10 May 2010

Air Support in Chamb - 1971 War

The General Staff at Rawalpindi felt that, besides the main strategic offensive in Ganganagar-Suratgarh area, an additional secondary offensive was obligatory for creating a ‘pull’ on the Indian strategic reserves, thereby improving the relative strength ratio favourably in that sector. It was surmised that control of nodes on communication lines in Kashmir could provide the quickest access to vital areas in the hinterland, while simultaneously choking the enemy by severing his supply line. The Indian formations were, thus, bound to be unhinged by the threat to its jugular and, the Pakistani main offensive could thence be unleashed.

The capture of Akhnur town, along with the vital bridge, could sever the main road communication of Indian troops deployed in the western half of Jammu Province. With the defending Indian troops thus choked off, operations could be developed towards Jammu from the western side. For Pakistan, however, it was important to properly secure the Chamb Sector, before any plans for the capture of Akhnur could be put into action. The Grand Trunk Road and the main railway line ran close enough for the Indians to steal a jaunty ride towards either Lahore or Sialkot. This vulnerability dictated that Pakistan Army improve its defensive posture before any further advance.

23 Division was, thus, tasked to first secure the line up to Tawi River; to this was added the subsequent task of capturing an intermediate objective of Palanwala. Akhnur remained the ultimate goal, for which the task force was to 'remain prepared.' The division had five infantry brigades and one armoured brigade at its disposal. Artillery fire support included a large two-brigade sized group. All in all, 23 Division was a formidable force by any reckoning.

The Indian 10 Division, primarily organized for an offensive task, was purportedly retasked to defend against an impending Pakistani offensive. An infantry brigade was positioned west of Tawi River while another one defended the northern reaches of Chamb. One infantry brigade stayed put at Akhnur, to ward off any attack on the bridge from the exposed southern direction of Pukhlian Salient. An armoured and an infantry brigade at Akhnur made up the assault echelons of the division.

23 Division opened up with its offensive with two infantry brigades on the night of 3-4 December. The Indian forward brigade was pushed back, and over the next three days fierce fighting was witnessed, with Pakistani forays repeatedly countered by Indian forces. During the night of 4-5 December, a small bridgehead was formed by Pakistani infantry elements to enable the armoured brigade to break through. Heavy enemy air and artillery attacks, however, forced them back with heavy losses to armour. The maximum extent of advance was about 2,000 yards east of Tawi River, before the withdrawal.

On 7 December, the indefatigable GOC of 23 Division, Maj Gen Iftikhar Janjua, ordered the capture of Chamb and Manawar after regrouping the forces. Both objectives were easily achieved as Indian resistance west of Tawi River had practically ceased. The gravity of the situation had forced the Indian 10 Division to prepare for a last stand at Akhnur.

With the primary mission accomplished and, seeing the enemy in complete disarray, Maj Gen Janjua decided to expand the operation to the more ambitious phase. He ordered the capture of Palanwala, the springboard for a final hop to Akhnur.

Orders for the attack were issued on 7 December, but operations could not start till the night of 9-10 December for several reasons. Regrouping and positioning of certain units and, resting the fatigued troops took up vital time. A replaced brigade commander needed an extra 24 hours to size up the situation. Finally, the unfortunate loss of the GOC in a helicopter crash on the morning of 9 December robbed the division of a “very bold and competent officer” (according to an Indian assessment). When the attack did commence, the impetus had already been lost. Fierce counter-attacks by the enemy, along with heavy air attacks, limited the extent of the Chamb offensive to the west bank of Tawi River. Capture of 90 square miles of territory was Pakistan’s most substantial gain. Its inconsequentiality was, however, highlighted when India ceded most of it, as the occupied territories were being traded off in the post-war Simla Accord.

 Air Support

Three squadrons of F-86E/F at Sargodha, Murid and Peshawar made up the fighter element for air support in the Chamb Sector. T-6G trainers were also found handy for strafing convoys in moonlit nights, with the menacing whine of their engines providing a suitable overture to the staccato fire of the .303” machine guns. F-6s, the better-endowed fighters for tank killing, remained committed in the more critical Shakargarh Sector.

The first phase of 23 Division operations that lasted from 4-7 December was vigorously supported by the PAF. However, weapon-target compatibility left a lot to be desired as neither the F-86’s 0.5” guns, nor the general purpose bombs were effective against armour. Mercifully, the air support demands were not desperate, as the situation on the ground never went out of control for the Pakistan Army.

