Two separate yet related incidents have brought about the need to revisit the 1965 war. The first was an announcement that the IAF would commemorate the 1965 war from 05 Sep 14 to 04 Sep 15. This would also involve a series of seminars at various Command HQs and perhaps other locations. The aim being to discuss experiences, introspect, and perhaps also see how far we have progressed since then. The second was a controversial article in the Business Standard (BS) of 02 Sep 14, “The day nothing happened” by Ajai Shukla. What caught my attention subsequently was a tweet by the author – “Why is the Indian Air Force announcing a year-long celebration of the 1965 war–which everyone accepts that it lost“. It was this rather sensational and outlandish heading, that cried out to be challenged. Perhaps that was the very intention – that it draw attention. Thereafter followed a series of tweets spread over a few days between us. The author stuck to his stand and would not really answer questions which didn’t suit his argument and perhaps the same sentiment was reciprocated by him. We had reached an impasse and so called it off. I thanked him for a feisty discussion & hoped we could agree on something next time. That is now water under the bridge.
I get the impression, consciously or otherwise, the author pre-determined a premise, of a defeated IAF, and then went around weaving a narrative to fit that premise into the article.
I would have let it rest there. Yet, there was something that kept bothering, me for days afterwards, about this piece. Then it dawned – a rather loose and uncharitable statement about the loss of the Vampires on 01 Sep was the trigger. I felt I couldn’t leave it there. It was owed to the memory of those who perished.
Let me clarify at the outset. The article in question does have some merit and could have led to a healthy debate. In fact the aim of the commemoration program is to do precisely that. By already writing off the whole exercise as myth-making, it gives the impression that the author has proclaimed himself judge, jury and executioner. With no wrong doing detected, nor necessary, the verdict is – guilty. Such a charge would have made sense if it was following the series of seminars and their outcome was known. Again, the author had already made up his mind even before the commemoration programme started.
There is the professional in all of us that would like to respect, discuss and introspect over criticism, no matter how harsh. I am no apologist for the IAF, something the author accused me of on Twitter. The IAF can more than defend itself and do a far better job of it. Neither is this an attempt to write or even rewrite history. I do not consider what I have to say as history, it is merely a reading of already recorded history. Historians are supposed to write dispassionately and in a detached manner. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Be that as it may, we owe it to the nation, the Services, the fallen and their families to hold post mortems and strive to improve.
Before going on to examine aspects of the BS article I would like to briefly point out what the OH and many others have discussed and debated over the years as being our primary drawbacks and failings.
- The IAF started the war badly. It did then recover and did contribute to the total effort.
- The sheer number of aircraft lost/damaged by enemy air attacks at various airfields is inexcusable.
- The defense of ground installations was such that it left them vulnerable.
- Lack of adequate defences also forced the IAF to expend a lot of effort on Combat Air Patrols (CAP) over their bases.
- As far as any inter-action between the Services was concerned, it was abysmal to start with.
- No inter-service contingency plans were worked out.
- As we progress, I think it will emerge that we did start doing somethings right and wrested the initiative.
With this as the background we move on to the article in question.
The author raises a question, – “Why is the Indian Air Force announcing a year-long celebration of the 1965 war–which everyone accepts that it lost“.
- Everyone? Surely in almost 50 years I would have heard this before somewhere – other than some Pakistani sites, and there too certainly not all. And now the author. Having checked with those who do know, this is not a celebration. It is a commemoration. There is a difference. It is amazing how many don’t know this.
- The first in the planned seminars was held on 05 Sep at New Delhi and again, according to those who attended, there were presentations and discussions on the operations, the drawbacks and lessons learnt.
The author in his article gives three reasons why the IAF should stop this “self congratulatory nonsense“
- His first reason is that it has not been done before anywhere else in the world. Well I guess there’s always a first time. His implication seems to be – How dare the IAF be different?
- His next reason – that by every ‘independent‘ account the PAF got the better of the IAF. The text quotes two sources, one is John Fricker and the other is the Official History (OH) of the ’65 war. Much can be said about Fricker’s credibility – the author describes him as a noted historian. Suffice to say – the author’s second source, the Official History itself contradicts him “Even books sponsored by the PAF – such as ‘Battle for Pakistan’ by John Fricker….’ A book ‘sponsored’ by the PAF is an independent source?
- The Official History, certainly more credible – discusses the faults, mistakes and also highlights the good work done. That the author prefers to blank out the good parts or be in denial, is his choice.
- The third reason – “…importantly for military history aficionados, no fighting happened on September 5. Why is the IAF commemorating this day?” I don’t want to be seen as nit-picking. Yet, when a paper publishes a fact, it should indeed be one. It isn’t. The OH, the author’s oft quoted source, mentions that on 05 Sep, Mysteres attacked enemy positions at Jaurian and Garabi in the Chhamb sector while Gnats and Mig-21s flew fighter sweeps. PAF Sabres also attacked Amritsar in the evening (OH page 249). “No fighting happened”? Minor point, but worth noting.
- As to commemorating 05 Sep, that is irrelevant and in error. That day is not being commemorated; it marks the beginning of a year long commemoration. Why this was selected as the start point I honestly don’t know. Maybe, being a Friday and the start of the week end, so presumable it would suit out station attendees. Does it really matter though? If the organisers don’t have a problem with it, I fail to understand why the Business Standard or the author are so upset over it. Similarly, whether it could have been compressed in time or spread over a year is perhaps for the organisers to decide. They know what they intend to achieve and how to go about doing it. But is it really an issue? And for whom? Or is it just being made an issue?
- The crucial point remains the bit about having the lost the war. Though this will be discussed in detail subsequently, the point to note is that there are some basic issues which the author uses to buttress his claim:
Old-timer pilots frankly confess that 1965 was a learning experience, not a victory….. – the underdog PAF got the better of the IAF in raid after raid, dogfight after dogfight. This comes not from the fevered imagination of Pakistani jingoists, but from the official Indian history of the 1965 war …. the IAF destroyed 43 PAF fighters, while losing 59 of their own.
- The basis for the conclusion is that since it was a learning experience and not a victory, it was a defeat! QED.
- Numbers alone seem to matter to the author, everything else is considered irrelevant and ignored.
- As we will see later, and there are innumerable instances and various accounts, Indian and Pakistani, the ‘raid after raid, dogfight after dogfight‘ is pure and simple hyperbole.
- Moreover, as happened often during our twitter discussion, the OH was quoted or ignored as considered convenient. There is much to be critical about and find fault with about IAF operations in 1965. As I pointed out to the author, not once did he quote any positives. Yet, there is so much in the OH that is also positive. All blanked out.
- Nor would he even quote, in spite of repeated requests, what the OH said about the quantum of flying done, the damage that the IAF inflicted on the battle field as elsewhere, attrition rates, the Lahore operation and even on the reasons for the lack of close air support. All these facts exist and are dwelt upon in the OH.
- They were all summarily dismissed as statistical jugglery, or advice was proffered to do some more reading or loftily rubbishing queries and statements as attempts by apologist IAF veterans, who retired decades back, to re-write history. If something didn’t support the conclusion arrived at it, was not worth discussing. As a last resort, just shoot the messenger and be done with it.
The author will also most certainly be invited to give his opinion, if he so desires, on the issues raised here and in subsequent blogs. His comments will be considered with the attention they deserve. Hopefully we will benefit from other opinions also, from all sides, and thus enable readers to draw their own conclusions.
With this by way of an introduction we move on to the more operational aspects.
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