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Article: Air War in Thar – 1971

by Air Cdre (Retd) Kaiser Tufail

Spiny-tailed lizards scamper across the dunes that make up the vast Thar Desert straddling the Sindh-Rajasthan Border. Buzzards soar on the desert currents during day and caracals prowl the scattered scrub at night. Staking out territory is no easy matter, and every creature treads prudently in this desolate and forbidding expanse.

The 1971 Indo-Pak War saw rival armies face off in the inhospitable Thar Desert, each aiming to unbalance the other’s strategic formations and capturing vital territory in the bargain. The desert offered few objectives of strategic value, as these lay deeper, away from the border. Indian Army’s formidable Southern Command, consisting of two regular infantry divisions (12 Division and 11 Division) and two brigade-sized formations (‘Bikaner’ and ‘Kutch’ Sector HQs) of BSF and Territorial Army troops, was arrayed against Pakistan Army’s single 18 Division required to cover a frontage of over 700 miles. Both of India’s infantry divisions were poised to create footholds inside southern Pakistan for threatening deeper objectives; this, in turn, was expected to unhinge the Pakistani strategic reserves, whose elements would have been detached helter-skelter to cope with the dangerous situation thus obtaining.

The predicament of 18 Division was well-understood by the GHQ at Rawalpindi and, it was decided to pre-empt any Southern Command incursion by undertaking a most unexpected foray into Indian territory. A two-pronged offensive of brigade-strength each was hastily put together for the capture of Ramgarh and, for neutralising Jaisalmer Airfield – the latter, a rather quixotic task dictated by the absence of PAF in the area. It is also open to conjecture if the Pakistani GHQ had wishfully imagined the dislocation of Indian strategic reserves as a consequence of the daring 18 Division sortie. In the event, the offensive bogged down at Longewala soon after initiation on the midnight of 4 December. However, due to the boldness and surprise of the move, Indian 12 Division was knocked off-balance and remained mired in efforts to counter the Pakistani offensive, as well as screening the area for any more surprises. It could not progress beyond the initial capture of a desert outpost of Islamgarh and, failed to develop operations towards Rahim Yar Khan, which were charged with the ambitious objective of severing the rail-road link to northern Pakistan. There is also evidence of panic entraining of some elements of the crack Indian 1 Armoured Division for providing relief, a task that was quickly taken over by a detachment of six IAF Hunters belonging to No 122 Squadron stationed at Jaisalmer.

With no air opposition to menace them, the Hunters carried out text book strafing and rocketing attacks during the 38 sorties [1] flown over two days, in which they wreaked havoc on Pakistani tank columns caught in the open desert. By 7 December, Pakistani brigades were in full retreat, having suffered heavy losses, including at least 20 tanks [2] and scores of other vehicles destroyed or abandoned. At the end of the venture, Major General B M Mustafa, the ill-starred Commander of 18 Division, stood relieved of his command for an undertaking that went awry under his watch.

Costly Oversight

The rout of 18 Division armour at the hands of IAF has been conveniently blamed on GHQ for not forewarning AHQ about the offensive, as a result of which PAF fighters could not be positioned at the nearest airfield of Jacobabad. It has been claimed that AHQ had asked for at least four days notice (and preferably ten days) for activating the airfield with all the operational, logistic and air defence wherewithal. Intriguingly, the vital issue of air support that may have been required by an army formation even if it was not undertaking offensive operations, has been glossed over by air tacticians and official historians alike. This requirement should also have been seen as enormously vital in view of the vulnerability of Rahim Yar Khan rail-road link, whose proximity to the border could result in effortless severance by the enemy, thus practically truncating West Pakistan into two. Air cover was equally crucial due to the overwhelming numerical superiority of Indian Southern Command which was comprehensively supported by fighters stationed at Jaisalmer, Uttarlai, Jodhpur and Jamnagar. The PAF C-in-C, Air Marshal A Rahim Khan, who was accompanying the COAS General Abdul Hamid during a visit to Rahim Yar Khan in October, must not have failed to notice the utter vulnerability of 18 Division elements to air attack. A suitable complement of fighters should, therefore, have figured out for deployment at Jacobabad from the onset of war, irrespective of the offensive or defensive operations 18 Division may have been tasked for.

In a talk to National Defence College some time after the war, PAF's Director of Operations, the late Group Captain M Arshad, reiterated PAF’s viewpoint that, “with the limited resources available at our disposal, it was not feasible to activate Jacobabad without thinning out in the northern sector.” While the plight of the resource-constrained PAF was well-highlighted, it can be pointed out that the half-squadron detachment of F-6s (belonging to No 25 Squadron) at Mianwali could have been relieved, as the base which is sufficiently deep, was well-defended by two successive tiers of over 60 interceptors based at Risalewala and Sargodha; it also had its own integral force of five-odd Mirage IIIE for point defence. It must also be noted that the Mianwali-based F-6s were too far removed from the battle scene in the northern sector and, could not be employed in their proper tactical air support role. Half a squadron of F-6s based at Jacobabad could have, if nothing else, at least mitigated the painful and odious withdrawal of 18 Division elements by providing them much needed air cover.

