No.5 Squadron

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Shakti Vijayate – Strength is Victory

by K Sree Kumar

You would expect No 5 Squadron, Indian Air Force, to be one of the ten squadrons that were raised before Independence, wouldn’t you? After all, IAF squadrons bearing the numbers from 1 to 4, as well as those from 6 to 10, were all raised before Independence, mostly during the Second World War.

But as it turns out, No 5 Squadron, IAF, is not one of those raised before Independence. The reason is simple – 5 Squadron of the Royal Air Force was based in India, from 1920 until the very eve of Independence in 1947; and the colonial authorities of the time felt that to have another squadron in India with the same number would have caused confusion. So as IAF squadrons were being raised, during the Second World War, number 5 was simply skipped.

In point of fact No 5 Squadron, of what is now the Indian Air Force, was raised only in late 1948. It took on charge the first of a number of formerly American-owned (but British-operated) Second World War-era heavy bombers that were being restored to flying condition in India. It has retained – and discharged, with distinction – a primarily offensive operational role for the Indian Air Force, in the half-century since then.

Formation, and the Liberator period

No 5 Squadron, Royal Indian Air Force, formed at Kanpur on 2 November 1948, under the command of Wing Commander JRS “Danny” Dantra. Within a couple of months, it had moved to Poona (now Pune), which was to remain its base for the next eight years.

In the fledgeling post-Independence RIAF, which consisted at the time of a handful of fighter squadrons and one transport squadron, No 5 Squadron was formed to assume the heavy bomber role. This was the first time an Indian unit was taking on this mantle – the IAF had previously operated only dive-bombers and fighter-bombers in the strike role.

No 5 equipped, as it was being raised, with Consolidated B-24 Liberators. These aircraft were the first of about 40-odd that were being refurbished and restored to flying condition by the IAF and HAL, from the derelict remnants of a number of Lend-Lease aircraft that had been wrecked and abandoned in India at the end of the Second World War. These aircraft, American-owned but British-operated, were all veterans of service with Air Command South-East Asia (ACSEA), in the China-Burma-India theatre, during the War. The story of how this particular aircraft type, and these restored examples, became the first heavy bombers operated by the Indian Air Force is an interesting story in its own right.

No 5 Squadron formed with the first six of these aircraft that were restored in India. As more and more Liberators were refurbished and restored to flying condition, the squadron gradually built up to its Unit Establishment of 16 aircraft. The Liberator was the only four-engined aircraft being operated by the IAF at the time, which imposed its own learning curve.

Sadly Wg Cdr Dantra, the squadron’s first CO, was killed in a ground-running accident at Poona. He was succeeded in command of the squadron by Wing Commander H S R Gohel. After nearly two years at the helm of No 5 Squadron, Wg Cdr Gohel moved on to raise No 6 Squadron, the IAF’s second Liberator unit, also based at Poona, in 1951.

Although based at Poona the squadron detached regularly to Jamnagar, to carry out bombing exercises at the range there. It helped to pioneer horizontal bombing techniques for the Indian Air Force. The IAF’s prior experience, of operating Vengeance dive-bombers, and single-seater fighters such as Hurricanes and Tempests as fighter-bombers, did not translate into immediately comparable experience. There would have been little support from anywhere else to develop this capability, which would have been regarded as essentially offensive. The IAF had to develop horizontal bombing techniques pretty much on its own, and No 5 Squadron did much to do so.

During its time flying Liberators, the squadron also carried out Fighter Affiliation duties – acting as targets for IAF fighters practising interception techniques. Interestingly, this was also a duty carried out by ACSEA Liberators – possibly by the very same airframes – during their earlier avatar in this part of the world.

In early 1957 the squadron ceased to operate as a Liberator unit. The last CO of the squadron during its Liberator-operating period, Wing Commander Piloo Mehta, like some of his predecessors, and together with many of his contemporary Liberator-qualified aircrew and groundcrew, remained with the IAF’s Liberator fleet, moving to No 6 Squadron when No 5 ceased operating this type.

