The evening of 6th September 1965 saw mixed fortunes for the PAF after its pre-emptive strikes against IAF’s forward bases. Pathankot had been administered a crippling blow, with ten aircraft destroyed and several more damaged on the ground; however, the strikes against Adampur and Halwara proved largely futile. The latter strike was particularly costly, as PAF had lost two of its top pilots. The mood at Sargodha base was therefore as vengeful as it was sombre.
At the IAF Headquarters in Delhi, the Air Staff mulled over the response to PAF’s pre-emptive strikes of 6th September 1965 and came up with a belated plan to hit Sargodha. With Pathankot still nursing its wounds, it fell to the lot of Adampur and Halwara to spearhead IAF’s retaliation. Mystère IVAs from Adampur were to open the proceedings on the dawn of 7th September. As the orders got delegated, Wg Cdr O P Taneja, Officer Commanding of No 1 Sqn was assigned to lead the first twelve-ship raid on Sargodha, while Sqn Ldr ‘Mickey’ Jatar of No 8 Sqn was to lead an eight-ship attack against Bhagtanwala. Both strikes had a planned Time-On-Target (TOT) of 0530 hrs (PST), which was about fifteen minutes before sunrise, barely bright for accurate navigation and weapons delivery.
Despite marginal visibility, Jatar’s formation managed to reach Bhagtanwala; however, it turned out to be an exercise in futile rocketing and strafing of decoys at an emergency landing strip, which had been erroneously believed to be fully operational. A safe exit by the full complement was the only worthwhile achievement of No 8 Sqn.
Taneja’s raid was eventful though, with things starting to happen soon after take-off. Even before they had formed up in a stream of three sections of four Mystères each, two aircraft from the second section developed snags and aborted.
Battle Over Sargodha
The ground reserve, Sqn Ldr A B Devayya, was called up to fill in. Shortly thereafter the third section had to abort the mission after its leader, Sqn Ldr Sudarshan Handa, lost visual contact with the formation ahead and drifted off course.
Although Sargodha already had a CAP of two Sabres and a lone Starfighter airborne, the first inkling of IAF’s arrival was the sight of six Mystères pulling up to deliver their attack at 0538 hrs (PST). Taneja’s raid had achieved complete surprise and Sargodha lay at the mercy of No 1 Sqn. “The first we knew about the raid was when we heard the thunder of rockets followed by the stutter of cannon,” recollected Gp Capt Zafar Masud, Station Commander Sargodha.
As at other operational bases, Sargodha too had its squadron of wooden decoys. Tanejas’s pilots were quick to train their guns and rockets on the enticing dummies, one of which obligingly caught fire. Implausible as it may seem, six of the real planes escaped unscathed, despite being dangerously exposed at the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP). Throwing away a rare opportunity of avenging Pathankot’s battering, the Mystères pulled out of their attack and exited.
Just as the six Mystères were re-forming on their way out, the lone reserve Mystère piloted by Devayya streamed in. Surviving the AAA fire, which by now had become quite intense and focused, he carried out a quick attack and scurried off at low level. Flt Lt Amjad Hussain Khan of No 9 Sqn, who had been flying the Starfighter, was ‘vectored’ by Sakesar radar to catch up with the raid exiting south-east; obviously, the first target he saw was the straggler, Sqn Ldr Devayya's Mystère.
Charging in at great speed, Amjad got behind Devayya's low-flying Mystère and let loose a Sidewinder missile, only to see it plonk into the ground. With a poor heat discrimination capability, the first generation heat-seekers could not tell the difference between jet exhaust and hot terrain.
