By Air Mshl S Raghavendran
The day was 6th September, 1965, the day The Indian Air Force was used across the Indo-Pak border in the ’65 conflict.
No 23 Squadron, under my command, had assembled in dribs and drabs at Pathankot (That is another story, which I will recount one day). We were ‘THE REDOUBTABLE GNAT SQUADRON’. Our duty at that time was primarily to do ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) duties due to the mounting tension in the Indo-Pak relations. Already the Pakistani Air force had shot down four of our Vampires and my squadron had shot down two Sabres, all over Indian Territory. I had joined the detachment only a couple of days before. For the uninitiated, ORP duties meant that the aircraft and pilots were at the ready at the end of the runway, ready to take off when an order is given by the Air Defence System, when they detected any enemy formation approaching, and intercept it. We could start up within 75 seconds of receiving the order to ‘scramble’, while the pilots were at rest in the bunker and be airborne to meet any threat within two minutes. This was a timing that couldn’t be matched by any interceptor fleet in the world. Most would do it in two minutes with their pilots in ‘cockpit readiness’.
The first set of ORP Aircrew (four of us including me) arrived in the underground bunker long before dawn and was ready to leap into the air. Soon afterwards we heard the Mystere aircraft on the base taking off. We rushed out and saw them taking off with full ‘war load’ on!! We were jumping with joy because, at last, we were attacking ‘The Enemy’!! We had not known about the attack missions as a part of the ‘Need to know’ basis on which such missions are ordered.
As soon as I was relieved from the standby duty, I rushed across to the offices of the Mystere Squadron Commanders to find out which airfields they had struck. Surprise and Shock!! No airfield had been attacked. I just couldn’t believe it!! I have always wondered what the logic was. I don’t have any authentic answers since I was low on the totem pole, as just a squadron commander, to be privy to the ‘Big Picture’ of the Operational Strike Plans. But one theory advanced was that it was the policy of the Government that we would not strike their bases unless our bases were attacked. Another theory was that the ‘Powers that be’ felt that the hierarchy in the Air Forces on the two sides had been comrades together before partition and if you were chivalrous and comradely enough not to attack their bases, they wouldn’t attack ours!!
But we were thinking at squadron commander level and I was sure as fate that we would be attacked at dusk. Even though everybody knows that dusk or dawn is when attacks come, those are still the preferred times that attacks are carried out, mostly because the chances of successful pursuit is less. I also knew of Nur Khan, the Pak air chief , by reputation. He was a ‘killer’ boxer and devout Muslim in school, RIMC in Dehra Dun. He had a plethora of ‘professional’ role models of ex alumni of RIMC including Prem Bhagat, the first Indian Victoria Cross awardee in World War II. His predecessor as the air chief in Pakistan was Asghar Khan, also from RIMC, who was another ‘professional’. Between them they had built up a tradition of professionalism and one couldn’t possibly expect them to let the Indian Air Force get away with it.
So I went to the Station commander, Group Captain Roshan Suri, and asked him for permission to take up a four air craft Combat Air Patrol over the airfield at 5.30 PM. He said he would think about it. I kept going to him, phoning him or intercepting him when he visited the squadrons during the day. At first he said he would let me know. Then he said that the ORP aircraft were not to be touched and so I must get eight aircraft on the line before he could authorize it. I had only about ten aircraft available in Pathankot altogether at that time but managed to get eight serviceable and went back to him in the afternoon. He said he would let me know.
I had in mind that the other three would be Johnny Greene, Trevor Keelor and Ajax (Kala) Sandhu, all of whom had a very high rating as determined and capable combat pilots. I was pretty sure of myself as a combat pilot. We were supremely confident of the maneuverability of the Gnat aircraft and its two 30mm cannons.
