After being set free from our cypher room prison our next professional lesson was preparing for war. Kalaikunda had no blast pens, dispersals; just wide open tarmacs in front of hangers, where squadrons were located and the ATC building astride the taxi track leading to the runway. With our experience of about four months service, we were considered experts for all menial work. And believe me, there was plenty of that going around. Our job was to camouflage our aircraft. Very simple. In moments of weakness we were allowed to taxi the aircraft around for dispersal. After all there was a war to be fought and each man had to stick his neck out.
The aircraft were taxied out to the edge of the tarmac on either side of the ATC. We were on one side. The other side housed a few Hunters and Vampires of 14 and 24 Sqn. respectively. Think one or two Hunters were there. Made a beautiful line from one end of the tarmac to the other with the ATC sticking out like a thumb, in the middle. All them little tweety birds sitting in a row.
Our job was special. It being at the end of the monsoon season, the airfield was covered with lush greenery. The men went off and chopped off branches which were piled into trucks and brought to the tarmac. We expertly threw camouflage nets over the Vampires and then placed the foliage over the aircraft till not one inch of metal could be seen. We lined up I think eight birds, wing tip to wing tip, and converted them to green bushes merging in with the lush green of the ground leading up to the taxi track. Only problem – foliage change every second day.
The Station Commander or the OC Flying, did an occasional sortie to check that the camouflaged aircraft actually formed part of the adjoining greenery. Apparently they thought so and we didn’t get many further instructions to do better. Both surprising. That the work of Pilot Officers was not criticised and berated by seniors and accepted first shot was a miracle
Early morning 07 Sep, and I mean early, we were in the flights and got busy removing the foliage and the nets off the aircraft. They were being readied with rockets and guns, for a strike mission, I think on Jessore. Eight shiny Vampires. Around 0600 information came of bad weather and take off was delayed.
According to Hemu Sardesai, who still has a razor sharp memory, one mission from 24 Sqn had taken off and landed back due to bad weather en route. Hemu also provided another gem of information. Because of the monsoon the cloud base was low and some of our attached pilots, who were taking part in the mission, didn’t have the requisite Instrument Flying Rating! Can you believe that? There was a war going on and these guys messed up on their Instrument Rating!
How did that bother us though? Well like expert fishermen, we flung on the camouflage nets again, threw the blasted bushes over the aircraft and then waited while someone took a look see, made sure there was nothing shiny visible and went for a cup of tea. But wait – the tea became a distant thought. Someone realised there was a war going on and low clouds or no low clouds we were going to fight in it! So there we were, bending our backs again un-camouflaging our Vamps.
15 odd Pilot Officers then hung around trying to look busy and officious. We were literally & truly faltus, pretending to be otherwise.
Around 0630, four of us Hemu, Suresh Malkani, Biggie Dasgupta and self huddled together outside the Flight Commander’s office trying to get news of the war on BBC. Why BBC? OK, stupid question. Trying to gather snatches of the news, we were facing down the runway. At around 0640 or so we saw four aircraft pulling up at right angles to the runway, they then turned and aligned with the runway direction one behind the other. Two more pulled up and kept climbing. One of us professionals shouted “Look, look aircraft pulling up”. Malkani, our flying trophy type, authoritatively said “Toofanis. Must be returning from a strike mission from somewhere.” We looked on in awe proud of our Toofani boys..
Suddenly the lead Toofani – Cinerella like, changed its slippers – turned into a Sabre, let fly its six .5 inch Brownings aiming straight for the beautiful shiny Vampires. We scattered like bees whose hive has been attacked.. In fact all of us dived, four blind mice, into the Flight Commander’s office and huddled under the window. Between bursts of fire we would look through the window and after the first few attacks could see flames just starting from one or two of the aircraft. They must have made at least four passes each. Regular front gun circuits. When they had their fill of Vampires, they went for two recently parked Canberras on the other side of the runway.
Mid way through it all we heard a whoooooosh over our heads and thought “Here it comes”. It didn’t. What had come was one of the Officers, who was on attachment to us, taking a flying leap through the window and ending up under the Flight Commander’s table. When we turned around, there he was, bone dome and all crouched there telling us to keep quiet- right, the Sabres would hear us! And he had on no ordinary bone dome. The spirit-de-camouflage had got to him. There were blades of coloured foliage sticking up vertically, stuck on with scotch tape. A rather forlorn attempt at being a pea-cock.
