The Airlift that saved Kashmir

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No. 12 Squadron RIAF

No. 12 Squadron RIAF was formed on 1st December 1945, at Kohat. It was the last RIAF squadron to be formed after World War II. The squadron was equipped with four Supermarine Spitfire VIII fighter aircraft. The first Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader SN Haider. Initially, it was supposed to be a fighter squadron. However, during the month (December), one Oxford twin engine trainer (Transport aircraft) was added to the squadron and the squadron moved from to Kohat to Risalpur. The squadron started flying the Oxfords on 20th February, 1945.  By March end, the squadron had six Oxford aircraft and two Supermarine Spitfires and most of the pilots had flown solo on the Oxfords in just four and a half hours instead of the stipulated six hours. Further many of these pilots had even completed their conversion course requirement of thirty hours of flying, and by the end of April, all pilots had completed their conversion course to the Oxfords. The first Navigation school was also set-up in the squadron in April itself.

On 20th June, 1945, the squadron moved from Risalpur to Bhopal. Prior to the move, the Spitfires were handed over to No. 512 Squadron RAF. No. 12 Squadron RIAF, thus became a full-fledged ‘Transport Squadron’ and in fact the only transport squadron of the RIAF. It was subsequently equipped with five DC 3 Dakota Mk III aircraft. The first DC-3 Dakota flight of the squadron was formed on 16th September, 1946. At the end of the month, additional aircraft were added to the flight and the Dakota numbers increased to ten and the flight became a full-fledged squadron. On 18th November 1946, Squadron Leader Shivdev Singh arrived at the squadron. Squadron Leader Haider was posted out of the squadron on 5th December, 1946 and took over as Station Commander Bhopal. Squadron Leader Shivdev Singh formally took over as the Commanding Officer of No. 12 Squadron, RIAF on 6th December, 1946.

No. 6 Squadron of the RIAF at that time was a fighter squadron, and was relocated to Karachi in April 1947 to be re-equipped with the DC-3 Dakota Mk III aircraft. Squadron Leader KL Bhatia and five other pilots from No. 12 Squadron RIAF were posted to Karachi in May 1947. Squadron Leader Bhatia took over as the Commanding Officer of RIAF’s newly formed 2nd transport squadron.

 With partition of the country and the division of all assets, No. 6 Squadron was allocated to Pakistan and No. 12 Squadron to India. Squadron Leader Bhatia returned back to No. 12 Squadron RIAF.  No. 6 squadron was temporarily ‘number platted’ by the RIAF and No. 12 Squadron RIAF once again became the lone transport squadron in the RIAF.

This lone transport squadron of the RIAF moved from Chaklala (near Rawalpindi) to Agra two days prior to partition. Wing Commander Shivdev Singh, handed over command of the squadron to Squadron Leader K.L. Bhatia on 15th Aug. 1947. (Squadron Leader Bhatia was promoted to Wing Commander in September, 1947).

The squadron with its establishment of 10 Dakotas was the only squadron in the RIAF that had its aircraft strength up to its sanctioned establishment strength of 10 aircraft.

However, there was an acute shortage of spares and aircrew. The serviceability was down to around 66%. There were only six qualified captains to pilot these 10 aircraft. In addition, 11 pilots were undergoing captain’s conversion and five pilots were undergoing co-pilot training. The situation in respect of navigators too, was also not good with just six qualified navigators and another three under training. On top of this, the squadron was in the thick of providing aid to the civil establishment even before the partition took place and this task increased manifold immediately after partition.

Evacuation of refugees, supply dropping for marooned refugee columns, reconnaissance of the disrupted areas and innumerable VIP flights were among the main tasks that the squadron undertook. It was a back-breaking flying effort, with as many as 362 hours flown by this limited number of aircrew during the month of September 1947. The squadron also maintained one aircraft detachment at Amritsar where extensive flying had to be done and each navigator logged more than 70 hours for the month there.

Excerpts from No. 12 Squadron’s ORB (Operations Record Book) for end August’ 47

“The Squadron is equipped With 10 Dakota aircraft Mark III. Most at the aircraft nearing super major inspection. Due to fair amount of commitments the ideal staggering of aircraft for inspection was very hard to maintain. However due to the hard and increasing work of the ground crew and two senior members of engineering section most of the commitments were fulfilled. Some odd last minute requests could not be fulfilled. Considerable difficulty was experienced in obtaining spares for the clapped-out aircraft. Well planned servicing and hard work on ground crews part has produced good results. The average serviceability for the month was 66.6%”.

 The last week of October 1947 would prove to be historic not only for the squadron, but also for the Royal Indian Air Force. The beginning of the month of October saw a depletion of pilots in the squadron after losing six twin engine qualified Co-Pilots to the newly raised Communication Flight – the forerunner of the Air Headquarters Communication Squadron – accentuating the shortage of aircrew even further. To further add to the shortages, one DC-3 Dakota crashed near Palam (Delhi) on 27th September.

Similar was the scenario by the third week of October, 1947, and on 26th October, No. 12 Squadron RIAF was called up on to airlift Indian troops to Srinagar on an emergency basis. Notwithstanding, all arrangements for the airlift to Srinagar now proceeded at breakneck speed. The serviceability, shortage of qualified air crew and, hence, availability of Dakota aircraft in No. 12 Squadron RIAF as mentioned above, was low – the Defence Committee of the Cabinet had been informed on October 25th  that only three aircraft would be available for that day (27th October). These aircraft had to be augmented by requisitioning civil aircraft to help out in this priority task. Sardar Patel at once requisitioned all available civil aircraft by means of a radio broadcast. This was a good move since a substantial number of civil aircraft were already operating ferry services for refugees to and from Delhi. A large number of the civil pilots were ex-RIAF pilots. No. 12 Squadron’s personnel also worked day and night to improve serviceability to bring additional aircraft on line. This was the state of the Royal Indian Air Force’s only transport squadron when it was plunged into war in Kashmir, with little or no fore-warning or preparation.

