The battle on the ground and air seemed to go quite according to our plans. Pakistan had been made to commence the operations and our response from the air was quite overwhelming. The land forces had planned to blunt any Pakistani advance and it seemed that their plan was working too. At the end of the second day of operation, there was only a puzzlement developing; we had expected a massive armoured thrust to develop from the Pakistani side that had not come about till now. We had held our 1st armoured division in reserve for the expected thrust and this prime force was just waiting! For us at Halwara, this puzzle had a direct fall out. We were tasked to support the 1st armoured division as and when it got into a scrap. Out of our resources of two Su7 squadrons, we had been utilizing only about one squadron’s worth. Nearly half our aircraft and pilots were waiting on the ground. There was restiveness palpable because of this inactivity. However, even at the end of the second day the situation remained the same. Add to that the reluctance of PAF to offer resistance to our onslaught; the war was clearly turning into a well organised exercise. War related anxiety was disappearing quite rapidly. These were my thoughts as I set about visiting the operational units on the station on the evening of 5th December 1971. Had I surmised out of turn? I wonder.
By about ten thirty at night, Groupie Gole had a long chat on the telephone with the Command HQ. From the Command side, there was only one new input: there were unconfirmed reports of Pakistan trying to attempt Para drop of saboteurs to cause confusion. The only result of this loose bit of information was to set the stage for some comic situations during the night that had just begun. To quote the station’s war diary:
“At 0230 hours an alert for air raid was sounded and 0245 hours the red alert (no attack) then the alert sirens for paradrop was sounded at 0300 hours and within a few minutes there was a lot of activity seen on the station. All the families were moved into three houses and a couple of officers personally guarded those houses. All the roads were guarded heavily. The pilots were called into the underground base ops room. The station was [of course!] fully prepared to meet the commando threat.”
No Para drop actually took place. However, rumours have a way to spread. There were numerous reports of visual sightings of transport aircraft dropping paratroopers and the civil defence went into overdrive into a futile waste of time. At the base our only casualty was some much-needed sleep for the aircrew. As far as the families that had been rounded up were concerned, it soon became an opportunity for a late night chai and gupshup session for them.
The first calls for close support came from a new sector of war: Dera Baba Nanak. This sector on the border was to the north-northwest of Halwara close to J&K rather than the Haveli and Sulaimanke sector that are situated to the west well south of Lahore. This use of close support provided by the same unit one moment at Sulaimanke and at the next moment at Dera Baba Nanak was actually a wonderful demonstration of flexibility of air power. In the Google Earth depiction attached below, one can see the extent of activity under taken by the aircraft from Halwara within the first three days of the war of 1971. The red lines indicate the sorties of close air support, Green ones show Counter air operations and Yellow ones show Interdictions. Though the routes to targets have been depicted as straight lines, in reality the routes were often devious and longer.
The first pair off the blocks was manned by Alan D’Costa and Kuruvilla. They were followed by the other squadron commander Dada Deshnukh with Chibber as his wingman. Both these missions were headed for DBN where a heavy tank battle was in progress. When the first pair reached their point of contact, the FAC directed them to a clump of trees under which a group of tanks and artillery were sheltered. Alan and Kuru pressed home their attacks and were greeted with small arms fire of unbelievable ferocity. Alan managed to complete his attack and pull out. Kuru also completed his attack but the small arms fire got his aircraft. He had to eject over the target he had just attacked. The next mission was also to attack the same spot. Dada fortunately spotted a tank and destroyed it. On the pull out, they were also able to spot and report a concentration of artillery that was noted for a subsequent attack. The third pair for the morning were flown by Pinto and BS Rao. They were also sent to DBN and were directed by the FAC to yet another clump of trees. They too were greeted with intense ground fire. They however came out without a scratch after delivering their weapons.
The next bunch of requests for close air support came in only in the afternoon. Six pairs went out. Three pairs went tank hunting in the Haveli area, two went to targets a little closer to the border and took out defensive structures at the line of contact. The remaining pair went back to DBN. Offensive action for the day was clearly less than the previous two days. A large portion of the available air effort remained unused and that added to the restiveness amongst the aircrew.
For the last two days, we had been facing a lot of small arms fire in the close support role. Our repair load was running high. We had also lost two aircraft on the 4th. With Kuruvilla’s ejection this morning it became imperative that we re-look at this business of close support with rockets and guns. It was clear that the Su7 was not built to survive too much battle damage. Its hydraulic pipes were too exposed. The only option we had was to change our weapon of attack to bombs. We could use bombs instead of rockets to attack ground targets. Inherently, a bombing attack is less accurate than a rocket attack. However, the lethality of a 500 kg bomb was much higher than that of a salvo of rockets. Our boys were generally more proficient in rocketing rather than bombing. At the same time, a bombing attack kept the aircraft further away from the target and reduced the chances of a hit by ground fire. A change over from rockets to bombs was therefore not a straight forward decision. For the afternoon wave of attacks we tried the bomb option for three pairs. The results seemed satisfactory. Perhaps tomorrow onwards we would use bombs more regularly.
While our boys were pining for more action, news started to filter through about some intense activity on the Rajasthan sector. It seemed that some intense and interesting air actions had taken place throughout yesterday and for the morning hours of today at a place named Longewala. Details about the action was however scanty.
The transformation of a war to an exercise continued apace.