Air aspect of the Liberation War 1971

Air Cdre Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury (Retd)


Dear Moderator,
Attached is an article that appeared in the Victory Day Supplement in the Daily Star.  This was for the first time an objective acknowledgement made in a Bngladeshi newspaper of the enormous contribution and personal sacrifices made by the Indian Air Force in our Liberation War - a tribute long overdue.  The statements made are professional, unbiased and historically true, to the best of my knowledge.  You may put it in your site.  Thanks.


Air aspect of the Liberation War 1971

Air Cdre (Retd) Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, ndc, psc

Air power played a pivotal role in the final phase of the Bangladesh Liberation War. For the first time the people of Bangladesh came face to face with the awesome power of the air force and the way it could shape the destiny of a nation. For most people in Bangladesh, war in the air was a unique experience. There are important lessons to be learnt from these air operations that are relevant for our future military planning. Although by September 71, the nucleus of the Bangladesh Air Force was raised in Dimapore, Assam with a number of small transport aircraft and helicopters; it could not have significantly influenced the outcome of war. This article will, therefore, be limited to the air operations of the Indian and Pakistani air forces in the East.

The Opposing Forces
In March 1971, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the East consisted of a squadron of F-86E (No.14 Squadron) fighters operating from Tejgaon. The airfield complex was defended by light anti-aircraft guns; there were no surface to air missiles. The plans to make Kurmitola airfield operational and raise another squadron with the Chinese F-6 fighters remained unimplemented. Since 26 March 1971, the PAF fighters had been attacking suspected Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) strongholds, causing large-scale civilian casualties. During this period, the No.14 Squadron flew between 100 and 170 combat sorties a month. However, while the Army's strength was bolstered four times by December 71, the air force strength reduced. The second fighter squadron never arrived; by October 71, the only available long range radar was removed from Kurmitola to Pakistan; and by the end of November, the only C-130 transport plane was also withdrawn. It appeared that the Pak air force and army high commands were at cross-purpose.

Pakistan Air Force Base, Tejgaon after the IAF raid. Aerial photo showing the bomb craters

Facing the PAF in the East was the Eastern Air Command (EAC) of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Headquarters of the EAC was located in Shillong, Meghalaya. The squadron deployment is shown Table-1.
The PAF was not only facing a force 12 times larger, the entire population of Bangladesh had turned hostile towards them. This acted as a tremendous psychological pressure. As the summer rain ceased and winter set in, the prospect of an all out war between India and Pakistan became real.

The First Blood
The first air combat in the East took place on 22 November '71. The PAF had flown a number of missions on that morning in support of the army who were engaged in fierce clashes with the joint India-Mukti Bahini forces along the Jessore border. The morning missions went ahead unopposed. Then at about 3-00 PM when three PAF F-86s were attacking the ground forces, they were pounced by four Gnats (No.22 Sqn) scrambled from Dumdum. Two of the F-86s were shot down within minutes; both the pilots ejected and were taken prisoner in India. It was apparent that without radar cover the F-86s were easy prey to the attacking Gnats who were directed by IAF radars at Barrackpore. Since that day till the end of the war, the PAF did not venture beyond 50 nm of Dhaka.

IAF Counter air Operations
There was no air action till mid-night of 3-4 December when the IAF launched counter attack in retaliation to the PAF preemptive against their airfields in the Western sector. Canberra bombers kept attacking Tejgaon in waves till morning when the fighters the Hunters, Su-7 and MiG-21s, took over. The F-86, being a day fighter, could not operate at night. However, as the day broke, they went up repeatedly to challenge the IAF fighters. People of Dhaka witnessed thrilling low-level dogfight throughout 4 and 5 December. The IAF concentrated in attacking the aircraft on the ground, but failed to cause significant damage to the PAF assets in well-dispersed and camouflaged locations. During these two days of air combat, three PAF fighters were shot down; all three pilots ejected two over Ghazipur and the third over Zinjira. While the Zinjira pilot could be rescued, the other two were listed as 'missing'. After the war, it was revealed that they were killed by hostile villagers. It was a testimony to the anger the Pak forces had generated among otherwise placid villagers.

The IAF too suffered significant loss on the Day-, they lost one Su-7 and six Hunters. While three fighters were shot down in air combat, the others were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. Three IAF pilots were killed, two were taken prisoner and two others managed to reach back to base. By the evening of 5 December, the IAF realised that a change of tactic was necessary. On the morning of 6 December, four MiG-21s (No. 28 Sqn) from Gauhati dive-bombed Tejgaon runway scoring several hits. Since then, waves of MiG-21s and Hunters kept attacking the runway and cratered it so badly that the PAF in the East was effectively grounded. By the next day, Kurmitola airfield was also bombed and made unusable. The IAF thus achieved complete mastery of the air.

Operations in Support of Ground Forces
The IAF could now concentrate in supporting their advancing army. Movements of Pakistani troops during day time came to a virtual halt due to relentless IAF air attack. Ferries across major river crossings were sunk by the IAF thus denying the Pak army its line of retreat to Dhaka. Meanwhile, the IAF fighters kept on visiting Dhaka during the day to ensure that the damaged runway at Tejgaon and Kurmitola remained inoperative. The IAF also bombed other airfields, including the abandoned WWII airfields such as in Comilla, Lalmonirhat and Shamsher Nagar to deny their use by any external aerial reinforcement. From 7 December onward, INS Vikrant, Indian Navy's aircraft career, joined the war by attacking the coastal targets of Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and Barisal. Whatever remained of the Pakistan Navy was destroyed or sunk. The airfields in Cox's Bazar, Chiringa and Feni were made inoperative.

