SAVING FISH OIL: BATTLE OF AMRITSAR RADAR 1965

On September 6, 1965, Pakistan put into effect its War Plan No 6 with the aim of targeting Indian Air Force bases and installations. Launched at 17:40 hours, Pakistan Air Force F-86 Sabres attacked Pathankot air base, destroying ten Indian aircraft on ground and damaging three more. This was followed by raids on Halwara and Adampur but these two were a failure as Pakistan Air Force could not do any damage and lost two F-86 Sabres in the air.

Included at the top of the list of installations to be targeted by Pakistan Air Force was the radar at Amritsar. The P-30(M) radar of Soviet origin was operated by 230 Signal unit and was the most important radar of Indian Air Force deployed in Punjab, its location near to the International Border(IB) giving it the ability to look deep inside Pakistan and provide the much need early warning to the frontline Indian Air Forces bases including Pathankot, Adampur and Halwara. Designated as ‘Target Alpha’ by Pakistan Air Force, its call sign was Fish Oil. The Signal Unit was commanded by Wing Commander Krishna Dandapani, a fighter pilot and providing air defence to the radar was a battery of 45 Air Defence Regiment equipped with World War II vintage 40mm L/60 AA Guns. In addition, a troop of 19 Air Defence Regiment equipped with four of the more modern radar-controlled 40mm L/70 AA Guns was also earmarked for the defence of the radar. 19 Air Defence Regiment was still in the process of conversion to the new 40mm L/70 AA Guns when the war had broken out and only about a Battery worth had converted to the new guns.

Pakistan Air Force had earmarked six F-86 Sabres for the planned attack on the radar but as Sargodha, the launch pad for the raid against Amritsar did not have the requisite number of F-86 Sabres, Pakistan Air Force had moved additional twelve F-86s from Mauripur. Unfortunately for them, the move of F-86s from Mauripur not only got delayed but four of the twelve Sabres developed technical snags, as a result of which only four F-86 Sabres could be earmarked for the attack on Amritsar radar.

At dusk, the four F-86Fs led by Wing Commander Mohammad Shamim took off from Sargodha, accompanied by an RB-57B of No 24 Squadron, PAF. As it was important to have the pin-point location of the radar for an accurate attack, Pakistan Air Force had decided to use one of its two RB-57B Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft to home on to the radar and lead the Sabres.

A word about the RB-57Bs. The United States had for long operated from Peshawar to carry out surveillance missions over the Soviet Union but had stopped them when the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers had been shot down in 1960. This cessation of high-altitude flights had led to an intelligence gap for the US – and it needed to be urgently filled up, sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, US Navy mission operating out of Peshawar to monitor Soviet missile test ranges, especially the Kapustin Yar range, had been evicted by Pakistan Government after repeated US Navy violations of Indian and Afghan airspace. This had also left a critical US intelligence void. It was in this context that US Air Force (USAF) approached General Dynamics in March 1962 with a contract to study and develop a re-configured B-57 for high-altitude missions. As the new configuration aircraft was being developed, Pakistan agreed to resumption of surveillance flights on the conditions that the flights would be flown by Pakistan Air Force crew with aircraft provided by USA and that aircraft be similar to or identical to one of the aircrafts in Pakistan Air Force inventory. It was for this reason that B-57 was selected for the mission code named Little Cloud and Pakistan Air Force received two RB-57B to continue with the surveillance mission. These aircraft were based at Peshawar and were operated by No 24 Squadron, PAF.

Coming back to the raid. As the Sabres F-86s rendezvoused with the RB-57B and approached the IB, the onboard electronic equipment of the RB-57B developed technical snag and the mission had to be aborted. The second RB-57B was, luckily for PAF, airborne at that time and it was decided to use this second RB-57B instead for the strike mission. The F-86F’s, low on fuel, refuelled at Sargodha and rendezvoused now with the ELINT aircraft. The RB-57B led the F-86’s to the radar and as it approached the site, the Anti-Aircraft guns opened up, filling the sky with lethal fire. The intense anti-aircraft fire found its mark, hitting the RB-57B and damaging one of its engines. The stricken ELINT aircraft was forced to turn back though its pilot, Squadron Leader Iqbal, managed to nurse back his aircraft to Peshawar. The Sabres were forced to abort the mission as they were unable to locate the radar in face of the intense anti-aircraft fire.

Thus ended the first PAF raid to neutralise the radar – an abject failure and though the RB-57B had managed to get back to its base, it was so badly damaged that it was not available for the rest of the duration of the war.

