Raghu brought the steaming “vadas” and piping hot tea. No sooner had he kept the tray on the table, all of us made a grab for the grub! Hardly had we finished the first bite when there was an incessant ringing of the telephone with simultaneous sounds of the siren bleating out the “General Recall” code. It was December 4, 1971, and the news was that late previous night, Pakistan had conducted air strikes on 11 airbases in the Western Sector. Excitement reached a crescendo when it was learnt that the war was on!
The Hawks were stationed at Kalaikunda in West Bengal, operating the Gnat aircraft. Yes, the same very Gnat which had acquired the sobriquet of “Sabre Slayer” in the 1965 war with Pakistan. I had joined the squadron in February 1970 as a rookie pilot. Early 1971 was quite tense with increased rhetoric flowing freely across the borders of J&K. Then in February ’71, a couple of Kashmiri militants hijacked a Fokker-Friendship aircraft of Indian Airlines to Lahore. Anticipating some action, we were dispersed within Kalaikunda airfield. All officers were issued with revolvers, and the airmen with live ammunition guarded the aircraft. The Commanding Officer (CO), the evergreen and charismatic Wing Commander Ravi Badhwar addressed the squadron and asked us to be vigilant and prepared for any eventuality. However, after a few days of excitement wherein the Fokker aircraft was blown up at Lahore, the situation appeared to have been brought under control. We were back to our peacetime routine, and a few months later I left on annual leave.
A few weeks in to my leave at Pune (then Poona) I received a telegram, which very curtly informed me “Leave curtailed. Report Unit immediately.” And I was on my way, leaving my mother very anxious about the reasons for this sudden development. I arrived back and was informed that the squadron was being moved to Tezpur (in Assam) as part of an operational reorganisation. We began to prepare for the move and soon the Gnats flown by CO, Pondy, (Squadron Leader (later Air Marshal) PJ “Pondy” Jayakumar), Modi (Squadron Leader AJ Modi), Sellappa (Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) R, Sellapa), Malkani (Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) SP Malkani), RC (Flight Lieutenant (later Group Captain) RC Sharma), AJ (Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) AJ Rao), Madhu (Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron Leader) MS Sohoni), Benji (Flying Officer (later Air Commodore) JA Benjamin), Sunil (Flying Officer (later Squadron Leader) Sunil Mehta), and Sammy (Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) L. Samuel), took off for the new location. Kach (Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) RK Kachru) and some key maintenance personnel went in the Caribou/Dakota DC-3 support aircraft while the rest of us comprising Gaur (Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) S Gaur), Stan (Flying Officer (later Flight lieutenant) S “Stan” Khanna), Chimpy (Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) YM “Chimpy” Koshal), Dani (Flying Officer (later Air Commodore) PP Dani), Dinky (Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) DS “Dinky” Shaheed), and I were part of the special train carrying the personnel, families and squadron equipment. The special train was lodged in the military siding within the airbase. Soon, after bidding farewell to our friends, the train steamed out for its first destination of Barauni junction. Here, another train (metre gauge) was already stationed on side of the platform. Our train came to a halt on the other side. Railway and Air Force planning was so immaculate that similar bogies were alongside which facilitated transfer of personnel and equipment in record time. It was late evening and the sun was well past its down time.
After a quick meal prepared by the squadron cooks in the kitchen car, the train chugged out towards Tezpur. We officers were in a special compartment of pre-Independence vintage, which had six berths and an attached toilet. Next morning we were quite surprised that we had crossed Siliguri and were speeding away towards our destination. Later, I learnt the special train had a “white-hot” clearance giving it priority over all other rail traffic on that route. By evening we were at a small station near the Air Force base. Unloading was completed and the Hawks went about setting up house in their new dwellings at the base.
From the news we had heard about the Pakistan elections and the trouble brewing between its Western and Eastern wings. Refugees by the thousands had been pouring in to India from East Pakistan through a very porous border with West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. An underground outfit named “Mukti Bahini” took shape in East Bengal and was to play a major role in the liberation of Bangladesh, later in the year.
In early October 1971, a detachment from the Hawks established base at Kumbhigram (Silchar), hitherto a pure helicopter and transport base. The Station Commander was a very easily excitable pilot, Group Captain Latta. Every evening, after his usual quota of “Roger Uncle Mike” (RUM) he would grandiosely announce to whoever was within earshot “India has produced only three great men… TATA, BATA and LATTA!” and then break in to an uncontrolled bout of raucous laughter.
The first formation landed at Kumbhigram soon after the declaration of war and hectic preparations began for air strikes and Close Air Support (CAS) to the Army. The squadron pilots were charged with excitement and adrenalin was flowing faster than the Brahmaputra. The Hawks flew missions to strike at enemy targets, clearing the way for the advancing Army. Our squadron boys, Stan and Dinky were deputed to be with the Army as Forward Air Controllers (FAC). While the squadron pilots were flying their pants off, these two FACs were doing a commendable job in guiding the aircraft to their targets. During one of the missions, Stan was excited to hear the voice of our squadron pilots. He gave directions to one of them to carry out a rocket strike on a mango grove under which enemy troops were suspected to be hiding. The pilot was unable to spot the grove and was given an alternate target close by. In his excitement to destroy the target, the pilot inadvertently pressed the rocket release button instead of ‘caging’ the gun-sight. Whoooosh! The rockets left the aircraft well short of the designated target! An over-excited Stan screamed on the Radio Telephone “CONGRATS! You have a direct hit on the mango grove… many enemy personnel and equipment seen to have been hit”!
After a few days of CAS missions, the Hawks were ordered to move to Agartala. On 9th December, we shifted base and now operations were being planned from Agartala. The runway at this base was short and the fully loaded Gnat would get airborne on the last slab. No one bothered about the flight safety aspects… we just carried on! It was here that Chimpy came out with a million dollar suggestion to land on the Runway opposite to the squadron location. “Switch off the engine after touch down and glide into the dispersal”. Now all aircraft would be able to land without having to hold either in the air or at the end of the runway. This saved precious minutes for rearming the aircraft and getting it ready for the next mission.
News trickled in that the US Seventh Fleet was steaming in to the Bay of Bengal in an attempt to coerce India to end the war. But their presence did not deter the Hawks, least of all our own “Rambo”… The CO. He nonchalantly announced, “Bring on the Americans!” While the Hawks struck targets near Dacca, Kurmitola, Chittagong and Sylhet repeatedly with deadly success, one could hear the booming of guns and shells striking targets with heavy black smoke billowing thereafter just across the border from Agartala. Eventually, the Pak Army crumpled under the incessant Indian Army, Navy and Air Force onslaught, and the war officially ended on 16 Dec 71. India had scored a resounding victory over Pakistan both on the western and eastern theatres. The largest ever Prisoners-of-war (93,000) were taken by India, and Bangladesh was born. There was a lot of cheering and backslapping.
As Gen George S Patton had said during WW II, we would have a story to narrate to our grandchildren and proudly tell them that “We were not shovelling shit during the great 1971 War!”
Air Commodore Ashok Chhibbar, AVSM was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot in Aug 1969. Apart from commanding a fighter squadron and two airbases, he has been Air-I of an Operational Command and Deputy Commandant of Air Force Academy. He is a regular contributor to the Air Force Flight Safety Magazine and has authored two books – Raindrops, and The Accidental Pilot. He is settled in Pune.