To add to the conundrum, were three additional factors facing the forthcoming airlift. Firstly: none of the pilots, Air Force or civilian had ever flown and landed in Srinagar which was an unpaved dusty strip of land which was built for the maharaja’s private small aircraft. This airstrip was at an elevation of 5,445 ft. or 1,660 m, thus, effectively reducing the overall effective length of the airstrip for a larger aircraft. The take-off and landing performance of a fully loaded large aircraft like the Dakota DC-3 would be adversely affected when operating from high altitudes.  The landing strip at Srinagar would become unusable during the winter months due to snow. The general assessment was that Srinagar airfield could be regularly used till November 20th or 25th. After that, only irregular use was possible. The average usage between December and February was likely to be just once a week. This was partly due to inclement weather conditions and partly because it became impossible to land at Srinagar airfield when it was covered in snow. The high mountains specially Banihal pass, would force the aircraft to fly at their maximum altitudes, requiring the use of oxygen and de-icing equipment on board – this would have been a difficult proposition, considering that the Dakota aircraft were not pressurised, and were without any oxygen system and most of them did not have de-icing systems. Secondly: ground conditions at the airfield were uncertain due to total lack of communication about the current location of the enemy lashkars which were rapidly advancing towards Srinagar. It was not known whether the airfield had been captured by these lashkars or not yet. Thirdly: Navigation at high level, especially when one was proceeding from one point/place to another would normally not have been a problem – provided proper and accurate maps of the area were available. Navigation those days was based on the aircraft’s compass and regular cross-referencing the on-board maps with visual reference points on the ground. This, unfortunately, was not the case. Going to little known places would pose many difficulties due to lack of reference points, inaccurate maps and the necessity to fly through unknown valleys.

The RIAF had the necessary infrastructure to support its aircraft at Palam, most civil airlines used to operate from Willingdon (Safdarjung in Delhi) aerodrome those days. It was, therefore, decided that for the forthcoming airlift too, the civil aircraft would operate from Willingdon and the RIAF aircraft from Palam. Preparations proceeded non-stop throughout the night of 26th October and by morning, the RIAF, as well as the requisitioned civil aircraft, were positioned at Palam and Willingdon respectively.

Group Captain Mehar Singh, Director Operations, was deputed to ensure successful execution of this vital task (airlift). Delhi and East Punjab Command (now Western Command), the only operational army command at that time, was responsible for ‘Operations’ in Kashmir. The staff officers were informed of the decision to fly out one battalion on October 27th morning at 0600 hrs. On October 26th, the officers after they were hastily summoned to their headquarters from clubs and homes, arrived in all forms of attire. They were then duly briefed about the situation as well as the plan. 1 Sikh battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai, deployed in Gurgaon for Internal Security duties, was selected for this vital and urgent mission, and received their orders at around 1300 hrs. on this day itself. The battalion, less two Companies, plus one Company of Field Regiment in the infantry role, was required to position itself at Palam airfield by 0400 hrs. the next morning (27th). The remaining battalion was to be flown out on October 28th.

Similarly, a signal was received at Air Force Station, Agra (the base for No. 12 Squadron RIAF) around the same time. The orders were communicated to Wing Commander Bhatia and by 1430 hrs. he has taken off with a flight of two more Dakotas for Palam. In fact, the aircrew did not even have time to change from their Khakis into their flying overalls. Mrs Bhatia, wife of Wing Commander Bhatia once described to her son (the author of this article) about the hurried departure of her husband on that eventful day (26th October): “I was waiting for your father to come home for lunch. When he arrived, he was in a hurry. He told me that he was to leave for Palam immediately enroute to Kashmir. I asked him when he would be back. He replied, ‘expect me when you see me’. Saying this, he left with just his toiletries and a change of under garments”.

Intelligence regarding the situation in Srinagar was totally absent but there were all sorts of rumours going around that the city and the airfield may have fallen to the raiders. The instruction issued to Wing Commander Bhatia and Lieutenant Colonel Rai, thus, stated, “If wireless communication between you and Srinagar Civil Aviation Centre is not established and you are not given the ‘land’ signal, you will not land at Srinagar but go to Jammu and land there”. The pilots on this mission were also briefed to circle over Srinagar airfield and watch for signs of its occupation by the raiders. In absence of any land signal, under no circumstances were they to attempt to land unless they were sure that the airfield had not been captured by the raiders.

Since no organisation existed at that time to oversee dispatch of personnel and stores by air, the task had to be undertaken by the officers of Delhi and East Punjab Command themselves. These officers worked throughout the night and made the necessary arrangements for the reception of the battalion and loading of troops, supplies and ammunition on to the aircraft. Clothing, rations and ammunition were issued to the troops at the airfield itself. Full cooperation was extended by the airport authorities (Air Force and Civil) to the army authorities for reception and dispatch of troops. Each civil Dakota was to carry 15 men with their personal arms and bed-rolls, plus 225 kg of supplies; each RIAF Dakota was to carry 21 men. All was set. One Company of the battalion and its headquarters was to embark the RIAF Dakotas at Palam while one company in the six civil Dakotas at Wellingdon.