September 1965 – IV: “Some hits, Some Misses”

It is time to move on to what some could describe as a slugfest between the two Air Forces. Some events have been recorded in the Official History (OH) of the 1965 war. Ajai Shukla has mentioned attacks and dog fights in his article in the Business Standard (BS) of 02 Sep “The day nothing happened“. There are other sources and eye witness accounts too that shed light on some significant aspects of the war.

On 06 Sep Ayub Khan officially declared war against India. The PAF conducted a series of attacks at IAF bases on the Western Front. Commencing late evening – Pathankot, Halwara, Amritsar, Adampur, Jamnagar, Srinagar were attacked.

The first attack was on Pathankot at 5.40 pm. Though figures for the attackers vary, ranging from 4 to 6 to 8 Sabres, there is no doubt about being caught on the wrong foot. The IAF lost 10 aircraft and 3 more damaged. Three IAF personnel were injured and 1 died. There were attacks again by B-57 bombers at 1145 pm and 1 am by B-57 bombers but no further damage was caused. (OH page 251) Many who were there, still contest these figures.

  • This was the single largest loss of aircraft on the ground for either side. Worse still it was made without any opposition. The IAF and Pathankot in particular suffered for a series of mistakes. The raids are described in some detail by Jagan and Samir Chopra in their book “The India Pakistan Air War of 1965”.
  • There was perhaps also indecisiveness at the level of the local Commander. Air Mshl S Raghavendran, who was commanding the Gnat squadron at Pathankot has written about events just prior to the attack “The Day The PAF Got Away“. He had pleaded all day with the Station Commander to launch a late evening Combat Air Patrol (CAP) of 4 Gnats – to no avail. In spite of repeated suggestions to be permitted to go up, it was not to be. Perhaps…….
  • There was even a call from the Amritsar radar warning of a probable raid. All went unheeded.
  • The strike was a shot in the arm for the PAF – a good beginning. For the personnel at Pathankot it was a double whammy following the loss of Vampires the first day.

Following Pathankot, there was an abortive raid on Adampur. The Sabre strike formation coming in was sighted by a Hunter formation on its own mission within Pakistan. The Hunters engaged the Sabres and in the melee that followed a hunter went into the ground. Both formations aborted their original missions and returned to their respective bases.

The attack on Halwara was an hour after Pathankot. The BS article speaks highly of the Sabre performance “Separately, hunters became the hunted, when two of the four IAF Hunter fighters patrolling over Halwara air base to ambush incoming Pakistani fighters were shot down by the Sabres when they arrived.”

  • The Hunters were indeed brought down But there was much more to it.  Truth, but not the whole truth.
  • A detailed account of this and the other raids is given by Jagan and Samir. The Pakistani perspective too is depicted by PAF veteran Air Cmde Kaiser Taufail in his blog  – “Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui, HJ“. This also carries details of the first attack on 01 Sep when Rafiqui led the attack on the Vampires. Both interesting reads.
  • By both accounts, 2 Hunters were shot down, 2 Sabres too were downed including Sqn Ldr Rafique, the leader of the formation and his wing man. According to Indian accounts a third Sabre was also brought down as three wreckages were located. One more was hit but managed to return to base. Here again there is a twist – Indian reports say there were four attackers, Pak reports give them as three. All quite confusing!
  • Kaiser mentions that the raid on Halwara was ‘generally unsuccessful’. He also explains why. The PAF had their share of woes too.
  • This is not the impression the author seems to convey in his version.

After the raid on Pathankot, the next real milestone for the PAF, as also mentioned in the BS article, were two attacks on 07 Sep at Kalaikunda. The first was around 6.45 am and was just as spectacular, if not more so, as the Pathankot one.

I, with my enormous experience of 4 months service, was witness to both. Lady luck played a part here too. This in no way minimises the loss. It happened so. There were, if memory serves me right, 6 gleaming, fully armed Vampires, lined up almost wing tip to wing tip, like tweety birds sitting in a row. These aircraft had been loaded with guns and rockets/bombs for strikes against East Pakistan bases. There take off was I think scheduled for 0600 but had been delayed because of bad weather over the target area.

The Sabres came in, around 6.40 am pulled up, had a ball. Two Canberras had just returned from a raid on Chittagong and were being turned around. They too stuck out like sore thumbs. As far as the Vampires are concerned I distinctly remember that two aircraft in the centre were untouched or suffered very little initial damage. The others were burning with their armament exploding at regular intervals.

We kiddos, just about 200 – 300 yards away from the stricken aircraft made attempts to rescue those two Vampires in the middle. Believe me, there is nothing more un-nerving. There were aircraft burning on either side, canon shells were going off randomly and worse still, rockets woooshing away in all directions. For every  two short steps forward we took a  giant leap back! I think the aircraft were eventually salvaged – not by us!

