IAF live experience in 1971 Indo-Pak War

NewsBharati    12-Oct-2018   

The land of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) was separated from mainland India in 1947 on the basis of Two Nation Theory. East Bengal joined with Pakistan because of Islamization, as province separated by 1800 km of Indian Territory. Even though East Bengal was Muslim but culture was deeply Hindu centric. Awam (general public) and its leaders realized that they cannot live in Islamic Republic of Pakistan and want a secular state where religion will be a private matter. Bengali has never been known as Martial Race. Bengali Muslims were farmers, they were not into warfare. Mukti Bahani, was a freedom fighting movement and group that was not formed but aided/assisted by India. It was formed in response to Language and Cultural Obliteration of Bengali by West Pakistan leadership, mass killings to systematic genocide which killed over three million Bengalis.

Bangladesh neither had enough weapons nor trained personnel to fight a regular Army. Total possible active force against Pakistan Army can be divided in three sub group:

a) East Bengal Regiment (EBR) with 5 Battalion of Bangladeshi personnel with strength of 6000.

b) East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), a Para Militia Force tasked with border petrol with strength of 13,000.

c) Police Force without any Military Training who fought with archaic, point 303 Rifles with strength of 17,000

d) Before the genocide, Pakistan Army took away the weapons of EPR and Police. They also isolated the Bengali Army Officers prior to 25th March, 1971. EBR mutinied against Pakistan Army and EPR, Police and many Bangladeshis joined their cause along with local Resistance Groups, Kader Bahini and Hemayet Bahini. All these resistance groups were formed before even any promise was given by Indian Government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to invade Bangladesh soon after the atrocities began on 25 March, 1971. But she was warned by Army Chief, General Sam Manekshaw to wait till monsoon and winter season to avoid/ward off flooding of attack routes and possible Chinese retaliation. When the Provisional Government of Bangladesh was formed in 17th April, 1971, India helped Bangladeshi cause of facing upcoming, unavoidable war.

The recently declassified documents of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan have, without any doubt, established the fact of the absolute tilt of US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger against India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tried her best to persuade President Nixon to intervene at an early stage. In July 1971, Henry Kissinger had a stop-over in India on his secret visit to China. At that time mass fleeing from East Pakistan and terror by the Pakistan Army were creating havoc in West Bengal and the rest of the country. Indira Gandhi was obviously under big strain. She, therefore, invited Henry Kissinger to discuss the matter urgently during tete-a-tete over private breakfast.

However, on the previous evening Indira Gandhi telephoned General Sam Manekshaw and told him that she would like him to come and meet her at breakfast the next morning. She did not disclose as to who her other guests were. She further told the General, “When you come for breakfast, come in full Army uniform”. Naturally, the General felt surprised and asked whether he had heard her rightly. Indira Gandhi was straightforward and told him “Yes, come for breakfast but in uniform. Where is the doubt?” So, General Sam Manekshaw went for breakfast in full uniform and soon they were joined by Henry Kissinger. At the meeting Indira Gandhi was persistent in asking Kissinger to plead with President Nixon that ‘He should try to restrain Pakistan from what was being done in East Pakistan because the conditions there were becoming intolerable and it was almost becoming impossible for India to remain silent’. Kissinger, however, went on prevaricating and would not really give a straight answer. Rather, he tried to underplay the situation. Indira Gandhi, however, still insisted, but to no avail. Kissinger would not give any assurance that President Nixon would do something about it.


Obviously rattled, Indira Gandhi said “If that is the position I may have to do something myself which I am reluctant to do”. At this, Henry Kissinger again expressed his inability on his and President Nixon’s behalf to do anything and asked her rather ironically as to what she intended to do. At that time she stood up and pointing towards General Sam Manekshaw who was in full military uniform, his chest blazing with shining war medals including his ‘Military Cross’ earned by him for bravery in Second World War, told Henry Kissinger “If US Government and US President cannot control the situation, then I am going to ask him (meaning the General) to do it”. There was stunning silence for a minute and the sharp message was conveyed to Secretary of State in a very stark manner. As a matter of fact, Army Chief was himself surprised but suddenly understood the purpose as to why he had been asked to come in uniform rather than in civilian clothes at apparently a harmless meeting at breakfast. Obviously, Nixon and Kissinger had their egos deflated and were not going to forgive Indira Gandhi for such an attitude.

In East Bengal, movements of the Pak Army were known and leaked in detail by the Mukti Bahini and their volunteers to the Indian Army whose task was thus made smooth. To make matters still easier the Indian Air Force had no opposition and bombed Lt General AAK Niazi’s official bungalow. As one of the Pilots who took part in this Air Raid, told the author “You can’t imagine the panic, the utter helplessness at being bombed from above by enemy planes, knowing fully well that you can’t even send one plane to stop them.” Immediately after this bombing, PAF lost all will and where with all for fighting aerial war over skies of East Bengal. It was inevitable that Lt General AAK Niazi surrendered when the offer was given to him to do so.

Slightly before the Dhaka Air Port/Field bombings, the author was witness to and part of The Battle of Boyra. On 22 November 1971, there was an aerial interception fought between the Indian Air Force and intruding Pakistani Air Force Jets that had crossed into Indian Airspace. The author was fortunate enough to witness it from and on ground as a member of Special Frontier Force Team responsible for training and operating with Mukti Bahini in East Bengal. Pakistani Army was engaged in combat against the Mukti Bahini and a Battalion of the Indian Army in the Battle of Garibpur in East Bengal. Pakistani ground forces were invariably provided air cover and close air support by F-86 Sabre Jets of PAF ex Dhaka, whose pilots crossed the Indo Pak border with impunity. A detachment of four Folland Gnats was moved to Dum Dum in Calcutta from its parent base to deal with such a contingency. The Detachment was commanded by Flt Lt Roy Andrew Massey, as the author came to know later.

