Brief Interlude with a Future Pakistan Air Chief in War

1971_War_Indian Air Force_Crossing_Border

Flt Lt Pervez Mehdi rose to be the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air force during the 1999 Kargil Conflict, writes Brig Ajit Apte (Retd)

Monday, 22 November 1971, a bright sunny day except we were in for a rough time with the Pakistan Airforce (PAF) which was visiting us far too frequently. I had just 10 months service as the Gun Position Officer (GPO) of an Artillery Field Battery (Bty) – 25 Pounder Guns in 14 Field Regiment (Regt). We were deployed on the Eastern Front, near the Boyra Salient on the North West part of East Pakistan. It was about 2.40 pm (1440h) “Stand To” was ordered by the Adjutant (Adjt) Capt Sapatnekar. 

All guns to be manned and Light Machine Guns (LMG) to be deployed on the Anti-Aircraft Ack Ack role. We were under an enemy Air Strike again. We had been under continuous enemy air raids, while providing artillery support for the Battle of Garibpur inside East Pakistan. Our aggressive posturing had perhaps provoked the PAF 14 Squadron (Sqn) to be unleashed on us, on our Divisional Sector to engage our military & assets and dispositions deployed there. Our earlier requests for Fighter aircraft(ac) cover over our Divisional Sector on the 21st of November were rejected by the IAF, perhaps because, officially War had not been declared.

Earlier in the day, I had seen the Sabres doing High Dive attacks on our position. One of the Sabres had flown, just above Tree Top level, between my bty and the adjacent bty of Lt Gabriel Pereira the other GPO. At 2.45 pm or so, I saw these Sabres climbing up to about 2000 ft and then coming down to about 500 ft for the weapon release like those German Stuka bombers in the Second World War. 

Our LMGs on ack-ack role and our Air Defence (AD) guns were not very effective but we could see their white puffs trying to deter the menace. I clearly saw a mission of three Sabre fighters from the East of my gun area swooping over us at low level. Just then, within a few seconds I saw four ac heading from the West of my gun area, peeling out of formation, from a Mission initially heading towards us, but then swiftly swinging towards the enemy ac. The Sabres were totally oblivious of these four Gnats heading towards them, and instead continued with their Dive Attacks. It was clear to us, that our IAF had joined the Air Battle. We stepped out of our bunkers and trenches to look up skywards to see the action. Our Forward Air Controller (FAC) Flt Lt Sharad Savur (Later Air Marshal AOC –in –C), with our 350 Infantry Brigade (Inf Bde) was already located with 4 Sikh which was ahead of my regt. 1st JAK Rifles, and 26 Madras were the other bns of our Inf bde deployed ahead. My arty regt was in Direct Support to 350 inf bde. 

Earlier the same day – on 22nd November – at about 1000h, there were two missions (msn) by the PAF Sabres. Our Gnats had then Scrambled, but they did not reach the target area on time. They did not make contact and returned dejected. Wg Cdr Sikand was the Commanding Officer 22 Sqn IAF, who had led the two earlier sorties. He then moved out for the afternoon and handed over the Lead to Flt Lt Roy Andrew Massey, with Flg Offr Sunith Soares as his Deputy. Flt Lts Ganapathy and Flg Offr Don Lazarus retained their No 3 & 4 Positions. The Fighter Controller then was Flg Officer Bagchi. The Fighter Controller & the ORP Pilots were all in place.

It was quite relaxed on the Eastern Front. Sunith Francis Soares and Don Lazarus were playing Scrabble. The time now was 1440h (2.40 pm) when suddenly the Klaxon started blaring. Intrusion and pick up T. The Radar had Picked up the intrusion of the three enemy(en) Sabres at 1440h and within a minute the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) at Dum Dum Airport Calcutta, scrambled four Gnats, who were airborne within minutes hurtling through the skies at low level, with full throttles against the Stop.

