As the sun set on 4 December 1971, with the war between India and Pakistan being barely 24 hours old, I was already burdened with a personal loss. Gopal, my closest associate for the past three days was gone. From about ten in the morning when the blast had occurred, I was fully busy in running operations of war. I had had no time to feel the loss of a person as close as what Gopal had become. Now with offensive operations from the station coming to a halt, the feeling of this personal loss had time to penetrate my consciousness. It was hard to believe that Gopal was gone, but it was a fact that I had to accept. I missed Gopal at every turn of events. Last night it was so easy for me to leave the BADC for short visits outside, secure in the knowledge that Gopal was there to take charge of matters when I was away. Now, when with the beginning of a new cycle of activities I needed to go around to the units once more, I was without his comforting presence. Work that needed to be done had to be done none the less.
As the evening set in, our airwaves were filled with chattering Canberras and whispering sparrows. Halwara was alert as usual and Archers were standing by for night interceptions if the enemy was foolish enough to try a medium level intrusion by night. On the ground, we were taking stock of our victories and losses for the day. We had lost three Su7s: Harvinder to an air interception, Saxena and Natu to ground fire. We knew that Natu was safe in a hospital and Harvinder was dead, but we were unsure of Saxena. We were also sad about the loss of Gopal on the ground. Early in the evening, before the aircrew were sent off for night-rest, the crew rooms were filled with chatter about the happenings of the day. The general consensus was that the PAF was not eager for battle. They attempted intrusions only by night and their attacks were not very effective. They did not offer much resistance to our fighter onslaught by day. Even over the ground battle zones, PAF did not show up to contest us in any number. None of the close support missions flown from Halwara were interfered with by the PAF. Our morale was high. In view of the poor response from the PAF to our close support missions, we debated whether further counter-air operations could be scaled down safely and the amount of close air support be increased.
At about two O’clock in the morning the Archer pair was scrambled to interfere with a suspicious track that turned out to be a false alarm. Neelu Malik and Sukhi then hung around under the control of Barnala as a night patrol and landed back by about three in the morning. There was no attempt by the PAF to target Halwara to-night even though they did attempt to hit some other bases. Had they been frightened adequately by the hot reception they had received last night? I certainly believed that it was so.
By about four in the morning I went around the units to take stock of the situation. I ran into Groupie Gole in 108 Squadron offices. He had come down to brief Dada Deshmukh of the change in focus of operations that had been decided upon at the Command HQ. Halwara was not required for any further counter air missions. Fresh intelligence indicated that the land battle had not gone well for Pakistan in the first 24 hours of the war. It appeared that the enemy was in the process of moving some armour from the Bahawalpur region to the north where some intense battle had been raging in the previous day. The new focus of operations from Halwara would be to support the land battle in the Hussainiwala area and to interdict any movement from south to north.
I dropped into the GL Sections and found them to be hard at work. For the sake of readers who are not familiar with the intricacies of a combined air-land battle let me explain the outline of the controlling structure of this combined effort. Right at the top, the responsible air command lodges an element into the corresponding army command at a fairly senior level so that the situation of ground and air battles are known at the command level and mutual points of view can be presented while planning operations at that level. Lower down the line, there is an air force element lodged with each corps headquarters executing battle plans. Allotment of specific air effort for a given battle spot is done at this level. The Corps headquarters in turn lodges an army unit at the air force base tasked to support the land battle. These army elements at air bases are called GL (Ground Liaison) Sections. Since it is possible for a single airbase to support land battle in diverse geographical locations, it is possible for it to be involved in land battles of more than one Corps. Thus, one air base may have more than one GL Section lodged with it. Similarly, more than one air base may be involved in supporting the battles being fought by a Corps HQ. The Corps HQ therefore may have many different GL sections lodged with Different air bases. Halwara had two GL sections on the base.
With the change in focus of air operations from Halwara, both the GL sections became busy choosing targets to attack. Clearly, now we had two types of tasks. One task was to interfere directly into the battle in close proximity of our own troops. For such tasks, the Air Force positions an element called the ‘Forward Air Controller’ (FAC) who generally moves on the ground with the forward Brigade of a Division. The FAC remains in direct radio contact with the pilots of the attacking aircraft and are required to direct the aircraft to specific camouflaged or moving targets by describing the relationship of the target to prominent features on the ground that can be seen easily by the pilot from the air. The FAC also prevents mistaken attack on own troops by our own aircraft in the heat of the battle. The land battle of relevance to Halwara was raging near Sulaimanke and Hussainiwala. These places were right on the international border.
