Shorkot Road Attack

In retaliation to the Pakistan Air Force's pre-emptive air strikes on 03 December 1971, the IAF mounted its counter air operations against PAF bases starting from 04 December 1971. Shorkot, better known as Rafiqui, was on the IAF's hit list and the attack was led by Squadron Leader Vinod Kumar Bhatia, later Air Marshal. Here is the full account.


It was 03 December 1971. In the evening the well-lit squash court in the Air Force Officers' Mess at Ambala suddenly plunged into darkness, where I was having a workout with the marker. I swore silently at the State Electricity Supply Board for the untimely disruption in power supply. However, soon the wailing sound of sirens pierced my ears.

The sound was coming from the direction of the airfield, indicating an air-raid warning. "Up goes the balloon," I thought to myself and rushed to my room where the phone appeared to be ringing impatiently trying to elicit a response. Yes, it was a General Recall after an attempted pre-emptive strike by the PAF against a number of our airfields.

I had brought a formation of four Sukhois the same afternoon from Amritsar which was the operational base of the No.32 Squadron. Soon after reaching the Squadron in response to the General Recall we heard the President of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan's speech on Pakistan Radio declaring war against India.

As the runway at Amritsar had suffered some superficial damage, (repaired in time to induct MiG-21s late during the night) it was decided that the Sukhois would be inducted early morning on 04 December to carry out the retaliatory strikes against Pakistani airfields. No.32 Squadron was given two major Pakistan bases as their targets. The composition of the formation was:

(a) Sargodha: Thunderbird

1. Wing Commander H.S. Mangat (CO) 
2. Squadron Leader P. Singh (Pat)
3. Squadron Leader A.M. Mehta (Chhotu)
4. Flight Lieutenant S.D. Gaurishankar (Gauri)

(b) Shorkot Road: Eagle

1. Squadron Leader V.K. Bhatia (Jimmy)
2. Flight Lieutenant A.V. Sathaye (Sathya)
3. Flight Lieutenant V.V. Tambay (Uncle)
4. Flight Lieutenant M.S. Grewal (Mally)

We got airborne at the crack of dawn, 8 aircraft in all, in waves of two, on 04 Dec 71. I was in the lead wave. The morning mist soon turned into an undercast layer. We were flying at 150 metres AGL with an unending blanket of layer clouds below us. Navigation was done on mental DR (Dead Reckoning). Luckily, close to Amritsar, there appeared a small break in the cloud layer and we could recover the aircraft by doing low level circuits at 100 metres AGL.

 

IAF pilots of No.32 Squadron. Wg Cdr HS Manget is sitting just behind the cockpit.

The aircraft were refueled and armed and fitted with long range external tanks. normal drop tank capacity was of the Su-7 was 600 L. However, Shorkot Road being at extreme range, it was necessary to carry 900 L belly drop tanks. Armament in this case was carried on outer wing stations consisting of UB-16 rocket pods (16 x 57mm R/P each). While the aircraft were being prepared to, we were visited by a PAF MiG-19 aircraft which, however, sped away in the face of our ack-ack defences after firing a short, harmless cannon burst.

THE FIRST STRIKE

The aircraft were ready by 0930 hrs. If I recall correctly, the strike TOT was 1045 hrs IST. The morning low clouds had lifted by then and the visibility was reasonably good. Altogether nice weather for the mission. The Eagle formation got airborne on the dot. I carried out a gather turn at the end of which all four aircraft were in position. We flew a loose broad frontage formation. Keeping low all the way though, stepping up our heights just a wee bit to avoid high tension pylons south of Lahore. A strict R/T silence was maintained. I knew all other members had their eyes peeled to spot bogeys (enemy aircraft) while I concentrated on navigation.

Sqn Ldr Jimmy Bhatia and Flt Lt VV 'Uncle' Tambey launch for the first strike against Shorkot Road on 4 Dec 71. Pic Courtesy: Polly Singh

Polly-Jimmy-Tambey.jpg (61444 bytes)

The next 15 minutes were spent in rapt attention after which I could spot the IP (initial point) approaching dead ahead. A quick NATO turn for for the final run-in to the target at the correct/exact location. The suspense was building up to climax when I gave the orders for the pull up. It was sheer delight to find the airfield sprawled below and ahead of us. I rolled into the attack over my No.3 & No.4 heading for the nearest ORP pen, where I spotted a Sabre parked just outside the pen.

Sathaye, my No.2 who was flying 300 metres behind me spotted two Canberras that were being refueled. Closing into the correct range, I fired the first salvo of rockets at the Sabre and the pens at the other ORP. We recovered in a perfect pre-planned formation, flew for a few kilometres clearing each other's tail and then turned around for the second attack.

This picture is from a Sqn Ldr VK Bhatia's attack on Shorkot airfield (Rafique) by No.32 Squadron, which flew Su-7s. Circle shows an exploding Sabre. While another parked Sabre can be seen in the lower right corner of the picture.

The second attack was equally successful. It appeared that we had taken the enemy completely by surprise as not a single shell of ack-ack was fired at us. We made a getaway by engaging the afterburners and accelerating to 1100kph. The skies behind us were clear of enemy aircraft, and we headed for home. After an uneventful return flight, we landed at Amritsar at about 1200 hours. The strike turned out to be the most successful one with one Canberra with a bowser and three Sabres as confirmed kills.

