Hectic Days in Halwara-6: The ‘Thing’ Explodes

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The night wore on amongst hectic activity on the ground.    With the runway blocked, I stood the Archers down.   Soon the sky filled with planned activity from other stations.   The Canberra second round strikes got airborne.   Strange ‘sparrows’ started chirping in the neighbourhood.   It was not that we were failing to carry out any task from Halwara.   Apart from a pair of MiG21s on ORP,   I had no other allotted task at that time of the night.   However, we had a runway to rehabilitate for use at first light and we were running against time.   If I was a bit restless,   perhaps I could be excused.

 I went out one more time just after two.    The work on runway rehabilitation was progressing on schedule.   However, down the runway, the action on clearing of mud off the concrete was something to watch with wonder and pride.   There were over two hundred soldiers and airmen working with their bare hands or with improvised implements like date-palm leaves harvested from the trees across the airfield.    Their enthusiasm and dedication was something to watch and wonder at.     Bando was obviously on the ball and progressing well with the task.   I felt happy and returned to the BADC.

 My routine was disturbed with a very loud explosion at 0336 hrs.  There was no raid warning and there was no suspicious air movement anywhere around our airspace.   It was therefore not a fresh attack.  Clearly it was one of the bombs unaccounted for so far going off.   I only hoped that it had not caused any damage.   I rushed out to investigate.     From my underground bunker, I had no directional sense of the place from where the noise of the explosion had come.   I inquired from three or four Ground Defence posts to triangulate the spot.  My estimate pointed to an empty spot well away from the runway.   I made my way to the approximate location.    Some others were there ahead of me.   Thankfully, it was indeed an empty spot on the airfield.   With a silent prayer of thanks we got back to our jobs.   At least one more bomb was still unaccounted for.    That element of unease continued in my mind.

 It was by now close to 4 O’clock.    I visited the two strike squadrons on my way to the BADC.    The aircrew had started getting in.    Strike plans were being revised by pilots who had been allotted with mission numbers.   Armourers were arming the aircraft with rockets and guns.   There was a general air of purposefulness in both the units.

 For the next three hours or so, time passed in a strange mix of a gallop and a crawl.   Work on the runway was progressing as fast as could be reasonably expected, but was that pace good enough to meet the deadline at first light?   No one seemed to know.  At the BADC, the routine went on.   The Canberra fleet was returning after their second raid.    Fuel state of one aircraft was causing a liitle concern and a diversion was arranged.     I felt a little bad that we were not in a position to offer a more active support to the ongoing operations.     The air defence environment could only be described as ‘normal’.

 This normalcy at the BADC was disturbed at first light.   First came the information that one more bomb had been discovered amongst the bushes on the airfield.    It was lying serenely quite far away from any aircraft movement area.   It was discovered because it was close to a cycle path that airmen used between two areas of technical activity.   Very quickly the bomb was barricaded with sandbags and was allowed to stay at that spot without any further action.   (It was demolished almost a week after the operations were over).     Now at least three of the four bombs from the first aircraft were accounted for.   One had exploded late harmlessly, one was found and sandbagged, one was broken and its tail section was found near the BADC.    The only uncertainty was whether the fragments of a bomb found on the runway belonged to the bomb whose tail had been found or it was the remains of a fourth bomb.   I did not have an answer to that doubt.   I was also not sure whether I had heard three thuds during the first drop or four.    Did the first aircraft have a hang-up?   Once again, I did not know.

 The second turbulence was in the form of a strafing attack by three F104 aircraft on Barnala.   We were still non operational and could not react to that attack from Halwara.   However, the AD Arty units at Barnala functioned well and shot one of the three down.   The other two also were unable to disrupt the operations at Barnala and the radar continued functioning uninterrupted.

