Chapter 3: Air Attack – Outbreak of the War (Sept 1-6th)

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Operation GIBRALTER, as the Pakistanis called it, was a brilliant plan. It was the brainchild of Maj. Gen. Akhtar Hussain Mallick, the GOC of 12 Infantry Division in Azad Kashmir area. According to the plan, hundreds of trained Azad Kashmiris would be infiltrated into the Kashmir valley, then recruit locals and incite them to rebel against the Indian Government.

At the time of the rebellion, vital points like the airport and the radio station would be seized and Kashmir would declare its ‘Independence’ from India. This way Pakistan would get Kashmir into its fold without resorting to major conflict. The plan was bold and daring. and accordingly hundreds of guerrillas infiltrated into Kashmir on August 5th, equipped with arms and explosives and organised to fight on the lines of Mujahid forces. For the plan to succeed, the Pakistanis relied on the support of the local population, and to their dismay the Kashmiri people remained steadfastly loyal to India, and thus the brilliant plan failed.

Though the Infiltrators failed to raise a revolt, they managed to raise a great deal of disorder in Kashmir by acts of violence and arson. They blew up bridges, ambushed Army convoys and murdered locals when they refused to help them. To stop these infiltrators, the Army decided to block the points of ingress, and in a series of such moves occupied posts at the Tithwal sector and Kargil. And on August 28th, in the boldest counter-insurgency move that the Indian Army had ever taken, occupied the strategic Haji Pir Pass and with it, a large chunk of Azad Kashmir territory fell into our hands. This greatly embarrassed Pakistan and retaliation from them was inevitable, and they chose to do so at the place, which suited them most, Chamb.

Chamb town was situated at the southern end of the ceasefire line (CFL). It was bounded by the Kalidhar Ranges in the north, the Manawar Tawi river in the east, the CFL to the west and the international boundary which runs west meeting the CFL to the southwest of Chamb. In accordance with the UN monitored cease-fire, both sides were limited to stationing a minimal number of troops in Kashmir and no jet fighters were to be stationed as the CFL was nearer to the International boundary in Pakistan than it is nearer to the nearest state boundary in India, It was possible for the Pakistanis to bring in its army and air forces in a fraction of a time that would be possible for India to do the same.

For example the nearest air base from which close support would be available for Indian troops at Chamb would be from Pathankot, in Punjab and 150km away. While Pakistan could amass its troops and armour near the IB just kilometers short of Chamb, the nearest Indian reinforcements would be sitting hundreds of miles away in Punjab. and it is the reason Pakistan chose Chamb for its attack dubbed Operation GRANDSLAM.

Pakistan had about 70 tanks and two brigades of Infantry for this operation. The main objective was to take the Akhnur bridge which was some 20 miles away and thus cutting of the lifeline of supplies to southwest Kashmir including the towns of Rajauri, Jhangar, Naushera and Poonch. With luck these towns would fall to the Pakistanis before an Indian counter offensive could clear the road. Like the previous plan it was assumed that India would not retaliate across the International Border to the south, ignoring the assertions made by the Indian Prime Minister that India reserved the right to retaliate across the entire border along Pakistan if an attack on Kashmir was carried out.

At the end of August, Pakistani forces began heavy shelling of the Chamb area. In one of the artillery barrages, the Indian brigade commander and his G3 officer were killed. The shelling became a regular feature, and as dusk approached on August 31st, the Indian soldiers had no clue whatsoever as to what was in store the next day.

Operation Grand Slam

On September 1st, The Pakistani artillery started shelling the Indian forward positions, starting 0330 hrs, the shelling was exceptionally heavy and continued till 0630 hrs. At which time a Pakistani Army force of two Infantry Brigades and two Armoured Regiments started their attack on the Indian positions. 3rd Mahar was the forward most battalion and it bore the brunt of the attack along with a solitary squadron of AMX-13 tanks of the 20th Lancers. In spite of their heroic defence the sheer strength of the enemy made its presence felt. No artillery support was given as the Pak shelling has put the guns out of action.

Faced with this critical situation, Commander, 191 Inf. Bde asked for air support at 1100 hrs. This request reached Army HQ without delay. The Army Chief forwarded the request to the Defence Minister for the Govt’s permission, and by the time the Defence Minister okayed the request to the Air Chief, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, five hours have elapsed. It was 1600 hrs and within an hour of Air Marshal Singh walking out of the DM’s office, the first fighters had taken to the air.

Pathankot Airbase was the nearest airbase available to the zone of conflict. Situated near the border between Jammu and Punjab, Pathankot was a mere 30 seconds flying time from the border. It was the forward most airbase in that area. Heading the airbase was Group Captain Roshan Suri, a test pilot who earned his name as one of the first Indians to break the sound barrier. Suri along, with P.C. Lal and H. Moolgavkar is credited as the first Indian pilots to break the sound barrier in the Mystere, while testflying the Mystere in France.

Assisting Suri in the capacity of the Officer-in-Charge of Operations was Wg. Cdr. Verghese Kuriyan, a veteran of the 1948 Kashmir Operations and ex-commander of the No.29 Toofani Squadron. Kuriyan has been posted to Pathankot just before outbreak of the hostilities from his previous assignment at Agra. Pathankot at that time had two squadrons of Mysteres – No.3 under Wg. Cdr. Paul Roby and No.31 under Wg. Cdr. W.M. Goodman , and No.45 Squadron flying Vampire fighters. There were no true air superiority fighters based at Pathankot at that time.

No.45 Sqn was till recently based at Pune and was moved north in anticipation of hostilities just a couple of days before. This squadron was in fact a composite squadron formed after merging the No.220 Squadron with No.45 Sqn. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. S.K. “Marshal” Dhar, a very enthusiastic & energetic Commanding Officer, it’s Vampires have been ready and armed sitting on the tarmac and on receipt of the CAS’ orders, the first wave of four Vampires took of at 1719 hrs.

Dhar had already briefed his pilots about the timings of the sorties. Three missions would be flown. The second one to start off at 1730 hrs and the third mission at 1740 Hours. This would enable the last mission to arrive over the target at dusk, just as darkness is falling and come back after executing its mission in the fading light. Dhar would lead the first mission, the senior flight commander, Flt. Lt. F.J. Mehta would lead the second mission, followed by the last mission to be led by Flt. Lt. A.K. Bhagwagar. The pilots of the third formation were told to carry torches as they would have to fly back in poor light and the torches would help them read the poorly lit instruments.