THE SECOND STRIKE

Our request for an immediate turn-around and repeating the strike was not agreed to by the higher controlling authorities. A suggested TOT of 1430 hours was thus turned down and we were now slotted in for simultaneous dusk strikes at Shorkot Road and Sargodha respectively. As I lost height in the dive I could see the tracer shells approaching the closer till the entire cockpit was engulfed by the exploding HE. Ignoring the ack-ack, I trained the gun-sight on the mouth of a blast pen where I could see the outline of an aircraft.

However, it was difficult to clearly spot the target in the gathering dusk. I fired a salvo of rockets and pulled out. During the runout, I noticed that my No.3 (Tambay) was without his wingman - Mally. Continuous R/T calls elicited no response from him. All the same, I turned around for the second attack. Once again, we were enveloped by the ack-ack; however all three aircraft recovered from the attack without any damage. During recovery and getaway, the formation noticed a ball of fire close to the airfield fence.

In all probability (later confirmed) Mally's aircraft was downed by the enemy ack-ack during the first attack. It appeared that our problems were nor over as yet. As we slowed down due to fuel considerations after the getaway phase, two Sabres were sighted in 6 o'clock position closing in on us. I ordered jettisoning of fuel tanks with an evasive hard turn. The manoeuvre came at the right time because as the formation went into turn I saw two AAMs (Sidewinders) flashing past and hitting the ground ahead of us. We had no fuel reserve to engage the enemy fighters.

Therefore, I ordered a evasive manoeuvre which not only brought us back to the correct getaway course but also ensured a successful disengagement from the Sabres. While we were happy with another successful strike having claimed three aircraft on ground, (all probable as gun cameras were ineffective in the fading light at the time of attack) we missed gallant Mally Grewal who was shot down during the raid. (Later it was revealed that Mally had ejected successfully and was taken prisoner of war by the PAF).

THE THIRD STRIKE

At the outbreak of hostilities we had only five sets of long range fuel drop tanks. With the jettisoning of tanks in the second strike we should have lost four sets. However, Tambay had not jettisoned his tanks during the tactical action to ward off the enemy attack which also explained why he was lagging behind after the evasive manoeuvre. This proved to be quite a coincidence as, on 5 December 1971, I was asked to carry out a third strike against the same target.

Shortage of long range drop tanks meant that the formation had to be restricted to only two aircraft. Tambay (Uncle) with his usual exuberance volunteered to fly as my No.2. The TOT given to us was around midday as the enemy defences were expected to be at a low key. By now, we knew the route by heart. The day was unusually bright for the part of the year with excellent in-flight visibility. We were flying a broad frontage formation.

At pull up point (PUP) I eased up over and into my No.2 to go for the attack. At the top of the dive, I suddenly noticed seven MiG-19S (F-6) stacked up on a tarmac far below and ahead of me. However, as I came closer, I realised that these must be dummy aircraft, which in fact they were. I diverted my attack onto a hangar firing a salvo of rockets. After the attack, I picked up Tambay who had gone in for the loop area. Tambay was lagging behind and when I gave the 180º hard turn, I found that he landed up way ahead of me.

Realising that we were close to our PUP for the second attack, I quickly changed tactics and asked Tambay to go into attack first. I saw his aircraft shining like a silver streak as he pitched up for the dive. I pulled up behind him scanning the area to pick up a juicy target. The ack-ack must have been firing feverishly at us; however, in the bright sunlight, it was difficult to spot the tracer shells. The realisation of the presence of a hundred plus anti-aircraft guns which the enemy had deployed at Shorkot Road was driven home with sickening reality, when Tambay's aircraft (B 839) suddenly began to spew out thick black smoke from the belly.

I immediately told Tambay on the R/T that he had been hit. Concentrating on his aircraft which by then had entered into a steep dive, I noticed that the smoke trail had thickened. I shouted on the R/T "Tambay eject". However, I was greeted with total silence. I must have given eight to nine calls for him to eject without eliciting any response from Tambay. The aircraft crashed near the runway edge in a huge ball of fire and smoke.

It was a sickening and heart rending sight to see my trusted friend and my No.2 going into the ground. Blinded with fury and tears, I unleashed my rockets into the ORP area and then turned hard. I had descended so low that I could see the trees, which were in the vicinity of the airfield, coming up at me. Cursing myself, I steadied the aircraft and continued with the turn onto the getaway direction.

The last strike over Shorkot Road was over.

Squadron Leader V.K. Bhatia with a MiG-21 in his later days

Air Marshal Vinod Kumar Bhatia is a Qualified Pilot Attack Instructor (QPAI) and has spent several years on flying instructional duties both in India and abroad. He is a Graduate of the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington and the Royal College of Defence Studies in the United Kingdom. He has 4000 hours of flying to his credit on sixteen different fighter aircraft and was awarded the Vir Chakra in both the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971. He was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal [AVSM] in 1992 and later the PVSM. He served as the AOC-in-C Central Command and Western Command before his retirement in 2002.