Hectic Days in Halwara-3: …and Wings Clipped!

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Out of the bed I dressed quickly and was in my BADC (Base Air Defence Centre) bunker by 7:30.    The place was fully alive.  The change of shift had taken place.   The boys were on 14 hour shifts with an hour of overlap at each change over.   Squadron Leader Gopal Krishna Arora was my assistant at the BADC.   A navigator commissioned in April 1955, he was slightly elderly in his seniority group.    A serious-minded and sincere officer, he was currently employed in the SAGW (Surface to Air Guided Weapons) environment and therefore he was fully conversant with all the needs and skills to run a BADC.   We knew each other socially and I was very comfortable in his being my number two for the BADC.

 Breakfast was delivered at work and was consumed with no fuss.   I now needed to apply myself to get to know all my assets and challenges for the tasks allotted to me.  Leaving Gopal in charge of the BADC I decided to start with the element of air defence systems I was least familiar with.       Two AD Arty units were deployed on the airfield; one operating L-60 guns that were totally manual and the other operating L-70 guns supported by a SuperFladderMouse radar.   I visited both the units and learned about their operating procedures. I had to specially ensure that there is no gap in my understanding of their interface with the BADC.   Though theoretically I had had enough instructions imparted to me about AD Arty and its interface with the Air Force AD environment, this would be first time I would actually control AD Arty assets in a real war situation.   I learnt a lot in those two hours.

 My next area of  interest was the SAGW squadrons.   There were two squadrons deployed around the airfield.  Both were equipped with SA-2 missiles.     As it would be clear to those of my readers who are familiar with missile based air defence, two units are not really enough for a 100 % cover of a point to be protected.   Two units can provide only the bare minimum security to the point.    Unfortunately, one can seldom have all the assets that one needs.    The other problem with SA-2 units was that these missiles were designed for intercepting high level targets while our threat was totally at very low-level where the kill zones of the missiles shrank to almost insignificance.   In 1971 however we had no other missile defence available.    My knowledge about SAGW was somewhat better than my knowledge of AD Arty, having been exposed to its weaknesses and strengths at the staff level.     I went down to one of the units and refreshed my knowledge of the procedures for engagement by an SAGW.    I also spoke to the other squadron commander on phone.   As I was pressed for time I did not visit the squadron physically.

 Halwara had a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) system installed.    The radar of the GCA system had been integrated into the BADC as the base air space radar.   I went down to the CGA and refreshed my knowledge about this radar and its limitations.   In 1971, BEL (Bharat Electronics Limited) was in the process of developing a 3D radar called the S-1000.    One of these radars was installed on the airfield for field trials at that time.    Though the radar had not been declared as ‘operational’ at that stage, we had it linked up to the BADC as a stand-by to the base radar.   Our main radar cover was provided by the Air Defence Sector HQ at Barnala.  Group Captain   KT Abraham was commanding that outfit.   We had known each other for a long time.   I called him up and informed him that I had taken over the BADC at Halwara.   We worked out a mutual rapport immediately.

 By now the lunch hour was approaching and I made my way to the Air Defence Aircraft units.   Halwara was home to No 9 Squadron (Wolf Pack) which was mounted on Gnats.   The unit was being commanded by Wg Cdr Karan Yadav, who happened to be the elder brother of my friend Dolly Yadav.    Karan was a test pilot of repute and was commanding a squadron rather late in his life because he was busy with testing duties in his younger days.    I have always been a great fan of the Gnat especially in the high subsonic speeds at low-level, just the place we were going to battle in.   The squadron boys were a young lot.    I went to the crew room and sat with them for some time.   In my general discussion with the boys there, I got an impression that these boys were not oozing with confidence about their aircraft unlike what I remembered was the crew-room mood in 23 squadron in 1964.    This caused me some concern.    I went and saw Karan and mentioned my recent impression.   To my utter surprise, Karan agreed that my impression was correct and justified the mood of his boys by saying that missile armed F-104s and MiG 19s would outclass the Gnat and his boys justifiably felt that they were handicapped by their aircraft.     I of course disagreed with him entirely, but I could not ignore the considered opinion of an active squadron commander.   It made me very unhappy.