Just before the first sorties were to take off, Bhagwagar approached Mehta for a change of plan. The last mission required special demands that as the Vampires would be coming back to Pathankot in the darkness of the night, they would require Night Flying Qualified Pilots to lead the formation back. Mehta was one of the qualified pilots and already weary from a long ferry flight from Jamnagar from that morning, agreed for the change. Thus, Bhagwagar led the second mission after Dhar’s first. And Mehta along with another Night Flying Qualified Pilot – Flt Lt. K.D. Mehra flew in the third mission.

Dhar and his formation took off at 1719 Hours immediately on the go ahead. As the Vampires were heading in a north westerly direction towards Chamb, the sun was shining straight into the pilots eyes, many felt that they were the last hope of the Indian Armed Forces. As mentioned before, the Vampire formed the most obsolete aircraft in the IAF’s inventory. The Vampires first flight was during World War II, At that time even the propeller driven Tempest had a higher rate of climb than the Vampire. In 1965, facing the PAF’s F-86 Sabres, it was hopelessly out of place.

The forward most positions of 3 Mahar were at Alfa Batal. All eyes were turned upwards at the sound of approaching aircraft. The arrival of the Vampires over the battlefield was greeted with relief. But relief turned to horror as the aircraft made a strafing run on the 3 Mahar positions. Luckily there were no causalities. They then turned their attention towards the Pakistani tanks. The Vampires made several passes at the Pakistani Armour at leisure. Ground fire hit one of the Vampires flown by Flt. Lt. S.V. Pathak.

The PAF was called up and soon a pair of Sidewinder armed F-86’s were over the area. The Sabres were being flown by Sqn. Ldr. S.A. Rafique of No.5 PAF and Flt. Lt. Imtiaz Bhatti of No.15 PAF Sqns. These Sabres stumbled into the battle area just as the second formation of Vampires led by Flt. Lt. Bhagwagar came in for the attack. The Jawans of 3 Mahar were mute spectators as the Sabres tore into the Vampires and shot them down, one by one, three of them. Flt. Lt. Bhatti recounts in his own words,

“….close to the area, we descended fast, looking all around and below us for the enemy aircraft. At about this time we also learnt that the C-in-C was flying around the area in a L-19. We did not see him, we later on discovered that he left well before we got there. Our search succeeded and I saw two enemy aircraft. They were crossing underneath us and I informed Rafique about it. He immediately acknowledged it “…contact”. Rafique said he was going for them. While covering his tail, I spotted two Canberras 9 O’Clock from me at 5000-6000 feet. Then I spotted another two Vampires trying to get behind Rafique. I instinctively broke off and positioned myself behind these two. In the meantime, Rafique had knocked down one of his two targets and was chasing the other. About now I had my sights on one of my own and was holding my fire. I was anxiously waiting for my leader to bring down his second and clear out of my way. When the Vampire I had targeted closed in on Rafique too dangerously, I called out to him break left. Within the next moment Rafique shot down his second, reacting to my call and broke left. Simultaneously I pressed my trigger and hit one of them. Having disposed of one I shifted my sight on the other and fired at him. In the chase I had gone as low as 200 feet off the ground when I shot my second prey, he ducked and went into the trees. We had bagged four in our first engagement with the Indians…”

What is notable in Bhatti’s account is that he observed two Vampires try to get behind Rafique while Rafique was chasing the first two Vampires. The Indian Pilots in their outdated aircraft turned into their attackers rather than try to make a run for it and they paid the price for it. However Bhatti is inaccurate in identifying Canberras in the vicinity as no Canberras were flying on that day. He had also missed another fact, that one Vampire escaped the wrath of the Sabres. Flt. Lt. Sondhi managed to escape. Of the four Vampires claimed by the Pakistanis, Rafique was credited with two of the kills, with Bhatti getting the credit for the other two.

No.45 had lost four Vampires that day. One to AA Fire and three to the Sabres. There was only one Survivor, Fg. Off. S.V. Pathak from the first formation managed to bale out from his ill-fated Vampire. Flt. Lt. A.K. Bhagwagar, Flt Lt. V.M. Joshi, and Flt. Lt. S Bharadwaj, all from the second formation were killed. The loss of the pilots was more hurtful than the loss of the planes.

However this terrible loss did not deter the Vampires, as the Sabres cleared out, the third wave led by Flt. Lt. F.J. Mehta came in to strike at the Pakistani targets. F.J. Mehta had Flt. Lt. K.D. Mehra, Fg. Off. Manjit Singh and Fg. Off. Ahuja as his wingmen. The last formation too leisurely went about attacking ground targets, completely oblivious of what had happened with the second formation.

Back at Pathankot, a very excited and apprehensive ground crew started their long vigil awaiting the return of the Vampires. Three Vampires of Dhar’s formation landed first. Followed by a solitary Vampire. Immediately after another four Vampires came into land. Some of the auxiliary pilots approached the pilots of the four Vampires expecting to find Bhagwagar and his colleagues and were shocked to find that the formation was the third one led by Mehta.

It was then that the reality of war sunk in. Four Vampires were missing. The solitary Vampire that flew in after the first three was from the second formation. A very shaken Flt. Lt. Sondhi explained how the Sabres made mincemeat of his formation. News came in that Pathak from the first formation had managed to bale out after taking his Vampire to a safe height. There was no news about the remaining three. All in all, the Vampires had received a bad mauling from the Pakistani air defences.

Mystere IV A’s followed up in the wake of the Vampires. No one can tell why the Mysteres were not sent earlier in the first place instead of the Vampires. Even though the Mystere was no match for the Sabre, it had a fighting chance as it was slightly faster than the Sabre. Maybe it was assumed that the PAF would not intervene, or it may have been that the Vampires could be in the air faster than the Mysteres, for the situation was desperate enough to warrant sending the Vampires first. One of the reasons quoted was that the Vampires needed to be sent in first in view of its limitations of night flying. Some pilots were of the opinion that no air opposition would be encountered as the war was not yet officially declared.

