Accepting the importance of the mission, the secrecy involved and the calculated risks, we returned to the briefing room. The lead pilot gave instructions about take-off procedure, as decided, emphasizing, with the help of a blackboard, on the line-up, brakes and full power for takeoff before rolling. The goose-neck flares will again be there, but this time to mark the end of the runway. Strict and complete RT silence until the first attack goes into affect over the target. Complete blackout of all aircraft lights—except the use of a torch for map-reading.
“The TI [target-indicator] marker aircraft with flares and two target-marking bombs, call-sign ‘Tango-India’, will commence its take-off roll sharp at Zero-Zero-One-Six hours,” the lead pilot was now giving the order of battle with all of the pilots jotting down on their knee pads.
“Four minutes thereafter, that is, at Zero-Zero-Two-Zero hours, Victor One, which is Ahlu and me, will roll.” The leader paused, looked at all of the other pilots, and pointing at each one, by turn, he continued, “You, Victor Two, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 will commence rolling at one minute intervals thereafter. ‘Tenth’ being out, there will be no standby.”
“Any questions?” he queried.
“What is the target,” asked a young new navigator of Victor Seven.
“All in good time” retorted the leader, “but remember, your flight plan will give the pre-calculated time over target (TOT). Each one of you is to ensure that you clear the target sharp immediately after that time to make way for the other following you.”
“Victor Eight since you will be the last; you can have a vale of a time playing hide-and-seek with the enemy.” Humor had not been lost, and all had a hearty laugh at the expense of Victor Eight. The last is always in the most difficult situation—the enemy having been alerted by then will try their best to catch at least the last.
“A last warning!” concluded the leader, “Do not attempt to use any portion of the 200 yards of the unusable runway for takeoff under any circumstances. And good luck.”
In the meantime all of the nine aircraft were being refueled. All pilots were asked to go to their aircraft and ensure that the refueling stopped only when the tank started to overflow. Every drop was critical; it may mean safe return and landing at “Charlie” or bailing out short of that place because of dry fuel tanks. For the same reason, after refueling, the aircraft were towed by tractors to the take-off point and parked in the order of take-off. While that was going on, I laid down on the briefing table to relax.
I had now been up for almost 20 hours and had not met my family since the morning of the 12th. I was called at short notice from “Sierra” for the operations against Pakistan and had not been inside a Canberra since February of the year. On arrival at the Op base, I had arranged for my family to stay with a brother officer’s family, and requested the Commanding Officer (CO) for a “handling” sortie. Aircraft hours had to be conserved, so the answer was a curt ‘no’. My first “handling” sortie, after six months of having flown a Canberra, was on September 7th over Sargodha in Pakistan!
“Where are you boys off to, tonight?” It was the Base Commander again who appeared from nowhere and broke my chain of thought.
Normally, a commander of the ‘staging’ or ‘jumping’ base was discreet enough not to ask such questions. “Ask no questions and you will be told no lies”, was a well-adopted principle under these circumstances.
“Well, Sir, even my CO and the Station Commander and the other air-crews are unaware of this,” I very hesitatingly but politely and tactfully evaded the answer, and added, “the remaining air-crew will be informed at the final briefing just before take-off”.
The BC got the message and after some small talk, and cursing having to find his way in the dark, left me with my thoughts. But the thoughts were now replaced with the “plan”.
All the air-crews who were actually flying had re-assembled. The briefing room was now pulsating with low-level tension. After doors were closed and it was ensured no other person except the mission air-crews were present, I opened my briefcase, retrieved the nine flight plan copies, and distributed one to each navigator. I also retrieved the target outline plan from my bag and placed it on the large planning table. All huddled around the table and craned their necks to see the target. Both, the flight plan and the outline plan did not name the target.
“Gentlemen!” I felt my voice croak with excitement, nervousness, tension, and some anticipation of the unknown. “Tonight, we undertake a mission which the enemy considers impossible, and, it will, therefore, be the biggest surprise of this war, which they will ever have, when we show them that nothing is impossible for this ‘elephant with the twisted tail’.” That was a reference to our squadron insignia.
“This is also the reason for the excessive secrecy,” I continued, “and once the target is given out, no one is to leave this area or talk to anyone about it until a successful return from this mission. Use the toilets now, if you wish.” This last remark had a double meaning…….Silence. I could feel the excitement and the tension growing.
“Our target for tonight is PESHAWAR.” I paused for it to sink in and awaited the anticipated reactions.
