When Old Warriors Meet

Reporting from “Air Force Station, Sydney”, Samir Chopra writes about a reunion meet in Australia that turned out to be a Historians dream

I’d been in contact with Wing Co Paddy Earle, now living in Canberra, recently–a real trip down memory lane for me. Paddy was CO 8 Sqn post-65 Ops and one of those few people who was a Wing Commander in a squadron that already had a WingCO as a CO–this was the story in 1965 with the Tigers led by Omi Taneja. In 1999, Sandeep Chabbra and Ragunath Nambiar repeated this feat with the Battleaxes during the Kargil Ops. I don’t know if its happened on other occasions. Paddy’s promised us a filled out questionnaire for the BR 1965 history project and has been wonderful, providing me many memories of the days he spent with my parents back in Jullundhur/Adampur from their days with the Tigers and Eighth Pursoot when my Dad and him flew Mysteres. Glory be to my Mom’s cooking for he still remembers her brinjal pickle. I was under the impression that housing problems on IAF bases started in the 1970s (I still remember the utter confusion in Hindon when the Lightings moved there from Pathankot). But they didn’t, since even back in 1964-65, there wasn’t enough housing for all the officers. As a result, Paddy and my Dad (along with one more person whose name escapes me now) would drive from Jullundhur City to Adampur in the mornings via carpool.

In any case, Paddy had promised to put me in touch with IAF folks here. Apparently IAF veterans here meet twice a year to commemorate the two Air Force Days in April and October. (I’m not sure if this is only those in the Sydney area), but since all the attendees lived in Sydney and its environs, I’m presuming this is the case. Perhaps there are other IAF chapters in other Aussie cities? This year’s organizer was Sunny Grewal, ex-Logistics, who had retired in the early 1990s and had moved to Australia. Paddy himself couldn’t make it, since he had to travel down to the South Coast and spend some time with his grandkids and Kit Carson (ex-CO 27 sqn) who was married to Paddy’s wife’s sister who, sadly, recently passed away.

I also learned that Jimmy Goodman (ex-CO 31 Sqn, 65 Ops) passed away earlier this year after a long, painful struggle with kidney ailments. Paddy was glad to see an end to his suffering; may his soul rest in peace. On the 27th, I took a train down to Regents Park, was picked up by Sunny and taken back to his place.

As I stepped out in the backyard, a dozen curious eyes turned towards me. I suppose, as a relative youngster, I stood out in that crowd. I introduced myself and soon, after being asked by Sunny what my poison was, and armed with a stubby, turned to conversation. In what follows, please correct names, dates and historical details since I did not take along a notepad and pen, and am essentially reconstructing this all from memory.

In order of introduction, roughly, I first met Charlie Ferndandez 51/52 F(P) – Spitfires, Tempests, Vampires (4 Sqn). Charlie had flown with my Dad in 4 Sqn in the Vampire days. He was from, I believe the first post-independence batch and had to suffer one delay after the other in graduating. At the end, I think two courses were combined and he finally graduated in 1949/50, missing out on the 1947-48 Ops. Like all Spitfire pilots, he confessed a love for the plane.

Then there was Reginald Oliver 60 F(P) – Spitfires, Tempests, Vampires, and who had commanded an Otter squadron at Adampur during the 1965 Ops. Reg also put the Spitfire at the top of his list. Like other Adampur pilots in those days he had plenty of praise for the crack PAF B-57 pilot—‘8 Pass Charlie’—“a bloody ace”, a term used by Paddy as well! Some of his descriptions of the B-57 making a circuit, coming back in low over the field to drop its load at night with AA fire blazing away were amazingly vivid.

I then turned to Freddie Josephs 62 F(P)- Vampires, 3 Sqn Mysteres in 65 Ops. Freddy belonged to the first batch that was split into Vampires and Tempests on graduation. This was the first contact I had had with any of 3 Sqns pilots from those ops and I enjoyed my conversation with him tremendously. Freddie described the circumstances behind Sqn Ldr Jasbeer Singhs death in the 65 Ops–his partners on that sortie were Irani and Doraiswamy–very vividly and with a tinge of that sadness that is evoked in recounting the passing away of a respected friend. Freddie told me how Paul Roby suffering terribly from haemorroids, had flown the first Mystere sorties of the 1965 war over Chamb and had come back with his cockpit seat soaked in blood. He also had high words of praise for Trilochan `Tango’ Singh and Omi Taneja (who he swore flew the Spitfire like nobody’s business). Freddie really seems to have an amazing memory and eye for detail. Happily, he is keen to help with IAF history projects in general, and I hope to make a trip to his Blue Mountains house near Katoomba very soon.

Then an utterly unexpected encounter as I ran into Des Peters who had retired from the IAF in 1964 and had flown with EAC squadrons before then. Des went on to fly with Kalinga Airways in the East. One point worth bringing up is the difficult flying done in the Eastern sector through fog-filled valleys and hills. I heard the story of a pilot who had mushed into a hillside after a four-aircraft sortie had tried to climb out of a valley near Shillong. Paddy had also mentioned this in the context of CI operations done by Toofanis against the Nagas, saying the flying was very difficult. Des knows Alfred Cooke (aka Mr. Kalaikunda aka Mr. one-IAF Hunter-is-good-enough-for-four-PAF Sabres) who now lives in Brisbane. Alfie’s son is now a navigator with the RAAF. Des has promised me contact details for `Alfie’. Des lives close by in Bondi Beach, and I might take him up on his invite to go over for a beer and shoot the breeze.

alt Old Warriors Reunion : L to R, ??, Charlie Fernandez, Peter Brown, Freddie Joseph, Des Peters (blue shirt),
Reg Oliver (red shirt).

