December Diary : With the Battle Axes

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Day Eight: 11th December 1971, Nal-Hindan-Pathankot

The aircraft were readied for the ferry to Pathankot via Hindon. Front Guns were armed with a four drop tank configuration. Take off was delayed due to Fog in Hindon.

One aircraft had to be ferried to the Repair Depot at Kanpur after ‘Patch’ repair to the Bullet holes. It needed major doing up. Surprisingly one of the Senior Operational Pilots wanted to go He was the guy who had seen Boss eject from a burning aircraft. .Normally this job would be given to a Junior guy and there were many available. CO let him go. He never Re-joined the Squadron till after the day, the war was over. The war exposure affected this guy so much that he committed Suicide a few months later. Nobody knew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) those days, nor did this guy get any Medical Help as far as we knew. In fact all of could have used some post war counseling, but we settled down each in his own style with some taking more time ie throwing more glasses on the wall in the Bar.

Finally we reached our destination late afternoon.

We learned that the two Hunter Squadrons operating from there since the beginning of the war had taken heavy losses and were sent to Hindon the same day for R&R. Five pilots killed in one of the Squadrons and Two lost by the other. They had been in a tough fight. In comparison we had one killed, and one taken POW with one safe Ejection

We settled down quickly in the crew room of one of the Squadron’s that had ferried out. Things were pretty organized.The base was being bombed multiple times a day,so procedures during an attack had to be followed to the hilt.

There was a Pilot Dispersal Plan in place. Not more than six pilots were to stay in one building, so that casualties would be reduced in case the building took a direct Bomb hit.

This was also ensure, there were guys available to fly the next day.

I was amongst the lucky six who were to stay in a Hotel in town.It was called the Airlines Hotel .We landed up there late evening to be allotted three rooms for the six of us. We ordered a good meal which was a luxury after NAL. As adjutant I signed the bill. and the six of us knocked off on a comfortable bed in a heated room.

It was un-said but surely everyone knew that tomorrow would be a day perhaps more challenging than any we had seen thus far.

Day Nine: 12th December 1971, Pathankot

We left our Hotel early when it was still dark and reported to the Squadron. The bosses were huddled in the underground Base Ops complex which was the nerve Centre of all Operations.

When a mission was ordered the pilots selected for it would be driven to the Base Ops for Briefing. After that they remained there in an separate room and did not get to speak with anyone who was not a part of their Mission.There was a senior escort with them at all times after the mission briefing.

When the time came to go we were taken straight to the aircraft from the base Ops. This ensured we did not discuss our mission details with any one. This ‘need to know’ policy was to prevent information being passed to enemy intelligence, suspected of infiltrating our security.

During previous missions it was reported that. the enemy knew the mission call sign, frequency and had given R/T calls to split the formation over the target, thus losing mutual cross cover. Enemy fighters were able to shoot down one formation leader, after his wing man was told to turn the wrong way. There was radio jamming too.

Boss decided that any maneuver ordered by a mission leader, would be by using our short name and not mission call sign. My only mission that day was an bomb attack on a enemy Railway Yard of a town close to the border. The aim was cause enough damage to the yard so as to disrupt movement of supplies by rail, to their forward line of troops, during the night.

We struck late afternoon, to give less time for repair.Encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire like they were expecting us, but no enemy fighters were spotted.. Our formation was escorted by two Gnats to cover our tail and take on enemy fighters, in case bounced. If something like that happened our ‘Jettison live’ guard was open. Jettison bombs and engage was the briefing. Keep going towards home after neutralizing enemy positional advantage. It is not heroic to engage in a extended dog fight in enemy territory and be unable to make it back, running short on fuel or worse having to eject in enemy territory.

Ordnance was 2×1000 pounders and front guns. A two pass attack was made with the Gnats circling above. When finished we went buster power and hugged the ground. The escort formation had a tough time keeping up.. There was a CAP over base for our recovery.