Conversion to Canberras:

In January 1957 the English Electric Canberra was selected by the Indian Air Force, to equip its bomber and strategic reconnaissance units. IAF aircrew and ground crew received initial training in the UK, with the RAF at Basingstoke, and also with English Electric and Rolls Royce particularly for the ground crew. These crews began ferrying Canberras to India in May 1957. On 1 September 1957 No 5 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander (Later Air Commodore) WR Dani, became the first IAF squadron to re-equip with the B(I)58 bomber-interdictor version of the Canberra, the version that was to be most widely operated by the IAF. (No 106 Squadron, specialising in strategic reconnaissance, had formed on a PR variant of the Canberra shortly before, nominally becoming the IAF’s first Canberra unit.) The squadron had moved to Agra, which was to become the IAF’s main Canberra base, in May of that year.

PMW Canberra Group small

No. 5 Squadron’s flight commander, Sqn Ldr PM Wilson poses along with the ground crew of the Squadron.

As the IAF’s senior bomber unit No 5 Squadron, together with the co-located and similarly Canberra-equipped Jet Bomber Conversion Unit (JBCU), pioneered and developed operational doctrines for the use of the Canberra in the IAF. The Canberra had been originally designed for high-altitude horizontal bombing, but that approach had been developed at a time when the SAM threat hardly existed. By the time the Indian Air Force acquired the Canberra, SAMs were becoming far more capable at high altitudes. The IAF’s assessment of the relative threat at different altitudes, in the environments in which they operated, was that staying low was preferable. (This assessment was probably confirmed, in IAF minds, by the Gary Powers U-2 shoot-down incident.) The IAF therefore began the process of developing attack profiles which involved penetrating hostile airspace at low level, climbing to height just before reaching the target, releasing bombs and then diving back to low-level for egress. These tactics were not yet fully developed, however, when IAF Canberras were called to war.

Operations in the Congo

In 1961, No 5 Squadron IAF contributed a detachment to ONUC, the United Nations’ multinational force in the Congo. The Canberra was selected in preference to other possible types, because of its relatively long range and endurance, and its carriage of a navigator and airborne navigation aids. These were considered essential because of the frequent tropical storms and lack of ground-based navigation aids and infrastructure in the tropical environs of the operation. During its period of service with ONUC, No 5 Squadron Detachment represented the only long-range attack capability available to the UN for its military mission in the Congo.

Six Canberras of the squadron were ferried initially to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in October 1961, to operate later from Elizabethville and the former NATO airbase at Kamina. The Detachment, initially consisting of twelve aircrew and 150 groundcrew, was led by Wing Commander (later Air Commodore) AIK (“Sue”) Suares, VrC. As is often the case in UN operations, they had to operate under stringent Rules of Engagement – for political reasons, they were not initially permitted to drop bombs; and were restricted to using rockets and cannon. Under the burden of these restrictions, in December 1961, No 5 Squadron Detachment went into action.

One of its first missions, on 5 December 1961, was a long-range counter-air operation at 1,300 km range, to attack the main Katangan rebel airbase at Kolwezi, which the Katangans had thought too far from UN airfields to be attacked. The attacking Canberras destroyed a number of aircraft of the rebels’ air arm, the so-called Force Aérienne Katangaise, on the ground. The aircraft destroyed in that first attack included a particularly iconic Fouga Magister that had been used in prior months, flown by European mercenary pilots contracted by the Katangan rebels, to very effectively harass the UN ground forces. The Canberras also destroyed a number of FAK transport aircraft, believed to include two Dorner 28s, a Dakota, a DC-4 and a Dove. In a second strike on Kolwezi, the Detachment destroyed fuel storage tanks.

The Detachment’s attacks were carried out in the teeth of hostile fire, and Wg Cdr Suares’s own navigator, Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice Marshal) MM Takle, was wounded in the second attack. Nevertheless the Canberra raids, carried out at a range that the Katangan rebels had assumed to be impossible, and the destruction of most of the Katangans’ aircraft, are believed to have deeply demoralised the Katangans’ mercenary aircrew. Many of them simply abandoned their contracts, following the Canberras’ raids, and made off to Angola, then still Portuguese-held.