Amjad had taken a chance at a mile-long shot but as he closed in, he switched to the deadly six-barrelled Vulcan revolver-cannon. Its 20mm bullets fired at such a tremendous rate that inside the cockpit, it sounded like a piece of canvas was being ripped up. Amjad recalls that as he opened fire, the bullets didn’t quite land on the aircraft. Realising that his pipper (gunsight aiming index) was a bit off-target he corrected and fired again. The Mystère broke to the right, appearing to pass through the stream discharging hundred bullets a second. Certain that the stricken aircraft was doomed, Amjad broke off to improve his tally.
|F-104 Starfighter on CAP mission|
On the lookout for other Mystères, Amjad soon spotted one that was turning for him. To give himself enough manoeuvring room, Amjad pulled up for a ‘yo-yo’ bouncing upto 7,000 ft and then down to low level again. As he tried to get behind the Mystère, Amjad realised that he was up against a very determined pilot who was unwilling to give any quarter. Amjad was forced to do another ‘yo-yo’ to prevent an overshoot. The fight dragged on for a while and, with a series of turns into each other, developed into a classic ‘scissors’ manoeuvre. Manoeuvrability is not what the Starfighter was designed for. With diminutive, razor-sharp wings and a powerful engine, it could substitute as a rocket for astronaut training but when it came to air combat, perhaps a boulder could do better. This lesson drove home late for Amjad as he pressed the trigger a moment too long for a shot of opportunity, while crossing the Mystère’s tail. With little residual lift available for manoeuvring and high rate of closure, the inevitable happened — the Starfighter rammed into the stricken Mystère! His controls frozen, Amjad ejected with barely enough time for the parachute to blossom fully.
At Kot Nakka, a village about five miles south of Pindi Bhattian, people were starting their daily chores when they heard the sound of jets. Recalls Bashir Ahmed, who was then 37 years old, “two aircraft approached from the direction of Sargodha and got into a turning fight for several minutes. Then the rear aircraft started firing its cannon; it was, however, so fast that it collided with the front one. We saw the pilot of the rear aircraft come down by parachute; it was later learnt that his name was Amjad. The other aircraft went down across Jhang canal close to Hinduana village. Its pilot did not eject and was killed.” Like Bashir, many other residents of Kot Nakka saw the collision. According to them, the PAF pilot had heroically rammed his aircraft when he ran out of ammunition, a lore that survives to this day! After a regal horse ride till the village, Amjad was taken in a procession to Pindi Bhattian where he was applauded as a hero and profusely garlanded. Back to Sargodha by helicopter, Amjad was up for action the same evening.
Devayya had, in fact, survived the first volley of bullets and his aircraft was in control. Undaunted, he had chosen to fight on though he would hardly have enough fuel left to land back safely; but Devayya was destined never to return. Apparently incapacitated by the impact of the collision, he was unable to eject. His body was found intact, thrown clear of the wreckage; it was later buried by the villagers in the nearby fields.
Back at Adampur, an anxious Taneja kept waiting for Devayya so that he could join the mission debrief. Everyone hoped that Devayya was taking his time in No 32 Sqn Flight Lines while returning their borrowed aircraft. On inquiry from the Flight Lines, suspicions were confirmed that all was not well. With no details from any quarter, Devayya was eventually listed as missing in action.
Earlier last evening, propping himself on a table in the oft-frequented bar, Sqn Ldr Muhammad Mahmood Alam, the plucky Squadron Commander of No 11 Sqn set the tone for the next day’s operations with a fiery oration. Addressing the fighter pilots of No 33 Wing who had huddled together in this popular hangout, Alam promised to avenge the blood of Rafiqui and Yunus, the two downed airmen of Sargodha. Only hours before, Alam had brought down a Hunter while leading a dusk strike that was intercepted on the way to Adampur. Brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, Alam assured the gathering that the Sabre could out-manoeuvre the Hunter, a proposition that did not have many takers thus far. Now, with a kill to prove his point, he bayed for more blood.
|M M Alam on CAP|
Sargodha came to be at the business end of IAF’s retaliatory strikes that commenced at dawn on 7th September. Just after the exit of the first Mystère raid, two pairs of Sabres and a singleton Starfighter were scrambled to replenish the ongoing Combat Air Patrols. Within a few minutes of getting airborne, they were directed by ground control towards an incoming raid. After flying eastwards for 10-15 minutes, they were told to turn back as the raiders were already overhead Sargodha. The time was 0547 hrs (PST).
