Many moons ago I had requested Wg Cdr MY Kasbekar (Retd), Bobby, to pen his experiences of the early days of the Marut and also the ’71 ops for the blog. He had agreed very readily but several gentle reminders, over months, on the golf course, remained unproductive. Eventually, a not so gentle reminder, a few weeks ago, finally got him to deliver – and how! After comprehensively covering the formation of the squadrons at Jamnagar, Pune and Jodhpur, he delivered the first part of a series on Marut and squadron activity during Dec 71. I then compiled it all under the heading “Bobby’s Story”. I also sent it around to the others, who were then at Utterlai, for their comments. Their response was amazing – Air Cmde Murthy, Hufrid Mulla Feroze, Air Cmde Joe Bakshi to name a few. To all of them I am indeed grateful.
They all had so much to contribute and I knew this post would never be complete without including their views. I have enjoyed putting it all together and being the first to read it. The narrative may have some discrepancies and/or contradictory statements, due to the passage of time, almost 40 years ago, and circumstances. I have let them be intentionally. There are no lofty ideals behind this story – it does not lay claim to being history, or an attempt to learn lessons from the past or a study or anything like that. Now, it is just “Their Story”.
Bobby’s first memories of Cactus Lily are aircrew briefings by Inspectors of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) on topography, population and, in case of ejection, help available on the other side. Boss Jit Dhawan and Bobby Kasbekar were also called for a briefing by GOC 11 Inf Div and Chief of Staff, Southern Command, on the first major target of the Pak Army that was to be attacked – Ghazi Camp. The camp was a fortified defended locality atop a hilly feature that overlooked Munabao road and railway line. The GOC emphasised that it could be capable of inflicting heavy casualties on our positions.
The Enemy Strikes the First Blow
“A few minutes after bar opening time, on the evening of 3rd December, 1971, the radar at 254 SU picked up a strike crossing the border and the sirens went wailing. As we got to the trenches, we could hear the sound of B-57 bombers of the PAF, airborne from Masrur, near Karachi, followed by ear shattering explosions of exploding bombs and the Air Defence Artillery opening up with their L-60 guns. The sky was aglow with tracer shells of the Ack Ack and the sky filled with smoke and the smell of explosives and gun powder.” Bobby continues, “The B-57s carried out stream attacks from a height of around 4 or 5,000 feet along the runway coming in from the West. The result was a precise pattern of four direct hits, about 1000 yards apart, along the centre line of the runway. An inspection after the attacks found the runway was unavailable for operations. Another wave came again after about two hours, but this time they either missed completely or the bombs skidded off after landing on the runway.”
Guardian angel Jagan, of Bharat Rakshak fame, has also sent an extract, from the official PAF history, mentioning the crew which attacked Utterlai:
Wg Cdr Murph Murthy, after the initial excitement settled down, gathered his wits and along with the Garrison Engineer put the Rapid Runway Repair Scheme into action. The whole lot of officers, airmen and available local labour were put to work clearing the runway and parallel taxi track (PTT) of debris. Fortunately the PTT was undamaged and remained fully serviceable and operational.”
Air Cmde VK Murthy (Retd), who was then the Base Commander, has provided further information on subsequent events and the clean up drive as also about runway operations:
“There was no night capability at Utterlai Airfield and complete blackout was resorted to. The Air Defence Artillery were kept in ‘Guns Free’ status at night. This was a regular routine feature while waiting for the balloon to go up.
On 03 Dec 71 at dusk, after declaring Guns Free, I was returning to my bunker when I saw Canberra aircraft over head and wondered who the devil it was coming at this time and without informing the base. The aircraft made a direct approach and flew along the runway at 1000 feet dropping bombs at will. There were a total of eight craters starting from the dumbbell to the end of the runway, making the airfield totally ineffective. The impact of the bombs made deep craters on either side of the centre line – five on the right and three on the left. To patch up the craters, it took the MES Rapid Repair Force about 7 days. Till then we had to make use of the Parallel Taxy Track (PTT), which was exactly half the width of the main runway and of the same length. From the 8th day onwards we had two parallel runways available – with aircraft taking off in both directions in near nil wind conditions. CAP aircraft on one and Maruts in the opposite direction on the other!