My aircraft had no bullet hits.Wing man’s fin had some proximity damage by shrapnel from a AA shell burst. Gun Camera Film showed a direct hit by the bombs and a punishing long FG burst in the second pass. Debrief over it was back to the crew room.

Returned to the Hotel,after dark, ton avoid being seen by the public, wearing G-suits. Matters were becoming standard. Order some good hot food a couple of shots, eat and off to bed, privately thanking our stars, to be back.

Day Ten: 13th December 1971, Pathankot

This day was more or less like the previous one except that I did not lead a mission but flew wing man to Boss. The target was a Radar Tower which was engaged in the morning. The briefing pictures showed it looked like a Water Reservoir . It was said to be heavily defended as it was vital to the enemy in detecting incoming Army Support missions, in the ‘Chicken Neck Area’ where a raging Ground Battle was going on.

Two SU-7’s had taken bad hits, with one Ejection, trying to neutralize this target the previous day. Ours was going to be a two ship formation armed with Rockets and Guns. We would be escorted by two MIG 21’s. A Hunter had the same fire power as a SU-7, but would present a smaller target to the Anti Aircraft Batteries.

After a section Take off we were on our way with the MIGs covering us.Visibility was pretty limited. Boss was an ace Navigator and made a flawless run from IP (Initial Point) where I moved to a Tactical Starboard position from the Open Battle. We pulled up on dot at the Pull-Up Point (PUP). Boss rolled in and I followed. The target appeared bang on at the nose. The MIG leader called “Tail Clear”.

We fired our Rockets in sequence and then my concentration was not to lose Boss in that poor visibility. We turned around and pulled up for the FG Run. Perfect maneuver and the Tower appeared in the front wind shield and I was able to track it with minimum correction. I had lagged a bit to squeeze in a longer burst after Boss pulled out. I was able to press home a longish burst with my pipper riding the target.

“Catch Up” was the only call by boss, I replied “Contact” as we started our home run. MIG leader again gave a cool call “With you Tiger Leader, Tail Clear”
Recovered at Base un eventfully.

No hits on any of the aircraft. Perhaps the poor visibility helped . Have to say Boss’s excellent Positioning allowed me to make a pretty good attack. After seeing the Gun Camera film, boss looked at me and just nodded his head and said go and relax. We were later told that intelligence reported that the Tower was rendered Non-Ops for a couple of days.

Back to Squadron, I asked the Armourer, how many rounds were fired from my kite? (Airmen called AIRCRAFT Kites). He said 386, and that Boss had already called from Base Ops, and asked him. I should have thought so. Knowing that and seeing my tracking on the film, would allow Damage assessment. With Four guns firing at 80/rounds/Sec/per gun that made it a little more than a one ‘sec’ burst.

That afternoon some Major from the Army Hq. Called me to ask how I was. He said my father in Bombay, wanted to know. This was the state of communication.

Back at the Hotel the Locals had come to know that some Pilots were staying there. People gathered outside with Parathas, milk/ lassi and sweets. So much affection shown, made it a moving experience. We mingled freely receiving their good wishes and blessings. There was not even a guard outside. I suppose those days Wars were fought on the Battle field by Men and not like today,by raining death on innocent women and children.

Day Eleven: 14th December 1971, Pathankot

We were getting the news from the east that the Army was making good progress and Dacca was being bombed by Daks and Caribous. This war may end soon, was the rumour going around. Hearing such things one cannot help thinking ‘Hope I am OK when that happens’.

Anyway another day was on us and a job had to be done

The Hunter has an Armament Safety Plug which makes all electrical armament circuits live when connected. It is plugged in just before TaxI out to ensure safety,in that no Armament is discharged in-inadvertently on the ground. The final action which makes the weapons LIVE to be fired is the retraction of the under carriage after take off.

I was to again fly today as wing-man to Boss in a strike on another Rail Head.
We finished the Briefing. The TOT was around noon. Start up , Taxi out and a line up for a right echelon section takeoff was uneventful. We were rolling for take off with the nose wheel off the ground when I felt a lurch to the left, and the
aircraft started pulling that a way. I applied rudder to correct and yanked her off the ground seconds ahead of Boss, who perhaps did not notice what was going on to his right.

