The Airlift that saved Kashmir

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The ‘Saviours of Kashmir’ take to the air on a Mission Impossible

Precursor to the Airlift

The airlift posed many challenges as mentioned earlier, especially for the aircrews having to land at an airstrip used rarely and that too only by light aircraft. There can be no better description of Srinagar airfield at that time than that of then Colonel Sam Manekshaw who termed it as “…horrible little airfield”. The airfield did not have the basic infrastructure so necessary for safe air operations, especially sustained air operations. Srinagar did not have any navigational or landing aids of any type. This meant total dependence on the flying skills of the aircrew. There were no crash and rescue facilities either. Fuel dumps and facilities for refuelling aircraft were non-existent. The airstrip was not paved and that meant each landing and take-off would raise a cloud of dust, thereby, reducing visibility for the following aircraft. The pilot’s decision to land was dependent entirely on what he could see through the haze of dust. There were no guiding instructions from the air traffic control – no such facility existed at Srinagar nor could it be created at this juncture.

The limited length of the airstrip (around 1,000 yards or 900 m – it was subsequently extended to 1,400 yards or 1,272 m), combined with its high altitude (elevation 5,445 ft. or 1,660 m) meant using extreme caution and high degree of flying skills. Landing large, fully laden transport aircraft on this makeshift airstrip was in itself a feat. As already mentioned, the Air Traffic Control facility had not been established because prior to this war, there was hardly any traffic other than the Maharaja’s small aircraft. The flying itself had to be over high mountain ranges with the lowest point for crossing being at Banihal (9,345 ft. or 2,832 m).The operational ceiling of the Dakota was 12300’ thus leaving a ground clearance of barely 3000’. Further, the route was often covered with clouds and mist. Dakotas with this limited ceiling capacity did not stand a chance of survival in-case of an engine failure over these mountains.

The Airlift. Establishing an Air-bridge to Kashmir

Despite of all odds, dawn of October 27th 1947 0630 hrs witnessed a flight of three RIAF Dakota DC-3 aircraft led by the Squadron Commander of No. 12 Squadron RIAF, Wing Commander KL Bhatia taking off from Palam for Srinagar. The other two aircraft that followed him were captained by Flying Officer Desmond Eric Pushong and Flying Officer Purshotam Lal Dhawan.

The three pilots who flew the first three Dakotas into Srinagar

The air-crew on board Wing Commander Bhatia’s aircraft (VP 905) were Flying Officer Dennis Oman Barty Co-pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jamshed Dordi, Navigator and Warrant Officer George Vargis, Wireless Operator.  On board this aircraft, was the Commanding Officer of 1 Sikh battalion Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai and his Headquarter staff and soldiers along with Brigadier Hira Lal Attal, Director of Personnel at Army Headquarters, who was sent on the explicit orders of the Prime Minister to assess the situation in Srinagar and report back to him personally. The other two aircraft too carried officers and men of the 1 Sikh battalion.

These three fully loaded aircraft while flying over the Banihal pass into Srinagar had a ground clearance of less than 3000’. Fortunately, there were no issues with the engines while crossing the pass. Otherwise the consequences would be disastrous.

The first of these aircraft arrived at Srinagar airfield and circled overhead to confirm if the airfield was still in the hands of Jammu and Kashmir State or had it been taken over by the invading tribesmen. Flying Officer Pushong’s aircraft received bullet holes in its wing while making a wide circle over the airfield. Unable to make out much, Wing Commander Bhatia made a low pass over the airfield, they could notice no enemy activity and having confirmed that it seemed relatively safe to land, he landed his aircraft, (tail No, VP-905) at 0940 hrs. and was closely followed by the two other aircraft.  

On landing, they were met by Lieutenant Colonel Bhagwan Singh, Commanding Officer of the 2 J&K Mountain Battery of the State Forces. He briefed Lieutenant Colonel Rai of the sitrep, the approximate numbers and the position of the lashkars. After assessment of the situation, a signal with the code word “Lion” was sent by Brigadier Atal through the only means of wireless communication with the rest of India i.e. the Srinagar Air Traffic Control via Jammu Air Traffic Control. The coded message read, ‘Personal to C.G.S – Army Headquarters India from Liaison – LION IMMEDIATE’. This meant that the aircraft had landed safely and that the operation could continue. The message was sent at 1000 hrs.

The troops and the equipment were unloaded and at 1020 hrs. the aircraft promptly took off for Palam for the next sortie only to return to Srinagar on the same day.

Wing Commander Bhatia returned and landed back in Srinagar at 1730 hrs. His aircraft was damaged by enemy firing while coming into land at Srinagar and had to be grounded till repairs could be carried out. He took off the next day at 0905 hrs. for Wellington. That day itself (27th October), Wing Commander Bhatia flew for 8 hours 25 minutes to and from Srinagar.