The Station Commander of Pathankot, Roshan Suri was naturally upset at these losses, as was the O-in-C Ops., Wg. Cdr. V. Kuriyan. He called up the Air Defence Center at Amritsar and spoke to Sqn. Ldr. Dandapani, the O-in-C of the radar unit and asked him why they were not warned about the presence of the F-86 Sabres. Dandapani replied that the information of the PAF fighters was passed onto the sector commander and thus was routed through the official channel. Both the officers left instructions with Dandapani that future warnings have to be communicated directly to the ops room at Pathankot. But the damage was already done, a pall of gloom descended on Pathankot at the losses suffered by the Vampires.

Be that as it may, following the 12 Vampire Sorties came 16 more by the Mysteres. Nos.3 and 31 Sqns flew the 16 sorties in 45 minutes. The Mysteres in flights of four, managed to do lot of damage on the ground, sometimes making as many as 6 runs over the battlefield. To quote Wg. Cdr. W.M. Goodman, “Our boys were in like a flash and in no time the whole place was ablaze with burning tanks and Vehicles…the enemy will never forget the Mystere.”

The last Mystere sorties were at 1905 hrs. By that time the Air force had claimed 13 tanks, 2 guns and 62 soft skinned vehicles as destroyed. This assessment was released by the Air force but was never confirmed by the Army. Recent research by a retired army officer came up with some startling facts. Army officers in the Chamb sector had told him in the interviews that the air force strafing and rocket attacks had destroyed three of our own AMX-13 tanks, a dozen truckloads of artillery ammunition and one truck carrying tank ammunition. The destruction of the latter resulted in shortage of tank ammo for the armoured squadron.

Some of the Pakistani tanks destroyed by the army in ground battles were again attacked by the air force and claimed as destroyed for the second time. In spite of the damage inflicted on our own side, more damage was inflicted on the Pakistanis. The presence of the IAF aircraft imposed a degree of caution on the Pakistanis, who did not expect the battle to escalate to the air. Whatever regrets the Brigade and the Corps commanders may have had that day in calling for air support, it cannot be denied that the IAF prevented a major Pakistani breakthrough that day.

The next day, September 2nd, saw relatively less action. The Mysteres undertook more sorties attacking Pak supply convoys. The PAF was seen in the area but no engagements took place. A Strike Mission led of Vampires to be escorted by Mysteres was planned keeping in view the disastrous losses suffered by the Vampires on the first day. But the mission was called off soon after. The air force was convinced that further ground support missions would need escorting fighters to deal with the Pak interceptors.

Accordingly Air HQ made plans to dispatch air defence fighters to Pathankot. Around afternoon, two MiG-21FLs from Ambala were dispatched. Wg. Cdr. M.S.D. Wollen the CO of No.28 Sqn, the only MiG Squadron with India at that time, arrived in the MiGs with one of his Senior Flight Commander, Sqn. Ldr. Mukherjee to the Airbase. Air HQ also made arrangements to beef up the fighter defence forces with Gnat fighters.

The move fell on No.23 Squadron, based at Ambala. Under the command of Wg. Cdr. S. Raghavendran, this Squadron has been involved in intensive air combat training for the past few months. The Squadron had evolved a fighter combat leader course and most of the pilots spent hours training in combat. Keeping in view the escalation of hostilities, a detachment of four Gnats under the command of Sqn. Ldr. B.S. Sikand, had been dispatched to Halwara the previous day. Now No.23 Sqn received orders to move four fighters from Ambala to Pathankot and also to move the Halwara detachment to Pathankot.

On a staff job at Ambala, Sqn Ldr Johnny William Greene, was a seasoned pilot, and was one of the few pilots who had done his Combat Fighter Leader Course from the RAF School in the UK. Greene, an experienced pilot and described as an old-timer, was a source of inspiration to the young and eager Gnat pilots at Ambala. So it came as no surprise that he was deputed as the detachment commander of the Gnats to be moved onto Pathankot.

The assigned pilots received no information or briefing, just the order to take their aircraft and leave for Pathankot. Their luggage was to follow later in a special transport plane. Accompanying Greene were three other pilots, Sqn. Ldr. Trevor Keelor, Sqn. Ldr. Amar Jit Singh Sandhu and Fg. Off. M.R. Murdeshwar.

All the four pilots took off in the fading light at around 5.45 in the evening and arrived at Pathankot in a drizzle by dusk. They flew the Gnats at very low level to avoid radar detection, consequently the Pakistanis had no idea about the transfer of Gnats to Pathankot. As the Gnats landed and taxied to their blast pens, the pilots observed the grim and sullen atmosphere on the base, a result of the burden of operations, as well as the losses suffered on the previous day.

Murdeshwar, the youngest of the lot, identified his course-mates in the crowd that received the Gnats and happily waved at them. There were no waves back, only long faces. The detachment from Halwara had already flown into Pathankot. Sqn. Ldr. Sikand’s detachment consisted of Flt. Lt. V.S. Pathania, Flt. Lt. Krishnaswamy and Fg. Off. P.S. Gill. Even though Sikand was the senior most of the eight pilots from the Gnat detachment, Sikand let Greene take over command, keeping in view that Greene was a more experienced flier.

After meeting with the new comers, the Gnat pilots made their way to the Officers’ Mess, which was overcrowded. No rooms were available to rest. The pilots did not have their luggage for any change of cloths. They just went and laid down on some charpoys laid out in the open outside. After dinner the pilots were called for the briefing by the Operations-in-Charge. The briefing was curt and plain. “We want you to shoot down the Sabres. How you do it is your problem, but the Sabres will have to be tackled.”

Then Greene came over to explain the plans. They would take-off at dawn, in which a Mystere formation flying at medium altitude, would lure out the Sabres. The Gnats would keep out of radar cover by flying at low level. And once the Amritsar SU detects incoming PAF fighters, the Gnats would climb up and engage the enemy. The pilots dispersed at 10:30 p.m. to doze off on the makeshift cots at the Officers’ Mess.

September 3rd dawned with an air of excitement for the Gnat Pilots. Woken up at 0300 hours for the meteorological briefing, the pilots had to walk all the way, some 2 km to the briefing room. There were no preliminaries of waking up. No tea, or breakfast. The pilots walked to the dispersal area and checked their aircraft.