This battle is significant as it was the first direct engagement between the Air Forces of India and Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War. It is seen as a culmination point of the Battle of Garibpur in which the Mitro Bahini,the alliance of Mukti Bahini and Indian Army, successfully defended the area around Garibpur against a Brigade strength Combined Arms thrust by Pakistani Armed Forces and inflicted heavy casualties on them. Garibpur is located in Boyra Salient which is in North West part of East Pakistan whose control was vital as it included a highway to Jessore from India. Technically it is the Battle over Boyra since it was an Aerial Battle.

On 21 November, 1971, an Infantry Battalion supported by 14 PT-76 Tanks, moved in to capture the areas around Garibpur inside Pakistani territory. The move was supposed to be a surprise, but following a skirmish with Patrols of both Armies the previous day, Pakistan was alerted and moved its Infantry Brigade, supported by an Independent Armored Squadron, equipped with M 24 Chaffee Light Tanks against our Troops. With its numerical superiority, Pakistan was in position to decimate the Indian intrusion. But our Infantry Battalion dug in and poised them for a counterattack. Indian Battalion Commander kept his Troops and the Recoilless Rifles in a defensive position and sent the tanks forward to ambush the oncoming Pakistani charge. In the next couple of hours Indian troops pounded the Pakistani attack who could not pinpoint the source of attacks due to poor visibility on account of fog. Undeterred, Pakistan tanks and Infantry Brigade were thrown into an offensive in a Frontal Assault. The resulting battle is now famous as the Battle of Garibpur.

Facing increasing casualties while frontally attacking an entrenched Indian Enemy and still unable to dislodge us, Pakistani Army called in close air support. Pakistani Air Force Contingent in Dhaka responded by launching 20 Canadair Sabre Mk 6 immediately. Sabre MK 6 was Canadair built version of the F-86 Sabre, upgraded with AIM 9 Sidewinder missiles and powered by the more powerful Avro Canada Orenda engine. These Sabres were smuggled into Pakistan through a clandestine deal organized between Germany and Iran. The F 86 Squadron was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi who later rose to become the Chief of PAF who did not allow PAF from getting drawn into the Kargil War according to the wishes of General Pervez Musharraf and thus prevented that conflict from escalating, which may have resulted in Nuclear War. The Indian Air Force unit was equipped with the diminutive Folland Gnat which came to earn the name Sabre Slayer. The unit was under the command of Wing Commander B S Sikand, who later rose to the rank of Air Marshal. Canadair Sabre Mk 6 was the best dogfighter of that time. Tactics called for Gnats taking on the Sabres in the vertical arena, where the Sabres were at a disadvantage. Moreover, because the Gnat was lightweight and compact in shape, it was hard to see, especially at low levels where most of the dogfights took place.

As the PAF Sabres were attacking a border region, there were air space violations over Indian Territory. The first intrusion of four Sabres was picked up in the Jessore area on Indian radar at 0811 hours. Who scrambled four Gnats from Dum Dum but Pakis retreated before Indians could reach action area. A second raid by the Pakistanis followed at 1028 hours. An interception again could not be carried out in time and the Sabres were able to escape to safety. At around 1448 hours, the radar picked up four Sabres as they pulled up in a North Westerly direction to about 2,000 feet above ground level. Within a minute, the ORP at Dum Dum was scrambled. Four Gnats took off by 1451 hours led by the formation leader Flt Lt Roy Andrew Massey. It was in less than three minutes from the time the Sabres were detected by the radar.

The Fighter controller in the sector was Flying Officer K B Bagchi who directed the interception. The Sabres carried out several attack runs in the eight minutes it took the Gnats to reach the Boyra Salient. They were commencing to start another dive from 1,800 feet to 500 feet in an attack run. The four Gnats separated into two sections and dived into the attack to bounce the Sabres. As the Gnats dived in, a section of two Sabres pulled out of the attack and placed themselves in an awkward position, just in front Gnats. Both the pilots opened fire with 20mm Cannon fire, and both the Sabres were badly damaged. The Pakistani pilots Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi and Khaleel Ahmed ejected over Boyra and parachuted down safely but were taken POW by us at Garibpur. This was first dog fight of the season.

This action became one of the most enduring moments of the Bangladesh Liberation War and made all four Indian Pilots instant celebrities in India and Bangladesh overnight. Their pictures, Gun camera Images of the flaming sabres and those of the PAF POW's were widely circulated by the media the world over. This engagement marked the first time in 6 years that aircraft were shot down in air combat in the Indian Subcontinent and the state of increased hostilities in the region which culminated in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and the creation of the country of Bangladesh less than a month later. The Indian pilots were each awarded the Vir Chakra. The Fighter Controller Fg Offr K B Bagchi was awarded Vayusena Medal. Wg. Cdr. Sikand was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal.

The author, though an Infantry Officer employed with Special Frontier Force to train and operate with Mukti Bahini, was fortunate to witness an aerial battle which few officers could witness. I, as member of SFF, operated with many Helicopter missions during course of war including ambush of Pakistani Chief of Staff Major General Rao Farman Ali. Par woh kahani phir sahi. We, as SFF Team, had many pluses and misses during this war, both in Eastern and Western Sector, but this event has been etched on my heart as absolute great coordination between Army and Air Force. This is the way a war is Won.