There can be no better time to write about some of the exploits of the Indian Air Force’s bomber fleet during the opening days of the 1971 war with Pakistan on the western front than the year of the Balakot air strikes.
The Mirage-2000 strike over Balakot on 26 February 2019 was supported by the entire range of force multipliers and force enablers, comprising air defence escorts, electronic warfare protection, airborne warning and control system, aerial refuellers, diversionary operations and more. By comparison, the Indian Air Force strikes by Canberra bombers on Peshawar and Mianwali airfields in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan respectively, have been among the most audacious and risky missions flown by the IAF.
‘I have war stories to share’
It all started with an email from Dabasis Dutta, the son of Vir Chakra recipient Group Captain K.K. Dutta (retd) who was the Navigation Leader in 16 Squadron during the 1971 war. Based in Gorakhpur, the squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Padmanabha Gautam, who had already won a Maha Vir Chakra in the 1965 war, and went on to win another in 1971. “I have read your book India’s Wars and I have some war stories to share with you about my family,” is how the email began. I was intrigued.
Gautam was a seasoned combat pilot by then, having cut his operational teeth with the United Nations (UN) forces in Congo in 1961 and during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In Congo, he and several pilots and navigators from 5 Squadron, which was equipped with Canberra bombers, regularly flew long-distance missions from Kamina airfield in South Congo to attack targets in Kolwezi, the rebel stronghold in Katanga province.
Alerted in March 1971 by the Indian Air Force (IAF) leadership to start preparing for long-distance missions into West Pakistan, and spurred on by the atrocities against the Bengali populace in East Pakistan by the Pakistan Army, Gautam earnestly started training his squadron. By December, his entire crew was ready for action, having carried out long-duration night strikes from multiple directions against several abandoned WWII airfields in Uttar Pradesh for four months.
The pilot and the navigator
So, when the IAF needed to strike back on the night of 3rd December after having been attacked at several bases by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) earlier that evening, there was no one better placed than Padmanabha Gautam to lead India’s riposte.
Recollecting the specific mission to hit Mianwali on the night of 3-4 December 1971, Dutta proudly remembers that he subsequently flew all missions during the 1971 war as Gautam’s navigator. In the Canberra, bombing requires a fine coordination between the pilot and the navigator – the former with his accurate flying, especially on the last leg of the bombing run, and the latter with his sighting of the target and releasing the bomb at a precise moment for maximum effect. It was great teamwork.
Designed to demonstrate the IAF’s ability to strike any airfield in West Pakistan, rather than cause major damage, four Canberras from 16 Squadron were launched as singleton strikes against several PAF airfields. Gautam chose the deepest mission into the enemy territory. Launched from Ambala air base, the target was Mianwali airfield – nearly 600 km away and on the outer limits of Canberra’s low-level radius of action.
Gautam and Dutta took off at 4.30 am on 4 December, maintained a height of below 500 feet all the way, pulled up to 7,000 feet, and dropped eight bombs weighing 1,000 pounds each on the technical area of the airfield. There was a complete surprise and no ack-ack (anti-aircraft artillery), something that was of great relief to navigator Dutta, who lay prone below the cockpit and would have been the first to be hit by ack-ack fire. Dutta also recollects that it was two days after the full moon and that they were significantly aided in their navigation and attack by the moon on the western horizon. He remembers that following their attack, they ducked down to 500 feet and returned at top speed since the chances of being intercepted by PAF fighters early in the morning was quite low.
In hindsight, returning safely after such a deeply intrusive mission was as commendable as the attack itself. After they landed, the Canberra bomber crew was “thrilled with all the practice in the preceding months that made the Mianwali and other missions look like a training mission.” Mianwali would see more of the single Canberra as Gautam and Dutta attacked the airfield the following night too.
More missions, more bombing
Originally planned as a four-aircraft mission again, with each aircraft striking a different airfield and taking off with a 10-minute gap, the Ambala airfield came under attack soon after Gautam’s aircraft took off, resulting in the remaining aircraft being held back. This time around, Gautam had a special bomb, which would be dropped at an extremely low altitude (about 100ft or lower) and at the highest possible speed, spreading spikes with a gummy substance on runway surface. The effect of the special bomb was such that the airfield was blocked for nearly two days, and only partially opening for operations thereafter. The confirmation was heard from two Bangladeshi pilots (both flight lieutenants) who were based out of Mianwali at the time, and escaped to Afghanistan during the war.
Following the success of the Mianwali mission, 16 Squadron was asked to establish the viability of bombing the railway line connecting Iran to Pakistan’s Balochistan because intelligence reports had stated that the Shah of Iran was sending arms to Pakistan through that line. To ensure secrecy and retain the element of surprise, Gautam and Dutta were asked to pick up the then AOC-in-C Central Air Command, Air Vice Marshal Maurice Barker, in a Trainer Canberra (T-4).
The three of them were asked to reach Delhi where they met the AOC-in-C Western Air Command, Air Marshal Minoo Engineer. In the room was a map of Balochistan with the railway line from Iran to Quetta clearly marked. Gautam and Dutta conducted a quick feasibility assessment, saying the bombing was doable. However, a safe return was not certain because the mission would have to be launched from Uttarlai airfield near the town of Barmer in Rajasthan and recovered only at Jamnagar in Gujarat.
However, if Jamnagar was rendered unavailable during the recovery period due to a raid by the PAF, there would be no fuel to head to an alternate airfield. Consequently, the mission was called off. But it reflected the ‘can do’ attitude of 16 Squadron under a dynamic commanding officer. Who knows if there are other heroic tales like this still waiting to emerge from the families of the flyboys of 1971?
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the IAF and a strategic commentator. Views are personal.