Debris thrown by the impact of the bombs cluttered the PTT and it was a Herculean task to clear it before dawn. The entire station strength was mobilised and labourers from the nearby Gypsym mines were of great help. We ran out of brooms and it was almost an impossibility to clear the entire dust and pebbles. By midnight, only half the PTT was cleared with a long way still to go. Helpless, without brooms, we started using just our hands. Just then, an MES Subedar took off his turban and started sweeping the PTT with two people holding on to the extreme ends. This worked and the clearing moved faster. Seeing this, everyone took out their turbans and others even their pants and underwear! We reached the end of the Taxy Track by 0500 in the morning to enable the aircraft to get airborne. A pre-planned dawn strike was carried out at Ghazi Camp by Gnat aircraft followed by Maruts for the first strike. Later Gnats were used only for CAP, as their range was restricted when 11 Div moved forward towards Naya Chor. At a later stage Gnats were replaced by MIG-21 for CAP in the middle of the war.
How using the PTT for take off and landing was thought of and executed is also another story. This concept was the brain wave of Jit Dhawan and Aggy Aggarwal. I simply endorsed it at my level, without informing the higher-ups. When I got a mild rocket from AOC Jodhpur saying that I should know simple english – taxy track is meant for taxying and not for take off or landing, I realised that I should just take my own decision on the matter.
I authorised both the Squadron Commanders to carry out only take offs and practice approach and overshoot at 100 feet . They, like good Commanders, went one step further and made all operational pilots touchdown and land as well! I turned a Nelson’s Eye to all this. To our great good fortune this unauthorized training came handy from the very first day of the war itself.”
The Maruts Get Into Action
The Marut Fleet got into the act at first light on 04 Dec with counter air strikes on Nawabshah and Hyderabad air fields by 220 and 10 Sqn respectively. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Boss Jit was down with a very high temperature of 103 from the previous day. The first 220 Sqn strike was therefore planned with Joe Bakshi as the leader with Bobby No 2, Sqn Ldr Dinky Jatar No 3 and Fg Offr Pradip Apte No 4. As Bobby recounts events ” War or no war, the Marut remained true to type. Dinky had a fuel leak and Pradip a hydraulic leak resulting in both switching off but maintaining R/T silence. Due to the R/T silence, start-up and taxy was on time and take off on green from the Aldis Lamp. Both aircraft got airborne from the PTT. R/T silence was broken only over the IP when Joe Bakshi called up ‘Dinky, switches’ and must have been pretty foxed to hear ‘Bobby here, your tail clear’.
When we pulled up at Nawabshah we sighted the cross runways and the Control Tower but there were no aircraft in sight, only empty open pens. We both attacked the intersection of the runways with 68mm rockets and let fly a burst of guns into the flying control. Obviously Nawabshah was just a satellite being used perhaps by strike aircraft for staging purposes. To that extent the strike was a failure due to inadequate intelligence.”
“The next strike was by Sqn Ldr Dinky Jatar and his No 2 was Fg Offr Pradip Apte. The mission was a Tactical Recce along the Ramsar – Gadra – Munabao – Naya Chor Axis, to attack targets of opportunity. Sadly both are not here today and this narration is based on the debriefing and informal chats with Dinky.
The pair flew low level over the designated area looking for targets. At a place called Dhano Naro close to Naya Chor, they spotted an Army position with a number of vehicles and equipment under camouflage nets. They carried out a few attacks with 68 mm SNEB rockets and followed these up with a few strafing passes. In one of these, Pradip’s aircraft was hit by ground fire. He called up on the R/T and pulled up. Dinky spotted him and saw his aircraft was smoking. Pradip almost immediately called up that he had loss of power and that he was losing speed. Dinky immediately directed him to head for base and as he saw the smoke increase then told Pradip to eject. Pradip meanwhile had already ejected. Dinky spotted him and saw the parachute open and descending. Dinky orbited for a bit and then returned to Base and told the story. Boss Murph kept a Mi-4 helicopter ready for a rescue mission.