Sqn Ldr D S Jog of No 27 Sqn based at Halwara, was leading a formation of five Hunters that included Sqn Ldr O N Kacker, Flt Lt D N Rathore, Flt Lt T K Choudhry and Flg Off P S Parihar. They had initially pulled up to attack Chota Sargodha, a disused, non jet-capable airstrip of World War II vintage, which somehow figured out as vital in IAF’s war plans. Unable to locate any aircraft, the formation turned for the main Sargodha Base which lay about eight miles east; however, with attack mechanics not quite under control, the Hunters ended up targeting ‘a factory-like installation’ which, as the Sargodhians would know, was Sultan Textile Mills! Beating a hasty exit through the barrage of AAA fire, the Hunters headed home but the mission was not quite over.
A pair of Sabres led by Flt Lt Imtiaz Bhatti swooped down on the two trailing Hunters but to his dismay, Bhatti found another pair of Sabres already in a dive, looking set to shoot. The redoubtable Alam and his wingman Flt Lt Masood Akhtar had beaten him to the ‘go for the bogeys’ call by Killer Control, an eagle-eyed lookout tasked to assist in visual sighting of raiders. Bhatti had to be content with being a grandstand spectator of what was to become a celebrated mission. The lone Starfighter flown by Flt Lt Arif Iqbal continued to perform its role of a ‘bouncer,’ keeping an eye for troublemakers in the area.
The rear pair of Hunters kept a good lookout and on spotting Alam’s Sabre, did a sharp defensive turn into him. Alam pulled up to avoid an overshoot and then repositioned again. Still out of gun range Alam pressed on, but with the Hunters doing a full power run, he settled for a missile shot against the last man. Firing a Sidewinder from a dive at very low altitude, Alam was not surprised to see it go into the ground. The best way of launching the early model Sidewinders at such altitudes was to get below the target and fire with a cooler sky for a background, thus easing the missile seeker’s heat discrimination problem. However, with the Hunters skimming the treetops, going any lower was out of question. Alam’s predicament was soon resolved when the Hunters pulled up to clear a stretch of high-tension cables. In good range, dead line astern and hearing a loud ‘growl’ that signalled a positive heat source, Alam couldn’t have asked for better firing conditions. He let go his second Sidewinder, but didn’t see it hit directly. With an apparent proximity detonation, the missile warhead had dangerously ruptured the Hunter’s fuel lines. Jog’s formation members heard desperate messages of illuminated warning lights and engine rough-running from the stricken pilot. Overshooting the crippled Hunter, Alam noticed with amazement that its canopy was missing and there was no pilot inside.
With other Hunters as well as his own wingman to keep an eye on, Alam had obviously missed the ejection sequence. Looking around, he noticed the pilot coming down by parachute. Bhatti, who was watching from a distance, recalls, “While Alam was chasing, I continued to look-out for other Hunters as I hadn’t yet given up the prospects of achieving a kill. We were just short of the river when a flash in the sky caught my eye and I observed an aircraft go down in flames. I learnt later that the pilot had ejected shortly before the aircraft hit the ground.”
Sqn Ldr Onkar Nath Kacker had come down near Burjlal, a village (now abandoned) by the bank of Chenab River, about 25 miles south-east of Sargodha. Quick-witted, he got rid of his map and log card as well as the badges on his flying coveralls. As the villagers rushed towards him, he cleverly introduced himself as a PAF pilot. The gullible village folk, who had never seen a fighter pilot for real, were easily taken in. An instant hero, Kacker became the centre of adulation as large crowds gathered. Seeming to be in a hurry to get back to duty, he demanded arrangements for a horse-ride till the main road so that he could flag a bus for his home Base, Sargodha! Kacker almost made a getaway but for the arrival of a sharp-eyed villager, Imdad Hussain Shah, who had watched the whole sequence of shooting down and ejection. While Kacker was amusing the villagers with his captivating yarns, Shah surprised everyone by charging that the pilot was from IAF and had him trussed up in front of the tongue-tied villagers. A few hours later a search party from Lalian Police Station arrived and mercifully, saved Kacker from a crowd that was angry and sneering by then. He spent the next five months as a POW.
