Wg Cdr Kulbir Singh Harnal was a young pilot with the Battle Axes – No.7 Squadron, based at Bagdogra when the war broke out. In this day by day account, Wg Cdr Harnal takes us through the Squadron’s operations – from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, making it one of the few units that took part on both fronts.
Wg Cdr Kulbir Singh Harnal was a young pilot with the Battle Axes – No.7 Squadron, based at Bagdogra when the war broke out.
In this day by day account, Wg Cdr Harnal takes us through the Squadron’s operations – from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, making it one of the few units that took part on both fronts.
Day One: 4th December 1971, Baghdogra.
CO[i] came to our rooms the previous evening with the news that the ‘Balloon had gone up’ in the western sector so we were on the next morning. Briefing at 5am. He told us he would be at the Bar later to ensure nobody had more than 3 drinks and it would be closed on time. I thought some of us may not be there the next evening but quickly banished the thought.
After the Met briefing we got the FLOT (Forward Line of own Troops) briefing by the GLO (Army Major) to ensure we engaged targets beyond that. To our utter dismay one senior guy questioned the GLO’s brief by quoting BBC news, betraying his anxiety, while the others were putting up a brave face.
After that we checked that all Indian tags on under clothes etc were removed. Then we were given a revolver each with 12 rounds and a Bangla Deshi flag which was supposed to be shown to the Mukti Bahini if shot down. It would get us help. We also got a money belt with 200 Paki rupees.
I flew two missions the first day which were a life changing experience. I found my anxiety vanished when my engine roared to life. The best part was firing a long burst at the Lal Munir Hat Control tower. Boss shouted Good burst laddie as the glass shattered. It was like throwing a glass on the wall in the bar.
We lost two Hunters and one pilot, Flt Lt Andre D’Costa. Guptaji[ii] had his hydraulics shot up and a single out board drop tank hang up,. so he had to eject overhead at 10G. It was like a demo ejection.
|Flt Lt Andre Rudolf Da Costa
8175 F(P) was the first pilot that the Battle Axes lost.
In the evening we brought Sandra (Mrs D’Costa ) and the kids to the mess and clumsily tried to give them hope. His body was never found in the marshy area where he went down.
Some put on the Pak radio news on a transistor and the annoucer said that Pak troops had reached Siliguri. I remember telling the Barman Dey “Dekho bahar koi paki officers ghoom raha hai to andar drink ke liye bulao“
Tomorrow will be another day, as it sunk in to live from day to day.
Day Two: 5th December 1971, Baghdogra.
The second day started early too. I was to continue in the same formation led by the boss Bunny Coelho. Our deputy leader Guptaji who was shot down, on day one, was replaced as he was hurt from the ejection.
Our targets were Ferries and bridges. No Air Opposition was expected as Dacca and other bases were subjected to a severe pounding and neutralized on the first day itself. We later learned that there was no credible Air Power retained to defend against IAF strikes. It was said that the few pilots left, fled to West Pakistan via Burma. Under this Favourable Air Situation the Army I believe made a beeline for Dacca skirting all resistance enroute and moving by day light too.
The fire power of the Hunter’s 30mm x 4 Aden guns using HE ammo (not used before in practice firing on the Range) was deadly. When I fired a 3 to 4 second burst on train nothing happened for a sec and then the bogie just blew off the rails. Why was this train moving about in the day? By the time we swung around for the second pass, we drew heavy small arms fire. Some bullet holes under wing but not in any critical area.
So this was a troop train needing to move urgently enough, to risk day movement.
Another unforgetful sad sight was the masses of people scrambling for cover if by chance we flew over a refugee camp (there were many near the border).To see this mass of humanity trying to outrun a fighter, told it’s own story.
Perhaps to these hapless people the sound and sight of a screaming jet was associated with the imminence of death being rained on them. We would waggle wings to show our friendly status.
Another rather funny, somehow encouraging sight would be the DSC guards, patrolling the taxi tracks and near the ORR making crude signs when we taxied past them. These signs wished the pilot luck and conveyed to him to sock it hard to the enemy. This was followed by a sharp rifle salute.
The Hunter has two globular pods on either side of the four Front Guns ,where the links deposit after rounds are fired. These are called ‘Sabrinas’, I believe after some well endowed film star. After a mission when the Airmen would open the Sabrina the links would fall to the ground with a clanging sound. This would result in an impromptu Bhangra with cheering and shouting.
I always left my jacket with the airman who helped me strap up and told him I would be back to claim it. This became a sort of ritual hand over/take over, with the take over after returning, accompanied with clapping and cheering.
That evening when thinking of the front gun burst on the train, I realized that I may have killed some people. But when I recalled the many flashes from the ground near the target on which I was firing in a dive, I said to myself, that they were trying to get me too for those flashes were real anti- aircraft fire. It was a matter of one getting the other.So it is better to thank your stars, that you are still alive today,for tomorrow is another round in this deadly game being played by both sides for the honour and freedom of our countries. At least that is what most of felt back then.