“Hurrah!” said one.
“Oh! No,” sighed a second.
“Impossible!” concluded a third, still not believing his ears.
“A one-way ticket!!” was the defeatist attitude of another.
The excitement, the tension, the nervousness, and the fear were everywhere. I could feel and sense what each was thinking. On many occasions this target had been discussed in moot exercises and rejected as “impossible” for the Canberra with her limitations. It was always felt that Canberra could only reach and return from Peshawar by flying at height, definitely not below 20,000 feet; and which would make them vulnerable and virtual “sitting ducks” for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Starfighters, with their night-flying and all-weather capabilities, and which were armed with sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The anxiety and fear of the air-crews was palpable, conspicuous and clearly the same as it was in that afternoon with my pilot and me at Op HQ.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“We plan to attack Peshawar tonight with four Canberras carrying 8×1000 pounders.” The opening announcement of the Bops had come as a shocking surprise to both of us in Op HQ.
“All will fly at about 20,000 feet and use the ‘blind-bombing’ radar to track and bomb the target.” he explained and continued, “We are aware of the risks involved, but those are acceptable. Your squadron is at liberty to select air-crews, but the target must not, and I repeat, must not be disclosed to anyone outside this hall until the time of final take-off for the target. Ahluwalia will prepare the flight plan and hand over to each crew copies of the same only shortly before take-off. Remember, secrecy for the success of this mission is imperative. Any questions?”
Thank God! The Bops had opened an escape route.
“Sir, what is the exact target in Peshawar?” I queried.
“Everything—the flying control, fuel-dump, bomb-dump, PAF Headquarters, PAF Officers Mess, aircraft, hangars—everything, without any limit,” he proudly emphasized.
“Sir, I understand the success of this mission means a lot to us. But the plan is certain to end in failure even before we reach the target,” – I very courageously countered the Bops plan. I could sense the CAS and the AOC-in-C staring at me, but I dare not look at them at this stage.
“Moreover,” I continued, “the 32 thousand pounds against such vast and varied targets would be against the principle of economy of effort and, even if we do manage to drop them over the targets, the damage is not likely to hurt them much, unless we achieve direct hits, which is highly improbable though not impossible.”
It was now apparent that the Bops had not done his homework and was becoming fidgety. Though he was also a Canberra pilot, but was trained in high-level bombing—both visual and blind. That was his limitation. I was trained in the high-level bombing role in the UK, and in the low-level interdiction role in India. Rather, I was one of the protagonists, proponents and pioneers of evolving, practicing and teaching performance in this role, since I believed, like many others, in the invincibility of the Canberra in this role, particularly, at night.
I pressed home my advantage, “We want to take them by surprise and hit them so that they feel it. The targets are OK, but the hit is neither hard nor is surprise assured. We will be on their radar while still in our own territory, and their Starfighters would be ready for us before we are even anywhere near Peshawar. This will be a suicidal mission for us not a surprise to them.”
Stunned silence greeted me instead of applause. The speed with which I countered the plan—a plan prepared at the “highest” level—a plan being shredded to pieces, surprised both me and my pilot who was watching in awe and amazement…….. and new-found respect. He may be the lead pilot, but as the lead navigator, I had a task to get him to the target at the right time, and as lead bombardier I had a task to deliver the load on the target, at the right place, against all odds, and make every endeavor to come back home……..safely.
“Any plan you have in mind.” It was the CAS. For the first time I looked at him, my palms sweaty.
“No, Sir,” I replied meekly, but went on to hurriedly add, “we were neither aware of the target nor its importance. Given about an hour, a more viable and acceptable plan could be worked out. However, before that we would like to have the defenses at and around Peshawar.”
The CIO recounted the anti-aircraft gun defenses and the location of the base of the Starfighters of which the PAF had only four serviceable and all on Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) round the clock.
“You bought yourself an hour. Go ahead and let us know when you are ready with the plan,” the AOC-in-C decisively ordered and left the hall with the CAS.
The Bops was an old friend, a rank senior to me, though we had always been in different squadrons. Being let down like this, in the presence of the two ‘top brass’ of the IAF, would not be a palatable thing to anyone. At the same time, being pushed into a suicidal mission because of the unfortunate and ill-conceived plan was not my cup of tea.
“No hard feelings, Sir,” said I to the Bops, while settling myself down to plan.
* * * * * * * * * * * *