Devastation of Pathankot

Columnist Gp Capt SULTAN M HALI writes about the PAF’s air strike on PATHANKOT in 1965.

PAF’s air strike on 6th September, 1965 on the Indian Air Force base of Pathankot has been rated by historians and defence analysts of both Indian and Pakistan as one of the most successful air raids of contemporary history. Not only did the PAF pilots achieve complete surprise but they also executed the attack with text-book precision. Its details make fascinating reading.

PAF’s airfield strike plan for the dusk of day one of the war in 1965 comprised the following:-

STATION OF ORIGIN              



8 F-86 Sabres Adampur


8 F-86 Sabres Halwara


8 F-86 Sabres Pathankot


8 F-86 Sabres Jamnagar

Source: Story of PAF

The Time Over Target (TOT) for the strike was set at 1705 hours. This was to be followed by night bombing raids by B-57 bombers.

No 19 Squadron which was based at Peshawar, had been given the Indian airfield at Pathankot as its first target. This target had been allotted in mid-1965 when the Rann of Katch crisis was at its peak. Pathankot was the only large Indian Air Force (IAF) airfield within fighter reach of Peshawar, and even this distance of 200 miles or so was marginal for the Sabre, with two 200-gallon drop tanks in addition to full internal fuel, if sufficient reserve was to be kept in hand for a fighting exit. This would limit the weapons to only the 1800 rounds of the six. 50 Browning guns of the Sabres.

Squadron Leader Sajad Haider, affectionately known as ‘Nosey Haider’, the Squadron Commander of No 19 Squadron had prepared his squadron pilots well and planned the strikes very thoroughly using a High-lo-High profile. This involved getting airborne from Peshawar and climbing high in the opposite direction then dipping to tree-top level below radar cover, turning simultaneously towards the target. The Squadron had in fact carried out identical and simulated strikes to practice for attacks on its primary and alternate targets.

Dawn of 6th September, 1965 saw a formation of 6 F-86s of No 19 Squadron fully loaded with 5 inch rockets (a last minute premonition the night before, by Air Marshal Nur Khan the C-in-C, which paid rich dividends) flying on “Hot Patrol’. The moment the Air Defence Commander learnt of Indian Army’s advance towards Lahore, the 19 Squadron formation was diverted to stop the advancing Indian armour columns at Wagah. In twenty minutes of action, the Grand Trunk Road was littered with scores of burning tanks, armoured and soft vehicles. The 5 inch rockets had a devastating effect on the enemy armour. The formation led by Squadron Leader Sajad Haider with Flight Lieutenants M Akbar, Dilawar Hussain, Ghani Akbar and Flying Officers Khalid Latif, and Arshad Chaudhry brought the Indian attack to a dead halt.

After landing at Sargodha for re-fuelling, the formation rushed back to Peshawar to prepare for the strike on Pathankot.

Having rested a while the pilots were assembled for a final briefing at 1600 hrs. The formation comprised:-

After a thorough briefing and going over the already well rehearsed strike plan, Squadron Leader Sajad Haider surprised his pilots by asking for a fire bucket filled with fresh water. He pulled out a bottle of No 4711 Eau-de-Cologne from his coverall pocket and emptied it in the bucket. He took small white towellettes, dipped them in the water and after wringing them out, handed over one each to his pilots. “This could be a one-way mission and if we meet our Maker, we should be smelling nice”, Sajad Haider wryly remarked.1 Every pilot complied, his resolve emboldened and his faith reinvigorated.

Everything proceeded according to the plan and the formation got airborne at 1630 hours, climbed in battle formation up to about 11,000 metres and then dived down to tree top level and set course for the I P (initial point) for the target.

The planning staff was not certain whether Pathankot would still be occupied by IAF aircraft after the outbreak of hostilities. But the formation of eight Sabres, escorted by two more sidewinders equipped

F-86s acting as top cover at 6,000 metres were fortunate.

A glimpse of the other side of the story is also presented from website Bharat Rakhshak:

“Meanwhile, at the IAF Air Base at Pathankot, the Station Commander, Group Captain Roshan Suri had just returned from a meeting of Station Commanders from Western Air Command. Suri briefed his Squadron Commanders of the impending Army move to cross the international border....

