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April 14, 2010

Air Support in Shakargarh – 1971 War


The Shakargarh Salient juts into Indian territory in a particularly threatening way – the northern boundary of the salient runs not too far from the road between Pathankot and Jammu. The Kathua-Samba stretch is a mere 5-6 miles away, offering the possibility of developing operations astride the road towards the vital Madhopur Headworks. Such a manoeuvre could also serve as a ruse while a major offensive in the shape of a riposte was launched towards one of several important objectives like Gurdaspur, Batala or even Amritsar. Pakistan Army appreciated that a riposte in this sector would likely draw elements of the Indian strategic reserves into the salient and embroil them, thus preventing or delaying their extrication to face the main Pakistani offensive in the Ganganagar-Suratgarh area. The configuration of the salient lends itself well to operations on ‘interior lines,’ whereby a Pakistani threat could be radiated from a single point in several directions with minimal logistic problems. The enemy, conversely, would be compelled to operate on ‘exterior lines,’ having to position a larger quantum of forces all along the periphery of the salient.

Indian Army’s over-riding concern was to protect the vital Jammu-Pathankot artery while capturing important territory through its main offensive by I Corps. This formation had 39 Infantry Division and 54 Infantry Division, each supported by an armoured brigade, as the spearheads of its two-pronged offensive. 36 Infantry Division and two brigades of ad hoc ‘X-Sector’ covered the flanks, while an additional brigade covered the central base, all in a holding role.

For the defence of Shakargarh Salient, Pakistan Army’s (similarly numbered) I Corps had fielded 15 Infantry Division and 8 Infantry Division on the western and eastern sides of Degh Nadi respectively, both divisions supported by 8 Independent Armoured Brigade. The offensive formation tasked to launch a riposte at an opportune time and place, was the so-called ‘Army Reserve North.’ It consisted of 6 Armoured Division and 17 Infantry Division. Though nominally under I Corps, it was directly controlled by GHQ.

The Indian I Corps opened up with its offensive at dusk on 5 December. Facing the brunt of the Indian offensive was Pakistan Army’s lone 8 Division, as 15 Division remained tied up against ‘X-Sector’ force (guarding I Corps right flank) as well as Indian 26 Division (XV Corps), on a wide frontage between Degh Nadi and Pukhlian Salient.

Indian 39 Division, tasked to capture Shakargarh, crossed the international border from a north-easterly direction on the evening of 5 December, but the advance ran into trouble as it hit the first belt of a well-laid out minefield on 7 December. “This, coupled with heavy artillery fire and air attacks frustrated the attempts … to make headway,” reasons the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War.[1] Another attempt to attack from the north the following day, was foiled when a second belt of the minefield was encountered. It was evident that the inability to breach the minefield and, stout resistance by Pakistani 8 Division had a demoralising effect. “Standard of stage management for the battle so far displayed was uninspiring and weak,” was the assessment of 39 Division’s performance by the Corps Commander Lt Gen K K Singh.[2] He was compelled to abort his plan of investing Shakargarh and decided to redeploy 39 Division forces in another sector.

The Indian 54 Division launched its attack from a northerly direction on the night of 5 December, with the aim of capturing Zafarwal and, in the process, destroying Pakistani 8 Armoured Brigade. By 11 December, peripheral border villages and small towns had been captured, the flanks of the Corps’ forces secured and, the minefield breached. A bridgehead was established for the final assault on Zafarwal by 15 December, but Pakistani forces counter-attacked fiercely, duly supported by the PAF. While 54 Division’s effort was better planned and executed than that of 39 Division, it failed to penetrate the main defences and was able to advance just eight miles in two weeks of fighting. The objective of Zafarwal remained elusive as fighting ceased on 17 December. Pakistan’s 8 Armoured Brigade paid a heavy price by losing as many as 50 tanks during the counter-attack, but it was some consolation that the Zafarwal-Shakargarh chain of defence remained intact.

Indian 36 Division had been performing a holding role on the eastern side of the salient. After failure of 39 Division to take Shakargarh, 36 Division was hastily charged with an offensive task, with the aim of developing operations towards Shakargarh in yet one more attempt. A rearguard brigade of 36 Division had secured a bridgehead across the border on 9 December. Together with an infantry and an armoured brigade mustered from 39 Division, Indian forces advanced up to Bein River and, an assault was planned on Shakargarh on the night of 14/15 December. Pakistani forces were rushed from other sectors to Nurkot-Shakargarh area, which was already well prepared with deep minefields. Intense artillery shelling and exploding mines caused heavy casualties on the Indian forces, which delayed the advance and exposed the troops to more precise fire from well-concealed platoons having adequate recce support. The Indian armour got bogged down while attempting to cross the soggy bed of Bein River and, the advance fizzled out as soon as it had commenced. 39 Division was thrown completely off-balance, its plight only worsened by the absence of IAF which was said to be committed heavily in the Chamb Sector.

