As I had noted earlier, the war was steadily taking the shape of an exercise. On the night of 6th December, the feeling of relief amongst the aircrew on the station was quite palpable. After dinner, I switched on the small transistor at the BADC tuned to Radio Pakistan Lahore. They were only playing so-called ‘Patriotic Songs’ interspersed with news about the war. Some how, the radio jockey sounded rather unhappy. The news bits were so patently doctored that I wondered what the real state of war was. Our progress in the Eastern Sector as per our own reports was steady whereas according to Radio Pakistan, the Pak army was winning every where. As the evening wore on, Runa Laila came on the air. She sang the song ‘Damadam Mast Kalander’ with a lot of feeling. It is one of my favourite songs and Runa was singing well. A thought crossed my mind. Here was a Muslim Bengali girl singing a Sindhi song being broadcast by a station in the Pakistani Punjab; the imagery woven by the song was of a son going off to war as his mother extols his heroics. And what imagery does the mother use to describe her beloved son? – Jhule Lal – that is Sri Krishna as Baal Gopaal ! Is it not strange? Can Pakistan ever run away from its Indic roots that it is trying so hard to do?
The night was peaceful. No raids came anywhere near us. I left the Guns as ‘Tight’, no firing except against hostile action. Nothing happened till dawn allowing every one to have a peaceful night of sleep. This peace was shattered just before sunrise. Once again, to quote the War Diary:
At about 0545 hours we got an early warning that a formation of mirages is heading for our base. [This was a false alarm! ] Red warning was given immediately and gunners were told not to open up unless they came in positive contact with the a/C. Unfortunately one gunner opened up at a satellite mistaking it for an A/C. And then the fireworks started all around the airfield. As the first light appeared on the horizon, the phones started buzzing in the base ops and people started reporting Para drops in the close vicinity of the airfield. At once the alert siren for Para drops was sounded. It was later found out that due to the ack-ack fire earlier, some small clouds had formed high in the sky due to decompression of the ack-ack shells, which looked like parachute canopies – to some people anyway.
The excitement in the village outside the camp was quite high. Banopadhyaya came to see me early in the morning. The villagers, according to his information, were setting out to search and capture ‘Pakistani Intruders’. They needed to be convinced that no para-drop had taken place. We went out and saw the village elders. It took us quite some time to convince them but we managed to defuse the situation.
Close support missions were once again in demand. Early morning demands were from Norwal area west of Dera Baba Nanak (DBN) quite a bit inside Pakistan. Other demands were from all along the border in our battle zone starting from Haveli to Kasur. We found that though our activities in the Haveli sector went unchallenged by the PAF, they did react to our penetrations near Narwal, though they never actually managed to interfere with our operations.
We also mounted a few special missions during the day. The Command HQ called for two photo recce missions of two aircraft each for targets near Pakpattan. Two pairs of Su7 went out for the task flown by Alan D’Costa with Ceezee Sandhu and Mitroo with Ganguli. They were escorted by two MiG21s from the Archers flown by Bharat Kumar and Sukhi Singh. The photo runs were to be supersonic and the distance to the target was about 225 kms each way. The two sections had two different spots to cover and they separated near their targets. The two escorts then also had to split and be with each pair. The Su7s managed the trips well, but the route planning including a supersonic escort run was a bit excessive for the MiGs. By the time they came back to land, their fuel tanks were almost empty.
There was one more task that turned out to be a tragedy. There was a task to position two Gnats at Amritsar for some special ops. Two young pilots Flying Officer MM Singh and Flying Officer Khokhar were asked to ferry two aircraft to Amritsar. On arrival they had excessive fuel on board and were advised to orbit overhead to burn off the excess fuel. At that time there was a call about an intruder and the orbiting aircraft tried to spot the intruder while turning the aircraft hard. In this process, Flying Officer MM Singh mishandled his aircraft and went into the ground. It was a sad and totally unnecessary loss.
Being an established base for the Su7 aircraft which had very good photo recce capability, Halwara had a very good photo processing laboratory and a team of very good photo interpreters. From the inception of the war, this section was fully active and it made sure that every inch of film exposed by a pilot was examined thoroughly. Groupie Gole was personally very capable in photo interpretation. He put a very capable flight lieutenant of the ATC branch in charge of this photo interpretation setup. This chosen person was also very well-trained photo interpreter and was good at his job. I feel ashamed now that I cannot recollect his name. (If any one of my readers can help me by reminding me his name please do so.) For the sake of the narration of this tale let me call him ‘MyPhotoInterpreterOfficer’ or Mypio.