The sprawling Akhnur ammunition dump was sporadically bombed, involving 21 sorties. Forward stocking of ammunition supplies in the field might have cushioned the blow for the short term, but had 23 Division operations developed towards Akhnur, the Indian forces would have likely felt the ordnance deficiencies, if the smoke billowing from igloos was anything to go by.

T-6Gs flew 12-odd sorties during four nights. General area strafing was done on suspected enemy positions near Akhnur, though jammed guns and night visibility problems often dogged these intrepid attempts. In one mission on the night of 4-5 December, Flt Lt Israr Ahmad got hit in the arm by ground fire, but he determinedly brought back the aircraft for a safe landing.

On 8 December, Flt Lt Fazal Elahi of No 26 Squadron was fatally hit by ground fire while performing a close support mission in Chamb area. Apparently, the AAA shell hit the bomb fuse, causing the F-86F to blow up in mid-air.

On 10 December, two F-86Fs of No 26 Squadron had a brief scrap with two Hunters of No 20 Squadron. Sqn Ldr Aslam Choudhry and Flt Lt Rahim Yousafzai had just arrived on an air support mission near Chamb, when they spotted two Hunters attacking ground targets. Aslam manoeuvred behind one and fired a lengthy burst, ripping the fuselage and drop tanks of the Hunter. In the meantime, the second Hunter flown by Sqn Ldr R N Bharadwaj slipped in and responded with a massive fusillade of four 30-mm cannon. The F-86 went down, with Aslam getting no chance to eject. The Hunter crippled by Aslam was able to limp back to Pathankot, with its pilot, Flt Lt Karumbaya, surviving a fiery fate by a cat’s whisker.

Also on 10 December, two F-86Es of No 18 Squadron manoeuvred to get behind two Su-7s while both formations were on air support missions in Chamb area. Wg Cdr Moin-ur-Rab and Flt Lt Taloot Mirza claimed a Su-7 each in gun attacks, though it later transpired that both aircraft made it back to their base after having taken some nasty hits.

The PAF flew a total of 146 sorties in Chamb Sector, which was 20% of PAF’s total tactical air support effort. 89 sorties were considered successful while 57 were rated as failures. Just as in Shakargarh Sector, on many occasions the pilots found no enemy activity on reaching the target area, resulting in wasted missions.

While interference by enemy fighters in the air was not of much consequence, IAF had expended a heavy effort in support of their ground forces around Chamb. Unfortunately, PAF’s complete lack of low level radar cover and, fringe high level cover in the battle area, underscored the futility of flying blind CAPs to ward off IAF’s persistent attacks against 23 Division targets. Without effective air cover, ground offensive plans are as good as stalemated from the outset. This truism finally drove home as GHQ pragmatically decided to curtail the operation and, be contended with an improved defensive posture at Chamb.


[1] Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter – VIII, ‘Pakistan Choose War – Operations in J & K,’ page 329.
[2] Official PAF War Records


This article was published in Defence Journal, July 2010 issue.


Anonymous said...


I have just stumbled across your blog and find it very good. I have read your accounts of the 65 war and hope to catch up with the other essays.


Unknown said...

Sir excellent article. My father was commanding at chamb in 1971. Fawad Ali

Agha A Gul said...

Good account, weldone. I fought that battle as a front line capt in a medium regiment artillery. My observations: The mission's second part was, 'be-prepared to capture Palanwala', and not Akhnore. PAF, was not visible at all. Early morning of 4 December, we saw 2 F-86 going towards Tawi Eastward,very low. Thereafter, till 15th December, we never saw any PAF at all. Of course, IAF SU-7s in single and two would often come and drop napalm and bombs. Once a single SU-7 came down on my jeep to straf and I fired longesr burst of MG1A3 on it. We both didt hit. Two Divisional arilleries( you didt mention artillery, biggest repository of firepower) were fighting but max range was 16500 yds, and our targets were often out of range. This, notwithstanding that even medium regiments were as close as 25000 yds from line of contact. The 5 Gurkha Battalion of Assam Regiment that I was confronted with, earned our grudging respect, they fought bravely. Agha Gul

Man Aman Singh Chhina said...

My father fought in Chhamb with Indian 68 Inf Bde. Nice account of the air effort.

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Unknown said...

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