A Canberra B(I)58 at Congo sports the Tusker's badge on the aircraft in 1961 Shoulder Patch of the Tuskers
The emblem of No 5 Squadron Air Force is a fully grown Asian wild elephant. The mighty ‘Tusker’ with raised trunk is shown trumpeting before the charge symbolising the enormous strength that could be harnessed in order to impart crushing blows.

No 5 Squadron Detachment also participated in a major ground operation against Katangan rebel forces, strafing ground targets and delivering close air support during the battle for Elizabethville. The exploits of this first detachment are vividly documented in this photo album.

A second detachment from No 5 Squadron, which served with ONUC from February to October 1962, was led by Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) Saroj Jena. There were no shooting opportunities for this second detachment, but they provided road and airfield reconnaissance services, both visual and photographic, as well as occasional cover for transport and search-and-rescue missions.

For services in the Congo, Wg Cdr Suares was awarded a bar to his Vir Chakra. Flt Lt Takle also received the Vir Chakra, and Flight Lieutenant P Gautam received the Vayu Sena Medal, the first of three gallantry decorations that this remarkable officer was to earn in combat. Five VSMs were also awarded to squadron personnel. Several other IAF aircrew, who were to win recognition in later conflicts, had their first exposure to action in the Congo. No 5 Squadron’s experience in the Congo was effectively the first time the IAF used jet aircraft in combat.

1965 India Pakistan War

During the 1965 war, No 5 Squadron was commanded by Wing Commander (later AirMarshal) Prem Pal Singh. As expected of a squadron with an offensive role, the Tuskers took the war straight to the heart of the PAF establishment. They raided Sargodha on the night of 6/7 September itself (the very night that the IAF was cleared to conduct offensive operations), and something like half a dozen times more in the course of the war. Wg Cdr Singh personally flew six missions between the 6th and the 9th, his leadership being recognised through the early announcement of a gallantry award.

On the night of 13/14 September the squadron carried out a particularly unexpected and unprecedented attack, on the PAF base at Peshawar. This base was so deep in enemy territory (closer, indeed, to the Afghan border than to the Indian) that the PAF had assumed it was safe from IAF attack. They were using it as the night harbour at which to concentrate their strategic assets of the time, their B-57 force. The Tuskers were to prove the PAF as wrong about the immunity of Peshawar as the Katangans had been about Kolwezi. Led by their Senior Flight Commander of the time, Squadron Leader JC “Boss” Verma, and bombing on the fires of a Target Indicator Bomb planted by Tusker alumnus Sqn Ldr P Gautam, VM (now commanding the co-located JBCU) and his navigator Flight Lieutenant Deshpande, No 5 Squadron surprised the PAF in harbour, deep within their own territory. They damaged the runway and BPIs, and threatened the entire PAF B-57 force with destruction, eliciting respectful comments even from Pakistani chroniclers. They evaded interception and at least one missile launch by PAF F-104s, aimed at Squadron Leader VC Goodwin, and returned to base without loss. This raid may have contributed to Pakistan’s uneasy perception that it lacks strategic depth.

The squadron also attacked several other PAF airbases during the war, including Akwal, Chaklala, Dab, Murid, Risalwala, and Wagowal. The squadron also provided close support to the Indian Army, attacking enemy troop concentrations at Chawinda, Kasur, Khem Karan, Pasrur and Sialkot. Altogether, the squadron flew around 300 sorties in the course of the war. Most of its counter-air sorties were undertaken at night, while those on enemy troop concentrations were often undertaken in daylight.

The squadron lost one aircraft, returning from yet another raid on Sargodha, to a Sidewinder attack by a PAF F-104, on the penultimate day of the war. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant MM Lowe, instructed his navigator to bail out, and ejected only after hearing his navigator’s hatch open. Sadly the navigator (against whom, as a consequence of the lack of a navigator’s ejection seat in the Canberra, the odds of survival were always stacked), Flight Lieutenant KK “Raj” Kapur, was lost. Flt Lt Lowe was captured and made PoW. He was repatriated to India only in early 1966.