My mind was racing as Boss put his wheels up and started to pull away.On Instinct I put my under carriage up,so as not to lag and got back into position. We continued on our mission with no R/T call by me, reporting the suspected Tyre blow out.No call from ATC too,perhaps they could see that well from the Bunker they were operating from.

The tester burst went off OK. (Short Gun Burst fired after crossing the border to check circuits are functional ). I maintained the Open Battle Position in the run in from IP. In the Pull up I fanned out as this was a area target and could be simultaneously tracked.

The attack was executed with precision with direct hits and long FG runs fired in parallel dives taking on different targets.My Bombs hit one end of the huge yard and the guns ripped open a few of what looked like storage sheds. Boss gathered up the formation by throwing a turn into me as I slipped into an open battle position. MIGs were on the ball as Boss called ‘Buster’ and we hugged the deck on the way home.

After peel off at base,our Escort MIGs set up a CAP for our Landing as there was an Air Raid Warning in place. On down wind I transmitted” Suspect LEFT Tyre burst, will be landing on Right Edge , request assistance”. Due to the Air Raid Warning there was no time for any fly past inspection, by ATC, who were anyway located in a Bunker

Landed and managed to control the aircraft and keep it on the concrete and cleared the runway.. ATC said “Jump out and get away from the aircraft.” I stood up on the seat with the Ejection seat Pin still out, managed to slide down over the Nose and drop to the ground in front of the aircraft.

No fire Tenders arrived, due to the Air Raid Alert. Luckily I was OK and there was no Fire at the shredded out tyre with an exposed rim, nor on the opposite side where heavy differential braking had occurred .

Not healthy to be on the Runway during an Air raid, I started running away from my aircraft. Memories of four Mirages tearing up their Target with long walking bursts were fresh enough to make me run as fast as I could. There is nothing more vulnerable than a sitting duck in the open during an Air Raid.
The Raid did not happen so an ALR jeep picked me up after the ‘All Clear’ was sounded.

We went thru the usual de-brief My attack Film showed a good job done. No hits taken by anybody.

Afterwards I was sipping a cuppa when Boss called me aside. “Tell me boy, do you have some sort of meter or Tyre pressure guage in the cockpit? How could you know in the Air, that your Left Tyre has burst?”.

I just kept looking at him.

“Tell me when did it burst?”

“On take off” I sheepishly replied.

He went ballistic, calling me a Mission crazy mad man who retracted a burning wheel into the tyre bay of a fully armed aircraft. You could have blown up your aircraft, he repeated a few times before telling me to get the hell out of his sight.

Later in the crew room we discussed this amongst us and I realized how close I may have come to killing myself. I should have kept the wheels down and aborted the mission.But then Boss would have had to abort too, as he could not go without a wing man. A senior pilot had gone alone, a few days ago.He was pounced upon by enemy fighters and shot down quite easily, after being sandwiched.

Looking back, I feel this was no dumb display of bravado but a reflex action in a hyper charged environment where most of us wanted to get the job done..

All I remember clearly is that I wanted to get back into position. Lagging by a wing-man is a cardinal sin.

Boss put up my name for a Vir Chakra that day but did not tell or congratulate me. That was another day behind us.

Day Twelve: 15th December 1971, Pathankot

A fighter Pilot’s biggest Nightmare is not getting killed but having to Eject in Enemy territory and that too near the Target which has been just attacked. Capture by angry civilians is about the worst thing that can happen to someone shot down.

All of us were required to memorize a personal background cover up story, in case captured. A rather useless ploy to sell to angry people who have been just bombed by you and your colleagues.They are going to let you have it, story or no story.

Anyway I had decided I would pretend to be a ‘Parsi Bawa’ as I could speak Gujarati and hope like hell that would spare the thrashing I believe there were Parsi Pilots in the PAF.

