CHOPPERS' - BIRTH OF A LEGEND:
When War broke out in 1965, East Pakistan had only a solitary squadron of 12 F-86F aircraft at Dhaka to meet its air defence requirements. Since offensive operations were not contemplated from the East, it was expected that No 14 Squadron alone would be sufficient to counter the limited threat envisaged.
No 14 Squadron based at Tezgaon on the outskirts of Dhaka, had maintained a constant vigil of air defence alert right since the Rann of Kutch crisis in April, 1965. The limited effort available and long spells of watchfulness had taken their toll in fatigue and exhaustion. The prevailing unsafe conditions further aggravated the situation. The single airfield had inadequate dispersal. Absence of proper aircraft protective pens, sand bags, camouflage nets and operational readiness platforms, non-existence of airfield fencing and ground defence arrangements must have given the Station Commander Group Captain Ghulam Haider, nightmares. The 14 Squadron aircraft remained in the open while the pilots had to be accommodated in tents. Yet the Station Commander set about making preparations. A few aircraft decoys were placed at strategic locations. Hessain cloth was acquired and utilizing the natural camouflage of East Pakistan, some degree of concealment and deception was achieved.
Tezgaon airfield was defended by only one battery of ack ack. Little or no early warning of incoming raids was possible. There was a solitary and out-dated Marconi radar at Kurmitola 20 kilometers north of Dhaka. It was virtually useless as enemy aircraft could approach from any direction and not be detected at low level. There was no other reporting organization against low level raids.
It was in this scenario that No 14 Squadron took up its vigil to guard the aerial frontiers of East Pakistan. Prior to 1 September, there had been no formal indication of the impending operations. On 2 September, Air Headquarters ordered a special alert and issued instructions for dispersal and camouflage. From this date, two aircraft were flown twice daily on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions. On 4 September an aircraft was lost due to a bird hit. The pilot ejected safely but the squadron strength was reduced to 11 aircraft.
When War ultimately broke out on 6 September, No 14 Squadron was ordered to be ready for immediate strikes. CAP missions were flown over Dhaka all day. When PAF launched its airfield strike plan at dusk on 6 September, No 14 Squadron was asked to hold back because of the difficulty in synchronizing the strike timings owing to the one hour difference in local times between East and West Pakistan. Moreover, the Government wanted to wait and see. In case the situation remained quiet overnight in East Pakistan, it might prove possible to avoid an escalation of hostilities. This hope was short lived. IAF Canberras from Kalaikunda penetrated into East Pakistan-s airspace as deep as Dhaka during the night of 6/7 September, and dropped bombs at random without much effect in the way of damage of casualties.
IAF also launched a pre-dawn offensive on 7 September. Various targets in East Pakistan comprising the airfields at Chittagong, Jessore, Lalmunirhat, Shibgang, Thakurgaon and Kurmitola were attacked. Low clouds and the natural camouflage of East Pakistan caused the Indian aircraft to miss Tezgaon air field at Dhaka altogether. Instead they attacked Kurmitola, an airfield in the vicinity of Dhaka. Here, a barrack was hit with rockets resulting in two casualties-one Sergeant AR Choudhry, and a child.
Two Sabres were scrambled to intercept the enemy. They failed to catch up with them but Flight Lieutenant ATM Aziz did not return from the mission. Later the wreckage of his Sabre was discovered 25 kilometers north of Dhaka. It indicated no damage from enemy action but the cause of the accident was never established. No 14 Squadron was now down to 10 aircraft.
Strike at Kalaikunda
The night and pre-dawn raids of IAF allowed the PAF C-in-C to retaliate. PAF-s strike against Kalaikunda was a totally different story. After the mission order had been received at about 6 a.m. on 7 September, five pilots (Flight Lieutenants Haleem, Baseer, Tariq Habib Khan and Flying Officer Afzal Khan) led by their Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Shabbir Hussain Syed were briefed for a low level mission involving a distance of nearly 300 kilometers from Dhaka. Because of the necessity to fly low all the way, the Sabres were required to carry their full load of external fuel in two 120 and two 200- gallon drop tanks per aircraft, leaving only their 0.5 inch machine-guns available for the attack.
