The Airlift that saved Kashmir

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Ranjeet Bhatia

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, late Group Captain KL Bhatia Vr.C (then Wing Commander), Commanding Officer of No. 12 Squadron RIAF from 15th August, 1947 to 6th April 1948.


In this article, I aim to bring forth and highlight the adverse conditions under which the air and ground crew of No. 12 Squadron RIAF, the lone transport squadron of our Air Force operated immediately preceding and post-partition. Particularly, my focus has been on the last week of October 1947, when the squadron was called upon to rush troops, arms, ammunition, and supplies to Srinagar on a war footing with barely a day’s notice. The squadron was already stretched to its limits in evacuation duties for refugees, supply dropping to stranded refugees, reconnaissance flying, and constant VIP movement. To compound the issue, there was an acute shortage of spare parts for the aircraft and a shortage of trained aircrew to fly the aircraft.

Deeds of fighter squadrons have always found prominence in the history of the Air Force. Rightfully so, why not? They are the warriors of the Air. Nevertheless, the role of the transport squadron cannot be pushed to the background particularly as we have seen in the Kashmir war of 1947-48. Apart from creating the Air-bridge to Srinagar, the squadron played very key and vital roles throughout this war, particularly in Poonch and Leh.

Had this transport squadron and its support from civil transport aircraft not been able to create and maintain a successful ‘Air-bridge’ to Kashmir, land and carry troops into Poonch and Leh, our history and geography would have not been what it is today!

No. 12 Squadron is rightfully called the ‘Saviours of Kashmir’.

At the time of Indian independence, there existed 565 princely states in the dominion of India. As a result of his determined and untiring efforts, Sardar Vallabhai Patel was able to incorporate 562 of them into the Indian dominion. The 3 states that did not agree to join the Indian dominion were:

Jammu and Kashmir
Hyderabad, and

Of these 565 states, 564 states were contiguous with India. Only Jammu and Kashmir was contiguous with both India and Pakistan.

In accordance with the Indian Independence Act 1947, which was passed in the British parliament in London on 5th July 1947 and was signed by King George VI on 18th July, the princely states of British India had a choice of joining either India or Pakistan or to remain a sovereign independent state. These princely states together made up 28% of the population of pre-independent India and covered 48% of its land area. Despite not technically being a part of British India, these states were entirely under the suzerainty of the British Crown.

Ultimately, Junagarh and Hyderabad, joined the Indian dominion in February 1948 and September 1948 and respectively.

Jammu and Kashmir

The Indian independence found the state of Jammu and Kashmir in an unenviable position among the other Indian states. The state was torn between its economic and political affiliations between the two dominions. Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir had not decided on the issue and requested for time to think before consenting to remain independent or join either dominions. While postponing his decision, the Maharaja sought to maintain a status-quo by entering into a “Standstill” agreement with Pakistan.

However, within a few days of the partition of India, an “economic squeeze” was initiated by Pakistan on the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In violation of the Standstill agreement, Pakistan rigorously curtailed the supply of salt, sugar, Kerosene, petrol and clothes and fabric and other consumer goods to the state. As the economic vice was tightened on Kashmir, on 22nd October, 1947, a full scale invasion was launched by Pakistan on the state by a force comprising of tribal lashkars (militias) from Waziristan, Pathans from NWFP and soldiers of the Pakistan Army dressed as tribals, carrying modern weapons via the Domel road and several other points along the border. This invasion was called ‘Operation Gulmarg’ by the Pakistan army.

The strategy and tactics that came to light in this invasion reeked of expert planning by the Pakistan army. The planners of this operation appear to have been very sure that India would not or dare not intervene in Kashmir with her (India’s) hands already full with internal turmoil and with the issues related to Hyderabad and Junagarh about to boil over. Their planners were confident to assume three factors that would go against India had India decided to intervene. Firstly, they would be defeated due to lack of sustained logistical support and continuity. There were formidable natural geographic obstacles on the way to Kashmir from the Indian supply bases. The distance being approximately 500 miles (from Delhi to Srinagar) even by air. Secondly, there was no road-link to Kashmir (from rest of India) worth mentioning. Thirdly, to make matters worse, the harsh winters were round the corner. All in all, it would be a logistical nightmare for the Indian forces and a certain disaster.

The invading columns advanced swiftly on the road towards Srinagar. The invaders had planned to be in Srinagar by October 26th. However, they did not foresee two factors. Firstly the tribesmen among them resorting to looting pillaging and rape and forgetting their objective of ‘Jihad’ or ‘Holy war.’ Secondly, Brigadier Rajinder Singh of the state forces had gathered together a remnant of about a Company strength men and engaged the invaders for two days at Uri. Unfortunately, the Brigadier and his men were slain in the gallant defence action. In the process, he had delayed the invaders advance by two very crucial days. That was the only resistance the invaders met which was worth mentioning on their drive towards Srinagar. Within four days of crossing the border, the invaders had covered more than half the distance to Srinagar. Enroute, they overran Uri and captured the Power station in Mahura and plunged Srinagar and Baramulla into darkness. It looked as though nothing could stop the invaders from reaching Srinagar.

