Continuing from the previous blog, we move on to examining issues brought out by Ajai Shukla, in an article published in the Business Standard (BS) of 02 Sep 14. For ease of reference it can be read here.
As far as I know, the OH was leaked in 1999, was declassified and has since been published by Nataraj Publishers. That is why it is available on a public site – Bharat Rakshak. Grateful to Bharat Rakshak & Jagan Pillarisetti, in particular, for the information.
The OH mentions the relative strengths of the IAF as given in the article – the IAF had a little over 3 times the total squadrons as the PAF. Discounting forces deployed in the East by either side, there were about 20 fighter and bomber squadrons of the IAF lined up against 10 fighter and bomber squadrons of the PAF in the West.
Before going further, a little bit on the existing ground situation. Pak launched Op Gibraltar, to ferment disruption and chaos and incite the population to revolt. Initially infiltrators were sent in, to be backed up later by regular forces – that failed. Indian Forces had almost completely hemmed in the enemy and cut off their exit. It was then that Pak launched its Op Grand Slam to go for Chhamb, Jaurian and take the vital Akhnur Bridge aiming to cut off the main link to J&K and hence the whole State from our side.
Coincidentally, on 31 Aug the Indian COAS was in Srinagar and while discussing the overall ground situation with his Commanders, the Chief did make mention that Pak would attempt an attack in Chhamb but in his opinion it ‘would not get very far’, (OH page 114). It was also felt that the attack would not be immediate.
Op Grand Slam, to over-run Chamb, Jaurian and Akhnur was launched at 0400 hrs on 01 Sep and took the Indian side by surprise. During the day Chhamb was lost. Subsequently our forces recovered sufficiently to blunt the advance and ultimately this operation too was foiled and the Pakistanis never got to Akhnur.
As per the OH the COAS returned to New Delhi on 01 Sep. Fully in the picture of events that day. At 4 pm there was a meeting with the Def Minister and the Def Secretary, the CAS was also present. It was then, for the very first time, that permission was sought to use the IAF. The permission was granted immediately, (Page 247 OH). The first strike aircraft, Vampires and Mysteres were airborne within the hour.
Air Mshl Bharat Kumar in his presentation at the New Delhi Seminar on 05 Sep 14, has further elaborated on this. On his way to Delhi, the COAS stopped at Pathankot and was informed by the local Commander that Vampires and Mysteres were ready armed and awaiting clearance from authorities to join battle. His presentation has also been published in India Strategic:
“After landing in Delhi, the COAS was briefed on the latest situation in Chhamb. He immediately proceeded to Raksha Mantri’s office where a meeting was already in progress in which the VCOAS and the CAS were present. On arrival, he requested the RM to let him have a few minutes alone with the CAS. Chaudhri apprised the CAS of the dire situation in Chhamb and requested for close air support. The CAS readily agreed. The matter was then taken up by the COAS with the RM. CAS cautioned both the RM and the COAS that some fratricide was possible in view of shortage of time and the fact that no forward air controller had been deployed in Chhamb sector. Both of them accepted the risk. RM gave the go ahead immediately instead of waiting for the meeting of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet or getting prior approval of the Prime Minister.”
“The go ahead for air strikes was given at 1650 hours. The squadrons at Pathankot had been asked to stand down at around 1600 hours. The aircrew and other personnel were immediately recalled and the first formation of Vampires got airborne at 1719 hours – a mere 29 minutes after the political go ahead; it is perhaps a world record.”
At another place the OH further highlights (Page 267) that till 01 Sep, the IAF and the IN were never jointly involved and also that no army – air contingency plans existed. Nor was any course of action drawn up between the IAF and the Indian Army in the event of a war. In short, though all three forces were preparing for war, each was planning their own operations regardless of each other and with no official co-ordination whatsoever. It is however likely that informal notes were exchanged from time to time.
According to the OH (page 117) with the Pak Army over-running our positions, a request was made for immediate air support around noon on 01 Sep. The support materialised at about 5 pm. The reason for the delay should now be amply clear.
The article makes two observations regarding the Chhamb operation. “Foolishly, 12 obsolescent Vampires and 14 Mystere fighter-bombers were thrown in, which began shooting up Indian tanks from 20 Lancers, which was opposing the Pakistani advance.”
- There is no denying this tragedy. The sentiments of 20 Lancers can be well imagined. The OH mentions that besides 3 AMX tanks, all Arty ammunition lorries, a truck with tank ammunition and an armoured recovery vehicle were destroyed by our airtcraft. (Page 117).
- Air Mshl Bharat Kumar’s presentation confirmed that no FAC had been deployed. There was obviously no contact between the aircraft and the ground forces. The OH has also mentioned there were communication problems in passing information regarding bomblines. The strike aircraft were operating without any contact with ground forces or any guidance from the FAC. This does not minimize the loss or tragedy. It certainly explains it, specially when one takes into account that light was fading and in fact the last of the strike force operated in almost darkness.
