12 June 2010

Sundry Air Support - 1971 War

Besides the raging battles in Shakargarh and Chamb, two other sectors in Punjab saw fierce exchanges resulting in minor, but potentially useful gains by Pakistan Army’s IV Corps. Both in Sulaimanki and Hussainiwala Sectors, land operations were overlaid by negligible, and largely inconsequential, air support.
Sulaimanki Sector
The precarious proximity of Sulaimanki Headworks to the international border dictated that Pakistan Army take offensive action at the outset, so as to pre-empt any Indian designs against the vital Southern Punjab waterworks.  For Pakistan, any territorial gain would not only threaten nearby Fazilka, it could also provide a firm supporting base for the impending main offensive as it swung due north-eastwards into the Indian heartland.

The Pakistani 105 Independent Infantry Brigade (IV Corps) was pitted against Indian 67 Infantry Brigade (‘Foxtrot’ Sector[1]). On the twilight of 3 December, the Pakistani brigade, under cover of intense artillery fire, charged through the Indian troops with such speed and ferocity, that it was able to establish a foothold on the tank obstacle line of Sabuna Distributory six miles inside, within an hour. The Indian troops struck by total ‘pandemonium and bewilderment,’[2] had destroyed all but one of the 22 bridges on the distributory while withdrawing; this desperate action also foreclosed any chances of success of a subsequent counter-attack.  The Indians counter-attacked five times over the subsequent nights,[3] but each operation resulted in complete failure, mainly due to intense and accurate artillery shelling by 105 Brigade. Such was the intensity of the artillery fusillade, that the enemy granted undue strength to the attacking troops by imagining two attacking brigades. It was, thus, unable to plan properly and counter-attack confidently, much to the chagrin of the Maj Gen Ram Singh, Commander Foxtrot Sector who thought that 67 Brigade was ‘discomposed and flustered, its men demoralised and put out.’[4] The brigade saw two of its successively changed commanders ram their heads,[5] as it were, against the dogged resistance by Brig Amir Hamza’s brilliantly-led outfit.

Since all Indian counter-attacks were foiled within hours of darkness, air support during day time largely served to mop up any stragglers, besides boosting own troops’ morale.  No 17 Squadron based at Rafiqui flew 55 F-86E sorties, of which 33 were considered successful. In 22 sorties, either no targets could be found or, bombs were released on dead reckoning with questionable results. Half a dozen tanks and some vehicles were claimed as destroyed.
Hussainiwala Sector
Several enclaves nestled in the meandering loops of Rivers Ravi and Sutlej came to be exchanged during minor operations by either side.  Difficult to defend across rivers, one such Indian enclave was Hussainiwala, which housed  important canal headworks by the same name. The psychologically significant Indian town of  Firozpur lay a tantalising six miles from Hussainiwala.

At twilight of 3 December, Pakistani 106 Infantry Brigade (11 Division) attacked with two infantry battalions and a troop of armour.  The opening barrage of artillery fire completely surprised the Indian 15 Punjab (35 Brigade), a  reinforced two-battalion strength unit tasked to defend the enclave. Consternation amongst the defenders knew no bounds when the Hussainiwala Bridge, which had been wired up by them for demolition, just in case, purportedly blew up under Pakistani artillery fire. The Officer Commanding of 15 Punjab, safely ensconced in his headquarters south of River Sutlej, was too overcome by the devastating situation and pleaded with his superiors for a withdrawal. ‘Infected by his pessimism’ (as the Indian official historian puts it), the Brigade Commander was able to convince Commander 7 Division to pull back to the south bank of the river after having conceded about 20 square miles to Pakistani forces. Within 24 hours of start of the operation, Hussainiwala lay at the mercy of Brig Mumtaz Khan’s unstoppable brigade.

With the grave threat to the headworks having developed in no time, IAF responded swiftly, and in full force, to keep 106 Brigade from making any further headway. Without low level radar cover, PAF’s presence in the air meant little, and IAF fighters had virtual freedom of action which they used to some advantage. It is easy to see why any advance towards Firozpur would have been disastrous. As in Chamb Sector, GHQ wisely decided not to expand the operation, since the basic objective of improving the defensive posture had been achieved.