Just a little earlier two Canberras had returned from a mission. These too were inviting targets, an invitation that was gladly accepted. For the attackers they had entered a strike pilots heaven. For us on the ground, even us Pilos felt a great dejection at being caught so badly with our pants down.
After a few minutes there was the silence of the graveyard. We could hear it. Not a single gun had opened up, there were none of our own aircraft in the air and we had been mauled. Aircraft lined up for the kill and no one to stop or resist the attackers. Were we scared? Naaaaw! Just shitting bricks!
But then we looked at our aircraft – the flames were rising. Strangely the one in the middle seemed to have been spared. The rest were igniting rapidly. We grouped and thought of pulling out the one in the centre. Joined by the men we started moving towards the burning line up. As we got within about 50 yards, the first of the rockets started taking off. There would be a deep woosh and a rocket would go twirling across the runway. Fortunately the aircraft were facing away from us. As one woosh died we would try to move and another one would set us back a few paces and then the ammunition started exploding. Some one yelled and drove us back towards the shelter of the offices. But it was heart rending to see them go up in smoke.
As an aside, one of us, AK Singh later recalled, how while the aircraft were burning he had gone to take over duty at the Base ops, located in the ATC. As he got to the door he saw the AOC-in-C, who had arrived the previous evening, turning to the Stn Cdr and saying “Naik, try and save that aircraft”. The Station Commander turned to the OC Flying “Dicky, see if you can do something”. Dicky, turned to Sqn Ldr Puri, Officer in charge of Base Ops “Puri, get going”. Puri turned to the door and saw AK standing there. Before he could say “Hey YOU!@” AK saluted, turned around and bolted! (AK’s version)
At about 1030 the air raid warning went off. We ran for cover. There being no trenches, we crouched down in the storm water drains running along a hanger. A few minutes later the ACK ACK opened up and then stopped as abruptly. The Sabres were back, but this time they scattered fast. Two hunters, Flt Lt Alfred Cooke and Fg Offr SC Mamgain were on their tail. While we watched, we saw Mamgain following very close behind a Sabre and subsequently ran him into the ground between Kalaikunda and Kharagpur town. But the beauty was the Cooke dog fight right over our heads. It was a see-saw battle between two matched adversaries. Every time we heard the Hunter 30mm Aden canon we cheered. Once, perhaps twice the Sabre got behind and fired a few, we had our hearts in our mouth. We last saw them fighting and heading Eastwards towards E Pakistan locked in mortal combat. Much later came the news that Cooke had got a confirmed kill. Later after seeing the films, Wg Cdr Denis LaFontaine informed Cooke, that he had probably been engaged by more than one aircraft, and had fired on them too. Subsequently it was confirmed that none of the second strike aircraft made it back in one piece. Either shot down or ran out of fuel after the engagement with the Hunters. Some of our spirits revived a bit after the mauling of the first round.
Surely, enough adventure for the likes of us to savour for the rest of our lives. It was our baptism by fire.
Much later that evening Malkani suddenly woke up “Hey! Did anyone see my transistor”. Oh well there’s always a price to pay. The pay off was worth it – experience can’t be taught it must be bought.
The sight of those burning aircraft is still fresh in the mind. We took a beating. Unknown to us at the time, Pathankot had also been severely hit the previous day and the victims were the same – aircraft out in the open. The IAF learnt many a lesson in those early days of the war. Learnt them the hard way too. Out of 59 aircraft lost, 24 were hit on the ground itself. Could it be put down to inexperience? We surrendered a lot of our assets without a fight. No dispersal areas, no blast pens, no trenches for the men to take shelter in, the list is long….
On the bright side we did learn and learnt fast. As per Bharat Rakshak figures, aircraft lost on the ground in 1971 were just two, both in the Western Sector.
For those interested there are two more accounts of the action over Kalaikunda and one on the Pathankot attack which may be of interest:
The War at Kalaikunda by Air Msh Rajwar then with 16 Sqn on Canberras
How and Why Sahdev ‘Dodi’ Bansal Got Smooched by Sahdev Dodi Bansal himself.
An untrue and fabricated story of 65 ops from Kalaikunda, nothing but a pack of lies.
“The Day the PAF Got Away” by Air Mshl Raghvendran commanding a Gnat squadron at Pathankot