It is another matter that 18 Division offensive had been planned hastily, had not been war-gamed and, the logistics requirements had been treated most superficially. It was easy to see why it floundered as it did. Even though some diehard strategists make much of the initial advantage of surprise, it must be realised that, had the overstretched Pakistani force somehow reached its objective at Ramgarh, it would have been eventually destroyed by a realigned 12 Division charging in from the left flank.

Despite the battering that it took at Longewala, it can be said that 18 Division’s venture, foolhardy though it was, did not go in vain and, it was somehow able to prevent a befuddled 12 Division Commander, Major General R K Khambata, from achieving his main task of truncating West Pakistan. The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War succinctly sums up 12 Division’s disappointment thus: “Had it detected the Pak thrust on 4 December, the Division could have met and dissipated it, and gone ahead with its offensive as originally planned [3].”

Action at Chor

Further south, Indian 11 Division was tasked to capture Naya Chor by launching an offensive along Monabao-Khokhrapar-Naya Chor axis with the help of two brigades and, subsequently to develop operations into the green belt of Sindh. Additionally, the division’s third brigade was to outflank and capture Chachro along the Gadra-Khinsar-Chachro axis. Apparently no link-up of the two widely divergent incursions was planned and, neither complemented the other. The Indians had envisaged that a threat to towns like Mirpurkhas and Umarkot would force Pakistan’s II Corps to detach its elements for the assistance of 18 Division’s single brigade in this sector, thus depleting the former’s offensive potential.

As the two Indian brigades advanced towards Naya Chor on the night of 4 December, they met little resistance at first. The disrupted rail link between Monabao and Khokhrapar was repaired and, it was hoped that a regular logistics supply chain would hasten progress of the onslaught. The rail connection, which had been in disuse for years, had many more snags than expected. The vulnerable rail link proved to be the very bane of the Indian brigades as Pakistan Air Force swung into action and started a concerted day and night interdiction campaign that precipitated the ‘overstretch’ which the Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War much bemoans [4].

Half the fighter and bomber force of No 32 Fighter Attack Wing, based at Masroor (Karachi) had been detached to bases in the north. What remained included No 19 Squadron with 26 F-86E/F, [5] No 9 Squadron with 7 F-104 (9 more RJAF F-104 became available from 14 December onwards) and half-strength No 7 Squadron with 8 B-57 bombers. The intrepid No 2 Squadron chipped in with 11 T-33 trainers. A small detachment of 4 F-86E was stationed at the forward base of Talhar, to promptly respond to the first-tier mobile observer reports in the absence of low level radar warning.

The rapid Indian push towards Naya Chor had all the portends of a grave situation developing and, immediate air support had to be provided to ward off the threat. The Base Commander at Masroor, Air Commodore Nazir Latif, along with the OC of No 32 Wing, Group Captain Wiqar Azim responded swiftly and decided to throw in everything the Base could muster. Composite missions, including different types of aircraft, were ingeniously flown. The OC Wing and two of his Squadron Commanders, Wing Commander Shaikh Saleem (No 19 Squadron) and Wing Commander Asghar Randhawa (No 2 Squadron) were at the forefront of this air action and led many missions themselves. Many interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions targeted trains laden with fuel and ammunition along the Khokhrapar-Naya Chor railway line. Tanks and vehicles exposed in the open also turned out to be lucrative targets and, in the surprising absence of air opposition, multiple attacks were carried out without much trouble.

One daring mission involving the only daylight B-57 sortie of the war, manifestly inspired the pilots of the Wing to fight fearlessly. On 7 December, Flight Lieutenant Shabbir A Khan, alongwith his navigator Squadron Leader Shoaib Alam, carried out an afternoon bombing raid (9x500-lb bombs) on a concentration of tanks and vehicles and followed it up with several strafing passes on a stationary train. Such was the fervour that Shabbir spent nearly twenty minutes taking steady pot shots, as if on a training sortie at his home firing range.

The same night Wing Commander Randhawa bombed an important POL bulk supply node that served the theatre of operations, while flying in a T-33. “The oil tanks at Barmer railway station were hit and set on fire,” reports the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War [6].

Another remarkable mission involved a motley of aircraft flown by No 32 Wing and, it was boldly led by its enthusiastic OC, Group Captain Wiqar Azim. On the afternoon of 14 December, a 9-ship composite formation of 4 F-86Fs and 4 T-33s, escorted by a lone F-86E and, covered on top by 2 F-104s, struck three trains laden with POL and explosives near Naya Chor. In the same mission, a convoy was struck and many vehicles destroyed.