With the Indian ground troops having hunkered down, PAF fighters on air support missions were unable to spot any worthwhile targets. A nominal 29 sorties were flown on the following days, and other than a mission claiming to have targeted an ammunition dump, all others were unsuccessful.

While 106 Brigade was successful in capturing the Hussainiwala enclave, the Indians were able to clear the protrusion known as Sehjra Bulge, as well as an enclave near Mamdot, without much opposition. Battles involving these latter two enclaves did not entail any air support.
Scouting the Troops
PAF had three Mirage IIIRs which were equipped with five OMERA Type 31 optical cameras each, all mounted in the nose.  With a Doppler navigation radar available, getting to a destination was fairly easy.  Magnesium flares provided enough illumination at night to confer a round-the-clock tactical reconnaissance capability.  The number of aircraft was, however, on the low side and did not sufficiently cater for unserviceabilities.

A month prior to the outbreak of all-out war, PAF had started to fly cross-border photo recce sorties, some of which were in the vital Chamb Sector, where Pak Army’s 23 Division had planned a secondary ‘diversionary’ offensive.  With the disposition of forces well-known, the attack resulted in significant advances that threatened India’s overland links to Kashmir.  It also deprived Indian forces from establishing a launch pad for offensive operations, towards the vital lines of communication passing through nearby Gujrat.

Early in the war, another important breakthrough came in the Sulaimanki-Fazilka Sector, where 105 Independent Infantry Brigade (IV Corps) was able to surprise the Indian ‘Foxtrot’ Force, and made a firm foothold in the area of Pak II Corps’ planned main offensive.  While the Indian forces desperately carried out repeated counter attacks, PAF Mirages conducted regular photo recce missions in Firozpur area to update the ground commanders about Indian reinforcement efforts aimed at vacating the incursion.  In the event, a badly demoralised and confused Foxtrot Force could not make any headway, and the Pakistani brigade was able to safeguard the vital Sulaimanki Headworks which was only a mile from the border.

In preparation for the main offensive, PAF Mirages fervently conducted photo recce missions along the railway networks Firozpur-Kot Kapura, Firozpur-Fazilka and Fazilka-Muktasar, as well as in general areas of Firozpur and Sri Ganganagar, for the latest disposition of forces.  An important mission involved recce of crossing points over Gang Canal, for a careful scrutiny of obstacles across the waterway that could possibly impede the movement of II Corps. The main offensive could, however, not materialise, and most of the photo recce effort was rendered worthless. Two pilots who played a sterling role in the photo recce operations were the squadron’s ‘slide-rule wizards’, Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar and Flt Lt Najib Akhtar.  Of the 36 photo recce sorties flown by No 5 Squadron during the war, 22 were considered successful. Although most of the singleton recce Mirages were escorted by another Mirage, yet some of the missions had to be aborted due to intense enemy air activity. In Shakargarh Sector, a few night recce missions were attempted with partial success.  In one such mission on the night of 11 December, an IAF MiG-21 scrambled to intercept a Mirage flown by Sqn Ldr Farooq Umar, ended up shooting down one of its own MiG-21s which was patrolling in the vicinity.
Red Patrols
An important, though abortive effort, involved the move of 1 Armoured Division from its concentration area in Arifwala-Okara to its forward assembly area east of Bahawalnagar. This vulnerable move by rail and road was provided with top cover by standing patrols between 15-17 December. The aptly named ‘red’ CAPs lasted a duration of 30 daylight hours, and involved F-86E, F-6 and Mirage aircraft from Rafiqui, Sargodha and Risalewala. Given the paucity of resources, this was a commendable effort indeed. Its efficacy stood out in relief as no enemy aircraft were able to interfere during any of the 81 sorties flown. In all likelihood, the move completely eluded the enemy due to bad intelligence. Intriguingly, the unusual and intense air activity also failed to ring alarm bells, and the IAF missed an opportunity to undertake a profitable hunt that could have seen the susceptibly entrained armour thoroughly routed. Perhaps, the IAF commanders were completely overtaken by the imminence of the much-hyped Pakistani offensive that never came about.
Inadequate Interdiction
Apparently influenced by the Army’s notion that interdiction missions within the raging battlefield were more lucrative from the point of view of immediacy of results, the PAF paid much less heed to severing the supply lines beyond the frontline. A known problem of interdiction within the battlefield that had to be contended with, pertained to location of well-concealed stocks of ammunition and fuel, during a single attacking pass.  On the other hand, an indirect approach of attacking nodal points like railway stations and marshalling yards, over which replenishments of the consumed vital stocks were bound to transit to various sectors, would have been a more profitable option. While deferring to the Army, who did not seem to have the patience to wait for the effects on the battlefield delayed by upto 72 hours or even more, the PAF still undertook a belated and half-hearted interdiction campaign that should have started in earnest from Day-1.  

