The Indo-Pak Air War of 1965

I just heard that BharatRakshak’s PVS Jagan Mohan has received the Chief of Air Staff’s Commendation for his contribution to documenting IAF history, and particularly his effort on the Indo-Pak air war of 1965 with Samir Chopra published in 2005. I reproduce below the review I did of his book in The Indian Express last year:

JULY 30, 2006

In an interview to The Indian Express last week, Air Chief SP Tyagi, concerned over his force’s fleet strength, said he had asked the government to “order more aircraft of the types we already operate” since numbers were heading toward unacceptable levels. Plans for 126 new fighters and their induction could take 15 years and “we can’t afford to wait that long… our only option is to get something in a hurry”. Pointing to more F-16s for Islamabad and the induction into PAF of Chinese JF-17s in large numbers from next year, Tyagi warned that Pakistan would have greater fighter density than India for a country its size.

There is a familiar ring to his concerns, a sense of déjà vu that takes you back 40 years: the run-up to the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and the war itself, were the IAF’s first hard lessons in the “dangers of neglecting offensive and support capabilities”. In what is one of the most graphic and honest accounts of the war, PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra’s The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965 (Manohar Books, 2005) introduces you to an IAF, which, on the threshold of an uncertain long-term expansion plan, is suddenly told to go to war in old, equally uncertain machines.

Vampires and Ouragans which had “no business being in the skies” at the time joined Mysteres, Hunters and Gnats to take on the PAF’s cutting edge American F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. At that time, the Sabre was “the fastest and most powerful aircraft in the subcontinent” while the Starfighter was a “missile with a man in it”. Had it not been for the men who made the IAF at the time, the 1965 war could have turned out quite differently.

The account by Mohan and Chopra, replete with interviews with pilots and veterans, squadron diaries and unpublished photographs, not only demolishes myths and counterclaims on both sides but makes one of the most critical points of all — that the 1965 operations inestimably helped prepare the IAF for a war which was to be upon it just six years later, and possibly put in perspective for the government, the immediate need for a progressive and structured modernization programme, one that would leave the ground in the late 1970s.

The account does both nations service by unmasking insightful official accounts of the war: “To bolster a nation’s morale, deliberate untruths are fed to the public, intending to keep both the public as well as the military in high spirits. Admissions of severe setbacks or of inaction against the enemy would invite public anger. Both India as well as Pakistan abide by this style. Thus, the Indian public never hears of the retreat to Jaurian or Khem Karan, while the Pakistani public never hears of the retreat from Wagah, or the battering its armour received at Assal Uttar.”

Here are some excerpts from The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965 by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra (Manohar Books, 2005).

It is still little known that four months before the 1965 operations, Pakistan’s Air chief Asghar Khan, justifiably rattled by an IAF photo-reconnaissance flight which snapped Pakistani Patton tanks that had eaten into Kutch as part of the April incursion, called up his counterpart IAF chief Arjan Singh to suggest that the two air forces not get involved no matter what happens on the ground.

Khan’s call to Singh infuriated Pakistan’s Army chief General Musa, and Khan had to retire two months later after several bouts of justification and apparent self-contradiction to be replaced by deputy Nur Khan.

“Pakistan’s adventures in the Kutch should have alerted the IAF to the dangers of neglecting their offensive and support capabilities in this sector but even after the Kutch incursion, neither the IAF nor the Army planned for further operations in the south-western sector.”

In August, the Pakistan Army’s Operation Gibraltar, “the master plan to free Kashmir”, fell apart and the Indian Army retaliated by occupying the strategic Haji Pir Pass on August 28. Large swathes in PoK were also overrun. Three days later, on September 1, Pakistan launched Operation Grandslam, an armoured thrust into Chamb, from where the country hoped to push on to the Akhnur Bridge and sever the link to South-West Kashmir.

“The Chiefs (General Chaudhuri and Air chief Arjan Singh) agreed that air strikes against the Pakistani Army were the only way to prevent the Indian defences from being completely overrun… Faced with a tough decision and and with no time to consult the Prime Minister or the ECC (Emergency Coordination Committee), (Defence Minister Y B) Chavan boldly gave the go ahead.”

Within an hour, the first fighters had taken to the air.

On September 3, Pakistani radars tracked four Mysteres as they took off from Pathankot and headed for Chamb. Six Sabres and two Starfighters, far more equipped and advanced than their quarry, were scrambled to intercept the Mysteres. What the Pakistanis didn’t realise was that four Gnats were vectored behind the Mysteres. Squadron Leader Trevor Keelor’s wingman was Flight Lieutenant “Kicha” Krishnaswamy (who went on to become the IAF chief almost forty years later). As the Sabres closed in, warnings went out.