Air Commodore Vargis who was a Warrant Officer at that time and was serving as a Wireless Operator on board Wing Commander KL Bhatia’s Dakota (VP-905) on that memorable day, recalled in an interview:

“The Army troops were hastily emplaned in the early morning of October 27. The CO of the Battalion, Colonel Rai, and his HQ were to fly in our plane, piloted by the Wing Commander K.L. Bhatia himself. We the crew were briefed by an Army Staff Officer that we were to circle the Srinagar airfield first, to see whether we were landing on a friendly or enemy airstrip. If shot at, we were to turn back and return to Delhi. Fortunately for us, the airfield was still in our hands. However, some of our aircraft which took a wider circle received bullet holes in the fuselage and wings. Flying Officer Pushong’s plane, for instance, collected a number of bullet holes. After landing, the troops were hastily deplaned and the aircraft took off for a second shuttle. However, the port engine of my aircraft had begun to give trouble and the Wing Commander decided to ground it till mechanics from Delhi could be flown over to examine the damage*. So there we were, still in our khaki drill uniforms, having to spend the night in wintry conditions that prevailed at Srinagar. I remembered the kindness of the Sikhs. Colonel Rai himself gave orders for some of his own troops’ blankets and rations to be left at the airport for our use.  Sad to relate, by the time we were ready to take off for Delhi the next day, Colonel Rai had been reported killed in action – but his prompt action stopped the raiders from marching into Srinagar”.

* In fact, Wg. Cdr. Bhatia could not take-off from Srinagar after his second sortie. As per his log book he made two sorties to Srinagar itself on 27th October, 1947. The same information of two sorties is logged in W/O Vargis’s Signallers Log.

The second and third detail consisting of 8 and 11 Dakotas RIAF and civil, got airborne from Palam and Wellingdon airfields at 1100 and 1300 hours respectively for Srinagar. Before the end of the day, 28 Dakota sorties to Srinagar were flown on October 27th itself.

Brigadier (later Major General) Hira Lal Atal was at that time working in Army Headquarters as Director Personal Services. He was summoned in the evening of October 26th by the Prime Minister who wanted him to go to Srinagar to probe, investigate and report the true picture to him. He was also briefed to send the code word “Lion” indicating that the situation was under control but more troops would be required and “Jackal” if Atal felt that it would be futile to pour in troops. Officially, he was the Prime Minister’s Emissary but in military parlance, a ‘Liaison Officer’. Prior to his departure, he met the Defence Minister and suggested that the bridges at Kohala and over the river Kishanganga should be destroyed by aerial bombardment. For this purpose, Air Commodore S. Mukherjee was consulted, who said that he would consider the matter and give a definite reply on the following morning.

Major General Atal writes:

“It transpired that the Air Force did not have the requisite type of aircraft and bombsights to undertake such an operation because of the difficult terrain in which these bridges were located. The Prime Minister also directed that he should board the first aircraft going to Srinagar and suggested that before landing, the plane that he was travelling in and those following should circle the town to help raise the morale of the people as the encircling planes would give an indication to the people of Srinagar that assistance for the defence of Srinagar was immediately forthcoming”.

Brigadier Atal tied up with Air Commodore Mukherjee that the first plane to take off, which would be taking him, would be an RIAF plane Brigadier Atal also briefed Wing Commander Bhatia, the captain of the aircraft that on nearing Srinagar, he should fly reasonably low and circle round the city two or three times before landing so that people could recognise that it was a friendly plane and other such planes would be Indian.

Brigadier Atal described the events from the time they approached Srinagar airfield

“The pilot had informed me that the aerodrome was just about big enough to take the landing of his plane. Though it was a risky business, he would make all efforts to land us safely. This aerodrome which was primarily built for the personal plane of the Maharaja was a small one and not commissioned for commercial use. In fact, it was nothing more than a levelled bit of ground. The pilot wished to know whether he should proceed towards Baramula before landing so as to be able to observe whether there was any tribal movement on the road Baramula-Srinagar. I told him that the landing of our troops was of primary importance but that he could carry out an aerial reconnaissance after having unloaded us. At about 09.00 hours, we were over the city of Srinagar and had come down to a lower altitude and circled round it. I could recognise places such as the Dal Lake, the temple on Shankaracharya Hill, the fort and other places which I knew so well when I was in Srinagar as a young schoolboy during the period 1919-20. Whilst circling round the city and its surroundings we could see no movement at all of men or vehicles – it looked like a dead city. As we approached to land, I was astonished to see a large multitude of human beings emerging as if from the earth; they had all taken cover – very effectively – in the nullahs and undulating ground, surrounding the airport which was turf and not tarmacked. The pilot made a smooth landing and was just able to stop the plane at the brink of a nullah. He then taxied towards a so-called control tower during which time the aerodrome was a seething mass of humanity and the pilot was fearful that some people might get hurt by the propellers as they were making a mad rush towards the plane. It was with some difficulty that we de-emplaned and were greeted by an Indian Army officer whose services had been lent to the Kashmir Government and the Chief of Staff of the State Forces and it was they who explained the general situation to Lieutenant Colonel Rai whilst I listened in. Meanwhile, the crowd was making every endeavour to get into the aircraft and it was with the greatest difficulty and persuasion that the people were told that they could not do so till we assessed the situation”.

