Out of the blue

Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy was a young fighter pilot with No.23 Squadron flying Gnats during the 1965 War. He writes about his experiences.  This write up was published on 2nd August 2006 in the Indian Express and drew a response from Marshal Arjan Singh which is reproduced at the end of the article.


September, 1965. The time had come for us fighter pilots to prove our worth. Six months earlier I was posted from a Hunter Squadron to 23 Sqn Ambala, to fly the Gnats. I found the air combat skills in the Gnat Squadron to be distinctly superior, which made me eager to learn every trick that was possible.

Sikand and Keelor were my flight commanders, Sikki rallied the squadron often during the weekends. The possibility of operations was in the air. I remember Sikki, with his trimmed hair and beard, saying he would be able to pass off as a Mussalman if he ever ejected in Pakistan. Many of us were focused on how to take on the F-86 in air. We were superbly confident and yet there were many unknowns. Looking back, I felt that the leadership on the desks did not show as much aggression and enthusiasm as we jockeys did.

On September 2, the Squadron was told to hurriedly dispatch four Gnats to Halwara to function on an Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) and undertake missions. We heard that four Vampires were shot down by F-86s in Chamb and that some of the pilots were killed. Gathering toothbrushes, Keelor, self, Pathania and Gill took off for Halwara, where we heard that the Vampires were attacking tanks when they were surprised by F-86s.

Soon, we were ordered to refuel and get to Pathankot. We were soon joined by four more Gnats from Ambala: Johnny Green from 2 Sqn, Sandhu (Black Leader) from 9 Sqn, and Sikki and Manna (Murdeshwar) from 23 Sqn. While the detachment was supposed to be from 23 Sqn, Green took over the command of the detachment. We knew if God had colour it would be Green! He commanded great respect as a fighter pilot; a cool and clear-minded professional but a loner.

The Gnats were expected to mount an offensive sweep to draw out F-86s and shoot them down. We were told that we would get no radar cover over the Chamb sector, from where we were to enter Pakistan territory, the R/T communication with the ground was reported to be poor and enemy deployment unclear. The PAF was known to have some F-86s and F-104s armed with missiles, their air defence cover over Chamb was known to be good.

The plan was that Jimmy Goodman (Sqn Cdr of 31 Sqn) would fly his Mystere with a wing man (Sethi — shot down and killed on a later mission) at a few thousand feet at low speed, simulating Vampires. Behind would be eight Gnats in two formations. Over Chamb, the Mysteres would get low and fast and run back to base. The Gnats would then head into enemy territory climbing to 20,000 ft, inviting PAF interceptors.

Looking back, it was a very audacious mission, having no radar cover but dependent only on visual sighting of the enemy and on our skills to spot and to shoot.

After the Mysteres left us, we were at 20,000 ft for about 10 minutes when a lone F-86 turned behind the front formation and right in front of my leader, Trevor Keelor. We both latched on to him. Keelor started shooting and we saw a panel flying out, smoke billowing. We broke, thinking he'd gone down, and started looking out for others.

The next day we flew a similar mission but this time, two Mig-21s took the lead. The eight of us who followed a couple of minutes later were bounced by a large PAF formation, at least six F-86s and a pair of F-104s with missiles. We'd been briefed not to take on PAF aircraft with missiles since their potential was unknown. We returned with no loss and no gain.

Over the next two days the Mysteres continued their ground attack. I heard from my colleagues that some of our strike aircraft flew over Bhaktanwala, where F-86s were parked in a line. We had strict instructions not to attack enemy assets on the ground, the logic being that if we did so they would do so too and that would escalate the war. It proved to be short-sighted; I could never understand this logic. I was angry and upset.

A course mate of mine, Darshan Brar, flying the Mystere told me that he hit Sargoda with a vengeance, making multiple passes even when extremely short of fuel. Such was the spirit of the youngsters in the cockpit. The first two months there were no words or suggestions of decorations. We were not familiar with these things and didn't really care. Then came the announcement of decorations and other 'goodies' which definitely had a corrupting influence.