We had heard stories about Pilots being caught by the civilian mob after ejection. One guy had his own gun put to his head and the trigger pulled. Luckily the bloke had not loaded it, and the bullets were shoved into some pocket of his G-suit.The crowd shouted ‘Russian Russian’ as they beat him. This Anglo Indian could not speak Hindi to save his skin. The local Police arrived and took him away before too much damage was done.

Another guy was shot down in a dog fight over an enemy Airfield He was captured by local guards. PAF Officers came over in a jeep and took him to their crew room with his guard. There he met the pilot who had shot him down,a senior Squadron Ldr. They shook hands and our young Flying Officer was de-briefed about his mistakes which got him shot down. He was told that, he fought well for his experience. Bad luck that his adversary was far more experienced.

This guy was treated well, till he was taken away by the MPs (Military Police) who were not so well disposed to Pilots to start with, leave alone a downed enemy.

Some guys were not so lucky, for today we learned from our Intelligence that one pilot who was shot down whilst attacking a Rail Head was captured by a civilian mob. They beat him mercilessly and dragged him to the town square. There he was mutilated, tortured and finally his throat was slit. This was cold blooded Murder.

After hearing this, some of us decided not to Remove our Ejection Seat Safety Pin.This would prevent us from Ejecting in a dire situation, when panic could set in. Better to go down with the aircraft.

Boss told us we could take on Targets of Opportunity after engaging our primary Target. That meant a sort of free for all He thought we would vent off some of our anger that way.

Today I flew two identical missions with our target being the same Rail Head in a town. close to the border. The first mission was uneventful but let me talk about the second. I was to lead a two aircraft strike with 2×1000 lbs Bombs and Guns My No. 2 was a Mumbai boy and so was I. We were escorted by Gnats lead by my course mate, Son Of Rock Bedi, Fate had decided to pitch in our lot for this daunting task.

We struck late evening with a dusk recovery. One cannot screw up when the attacking such a large Target. Our Bombs were on the button, as Son of Rock shouted encouragement circling above the yard.. I remember him screaming “Chak de Chak de” on R/T.

In the second pass I opened up my Guns on some built up structures which could be in use for anything. I could see flashes of Anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground, so I gave a pretty long burst. One can see AA fire in front, as you enter the dive, but as you come closer the firing stops. Perhaps the gunners anticipating your burst, scamper for cover.

No 2 called ‘No Fire’ and caught up, with me in the turn. Son Of Rock positioned slightly above and behind us. I called 480 to give the Gnats some leverage, as I hit the deck. Past experience had shown they had problems keeping up LL if we went Buster and flew in excess of 500Kts.

I must admit that if any fear of getting shot/bounced ever went through my mind, it was at the time of a get away, after the attack was executed. A over whelming ‘ get the hell out of here’ feeling would come over me. This would vanish on first contact with friendly Radar, as we entered our own territory, squawking the designated IFF code (Identify Friend or Foe). It was a relief to hear Radar’s call ‘ Blood Stone Leader Identified , Your tail is clear’ to which I replied ‘ALL Four’. Meaning nobody was left behind.

After landing I saw that I had taken hits under wing and near the tail cone from a small caliber AA fire. Thank God for self -sealing fuel tanks.

In the de-brief Boss asked my No.2 why did he not fire his Guns? He bluntly replied he will not fire unless he can positively identify the target as Military. He added that some guys were fighting a personal war, but he had nothing personal to settle with the enemy. No comment from Boss. This goes to show the latitude given to Individual belief or principles, even during a War.

Boss then asked me what I had fired upon? I said built up structures near the Yard. Possibly storage sheds. Boss gave me a hard look, and told me for the record, Opportunity Targets meant Military Targets.. ‘Yes Sir’ was my reply, and we left.

As the days rolled on the crowd outside the Hotel would swell in the evening and wait to meet us, patiently standing the cold. This evening we were blessed by an old lady. who had brought ‘Krah Parsad’ for all of us after offering prayers for our well being.