At 0700 hours, four Mysteres took off from Pathankot and set course for Chamb, flying at a low level of 1500 feet. The Mysteres flew north to the Akhnur Bridge and turned left to head for Chamb, avoiding flying over the Pakistani airspace. The Mysteres were being tracked by the Pakistani radar, which generated much activity, vectoring the roving CAP of Sabres and Starfighters to intercept the Mysteres.

Amritsar radar tracked six Sabres and two Starfighters coming in to intercept the Mysteres. What the Pakistani Radar failed to see were the four Gnats in finger-four formation that were trailing the Mysteres at less than 300 feet from the ground. Johnny Greene was the fight leader, with Murdeshwar as his wingman. B.S. Sikand and Pathania were in the other section.

Following the lead section led by Greene were the Gnats led by Trevor Keelor at a height of 100 feet. Keelor had Krishnaswamy as his wingman, with A.J.S. Sandhu and P.S. Gill as the other members of the formation. Flying an 8-Gnat formation in itself was a unique event. That never happened before. The pilots could hear the calm voice of Sqn. Ldr. Dandapani, the radar officer of the signal unit at Amritsar as he relayed the information on the incoming Pakistani aircraft.

As the battle area came, the Mysteres turned hard right to fly over the low hills to disappear from the scene even as the Gnats kept their course on at the low level and at high speed. Once the Mysteres were out of the scene, Greene pulled up and led his section in a steep climb to reach an altitude of 30,000 feet, with Trevor and his section covering their flanks.

The first glimpse of the Sabres was by Trevor, who spotted a Sabre coming in from 5000 feet above trying to latch onto Greene’s section. Greene was at that time leading his formation in a turn, and the Sabre followed suit trying to put itself in a position behind Greene’s No.2, Murdeshwar. Pathania called out a warning of the incoming Sabre to Murdeshwar. Greene called for a defensive break, and as the Gnat formation broke into a steep turn to port, the No.3 Pilot – B.S. Sikand, broke in the opposite direction and got separated from the main formation.

Keelor had meanwhile maneuvered his formation behind the turning Sabre. Keelor had to extend his airbrakes to lose speed, and pull a tighter turn to stay behind the Sabre. The Gnat lacks a separate airbrake and uses its undercarriage bay doors as airbrakes extended in a semi-open position.

As the turn was completed, Keelor found the Sabre was dead ahead, and he slammed the throttle to close in fast on the enemy aircraft, which was now sandwiched between Greene’s Section and Trevor’s Gnat. Keelor opened fire with his twin 30mm cannon from a distance of about 450 yards closing in to 200 yards. In an instant, the Sabres right wing appeared to have disintegrated and it flicked over into an uncontrollable dive. The Indian Air Force had claimed its first kill. Trevor now circled back to join his wingman, Fg. Off. Krishnaswamy.

Keelor became the first Indian pilot to shoot down a jet in air to air combat. The Sabre was armed with the sidewinder missiles, which makes the feat even more remarkable. It was the first time that the Gnat fired its guns in anger. it was previously untested in combat.

But the fight was not over yet. While Keelor was dealing with the Sabre, Pathania spotted two more Sabres and engaged them even as a F-104 Starfighter was noticed up above. The Starfighter broke Pathania’s attack on the Sabre and even as the Indian Pilots regrouped, would engage reheat to fly away from the area. Murdeshwar had to go through the frustration of not being able to warn Pathania of the incoming F-104 Starfighter due to his R/T becoming snagged. He had noticed that while he was receiving incoming transmissions, he could not transmit himself thus was unable to warn Pathania about the Starfighter. 

Fg. Off. Krishnaswamy at one point of the combat found the Starfighter on his tail, then overshoot him and present him with a nice target, but as Krishnaswamy later admitted, he was so awestruck at the sight of the sleek and beautiful fighter that he forgot to open fire. The Gnats were now getting short on fuel, and they rendezvoused to fly back to base.

It was back at base amidst the celebrations that they discovered that Sikand was missing. Initially it was thought that Sikand must have been lost in air combat. In fact unknown to the Indian Pilots, Sikand had lost contact with the formation as well as his bearings. Most aircraft at that time did not have radars, or GPS systems or navigational aids. All the pilots had to use their maps and the aircraft compass to do their navigation back to base using visible landmarks.

Sikand’s Gnat was low on fuel, and over unfamiliar territory, and after some flying Sikand found an airfield and in a foolish decision decided to land there. Sikand was under the impression that this was an abandoned airfield in Indian territory. But he should have known better that there were not many such airfields. Ultimately after he landed to his rude shock found out that the airfield was the Pakistani airfield of Pasrur. But before he could recover from the shock, he was taken POW and the aircraft was captured.

After the aircraft was captured, it was flown to Peshawar by Flt. Lt. Saad Hatmi of the PAF, who had previous experience on Gnats during a stint in U.K. The aircraft was flight tested thoroughly by the PAF. The Pakistanis claim that Sikand surrendered and landed at Pasrur after being intercepted by a Starfighter flown by Flt. Lt. Hakimullah. India had always maintained that Sikand landed the Gnat at Pasrur by mistake thinking it was Pathankot, but not much has come to light in this regard after that. While it is true that Hakimullah was in the same area as the Gnat was, it is conjecture to say that Hakimullah forced Sikand to land at Pasrur. Sikand later went on to become a Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force even earning a AVSM, which seems to suggest that it was more a mistake than a deliberate act of surrender as the Pakistanis would have everyone believe. Today Gnat IE 1083 is on display at the PAF Museum at Karachi.

Sikand Gnat02

Sqn Ldr B S Sikand’s Gnat was captured intact by Pakistan after he landed at an abandoned airfield. 

Next day 4th September, No.23 flew another mission as an escort to Mysteres from Pathankot which would link up with them over Chamb. It was in the afternoon at about 1515 Hours, Sqn. Ldr. Greene was leading the formation and Sqn. Ldr. Sandhu, Flt. Lt. Pathania and Flt. Lt. Murdeshwar flew the other three Gnats. On arriving over Chamb, they did not find the Mysteres but found four Sabres attacking Indian positions.

The Sabres were flying in a circuit attacking the Indian gun positions by taking turns. On the signal by the flight Commander, the Indian Gnats plunged into the Sabres circuit and within no time all the four Gnats positioned themselves behind the Sabres as they broke out of the attack pattern. Greene latched onto the first Sabre, but found himself at a high angle of attack to the targets flight path and broke away.