The other task allotted to us now was to interdict any movement by Pakistani forces towards the north. For this, we had to scour the roads and rail routes, and for that purpose we had to intrude deeper into enemy territory. For interdiction one needs to find and identify small moving targets visually; a low level intrusion is good for visual identification. Remaining low also helps in evading radar detection by the enemy. However, remaining low eats into the available radius of action. Today’s job entailed risks of interception, but yesterday’s experience of practically nonexistent air opposition gave us confidence.
By about nine O’ clock Bipin Raje and Ajax Sandhu took off for the first close support mission near Sulaimanke. Their job was to eliminate some tanks bothering our troops. By the time they arrived on the scene, the tanks had gone into hiding. The FAC guided Bipin to the location where they were hiding. Bipin and Ajax offloaded their weapons on the spot directed by the FAC and headed back home in the face of very heavy ground fire being directed against them. The FAC was happy, they hoped that they had got their tank kills, but Bipin and Ajax could not claim any kills without visual confirmation. Just ahead of Raje, Alan D’Costa and Kuruvilla had gone out train hunting towards Chistian Mandi and they were followed by Chopra and Bapat on the same task. Both the missions found military goods trains on their allotted tracks and had a field day destroying the engine and wagons one by one. Lots of small arms fire came back at them but there was no air opposition.
By quarter to ten, Pope Pais and Ghosh responded to another request for close support from Sulaimanke area. This time they found four tanks. Between the two of them, they destroyed one tank and damaged two others. The defensive small arms fire that rose to meet them was severe. Ghosh took in a number of bullets and was hit in his right arm by a fragment; he suffered heavy bleeding. He flew the aircraft back to base and landed the aircraft using only his left hand. It was a very good show indeed.
There was an attempted intrusion from the Pakistani side during the morning hours. The Archer section led by Bharat was scrambled. As soon as the Archers closed in to the target, the Pakistani pilot turned about and fled back into its own territory. Bharat patrolled the border as long as his fuel lasted and then came back to base.
In the next wave of offensive ops, Lamba with Mitroo, Ganguli with Ayre followed by Manek Madon with Palekar went out train hunting. While the first set found a tank transporter carrying a tank and destroyed it, the other two missions found two other trains loaded with arms and explosives and blew up the lot. Patel and Phillipose, mean while, responded to yet another call for close support near Sulaimanke and returned after destroying one tank and damaging another.
In the post lunch session of offensive operations, Mathulla with Y Rao, Dada Deshmukh with Chibber and Chakladar with Das went out train hunting. Mathulla’s pair destroyed two different goods trains, one near Kanganpur and a second near Hirasingh railway station. Deshmukh and Chibber searched for their targets in the Haveli-Sulaimanke axis. They ultimately found two tanks, but it was rather late in their sortie and they could not complete destruction of their targets; they had to come back due to shortage of fuel. Chakladar and Dass accounted for one more tank trying to dismount from a train near Bahawalpur. The fourth pair of the post lunch wave was flown by TeeOH and Suzie Apte. They had been sent tank hunting to Deepalpur-Baripur Dhalla area but returned disappointed; they could not find any tanks.
By now, train movements in the Bahawalpur/Lahore segment of the Pakistan Railways had almost stopped. Our aircraft on deep interdiction were now boldly flying out at medium level while MiG21s flown by the Archers provided top cover to them in the form of a border patrol. A wave of five pairs of strikes was mounted late in the evening. Pinto with BS Rao found only one train to destroy near Bahawalpur. Chopra and Bapat destroyed a bridge under construction over a canal near Sidhanwali. Pope Pais and Patel destroyed 4 pillboxes and other defensive structures on the line of contact. The other two missions were abortive. Raje and Ganguli had gone train hunting on the Sulaimanke-Mirchandabad axis; no trains were seen. Ajax an CeeZee Sandhu had gone to destroy an ammo dump south-east of Bahanki Nagar; they could not spot their target.
The second day of operations at Halwara thus ended with heavy offensive and air defence actions. The base had mounted 34 strike and 37 air defence missions for the day. Three of our aircraft had sustained damage from ground fire and one pilot had been wounded. It was a busy and effective day.