Darbar Hall, Banga Bhaban, Dhaka after the IAF rocket attack on 14 December, 1971

Airborne and Heliborne Operations
On 11 December, a Para battalion was dropped in daylight near Tangail. The unit, flown in by waves of IAF transport aircraft, such as An-12, C-119 and DC-3 Dakotas were in full view of those on the ground. Instead of hostile groundfire which usually greets the descending paratroopers, the Indians were virtually mobbed by the populace, wild with jubilation. Next day, further reinforcement and re-supply were flown in. The Paras had cut-off the rear line of Pak Army units in Jamalpur-Mymensingh axis. The Pakistani retreat soon turned into a rout.

Meanwhile, the helicopter fleet of the IAF played key role in two major operations. First, on 7 December a battalion of infantry was helilifted to the outskirts of Sylhet. These forces captured Sylhet virtually without a fight. The Pakistani forces scattered in disarray. Then on 10 December, while the Pak Army were in their dug-in position around Bhairab-Ashuganj area, elements of the Indian heliborne forces were transported by Mi-4 helicopters across the river Meghna and dropped in Narshingdi-Raipura area cutting the Pak Army's line of retreat. In the next 36 hours, over 110 sorties were flown. The Mi-4, which normally carried fourteen troops, carried as many as twenty-three on board. After securing Narshingdi, Indian forces captured Daudkandi and Baidder Bazar on 14 and 15 December respectively, both with helicopter assault. The skyline of Dhaka was soon visible in the distance.

Air Power in Psychological Warfare
With the PAF effectively grounded in the East, the Canberra bombers and some fighter squadrons were withdrawn to the Western theatre. IAF transport aircraft were pressed to fly over Dhaka at night at high altitude and drop bombs around the cantonment area at irregular intervals. These attacks were putting psychological pressure on the Pakistanis. Because as the lumbering aircraft kept circling overhead, the Pakistani forces were having sleepless nights worrying where the next bomb would land. Although most bombs fell in the cantonment area, on 5 December night, one bomb landed on an orphanage in Tejgaon area killing a large number of children. Other than this incident, civilian population was generally safe from collateral damage, so common in an air war.

Early on 14 December, the IAF got a message through the Mukti Bahini that an important meeting was scheduled in the Governor House (now 'Banga Bhaban') that morning. Four MiG-21s of No. 28 Sqn from Gauhati were tasked to attack the Governor House. As Dr. Malek, the puppet Governor of the then East Pakistan, along with his cabinet and high officials were in session, the MiGs came screaming down and accurately fired salvos of rockets into the Darbar Hall. The Governor was so traumatised that he resigned then and there, and rushed to the Hotel Intercontinental (now Sheraton), to seek shelter under the UN Flag. The Pakistani civil administration in the East ceased to exist. Of and on, between 12-14 December, the IAF transport planes came over Dhaka and dropped leaflets urging the Pak forces to surrender. As the leaflets were floating down, the morale of the Pakistanis were sinking fast.

By 15 December, at the request of the Pakistani Commander in the East, all air operations ceased and the negotiation for the surrender of the Pak forces started. On 16 December morning, the IAF helicopter carrying the Indian negotiating team landed in Tejgaon. Thus the combat air operations ended in the East. As the preparation for the surrender was going on, the PAF damaged or destroyed on ground the remaining thirteen F-86s as a part of the denial operations. (Later, three of these aircraft were repaired and flown by the Bangladesh Air Force for some time.)

Lessons Learnt
Most important lesson that came out was the reaffirmation of the old edict, �Control of the air hastens victory�. If the PAF had not been knocked out so early, the war would have dragged on longer. The Para drop in Tangail or the heli-hops across the mighty rivers in daylight would not be possible if there was air opposition. The Pak army was well dug-in for a long encounter. With the US and China backing Pakistan so strongly in the UN, and the 7th Fleet steaming into the Bay of Bengal, there was a serious danger of a stalemate or an international conflagration. With the quick and decisive end of the war such an eventuality was averted.

The air operations once again proved that an army or navy without air power is sitting ducks. The destruction of the ferries, attacking the army columns on the move and disrupting the communication systems by the IAF totally immobilised the Pak army. The army was reduced to tiny packets; they could not regroup or retreat. Combined air and naval operations ensured that the Pak forces could not get any assistance from outside nor could they extricate themselves from Bangladesh. There was no way but to surrender.

PIA aircraft destroyed on Tejgaon Tarmac, 4 December, 1971

This war shows that it is very important NOT to have all your eggs in one basket. If the PAF had more than one airfield with multiple runways, the F-86s would not be grounded so early. Also, if the PAF had a number of radars, especially covering the forward areas, their operations would not be so curtailed. The need for a mixed air defence system composed of fighters, anti-aircraft guns and missiles supported by a robust command and control system was once again emphasised. It was also apparent that assets, if camouflaged and dispersed, could be difficult to destroy as was evident in Tejgaon. The IAF air operations went off like a symphony with the right notes striking at the right time. Compared to more than 1100 missions flown during the 14 day war, the 19 aircraft lost, including 6 due to accident, speaks of a high standard of training.

The war showed the versatility of the helicopter and air transport forces and how, if used intelligently, those assets could change the face of the battle. The need for intelligence and their dissemination to the users, accurately and in time, was also emphasized.

The war revealed the all important need of public support behind military operations. While Pakistani pilots ejecting over Bangladesh were killed by the local people, the Indians were safely transported back to their bases. These must have acted as a great demoralising factor for the Pakistanis. Unlike the Pakistani top brass who were often at cross-purpose, the Indian military leadership was clear in their aim and objective and the means to achieve those. Once the task was assigned and the military was provided with the wherewithal to accomplish the mission, there were little political or bureaucratic interference. In the future military planning for Bangladesh these lessons will always remain relevant.