 On October 25th when the Maharaja sent an SOS to the government of India with a plea for immediate military aid, the entire fate of the state hung in a balance. Eventually, on 26th October, he signed the ‘Deed of Accession’ to India. On 27th October, the Government of India responded by mobilizing its Army and Air Force. Due to time constraints, the terrain and other complex issues of timely resource mobilisation, the only option available to the government was to airlift troops to Srinagar.

Defending Kashmir

At dawn on the 27th of October, 1947, at 0630 hrs. an RIAF Dakota laden with 21 armed soldiers, followed by two more Dakotas with 21 soldiers aboard each, took off from Palam (Delhi) airport for Srinagar, Kashmir. The first aircraft of this flight of Dakotas landed in Srinagar after a little over 3 hours of flying time at 0940 hrs.

This landing in Srinagar became a historic moment in the military history of Independent India. For the first time men of the Indian Army and Air Force set their boots and wheels down on a combat zone in independent India. Little did anyone realise, this was the beginning of the ‘Longest War’ post-independence, (till date) ever to be fought by The Indian Military particularly the Army and the Air Force. The war lasted 436 days until a cease fire was declared on 1st January 1949.

One may wonder as to how come the government initially could muster just 3 plane loads of troops (60 Nos. approximately) to Kashmir to fight off about 3000-5000 Pakistan-supported tribals (lashkars) from Waziristan and Pathans from the NWFP. To get a better understanding of this it is necessary to delve back a little into history to comprehend this event and its background.

Under Chapter 30 of ‘The Indian Independence Act, 1947, British India was to be partitioned into two independent dominions; India and Pakistan.

The partition meant that all assets had to be divided proportionately between the two countries and that included the armed forces. The division of armed forces would be based on the prevailing communal strength of the personnel.

In the case of the RIAF, the communal composition was 80 per cent non-Muslims and 20 per cent Muslims. This meant that the assets of the RIAF like all equipment and aircraft – were to be divided in this ratio of 80:20, and the 10 aircraft squadrons too were to be divided on this basis. But since Pakistan too needed a transport squadron, the division was to be 7:3 (Six fighter and one transport squadron for India and 2 fighter and one transport squadron for Pakistan) An Air Force sub-committee was constituted and entrusted with the task to sort out the nitty-gritties of this division.

The committee members were Air Commodore Subroto Mukherjee (for India) Group Captain Barnett (RAF) and Wing Commander Mohamad Khan Janjua (for Pakistan). The committee could not reach a consensus with regard to the division of the squadrons and the corresponding spares.

However there was an agreement that each side would get one transport squadron (of DC-3 Dakotas) each. Eventually, the squadron division was in the ratio of 7:3. All personnel were given a choice to serve with either of the air forces in early July 1947. 896 officers, 10,350 airmen, and 820 non-combatants opted to remain with the RIAF, while 224 officers, 2,189 airmen, and 407 non-combatants opted for the newly formed RPAF.

As a result of the partition, the RIAF lost most of the important establishments and key bases which were located in Karachi, Peshawar, Kohat, Chaklala, and Risalpur to the RPAF, while the RIAF’s air bases were in Palam (Delhi), Agra, Chakeri (Kanpur) and Poona. All flying and ground training institutions except for the Paratroopers Training School, were located in India, these were in Begumpet (Hyderabad), Jodhpur, and Ambala. Most equipment depots storing aircraft, spares, and other logistics materials as well as aircraft maintenance depots were located at the key bases in Pakistan. The assets at these units were to be shared proportionally, and the responsibility of collecting them was with the respective air force to which these assets belonged. This process of division and collection continued till mid-1948. In the meanwhile, all this had its effect on aircraft serviceability and thus availability. The technical staff had to work extensively and use innovative methods to ensure acceptable standards in aircraft availability. There were allegations on both sides that the division of assets was unfair and that the other side either did not give the due share of spares and stores or delayed it unnecessarily. There were also allegations that the equipment and aircraft were wilfully damaged.

With shortage of spares and disruption of regular supplies due to most of the equipment depots remaining in Pakistan, the aircraft serviceability in the RIAF was so low that the ground crews had to put-in considerable effort just to keep the available aircraft airworthy for as long as possible.

The only 2 transport squadrons that existed at the time of partition were No. 6 and No. 12 squadron, both equipped with Dakota DC 3 Mk III aircraft. No. 6 squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader. K.L. Bhatia and No. 12 Squadron was commanded by Wing. Commander Shivdev Singh (incidentally, both were course mates from the 4th pilots course). As a result of partition, No. 6 Squadron went to RPAF and No. 12 Squadron came to RIAF.