- On page 247 the OH mentions that these strikes destroyed 10 enemy tanks, 2 ack ack guns and some vehicles.
- The author however would have us believe that all the IAF aircraft did was go around “shooting up Indian tanks“. 12 Vampires and 14 Mysteres took part in these raids. Surely the IAF made some contribution? If the writer wishes to always see the glass half empty as far as the IAF is concerned, it’s his prerogative. He has his own reasons.
- A detailed account of the engagements between the Vampires, Mysteres, PAF and enemy troops is also given in the book “The India Pakistan Air War of 1965” by Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, of Bharat Rakshak fame and can be accessed here. In fact there are more details of almost all sorties carried out in the area along with claims. Often very conflicting claims
- For those short on time, a concise review of the book by Shiv Aroor on his excellent blog “Livefist” will be a short cut.
- Interestingly the meeting with the Def Min on 01 Sep 65 has also been mentioned in the review. The CAS and now Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh had warned the Def Min as to what to expect:
‘’It speaks volumes of Chavan that he gave us approval for air strikes in just five minutes. But I warned him about two things: that we were sure to have losses, since the PAF was very close at Sargodha, and I also told him that since the IAF and Army hadn’t had time to brief each other, it was possible that we would hit our own troops from the air. As it turned out, this did happen,’’ Singh said.’
- Staying with the Vampire missions, quoting from Jagan’s book, it is worth noting what a Pakistani pilot, who was in one of the Sabres, has to say :
“The PAF was called up and soon a pair of Sidewinder armed F-86’s were over the area. The Sabres were being flown by Sqn. Ldr. S.A. Rafique of No.5 PAF and Flt. Lt. Imtiaz Bhatti of No.15 PAF Sqns. These Sabres stumbled into the battle area just as the second formation of Vampires led by Flt. Lt. Bhagwagar came in for the attack. The Jawans of 3 Mahar were mute spectators as the Sabres tore into the Vampires and shot them down, one by one, three of them. Flt. Lt. Bhatti recounts in his own words:
‘….close to the area, we descended fast, looking all around and below us for the enemy aircraft. At about this time we also learnt that the C-in-C was flying around the area in a L-19. We did not see him, we later on discovered that he left well before we got there. Our search succeeded and I saw two enemy aircraft. They were crossing underneath us and I informed Rafique about it. He immediately acknowledged it “…contact”. Rafique said he was going for them. While covering his tail, I spotted two Canberras 9 O’Clock from me at 5000-6000 feet. Then I spotted another two Vampires trying to get behind Rafique. I instinctively broke off and positioned myself behind these two. In the meantime, Rafique had knocked down one of his two targets and was chasing the other. About now I had my sights on one of my own and was holding my fire. I was anxiously waiting for my leader to bring down his second and clear out of my way. When the Vampire I had targeted closed in on Rafique too dangerously, (italics mine) I called out to him break left. Within the next moment Rafique shot down his second, reacting to my call and broke left. Simultaneously I pressed my trigger and hit one of them. Having disposed of one I shifted my sight on the other and fired at him. In the chase I had gone as low as 200 feet off the ground when I shot my second prey, he ducked and went into the trees. We had bagged four in our first engagement with the Indians…’ “
- What is notable in Bhatti’s account is that he observed two Vampires try to get behind Rafique and one even closed in dangerously on Rafique. In fact there was a gun camera shot published by PAF researcher and veteran Air Cmde Kaiser Tufail, showing two Vampires behind a Sabre. Jagan Pilarrisetti had utilised the same photo in his book.
- The spotting of the Canberras is a case of mistaken identity. There were none in the area.
- According to Air Mshl Bhatrat Kumar’s account, based on conversations with some of the pilots who flew those missions:
“It was at this time that Flight Lieutenant WM Sondhi, No.3 and deputy leader spotted one of the Sabres. He had the option of either to take on the vastly superior Sabre or to disengage and get back to base. He decided for the first option and turned into the Sabre and was involved in a melee with him. During this air combat, he managed to put his sight on the Sabre and shot at him with his front guns. Unfortunately, his gyro gun sight had been selected in air-to-ground rocket firing mode instead of air-to-air gun firing mode. He therefore aimed at the Sabre with his fixed sight but his assessment of the amount he had to lay off was not correct and thus failed to score a hit. (His firing at the Sabre was confirmed by his gun camera film.) The melee continued but as his fuel was running out Sondhi disengaged and returned to base.”
- It was not ‘foolish’ to send in the Vampires, as the author of the article describes it. They were suited to the terrain they would be operating in. However, it was a mistake to send them unescorted.