For services during the 1965 war, Wg Cdr PP Singh was awarded the MVC. Four VrCs (Squadron Leaders SN Bansal and C Mehta, and Flight Lieutenants HS Mangat and PRDastidar), and three VSMs were awarded to personnel of the squadron. In addition 14 personnel of the squadron were Mentioned in Despatches.

1971 Bangladesh War

The squadron was led into war for the third time in 1971, commanded by Wing Commander (later Group Captain) Man Mohan Bir Singh Talwar. The squadron as usual took its war deep into enemy country; but by this time the Canberra was definitely obsolescent. This was reflected in higher losses, even though the squadron did not allow itself to slow down.

Following Pakistan’s attempted pre-emptive air strike on Indian airbases at dusk on 3 December1971, the IAF’s bomber units, which came under the operational control of Central Air Command, were among the first to receive orders to retaliate. The Tuskers were airborne ten minutes before midnight the same night, demonstrating a remarkably short reaction time. Determinedly, they went straight back into the inhospitable skies over Sargodha.

During this war the squadron also participated more directly in the land battle, particularly over Chhamb. They carried out some daylight attacks on enemy artillery positions in that sector. They also attacked the PAF bases at Chander and Risalwala, to help reduce the PAF’s ability to support Pakistani ground operations in Chhamb.

The Tuskers also carried out some sorties in the Eastern sector, and are among the relatively small number of Indian military units which can claim battle honours from both the Eastern and Western fronts during the 1971 war. The squadron again flew about 300 sorties during the 14-day war, almost the same as in 1965, though over a slightly shorter period, suggesting an even more intensive tempo. This time, around half its sorties were flown in daylight, despite the dangers of flying strike missions in such relatively slow aircraft without the cover of darkness.

Losses, sadly, were more severe than in 1965. On the night of 4/5 December, the squadron lost an aircraft and its crew, Flight LieutenantsSKGoswami and SCMahajan, during a raid on Mianwali. They are believed to have been intercepted and shot down by a PAF Mirage. On the night of 10/11 December the squadron lost another aircraft and its crew, to unknown causes. Flight Lieutenants RD Naithani, G Theophilus, and Manohar Purohit, returning from attacking the railway marshalling yard at Lodhran, crashed on our side of the border.

For services during this war, Wg Cdr MMBS Talwar was decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra. Three other personnel of the squadron (Squadron Leaders RC Kohli and DC Bhandari, and Flight Lieutenant HP Singh) received Vir Chakras.

Conversion to Jaguars

Although the IAF’s need to replace its Canberras had been evident for some time even before the ’71 war, there were delays in awarding a contract against the long-standing Air Staff Requirement for their replacement, known as the Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft requirement. As a result of these delays, No 5 Squadron continued to operate Canberras throughout the 1970s.

The Tuskers were awarded the President’s Colours on 9 April 1975 by the then President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. They were the first IAF bomber unit to be so honoured.

The squadron finally stood down as a Canberra unit at Agra in 1981, giving up the classic first-generation jet that had served as its mount for nearly a quarter of a century, through three conflicts on two continents.

It re-formed at Ambala soon afterwards, on 1 August 1981, under the command of Wing Commander (later Air Vice Marshal, and the current Commodore Commandant of the squadron) JS Sisodia, moving on to a new generation of aircraft and equipment with the Sepecat Jaguar strike aircraft. It reformed initially around a small nucleus of officers and men drawn from No 14 Squadron, the first IAF unit to operate the Jaguar.

With the Jaguars as with the Canberras, No 5 Squadron was nominally the second IAF unit to form on the type. But yet again as with the Canberra, it was the first to form on the mainstream variant, the so-called “Direct Supply” examples. (No 14 Squadron was at the time still operating Jaguars of a slightly older production standard, originally built for the RAF and made available to the IAF on an interim basis.) No 5 Squadron was the first unit to receive aircraft built specifically to the IAF’s Standard of Preparation, which included for example uprated Adour 804E engines with 27% more combat thrust than the original Adour102s.

