I was still to finish my second cup of tea with the Tiger Sharks when the news came in. It was just after six in the evening of 3rd December 1971. The information was rather vague. It seemed that a raid on Srinagar had taken place a few minutes earlier. At the crew room the news did not create any flutter. There had been too many rumours in the recent past that had turned out to be false. Within a few more minutes however, Groupie Gole drove up. Alan D’Costa and I were standing in front of the unit. We moved to the station commander’s jeep as it stopped. Groupie was at the wheels as usual. There was a faint smile on his lips and a sparkle in his eyes. ‘It is on’ was all he said. ‘They have struck our forward airfields. We strike back at first light tomorrow.’ There was no sign of any tension anywhere. Instead, there seemed to be great relief that the long period of waiting was finally over. I made a move towards the BADC but the groupie stopped me. ‘Wait, I shall also come down’, he said. Turning to Alan he asked him to send the boys off for rest and report back at four O’clock. The other strike squadron, 108 (Hawkeyes) flying Su7 under Dada Deshmukh, had already been given similar instructions by the station commander. We then went down to the BADC.
At the BADC Gopal was in a state of excitement. All India Radio had just announced the strikes by Pakistan. The PM had said that she considered these strike to be a declaration of war and that India will act accordingly. All my boys were at their stations. There were no signs of any panic. On the contrary, there was intense concentration on the job at hand. Groupie hung around for some time and then went away; we were not supposed to be together as far as possible, now that the war had actually started!
Very soon the change of shift was under way. With the news of the war, every one tended to hang around and crowd the work space. I had to really drive the day shift guys out to allow normal work to continue. By about seven in the evening, we had all settled down.
In bits and pieces the details of the evening’s operations filtered in to form a clear picture. The Pakistanis had attempted a ‘Preemptive Strike’. They had decided to carry out a ‘strike at last light’ by their fighter-bomber force. At that moment of time, the defending ability of the day air defence fighters would become insignificant. None of the three main AD aircraft of India, the Gnat, the Hunter, and the MiG21 had any low-level non visual interception capability, while an attacking ground attack aircraft could put in a strike at fading daylight conditions. Their first strike came over Srinagar at 1740 hrs. It was followed by an attack over Pathankot at 1750 and Amritsar at 1805. The fighter bombers had not ventured into defended inland targets like Adampur, Halwara, Ambala or Barnala. However, there were reports of some fighter aircraft attacking insignificant targets close to the border and going back. We were not sure whether such attacks were a display of heroism by PAF or a display of poor intelligence/target-selection.
Very soon the airspace became alive with our own air activity. Indian Canberra bombers were setting out on their retaliatory strikes. I was not directly involved in these moves. None of our aircraft were planned to transit through my defended base air space. I however had to remain alert and not allow a hostile entry into my airspace while our own strikes were on way. The Air Defence Sector HQ at Barnala was calmly tracking our strikes on their own way out. I held the Archer Section in readiness. No threat developed for the base for the next couple of hours.
All India Radio had started a chain of short news bulletins. It was announced that the Prime Minister would address the nation at midnight. It was also announced that Pakistan had raided other airfields near the border like Uttarlai and Nal (Bikaner) also. Gopal and I were both at the command post. I suggested to Gopal that he might like to take a little rest break while I hold the fort. Gopal was however not sleepy at all. He decided to hang around. By eight, dinner was supplied and every one ate their meal in peace. It was already looking more like a well rehearsed exercise than a serious war!
By about nine, Barnala scrambled the Archer section perhaps as a precautionary cover for our bombers returning from raid. However, even for these, no threat developed. Neelu Malik and his wing man (KB Singh ?) returned after a routine CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and landed back.
Barnala alerted us about the likelihood of a threat just short of eleven thirty. Two tracks at low-level had been picked up. It was possible that Halwara could be their target. The aircraft were painting well and they were flying quite low. It was felt that MiG 21 Type 77 would not be effective against such a target. The Archers, though refueled and ready, were not launched.
Barnala was giving me a running commentary about the possible threat. The two aircraft were approaching from the South West. Flying low, it bypassed Halwara and headed for Ludhiana. By now, my Visual Observation Posts and Mobile Observation Posts had came alive. The first local call came from the civil defence control room Ludhiana. Two aircraft had over flown the town and had turned south. Quite obviously they were trying to follow the canal to reach Halwara from the east. This was an expected technique and I had saturated that approach with VOPs. I kept on getting a second to second report of where the planes were. At 2338 Barnala declared Halwara as threatened and I sounded the air raid siren.
I ordered ‘Guns Tight’ for the AD Arty units. For these guns, I had three states of alert. Topmost state was ‘Hold Fire’. At this state, the guns were not to fire at any aircraft under any circumstances. I brought the guns to this state when I recovered friendly aircraft to the base. The next state was ‘Guns Tight’. In this state the guns were prohibited from opening up unless they were being attacked and the attacking aircraft was identified as hostile. The third state was ‘Guns Free’. At this state, the guns were free to engage any aircraft they found within their range. They were however cautioned against wasteful expenditure of ammunition and were asked not to fire unless they had a target firmly in their sights. I was now under a threat. No friendly aircraft were airborne within my airspace. It should have been logical therefore to place the guns free. However, it is a well-known fact that under actual attack, the gunners tend to fire indiscriminately. This fire discloses the location of the defended area and an attacking aircraft is aided in making last-minute corrections to his bombing run. I had no inclination of disclosing the location of the airfield. The airfield was well camouflaged and concealed. Night visibility was not very high. Hence, ‘Guns Tight’ was a better option.
Both the SAGW unit had also been alerted and their search radar had picked up the hostile tracks. However, the aircraft were too low and were outside the kill zone of both the units. I placed the missiles under the state of ‘Sky is Clear’ which empowered them to engage any flying object within their kill zone.
By 23:42 the hostile aircraft entered my defended zone. They obviously had not spotted the airfield. Soon they realized that they had missed the airfield. They turned around and went back to Ludhiana. All this drama was being picked up by all my sensors deployed.
After reaching Ludhiana a second time, the aircraft turned around and followed the canal once again and approached the airfield from the east. They must have spotted the prominent bend in the canal a bit late. They threw in a left turn to come to the airfield, but they were late and missed the airfield a second time. All this was happening perhaps because they were flying really and I mean really low. They continued circumnavigating the airfield and at one stage turned quite hard to align themselves with Runway 13. The first aircraft came overhead at about 20 degrees to the runway and dropped his bombs. He was so low that his bombs did not explode. The L-60 guns opened up and the L-70s followed. The aircraft remained very low, below the missile cover and made a getaway.
The second aircraft managed the turn a little better. He was more aligned with the runway, albeit still not quite along it. Just before reaching the circuit zone, he gained a little height to drop his bombs properly. He was successful in his attempt and his bombs dropped and exploded. He had however exposed himself to one of the SA-2 squadrons. Unfortunately for us, the units fumbled a little, and the aircraft exited the kill zone of this unit before the missiles could be launched. In the get away, the intruder turned west and tried to dive low. In this maneuver he exposed himself to the kill zone of the other unit for a very brief while. The unit launched a salvo of three missiles. The intruder was diving hard to get close to the ground, but one of the three missiles exploded on proximity warning. The aircraft disappeared from the missiles radar. The Missile crew was exuberant and wanted to claim a kill. I was unable to accept the claim until the wreckage of the intruder was found and identified.
Thus ended the first skirmish of the war of 71; Air Force Station Halwara was tested and found alert. It was still few minutes short of midnight of December 3 and 4.