We kept vigil, Pradip being an outstanding officer and a prolific sportsman, we had no doubt he would get back. Unfortunately it was not to be. Finally we were hoping that he was captured by the Pak Army and taken POW. However, eventually on 14 or 15 Dec, Boss Jit was called by the Army for a special briefing. There he met a Pak Army Major of Bengali origin who had defected from the Naya Chor area and surrendered to our troops. According to Maj Nurul, Pradip had been shot at by the Pak soldiers led by a Capt Najib, even before he touched the ground. Maj Nurul said he had no opportunity to provide any medical assistance as it was too late. Incidentally, this Maj Nurul was the same who had attended on Brother Bhargava for his back injury after he had ejected and was taken POW.
To divert slightly from the topic, years later I met a PAF pilot at Tikrit in Iraq who told me they experienced the same feelings when they lost Wg Cdr Middlecoat at Jamnagar. Wg Cdr Merwin Middlecoat was an outstanding officer and sportsman and a king pin on the F-104. He was almost a demi – God for the youngsters there and when they heard he had got into a dog fight over Jamnagar and went missing, they fully expected him to swim the Gulf of Kutch and return. The Tigers went through similar feelings when Pradip did not return.” (There is a detailed account of the dog fight between the Mig-21 flown by Flt Lt BB Soni and the F- 104 piloted by Wg Cdr Merwyn Middlecoat at Bharat Rakshak and can be seen at http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/History/Aircraft/MiG-21.html).
Hufrid Mulla Feroze has some more to add: “As far as Pradip is concerned, I was informed on capture by some defecting Bengalis that he was shot while descending in his parachute. He was hit by a bullet in the heel and another in the stomach and was probably dead (according to them) before touching the ground. I had been in R/T contact with the Maruts going in and returning from GA missions and since no one mentioned anything, I was skeptical and expected him to be captured since they mentioned him by name. They gave me a piece of information that not many know of, probably even today. I was told the pilot was wearing two pairs of socks. Pradip was my course mate from NDA and an outstanding sportsman. However, his feet would blister easily and he always wore two pairs of socks. White cotton ones over which were the standard black ones. I was then sure it was him. He was truly an outstanding pilot and officer – RIP.”
Attack On Ghazi Camp
To get back to Bobby’s account of the day – “The last mission on 04 Dec was a FAC controlled, pre-planned, close air support strike at Ghazi Camp just across the border at Munabao. Boss Jit and I had already been briefed by the GOC 11 Inf Div earlier on this target. The mission was led by Joe Bakshi and I was No 2. again. The Forward Air Controller (FAC) was our own Fg Offr Hufrid Mulla Feroze. As the runway was still under repair we again took off from the PTT. We reached the IP at Ramsar and established contact with the FAC. On being given the course and distance from there the formation set off but could not locate the target – all the sandy, hilly features looked the same. After two orbits Joe asked Hufrid for his position – “20 kms away and trying to get closer”. The mission returned to Ramsar and asked for smoke indicators from the FAC. We saw the coloured mortars which had been fired. These were immediately followed by more smoke mortars in an altogether different direction. This created a little confusion in our minds. The additional smoke indicators were perhaps set off by the Pak Army, from Ghazi camp itself, as a diversionary measure.
I had seen the Camp through binoculars a week earlier yet was unable to spot it even after a number of orbits. We were running low on fuel when I eventually spotted the target, right under me. and asked Joe to follow me into the attack. I attacked first with front guns while Joe fired his full salvo of 50, 68 mm SNEB rockets. A quick second attack was carried out and we headed back. A later debrief indicated that the strike had almost totally destroyed the Camp and our Army attack later that night met with hardly any resistance. We were indeed lucky in that neither of us got hit despite having hung around in the area for almost 20 minutes. However, I was disappointed that I failed to spot the target from the air after having so closely studied it from the ground earlier.”