At the end of day two, we were told to pack our bags as the squadron. would be moving to the western sector the next day. We did not lose any pilot or airplane the second day.
Day Three: 6th December 1971, Baghdogra-Kanpur-Hindon
This was a day of no action.
The CO was only told to move the Squadron to Kanpur. Further Orders would be given on reaching there. Transport support arrived early and we loaded up. Surprisingly we saw our squadron, Doc. Jackie Gupta arrive fully geared up. He announced that he would move with the squadron. This was the ‘Battle Axes’ josh.
So we ferried all the available aircraft with loaded/armed Front Guns only to Kanpur. From Kanpur we were ordered to fly to Hindon, where we reached late afternoon. Unexciting day.
Someone’s brother came in from Delhi in an Ambassador car so a few of us drove off to have a meal in a Delhi’s Moti Mahal, in Darya Ganj under Black Out conditions. We were clad in Flying suits (transport support had nor reached with personal baggage) .
The owners refused to bill us and with folded hands wished us luck with the punjabi blessing ‘Jinde Raho’ (May you live long)
We stayed in town with friends to return early the next day to learn that the Squadron. was to move to NAL forward base near Bikaner, Rajasthan.
Day Four : 7th December 1971, Hindon-Nal
That day was my mother’s birthday. The first thought in the morning was that it is not a good day to buy it (get killed). However there were no strike missions on this day too.
We received orders to proceed to NAL forward base at Bikaner. Take off was delayed due to the Hindon Fog.
The ferry was completed early afternoon. NAL turned out to be a pretty desolate place in the Rajasthan Desert.. The Base was active as a Mystere squadron was already operating from there. The airfield had been bombed a few times in the past few days. The aircraft were parked in Blast Pens but there was no ORR or crew room. Only a small underground Base Ops Complex.
The day ended with the Transport support Packet being given CAP (Combat Air Patrol) cover for arrival and Unloading.
Again after take off it was escorted 100 miles out by a dusk patrol, a two ship formation with Guns, loaded up. Never seen a Packet being unloaded so fast
Some of us were dispersed to the Signal Unit (SU) Officers mess in town while others stayed on base Fighter Controllers were nice lot. Meeting them personally created a good sense of camaraderie , for these guys gave Radar Cover for missions flown in the next few days.
The town group was given a requisitioned civil Jonga Taxi as aircrew transport, driven by a local civilian driver named Jetharam. Wonder what was his security clearance for he could see whatever was going, as he was around the whole day.
Extra Messing special was, you guessed it Bikaneri Bhujia.
Day Five: 8th December 1971, Nal
Came in early with Jetharam for briefing at the Base Ops. There were no targets allocated so we could not decide what armament should be loaded up and the drop tank configuration. It made Chief Bhasin”s work tentative. Typical order “Keep both Bombs and rockets on the cradles”
Boss reassured Bhasin he would get the time needed to configure the planes. Then Indian ingenuity chipped in “Configure 4 aircraft with Bombs and 4 others with Rockets. Problem solved (When two 1000lb Bombs are carried under wing then only two fuel drops tanks can be attached reducing strike range. However Rocket pods allow four drop tanks to be attached)
Later in the morning two search and destroy missions were ordered. Look for enemy Tanks on the other side of the border was the briefing.Boss decided to go with T-10 rockets with Guns always remaining loaded with HE/AP (High Explosive/Armour Piercing) Rounds
The mission did not see anything worthwhile to report. Secondary targets were engaged.The story was the same for all missions flown that day including one flown by me.
Nobody reported any anti-aircraft fire nor did anybody take any hits. On the Air Defense side the ORP aircraft were static the whole day. A CAP was mounted at dusk to shake off the monotony and get into the air.
Logistics were poor. Food was a problem and operating from open Blast pens in the desert meant being exposed both to cold and heat as the day dragged on. Back at the Mess sleeping on the carpet became irritating as most of us were wondering what was the purpose of coming to this disorganized place. People wanted some action which was missing after the first two days. Even the PAF bombers did not come that night.
Day Six: 9th December 1971, Nal
This day started with a briefing by the O i/c Base ops who was the Mission Liason with Command Hq, and the day ended with losing our Boss who was shot down.
Once again the missions being ordered were more of search and destroy type . Radar Cover was limited. Flying deck level made navigation difficult in the desert especially when weaving all the time. Ammo was T-10 rockets and Guns.
No Military movement were spotted. Later we changed our tactics and decided to operate at around 5000 feet as some loiter time during the mission.This exposed us to the enemy radar with chances of drawing enemy fighters to engage us. It also improved our vision field and contact with our own radar. The scope of the mission was increased by adding this sort of offensive sweep element .
We were rearing to engage enemy fighters if they came for us. All of us had practiced plenty of low level dog fighting in the run up to this war.
However there was no joy. No grief, as well for our two aircraft formation could have been bounced by a formation of four or more enemy fighters. To avoid any nasty surprises we remained in our territory near the border and under Radar Cover of our SU.