Besides the strike role common to all Jaguar units, No 5 Squadron also assumed a reconnaissance role, initially using BAe-supplied pods. They later standardised on Vinten pods, which incorporate both photographic and IR sensors, for use respectively by day and by night. For a considerable period, they were the only squadron using the reconnaissance pods, and capable of discharging the demanding requirements of the fighter-reconnaissance role by both day and night.

In July 1988 the squadron participated in Operation PAWAN, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka. Its CO at the time was Wing Commander (now Air Vice-Marshal) AK Singh. In the early days of the Operation, the squadron flew long-range reconnaissance missions, actually launching from locations well inside peninsular India, over-flying Jaffna, and then returning to India, often at night. The squadron was on alert to carry out strike missions as well, particularly during the withdrawal of the IPKF, but were stood down without having to use their weapons in anger in that conflict. Wg Cdr Singh received a Vayu Sena Medal in the Republic Day Honours List in 1989.

As Jaguar type enthusiasts and IAF watchers are aware, IAF Jaguars from Batch Two onwards carried an avionics fit generally known as the NavWASS [Navigation and Weapon-Aiming Sub-Systems] fit, broadly comparable to the avionics fit in the RAF’s GR1 variant. Later production examples of the IAF’s Jaguar fleet received a second-generation avionics configuration, known as the DARIN [Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation] fit. No 5 Squadron today remains the last IAF unit primarily operating aircraft with the older, NavWASS fit. Veterans of the squadron see this as a tribute rather than otherwise, to IAF commanders’ breezy confidence in the squadron’s ability to deliver weapons squarely onto its targets by old-fashioned means. Notwithstanding the older electronic aids carried by its aircraft, the squadron in recent years has taken bombing and gunnery trophies at inter-unit meets, against competition which included aircraft with more modern avionics; re-establishing its old reputation in this regard.

No 5 Squadron continues to fly today, still operating Jaguars, for its continuing strike and reconnaissance roles. It continued to proudly display the Tuskers’ badge on the noses of its aircraft, until recent changes in camouflage policy for all IAF combat aircraft took effect. The squadron’s aircraft now wear a relatively anonymous overall grey scheme (confirmed by currently serving personnel to be highly effective at reducing visibility), without visible squadron markings. But it still trains, as it has always done, to take its war into the enemy’s airspace.

In fifty years the squadron that did not form, for fear of confusion till after the RAF squadron bearing the same number had disbanded, has established an identity and track record that is in no danger of being confused with anyone else’s. They remain the only IAF combat unit to have served on another continent, after Independence. Whatever else you say of No 5 Squadron, Indian Air Force, their story is certainly unique.


List of Commanding Officers of No.5 Squadron

Gallantry and Service Awardees of 5 Squadron

Aircraft Types operated by 5 Squadron

Aircraft Type From To
B-24 Liberator Nov 1948 Feb 1957
English Electric Canberra B(I)58 Sep 1957 Jul 1981
Jaguar IS Aug 1981 Till Date
Other Types operated by the Squadron as trainer aircraft: Jaguar IT

Locations of the Squadron

Locations From To
Kanpur Nov 1948 Dec 1948
Pune Jan 1949 Feb 1957
Agra Sept 1957 July 1981
Ambala Aug 1981 Till Date

Chopra, Pushpindar Singh,
Aircraft of the Indian Air Force 1933-73
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh,
“Canberras in the Congo”, 1982; reproduced at Bharat-Rakshak
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh,
“The Decade of the Shamsher”, Air International, November 1988
Chopra, Pushpindar Singh,
“English Electric Canberra”, in Vayu Aerospace Review, VI/1987
No 5 Squadron history page at the Indian Air Force official web-site
The 1965 India Pakistan Air War Project , at Bharat Rakshak
Dr. S N Prasad, Official History of the 1965 war(Available on the Internet)
Dr. S N Prasad, Official History of the 1971 war (Available on the Internet)
Unpublished recollections of serving and retired IAF aircrew and groundcrew.

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