Events at Uttarlai: Dec 71

Operations following the outbreak of war were not restricted to offensive air support operations alone. There was enormous activity on a day-to-day basis on the ground as well.

Wg Cdr Aggy Agarwal, Wg Cdr Murph Murthy, Wg Cdr Jit Dhawan. (Courtesy Air Cdr VK Murthy)

Bobby Kasbekar has penned some  recollections. “I recall a story of an IAF Canberra raid on Peshawar in 1965. It is believed that one of the bombs hit a briefing room and claimed the lives of a sizable number of aircrew. Perhaps taking a cue from this incident, all the Marut aircrew at Uttarlai were moved to the Government Circuit House at Barmer, adjacent to the railway station. At dawn we were all driven to the Base under Army escort. One night, around 10 pm, all hell broke loose at the Barmer Marshalling yard, just about 500 meters from the Circuit House. Following two ear shattering explosions we could see a massive ball of fire and thick black smoke emanating from there. The fire was still raging even as we drove back to the base at dawn. Following the first precision attack on the airfield, it is more than likely that it was the same B-57 crew that carried out this one too at the Railway yard. It was presumably to interdict Army fuel and ammunition supplies and was very successful. Or perhaps, it was not as successful, and was meant to target the aircrew at the Circuit House. As a result, we were moved out from there and re-located in the Police Lines. Six cottage type houses were vacated for us, one of which was converted into a makeshift bar cum mess. I was detailed as the Mess Havaldar by evening, while both Panchi and I were designated aircrew by day and game-meat providers by night.”

AVM Sreekant recounts those days ” Only the 220 aircrew were based at the Circuit House and we never moved out from there even after the attack on the Barmer Marshalling yard. the aircrew of 10 Sqn were accommodated at the Police Lines
nearby. The mess also functioned from there.”

Uttarlai 1971: Flt Lt Bobby Kasbekar, Wg Cdr Jit Dhawan, Flt Lt Brian DeMagry, Fg Offr KP Sreekant, Sqn Ldr Joe Bakshi, Flt Lt Sudhir Batra. (Courtesy Vayu)

While the Marut aircrew had it good, the four Gnat aircraft and aircrew of 21 Sqn were confined to the ORP pens and rest rooms. Bobby recalls an encounter between the Gnats and the PAF Starfighters during a strike. “A two aircraft Gnat CAP, Sqn Ldr Cackles Kale and Fg Offr P Ajith, was airborne at the time with Fg Offr Doc Moori as the CAP controller. As the 104s pulled up for the second pass, Ajith was positioned behind one of them above and about a km behind, diving down and closing in on his quarry. Suddenly, while still in the dive, the Starfighter engaged re-heat. For a few seconds the Gnat appeared to be hanging stationary in the air while the 104 was seen pulling away rapidly. Obviously his partner must have warned him of the Gnat closing in on him.

In this attack the raiders did not spot any aircraft on the ground and directed their attack to the cluster of blast pens. Unfortunately, a ricochet from one of the side blast walls hit LAC Sharma of 220 Sqn. I happened to be in the pen strapping up for a sortie and immediately rushed him to the MI Room in a 3-wheeler tempo. Tragically he died even before reaching the MI Room. I understand LAC Sharma was the only Air Warrior who lost his life to direct enemy action in the 1971 conflict. May his soul rest in peace.

The inability of the Gnat to cope with the F-104 threat and also lack of night interception capability resulted in lobbying for a Mig-21 ORP.  AOC, Rajasthan Air Force (RAF), Air Cmde Kanwar Singh responded to that request with his standard ‘Good idea!’ Around 10 Dec, a 4 aircraft Mig-21 Detachment from 29 Sqn was positioned there to replace the Gnats.”

