By Gp Capt Manna Murdeshwar (Retd)
At the end of August 65, the Pakistani Army made a concerted effort with troops and tanks to snap the vital road link to Jammu from Pathankot, hoping thereby to cut off Kashmir from India itself. Disconcerted by this manoeuvre and unable to face the onslaught, the Indian Army asked the Indian Air Force to interclude.
Not quite able to estimate the Pakistani intentions, Headquarters Western Air Command, (HQ WAC), in their collective wisdom, deployed a Squadron of aged Vampires based at Pathankot and tasked them to neutralize the menacingly advancing enemy troops and armour. Baying for blood, the Pakistani Sabres counter attacked these malevolent Vampires. The morale of the Indian Air Force came crashing down when four Vampires were shot down on the very day that they were called upon to play their role.
HQ WAC now shuddered into an alert mode as if someone had cracked the whip. Gnats, stationed for ORP duties at Ambala and Halwara (23 Sqn dett had moved from Ambala, with, Siki,. Pathania, Kitcha and Gill) were now asked to bare their fangs. The Ambala ‘ four’ that were named later, were Johnny Greene, AJS Sandhu, Trevor Keelor and me. Thus there were a total of six of us from 23 Squadron, and two from 2 Squadron comprising the two detachments who were ordered to move into Pathankot for a “Hum kuch kar dikhayenge” move.
It was at last light when our detachment of 4 Gnats cruised in from Ambala to shore their bets. The base was agog with everyone running around like headless chickens, filled with their own importance, but not knowing what exactly they had to do! The Officers’ Mess was over- crowded and the only things that seemed to suffice were eggs!!
Filled with a sense of mission and primed by months of “Day Fighter Leader’s Combat” training under Johnny Greene, all of us went into a huddle with some of the Base Commanders, to plan the task of drawing out the Sabres and shooting down at least one of them..
The plan that took shape was for the Mystéres (based at Pathankot) to impersonate the flying height and speed of Vampires and fly above the two formations of Gnats which would stealthily fly at a lower height. The Mystéres would act as decoys. Smelling blood the Sabres would expectedly streak out and the Mystéres, their “decoying” done, would dive down to low levels and return to base. It was then that the Gnats would pull up and “take on” the Sabres.
The next morning we followed this plan of action. We flew in two “finger four” formations. Johnny Greene led the first, with me as No.2, Trevor as No. 3 and Kitcha as No. 4. The trailing formation was led by Siki, with Pat as No. 2 AJS as No.3 and Gill, No. 4. As we were climbing to about 20G the Sabres apparently were directed on to us by their radar. I picked one of them on my tail, but before I could convey this to my leader I realised my R/T had failed. Fortunately for me, Trevor had spotted the same Sabre and gave us “a break” making the Sabre.’fall off’. Trevor now at an advantage “reached from the hip” and shot it quite a few times before pulling up. AJS from the trailing formation also got behind the Sabre and rained a few more bullets into it. Siki & Pat split up due to a F104 ‘s unsuccessful intrusion in our midst The lone kill from the melee was awarded to Trevor and we had our first war hero! Another memorable factor of the “battle’ was that we took part presumably, in the first live ‘close air combat’ since the Korean War!
We had all been wary of the ‘missile threat ‘ and the capabilities of the F 104s that the Pakistani Air Force possessed. But as we stepped into our cockpits that day, we became one with the lean mean flying machines that we operated. Besides the unpredictable R/T and Gun stoppages, the other disadvantage against the Sabres was that the Gnats had no flaps. The Sabres thus used this factor to their advantage. So whenever we successfully manoeuvered on to the Sabre’s tail, in our subsequent combats, they used their flaps at low levels to half roll and run off.. Notwithstanding these factors affecting our overall superiority, the Gnat could hold its own in any close air combat as we did in the innumerable air battles that followed. With all the advantages of its tiny size it proved to be a doughty fighter indeed!