Operation Cactus is a fascinating tale that needs to be shared.
Group Captain Anant Gopal Bewoor lives in retirement in Pune and closely watches the developments taking place in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives.
Bewoor, son of an illustrious father General Gopal Gurunath Bewoor, is amused by the mess which has been created by an ‘indecisive’ MEA as the Maldives smoulders. In 1988, he was the protagonist of a very decisive military operation, which saved the archipelago from a certain coup. Bewoor recounts that early morning on November 3, 1988, a Joint Secretary in MEA received a call from the Maldives that it was under attack from rebels. President Abdul Gayoom was in hiding and the island nation needed military help. The decision was taken to abort the coup and Army, Navy and Air HQs alerted to activate necessary forces.
At Agra, 44 squadron of IAF, then commanded by Anant Gopal Bewoor, got three IL-76s ready by 10 am and 50 Independent Parachute Brigade got 6 para regiment ready as the vanguard, and rest of the Brigade as back up, by 12 noon. While firm orders were awaited, 44 sqn crew and para commandos made plans on how to get to Hulhule, the island with a runway of just 6,800 feet (This runway is now being widened as Indian major GMR has taken over the airport for renovation). Would it be a landing or a para-drop to capture the runway? Have the rebels attacked the airport? How strong were they, what weapons were they using?
Operation Cactus gets underway
Intelligence was very scanty — rebels were a determined bunch of about 250, armed with medium machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and some inputs spoke of the surface to air missiles (SAMs). At 3:30 pm a team came from Air and Army headquarters to finalise operation plans which was codenamed Cactus. Unlike the IPKF Operation in Sri Lanka, it was to be an intervention without active support from the host nation.
It was concluded that a para-drop was too uncertain an option as the area for drop was an island just about 2 km long and not more than 500 m wide. “Dropping para-troopers by day on such a precise target was difficult enough, doing it at night was tactically unsound,” recalls Bewoor. It would have to be a direct landing on Hulhule, with the para-troopers fanning out to capture the complete island and facilitate build-up.
The code word for landing was ‘Hudia’, and the ATC at Hulhule would transmit this word on a query. Bewoor descended down to 20,000 ft with the other plane in tow, and contacted Hulhule with four words, “This is a friendly one.”
Two IL-76, the first commandeered by Bewoor, with 400 commandoes on board, took-off at 6:03 pm on November 3, 1988 — Operation Cactus was on its way. The ATC was informed that just one aircraft was flying from Agra to Thiruvananthapuram on a routine cargo flight. The second craft remained in formation one km behind Bewoor, maintaining radio silence. Keeping station in that status for four hours was creditable.
Inputs from Maldives were not coming in, it appeared that the rebels had control of vital installations but the President was safe. K-2878 and K- 2999 were at 37,000 feet when they passed over Thiruvananthapuram. The ATC got quite disturbed when it realised that K-2878 was going somewhere else instead of landing at his base. They have explained the reasons and asked to maintain secrecy. Most in ATC did not believe that the Indian Armed Forces could react rapidly and stealthily in an operation that stretched more than 3,000 km across the Indian sub-continent.
The code word for landing was ‘Hudia’, and the ATC at Hulhule would transmit this word on a query. Bewoor descended down to 20,000 ft with the other plane in tow, and contacted Hulhule with four words, “This is a friendly one.” Back came the reply, “Go ahead.” Bewoor queried as planned, “Do you have a message for me?” The ATC replied, “Hudia, Hudia, Hudia.” The correct code and clearance to land had been received. A nagging doubt, however, remained, was the code word gushed out in relief, or was there a rebel with a pistol at the controllers’ head.
The runway lights came on for 10 seconds, the aircraft was aligned and they went off. The controller was afraid of alerting the rebels. This was going to be a nerve-wracking approach and landing without runway lights, and that too in the middle of the Indian Ocean right next to the Equator with strong crosswinds. By now the other craft had separated and was orbiting at 3,000 ft.
In the thick of things
The IL-76’s ground mapping radar was picking a large echo because of the shallow coral. In the case of para-drop, most para-troopers would have been severely cut by the sharp coral. Bewoor descended using two amber lights against a black background on a moonless night of November 3, 1988. At about 150 m, Bewoor asked for lights, they came on, and as the tyres kissed on the concrete, the lights were switched off. Most disconcerting for any pilot! Reverse on all four engines, sitting on brakes, K-2878 stopped with three concrete slabs to spare.
Bewoor turned the aircraft around, started opening cargo doors, and lowering the ramp for the swift exit of troops. Operation Cactus phase I had been successfully completed at 7:48 pm. The other craft landed five minutes later and was horrified to see soldiers crossing the runway during its landing run.
Indian para-troopers like to live dangerously. Hulhule island was secured by 10:45 pm. Boats with the President’s rescue party left for Male at just after midnight. While crossing the harbour they fired rockets and hit a passing ship, it was the MV Progress Light escaping with rebel leader Lutfi and Maldivian hostages. Progress Light was intercepted by INS Godavari and INS Betwa in a high seas drama which is a separate story. The paratroopers made their beachhead on the Western face of Male, and led the rescue party to secure President Gayoom. By 3 am on November 4, they had got President Gayoom safely into the National Security Service building.
In house-to-house searches, paratroopers captured some 30 rebels with lots of ammunition and explosives, another 70 rebels came-off Progress Light. It was time to tell the world that Indian Armed Forces, with the IL-76s of the Indian Air Force in the lead, had successfully defeated the coup in the Maldives. President Gayoom spoke with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at about 4:30 am. Phase II of Operation Cactus had been completed in less than 24 hours from that first phone call. 44 Squadron flew another three sorties that night bringing in the Para Brigade. The 6 Para remained in the Maldives for one year, and on November 3, 1989, K-2878 returned to Hulhule for de-induction.
Later Bewoor was told by IAF and aviation historian Jagan Pilarisetti he was probably the only IAF pilot, alive or dead, to fly 3,500 km across India, and land blind on an unknown runway at night without normal runway lights, and without any support from friendly forces on the ground.