“Keelor opened fire with his twin 30mm cannon from a distance of about 450 yards, closing in to 200 yards. In an instant, the Sabre’s right wing appeared to disintegrate and it flicked over into an uncontrollable dive. The IAF had claimed its first kill… Keelor became the first Indian pilot to claim a jet in air-to-air combat…

“At one point, Krishnaswamy found the Starfighter on his tail, which overshot him and presented a nice target. But as Krishnaswamy later admitted, he was so awestruck at the sight of the sleek and beautiful fighter that before he could gather his instincts to open fire, the target had slipped away.”

Next day, Flight Lieutenant V S Pathania made the second kill, shooting down a Sabre over the Akhnur sector.

When a “shaken” Ayub Khan told Nur Khan his air force could launch full-scale raids on IAF airbases, the “initiative” “slipped from the IAF’s hands to the PAF’s”.

“Evening was approaching Pathankot as Wing Commander Dandapani made a phone call to Pathankot air base from Amritsar’s 230 SU. Dandapani asked for (Pathankot station commander Group Captain Roshan) Suri, and on being told that he was not available was put through to Wing Commander Kuriyan, the OC Flying.

“Dandapani told Kuriyan that they had painted several Sabres, coming from the vicinity of Sarghoda and going ‘off the scope’, as they went below the radar horizon. But he could see one lone aircraft coming in at an altitude of 19,000 feet. This lone aircraft was probably scouting the way ahead for the main formation. This had all the tell-tale signs of an incoming raid. Dandapani suggested that Kuriyan scramble Pathankot’s air defence fighters.

“Here, things get confusing. Dandapani insists that Kuriyan refused to scramble the air patrol and pooh-poohed his fears of the incoming raid. Kuriyan claims to have immediately informed Suri… but was ordered off the shift… Squadron Leader J F Josephs, duty pilot that day in the ATC, could overhear the radio conversation between Kuriyan and Dandapani. As one ATC officer turned to him and asked, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Josephs replied ‘Don’t ask, just watch the west’.

“Even as frantic attempts were made to get Base Ops on the phone, all eyes in the ATC turned west… As the Sabres left, 10 plumes of smoke rose in the air. The raid had been highly successful, resulting in the destruction of ten IAF aircraft…”

Two weeks into the war, Adam-pur’s pilots had a name for a PAF B-57 bomber pilot: 8-Pass Charlie. “The name was derived from the number of passes the B-57 would make in each raid. Normally it would come up over the target and dump its load of 8 bombs at one go, without giving time for the defenses to react…

“But 8-Pass Charlie would make eight different runs and drop just one bomb each on select targets… Paddy Earle paid tribute to the unknown Pakistani pilot: ‘I have the utmost respect for the Pakistani Canberra bloke who loved to ruin the equanimity of our dreary lives. 8-Pass Charlie was an ace, but he had this nasty habit of turning up about 30 minutes after moonrise, just as we were downing our first drink. Seriously, he was a cool dude and a professional of the highest order…’”

Squadron Leader A B Devayya became one of the war’s great mysteries. While raiding Sargodha, Devayya’s Mystere was targeted by a Starfighter. “But Devayya had survived the attack and his aircraft was still flyable. He could either fly back home or eject if things worsened with the aircraft. A third option was to fight it out… The Starfighter was in a steep turn, just a couple of hundred feet above ground level, as the turning Mystere shot away its controls.” Devayya never returned from Sargodha.

“In 1972, PAF officials told John Fricker (PAF’s war-historian) that a Mystere had shot the Starfighter down and it was not as earlier claimed, an ‘accident’. Fricker reported the incident as a loss to a Mystere. There lay a mystery. None of the Mystere pilots that day had reported air combat and certainly not with a Starfighter. But two Mysteres were lost over Sargodha. The one lost in the morning, roughly coinciding with the timing reported by Fricker, was Devayya’s.

“After receiving letters of confirmation from ‘Omi’ Taneja, the Indian government came to the conclusion that Amjad Hussain (the Starfighter pilot) was shot down by Devayya, who himself crashed soon after. Devayya’s widow Sundari Devayya received the fifth and the last MVC awarded to the air force for the 1965 war in April 1988, almost 23 years after the event.”

In the East, the PAF’s 14 Squa-dron with 12 Sabres was on its own at Tejgaon. But on September 7, they struck Kalaikunda in West Bengal.