Air Marshal Bharat Kumar in his book “The Incredible War” describes the conditions under which the pilots operated during this airlift. He mentions:

There was there no time for him (the pilot) to dawdle or waste, as there were aircraft following him at short intervals, and he was required to hasten back to Delhi after landing in Srinagar) to return with a fresh load. To airlift the number of troops and their equipment in adequate numbers that would be effective in dealing with the prevalent situation, meant several flights in quick succession, with hardly time for the dust to settle down. Any error of judgment, whether during landing or take-off, would be disastrous, and any mishap, resulting in a blocked runway, would cause long delays and hold up further flights indefinitely, perhaps prejudicing the entire operation. To remedy the situation, a senior non-commissioned officer was positioned at the airfield to control the incoming traffic. He had an altimeter (instead of a barometer normally used by meteorologists for determining the current pressure) to give the altimeter setting to aircraft and a radio set with which to control traffic. Since there were no navigational aids, there was no way the position of each aircraft could be pin-pointed by this controller. The aircraft calling first was the one to be granted permission to land first. This increased the radio chatter considerably but, fortunately, there were no mishaps. And despite no formal organisation nor a command and control structure at Srinagar airfield, things moved smoothly. Despite all these dangers and normally unacceptable hazards, the crews undertook the task cheerfully. The aircraft were invariably overloaded to a point that would have confounded the manufacturers. No. 12 Squadron was short of crew but this did not prevent the execution of this vital task. Day after day, these gallant men – both civil aircrew and those in uniform – flew sortie after sortie from Delhi to Srinagar, commencing from first light, and even earlier, and only ceasing when darkness made yet another flight impossible. The courage, devotion and flying skills of these crews played a decisive part in saving Kashmir.

Had the Indian Air Force had not been able put our troops airlifted in the early hours of 27th October, 1947 on the ground at Srinagar which was menacingly threatened by Pakistan forces, the history and map of India might well have been quite different.

In those momentous hours and days that followed, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force, in a heroic joint operation, began to roll back the blatant aggression of Pakistani military and saved Jammu and Kashmir from the marauders. Independent India’s first war started with no other means available to assist the beleaguered local forces and Indian Army troops were moved by air under grave emergency conditions from Delhi to stem the enemy’s advance. From this point started the saga of the almost forgotten war: the first and the longest war independent India was forced to fight, and where the fledgling air force, emaciated by partition, and preoccupied with relief and rescue operations following massive riots and demographic movements played a crucial role in India’s defence.

Within the IAF, the deeds of pilots, engineers, technicians and other personnel during that war became legend and inspired succeeding generations. But little has been written or known in and outside the service about how our inheritance was shaped by so few.

Picture of the Dakota VP 905 flown by Wg. Cdr KL Bhatia into Srinagar on 27th Oct. 1947.
It was renumbered HJ 915 after 26th Jan 1950. Photographed in Car Nicobar by an RAF Veteran.

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Padma Bhushan, AVSM, Vr.C, VM was an Indian Air Force fighter pilot, a writer and military strategist. During his military career, He was awarded a Vir Chakra during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. He last served as Director of Operations at Air Head Quarters. Thereafter, he was deputed to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), India’s premier think tank on strategic and security issues.

In his introduction to Air Marshal Bharat Kumar’s book, The Incredible War, he has stated:

“There has never been the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind (especially in the IAF) that our army successfully executed one of most glorious military operations in the most difficult circumstances and in a unique terrain-feats that it has continued to repeat ever since. But we also need to record that if the IAF had not been able to put the troops airlifted from Delhi in the early morning on October 27, 1947, on the ground at Srinagar which was seriously threatened by the Pakistani forces, and the following air-bridge air-transporting fighting formations directly into the solitary airfield, the history and map of India might well have been quite different. Given the very small size of the IAF’s transport fleet of Dakotas in No. 12 Squadron, aid from civil airlines (mostly with former IAF pilots) reinforced the airlift. This crucial mission of putting boots on the ground through airlift across the most treacherous terrain was again repeated in Poonch and Leh”.