INS Vikrant was patched up in a hurry, but her speed was curtailed. This would mean she would be an easy target to Pakistan’s submarines. It was then that the brilliant tactician, Vice Admiral Krishnan, C-in-C Eastern Naval Command, requested NHQ to utilize her on the eastern sea-front. At the speed of 12 knots, INS Vikrant was capable of operating only the erstwhile Bregeut Alize aircraft from her deck. Though the Alizes could be recovered on the carrier, the aircraft could not be launched as Vikrant’s catapult was not yet ready. It was in that situation that yours truly, a day-night qualified Alize QFI, was directed to do carrier trials by doing free takeoffs from the carrier’s deck. The Cdr(E), Cdr Roy Chaudhury (later awarded VrC, for his gallantry and finally retired as a Vice Admiral) was not sure if he could push the ship to at least give minimum speed of 14 knots in case their was no natural wind to assist the free take offs.
The Squadron had done the mathematics and I was sure that the wonderful Alize aircraft can easily do the job in the lightened condition, we initially planned to do the first free take off. Though the rest of the carrier crew were keeping their finger’s crossed, we proved the versatility of the Alize aircraft and not only completed the free take off trials successfully but also did Free Take Offs at full designed loads of the aircraft. Thereafter, Captain Swaraj Prakash (later awarded the MVC for gallantry inthe war and retired as the Vice Chief of Naval Staff) was ordered to move the carrier to the Eastern sector.
The Cobra squadron, INAS 310 under the command of late Cdr Ravi Dhir (who earned his VrC during the war) with me as his Senior Pilot and late Lt Cdr SP Ghosh (also a VrC awardee in the war) as senior Observer ofthe squadron, flew the squadron from Cochin INS Garuda to Chennai Meenambakkam airfield. We operated and trained all the pilots back to ‘ops status’ within 20 days. Cdr Roy Chaudhury with his dedicated engine room department got the catapult ready for operations. From then onwards we were doing the opssorties from the carrier.
As soon as the engineering department managed to flash up the unserviceable second boiler the carrier could give sustained speed of 18 knots for the Hawks quadron also to embark and so they too started flying from the carrier. The grit, devotion and the spirit to achieve the impossible gave one and all total confidence to take on all and sundry. The Carrier with its aircraft was itching to go into action. It was then middle of November 1971. Our ‘Iron Lady’, Prime Minister Madam Indira Gandhi gave the indication to our Chiefs that India may have to go to war with Pakistan.
In the mean time Vikrant was quietly moved to Port Blair in Andaman Islands and finally positioned in Port Cornwallis Lagoon. On third December evening, we heard on radio that Pakistan Air Force struck many of our airfields. Vikrant had just received orders to sail and strike enemy airfields in East Pakistan at the earliest. The briefing by the erstwhile Commander (Air), Cdr Parashar (fondly called by the aircrew as ‘The Superman’) spoke just one sentence “Gentlemen this is it!”
On the morning of 4th, the Hawks struck Dhaka airfield and the harbour. They faced no air opposition but heavy anti-aircraft ground fire. The Alizes being slower anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft flew through out the night of 3rd and 4th December providing the carrier force, in depth anti-submarine surveillance and early warning of enemy ships.
On the first day of War, NHQ directed that only thoseships which were of Pakistani origin should be sunk. This resulted in the Alize aircraft flying low over the merchant ships, establishing their identity before attacking them. All the ships seen by our squadron had many women and children, all waving white flags from the open decks. It was suspected that on the first fewdays many Pakistani civilian officials with their families left East Pakistan with all their gold and money.
Only when we received clearance to fire at the shipsthat were coming out or heading towards East Pakistan that the Alize came into their own in the war. As the Hawker hunters were not cleared for night operations, the good old Alize had to do night strikes on enemy targets. We carried out night strikes using 500 pound bombs; we could see tracers coming all the way up to our aircraft and just missing us. We confirmed that the attacks by Hawks during day rendered havoc in the harbour and there was just no enemy fighter opposition.
As there was no enemy air opposition, Captain Swaraj Prakash cleared yours truly to fly over and inspect the beaches for amphibious landing operations. INS Magar and the landing craft recently acquired from Russia were to do this operation. I flew low over the whole length of the beach south of Chittagong and found it totally deserted, so I continued my reconnaissance sortie over the road leading to Chittagong. The road was strewn with abandoned vehicles and people running helter-skelter. As there were no suitable targets to bomb, I continued on to Chittagong. There we saw people looting every house of all its articles. Just then we sighted a wireless station with large transmission towers and a government office. We successfully bombed the wireless station with our 500 lbs bombs but left the government building as it had a red cross on it.