The Dog fight – Our Gnats reached the International Border (IB), and then Bagchi told Massey (On the Air Defence Interceptor Radio Channel) Enemy 2.O Clock 4 Nautical Miles Massey replied Contact. I see them Pull Up.  Ganapathy & Don being on the right flank couldn’t spot the en ac. Soares spotted one en ac at three km, perched to now commence a dive. He called out Contact and Massey spotted the en ac, then pulled over the flank pair, to manoeuvre behind that ac. Soares then gave the running commentary on the flight path very effectively. Meanwhile that Sabre tried to evade, but Massey’s Gnat got within firing range & he fired a small cannon burst. It missed the target, but he followed quickly, with another cannon burst, which slammed the right wing as we saw it near the fuselage. The En pilot soon ejected. The Sabres had now commenced another Dive at 1800ft altitude, diving down to about 500ft in an Attack run over our positions.

Massey, Soares, Lazarus Ganapathy, just latched on to the Sabres (Like a hungry Tiger would do to its Prey) as the Sabres now tried to pull out of the attack. While Flg Offr Soares was in combat, he had heard Flt Lt Ganapathy saying that he had spotted a Sabre and so he maneuvered behind him to fire on the en ac. He however missed the tgt. Just then, the third Sabre cropped in behind Don & Ganapathy at a distance of 200 yds. Flg Offr Don Lazarus swerved now, got in line with that en ac & fired. Don’s reflexes and manoeuvring skills were Superb, that enabled him to slam the cannons bang on Target. It caused that en ac to explode, with the debris hitting Don’s ac on the nose and Drop Tank. This en pilot then ejected. He was Flt Lt Pervez Mehdi. We on ground saw him coming down ready to welcome him. Ganapathy fired later accurately and hit the third en ac on its right wing setting it aflame, but that en ac perhaps escaped back to base. Meanwhile both Flt Lt Ganapathy & Flg Offr Don Lazarus spotted an en ac each, & they separated to now shoot down one ac each.

What we saw from the ground was, that two Gnats in a pair were shooting at one en ac and another pair of Gnats were first separating themselves & then shooting one en ac each. Finally, two en ac were shot down and the two parachutes drifted to the ground. It was a sight to remember – I do recall now that one en ac the third with trailing smoke had evaded and probably returned to the en base. We learnt the next day that it was perhaps Wg Cdr Chadhury the Mission Leader from 14 Sqn PAF. The Dogfight was over in a jiffy. Our Gnats did the Victory Roll over us and home they went.

Within minutes the All India Radio and the Newspapers announced this news and the award of the Nation’s first three Gallantry Awards. VrCs to Flt Lts Massey, Ganapathy and Flg Offr Don Lazarus, and VM to Flg Offr Bagchi. What the Nation was reading or listening to was remote. We had seen it happening in front of us, and had been part of that High Voltage Drama. The two Pakistani Pilots ejected and their parachutes landed, one over 4 Sikh that was Flt Lt Pervez Mehdi (where then Capt H S Panag later Lt Gen Army Cdr) was the Adjutant of the bn, who initially had apprehended the Pilot and saved him from being massacred by the troops. 

Flg Officer Khalil Ahmed the other Pilot had landed on Ist JAK Rifles where Capt Sharma our Regt Observation Post Officer (OP) saw him being captured by the bn. Both these Pilots were then sent to our 14 Fd Regt which was about 1500m behind, on a flank. I was nearest to the Regt Command Post (RCP) and summoned alongwith Lt Gabriel Pereira the other GPO. The Second in Command (2IC) Maj Basudev Krishna & Capt Jay Sapatnekar Adjt, told us to attend to the two PW Pilots once they reached our location. Flt Lt Pervez Mehdi the senior of the two was slightly injured, but luckily Panag had saved him from further injuries & he had been given First Aid there in that bn. Both the pilots were treated very well by us with due dignity. Tea and Cigarettes were given to them. Khalil Ahmed confirmed that they were surprised by the Gnats and Outgunned and Out-manoeuvred by them. They were not hit by Ground fire as speculated by some. They told us that the dispositions of our Guns, Tanks, and other details were given by the Mukti Bahini. I saw Pervez Mehdi’s Shooting Map on his flying suit. On it I noted that we were marked as Enemy, in Red, on his List of Targets to be bombed. Our Guns, Tanks and Engineer bridges were his main targets. Pervez said that they couldn’t pin point the targets for shooting, because accurate spotting was difficult, due to our Camouflage & Concealment. They were also scared of our ack-ack fire from the Air Defence Guns, in action.