Perhaps we were looking for the thrust by the Enemy Armour which actually happened at Longewala therefore we saw nothing.
Pilots started taking on sundry targets and sometimes the Ordnance was inappropriate for the target engaged. Nobody wanted to return with his weapon load not discharged.
Boss was shot down near a huge bridge which he and his wing man were engaging with T-10 Rockets. He was seen to eject from a burning aircraft by his wing man. Apparently he ejected almost on the border during a 180* turn.. Enemy troops got to him first and he was taken prisoner. Had the dive direction been easterly instead of westerly, he would have ejected well in our territory after taking a hit. Lesson brought home again for future attacks on targets close to the border like Army Co-op.
Boss came back after 18 months. He then told us that after his capture there was an heated argument amongst his captors ,with him standing right there. Some soldiers wanted to kill him there and then to avenge the death of some colleagues by his attack, while others wanted to hand him over to their superiors and claim a reward for shooting down his aircraft. Lucky for him that the latter prevailed.
He recounted a funny story of PAF pilot’s wives coming in a group to look at IAF pilots behind bars, in the POW camp. One or our guys asked them loudly ” “What did you expect to see Monkeys? You should have brought peanuts to throw at us”. They were embarrassed and left quickly.
I did two useless missions that day. Fired rockets on a rather big factory type structure and the second time on a power station, both the times on the way back to base
As Adjutant, another problem was brewing up. The Airmen were accommodated in a school building where they were told to cook their own food. This was becoming an issue as we had no cooks. Plus the men had to report before dawn and work till dusk. Looked bad.
Officiating CO Allan Ally asked me to handle it as he was too busy with ops matters. In turn I told JWO Bhasin (one of the best I have seen) to detail some men of the non-ops trades to manage the cooking whilst I tried to get local help.
Back to the mess. Three regulation shots and bhujia both Bikaneri and ‘do aanda ka’ and yet another day behind me with another looming ahead in this deadly scenario of living from day to day.
Day Seven: 10th December 1971, Nal
This day was not very different from the last two as far as Operations were concerned, except for one incident which is still vividly etched in my memory and I still wonder about
We got a new CO, Wg Cdr N C Suri, who was in the DASI Team before being assigned this job. He was a very experienced Hunter jock, having commanded a type Squadron. I was designated to be his wing man.
In the morning we were visited by the Governor of Rajasthan Shri Barkatullah Khan and his charming wife. They brought buckets of Rasagollas as a gift. However they were off the mark when it came to what we were doing operationally which was good enough for us.. In an impeccable accent, Mrs Khan congratulated us for creating History. Apparently she thought we were the Hunter Squadron which had put to the sword the enemy Armour thrust at Longewala. The Film ‘Border’ was later made on this heroic action by the guys operating from Jamnagar.
One mission was flown by me that day.We were on a Tac/Recee in the area near the town of Bhawalpur in enemy territory. I spotted dust being kicked up which was linked to some vehicle movement. I maneuvered to position for an attack. In the dive my gun safety catch was unlocked and my finger ready to squeeze the trigger. When almost in the firing range, I clearly saw that the moving target was a black Car. I did not fire but made a low pass. telling my wing man to hold fire and also buzz the still moving car which he did.
Usually on hearing the sound of jets, vehicles immediately stop and the drivers expecting an attack, get away from them to avoid being killed, But not this one, it just kept going. I made another dive attack but just could not get myself to fire. A one second FG burst would have blown up this car to smithereens. I called ‘dis engaging’ and asked my wing man to join up as we headed back..
To this day I wonder who could have been at the wheel of that car so oblivious of death screaming above their heads.Perhaps some pretty Damsel on her way to a rendezvous, lost in her own thoughts, unaware of the raging war.
The new boss was clearly unhappy with the task assigned to the Squadron.. He was instrumental in getting HQ to reconsider our deployment and the next day we learned that we were slated to move to Pathankot, where the real action was.
Some Airmen were complaining that it was difficult to work without proper food. It became my unpleasant duty to make everyone ‘fall in’ and remind them that we were at war and we had to take the problems in our stride and work till we dropped. Pilots were flying missions after popping Rasagollas. Refusal to work in the war Zone was a serious offense swiftly punishable by a Field Court Martial.
I have to confess that earlier; JWO Bhasin had used similar words and requested me to strengthen his position by repeating the same.” After all I have to get work out of them”, he said. .
Nothing like a seasoned Warrant Officer on the side of a young Adjutant..
By the evening it was confirmed that we were going to move the next day.
Jetharam drove us back to the Mess, via the market place. He treated us to hot tea and Kachuries as a crowd gathered. It was his way of saying “Thank You”
When back to base after the war, this story about that talk between Bhasin and me leaked out. At a victory Rum Punch some airmen showed their anger but things settled down when I said we had no choice but to keep things going and apologized for that empty threat.
Their anger quickly dissipated after I did a couple of arms locked Chug Lug (Bottoms Up) with the angry Airmen.