Alam had lost sight of the other Hunters, but with ample fuel he was prepared to fly some distance to catch up with them. Soon after crossing the Chenab River, his wingman Akhtar called out, “Contact, Hunters one o’clock.” They were flying at 100-200 ft and around 480 knots. As Alam closed in to gunfire range, the Hunters did a half-hearted defensive turn which did nothing to spoil his aim; rather, it set them up in line astern for easy shooting in a row. Alam fired at the last Hunter against the glow of the rising sun and saw fuel spew out of the drop tanks, which had taken hits from the Sabre’s six guns. In a hurry to score fast, Alam shifted his aim ahead on to the next aircraft and fired another short burst. The Hunters seemed to fly across Alam’s gunsight like a gaggle of geese, and he obliged repeatedly, four times in all.
|IAF Hunter going down after being hit by Alam's Sabre|
|Artist's depiction of M M Alam's encounter|
No 27 Sqn’s egressing and No 7 Sqn’s ingressing formations were about a mile apart when they flew past each other’s port sides, near Sangla Hill. As Alam dived down upon Jog’s Hunters tail-on, Lamba spotted Bhatti’s pair appearing at a frontal aspect; thinking that they were being attacked, he called a hard turn to the left. Once Alam was through with firing at Jog and Choudhry in about half a turn, Bhagwat and Brar were neatly placed in line of fire for the second half.
If Lamba had somehow known that Bhatti was really out of the fight, having had a hung drop tank a short while ago, No 7 Sqn’s strike could have pressed on. However, with Arif’s Starfighter lurking on top, the inevitable would only have been delayed a few more minutes. A warning call by Jog might have helped, but that was possible only if he had enough time to change over to Zachariah’s radio frequency. It all happened so fast that even Alam was confounded.
Zachariah’s pilots, as might have Jog’s, considered themselves fortunate that Alam wasn’t aware of the mass exodus that was under way. Unleashing his wingman could have doomed several more of the fleeing raiders. Nonetheless, three Hunters shot down and two damaged was not a bad tally, considering that for some anxious minutes, Alam and his wingman were up against nine of them!
|Wreckage of an IAF Hunter near Sargodha|
Obviously pleased with himself, Alam announced to the radar controller that he had shot down five Hunters. An ace-in-a-mission must have sounded like a splendid achievement and, the news spread like wildfire right up to the highest echelons.
Alam had barely stepped back in the squadron when Radio Pakistan announced the unparalleled feat of jet combat. The die had been cast; confirmation of the kills was now of little consequence. Alam’s prolific shooting in the war had, however, left a tidy balance in his account. Besides the ‘damages’ which, in the heat of combat got overestimated as kills, Alam went on to bag five aircraft in just three dogfights, including the speed-shooting classic at Sangla Hill. For his superb performance in the latter mission, Alam was awarded a ‘Bar’ to the Sitara-i-Jur’at that he had already earned a day earlier for his first successful encounter with the Hunters. He continues to remain the top-scoring pilot of the sub-continent, a region that has witnessed numerous dogfights in two major conflicts. Alam is rightly worthy of a place in the annals of air warfare as ‘one of the great aces of jet age.’
|Sqn. Ldr. M M Alam|
The IAF put in two more raids on this day in an attempt to pierce the defences of Sargodha and deal the PAF a blow in exchange, but oddly enough they still did not come in any strength. The third raid came between 0945 and 1000 hours. PAF's observer units (MOUs) of the outer belt north of Lahore had given warning of this raid a little earlier, when they reported 4 Mysteres heading into Pakistan. They came in very low, and for the first time carried out a purposeful attack. A Sabre on the ORP was hit and destroyed by cannon fire and the wall of an abandoned office in the ATC building received a rocket hit. No other damage was done, as officers and men pushed serviceable equipment a safe distarce away from the burning aircraft. The enemy aircraft made a single attack and were away at low level before they could be intercepted by 4 Sabres and an F-104 which had been scrambled to meet this raid. The aircraft destroyed was one on which Flight Lieutenant A H Malik was carrying out a preflight check, and but for a brave and vigilant NCO, Senior Technician Rashid Ahmed, armament fitter, who dragged him away in the nick of time, he too might have shared the fate of his aircraft.