Till today, I could never understand how Chiefs of opposing Air Forces could have reached an understanding to keep away from conflict (if ever such an agreement was reached). Having lost many of my friends in the wars I could never call the enemy a 'friend'. My motto in air warfare is: ''Strike when an opportunity arises because there would be no second chance''.

On September 6, we learnt our bitter lesson. Pakistan attacked IAF assets on the ground at Pathankot, Halwara and Kalaikonda most effectively. They did suffer serious attrition at Halwara but put the IAF on the defensive from which it never recovered.

My squadron was reduced to flying Combat Patrol (CAP) missions over the airfield from dawn to dusk for days on end. What a waste of combat assets! We should have kept the enemy busy instead of giving them a lead chance. As a young fighter pilot, I felt the commanders at the desks to be confused and under-confident, lacking imagination and grit. They were least inspiring.

I was fortunate to learn what grit and camaraderie mean from some of those who led us. I had the occasion to escort Canberras during daylight, flown by very brave crew on most audacious missions. When they climbed slowly to 6,000 ft laden with bombs in enemy territory, flying close with them I was worried for their safety! Once the bombs were released, they built up their speed so quickly that they often left the Gnats behind!

I had the opportunity to escort a severely damaged Mystere alone, which limped back to base with fuel running low, all emergency lights on and speeds just enough to maintain level flight. Yet the pilot was so cool and confident. This was Suppie Kaul, later to become the CAS.

The first Pakistani bomb fell in Pathankot on the night of September 6. Then we heard of parachutists being dropped. This pushed us to the trenches, all night. The day we prepared and flew missions. It was very tough on the men to keep repairing and pushing aircraft round the clock, they were brilliant! I distinctly remember flying aircraft with patched-up bullet holes but I never doubted the soundness of the aircraft that we flew.

There were some light moments too; We never believed in digging trenches deep enough. On the 6th, when the airfield was struck, guys piled up in the trenches one on top of the other. In fact, the last pile was well above the ground! The guy at the bottom complained of not being able to breathe — but stopped complaining when the guy on top offered to swap places!

The above article drew a response from Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh who wrote to the Indian Express soon after:

Flying in the face of facts

Aug 07, 2006 at 0000 hrs

I have grave problems with the inferences drawn by the former air chief, S. Krishnaswamy, in his article 'Out of the blue' (IE, August 3). I was the chief of air staff, and P.C. Lal the vice chief, during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Air Vice Marshal Rajaram was the air officer commanding-in-chief of the Western Air Command. We were responsible for the planning and conduct of the Indo-Pak war in 1965. All of us had taken part in World War II in 1944, and had been decorated. In 1965, we were not sitting at our desks but were engaged in regular flying practice of the latest aircraft types in the IAF.

Krishnaswamy was then a pilot officer or flying officer. In that rank, the focus is on flying and assessing their flight or squadron commander's leadership; they do not have the knowledge of higher planning and the overall conduct of war. Krishnaswamy's assessment of leadership in his August 3 article is probably due to hindsight, confusion, or loss of memory.

The former air chief's remarks about the two chiefs of the two opposing forces reaching an understanding are made due to some ignorance of facts. The facts are that the talk between Air Marshal Asghar Khan and myself took place in March 1965, when an intrusion was on by Pakistan in the Kutch area, and not before the 1965 war itself, when it was Nur Khan who was the PAF chief.

The Kutch affair was discussed with the defence minister of the time, Y.B. Chavan, and it was decided that it was not in India's interest to fight a war in that area. Both the army and the air force were not quite prepared to fight in that area. As chief I could not allow my force to cross the border and enter another country without the express orders of the defence minister. Our air support of the army in the Chamb-Jaurian sector in 1965, and more recently in the Kargil sector, was given after approval of the defence minister.

It was in that context that when Asghar Khan rang me up in March 1965, suggesting that the air forces of the two countries should not operate across the borders, I agreed with him as that was also the order from our government.