Murdeshwar coming in behind Greene, was in a better position to attack his target and maneuvered himself for a kill. He had positioned the Sabre dead on between the diamonds of his Gyro gun-sight and pressed the firing button. The 30mm guns rattled off a shell….And fell silent. The Gnat was still suffering from the teething problems of development. One of the severe problems was the frequency at which its guns jammed. The Gnat which had two 30mm cannon placed on the inlet walls by the side. They were placed in such a pattern that the links that joined the bullets were deposited in the ammunition box of the gun on the opposite side. So instead of falling out into the sky, they traveled across a cross-feed before depositing themselves in the ammo box of the other gun. So when one gun refused to fire, the other gun also stopped firing, as the links had no place to go. Later on the problem was solved, but the on this occasion this resulted in the Pakistanis escaping more damage.

It was Pathania who drew blood in this battle. He observed one of the Sabres had turned away and was flying towards the town of Akhnur. Pathania gave chase and fired three gun bursts at the Sabre. The Sabre started emitting smoke and it crashed near the town of Akhnur. Pathania reported that the Pak pilot must have ejected as he could see neither the pilot in the F-86 nor the cockpit canopy of the F-86 before it crashed. Later a Pakistani spokesman admitted that it lost one of its Sabres flown by Flt. Lt. N.M. Butt. But it’s pilot has been picked up by a helicopter. So it seemed that the pilot has ejected safely and evaded capture.

The Gnats returned to base and in the Officers’ Mess of No.23 Sqn there was no hiding the excitement. They took on the PAF and had made their mark. They had their first two kills and there was no stopping them.

About the same time Pathania was shooting down the Sabre, the two MiG-21s from No.28 Sqn were on a offensive CAP over the same area. Wg. Cdr. M.S.D. Wollen, CO, and Sqn. Ldr. Mukerjee were both flying at 16,000 feet altitude listening to the radio traffic. On being directed by RT, Wollen flew his MiG to a lower level along with his wingman, and as he entered the engagement area, he noticed two Sabres cross his path. He pulled his MiG in a tight turn, so tight, that Mukerjee lost sight of Wollen, who was now chasing the Sabre all alone.

Wollen got a lock on his Sabre and fired one of his K-13s, which sped along and exploded just ahead of the Sabre. The Sabre pilot was now alerted, and a frantic chase ensued. Wollen fired his second and last K-13. But by now both the Sabre and the MiG were at very low level. The K-13 missile, once fired, falls for a brief second before its rocket motor starts and chasing the target. In this case, the missile fell and fired itself into the ground. Now Wollen was left with no missiles or guns chasing the Sabre. Frustrated as he was, he engaged reheat and zoomed over the head of the Sabre, barely controlling the temptation to ram him. He rendezvoused with Mukherjee and flew back to Pathankot.

This was the last day for the No.45 Squadron at Pathankot. They got orders to move out to Ambala. Flt. Lt. F.J. Mehta was going thru the dispersal area, where he met a seething Wg. Cdr. Wollen. “Oh! For a 23mm, Just for a 23mm!” said Wollen, expressing his disgust for the lack of the cannon in the MiG-21FL. Mehta could do nothing but sympathise. His squadron moved out to Ambala, where it spent the rest of the hostilities flying night CAPs and recce missions.

The anti-aircraft guns of the Regiment of Artillery, claimed their first kill on this day. Havildar C. Potharaj of 127 (AD) Regt was manning a 40mm Bofors L-30 AA Gun at the Tawi bridge near the town of Jammu when the F-86 Sabre flew over. It was making its second pass when it was hit and it crashed near the bridge. It was the first kill to the Indian Army’s Ack-Ack gunners.

By the end of these first four days, the PAF had suffered the same degree of damage as the IAF. Their losses of three aircraft were in frontline fighters while that of the IAF was in obsolete second line aircraft with the exception of the Gnat flown by Sikand. For shooting down the F-86s, both Keelor and Pathania were awarded the Vir Chakra, as was Greene for leading them into combat. Havildar Potharaj got a Vir Chakra for his kill and Wg. Cdr. W.M. Goodman, CO No.3 Sqn, was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for leading his Mysteres and blunting the Pakistan Army’s offensive in Chamb.

The Ground Situation

Returning to the ground battle, the Pakistanis had taken Chamb and were on the west bank of the Manawar Tawi. The momentum of the attack was lost due to stiff resistance put up by the defenders. The Pakistanis had to briefly halt the offensive to regroup. They resumed their advance on September 3rd. By not maintaining the speed of the advance they lost the chance to take Akhnur. They attacked Jaurian on September 3rd and took it the next day. By September 5th, they were six miles from Akhnur. At this critical stage, the Army to relieve the pressure off Akhnur decided to open a new front at Punjab.

On September 6th, the Indian Army crossed the border on the Lahore-Kasur sector. XI Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. Joginder Singh Dhillon crossed the border and attacked on three prongs. Each prong in the form of one Infantry Division was supported by armour and artillery. The northern most attack, was along the Grand Trunk road to Lahore. 15 Inf Div under Maj. Gen. Niranjan Prasad advanced along this axis. 7 Inf Div under Maj. Gen. H.K. Sibal attacked on the Khalra-Burki axis, while the southern most attack was on the Khem Karan-Kasur axis with 4 Mtn Div under Maj. Gen. Gurbaksh Singh. This sector saw severe fighting that day. By the days end, 15 Inf Div managed to get up to the outskirts of Lahore, while 7 Inf Div captured Burki by the days end. 4 Mtn Div, after some initial success had to, in the face of enemy fire retreat back to its starting point.

It is pertinent here to write in detail about the famous Ichogil Canal between the Indian Border and the Pak city of Lahore. The Ichogil canal runs north south, more or less parallel to the border for about 70 miles from the River Ravi to the River Sutlej. This canal is a protective moat about a 140 feet wide and about 15 feet deep. It has a fairly high steep cement concrete sidewalls and strong fortifications along its embankments in the mode of pill boxes and gun emplacements. Though built in the name of irrigation, its primary aim was to be an obstacle to protect Lahore. And it was a formidable one for the army. It was a de facto bomb line for the IAF, throughout the war.