“The calm belied the shape of things to come. Five Sabres were pulling up over Kharagpur to come in for an attack on Kalaikunda. CAC (Central Air Command) was short of radar cover, and no warning was received as the Sabres kept low. Squadron Leader Shabbir Syed led the Sabres from the direction of the Bay of Bengal, over uninhabited territory, where no observation post could relay their approach… Only three ack-ack guns were in a position to defend the airfield. The rest of the guns had arrived only the day before and had not yet been positioned.”

Canberras and Vampires went up in flames. “The PAF pilots rejoiced but got carried away and made the same mistake the IAF made over Sargodha. They sent a second mission to attack Kalaikunda.” And ran into Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke in his Hunter. “His camera film shows that he fired at four different Sabres and hit three.”

But the fact remains “chaos prevailed in the air defence establishment in the Eastern Sector. Enemy air raids and parachute drops were dreamt up and Air Defence Controllers lived under constant pressure to separate the genuine from the false alarms”.

“IAF officers offer candid assessments…The Pakistanis were on much firmer ground as far as the planning of air operations were concerned. There was lot of confusion and chaos in our higher echelons, this being the first war of major proportions. … The war prepared Indian forces for further conflicts ahead, and helped to develop and refine its strengths and weed out weaknesses. This showed results in in 1971.

“As (Squadron Leader) Don Conquest, who would go on to play a stellar role in the 1971 war, was to say: ‘In 1965, I hadn’t seen the war before so I couldn’t tell the difference. But when I flew again in 1971, the difference was clear.’”

PAF has the advantage, we are sure to have losses: Arjan told Chavanby Shiv Aroor
For Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, the 1965 war was a monumental challenge: as IAF chief at the time, his dated and old fighter fleet scrambled up against a blisteringly potent PAF, armed, alarmingly at the time, with air-to-air missiles. The war ended after just 21 days, but anxiety levels had begun to brim over long before operations began.

In an interview to The Sunday Express, Singh revealed, for the first time ever, his word of caution to then Defence Minister YB Chavan just before IAF fighters blasted off from Pathankot early on September 1, 1965.

‘‘It speaks volumes of Chavan that he gave us approval for air strikes in just five minutes. But I warned him about two things: that we were sure to have losses, since the PAF was very close at Sargodha, and I also told him that since the IAF and Army hadn’t had time to brief each other, it was possible that we would hit our own troops from the air. As it turned out, this did happen,’’ Singh said.

While things levelled out in the West, Singh admits that his force was ‘‘rather complacent’’ about the Eastern Sector. ‘‘Our commanders there should have been more aggressive. You can never win without being aggressive.’’

A more controversial aspect is the much-disected conversation between Singh and his PAF counterpart Asghar Khan earlier that year during Pakistan’s armoured incursion into Kutch. Khan called Singh and suggested that both air forces keep away from the conflict.

Later, Asghar Khan went on to justify the IAF’s lack of action in Kutch to his purported ‘‘threats’’ to Singh. That he did not consult Pak Army chief Gen Musa and President Ayub Khan, cost him his job two months later.

Singh, who remains in contact with his PAF counterparts of the time, remembers: ‘‘I agreed with him, because this was our stand too. We were just not prepared for a showdown in Kutch. Asghar was and is a close friend of mine, so is his successor Nur Khan. The high standards of efficiency of the PAF at the time were entirely because of Asghar’s dedication. They were both good colleagues and first class officers. When I visited Peshawar after the war, Nur Khan accommodated me in his own house.’’

In the final analysis, Singh feels the PAF was cautious because of limited resources, while the IAF kept away from full throttle because it thought the war would last much longer. The stakes for both, either way, were very high.

2 thoughts on “The Indo-Pak Air War of 1965”

  1. Hey Shiv, nice to see you have a blog up. I’m so glad Jagan got the CAS’ Commendation – no one deserves it more than him. Now that I’ve found your blog, I’ll make sure I check it from time to time.

    BTW, I never got that hard copy of the Indian Express edition you promised us 🙂


  2. Hi!

    I witnessed first hand the pakistani bombing of Kalakunda, as well as the second sortie that resulted in a very visible dogfight. I am not sure, but it was either a Gnat or a Mystere IAF aircraft that was firing at an F-86, which was climbing vertically. At the top of the climb, the Sabre flipped over and rapidly lost altitude, eventually clipping the treetops before blowing up.

    As a student at IIT Kharagpur I had a ring side seat.
    Later, with testosterone running high we bicycled over to the wreck and were greeted with an unforgettable but gory sight that took away any romance associated with war. That sight is still imprinted in my memory 43 years later.

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