The last raid on Sargodha came at 1545 hours. It had been detected 15 minutes earlier by the outer belt of MOUs, which reported "three jets north of Lahore heading west." The inner belt confirmed the raid going for Sargodha, where 2 F-86s had been scrambled for the interception. They saw 2 Mysteres going into the attack on Sargodha. The Sabres took position over the estimated exit point of the Mysteres, and were soon in hot pursuit of the pair as they roated home at deck level. Malik avenged the loss of his Sabre on the ground, when he picked off one of the fleeing Mysteres with a well placed missile. Although the second Mystere was chased for some distance, and also fired at, it managed to make good its escape. No appreciable damage was caused by this attack.
The Tail Choppers
The concentration of air, sea and land power lay in the western wing of the country, and East Pakistan had only a single squadron of 12 F-86F aircraft at Dhaka. This was all that could be spared, in the hope that it would be sufficient for the comparatively limited air defence requirements of East Pakistan. Offensive operations from that wing had not been seriously contemplated, although the station commander, Group Captain Ghulam Haider, had been cautioned to have all planning and preparations completed.
|Decoys at Tejgaun Airfield|
The primary target was the big IAF base at Kalaikunda, with Rampurhat radar as the secondary. At Kalaikunda one could expect a good concentration of fighters and bombers set aside for tasks in the east. In fact it actually had over 80 aircraft: 1 Canberra squadron, 1 Hunter squadron, 1 Mystere squadron, 1 Vampire or Ouragon squadron and a number of miscellaneous aircraft. Of the other targets, Baghdogra had 2 Vampire/Ouragon squadrons, Tezpur and Chabwa I Hunter squadron each.
|No.14 Squadron's pilots|
On the 6th, the Dhaka-based pilots were at standby from 0430 hours when Theatre ordered 6 aircraft to be ready for immediate strikes. There was a flash warning at 0830 announcing the start of the war. A CAP was accordingly flown overhead Dhaka all day. When Theatre decided upon the overall airfield strike plan later that morning, it was appreciated that a dusk strike in the east could not be synchronised with those in the west because of a one hour difference in local times. The mission order of 14 Squadron, therefore, prescribed a TOT at dawn on the 7th. IAF Canberras from Kalaikunda penetrated into East Pakistan air space as far as Dhaka during the night of 6/7 September, and dropped bombs at random without much effect in the way of damage or casualties. On the morning of 7 September the Indians launched a pre-dawn offensive consisting of widespread attacks against several targets in East Pakistan - the airfields at Chittagong, Jessore, Lalmunirhat, Shibganj, Thakurgaon and Kurmitola, as well as the Pak Army headquarters at Rangpur.
Hampered by the low cloud and the natural cover which the country afforded, the Indian aircraft failed to locate Dhaka airfield, from where the Sabres were, operating. Instead, they attacked Kurmitola, an abandoned airfield nearby, where the PAF's SOC was located. Here, a barrack was hit by rockets, and there were two casualties, one Sergeant A R Choudhry, and a child.
Kurmitola was still under attack when the strike element of the squadron started up, in anticipation of clearance from Theatre for counter offensive action. This clearance was some time in coming, and it was not until 0635 hours that the mission was on its way to Kalaikuncla. It consisted of 5 aircraft with Squadron Leader Shabbir H Syed, the squadron commander, in the lead. The other members were Flight Lieutenant Baseer Khan, Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib Khan, Flying Officer Afzal Khan, and Flight Lieutenant Abdul Haleem.