Lying within the area of responsibility of Pakistani 15 Division, at the western flank, was the narrow Pukhlian Salient. Its defences were sloppily left to the para-military 1 Wing of Rangers, along with a regular infantry company. The Indian 19 Brigade (ex-26 Division) attacked the salient on the night of 5 December so as to pre-empt any threat to Akhnur materialising from the southern direction. The Rangers were easily pushed out and, a menacing threat to the nearby Marala Headworks was posed, before the regular Pakistani troops salvaged the situation.

PAF Hastens to Help

With Murid, Sargodha and Risalewala optimally located in relation to Shakargarh Sector, air support could be made available promptly. Peshawar, though distant, could also chip in with the aircraft flying a modified flight profile. All together, two squadrons of F-6 and three squadrons of F-86E/F were available for air support operations. Seemingly an adequate force, the F-86s were, however, ill-armed to conduct anti-armour operations with their small calibre 0.5” Browning guns and 2.75” unguided rockets, the latter neither acclaimed for accuracy, nor penetration. The F-86s were even configured with general purpose bombs to blast out armour, not quite the recommended method to stop a tank onslaught, but the situation demanded that everything be thrown in anyhow. It was surmised that relentless bombing would, at least, have a devastating effect on the enemy's morale. The F-6s, were relatively better endowed for close air support, having three powerful NR-30 30mm cannon which were absolutely lethal, as might be expected of the heaviest aircraft round (.93 lbs) then in use on any aircraft.

As the Indian 39 Division ran into the first minefield belt, PAF’s F-6s and F-86s managed to get some good hits at the stalled armour. For the most part however, PAF had to make-do with sporadic and reactionary air support which, in the given, situation was a godsend for the Army, nonetheless. The vital and vulnerable bridgehead operations and subsequent breakout of all three Divisional offensives, escaped punishment from the air as these took place under cover of the night. A pontoon ferry bridge over Ravi River was destroyed on 11 December, two days after crossing by the main elements of Indian 39 Division had already taken place. While the destruction of the bridge did not induce any delay in the commencement of this offensive, it did possibly hamper subsequent reinforcements, as the stalled offensive seemed to indicate.

An exciting situation developed in one of the close air support missions on the morning of 7 December, when four F-6s of No 11 Squadron found themselves vying for airspace with four Su-7s, which also happened to be on a similar mission near Zafarwal. The moment the Su-7s sighted the F-6s pulling up for their attack, they lit afterburners and started to exit eastwards. At that time, the No 2 called that he had been hit by AAA so he was asked by the mission leader, Flt Lt Atiq Sufi, to pair up with No 4 and recover back. Atiq then smartly ordered a split, so that two F-6s were chasing a pair of Su-7s each. “I remember accelerating to 1,100 kph despite the rocket pods which were retained, as I could not afford to take my eyes off the prey to look inside for the selective jettison switches,” says Atiq. He barely managed to arrest his rate of closure and opened fire on his target with the centre gun. “I had expended the ammunition in the centre gun so I switched to the two side guns and continued firing. A well-aimed volley struck right behind the cockpit and the Su-7 rolled over its back,” remembers Atiq. It was later learnt that Sqn Ldr Jiwa Singh, the senior flight commander of Adampur-based No 26 Squadron had gone down with the aircraft, south-west of Samba just over the border. The F-6 deputy leader, Flt Lt Mus’haf Ali Mir also fired at one of the fast-receding Su-7s but it accelerated away, apparently unscathed.

In another close air support mission on 11 December, a formation of three F-86Es from No 18 Squadron led by the enthusiastic Squadron Commander, Wg Cdr Ali Imam Bokhari, had a scrap with a flight of Su-7s, also on a similar mission. Bokhari had just released a salvo of rockets on a cluster of vehicles in the battlefield near Nainakot when his No 2, Flt Lt Momin Arif yelled, “Lead, three Su-7s at 2 o’clock.” Bokhari ordered all to jettison their fuel tanks and turned the formation hard right, to position behind the Su-7s. Bokhari manoeuvred on to the tail of one Su-7 and was about to shoot when his No 3, Sqn Ldr Cecil Chaudhry, came charging in from the other side, trying a pot shot at the same aircraft. Cecil requested, “Leader, leave it for me, please.” Bokhari abandoned the attack and switched to the other Su-7 which was not too far off. Centring the enemy aircraft in his gun sight, Bokhari pressed the trigger and saw a stream of bullets rip into the Su-7. Moments later, there was an orange flash and then the aircraft exploded, with bits and pieces showering down. Commendably, this was PAF’s first subsonic versus supersonic aircraft kill.[3] It was later learnt that Flt Lt K K Mohan of Ambala-based No 26 Squadron went down with his aircraft. Cecil also fired at his quarry and claimed a Su-7, but firing from long-range resulted in a missed shot; no details of aircraft wreckage or pilot status have emerged since.

