have opened the HP Cocks and fuel would start going into the hot engine and may start a fire, or at least a lot of heavy smoke. I was thinking fast on what to do, when I looked West and saw the setting sun, June  calls for pretty late sunset, must have been about 1800 hrs or so.

I realised that my aircraft was the only one in the line of AN-12s, IL-76s and AN-24s with  rotating propellors. I recalled that the H-3 or K-3 air base had been attacked by Iranians taking off from Syrian bases, and that a bomb had closely missed the crew room with Indian instructors.

My aircraft with turning props would immediately attract the attention of an attacking pilot. So dear friends, I too ran out of the aircraft, jumped out from the rear door and went and sat down about 200 mtrs further away. I could not see any of my crew. After about 15 mins I decided to get into the AN-24, deenergise the aircraft, complete shut down checks and then walked back to the Squadron.

As I was walking I noticed that two fuel bowsers, 20 kilolitres, were attached to IL-76s. A 9 KL bowser was attached to one AN-12. 

When I reached the squadron I was sheepishly met by my pupil and navigator. A Lt Col approached me and said, " Just rehearsal, only practice."  I acknowledged this info, but told them about the connected bowsers. There was panic all over and people running to disconnect and remove the bowsers. I completed the debrief and one of my pupils offered me a lift home since govt transport was not available.

By now it was dusk, and as we were driving out of the airport along the perimeter fence, all the AA artillery opened up. The pupil stopped in his tracks and froze. One Gun position was just 10 feet away and I could hear the gunners asking each other, "ween tayyara?". Where is the aircraft?. They were just popping off ammunition into the sky, not aiming at anything.

The next thing I knew was that my pupil had opened his door and was crawling out, I grabbed him and pulled him into the car. I told him that the safest place was outside the airfield, so lets get going. It appealed to him, and off he went. Later we came to know that the dusk aircraft was the Infra red recce and it was those photos that Israeli TV showed to confirm detruction of Osirak.

OsirakHUD.jpg (28867 bytes) An Israeli Pilot's HUD Video shows the Osirak reactor - At the same moment, the author was blithely flying an An-24 not too far away!
The aftermath of the Osirak attack OsirakUN.jpg (30675 bytes)

Blithely unaware

So what about me? So where was I when the Osirak raid actually taking place? Well when the attack was on I was merrily instructing on ILS with the pupils screen down. Not a care in the world, and oblivious of six F-16s diving to attack Osirak just about one km to the starboard. The AA did not react to the actual strike. there was only sporadic AA fire from outside the airfield when I had parked, well after the attack was over.

Neither did Baghdad ATC have any instructions for me, he too was unaware. The attack was a total surprise, details are well known to most of us. The other fact is that there was absolutly no other flying in progress at Intl airport. Just bewoor and pupil. 

It is ok for me to believe today that the F-15s were not interested in an AN-24, but what if he had been twitchy with his fingers and seen us?  While the Israelis remember Osirak for many reasons, so do I for one reason.  Even today I thank my maker that the Israelis were not interested in anything except Osirak


This article was first published on the BBC Website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5073750.stm .It is reproduced here with permission of Gp Capt Bewoor.


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