There was a strike by two F-104 Starfighters on 11 Dec. Bobby still remembers the “Banshee like wailing of the Vulcan Gatling 20 mm six barrel gun of the Starfighter, firing 6,000 rounds per minute, as something like a shrill factory siren.” Two Maruts, Sqn Ldr Mickey Jatar and Fg Offr Panchi Sidhu were approaching the tyre checker’s point at the entry to the Parallel Taxi Track (PTT) and the Runway. As the runway was still not fully operational, formation aircraft took off simultaneously from the PTT and the single available lane of the main runway. Caught like sitting ducks, both aircraft were hit on the first pass. Boss Jit Dhawan and Bobby were also proceeding in a jeep at the time, to their respective aircraft for a Tac R mission and were witness to the attack. “Pulling up from the dive, the 104s did a quick tear drop turn and came in for a second pass. Meanwhile, we saw Mickey coming out of the cockpit with his G-suit sleeve on fire. Panchi, very officer-like, got out of the cock pit, stepped onto the air intake, then on to the left wing and then on to the drop tank and then, observing the diving 104, hit the ground running and dived full length a short distance away. The second pass missed Mickey’s burning aircraft while making a few holes in the fin and tail of the second aircraft. Panchi, prostrate on the ground, saw the bullets make a furrow in the sand a few feet from his nose.” Mickey Jatar suffered fairly severe burns on his left arm and was hospitalized. Panchi ended up with a dusty G-suit.

AVM KP Sreekant also recollects the events of the day “We were all sitting in the Aircrew restroom on that fateful day at Uttarlai when we heard a loud hum which we later identified as gunfire from the F-104’s Vulcan 6 barrelled cannon. We rushed out and were horrified to see the lead Marut on fire with smoke billowing up to about 500ft at least. We were of course to learn later on, that Sqn Ldr Mickey Jatar miraculously escaped but his whole left hand had severe burn injuries. The no. 2, who was taxying about 3-400yds behind, was unscathed. The F-104 strike, which destroyed Mickey’s aircraft, was the second one.  This was the time when one or maybe 2 Type-77’s were scrambled and one of them, Sqn Ldr IS Bindra (who later commanded 220 Sqn), had a kill. Dinky and I were watching all this.”

Air Cmde VK Murthy, the Base Cdr, also recalls the same event; “Pete Gaynor and I were at the ORP watching Mickey Jatar line  up on the dumbell. Suddenly we heard a roar and saw the Starfighters pulling up causing a direct hit with their bullets and saw Jatar jumping out of the cockpit with his overall on fire. He was whisked inside the crew room, the fire put off and first aid was given. Once I saw him alive I shook hands with him with great relief and went about busy on other urgent things at that time leaving  Jatar in the hands of Kapoor, the Medical Officer.

I do not know where Flt.Lt Kapoor,  Medical Officer, and  Fg.Off Tripathi (SATCO) are now. Tripathi was eyewitness  with  me when S/L Bindra MIG-21 (29 Sqn) shot F-104(2 Missiles  fired ). These two, Kapoor and Tripathi, did a great job in keeping up the morale of the pilots. Flt.Lt  Jyothi  Punj, Signals Officer ,was in charge of the P-12 Radar which worked well when we really  needed it, though most of the time our brave pilots depended on their two  eyes and skillful  navigation.”

Bobby goes on to add, underscoring the high motivation and efficiency of the support services, that the crash tender crew did a very good job of controlling the fire in the face of imminent danger of the almost fully fuelled and armed aircraft exploding due to the fire. While Mickey’s aircraft was a write off, the other aircraft needed an engine change and patch repairs. Wg Cdr Shashi Ramdas, Chief Engineering Officer (C Eng O) at Jodhpur, was also responsible for maintenance at Uttarlai and Jaisalmer. In Bobby’s words, “He had a tough time convincing Mr Nadiq, of HAL, to move along with his maintenance team to Uttarlai.”

It is to Air Mshl Shashi Ramdas we must turn to truly understand how so many people pulled together and worked their hearts out under unfavourable conditions. “Since I was based in Jodhpur during that period, I only occasionally visited Uttarlai during the ops. As such, I cannot comment on the events described by Bobby, except regarding the HAL team.

Mr S S Nadig was the HAL Service Engineer posted at Jodhpur for product support of the HF-24. During the buildup for the 1971 Ops, HAL was asked to position a structural repair team at Jodhpur/Uttarlai to deal with possible battle damage on the Marut.

When this team eventually arrived in Jodhpur, in Oct/Nov 1971, I had a tough time persuading Mr Nadig to send a detachment to Uttarlai, where a detachment of Maruts was positioned. This was in spite of the fact that it was still peacetime. After much persuasion, a small team of HAL structural technicians, very reluctantly, went to Uttarlai towards the end of November.