When 15 Inf Div advanced along the GT road, it came under air attack. As it was the most threatening, the PAF showered it with the most attention. The leading battalion of the division, 3rd Jat, came under air attack. PAF Sabres strafed and rocketed the battalions columns and the unit lost all of its RCL guns in the attack. The 3 Jat became the first Indian Battalion to cross the Ichogil Canal but had to withdraw following a strong counterattack by the Pakistani Armour, the unit couldn’t face the attack in the absence of our own armour and to the fact that it lost all of its RCL guns, thanks to the PAF.

Experts have maintained that the withdrawal of 3 Jat was a serious setback. The PAF claiming partial credit for it. Throughout the day the PAF conducted some raids on our troops. Surprisingly the IAF was not present in the skies. It neither flew close support nor attacked the PAF bases. Some Mystere sorties were flown in Chamb sector claiming some tanks and vehicles as destroyed. But nothing more was done.

Why did the IAF not attack the Pakistani Airfields at the same time the army launched its offensive? It had the main advantages of surprise, time of their own choosing and initiative. And it failed to fully exploit these advantages. why was the air war not escalated? Did the army fail to tell the air force about its offensives? Seems unlikely. Did the air force think the PAF wouldn’t intervene? Nobody is so stupid to think like that. Many pilots from Pathankot recollected the standing instructions of that time, “Not to attack Pakistan Airfields unless attacked ourselves.” Some recollect the Station Commander, Suri give the instructions as those passed on from above. Whatever is the reason behind the inaction, the IAF lost a golden opportunity to hit hard at the enemy and influence the outcome of the war. There seemed to be something lacking in the higher direction of the war.

With the war being escalated and its army receiving a knocking, the PAF had to attack the Indian forces. They were surprised at the absence of the IAF and decided to play their cards while they still could. Delay might lead to disaster. So they decided to attack the Indian airbases that evening. The PAF HQ marked out Pathankot, Adampur, Halwara and Jamnagar as their targets. Airfields in Punjab would be raided by aircraft from Peshawar and Sargodha, while Jamnagar would be the responsibility of B-57s from Mauripur. The scene was set for a great battle.

The PAF air raids

That day, in the morning, an air interception took place between the PAF and the IAF. Two Starfighters of the No.9 Squadron were diverted from a CAP to Chamb to Rahwali, where Indian Mysteres were attacking. Flt. Lt. Aftab Alam Khan and his wingman Flt. Lt. Amjad Khan visually identified the Mysteres, four of them going back into Indian lines and after obtaining a missile tone, Aftab Alam Khan fired a Sidewinder, and claimed one Mystere had gone down. However, none of the Mysteres were lost, all made it safely back.


Back at the Pathankot Airbase, the Station Commander, Gp. Capt. Roshan Suri had just then returned from a meeting of Station Commanders from Western Air Command. Suri then briefed the Squadron Commanders of the impending Army move to cross the international border and also told his eager subordinates that the operational orders issued prevented counter air missions against Pakistani Airbases. Several Officers raised objections at this announcement, and for most this did not go down too well.

Evening was approaching Pathankot, when a phone call to Pathankot Airbase was made by Sqn. Ldr. Dandapani from the Amritsar ADC. He called up Pathankot and spoke to Wg. Cdr. Kuriyan. Dandapani told Kuriyan that they had several Sabres, take off from Sargodha and go “off the scope” as they went below the radar horizon. This had all the tell tale signs of an incoming raid. Kuriyan informed Suri about the suspicion of a raid and asked for permission to scramble the CAP. Suri refused to order the CAP to go off and ordered Kuriyan to go off the shift.

About the same time, Flt. Lt. Trilochan Singh of No.3 Sqn was leading his formation of four Mysteres in a strike against ground targets at Chamb. The strike had been put up on receipt of information that the Pakistani forces were being withdrawn from Chamb to reinforce defenses elsewhere. An earlier strike had passed on information about Pakistani tanks & trucks being transported back along a road near the Chamb sector. And the strike was executed.

Fg. Off. M.R. Murdeshwar and Fg. Off. Janak Kapur of No.23 were flying top cover for this formation in two Gnats. The endurance of this mission was limited only by the flight endurance of the Gnat Escort. For once the Gnat reached its maximum limit at which it had to turn back, the Mysteres too would have to go back as they would be deviod of air cover. In this case, Murdeshwar, had observed the limit approaching the aircraft for this mission. He informed the Mysteres leader, Trilochan Singh about it.

Trilochan Singh replied back “Manna, One more round, lets finish them off,” Murdeshwar said OK. And the Mysteres went in for another run. About this time Gnat No.2 Janak Kapur, called over the radio, “Backbay Leader, Bingo, fuel limit reached,” Murdeshwar called out to the Mystere formation to finish off their run and make for base.

The attack run over, the Mysteres turned for home cruising along at a speed of 500 knots. Soon the Mysteres outpaced the Gnats by a considerable distance as the Gnat cruised at a much slower optimum speed of around 400 knots. But the number three in the Mystere formation started straggling behind. It turned out that the pilot Fg. Off. Dinky Jatar observed his undercarriage lights have come up and he could not fly more than 250 knots airspeed under the conditions. Murdeshwar decided to cut down on his speed to escort the straggler. He instructed Janak Kapur to carry on, as he was having lesser amount of fuel and could not afford to fly at lower speeds.

Soon the Mystere formation and Janak’s Gnat were out of sight. Only Murdeshwar’s Gnat and the straggling Mystere of Jatar’s were in the sky. Jatar radioed that the slow airspeed is burning up his fuel and he would require a direct approach to Pathankot. Murdeshwar still had some reserve left and agreed to let Jatar make a direct approach to the runway.

Jatar was on his last throes of fuel reserves, when the runway came into his sight. He landed the aircraft on the runway, accompanied by Murdeshwar in the downward leg. Murdeshwar then just flew on to make a dog leg to try and land in the opposite direction. Jatar took the Mystere to the end of the runway and started taxing back on the parallel taxi track when his engine flamed out, starved out of fuel. The Mystere rolled to a halt.

Murdeshwar was now coming in to land in the opposite direction, he could see in a corner of the eye Jatar’s Mystere slowing down on the taxi track, then his attention was attracted by the sudden spurt of R/T transmissions. The ATC was frantically announcing, “Incoming Raid, Incoming Raid.” Murdeshwar cursed himself on his fuel state. If he had enough fuel, he could have taken off and intercepted the incoming aircraft. By this time his aircraft had landed and he was taxiing into a blast pen.

