Continuing my series of notes on some of the more interesting aspects of the 1965 war with Pakistan in its 50th anniversary year, let me take you back to one of the most remarkable, but short-lived and relatively less talked about, events of that war.
It was the audacious para-commando attack by Pakistan with the intention of crippling three of the Indian Air Force's (IAF) most crucial and largest airbases in Punjab: Pathankot, Halwara (near Ludhiana) and Adampur (near Jalandhar).
This was on the night between September 6 and 7. On the September 6, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) carried out rather successful raids on those bases, causing large-scale destruction at Pathankot. Combined with an early setback over Chhamb, the loss of four Vampires, this was supposed to have left the IAF in disarray. And nightly commando drops were to take full advantage of that.
These were no small bands of paratroopers. Large C-130 Hercules aircrafts were used, taking advantage of the fact that India had no night-capable fighters in that war, and three groups of 60 paratroopers each were dropped in the vicinity of each airbase. Each group was lead by one or two officers and a junior commissioned officer (JCO).
The Pathankot group was the first to be discovered. It had an unintercepted yet far-from-perfect drop at 2.30am and was first noticed by a villager who raised an alarm. The Halwara group was spotted immediately thereafter. The Adampur group, in fact, partly landed inside the airbase perimeter and could have posed an immediate threat to an airbase bustling with frontline fighters and personnel, but only lightly protected by a Punjab Armed Police contingent as nobody had anticipated such tactical aggression and risk-taking by the Pakistanis.
On paper, the plan was brilliant. If it had even partly succeeded, it would have caused a serious blow to the IAF's strength and India's morale hours after initial reverses in the air and on the ground, mainly at Pathankot.
But true to Pakistan's track record, from Chhamb to Pathankot to para-commando raids, or from Kutch to Khem Karan to Kargil, great tactical dash is invariably followed by thoughtlessly incompetent execution, leading to disaster.
We have several accounts of the fate of these very well-trained paratroopers. But the amazing thing is how this is a chapter in that 50-year-old war where chroniclers of both sides agree. Both say the operation was a complete rout.
Of the 180 para-commandos dropped, 138, including all officers but one, were captured and safely taken to prisoner of war (POW) camps. Twenty-two were killed, or rather lynched by joint combing teams of villagers armed with sticks, police and even bands of muleteers released by the Army, from the animal transport battalion of the nearby Corps headquarters.
Only 20 para-commandos were unaccounted for and most escaped back to Pakistan under the fog. Most of these were from the Pathankot group, dropped less than 10km from the border in an area that had plenty of ravines, riverine tracks to navigate back along. One notable, commando-style escape was of Major Hazur Hasnain, the Halwara group commander who, along with his friend, hijacked an IAF jeep and somehow managed to return safe. I take the figures from Lt General Harbakhsh Singh's book, but Pakistani accounts fully confirm these.
The Pakistani accounts, the latest of which comes now from several participants in the wake of the 1965@50 commemorations, acknowledged the para-commando disaster but blamed it on poor briefing, planning and callous arrogance of the commanders. Some of these former Pakistani soldiers even write about having met some of these paratroopers and exchanged notes with them on how badly planned the operation was. Here is the account of Col SG Mehdi, himself a commando officer then.
The raid had immediately spread panic on the Indian side. A hurried defence was organised with the police leading the search parties along with large bands of enthusiastic villagers, NCC cadets and, of course, the muleteers whom the Army had released to fight one of the most ironical battle ever: muleteer versus para-commando. For airfield defence, a couple of wheeled armoured personnel carriers allocated to the local college NCC Wings were spared. By the time the sun shone in the morning, however, even the mopping up was over.
Pakistani accounts, however, claim that the raid caused confusion in Indian headquarters and resulted in its 14 Infantry Division, being moved from Lahore to the Sialkot sector to beef up the 1 Corps assault there, to be diverted to deal with the paratrooper menace. Some fanciful accounts now even claim that in the confusion, the 14 Division convoys were jammed on the highway and the PAF attacked these during daytime.
There is no confirmation from Indian accounts and Harbakhsh puts the total number of vehicles destroyed by the PAF quite low in that war. It’s an aside but this incident matches Anna Hazare's own spiced-up account of having been the lone survivor when the PAF hit a troop truck he was driving on a Punjab highway in that war.
Haste, arrogance and tactical foolhardiness had caused Pakistan the loss of the cream of it special forces then. Mule-drivers, other animal-handlers, NCC cadets, Punjab Police and ordinary villagers had earned their battle honours.
The picture of this successful manhunt that is used here has been picked from vayu-sena.tripod.com. It is hazy and old but leaves no doubt that what is going on is a motley band of lightly armed Indians, policemen and civilians hunting for the elite Pakistani troops.
(This post first appeared in Shekhar Gupta's Facebook page.)