Day Thirteen: 16th December 1971, Pathankot

Throughout the last thirteen days no Pilot in our Squadron was bounced and had to engage in Air combat. Perhaps one of the reasons was that an Airfield Strike was not given to us.

No complaints on that, for enemy Airfields were pretty well defended and their Radar cover did not allow any surprise element.They were always waiting at action Stations when the Strike came as we had seen others take losses. Most Airfield strikes were also engaged by enemy fighters both in the Approach and Get Away phase.

When attacking an Airfield certain points had to be kept at the back of your mind. During an attack, if AA (Anti Aircraft) fire was encountered, no worry about enemy fighters when pressing home the attack No AA fire will come up if their own fighters are milling around in the same sky. Therefore lack of AA fire, meant their Fighters are on patrol

Ironically we had to revise these tactics on the last day, though we did not know it would be so, at the time of flying the mission. I was to be No.2 in a four aircraft formation strike on a enemy Airfield. Boss was to lead. Ordnance was 2x1000lbs each. The two MIG Escort were armed with a single Gun and wing mounted Air to Air Missiles.

We took off in pairs, with Boss throwing an Orbit for the MIGs to get into position and then set course. Speed 420 kts which afforded maneuver ability both in a turn and the vertical plane, if bounced.

Boss’s TOT was to the second and the two of us pulled up for the single pass, Bomb Attack. MIGs pulled up behind us creating some lateral separation so that they could see our tails and would able to roll on to any bogey, who came between us and the MIGs.

AA was seen so the attack was pressed home without worrying about being bounced. My Bombs were un-loaded on a Hangar whilst Boss went for the Intersection.

Nos. 3 &4 continued skirting the Air field, keeping low so they could clear the tails of both the Hunters and the MIGs above them. We dropped our load at 3000 ft AGL, turned hard to avoid Debris Damage and continued the dive to get Low.As we hit the deck, I could see Nos 3& 4 pulling up on my right and the MIGs above them, so cross cover was maintained.

Called “Tail Clear”, as Boss threw a turn into 3&4 as they pulled out, crossed over right to left. behind and slightly above us and reversed. This allowed them to quickly join up in a open battle position. The MIGs who had kept an eye on everything going on below them, dropped one each, outside the flanks of our formation as we set course for base.

We were keeping our eyes peeled. Must have flown about 20 miles when the MIG leader called ‘ bogey 4 o clock, high, 2000 yds. Boss yelled ‘Hard Starboard’.We turned level giving her the Gun, whilst the MIGs pulled up.

The bogey, a single Mirage had to engage in a turning fight with the Hunters or go for the MIGs. Anyway he would have been sandwiched. Fighting 6 to 1 no matter how good your aircraft maybe is not healthy, even in your own air space.

He did what was the best in his situation.Turn 180 from his position opened up his burners and vanish.. Boss called Reverse’ and the formation turned towards home.

Why the single interceptor.? Or we saw only one.? Perhaps the Mirage was trying to sneak in a missile attack but could not get a ‘look down’ lock on due to the terrain. The important thing was he was spotted and engaged, before any damage was done.

Uneventful recovery.Back at the Base Ops AOC called us and said Good job Boys. The war is over. No Debrief.. The All missions on Standby signal had come from WAC, when we were still in the Air.

Later in the day, came the Declaration of an Unilateral Cease Fire, by the PM of India.

Back to the Hotel when it was still day time. The people in the street, stopped to cheer when we arrived Even the waiters thumped our backs. Lots of hand shakes all around. Generally the public appeared ‘Happy’ that it was over.

A distinguished looking Sikh Gentleman came over to the Hotel. He introduced himself as the President of the Pathankot Truck Owners Association. He invited us to Dinner at his place that evening. Many prominent Business folks were present there. Lots of praise and kudos. Lots of Scotch too.

We hit the Sack that night just happy that it was over and we were lucky to come through in one piece.

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