By about 1100 hrs on 7th December, Mypio came up to me with a photo print. He wanted to discuss something he had found. We sat down while he spread the print on my table. The print was from a frame where a pilot was a bit late in stopping the camera after a photo run along a road on a ‘search and destroy’ mission. Unseen by the pilot, the aircraft had turned over a medium field artillery regiment fully deployed and dug in. Since the photo run itself was pre-planned, the deployed guns could be located on a map rather accurately. It was a juicy target. Would I be interested in targeting this deployed regiment? Offensive air operations were not in my charter of duties. I took the request up to Groupie Gole. He was tempted to say yes, but such a strike needed to be approved either by the Army or by our own Command HQ. He passed the baby back to me and asked me to liaise with the GL Sections.
The GL Sections at that moment were receiving their own demands and were not much interested in applying their minds to the problem. I therefore called up our own Tactical Air Centre with the Western Army and found Group Captain JC (Julie) Sengupta. I was of course very well acquainted with Julie (who was Jagu-Da to me). I had replaced him at DSSC Wellington just a year ago when he got promoted to the rank of Gp Capt and moved to the Tactical Air Centre HQ. I gave him the narrative, told him that air effort was available with us for the asking and asked him if we could be tasked. He seemed disinclined and said that he will ring me back if the Army was interested. I waited for the rest of the day and then gave up the idea.
Like the 7th, the 8th also turned out to be a day of minimal activity. There were a couple of scrambles for interception early in the morning, but the intruders turned tail and ran back as soon as the Archers approached them. We flew two missions of interdiction, one mission of PR and responded to eleven calls for close air support. In a new development, a detachment of Vampires from FTW (Fighter Training Wing Hakimpet) flew into Halwara for night interdiction under command of my friend and course mate Wing Commander WH Marshal. This was a new idea that came about from the success of the sparrow mission over the last four days. The idea was to prevent movement along the railway line even by night.
The Vampires got into action in the early hours of the 9th. These ancient aircraft had no navigational aids what so ever. Even their clocks were so small that it was a strain to read off the correct time. These Vampires therefore were modified to carry a large dial Russian Clock and Its own accurate G4F gyrosyn compass. Its most valuable component was the very experienced pilots from the FTW. These pilots, very much like the Su7 and MiG21 pilots from the nascent Tactical Air Combat Development Unit (commonly known as Mally/Mukho circus) could fly an aircraft at low-level by night so accurately that they invariably reached their targets more than two hundred kilometres away with an accuracy of less than a hundred meters. On a moonlit night, that was good enough to press home a very good lay-down attack. Not withstanding the ability of the pilots, these Vampires were very poorly equipped. Apart from a total lack of navigational aids, even its RT communication was temperamental. Marshal therefore worked out procedures by which I could identify their movement track without any RT natter and I could then give out directional information to them from their ground positions as ascertained by my sensors within my defended zone.
The first attack by the Vampires was flown by Marshall himself just after midnight and he blasted Khudian Railway station with an accurate salvo of T-10 rockets followed by a burst of 20 mm cannon fire.
Activities on the 10th started early. The first Vampire sortie went out at quarter past two in the morning and hammered Kanganpur Railway station. There were two early morning request for close support, one from the Lahor sector and one from Macleodgunj. Then for an hour and half no demands came. Then again, at ten in the morning, three missions of Photo Recce(PR) and one Tactical Reccce (TacR) went out. Alan D’Cosa went by himself for a photo run over Bahawal Nagar. Similarly, Ceezee Sandhu went by himself for a photo run over Sulaimanke. The third task for PR was over Dera Baba Nanak. For this mission, Chopra and Bapat went out as a pair. The TacR sortie was flown by Deshmukh and Chibber. There was no air opposition encountered, but they encountered heavy small arms fire over the target. Chibber did not return from the sortie.