Under difficult visibility conditions, the strike mission flew on, just managing to stick together, often without any visual contact. However, it was not long before the leader reported the target in sight; there were, four confident calls of 'contact' from his team, and as they pulled up for the attack, Shabbir's formation was rewarded by the sight of Canberras and Hunters lying mostly unguarded on the airfield. The surprise, it seems, was complete; the Indians had probably never imagined that such a small force could react with such speed and audacity against odds so heavily weighted against it, and that, too, at the very limits of its reach into Indian territory.
The raiders put in three attacks, and when they exited, the airfield lay ablaze behind them. Ten aircraft were estimated to have been destroyed, while several aircraft and a number of installations were damaged. The mission landed back at Dhaka at 0744 hours.
|Canberra under attack|
|Sabres returning back after successful strike mission|
Take off was at about 1030 hours and the approach was made at low level as before, although in fairly poor visibility; but this time the Indians were ready. As the F-86s pulled up for their attack, No 4 called on the radio "Nine Hunters, 12 o'clock high", and heavy ack ack fire was simultaneously encountered from the airfield. From their battle formation, the F-86s split into two pairs as the leader ordered his No 3 and 4 not to follow him into the attack, but during their single pass, the first two Sabres each strafed a Canberra. Before this strike, the remaining Indian bombers had been removed from the tarmac into protected dispersals, presumably on the principle of better late than never.
All 4 F-86s then turned to engage the Indian aircraft, and Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habeeb, who was leading the second pair of Sabres, called, ','Lead, I have four Hunters behind me". He also told his No 2, Afzal Khan, to jettison his tanks and break. With four drop tanks beneath the wings, the Sabres were very sluggish, and before Afzal could release them a Hunter had closed in to about 600 ft and opened fire. The F-86 burst into flames, and rolled straight into the ground. Tariq Habeeb had in the meantime jettisoned three of his tanks, but the fourth hung up and with this handicap he was cornered by 3 Hunters for a good ten minutes. With remarkable coolness and presence of mind, he twisted and turned at low altitude to evade his pursuers, popping out his speed brakes and lowering flap to improve his low speed manoeuvreability.
Even after his flap stuck down at 20 degrees he managed to continue breaking into the Hunters, as well as firing at a couple of them, before he succeeded in shaking them off and returning safely to Dhaka, several anxious minutes after the other 2 Sabres had landed. For his courage and skill in fighting his way clear of the larger and better equipped enemy force, Tariq Habeeb was awarded a well deserved Sitara-e-Jurat. 14 Squadron earned the nickname of the 'Tail Choppers', alluding to the swath of bullets they used at Kalaikuncla to cut through the tails of IAF's neatly lined up Canberras. In West Pakistan, the PAF had cut off the head of the Indian Air Force, and in their two sorties on 7 September, the pilots of 14 Squadron did an equally good job with the tail.
This second raid is estimated to have bagged 4 to 6 aircraft, mainly Canberras, for the loss of one Sabre. Thus the day's toll on the IAF in the east was about 14-16 aircraft destroyed, and 6-8 aircraft damaged. The losses, on the other hand, were one Sabre destroyed with its pilot Flying Officer Afzal lost, and one Sabre - Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habeeb's -rendered permanently unserviceable for want of spares. Though this in itself was not much, the aircraft strength of the squadron was now reduced to 8 [this included two air accidents due to bad weather conditions since the war started].
|Another Canberra under attack|
By the end of 7th September 1965, the PAF achieved an outstanding measure of success in both its immediate objectives. The significance of this soon became apparent: after the 7th of September, except for occasional air skirmishes over the international border, the IAF never seriously challenged the PAF for control of the air. Having achieved a healthy measure of air superiority, it now became necessary for the PAF to review its strategy for the foreseeable future. Since there was no political or army guidance available as to the probable duration of the war, nor was there any prospect of replenishment of lost aircraft, it was now of paramount importance to adopt a 'conservation' policy. It was, therefore, decided to halt daylight counter airoperations altogether as they were likely to produce the highest attrition rate; henceforth attacks against IAF installations would be done exclusively by B-57s at night. The Sabres would be employed primarily on airdefence and army support operations.