How the Indian Air Force (IAF) performed in the 1965 war with Pakistan is a question many ask. Yes, it did take a pounding on the ground when it was caught napping by an ‘initially’ agile PAF on September 6 and had many of its aircraft destroyed. Like the Indian Army (IA), it also came out second best in the Battle of Chhamb. However, as the IA clawed back into the fight, so did the Indian Air Force as it more than matched a surprisingly circumspect and defensive PAF. Concurrently, it also contributed, in increasing measure, to the ground battles in the Dera Baba Nanak and Khem Kharan Sectors. Why the fighter fleet of the IAF was slow off the blocks in 1965 is something to ponder over.
Not many know that three Tempest squadrons and a few Spitfires of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF – India’s air force came to be called the IAF only after India became a Republic in 1950) contributed significantly during all the decisive offensive and defensive battles of the year-long India-Pakistan conflict of 1947-48, prominent among them being the fierce battles at Badgam, Shalateng, Poonch, Skardu and Zojila Pass. However, the almost two decades of lack of action for the IAF’s fighter fleet thereafter saw a stagnation in terms of development of tactics and careful study of its adversaries. Making matters more difficult was a slew of aircraft purchases from countries as diverse as Britain, France and Russia, and the much-debated absence of offensive air power during the 1962 conflict with China. This resulted in excessive diversity of inventory and tactics, as IAF pilots trained in different environments and then attempted to integrate all that they had learnt. Reconciling Western and Russian air power thought left much in limbo. PAF on the other hand had put all its eggs in the US basket and even set up a Tactics School with USAF’s help in the late 1950s. Consequently, they were better prepared than the IAF to go into battle in 1965.
Three or four events changed the course of the air war. The first was a pep talk given by Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) Johnny Greene, one of the IAF’s finest combat pilots of the time, to a young and eager bunch of fighter pilots at Air Force Station in Pathankot after four Vampires were shot down over Chhamb on September 1. He spoke to them on the intricacies of air combat; the need to conquer their fears and to “go up there and shoot well and shoot straight”. “It is as simple as that,” he said. Johnny Greene and a group of inspired Gnat pilots from 23 Squadron (The Panthers) would go into combat from the next day onwards, with two of their young guns shooting down a Sabre each, as the PAF attempted to build on their early strikes. Johnny Greene and a few others would have got kills had it not been for the untimely jamming of the notoriously unpredictable Gnat guns. A few days later, PAF Sabres were rudely surprised by the air combat capability of IAF Hunters during their much-written-about airfield strikes over Halwara (Punjab) and Kalaikunda (West Bengal) where large-scale aerial battles resulted in the downing of quite a few Sabres.
In one of these encounters, Flt Lt Alfred Cooke would outfight and shoot down two Sabres, as hundreds of awestruck students from IIT, Kharagpur watched. Cooke would emigrate to Australia and return 50 years later to present his Vir Chakra to the No 14 Squadron, which he had served in during the war.
From then on, the PAF was circumspect about engaging IAF fighters over Indian air space and restricted themselves to ground attack missions in support of the Pakistan Army and air defence operations; the PAF was clearly rattled by the IAF response and went into what is commonly known in the India-Pakistan lexicon as ‘combat preservation mode.’
Dera Baba Nanak (DBN) was a critical enclave at the intersection of the Lahore and Sialkot sectors; an Indian Army brigade planned a limited offensive to try and confuse the Pakistanis with regard to where the main Indian offensive was materialising. A swift counterattack by Pakistani armour at the bridge on the evening of September 6 caught the Indian brigade commander by surprise; to his credit, however, Brigadier Pritham Singh immediately called for air strikes from the close-by Adampur airfield where Mysteres of 8 Squadron were waiting impatiently for missions all day.
This was the beginning of a productive war for Black formation comprising Squadron Leader ‘Minky’ Jatar and Flight Lieutenants Chopra, Patney and Bhatia. Not only did they account for destroying almost 10 tanks between themselves that evening, as they made multiple passes over the target area and expended all their SNEB rockets, but they also flew numerous successful ground attack missions together during the war and raised the morale of the IAF’s ground attack fleet. All four went on to bag Vir Chakra for their performance during the conflict.
Further south at Raiwind in the Kasur and Khem Karan sector, a successful Pakistani offensive by 1 Armoured Division was slowed down when an ammunition-laden train was derailed by successive waves of Mysteres and Hunters, which then went on to play havoc among tanks and vehicles at Kasur, the launch pad for Major General Nasir Ahmed’s 1 Armoured Divisions. A similar strike by 31 Squadron’s Mysteres the next day and Canberra bombers took out over 15-20 tanks, thereby contributing, in no small measure, to the slowing down of Pakistani armoured offensive. This gave Major General Gurbaksh Singh, the Indian divisional commander of the famed ‘Red Eagles’ 4 Mountain division, some breathing space; it also allowed Lt Gen Dhillon, his corps commander, to induct his corps reserve in the form of Brigadier Theogaraj’s 2 Independent Armoured Brigade and apply it at a place and time of his choosing.
What happened next will go down in history as one of Indian Army’s finest hours at Assal Uttar, a few kilometres north-east of Khem Karan, where Indian Centurion tanks and mobile tank hunting teams destroyed numerous Pakistan Patton tanks. The IAF had silently played its part, but it has not figured much in popular discourse about the battle. The PAF was surprised by an increasingly aggressive and resilient IAF as the war headed for an inevitable ceasefire. The IAF had come of age over the skies of Punjab!
The author is a serving Air Vice Marshal in the IAF and a faculty member at The National Defence College, New Delhi.