Mypio had found another interesting bit of an unintended photo run. It was a long run over agricultural fields of a typical Punjab landscape. The fields were bare as the winter crop had already been harvested. In one corner of each square plot there was a large stack of hay. In front of the haystacks there were circular tractor tracks that had been created while stacking the hay. What had made Mypio suspicious was that on four or five fields there were two hay-stacks. One stack was substantially larger than the other. Intriguingly, the ‘tractor tracks’ in front of these larger stacks also described a wider circle, and most intriguingly, the distance between the two wheels of the larger circles also seemed wider. Ergo, Mypio surmised, these larger stacks must be hiding tanks or Armed Personnel Carears. It was difficult to ignore his logic. We produced a few more prints and enlargements. After some time it seemed that in one of the fields, next to a well and a tree, there was perhaps the hint of a jeep under camouflage nets and more interestingly, there seemed to be a VHF whip aerial stuck within the top crown of the tree. With my untrained eyes I could not make out such fine details, but Groupie Gole was convinced that the spot needs a visit. We made the ‘GL Section’ to come up with a mission-request. Ganguli and Punetha were sent out on the mission with a load of rockets. They found the spot, rocketed the spot near the jeep which seemed to be a command bunker, and set fire to a number of hay-stacks with gun fire. After this sortie, there were no more demands for the day. Battle on the ground seemed to have reached a stale mate. There was no trace of any air activity from Pakistan. We were quite bored.
KT Abraham rang up from Barnala. He was commanding the Air Defence Sector there. It seemed hat he was getting bored too. Groupie Gole asked him to come over for a glass of beer and a bite of lunch. For the first time since the war had begun, we left the ops rooms and went to the station commander’s residence for lunch. Our assessment of the situation seemed correct. AB (as KT Abraham was called by his friends) dropped in. We had a peaceful lunch and discussed the war that we were fighting. Then AB came up with a funny observation. It seems that for the last two days Barnala had been observing a peculiar air activity. On the western side of Indus, a series of slow-moving caps were being mounted that were following the railway track west of Indus from south to the north through out the day. We were at a loss to understand the significance of this phenomenon. AB suggested that perhaps our campaign of interdiction was so effective on the rail line east of the Indus, the engine drivers of Pak Railway were demanding air cover even for moving their trains on the western line that was more than two hundred km away from the borders. After a well deserved break for a couple of hours we came back to our ops locations. Rest of the day was peaceful too. We ended the day’s operations with another strike by the Vampires attacking Okara railway yard just short of midnight.
Activity on the 11th was even lower that the activity on the 10th. One futile interception bid on an intrusion close to the border by a slow flying aircraft, A few sorties of CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over base and a few escort missions kept the Archers and Wolf-Packs busy. The command HQ sent out three pairs on PR Missions. The Army requested for just three close support missions, the green Berets (The FTW Detachment of Vampires) flew just one mission of nocturnal harassment. The aircrew on the station were thoroughly bored. Away form Halwara however, some hectic activity was on. A couple of days earlier, on the 9th, Group Captain Chandan Singh and his helicopter boys in support of Indian Army’s IV Corps closing in on to Dacca from Agartala, had put up a heli bridge operation over the Meghna River that would later be known as a classic example of application of heli-borne power. (Regretfully, not enough has been written about this operation till now). This morning, a major Para assault had taken place over Tangail cutting off Pakistani forces in the northern part of East Pakistan from Dacca. Further out, in Washington DC, unknown to us, hectic warlike actions were afoot. As the Wikipedia now records:
A carrier task force of the Seventh Fleet, Task Force 74, made a U.S. incursion into the Bay of Bengal at the height of the Bangladesh Liberation War in December 1971. Task Force 74 comprised the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise; the amphibious assault carrier Tripoli; the destroyers Decatur, McKean, and Orleck; the guided-missile escorts Waddell, King, and Parsons; the nuclear-powered attack submarine Gurnard; and supply ship Wichita. On 15 December, a day before the surrender of Pakistan, the task force entered the Bay of Bengal, at a distance of some 1,760 km from Dhaka.
For this huge naval intrusion against us from a fleet based at Okinawa, orders must have gone out at least three or four days before the 15th . In other words, while we were feeling rather relaxed and perhaps bored on the evening of 11th December, a lot of happenings were in the works. As a matter of fact, we still did not know at that moment that Group Captain KT Abraham’s unexplained observation of the 10th afternoon would soon be explained by a sudden change of our activity level tomorrow.