Wg. Cdr. Kuriyan was just then driving into his garage at his house, when he heard the ack-ack guns booming. He looked towards the airfield to see four F-86 Sabres bore down the airfield at low level firing their machine guns, while two Starfighters kept high altitude cover. As the four Sabres pulled out, another four bore in. The Sabres strafed buildings, installations and aircraft on the ground. The A-A Guns had opened up onto targets in the sky, and the sounds of machine guns strafing the airfield was audible.

Fg. Off. Janak Kapur who had already landed had just then steered his Gnat into a Blast pen and climbed out of his Gnat, when a fellow officer yelled, “Sir, look up, they are attacking.” Kapur looked up to see the Sabres pulling up for the attack. Murdeshwar’s Gnat was noticed by the Sabres as it was making its way to the blast pen. A volley of bullets straddled the Gnat just as Murdeshwar jumped out of the aircraft and out of the blast pen. Within seconds the bullets destroyed the Gnat.

The air traffic control tower at that time was newly built at Pathankot. It still did not house the ATC Staff as yet. The Actual ATC was located in a trench covered by a tent on the opposite side of the tarmac, where the ATC Controllers operated using R/T sets. Wg. Cdr. M.S.D. Wollen was one of the pilots scheduled to take off that particular evening. Wollen dived into the ATC trench when the attack began and watched the entire attack from there. 

The Sabres surprisingly left the Jatar’s Mystere on the taxi track alone, probably in the assumption that it was a decoy and attacked the row of MiGs, Mysteres along the blast pens in the airfield. The CAP was not scrambled. The Gnats on the ORP too escaped damage. However, two of the MiG-21s which were being refueled after returning from an earlier flight, went up in flames.

At that time the only Indian aircraft in the air was a lone Mystere on a training flight. Fg. Off. McMohan was a rookie pilot on the training sortie in the Mystere. He hardly had about 50 flying hours to his credit. Luckily for him, the ATC Controller recognized the danger of the rookie pilot getting caught in the combat and instructed McMohan to head south and come back later. McMohan eventually landed back after the raid was over.

Some Mysteres on the ground bore the brunt of the raid, and were damaged. As were the two MiG-21s. Only the fact that the Sabre’s 0.50 inch machine guns could fire ball ammunition instead of exploding cannon shells prevented further damage. The Sabres slipped off unscathed, as even the airfield defences were caught napping. For the PAF, this raid was a cakewalk, the next one was not going to be another. All in all, one C-119, four Mysteres, two Gnats and two MiG-21s were destroyed in this highly successful raid by the PAF.

Adampur and Halwara

Halwara, the next target was situated southwest of the Industrial township of Ludhiana, Punjab. it was not far from the border and was surrounded by numerous agricultural fields. In this airbase were two Hunter squadrons, Nos 7 and 27. No.7 Sqn has moved to Halwara from Ambala in August. The war was expected to come, so from the second half of August, the airfield was flying Combat Air Patrols (CAP) regularly.

About the time of the attack on Pathankot, four Hunters from No.7 Sqn were on patrol near Tarn Tarn. This formation codenamed ‘GREY’ was led by the Squadron’s CO, Wg. Cdr. A.T.R.H. Zachariah, and consisted of Sqn. Ldrs. Ajit Kumar Rawlley and M.M. Sinha and Flt. Lt. S.K. Sharma. The patrol reached Tarn Tarn when they spotted four Sabres coming in at low level. The Sabres were led by Sqn. Ldr. M.M. Alam on a raid to Adampur. The Sabres on spotting the hunters shed their drop tanks and started gaining height, while the Hunters did the same. In the fight that followed, Rawlley impacted the ground as he was trying to avoid Alam firing at his Hunter.

Alam then aborted the attack and extricated his aircraft from the fight. Alam’s Sabre formation exiting out of the area crossed another Sabre formation led by Sqn. Ldr. Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui on a strike to Halwara Airbase. Alam had warned Rafiqui’s formation about the presence of the Hunters. Rafiqui carried on with his strike mission. The Hunters being low on fuel left the Sabres and started making it back to the base. Zachariah reported the loss to the base and the two Hunters on the Operational Readiness Platform, were ordered to take off.

At that time on ORP, were Fg. Off. A.R. Gandhi and Fg. Off. P.S. Pingale of No.7 Sqn. Gandhi who joined No.7 Sqn in May ’64 was flying his fourth sortie of the day and Pingale was on his first. The two Hunters took off for their CAP over Halwara. Ten minutes later, Halwara air control informed them that they were under attack by F-86s. The Hunters arrived over the airfield and they couldn’t figure out anything in the confusion. The first indication they had that something was wrong was when bullets fired out of nowhere slammed into Pingale’s Hunter. The Sabres had jumped the Hunters.

Pingale suffered systems failure and loss of engine power. He ejected from his stricken aircraft safely and was picked up later. Meanwhile the Sabre that had shot down Pingale attacked Gandhi’s aircraft and overshot him. Presented with a nice target, Gandhi maneuvered behind it and started firing his cannon. Even though he did not take good aim, the 54 foot spread of the Hunters four 30mm cannon shells took care of the Sabre. Gandhi could see the Sabre was streaming smoke and was at 150 feet, when the cockpit canopy flew off. The Pakistani pilot has pulled his ejection lever and before the ejection sequence began the Sabre nose dived into the ground and blew up. Fg. Off. Gandhi has got the first kill for the Battle Axes.

Before he could revel in his triumph, the remaining three Sabres made a beeline for his aircraft. His right wing got hit repeatedly. The Hunter lazily rolled to the right and entered into a spin. Gandhi ejected and landed on the outskirts of Halwara.

This see-saw battle was not over yet. The airfields ack-ack guns shot down one of the F-86’s which dived headlong into the ground near the airfield. The last two Sabres were continuing their strafing, when No.27 Sqn came to the rescue. Two Hunters flown by Flt. Lt. D.N. Rathore and Fg. Off. V.K. Neb were returning from a sortie and were directed towards the Sabres.