 My final call for the morning was to the detachment of MiG21s from the Black Archers (47 Squadron).    I used to be Archer One till just a year ago and I felt an emotional attachment to the unit.    I found my old flight commander Bharat Kumar as the OC detachment.    The unit had sent two aircraft and four pilots and a small ‘First Line Only’ servicing party.   Apart from Bharat, there was Neelu Malik and Sukhi Singh from my time in the unit.   The fourth pilot was KB Singh who must have joined the Archers more recently.   Archers were in high spirits as usual and I shared a hearty lunch with them.

 I still had a lot of work to do before the day ended.  I looked into the BADC and found every thing running smoothly under Gopal Arora.   I then visited the station HQ to obtain a full brief on PAD (Passive Air Defence) and Ground Defence.   Squadron Leader Bandyopadhyay was the officer in charge of PAD and Ground Defence.   He was also the station adjutant.   I went into the station commander’s office, met Groupie Gole and updated him about all that I had done since the morning.   Groupie Gole was about to leave his office to visit some place and he needed the adjutant with him for his visit.     He came out of his office and headed for the adjutants room.  He said that he cannot spare Bando for the next hour or so.   I should wait in his office and familiarise my self with the currently active files on his table till Bando is back in an hour.   Bando came out of his office with his cap on ready to move out.   A young lady in a maroon sari came out of the room behind Bando.   Groupie introduced her to me as Mrs Bandyopadhaya and rushed out with Bando on his trail.   I ran after them.   ‘Sir’, I pleaded, ‘with Bando away with you, who will show me the files?’  By now Groupie Gole was in the driver’s seat of his jeep while Bando was clambering up on the left.  ‘Sit down in my office’, Groupie said; ‘Mrs Bando will help you’.  His jeep pulled out leaving me dumbfounded. I had heard of innovations and I knew about making use of all available resources, but I had never heard of an officer’s wife being authorised to handle classified files!  An adjutant’s wife double banking him at the office during a war? Wow! I went back to the station commander’s office and sat down somewhat confused. 

 In the Air Force, office files are of two major varieties:   Policy Files and Correspondence Files.   Within this broad grouping, files are segregated by departments such as /P for Personnel, /ADM for administration, /ORG for organisation, /DISP for discipline and so on.    Within a few moments of my sitting down the lady started bringing in files neatly arranged and ordered and stacked them on my table.    I was forced to admire her efficiency and poise.    However, I was uncomfortable.   I was uncomfortable about the fact that she seemed to have free access to all Secret and Confidential files, I was uncomfortable with the fact that she was knowledgeable about the contents of the files   and I was uncomfortable because I did not know what her standing in the office was.     Apparently I must have been a simpleton and my discomfort must have shown on my face.   Having stacked the files on my table, she stood facing me and smiled.   ‘Sir’, she said,   ‘I am not here as Mrs Bandyopadhyaya.   I am also Flying Officer Padma, a Medical Officer, and I am functioning as the stand-by adjutant’.   I must have looked foolish with a half embarrassed smile, but I was hugely relieved.  (I should have known then that I was dealing with an exceptionally brilliant officer.   She went on to become the first Lady Air Marshal of the Air Force and retired as the Director General of Air Force Medical Services many years later!)

 Bando was back from his trip in forty-five minutes or so.   I was through with my rapid onece-over of the files by about an hour.    Bando then took me around the airfield showing me the PAD and Ground Defence bandobast.   I was impressed with the detail of dispersal, camouflage and concealment orders.   Orders about black out and night movements were also very clear.    The camouflage of the station including the painting of the runway was impressive and it was quite difficult to spot the airfield from the air.   For Ground Defence we had a company of regular infantry and two companies of DSC.    These were supplemented by armed airmen guards at static posts.    The boundary fence had been upgraded and repaired and the perimeter road for patrolling was in good order.    Watch towers all along the perimeter were functional with lights and communication connected.     The situation made me happy.   I also met and talked with the Major in charge of the troops.