When I went to the Station Commander around 4 PM, he floored me with a different plan. At this time, the first Mig 21 squadron was operational and two of their aircraft with their Commanding officer, Mally Wollen, and his flight commander Laddu Sen had been allocated to Pathankot for operational duties. These were the days when the Mig 21 was very new and we had not learned to exploit it like we did later. It was strictly a high level interceptor and the pilots flew with the kind of gear meant for altitude, including a helmet that resembled an astronaut’s. It carried only two K-13 missiles and no guns. The plan was that they would get airborne around 6 PM, climb to 40000 feet altitude and do supersonic runs in the vicinity. Obviously these tracks would be picked up by Pakistani radar. This was expected to put the fear of God into the Pak commanders, who would then not attack our airfield.
The Mystere and Gnat squadron commanders, their flight commanders and senior pilots were ordered to attend the briefing of the Mig formation, which we all did. After an impressive briefing the pilots picked up their space helmets, tucked them under their arms and walked out towards their aircraft, which had been pushed out of their blast pens for starting up and going. I am not sure of the exact time but I have a vague memory that it was just about 5.30 PM.
THAT IS WHEN THEY STRUCK!!
There was pandemonium. Bullets were flying all around. We all rushed to the nearest trench and dived in, not sitting and crouching as it should have been but flat on top of each other!! We could hear and see the Pakistani pilots going round and round like in range practice and picking off all the possible aircraft, including the two Mig 21s, in spite of the anti-aircraft guns blazing away. The rest is history. Later on we were told that four Sabres had attacked but since they were going round and round we couldn’t count them accurately whenever we put our head up in the trench.
THERE WENT MY MAHAVIR CHAKRA!!
And, perhaps, three Vir Chakras for the squadron. Fortunately, Keelor had already been awarded his Vr.C and Ajax Sandhu got his with a ‘kill’ later on. I recommended Johnny Greene (who was on attachment to my squadron) for a Vr.C at the end of the war, for sustained leadership as a flight commander in my squadron during the War. Though I was told that Vr.C is given only for individual acts of bravery, I had my way and it was awarded.
I have no doubts that none of the Pakistani aircraft would have gone back had the four Gnats been airborne. I am not saying it out of bravado. At Halwara four Hunter aircraft had been put on combat air patrol and three Sabre aircraft that visited there were shot down, even one by a pilot officer!! We would have done just as well, I am sure, with our high caliber team, Unfortunately, the anti-aircraft guns didn’t get any of them either and so they got away with it!!
Fortunately, the Pakistani attackers committed the same mistake that the Japanese did at Pearl Harbour. They attacked and certainly caused loss of aircraft but the infrastructure such as refueling capabilities, armament stores etc were left intact. So was the runway and the taxi tracks. So, we were operationally ready immediately and were on Combat Air Patrol from the next morning, throughout the day!! How I wished every time that I was airborne for the endless Combat Air Patrols for the rest of the war that the Station Commander had listened to my pleas. Memory is fading but I think the only aircraft that my squadron lost in the attack was due to flames jumping from the only refueling bowser that got hit, in the next pen, while refueling a Mystere. This was replaced from our Base Repair Depot in a matter of days.
The Pakistani Air Force never attacked our airfields again, most likely because of the loss of all aircraft that attacked Halwara. A somewhat small Air Force like the Pakistani one just cannot afford that rate of attrition.
The only aircraft airborne from our side at Pathankot was flown by Pilot Officer Mike McMahon, who had recently been posted to No.31 Squadron and had been sent up for a training sortie. He was near the airfield waiting to join circuit to land. He was instructed on the R/T to stay away from the airfield till the attack was over and then come back. I presume that ATC officer was lying on the floor when he passed this message as he was under attack!! McMahon survived, as the Pakistanis didn’t notice the ‘Lone Ranger’, and carried on to be an Air Marshal and Vice Chief of Air Staff, one day.
We were piled six or seven deep in the trench. The man at the bottom of the pile screamed ‘I am getting suffocated, I am getting suffocated’. The man on top of the pile, whose butt was sticking out above the lip of the trench replied ‘would you like to change places!!’.