In all, 175 sorties (including 24 night sorties by B-57, T-33 and even C-130) were flown in support of 18 Division in Chor, Ramgarh and Kutch Sectors; this formed one quarter of the total air support effort provided by PAF during the war [7]. In addition, 40 combat air patrol sorties were flown by F-86E and F-104 to cover the vital troop and armour reinforcements arriving by train from the central zone to Naya Chor. The inability of the IAF to interfere with the reinforcements only underscores the effectiveness of PAF’s air umbrella.

Unlike the PAF’s air support in the northern battle zones, where as many as one-third of the air support sorties were unsuccessful (mainly because the enemy tanks and vehicles could not be sighted in the natural camouflage of Punjab), the success rate in Thar was nearly 100% as the desert offered the enemy no sanctuary. A total of 20 tanks, 63 vehicles, 5 trains, 3 bulk fuel stores and an ammunition dump were claimed by the pilots, according to PAF’s official history [8]. During the course of the tactical air support campaign by the PAF, no aircraft were lost to ground fire. IAF, however, lost three Uttarlai-based HF-24s to vigilant Pak Army AAA while on air support missions in Naya Chor area [9].

It is evident that the PAF was able to operate with such impunity in Naya Chor Sector because IAF planners had not paid heed to countering it in earnest, both on the ground and in the air. An incessantly disruptive anti-airfield campaign against the single Base at Masroor, alongwith aggressive fighter sweeps in Naya Chor area, could have helped. After all, IAF had four fighter bases which directly served the Southern Sector and, there was no dearth of air effort. Had IAF’s counter-air campaign been more whole-hearted, Major General R D Anand, Commander 11 Division, may well have been planning his next moves from the district headquarters at Mirpurkhas!

Own Offensive Foreclosed

The third Indian brigade which had Chachro as its objective, was able to overcome minor resistance at various points on the way and managed to capture it by afternoon of 8 December. Later, on 13 December a battalion-sized foray towards Umarkot was launched from Chachro, but was beaten back by a Pakistani counter-attack. The Indian raid did, however, raise concerns at GHQ in Rawalpindi as the ‘green belt’ had been trespassed, as it were. So as not to distract 55 Brigade which was putting up a brave stand at Naya Chor and, to provide it with much-needed relief, it was decided to bolster it with a brigade pulled out from II Corps’ 33 Infantry Division. 55 Brigade and the newly-arrived 60 Brigade, with zealous air support from PAF’s No 32 Wing, were thus able to repel renewed Indian efforts to push forward towards Naya Chor.

Earlier, another of 33 Division’s brigade had been detached to I Corps in Shakargarh, where the ground situation was equally grim. This all but meant that General Tikka Khan’s offensive stood aborted. II Corps, which had been somehow hoping for an improvement in the relative strength ratio of forces, actually found itself denuded to the point of impracticality as far as launching its offensive was concerned.

Though vast stretches of desert amounting to over 1,740 square miles were captured by 11 Division in Naya Chor and Chachro sub-sectors, it is of academic interest to know that the Indian Division Commander was still denied his operational objective. As stated earlier, the significance of Pakistani forces being able to hold on to Naya Chor lay in the enemy being denied a foothold for developing operations deeper, into the core areas of Sindh. This apparently came at the cost of Pakistan’s main offensive, but in retrospect, it can be clearly seen that II Corps’ elements had a ‘fire-fighting’ role chalked out from the outset and, the much talked about offensive was rather delusory in its strategic conception.

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[1] ‘Tank Busting in the Hunter’, Air Commodore Narendra Gupta, Take Off magazine, Issue 103.
[2] The late Brigadier Zahir Alam, who commanded 38 Cavalry Regiment during the operation, confirms the loss of 20 tanks, all to air action. He gives a blow-by-blow account of the fiasco in his book The Way it Was, Dynavis (Pvt) Ltd, Karachi, 1998.
[3] Chapter – IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front, page 395.
[4] Ibid, page 406.
[5] These included 12 F-86F which were attached to the squadron three months prior to the war.
[6] Chapter – X, The IAF in the West, page 427.
[7] Of the total 175 sorties, 158 were flown in Chor Sector, 13 were flown in Ramgarh Sector and 4 sorties were flown in Kutch Sector. Official PAF Records.
[8] The Story of Pakistan Air Force – A Saga of Courage and Honour, page 464.
[9] Flt Lt P V Apte, 220 Sqn, shot down on 4 Dec (KIA); Flt Lt J L Bhargava, 220 Sqn, shot down 5 Dec (POW); Flt Lt A V Kamat, 10 Sqn, shot down 9 Dec (POW).

This article was published in Defence Journal, September-October 2009 issue.

 
 
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