- To quote again from the Bharat Kumar presentation:
“If Sondhi had been able to shoot down the Sabre, the story would have been altogether different. “
“The main damage to the Pakistani ground forces was caused by the four Mystere formations which had to engage the targets in near darkness”
“According to Pakistani sources, Pakistan lost ten tanks, 2 ack-ack guns and 30-40 vehicles. If one takes the losses inflicted by the Army, Pakistan had lost nearly 25% of its armour in the sector.”
- It is worth noting too that there are conflicting claims regarding Vampire losses. While Bhatti claims 4 kills, actually one was brought down by ground fire.
It is worth noting here that Pathankot, a base sitting astride the international border, had only ground attack squadrons. There were no air defence aircraft available on the day the action started. The very next day a Gnat squadron was moved in to give top cover to the strike aircraft.
On 03 Sep the IAF planned a sweep mission of 4 Mysteres flying at height to lure the PAF. There were Gnats following them at low level below radar cover. Once the Mysteres were picked up by the PAF radar, Sabres and F-104s were scrambled. As they came into the vicinity, the Mysteres broke off and disappeared while the Gnats climbed up to take on the interceptors. In the ensuing mix up of aircraft, Sqn Ldr Keelor got his sights on a Sabre and scored some hits. The Sabre however, though hit, managed to return to base, as mentioned by the author in his article. Yet, in the records it remained as the first kill by the IAF.
However, the story doesn’t end there. One of the Gnats, lost contact from the formation and landed at a Pakistani airbase, Pasrur, mistaking it for an Indian base. This was perhaps the most embarrassing moment for the IAF of the entire war. The Gnat is now the centre piece at the PAF Museum in Karachi.
On 04 Sep a serious engagement took place between four Gnats, that were despatched to provide air cover to Mysteres engaged in the Chhamb sector, and the enemy. An account by then Flt Lt Manna Murdeshwar, who was in the Gnat formation, is worth reading:
‘*04 Sept, ’65*: Johnny, self, AJ and Pat enroute to C-J sector, encountered 4 Sabres strafing our troops. All of us rolled over and each managed to get behind a Sabre. Johnny was the first to get behind one, but had a high ‘angle off ’, so was unable to fire. I was in a good 400 yds line astern position with the ‘diamonds pipping’ the Sabre, but my guns, frustratingly, stopped after a single round of fire! AJ too had some problem, which I can’t presently recall. Pat however, managed to get a kill before his guns also jammed.’
- The Gnat was beset with this and other peculiarly inherent problems, since induction. One was of frequent guns jamming. In spite of having two canon, in case one jammed, the other too was affected. Later the problem was sorted out.
There is also a rather unfortunate statement, not really relevant to the issue of victory or defeat, yet one that needs to be refuted in the strongest possible terms. “20 Lancers officers recount their relief when the PAF Sabres swooped down on the IAF, shooting down four Vampires.“
- It is one thing to criticise, and discuss conduct of operations, planning and the fall-out. To demean an Institution, its events and the sacrifices of its personnel is crass – in the worst possible taste.
- The feeling this evokes in me is the same as what I feel every time I hear journalists loosely throw around terms like “flying coffins”. Every time I read such insensitive comments, my thoughts go out to the families of those who willingly undertake their task with whatever is made available to them. What must mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters, be going through when they read such stuff? Surely they deserve better for the enormous sacrifice and the pain they have to endure?
- In 1962 our men were ill-equipped, operating obsolescent weapons, ill-clothed and in many cases even un-acclimatised to the altitude. Yet, they went about their tasks with determination and never shirked their responsibility. Regardless of the outcome, the country applauded them and remembers them to this day with great pride in their achievement.
- Take a hypothetical situation – had 20 Lancers been tasked to take on enemy armour and face the Pattons in APCs – what would they have done? I have no doubt in my mind they would have willingly joined battle knowing what awaited them. I also know the nation would have honoured their bravery and taken pride in their acts of valour.
- Those who flew in those Vampires, knew exactly what they were facing. They knew the decks were stacked against them in case they were bounced. Yet, they displayed the highest degree of professionalism, which includes great courage, by attempting the task they were allotted, with whatever was made available to them.
- Those who perished that day were first and foremost Indians, not Army, Navy, Air Force.
- Bravery in battle, under adverse situations, needs, to be saluted, not dismissed with arrogant sarcasm.
Those who ponder over the use of Vampires in the 1965 conflict will probably go ballistic to read that the same Vampires proved their worth again in 1971! Under Sqn Ldr Walter Marshal from Halwara. The unit carried out missions by night in the Punjab sector. Another detachment, operating from Srinagar did excellent work in the valley, in terrain suited to its maneuverability and earned two gallantry awards.
It is such valour we commemorate. I am proud the IAF is doing so.
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