Frustrated by their failure to locate the radar much less hit it, PAF now decided to use its RT-33 Shooting Star aircraft to try and locate the radar. Squadron leader Mubraiz-ud-Din of No 20 Squadron, PAF carried out an early morning Photo Reconnaissance (PR) sortie on the 7th September and based on its results, PAF was now confident that it had ‘workable intelligence’ to plan the next raid. It came soon enough, as PAF F-104 Starfighter and F-86 Sabres attacked the radar at 09:10 hours on September 7 itself.But the end result was the same as the Air Defence gunners once again rose to the challenge as the effective anti-aircraft fire prevented the Sabres from locating the radar. Frustrated, the Sabres, turned their attention towards the anti-aircraft guns and directly attacked them to try and silence them. Havildar Athanikal Basil Jesudasan, the detachment commander of the gun being attacked by the Sabres, skilfully controlled the fire, hitting and damaging one Sabre. Faced with the wall of anti-aircraft fire, the PAF again turned tail and went back, unsuccessful in their attempt to neutralise the radar.

PAF made two more attempts on September 8 but without any success. Changing tracks, it tried using napalm bombs on September 9 to neutralise the radar. The Sabres came in very low, between 100 and 200 feet above ground level, flying straight towards one of the L/70 guns. Failing to deliver the payload in the first run, the Sabre turned, and made a second run at the same gun. As it circled back, the detachment commander of the adjoining No 2 gun noticed the napalm bomb suspended below the Sabre. As the Sabre was approaching the No 1 gun position, the adjoining gun fired off five to six rounds in the path of the attacking Sabre. The shells forced the Sabre to veer sharply to the left, just as it was releasing the napalm. This made the napalm fall away from the intended point – and the only damage it caused was a burnt 40 pounder tent!

The next day, i.e. September 10, PAF followed up with two more missions against Amritsar radar by a total of 12 F-86s from Sargodha, escorted by 2 F-104s as top cover. Having failed to cause any damage to the radar in their earlier attempts, PAF had now decided to use 2.75 inch rockets. The first attack went in and the Sabres managed to hit the IFF antenna, damaging it. The spare generator set of the radar was also damaged but the damage were soon repaired and the radar was back in operation after a short interval. The second raid of the day was by four Sabres with four more as top cover. It was but another failed attempt by PAF.

Having tried all the weapons in its inventory, and having failed, PAF decided to next use the Sabre’s 0.5in machine guns against the radar installation, for optimum accuracy and adequate striking power for the next attack on September 11. The four Sabres plus a top cover of two F-104s were to be led by OC 33 Wing Commander Anwar Shamim (who went on become Chief of Air Staff of PAF) with Flight Lieutenant Bhatti as his No 3 and F/L Cecil Chaudhary as No 4. Squadron Leader Munir who had earlier carried out the raids against the radar was the No 2.

The four Sabres set off at low level at 0800 hours on the half hour flight to Amritsar. On reaching the target area, Bhatti and Choudhry began climbing to about 7,000 feet as top cover, while the two F-104s, orbited even higher. The alert anti-aircraft gunners had already picked up the PAF aircraft and started the engagement. As the second pair of Sabres, piloted by Shamim and Munir, started their climb, the anti-aircraft gunners found their mark, hitting Munir’s Sabre. The aircraft having taken a direct hit, exploded and fell down as a ball of fire. Munir had no chance to eject and went down with the Sabre, the wreckage falling on the eastern outskirts of Amritsar town.

Wing Commander Shamim meanwhile, completed his strafing attack, firing long bursts into the radar aerials with his .5 inch machine guns. In spite of the loss of the F-86 Sabre, this was the most successful of all PAF attacks as the radar was off the air for some time but even then the post-strike assessment was that damage caused was indecisive.

September 12 saw the PAF Sabres returning for another round but they failed to locate the radar and returned without any success. The next round was by the B-57 Martin bombers which came in on September 12. Four B-57s escorted by four F-86 and two F-104s attacked the Amritsar radar at dusk. Though all four managed to deliver their bomb load and return back without any loss, that was the only success they could achieve—that they suffered no loss, as the radar remained unharmed.

After this raid, Pakistan Air Force never made any serious attempt to try and neutralise the Amritsar radar, though it continued with sporadic raids all through the war, with the last raid by two F-86 Sabres escorted by B-57s at about 16:15 hours on September 23, almost twelve hours after the declaration of the ceasefire. The bombs were dropped in Chheharta locality causing large number of civilian casualties. The radar remained safe.

In all, PAF carried out twenty-nine missions against the radar during the war but thanks to the gallant Air Defence Gunners, the radar remained operational throughout. It was indeed a creditable performance by Air Defence Artillery, all the more as 19 Air Defence Regiment was yet to complete the conversion to the new guns and September 6 was the first time they had fired their guns – in fact, it was the first time the 40mm L/70 AA guns had been used in an operation anywhere in the world.

Besides Havildar Jesudasan of 45 Air Defence Regiment who was awarded the Vir Chakra, 2nd Lieutenant Ajit Chavan, the Troop Commander of 19 Air Defence was awarded ‘Mention in Despatches’ while Subedar Rattan Khola, a Section Commander and Havildar Balbir Singh, a detachment commander were awarded the Sena Medal(Gallantry).

Colonel Mandeep Singh, an Air Defence gunner, commanded his Regiment during Operation Parakaram and later along the LAC. He regularly writes on issues pertaining to aerospace and air defence and has authored two books on Air Defence Artillery.

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