This story of the No 16 cobra squadron of the Indian Air Force unfolds on September 7, 1965, when two Canberra bombers of the Squadron hit the Chittagong Airfield in East Pakistan under a very low overcast and in very inclement monsoon weather. The 1965 war with Pakistan had escalated. It had seemingly “marked the beginning of a new phase of war when Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan formally declared war on India”.
Comprising of both bomber and interdictor variants of the Canberra aircraft, the Squadron was based in Kalaikunda air base of the IAF located in West Bengal near Kharagpur. As I joined the Squadron only on 30 June 1966, in Gorakhpur, it was possible to perceive, only from a distance about the nature of its successes, experiences and its travails since 7 September 1965. As a Flying Officer, junior-most amongst the aircrew, any determination more than mere nuances was neither feasible nor possible in the company of regimented veterans of Canberra operations during UN operations in Congo, who spoke less but did much more, stoically. These were men of valour and light hearted exteriors. But even in that silence, the fading memories of the Badin Raid occasionally surfaced from my senior cronies in the portals of the Officer’s Mess bar. The Badin Raid remained with me since then.
The experiences of the squadron on 7 September were phenomenally eventful. On return from Chittagong, as dawn broke and as the crews of the Chittagong mission were being debriefed, two F-86s of the Pakistan Air Force followed and struck the Kalaikunda Base and in copy book attacks, destroyed both these Canberra Aircraft and several Vampire aircraft parked on the tarmac. They were to return again and destroy two more Canberra aircraft but not before they were engaged by fighters of Hunter Aircraft based at Kalaikunda. Both these F86s could not escape.
In hindsight, one would conclude that IAF bosses used this raid to trigger a response. But indeed most surprisingly, in an exercise simultaneous with Chittagong mission launch perhaps, they ordered the crews to take off with a total of eleven Canberra aircraft and set course for Gorakhpur. It was dispersion in haste and crews took off at about 3a.m. in the morning and flew through a line squall replete with thunder and extreme turbulence in the Chhota Nagpur belt. Although they had planned to proceed at around 10000 feet, some of them even climbed to 30,000 feet to escape the wrath of the dangerous weather.
No exercise in airmanship could possibly have minimised the dangers of 11 aircraft milling around till the dawn broke and they landed at Gorakhpur. One aircraft had encountered severe icing which had jammed control surfaces and throttle operations. Worse, a post flight inspection revealed that in most of the aircraft, the fabric covering the tail-fin and rudders had torn off. Thus, they were not fly-worthy in the middle of a war. Only emergency repairs lasting a non stop 24 hours could repair the damage. And above all, they had arrived at a place with just a concrete strip and nothing else. This nomadic existence had continued till the war lasted and during which they moved from airfield to airfield and proceeded to conduct bombing missions to Sargodha, Chak Jhumra among crucial targets.
The Western Air Command was very carefully monitoring the rising level of intimidating air activity in the hostile air space in the Sindh region of Pakistan. They were aware that the PAF had received along with fighter aircraft, sophisticated radars from the USA. One of these radars encased in two tower mounted domes was located at Badin, near Karachi. This radar, apart from assisting the PAF fighters in intercepting hostile intruders was also capable of strategic interference in the adjoining Indian air space. It was a clear danger and with a view to neutralise this source of threat, a photo reconnaissance Canberra of No 106 Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron had photographed this target on September 18, 1965. Sqn Ldr JM Nath and Flt Lt GK Garud were the crews on this mission.
The decision to disable the Badin radar was truly hastened with the most provocative action by a PAF Sabre jet on 19 September 1965 when it shot down an Indian-registered civilian twin-engine light Beechcraft Aircraft well within Indian Air Space. The shooting down killed the Chief Minister of Gujarat, his wife, three members of his staff, a journalist and two crew. Clearly, the directions had come from the radar controller at Badin. Notably, Capt Engineer, the pilot of the Beechcraft was an erstwhile pilot of the IAF and a brother of the former IAF Chief, Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer, DFC (CAS December 1, 1960-July 31, 1964).