Then there was Peter Brown who apparently had either attended or knew about a gunnery meet in 1962/63 held in the US which Jimmy Bhatia, DS Brar (amongst others) had taken part in. The IAF pilots flew Sabres and topped the international pilots meet. I need to find out more about this particular meet. There was much praise from several present for DS Brar, an ex-Tigers pilot and 65 Ops veteran who now lives in Sydney but is a bit reclusive, and who apparently had once successfully dead-sticked a Mig-21. Peter is still in touch with top brass in India, and as a very nice touch, had brought back had brought back Training Command ties and calendars from AM Master as gifts for some of the ‘boys’. Peter flew with 8 Sqn Mysteres after the war when it was commanded by Paddy Earle and was in Jodhpur during the ops, putting up with the B-57 raids throughout.

I don’t know how this happened but all the attendees were completely unaware of the Bhatia-Sekhon episode. I had to break the unpleasant news to them and it wasn’t nice doing so (I said this in response to Brown saying “By the way, guess who is C-in-C of Southern Command? Manjit Singh Sekhon!”). There were two reactions. Sadness at Bhatia’s and Sekhon’s end, and roars of grudging admiration at his flying in bringing back the AN-32 (if the full story is to be believed, it came back on one engine to base). At the same time, Oilver said that Jimmy was responsible as senior officer on board for *anything* that happened on the flight.

Then amazingly there was Grp Capt Krishnan – Technical Officer – and 92 years old and I’m told, one of the oldest surviving IAF veterans. His service number is in the 2000s! I was gratified to see how fit and trim he looked. Though a bit frail, he was absolutely chipper and a keen participant in the conversation.

Then Hilly Burns – 62 F(P) — I couldn’t get more details from him but lots of names dropped — also another person who had known my Dad back from Vampire days with 4 Sqn. Then there was a gentleman whose first name I missed but whose last name was Locksley – Technical Officer, who had worked on some “Blue” project in the past for precision bombing. Does anyone know more about this? Locksley remembers the Sengupta/Rampal shooting downin 1959 quite clearly—saying that those Canberra flights over Pakistan were routine and that they basically didn’t think they would ever get shot down. Sengupta’s turn for home probably brought him down, down to the Sabres ceiling. In the Sengupta/Rampal shootdown, apparently Sengupta’s coursemate from pre-partition days was in the PAF search party that came looking for the pilots!

A Bengali gentleman whose name I missed had been a photorecce analyst with 106 PR Squadron and confirmed this tale. There was plenty of gossip thrown around, not all of it repeatable on this list. Lots of opinions of pilots they had worked with: Johnny Greene, Boman Irani, Bharat Singh, Jasbeer Singh, Omi Taneja, Aubrey Mike, Chico Bose and so many others that I can’t remember them all. I’m sure it’ll all come back.

There were some technical comments. For instance, the assessment of 65 Ops included the statement that tactically, some Hunter pilots had paid the price for trying to engage Sabres in the horinzontal plane where it was outmatched (turns) rather than in the vertical plane (climbs) where it could outclass the Sabre.

Apparently an ex-PAF pilot had attended one of these reunions a couple of years ago. Not sure how that was arranged. In any case, one of the things he said was that PAF pilots in 1965 were quite intimidated by the Gnat. There was also the inevitable friendly jousting about squadrons, with Charlie claiming that a Flaming Arrow stood no chance against a Battleaxe! There were also groans when I told them that 15 years ago, I had taken the exam for 143 F(P): “christ, now I know I’m getting old—can’t believe course numbers are so high!”.

Those are the bare details. So many names, incidents and events got talked about in front of me that I couldn’t take it all in. I just sat there and drank in as much as I could, flitting from conversation to conversation. It was strange to see so many legend’s names tossed about and casually mentioned. It might have been a bit crass to run around, bugging everyone for names, numbers and details whille they were basically just trying to relax, but I managed to talk about BR’s history projects and interests and got a couple of phone numbers and emails. I was glad to see that nobody had to keep coming over to our bench to ask us for drinks.

As the stubbies were emptied, the old-timers got up, walked over to the esky and helped themselves. There was a huge lunch of course, done in the pot-luck style of the IAF parties that I remember. The food was wonderful, someone had even cooked up a lamb vindaloo. As the evening wound down, we moved indoors, as Sydney autumns are mild, but can have a bit of a nip at times. Earlier in the day, as I sat outside in the bright sunshine looking at the beer glasses, and listening to the conversation around me, I could have closed my eyes and been transported back to Wellington, Pathankot, Halwara, Adampur, Hashimara, Kalaikunda, Bareilly, Tezpur and all those places that really aren’t places on a map but in the mind. As people started to take their leave, I stood outside with Reg Oliver chatting. Reg poignantly remarked, “We moved because of our children and their lives, but I knew I was leaving my entire life behind. They were the best years of my life and I’ll never forget them”. There was the inevitable tea session when memories of the rough first few years in Australia after migration were talked about. I cringed at hearing some of the things that these wonderful families had had to put up with. In the end, the evening wound down, everyone left, and I was left with enough memories again to sustain me for a while.

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