A Brief History


On 3rd December 1971, Pakistan launched unprovoked surprise air attacks on several airbases in the Western Sector. IAF was, however, fully prepared to meet this challenge and completely thwarted Pakistan's designs. As a result, not a single IAF base was put out of action. The special characteristic of 1971 war was the complete coordination and co-operation achieved among the three arms of India’s Defence Forces. This, more than anything else, made the lightning campaign leading to the liberation of Bangladesh, look so effortless. Complete understanding between Army and IAF effectively halted Pakistan’s determined offensive in Chhamb. Pakistani armoured offensive at Longewala in Rajasthan was effectively stemmed and ultimately routed by a handful of IAF 'Hunters' where a whole regiment of T-54 tanks was destroyed by air action alone.



Indian Army’s campaign’s blitzkrieg techniques exploited weaknesses in the Pakistani positions and bypassed their opposition. Faced with insurmountable odds, the Pakistan Military capitulated in less than a fortnight. Some of the major battles fought by the Indian Army in the 1971 war were the battle of Basantar, battle of Gangasagar, battle of Hilli and the battle of Bogra besides several others.
On the western front, the Indian Navy carried out a daring operation in concept and execution by carrying out a raid on Karachi harbour. On the night of 4th/5th December, Indian ships approached the harbour making light of the gunfire from the enemy. The first target they hit was a destroyer 'Khyber'. Another ship, possibly a minesweeper, disintegrated almost immediately. A third ship was hit; it exploded into flames and sank. Indian missile boats then attacked the oil tanks on ‘Keamari’ island and left it ablaze for several days.
In the eastern sector, India’s aircraft carrier ‘INS Vikrant’, naval frigates ‘Brahmaputra’ and ‘Beas’ executed a complete blockade of coast of East Pakistan. On 4th December 1971, Vikrant’s aircraft struck the airfield at Cox’s Bazaar. By late afternoon, the action was moved to the Chittagong harbour. Six Pakistani ships in the outer anchorage were damaged in a rocket attack. The harbours AT ‘Khulna’, ‘Mongla’ and ‘Chalna’ were raided on the night of 5th/6th December. At Mongla, two gun boats were sunk and two more were rendered useless. On 8th December, three gun boats and the army barracks in Chittagong were destroyed.
In Bangladesh, the IAF achieved total air superiority within the first 24 hours of the outbreak of hostilities. This enabled it to concentrate undividedly on operations in support of the Army. In order to cut off the withdrawal of Pakistani troops to Dacca from the Mymensing area, it was decided to airdrop No. 50 Para Brigade, between 6th to 12th December, forming aerial bridges and lifting 5000 troops and 51 tonnes of equipment across the mighty Meghna river to Rajpura, Narsingdi and Narayanganj. IAF helicopters were extensively used by the army for 'air-bridging' innumerable water obstacles criss-crossing the countryside. This went a long way in speeding up the campaign and reducing casualties. On 11th December, in another significant operation, 22 Dakotas, 20 Packets, 6 AN-12s and 2 Caribous were used to para-drop 2 Para Batallion at Tangail to prevent retreating enemy troops from reinforcing the Dhaka garrison. Entire operation was completed with clock-work precision in just 30 minutes. This was the first large scale para operation ever undertaken by the IAF in war. Years of methodical joint training paid handsome dividends. Such operations were made possible only because total command of the air had been achieved by the strike force of the IAF.
Out in the 'Thar' desert of Rajasthan, one Company of 23rd Punjab held the lonely post of Longewala on the route of the Pakistani thrust towards Ramgarh and Jaisalmer. One Pak Infantry brigade, supported by one armoured regiment of Chinese supplied T-54 and Sherman tanks, launched an attack on our position at Longewala on the night of 4th/5th December 1971. Their way to Jaisalmer appeared clear due to the thin deployment of our army in that area, as also our pre-occupation with the planned offensive further South. Jaisalmer airbase had a total of four Hunters available from the temporary and hastily raised No. 122 Squadron.



The gallant Company held out during the night. As dawn was breaking, the Hunters, whose support had been sought, were over the target area. By mid-day, an estimated 15 tanks had been destroyed. The pressure was kept up the next day. This was a straight battle between Pak armour and the IAF Hunters. The enemy started pulling out on the 6th evening leaving behind 37 tanks destroyed or damaged in the sands of Longewala. On the 7th, further sorties were launched which damaged or destroyed more of the retreating tanks and vehicles. As Major KS Chandpuri, the Company Commander at Longewala (later awarded MVC for the gallant action) said, “the air Force rescued the 23rd Punjab and saved Rajasthan”.
          Further South, over Uttarlai, IS Bindra and BB Soni shot down two F-104 Starfighters with their MiG-21s in a straight contest. The combat lasted less than two minutes. Such was the indomitable spirit of India’s air warriors.
In the western sector, Srinagar was one of the airfields very frequently attacked by the PAF. No. 18 (Gnat) Squadron was assigned its air defence. On 14th December 1971, the air field was attacked by six Pakistani Sabres. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was still on the runway when the Sabres attacked. Notwithstanding the grave danger of attempting a take off under such circumstances, Sekhon got airborne and engaged the Sabre formation. Then began an unequal contest between the solitary Gnat and half dozen Sabres over the airfield. Sekhon shot down one Sabre and managed to set another on fire before sheer numbers gained ascendency and brought him down. NJS Sekhon was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously- the first individual from the IAF to be awarded the highest gallantry award in the country for a pre-eminent act of valour.



On 14 December 1971, IAF delivered final blow to the crumbling regime in East Pakistan. Dr. AM Malik, the then Governor of East Pakistan, was chairing a meeting on the progress of the war at his residence. Acting on intelligence received through wireless intercepts, four MiG-21s and four Hunters carried out a rocket attack on the Governor’s residence. The attack shattered the morale and broke the will of the leadership to continue resisting Indian advance.         
       The 14 day war was IAF’s finest hour. It proved the efficacy of India’s Air Power in the subcontinent. The end of the war resulted in creation of Bangladesh and subsequently signing of the Simla Agreement with Pakistan on Kashmir. IAF personnel were awarded 01 Param Vir Chakra, 13 Maha Vir Chakras and 113 Vir Chakras for their heroic performance in the war. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to IAF’s contribution in the war came from Lt Gen AAK Niazi, Commander of the Pakistani forces in the East. When asked by a senior IAF officer about the reason for his surrender when most of his army was intact, he walked up to this officer, pointed at the wings on his uniform and said, “because of this, you, the Indian Air Force.”
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