On 14 December, Sqn Ldr Salim Gauhar of No 26 Squadron, while on a close support mission in Shakargarh area, spotted a light observation aircraft and easily shot it down with his F-86’s guns. There were some anxious moments for Salim after he returned from the mission, as a Pakistan Army L-19 was reported to have been flying in the area at the same time. Their was immense relief when it was learnt that the L-19 had landed safely. It later transpired that the downed aircraft was an Indian Army Krishak. Its pilot, Capt P K Gaur of No 660 Squadron, went down with the flaming aircraft.

During the course of air support operations in Shakargarh Sector, PAF lost three aircraft to ground fire. On 7 December, an F-6 flown by Flt Lt Wajid Ali Khan of No 11 Squadron was shot down by AAA, as he was attacking ground targets near Marala. He ejected and was taken POW. The same day, Sqn Ldr Cecil Chaudhry of No 18 Squadron was apparently hit by own AAA, near Zafarwal. He was lucky to fall into Pakistan Army hands as he parachuted down after ejection, only a few hundred yards away from Indian positions. Cecil was also fortunate to be in good shape and was able to fly again, the very next day. On 17 December, the last day of the war, Flt Lt Shahid Raza of No 25 Squadron volunteered for a mission from which he was fated not to return. During ground attack, his F-6 was hit by enemy AAA near Dharman, close to Shakargarh. He was heard to be ejecting but sadly, nothing more was ever learnt about him. He was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jur’at posthumously.[4]

The PAF flew a total of 296 sorties in Shakargarh Sector,[5] which made up 41% of PAF’s total tactical air support effort. Interference by enemy fighters was not prohibitive and, the PAF was able to perform its task without let, by and large. The missions were mostly close air support and armed recce. 183 sorties were considered successful, while 113 sorties were rated as failures.[6] Poor visibility caused by winter haze was the bane of pilots, though an equally frustrating issue was the discovery of lack of enemy activity on reaching the target area. Apparently, time delays – from air support request, till fighters reached overhead the target area – resulted in a completely changed situation than what was expected. The dense foliage and built-up areas also complicated the visual pick-up problem.

Even if assessed on the basis of a high probability of ‘one target hit per sortie’ (assuming a single attacking pass), it can be seen that not more than 186 targets could have been possibly destroyed in the successful sorties flown in the sector. However, actual claims exceed this figure and, include 115 vehicles, 74 tanks, 13 tank transporters and 6 guns, besides a pontoon bridge. Since such claims cannot be verified accurately in a one-sided assessment based on fuzzy gun camera cinĂ© film, it would only be fair to reduce these claims considerably. Attack parameter inaccuracies induced by the heat of the battle, unfavourable weapon-target compatibility and weapon failures, are important factors that cannot be overlooked.

For an academic discussion, even if the claims are reduced by an arbitrary factor of half, the results still remain fairly impressive. It can be clearly seen that Pakistan Army’s 8 Division was effectively supported by the PAF and, was thus able to deny the Indian I Corps the twin strategic objectives of Zafarwal and Shakargarh, despite repeated attempts to capture them. In the bargain, 8 Division suffered considerable losses in men and material, along with the loss of 265 square miles of territory in the Shakargarh Salient.[7] (Additionally, about 40 square miles were lost in Pukhlian Salient.) Any plan to recoup the losses could not be put in place, as the Army Reserve North had already been denuded to the point of futility. Two brigades of its constituent 17 Infantry Division, along with the complete artillery assets, had been detached to other sectors that were confronted with equally critical situations.[8] It is some consolation that the enemy was denied a foothold for developing operations towards the core areas of Punjab – a chilling prospect that could well have followed on the heels East Pakistan’s loss.

_________________________
[1] Chapter - IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,' page 357.
[2] Chapter - IX, The Punjab and Rajasthan Front,' page 359.
[3] Besides the aerial kill, Wg Cdr Bokhari has the singular distinction of having flown 20 offensive sorties in Shakargarh Sector, which was the maximum flown by any pilot during the 1971 War. Unfortunately, a gallantry award eluded him, despite his sterling contribution to the war effort. He remains an unsung hero of the PAF.
[4] Earlier, on 5 December, Flt Lt Shahid Raza had shot down a Hunter that was exiting after attacking Sakesar radar.
[5] More precisely, of the total 296 air support sorties, 285 were flown in Shakargarh Salient proper, while 9 sorties were flown in Marala area.
[6] Official PAF War Records.
[7] Territory lost in Shakargarh Salient was spread over a frontage of approximately 33 miles, with an average ingress of 7-8 miles.
[8] 17 Division’s 66 Brigade was detached to 23 Division (Chamb Sector) while 88 Brigade was detached to 10 Division (Lahore Sector). The Divisional Artillery was detached to HQ IV Corps.

© KAISER TUFAIL

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