 Despite all our efforts, we could not meet the first time of take off;   it had to be put back by half an hour.  I had requested for top cover from the morning.   A pair of MiG21s from Adampur was allotted to me, but they were diverted when the attack on Barnala came about.  I was not happy to launch our stike mission without local air cover.   I therefore pestered the AD sector  HQ and got another pair of MiGs allotted from Adampur.   Our strike aircraft started taking off just after nine in the morning.    Since the target area was covered with fog early in the orning, this little delay in our getting off the ground actually did not matter.   First off the blocks were Trevor Osman (TeeOH to his friends) with Suzie Apte as his wingman.   They headed for Walton Lahore to take out the mobile radar station on the airfield.    A huge cloud of dust rose behind these two aircraft as we cheered them off from the front of the BADC.   TeeOH was followed seven minutes later by Alan D’Costa, Pinto and BS Rao.   The fourth aircraft for this mission fell out at the last-minute.   Alan headed towards Risalwala on a counter air mission.    Those of us who had gathered in front of the BADC to see the strikes take off included Groupie Gole, Gopal Arora, and Major Surjit Singh, our commander of ground defence troops.   Alan’s threesome was followed by   AB Lamba along with Mitroo, Ganguli and Nathula.   They too were headed for Risalwala.   After this foursome, there was a small gap of about fifteen minutes before the next take off.   A round of tea came on.    A feeling of relief permeated us.   Battle damage of the runway was repaired satisfactorily and the strikes were getting off the ground smoothly.   In this short lull short talk veered around the happenings of the previous hours.    Of course the most spicy tale was about the innocent DSC jawan bringing in the explosive tail of a bomb into the BADC and how the situation was handled. At that moment the last pair of the first wave of counter air strikes came on to the runway.   The mission was being flown by Bipin Raje and HV Singh.    Their target was also Risalwala, the third mission on that target from Halwara that morning.

 As this mission took off, the whole bunch of officers with glasses of tea in their hands drifted  out to have a look at the tail-cone of the bomb that had created so much drama last night.    Every one saw the item, was amused by the incident and agreed that the item needs to be sand bagged.    At this moment, a shout came from the BADC – ‘Hostile tracks heading to Halwara’ – that galvanised us into action.    I first ran to the BADC while Gopal ran to pick up a VHF airfield control link from the nearest airfield OP about 50 mtrs away.     Groupie Gole followed me towards the BADC.    Suddenly I had a different idea.    I already had a pair of MiGs overhead.   If any interception was possible, Barnala will handle that.  I however had one weakness present.   The two pilots employed as CAP Controller were youngsters straight off JTW Hakimpet.   I did not have much faith in their ability to handle a pair of MiGs at low level against an intruder.    It would be better, I thought, that I take over the CAP Control instead.   I turned around and almost rammed into Groupie behind me.   Major Sharma, OC of the AD Arty detachment strolled over and joined Major Surjit Singh near the Bomb tail on display.   I explained my decision to Groupie Gole and ran up the ladder to the CAP Controller tower.    I was perhaps 20 rungs up the ladder when a big explosion took place below me.     I got a hot blast.  Dust billowed up to cut off my vision.   My first impression was that the airfield has been struck.    I continued climbing and reached the top.   The two youngsters were thoroughly confused.     I took over the RT and confirmed that indeed there had been no strike over the airfield and no intruders had arrived.    I handed the RT back to the kids and climbed down to the ground.

 On the ground there was a lot of confusion.   Slowly I pieced the story together.    Major Sharma and Major Surjit were still near the tail cone when the fuse blew.    Had any one moved the thing?  There was no clear answer.    Major Sharma had his toe blown off.   Major Surjit received a full blast of shrapnel into his legs. (Ultimately one of his legs had to be amputated).   One fragment sliced through the Gopal’s aorta.   He died on the spot.    Groupie Gole, fortunately, had found his shoe laces undone after his near collision with me.   He was bending down tying his shoe laces when the blast took place.   One fragment cut his buttocks and sliced through his belt and the waist band of his trouser, literlly taking his pants off.    One small fragment embedded into the shoulder-blade of an Airfield Safety Operator (AFSO) sergeant.   He was treated locally and was found fit for continued duty.

 A medical party came and took the injured away.    Another party came and took control of the remains of Gopal.   One of my boys from the BADC called out that the first wave of strike aircraft were about to return.   I looked down to my wrist watch.   It was not yet ten in the morning of 4 Dec 71

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