No time was lost in ordering the mission to hit the Badin radar and the task was assigned to the CO of 16 Squadron, Wing Commander Peter Wilson (Pete). Material published since then indicates some discussion at the highest level about the modalities of this mission, but the plans drawn by Pete Wilson were accepted in toto. He definitely did not want a fighter escort because that would have been a dead give away. He had wanted a surprise raid, firstly by four Canberra Bombers on the target between 7.45 a.m. 8 a.m. to suppress all opposition as staff was seemingly changing at the radar station. A fifth Canberra interdictor armed with rockets and guns was to act as a decoy and make an overt approach at about 20,000 feet and invite attention. He was also to act as an alternate to the main and sixth Canberra Interdictor to be flown by Pete Wilson with Sqn Ldr O. Shankaran as the navigator. This main Canberra interdictor was to be armed with rockets and guns and approach the target from the South-West and come in last to strike at the domes. They were separated by about 120 yards and aligned approximately at about 070/250 degrees orientation.
The mission team had arrived at Agra, the launching base on the evening of September 20, 1965. On September 21, Sqn Ldr HB Singh (Echbee) with Flt Lt GN Bhaskar (Bosco) was the first bomber crew and their aircraft was armed with two 4000 lb. bombs with incendiary fuses set at 3000 feet. The second bomber crew was Sqn Ldr PPS Madan (Cookie) with Flt Lt S. Karkare and their aircraft was also armed like the first one. The third was Sqn Ldr RS Rajput (Kaddu) with Flt Lt BV Pathak (Choohi) with six 1000 lb. bombs and the fourth was Flt Lt RG Khot with Flt Lt GS Negi with a bomber armed like the third. They were to take off in this order with a two to three minutes planned separation and proceed at about 20,000 feet initially and then descend to about 500 feet or lower and accelerate to 360 knots (650 kmph) at the “initial point” and pull up to the bombing height of 10,000 feet above ground level and release bombs. The fifth aircraft was flown by Sqn Ldr SP Khanna (Tak) with Fg Offr KM Joy (Kutty) who was to act as the decoy as described. There was one more aircraft kept on ground, armed like the bombers, as stand by to be flown by Flt Lt Ashok Bakshi (Joe) and Fg Offr BS Sidhu.
The anatomy of the raid actually however differed in its occurrence. Whilst both Echbee/Bosco and Cookie/Karkare groups dropped their four 4000 lb. bombs as per plan, the third bomber flown by Kaddu/Choohee was to release his bombs later. Kaddu revealed to me that unwittingly, Choohee had forgotten to ask him to increase his speed and as a result he saw Khot/Negi bomber overtaking him and further on starting his bombing run he could not see the targets. He then dived to absolute low levels and saw the targets in the distance. He first overflew the targets at high speed at low level and in a climbing right hand turn arrived over the targets in an easterly direction and then dropped the bombs from 7,500 feet AGL as the aircraft passed between the two domes. It was at that time he noticed the Pete/Shankaran Canberra turning right. Khot/Negi had released their bombs as planned in a copy book bombing run.
About the crucial rocket attack, as per Shankaran’s own statement to me, when they were in the middle of their planned turn from the IP towards their targets, Pete levelled out early noticing smoke in the distance and thus arrived at 30 feet above the ground with the targets on the right and was thus able to successfully hit only one dome with rockets. This first hand admission from Shankaran, on logical reconstruction purposefully negates several hearsay statements being ascribed to Pete, before he passed away, that he missed the targets on his first run and had to do a turn and come again. He had scored a hit with only one rocket pod as the other failed to fire.
An aftermath of a strike mission always leaves the mission actors in doubts whilst the true damage assessment takes time to emerge. Therefore, Badin raid was no different and Squadron was again gearing up to hit Badin Radar again but with the ceasefire declaration on September 23, 1965, they put their arms down.
But strangely, the revelations of the success kept coming as the times passed. An ex-officer of PAF ran into Joe Bakshi in a Singapore restaurant years later and admitted to being in Badin on that day and being totally in shock with the blast and incendiary effect of 4000 lb. bombs and that life had come to a stop. A PAF report goes on to report the fatality of one of their men as a sequel to the rocket attack. And we learnt later that not only the radar had to be replaced and relocated but the domes were also gone.Wing Commander Pete Wilson was awarded a Vir Chakra for the mission.
Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit, VM, is a distinguished war veteran and a former Editor of SALUTE Magazine. He was awarded Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) during the 1971 war. Presently, he writes on defence and security related issue.