Our 2IC and the Adjt asked them some Questions. Both Pervez Mehdi and Khalil Ahmed pleaded that we don’t hand them over to the Mukti Bahini. No, you are now PWs we said and will be dealt with, by us only. Pereira and I then got to blindfold the two enemy Pilots. Then under a proper armed escort we sent them in our regt vehicle to the inf bde. Maj GB Reddy, the Brigade Maj of 350 inf bde was waiting for the PWs  to take further action as deemed appropriate. I didn’t know then, that I had just blindfolded a future Air Chief of the Pakistan Air Force.  

PWs Flight to Delhi – The two enemy pilots were well treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. I got to know much later that a pair of my NDA course mates, Pilot Officers Pradeep Kapur & TV Abraham with Flg Officer GS Bhullar as the Capt of the Dakota (DC-3) Carnicobar-Rangoon Barrackpore Calcutta Courier, had taken the two PW Pilots with a proper Escort to Delhi for interrogation. They were accompanied by IAF officers. Pradeep Kapur said that Pervez Mehdi had kept quiet throughout the flight but Khalil Ahmed was very talkative and easy. The PWs were given good on flight Packed dinner from the famous Great Eastern Hotel Calcutta Khalil Ahmed enjoyed the dinner but Pervez Mehdi refused to eat at all. On reaching Delhi the PWs were handled as per the Regulations.

 

Reunion of War Veterans
Left to Right: Flg Offr/ Wg Cdr Bhagwat, Flg Offr/ Wg Cdr Milind Baliga, Capt/ Brig Jay Sapatnekar, Flg Offr/Gp Capt Sunith Soares, Lt Col/ Col RP Sahasrabudhe Commanding Officer 14 Fd Regt during the War, 2/Lt/ Brig Ajit Apte and Flg Offr/ Gp Capt Don Lazarus

It was sheer coincidence that in October 2017, I could establish phone contact with Gp Capt Don Lazarus, Gp Capt Sunith Soares, and Air Marshal Sharad Savur. Alas Wg Cdrs Massey and Ganapathy had faded away, what a pity. Wg Cdrs Milind Baliga 34th NDA & Bhagwat from the same Sqn were also contacted. Must thank my School junior colleague, Gp Capt Rajiv Ketkar 40th NDA to enable this to happen. We planned for the Reunion in December the same year in Pune.

On 16 December 2017, Vijay Diwas, we Col Sahasrabudhe, Brig Jay Sapatnekar and myself from our 14 Fd Regt all War Veterans of that 1971 War, (Now retired in Pune) hosted and invited these Air force Officers for Beer and Lunch to the RSAMI, our Officers Institute in Pune. We exchanged notes of that memorable event in November 1971 as it unfolded that day in the Air as well as on Ground. Col Gabriel Pereira being outstation couldn’t join. It was our vote of thanks to the Air Warriors of our Indian Air force which undoubtedly is the finest in the World.

(My Sincere thanks to Gp Capts Sunith Francis Soares & Don Lazarus for their discussing the Air Battle with me as it happened. It enabled me to conjunct it with events seen by us on ground.)

Flt Lt Pervez Mehdi rose to be the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air force during the 1999 Kargil Conflict. Gp Capt Don Lazarus wrote a congratulatory letter to the Pakistan Air Force Chief on his promotion. In that letter he reminded him of their only, one previous meeting during that Aerial Combat, in 1971. Don Lazarus wished him Success. ACM Pervez Mehdi duly acknowledged that in his reply to Gp Capt Don Lazarus and Thanked him. It is nearly Half a Century since this memorable event occurred but it is etched in my Memory. Witnessed this Drama in Real Life that day in War.

 

Dignity and Decorum is the hallmark of our armed forces

About Ajit Apte

Brigadier (Retd) Ajit Apte, an alumnus of the National Defence Academy (Pune) and the Indian Military Academy (Dehradun), was commissioned into the Indian Army (Artillery) in December 1970, and superannuated from the Army with more than 35 years of service in January 2006. He is a graduate in English, Economics and Sociology and has a Masters Diploma in Business Administration. He is also Resident Research Scholar from the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies-University of Pune. He is currently the Director of the British Business Group, Pune Chapter.

View all posts by Ajit Apte

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