But, as soon as Uttarlai got its first raid, every single one of them ran back to Jodhpur! As a matter of fact, quite a few of them also ran away from Jodhpur and back to Bangalore.

That left stalwarts like then Flt Lt J Srirengan and his team of Air Force technicians to carry out patch repairs on damaged aircraft so that they could be flown back to Jodhpur for permanent repairs. Bobby has earlier recounted one such instance when Srirengan patch repaired a bullet hole, right through the wing of an aircraft, with the Queen of Hearts and the Jack of Spades from a deck of playing cards! Most unconventional, but very effective.

Those were the days, my Friends!! “

Aircrew and Technical Officers of 10 and 220 Sqn at Uttarlai, Dec 1971. Flt Lt Jug Jug Kapoor, Sqn Ldr Pete Gaynor, Flt Lt Brian DeMagry, Flt Lt Panchi Sidhu, Flt Lt Sudhir Batra, Boss Jit Dhawan, Flt Lt Bobby Kasbekar, Boss Aggy Agarwal, Flt Lt Y Chauhan, Fg Offr BR Kapoor, Sqn Ldr Joe bakshi, Fg Offr KP Sreekant, Fg Offr Srirengan. Sitting: Flt Lt GS Sarrao. (Photograph courtesy Sudhir Batra)

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9 Responses to Events at Uttarlai: Dec 71

  1. VK Murthy says:

    Hi,
    I read Deepak’s remarks only today (15 Mar 11). Let me clarify the doubts. When S/L Mickey Jatar ‘s aircraft was. Shot at , there was no air combat by Mig 21 that day.
    The air combat witnessed by me and F/O Tripathi with all others in the make shift Flying Control was on a later date towards the end of the war. One HF -24 was totally destroyed in front of our eyes (Pete and me ) while Jatar miraculously escaped was on 11 th Dec as described.

  2. Jagan says:

    i can confirm the Bindra kill happened on the last day of the war. It is mentioned in the many histories written by Mr. Pushpindar Singh , and have personally heard the story from someone there as well who mentioned it as the last day of the war.

    • Deepak says:

      Thanks Jagan! I appreciate your reply. I also hope that Bindra sir will let us know in his own words about this amazing feat!
      Also on a separate note, I wrote last month to you on your J…..@warbirdsofindia.com account, and I hope that you’ll get a chance to reply to some historical questions I had!
      Thanks to all,
      Deepak

  3. Deepak says:

    One question and I hope somebody could guide me here:
    The quote by AVM KP Sreekant indicates that Dec 11th is when IS Bindra shot down a F-104. This shootdown is mentioned one para later by Air Cmde VK Murthy.
    But according to this reputed site, this shootdown took place on Dec 17:
    http://jaganpvs.tripod.com/aw_04.htm

    Is it possible that he shot down more than 1 Starfighter? Also who was the PAF pilot who was shot down by Bindra?
    Thank you ,
    With best regards!

    • Dara says:

      Deepak,

      As far as I know there was no other kill claimed by Air Cmde Bindra. As regards the date, have sent your comment to him for confirmation.

      As I wrote in the first of this series “Their Story” – ‘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”.’

      Perhaps Jagan may have more information regarding the PAF aircrew.

      • Deepak says:

        Thank you very much sir, I appreciate it!
        May I also thank you for this wonderful site.
        With best regards!

      • Dara says:

        Thanks Deepak,

        Glad you like our little watering hole here. Believe me, I have never regretted the decision to get this going and have enjoyed every moment of it.

        Sorry have been out of town for the last few days. Just saw this comment and couldn’t reply earlier.

        Dara

  4. Ramesh Phadke says:

    What a wonderful and truthful way of recounting the valour of our men. How effective was the P-12? Did you get enough warning of these attacks? We in Srinagar (18 Sqn) had no radar, only observation posts on the hills and mountains so got some warning if the R/T sets of the poor guy were working, the problem was they couldnt charge the batteries. OPs were thus often useless. Pakistan had an agent telling the Sabres when we the Gnats were airborne and hence they often avoided combat. Best Phady

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