As evening approached, Pathankot Airbase received an urgent phone call from Squadron Leader Dandapani at Amritsar Air Defence Centre. He spoke to Wing Commander Kuriyan and informed him that several Sabres had been observed taking off and then go ‘Off the Scope’ as they all went below the radar horizon. This had all the tell-tale signs of an incoming raid. Kuriyan informed Suri about the suspicions of a raid and asked for permission to scramble the CAP (Combat Air Patrol). (This is where the Pathankot Base Commander made a vital mistake for which IAF paid dearly) Suri refused to order the CAP to go off and ordered Kuriyan to go off the shift.”2

The PAF aircraft reached Pathankot precisely on time at 1705 hours and discovered a large number of IAF aircraft parked around in protected dispersal pens. With no enemy fighters in the vicinity and fairly thin ground fire, ‘Nosey’ set the ball rolling with four carefully-positioned dives from about 500 metres, systematically selecting individual aircraft in protected pens on the airfield for his fixed-gun attacks. He was gratified to recognize the distinctive delta-winged MiG-21s- India’s latest fighter - among the aircraft on the ground, and singled them out for special attention.

The rest of the pilots followed suit. Each pilot had been briefed to make only two passes but the lucrative targets and limited opposition enabled them to make multiple passes. Wing Commander Tawab, flying top cover, counted at least 14 fires burning on the airfield.

“Wing Commander Kuriyan was just then driving into his garage at his house, when he heard the ack ack guns booming. He looked towards the airfield to see four F-86 Sabres bore down the airfield at low level firing their machine guns, while two ‘F-104 Starfighters’ kept high altitude cover. As the four Sabres pulled out, another four bore in. The Sabres strafed buildings, installations and aircraft on the ground....

......The Sabres attacked the row of MiGs and Mysteres along the blast pens in the airfield. The CAP was not scrambled. Two of the MiGs, which were being refuelled after returning from an earlier flight, went up in flames.

.......Some Mysteres on the ground bore the brunt of the raid and were damaged as were the two MiG-21s. Only the fact that the Sabre’s 0.50 inch machine guns could fire ball ammunition instead of exploding cannon shells prevented further damage. The Sabres slipped off unscathed as even the airfield defences were caught napping. For the PAF this raid was a cakewalk. All in all one C-119, four Mysteres, two Gnats and two MiG-21s were destroyed in this highly successful raid by the Pakistan Air Force.” 3

After de-briefing and interrogation, this text book operation against Pathankot was credited with seven MiG-21s, five Mysteres and one Fairchild C-119 destroyed on the ground, plus damage to the Air Traffic Control building - IAF admits to the loss of only two MiG-21s but it goes to the credit of PAF that after the fateful strike on Pathankot, Indian MiG-21s were not seen in the air for the remaining duration of the 1965 War.


Where are they now?

Six of the pilots on the devastating raid on Pathankot including both pilots flying Top Cover, Squadron Leader Sajad Haider, Flight Lieutenants M Akbar, Dilawar Hussain, Ghani Akbar and Arshad Sami and Wing Commander M G Tawab were decorated with the Sitara-e-Jurat.

Squadron Leader Sajad Haider later commanded the Flying wing at Sargodha during the 1971 War. He served as Air Attache at Washington D.C. and retired as Air Commodore in 1983.

Flight Lieutenant M Akbar rose to the rank of Air Commodore, commanded the Pakistan Armed Forces Mission at Riyadh and retired in September, 1991.

Flight Lieutenant Dilawar saw action during the 1971 War and shot down an IAF Hunter over Dhaka on 04 December, 1971. He went on to become an Air Marshal and retired from the post of Director General Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra.

Flying Officer Abbas Khattak also saw action in the 1971 War. He rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshal and commanded Pakistan Air Force from 1994-97. He is now leading a retired life.

Flying Officer Arshad Chaudhry rose to the rank of Air Marshal and retired from the post of Vice Chief of the Air Staff in 1997.

Flight Lieutenant Mazhar Abbas retired in the rank of Air Commodore.

Flying Officer Khalid Latif retired in the rank of Group Captain.

Flight Lieutenant Ghani Akbar left the airforce as a Squadron Leader and started flying for PIA. He is now retired.

Flight Lieutenant Arshad Sami Khan left the Air Force in the rank of Squadron Leader and joined Foreign Service. Currently he is an Ambassador.

Wing Commander M G Tawab left Pakistan Air Force in the rank of Group Captain. He later became an Air Vice Marshal and commanded the fledgling Bangladesh Air Force. After his retirement, he settled in Germany, where he breathed his last in 1998 after a brief illness. His demise was mourned by friends and admirers all over.


1. Narrated from Air Cdre Sajad Haider’s TV programme telecast on Defence of Pakistan Day 1997.

2. Down loaded from the Internet “Air Attack — Outbreak of the War (September-1965)” website Bharat Rakhshak.

3. Ibid.

4. Fricker, John, Battle for Pakistan: The Air War of 1965, published by Ian Allan Ltd, Surrey, 1979.

5. The Story of the Pakistan Air Force, published by the Shaheen Foundation, Islamabad, 1988.