Despite poor visibility the Sabre formation reached its target and as the No 14 Squadron pilots pulled up to commence their attack, it was obvious that complete surprise had been achieved. There was no anti-aircraft fire and no fewer than 14 Canberras were lined up wing-tip to wing-tip on the tarmac as though for peacetime review. The Indians had probably never imagined that such a small force could react with such speed and audacity against odds so heavily weighted against it, and that, too, at the very limits of its reach into Indian territory.
Each Sabre put in two passes over the airfield and by the time they exited, Kalaikunda was engulfed in smoke and flames. The mission landed back safely at 0744 a.m., claiming 10 Canberras destroyed and five damaged along with two Hunters damaged. A remarkable achievement by only five aircraft.
While the strike had been airborne, large numbers of IAF aircraft had been plotted over Jessore, heading towards Dhaka. Several of the six remaining Sabres on the airfield were scrambled for interception. No contact, however, was made with the IAF aircraft, which headed back across the Indian border. The degree of the air defence effort at Dhaka can be illustrated by the fact that one pilot alone-Flight Lieutenant Farooq F Khan- was scrambled five times in his Sabre in the first two hours after daybreak on 7 September. At no time, however, did he see an enemy aircraft.
A Second Attack on Kalaikunda
To complete the destruction of Kalaikunda, a second raid was ordered at 10:30 a.m. This time Flight Lieutenant Haleem led a formation of four Sabres. Visibility was still very bad when they reached the target but now the enemy was prepared. A barrage of anti-aircraft fire greeted them and nine Hunters pounced on them. The Sabres split in two pairs. One continued the attack while the others turned to engage the Hunters. Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib, leading the second pair asked his No 2 Flying Officer Afzal Khan to jettison his fuel tanks to prepare for battle but he was shot down before he could do so. Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib in the meantime jettisoned three of his tanks, but the fourth hung up and with this handicap he was cornered by 3 Hunters for a good ten minutes. With remarkable coolness and presence of mind, he twisted and turned at low level and though his aircraft got badly damaged, he managed to shake them off and returned safely to Dhaka. For his courage and skill in fighting his way clear of the larger and better equipped enemy force, Tariq Habib was awarded a well-deserved Sitara-e-Jurat. His Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Shabbir Hussain Syed was also decorated with Sitara-e-Jurat for his outstanding leadership. No 14 Squadron earned the nickname of Tail Choppers, alluding to the swath of bullets they used at Kalaikunda to cut through the tails of IAF-s neatly lined up Canberras. In West Pakistan, PAF had cut off the head of the Indian Air Force, and in their two sorties on 7 September, the pilots of No 14 Squadron did an equally good job with the tail.
In its second raid, No 14 Squadron claimed 4 to 6 Canberras destroyed but lost one pilot and one Sabre. Flight Lieutenant Tariq Habib-s aircraft also could not be recovered for want of spares. The squadron strength was now reduced to 8 but not their zeal to attack the enemy. It was only bad weather and some political considerations that brought a lull in their operations.
On 10 September, No 14 Squadron struck IAF Base Baghdogra with 4 Sabres. On 14 September it attacked Barrackpore and Agartala. Due to enemy-s retreat to deeper bases, the squadron-s score in these strikes was limited to 5 transport aircraft, 2 fighters, 1 Canberra and a helicopter.
These were its last strike missions as it was considered prudent to conserve the depleted strength of No 14 Squadron specially since the enemy never showed its face again on the eastern front for the rest of the war.
No 14 Squadron-s offensive on 7 September was a crucial blow to IAF morale. The fearless and timely action of this plucky squadron caused the enemy to withdraw the bulk of its aircraft to bases in the rear, thus ensuring by default, the comparative security of East Pakistan. This stirring tale of valour and stoic defiance by 14 Squadron was to have a second, even more glorious chapter- to be written by the blood and grit of its men, in another far grimmer war-in December, 1971.