Later we learnt from the Mukti Bahini that this act of ours saved many innocent Bangladeshis in the hospital but successfully destroyed the enemy hiding in the wireless station. My report helped Navy to change the landing operations to directly proceed to Chitagong town. With the help of Bangladeshi fishing vessels guiding our amphibious force, the Navy landed the Ghurkas, for a hero’s welcome by the locals.
As we had no knowledge of the goings on at the Western end of East Pakistan, I was launched to fly all the way up the mutha-mulla river to the Ports of Chelna and Khulna during daylight hours. On reaching Khulna, I noticed that there were five merchant vessels anchored in line in the river. I carried out a daylight rocket attack on one of the ships. Immediately there was heavy anti-aircraft fire from a gunboat, and as my mission was to recce and report on the state of the harbours, I pressed on to Chelna and found the harbor deserted. After reading my report, Admiral Sri Harilal Sarma, FOCEF appreciated that the ships in Khulna were the evacuating merchant ships for the Pakistani troops and so launched Cdr Ravi Dhir and me that same night with five 500lb bombs each. There was very heavy ack-ack fire from shore, with tracers just missing us. We successfully bombed the ships. Our attack was so effective that the ships that were fit to sail cut their anchor chains and sailed out towards the mouth of the river to sea.
The Admiral judged the expected actions of the merchant ships correctly and directed INS Brahmaputra commanded by then Cdr Ramdas (laterto become CNS) to proceed at high speed and await the enemy’s merchant vessels at the mouth of the river. As expected all the ships came out together and as soon as they saw our naval ship, all of them did the ‘scatter’ maneuver, such that Brahmaputra could not stop all of them at the same time. INS Brahmaputra engaged one ship ‘Mini Lady’ and sent a signal to Vikrant that the ships were breaking away in all directions. At that time Hawks were on their way back to the carrier after striking Dhaka. They were directed to strafe the ships with whatever front gun ammunition they had with them. The strike was so successful that all the merchantmen stopped and obeyed the orders given by our frigate and a boarding party under the command of the Executive Officer, Lt Cdr Raj Bajaj of Brahmaputra, boarded the first ship and escorted five ships to Diamond harbor. The night strike by the Breguet Alizes helped Navy capture the evacuation fleet of the Pakistani forces and broke their morale.
Two days later, I was launched to check the situation at the Khulna and Chelna harbours. I sighted at the mouth of the river, a Naval Tug towing two very long boats camouflaged with branches all over. On closer examination, it was noticed that the boats contained troops who were being ferried to the Eastern sector to Dhaka or Chitagong. Immediately I attacked the naval vessel with my rockets. We saw that the tug was still firing its foxl’e gun. As we had expended our rockets we decided to strike with Depth Charges. For a good depth charge attack, the strike had to be done practically skimming over the target. My crew Lt Bhagwat and Lt Pawar both valiantly agreed for the low level strike to prevent the Pakistan forces escaping to safer areas.
After our successful depth charge attack, the enemy hoisted a white flag and turned the vessels on to the beach and abandoned them. Our aircraft was hit by a spray of 20 mm bullets right along the centerline all theway to the rear. Lucky for us the crew sits with the pilot on the left of centre, the navigator on the right and the rear radar operator also sits on the right of the centerline. So all the direct hits on the aircraft missed us by inches but the aircraft lost electrical power, hydraulics and the radome was hit causing a small fire; still the aircraft was able to fly back to the carrier at slowspeed. We had to lower the undercarriage and the hook by gravity.
As we were, long overdue and the carrier was unable to contact us on radio, Vikrant launched young Lt Mohanan (who retired as a Rear Admiral) to look for us. By then we were in visual range and could inform the ship on VHF operating on battery that we were coming in directly for landing. The ship suggested that we use the ‘Net’ for ourlanding but I refused as I knew that once the aircraft uses the net, she would sustain greater damage. I successfully did the night landing and saved the aircraft.
The ground crew over night patched up the eight direct hits the aircraft received and made it operational by next morning. Young Lt Mohanan flew all the way to the beaching point and found all the vessels abandoned and empty of personnel. With this strike and return of the bullet ridden Alize aircraft back safely to the ship the ground crew experienced war at close quarters and it raised their morale high up.
The Cobra Squadron during the war earned five Vir Chakras and one Mention-in-dispatches. The wonderful Alize aircraft performed all its tasks excellently under the able guidance of the valiant Cobra squadron’s crew. So ended the saga of wonderful aircraft, Breguet Alize 1050. She is no more operational in service except in museums. May God bless the soul of the designer of this aeroplane.
(This rare account was published in the 2008-09 edition of Quarterdeck, the Indian Navy’s annual journal. The Indian Navy owns the copyright to this article and the images)