  • The OH gives the total damage as four Vampires and four Canberras in both strikes.
  • Like Pathankot, the previous evening, the Sabres came in and made merry. Even the Anti-aircraft guns failed to open up, till almost the end. Meanwhile the attackers made  pass after pass.
  • Worse still, there were no adequate dispersal facilities for these aircraft. The Vampires were lined up on the edge of the tarmac and the camouflage comprised throwing a net over them and then covering up the aircraft with foliage. It being September, there was plenty available. The whole base was lush green.
  • Because of the scheduled strike, the nets and foliage had been removed. The bare silvery metal of the aircraft gleamed in the rising sun – visible from miles away.
  • There were no trenches. For the first raid we simply dived into the Flight Commander’s office, the closest shelter. The second time, when some warning was available, we took ‘shelter’ in open storm water drains.

The second raid of 4 Sabres came in around 10.45. This time the sirens went off, we rushed to our ‘trenches’ and soon heard the ack-ack open up. I think the Sabres made one pass each before they were broken up by two Hunters while the guns went silent. One Sabre was run into the ground between Kalaikunda and Kharagpur. Thereafter we were witness to a thrilling dogfight right overhead, for at least 5 minutes, seemed like forever. I distinctly remember the Hunter canon firing short bursts twice. Each time we cheered but to no avail. There was also one burst from the Sabre’s Brownings. Our hearts in our mouth we watched and then cheered again when the Hunter was untouched. Gradually the adversaries  faded into the distance jockeying for position. Could a lowly, wide-eyed Pilot Officer have had a better baptism?

  • Detailed accounts of this and other operations in the East are available in  Jagan’s book. While Mamgain claimed one Sabre, Alfred Cooke who engaged the others in a dogfight(s) definitely brought down one more. . Besides the two lost around Kalaikunda, one reportedly crashed near the border and another short of Dhaka, the pilot ejected. (OH page 257).
  • Another account of the same raids is given by Air Mshl Rajwar who was in the second Canberra that had just returned from Chittagong – the “War in Kalaikunda“.
  • Strangely, after this, the Government placed an embargo on any air operations against East Pakistan.
  • This however did not prevent the PAF from making sporadic attacks themselves at Indian targets. In one such attack, a Vampire about to take off was caught at the take off point at Baghdogra.  One of the pilots died subsequently of burns, the other managed to get away from the burning aircraft with minor injuries.

The IAF counter attacks began in right earnest from 7th morning. Mysteres and Hunters raided airfields with the Sargodha Complex coming in for special attention. In addition, raids were also launched on Pasrur, Chaklala and Gujrat. For those interested in these and the results would do well to go through the Chapter “The Reply – Air battles of September 7th” in Jagan’s book. The Sarghoda raids in particular will be of interest. There is also an eye witness account by Air Mshl Philip Rajkumar “Tigers Over Sarghoda” who was part of one of the raids – ‘This is the story of the only successful broad daylight attack carried out on the famous Pakistani airbase – Sargodha. A raid acknowledged for its audacity even in the Official PAF Histories’

There were claims and counter claims from both sides. These will be discussed in the next part. Eventually, much later, when the dust had settled, some kind of true picture began to emerge. In the heat of the battle there were several conflicting claims on the same target and in some cases claims of kills/damage were taken at face value but were never confirmed. Both sides were guilty.

Briefly, the slugfest between the two opposing Air Forces carried on in bursts right to the end. Neither side achieved much by way of significant damage nor were there any earthshaking losses. Most counter air attacks took place at night while day time effort was generally towards interdiction and air support.

Veteran Gp Capt Manna Murdeshwar summed up the whole gamut of the 1965 war most succinctly –

“Some hits, some misses! Looking back now, 50 years later,one realizes that’s what Life is all about!!” Note: Those who wish to, please feel free to comment. The first time a person comments, it will be held up for approval, which may take a few hours. Thereafter subsequent comments by that individual will get posted directly. Rules here are very simple on this blog – please don’t get personal and respect others in your comment. Disrespect to anyone will not be permitted.

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One Response to September 1965 – IV: “Some hits, Some Misses”

  1. Parry Bindra says:

    Some hits , some misses is an apt description of operations . IAF may have been surprised initially and caught off guard , it did manage to bounce back quite well . Comparative analysis of opposing force levels and equipment profile prove beyond doubt that the balance clearly tilted towards PAF . However , superior combat training as well as flying skills and a high sense of operational commitment (adequately backed up by combat support structure) helped IAF to turn the tables to the extent possible under the circumstances . Indeed , there were hits and misses on both sides ; but eventually , we kept our honour intact despite serious constraints.Does this not call for commemoration ?!

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