Hufrid was witness to some, though not all of this from the ground and recounts events:
“How can I forget Bobby’s story – I would not call it a story – it was all fact with some interesting aspects missing.
It was the first day of the counter strikes carried out by IAF in that sector. Ghazi Camp was heavily fortified and was the advance reinforcement center for the Pakistani Army. WAS, I say. It was quite hyped by our intelligence as well as in the briefing given by GOC 11 Div. They were told not to move any further forward till such time as our AF had made a successful attack on it. It was my first mission and I was quite excited about it.
Our Army stayed put and I went in the FAC jeep towards the target but was prevented from going close enough by the GLO as he said it was within Pak MMG firing range. As an aid to help pilots to spot the FAC, all FACs were provided with a MIG landing light to flash on the aircraft to indicate their position. It had a huge and heavy battery so I was unaccompanied by the GLO and I drove the jeep towards the target alone. When Joe Sir and Bobby came to the IP, I gave them target description, course to steer etc.
The target was extremely well camouflaged. Most of it was underground with just about a foot or so visible. I had no eye contact with the Maruts and Joe Sir asked me to fire a flare so they could see my position. I fired a red one first, and a few seconds later numerous red flares were fired in a different direction by the Pakistanis. The same happened with the green flare. It was just a little later that I spotted the two Maruts. I now had contact with them and the target, so I indicated my position to them and guided them to it. They were unable to spot it after two orbits and were getting low on fuel so they told me that they would make another attempt later. Just then Bobby acquired the target and went in with a short gun burst. It was like scratching an elephant with a tooth-pick, no fault of Bobby’s though. His furrow allowed Joe Sir to see the target and he gave Bobby instructions that he was going in for an attack and also instructed Bobby to release Matra in salvo.
Joe Bakshi’s rockets hit the right spot and there was a huge black coloured mushroom cloud that rose well above two – three hundred feet. It was like the kind of things you see in the movies. I confirmed to Joe Sir that the target was hit and Bobby transmitted that he was going in for an attack. Joe Sir’s baritone came on and told Bobby to catch up. If Bobby had gone in for the attack, the rising debris would have flamed out his aircraft and he would probably have been a guest of the State, along with me.
Needless to say the Army was thrilled and we were told to ‘bash on regardless’.”
Brother Bhargava has also sent in a brief account of his activities that day: “ I was at Jodhpur on 3rd night but next day I took one Marut to Utterlai. There I got the bad news that Pradip had not returned from a mission led by Dinky. Dinky’s aircraft was also badly damaged which I had to ferry back to Jodhpur. I ferried the damaged aircraft to Jodhpur immediately and returned to Utterlai with another serviceable one around 4 P.M. At that time, I saw Bakshi sir was briefing Bobby for a mission to Ghazi camp. In the evening we got the news from the Army that Ghazi camp was destroyed completely. I congratulate Bobby for the well written account of Ghazi Camp attack.”
Finally, it would be only appropriate to let Air Cmde Joe Bakshi – the man who blew it all away – have the last word:
“My heartiest congratulation’s to Bobby for his magnificent account of CACTUS LILLY – both at Utterlai airfield and across the border.
As far as the sortie at Ghazi Camp, carried out by me and Bobby is concerned, it is still vivid in my memory.
After a lot of run-in’s and circuits in the expected area, I could not spot the target and got worried about Bobby’s fuel state when I found mine running rather low and called him to confirm if he was comfortable. Bobby immediately replied, very confidently, that all was fine with him. The reason for his confidence was that he was not carrying rocket’s, but fuel in its place. Another run in was carried out and this time I saw Bofors opening up. He carried out an attack opening up with front guns to keep the enemy’s head down while I kept tracking the target for the 68mm rockets that I emptied on it. Could not follow up to see the damage due to very low fuel level, but was heartened to hear the yell on the R/T about a successful attack. The rest is history.”