Of a total of 24 sorties (including 5 night sorties by  B-57 and C-130) flown against deeper railway stations or rail segments, most were reported to have produced satisfactory results. The targeted railway stations that were of consequence to the critical Shakargarh Sector included Gurdaspur and Mukerian, while those serving the equally stressed Chor Sector included Vasarwah and Monabao.

One of the very successful missions of the war was an attack by Mirages on Mukerian Railway Station.  On 15 December, Wg Cdr Hakimullah was tasked to lead a   four-ship mission to attack Bhangala Railway Station on Jalandhar-Pathankot railway line.  After pulling up for the attack, he was dismayed to discover that there was no rolling stock in sight, but he decided to try his luck further south along the railway line. Having flown a mere 30 seconds, he overflew Mukerian Railway Station which was bustling with trains.  Peeling off into the attack pattern, the four Mirages set themselves up for single-pass dive attacks with two 750 lb bombs each. According to Hakimullah’s estimate, there were at least 100 freight bogies latched to different trains berthed adjacent to each other. The Mirages released their bombs one by one though No 4, who had hung ordnance, pulled off dry.  The impact of bombs on the fuel and ammunition laden trains was so furious that the blasts shook the aircraft; No 2’s drop tanks sheared off with the shock wave, but he was able to fly back without any further damage. It was ironic that of all the interdiction missions, this was the only one flown by the ideally-suited Mirages.


[1] ‘Foxtrot Sector’ was a large four-brigade sized division.
[2] Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter IX, ‘The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,’ page 386.
[3] Indian counter-attacks were launched on the nights of 3/4 Dec, 4/5 Dec, 5/6 Dec, 8/9 Dec and 13/14 Dec.
[4] Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War, Chapter IX, ‘The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,’ page 387.
[5] Brig Surjit Singh Chaudhry was replaced by Brig G S Reen who was, in turn, replaced by Brig Piara Singh.


Syed Imran Shah said...

Salam.......Its nice to see that you regularly add articles to your blog. While I have not read all of your recent 2010 articles, it would be nice to go ABOVE the individual theatres and go to strategic level. From battle to war. How can one win the battle but lose the war?.......like in PAF history book, they give counts of kills........our kills are more than IAF kills.....is it important from Strategic point of view?

At the strategic level, we only look for OBJECTIVES...It would be nice if you sum up your 1971 series with TWO things, one strategic vision of PAF and second an interview with either DILAWAR HUSSAIN or INAM UL HAQ KHAN of 14 Sqn from Dacca. You can ask them how much of the runway was put out of use because RAF C-130s landed there after the said "destruction of runway". Its clear that C-130 needs less runway than F-86 but its important to know that why we could not manage a thousand feet through PSP or any other mean? Was the real reason the notion that we can't continue any longer? If so, what was/is the pre-conception of strength level for continuing a war?

Col (R) Arshad Rahat Ansari said...

My unit, 76 Field Regiment was supporting the 105 Brigade' action on Sabuna Drain, The Brigade Major was One Major Waheed Kakkar (later to become COAS). He remembers the unit very fondly. This was the sector where Major Shabbir Sharif won the coveted award of Nishan e Haider, for his resilient Defence of Sabuna Drain. According to the unit history, the attack was so sudden that Indians had no chance to retaliate....(our Observer,than Capt Dawood was awarded TJ for this action), in fact the advancing troops charged the anti tank obstacles on the bridge, thinking them to be bivouacs of Indian soldiers!!! How ever the main action took place when the Indians tried their best to evict 6 FF from their position but failed to do so...
I have commanded 76 Field Regiment which was given Battle Honours for this action and we proudly call our selves "Sabunites".
Col (R) Arshad Rahat Ansari