 It was time again for a peep-in into the BADC and I found every thing running smoothly there.   Ever since I came to Halwara, some selfish thoughts had been playing around in my mind.   I had been in the Air Force for eighteen years and I had not had the opportunity to fire a gun in anger or drop a bomb on an enemy even once.   Now I was approaching middle age.   I would be 38 in six months time!   I had already completed my tenure as a squadron commander and therefore my likelihood of any more active flying was remote.    Now I was on a hot base.   My only chance of sneaking in any operational flying would be to get in into one of the strike missions once the initial skirmish was over.   For that to happen, I had to be current on the Su7, and I was not even converted to it!   The desire to sneak into action overcame me.   I went down to the Tiger Sharks and got hold of Alan D’Costa to wangle a quick conversion for me on the Su7.    Alan had no problem with that idea.   He gave me a copy of the pilot’s notes and a copy of the MCF notes.    I found a quiet corner, picked up a cup of chai and wrapped myself into those two books.    I do not know how much time had passed.    I suddenly found Groupie Gole walking in and talking to Alan.   Finding me in that very studious posture he squinted hard at me and asked me what I was reading.    Alan stepped forward and explained my desire to convert onto the Su7.   Groupie    fixed his eyes on me and stepped forward.   ‘I shall say this only once so you better listen to me carefully.   You have had access to the complete war plans.   You are automatically barred from flying across enemy lines till the war is over.   As a result, any flying effort to convert you to Su7 would be infructuous and cannot be authorised.   You are grounded till further orders’.     That was that.   My wings were firmly clipped.   It was useless even to feel sorry for my vanishing heroic dreams.   I put the books back to their shelves and ordered another round of tea.   Soon it was six O’Clock in the evening.   Unknown to us at that moment, the balloon had gone up.   At 1740 hrs on the evening of Friday 3rd December 1971, Pakistan Air Force mounted a raid on Srinagar airfield.   Attacks on other airfields followed.   The war of 1971 had started.

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6 responses »

  1. About the Gnats, while the aircraft may have been more than adequate in the 1965 scenario; were they suitable to the tactical situation in the 1971 air war?
    Also had not some of the aircraft on both sides changed in the 1965-1971 period, so conceivably the recipe had been altered? Was that reason for the outlook of the Gnat pilots? If so, there would definitely be an element of justification for the same.

    • Pradeep: I shall try to keep my point of view simple. In 1971 ALL air to air missiles with Pakistan were for use WITHIN VISUAL RANGE. The Gnat had excellent all round visibility. It was distinctly smaller than the Pakistani aircraft making it more probable for the Gnat pilot to see his opponent first. Below 5000 feet ASL and above 250 Kts speed, NO aircraft could out turn the Gnat. Yes, a faster aircraft could get away from a Gnat, but would find it very hard to target a Gnat. Of course the Gnat had a big draw back; its gun armament was unreliable. Had that not been so, the kills registered by the Gnats in 65 and 71 would have doubled. In my opinion, in 1971, the Gnat had no reason to fear any other aircraft.

      • was this Gnat gun unreliability issue not sorted out post 1965… ?? if not, then its tragic.

  2. Sir,

    I believe (possibly erroneously) that the Su-7 was a relatively difficult aircraft to fly and I am curious about how long it would have taken you to have become “fully ops” on the ac to enable you to participate in any strikes undertaken by 222 sqn, assuming that you were not grounded by the Stn Commander. Also, my earlier comment was wrong – Having checked with my Dad, who sends you his fond regards, I now realise that he was 93rd course and not 95th.

    Kind regards

    Premjit

  3. Hi,
    Reached your site by mistake ,typed “ktabraham” for another purpose,and landed here.Very surprised to my father’s name mentioned.You might remember him as “Abe”.
    Anyway read your “tale” of the 1971 war.I has transported to those days.I was in Barnala .During the war.I used to study in the 10th standard at KV Halwara.
    To be very honest with you I was very scared on the first night of the war ,ran into the bunker with my mother, at least 14 times during the night .Finally , when the two F104 attacked us early next morning we were all asleep , and came to know about it after every thing was over
    Any way thank you for taking me back , to a memory that was forgotten . I feel humbled also ,when I realize the power of the Internet
    Regards,
    K.Thomas Abraham
    Chennai.
    PS My father died in Bangalore on January 18th 2000.

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