Rathore, the flight leader latched onto one of the Sabres as it went into a strafing run and sent it down in a sheet of flame some six miles from the field. The other remaining aircraft abandoned its attack and pulled up steeply to gain height. Fg. Off. Neb lost no time in aiming and firing. The Sabres left wing shredded in an instant and it blew up. Even as the pieces were falling onto the ground both the Hunters formed up and flew back to base.

Two of the PAF pilots who were killed in this battle were Sqn. Ldr. Rafique, who earlier claimed the Vampires over Chamb and Flt. Lt. Younus Hussein, No.2 to Rafique. Pakistan claims that the only these two pilots were lost in  combat. The third pilot, Flt. Lt. Cecil Choudary, reportedly made it back to base. Incidentally Cecil Choudary was shot down by A-A Fire in the 1971 War over Shakargarh when he baled out safely.


The last raids of the day were by the B-57s from Mauripur on Jamnagar. Mauripur was initially the bomber base of the PAF. Sometime earlier a part of the B-57 force was moved to Peshawar and a few more were about to be sent to Peshawar. The aircraft about to take off when they were hurriedly called back and told about the mission to Jamnagar. So finally a force of six bombers left for Jamnagar, arriving over in the dark and in the presence of clouds.

The B-57s dropped their loads and flew back. Mauripur put in two more raids that night. Not all of them went unscathed. One of the B-57s got hit by AA Fire and crashed outside Jamnagar. The bodies of the Pakistani pilots, Sqn. Ldr. Shabbir Alam Siddique and his navigator, Sqn. Ldr. Aslam Qureshi were recovered and buried. A small logbook of the pilot Siddique, was recovered and it revealed that the PAF was on alert since March ’65. And it carried out details of practice missions of IAF Targets since April ’65.

By the end of September 6th, the PAF looked back on its role and it had nothing to be ashamed off. It had attacked the Indian ground forces effectively and also raided the IAF’s airfields. Though the failure of the raids on Halwara and Adampur and the loss of five of its aircraft on these raids were a setback, it had claimed eleven aircraft destroyed on the ground and three in the air. The claims on the ground include the destruction of some of the MiG-21’s at Pathankot.

No Doubt these claims look exaggerated at first look, but a closer analysis at post war publications imply that the IAF lost some aircraft on the ground at Pathankot. The question is how many? Some sources put it as low as six aircraft including 2 Mysteres, and one each of a Gnat, Vampire, MiG-21 and a C-119 transport while others put it at nine aircraft lost, five Mysteres, two Gnats and two MiG-21s. Air Marshal Arjan Singh in his post war press conference invited journalists to examine 8 MiG-21s as intact. So the PAF could claim some credit after all.

The Pakistani Paratroopers

As night fell on, both sides began planning for the next days operations. IAF Canberras were already in the air on counterstrikes, likewise the PAF B-57s too were on the job. If our officers thought the Pakistanis had played all their cards then they were far from being right. That night the Pakistanis had planned to drop more than just bombs on the Indian Airfields.

Just a little while after the B-57s crossed the Indian Border, three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft took off for the same targets. Instead of bombs they carried some 60 paratroopers each of the elite Special Services Group (SSG). After Independence, Pakistan had chosen to form special compact commando forces trained in sabotage and disruptive activities behind enemy lines and they had thought of putting this force to test.

The C-130s were to drop the paratroopers near the Indian airbases, the paratroopers would then regroup, and try to capture the airfields, destroy the aircraft and thus disrupt the entire air effort and then ex-filtrate back to Pakistan, following the numerous rivulets and streams that flow from Punjab back to their home territory. The plan was bold and imaginative on paper, but when put to practice, went haywire.

Pathankot, Halwara and Adampur airbases were the chosen targets. And each of the C-130 Hercules dropped it’s load of paratroopers on the airfield designated to it. At Pathankot, right from the moment the Pakistanis, under the command of Major Khalid Butt, landed on the ground things went wrong. It was about 2:00 a.m. and in the pitch dark of the night the paratroopers failed to rendezvous quickly. Their movement was hampered by the criss-crossing network of irrigation canals, streams and boggy fields. By daybreak the paratroopers were still a confused lot. And the Army and the police already alerted started rounding them up and most of them, including Major Butt, were prisoners by the next two days.

At Halwara, a B-57 had raided the airfield and left when the Hercules came over and dropped its stick of the commandos. Some of them landed inside the airfield perimeter in the residential area. Before they could recover from the shock of the landing, they found themselves as Prisoners of War. The remaining Paratroopers too were rounded up soon after. However the detachment commander, Major Hazur Hasnain, and one of his men captured a Jeep and escaped back to Pakistani Lines.

The Adampur detachment too suffered the same fate of that at Pathankot. Dropped too far from the airfield and unable to assemble, they took refuge in the cornfields at daybreak. The farmers and the civilians formed hunting groups and rounded them up. Some of the Pakistanis were lynched and killed by the enraged Punjabis. This detachment commander, Captain Durrani, too was captured soon after.

The Pakistani plan to neutralize the airbases through unconventional methods thus failed. Of the 180+ commandos dropped, 136 were taken prisoners. and 22 were killed in encounters with the army, police or the civilians and the rest managed to escape to Pakistan. The number that managed to slip through was about 22-25. Most of them from the detachment dropped near Pathankot – which was only 10 miles from the border.

Little did the Pakistanis realise that for the mission to succeed the Paras had to be dropped close to their targets. They need to have a good knowledge of the terrain at the DZ and they had to rendezvous quickly. 60 men was too large a group to do so quickly and to avoid detection and too small to hold out for themselves if they were cornered.

The objective of the raid can be compared to the British raid on Pebble island during the Falklands war. There were about 45 men dropped by helicopters inside the airfields who succeeded in destroying many of the Argentinean Pucara aircraft before the defenders were alerted. The Pakistanis had learnt their lessons the hard way, though no such operations were mounted by us, we did learn from our enemy’s mistakes and put it to good use later in the ’71 Indo-Pak War.

From the IAF point of view, it seemed a stupid and pointless exercise. As Air Chief Marshal Lal put it, “It’s difficult to see what they could have achieved. What this operation aimed to achieve is difficult to understand.” All they achieved was to stir up the Punjabis to form lynch mobs who went about cutting the crops to hunt down the paras and beating many a poor beggar, on suspicion of being a disguised raider. 


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