Air Vice Marshal
Arjun Subramaniam (Retd)
Wing Commander Vidya Bhushan Vashisht (later Air Vice Marshal), among the most experienced An-12 pilots in the IAF at the time, assumed command of 44 Squadron in August 1971 under trying circumstances. The squadron had just lost its commanding officer and an entire crew in an accident while practising a live bombing mission and restoring morale and getting the squadron battle-ready was uppermost in the mind of Vashisht. Thus, emerged the story of how an An-12 squadron under a dynamic commanding officer covered itself with glory in the Western Sector during the 1971 war. No stranger to 44 Squadron, having been the flight commander of the unit, Vashisht knew all the crew and personnel of the unit intimately. With an able and proactive flight commander, it did not take long before the squadron was ready for battle.
Honing its bombing skills and modifying the delivery platform with a bomb cradle for each 500 lb bomb, which was designed by an army officer, the squadron moved to Bareilly in Central Air Command a few days before the war commenced. With a maximum bomb load of 40 such bombs, a six-aircraft mission packed quite a punch of TNT. The IAF’s bomber force was concentrated between Bareilly, Agra and Gorakhpur to relieve the pressure on Western Air Command, a wise move as it allowed planners to centrally coordinate all bombing missions from one headquarters.
Group Captain Gursaran Ahluwalia (then a squadron leader and flight commander of the squadron) had a ringside view of the transformation of the squadron into a feared bomber unit during the 1971 war, particularly on the Western Front. He recalls Vashisht as “a quiet and inspirational leader, an exceptional flyer, organiser and a coolheaded and kind person. I never saw him losing his nerve and he always had a pleasant smile on his face. He was exceptional in understanding the abilities of men under his command and had implicit faith in me as his No2 and left all the planning, briefings and debriefing to me.”
Vashisht led the opening night bombing missions over the Changa Manga Forest on the nights of December 3 and 4, 1971. Intelligence reports had indicated that the area had a large ammunition dump and large troop concentrations. Dropping his bomb load from low levels itself, Ahluwalia recollects that sky was lit up with the explosions and that both Pakistan Radio and Pakistani newspapers reported the raid and its effects the next day. Over the next two weeks, the squadron flew around 45 missions against a variety of targets that included a Pakistani artillery brigade at Haji Pir Pass that was harassing Indian operations, a divisional headquarters at Fort Abbas, the Sulaimanke Bridge, a railway yard at Hyderabad, the Sui Gas Plant and a cheeky day raid on Skarduair field with Canberra bombers on the last day of the conflict. By all reports, the night raid over Haji Pir and the day raid over Sui Gas Plant, also flown by Vashisht and Ahluwalia, proved to be the most effective of all. While the gas plant was seen to be burning for several days after the raid, the air and army chiefs personally rang up to congratulate the squadron for the successful Haji Pir raid.
While most of the raids comprised six aircraft, the Skardu airfield raid on December 12 involved only one An-12 acting as a pathfinder-cum-lead bomber for the Canberras. Without taking away any credit from the Canberras, the comfort levels of the An-12 squadron in flying over mountainous terrains prompted Central Air Command to assign Vashisht to lead the formation. Seeing their success in the west, the squadron was also assigned to target a large ammunition dump near Dacca on December 13, a mission that was led by Ahluwalia. Vashisht’s inspirational leadership and good teamwork ensured that no aircraft or crew were lost during the entire conflict, though Ahluwalia recollects three missions in which his aircraft was damaged by ground fire. He was even chased by a PAF Mirage-3 which had locked on to him and was probably seconds away from firing a missile. It was an alert IAF fighter controller, Sqn Ldr ML Bauntra, who saw this on the radar screen and yelled at Ahluwalia on the open channel to duck down to tree-top level, a warning that saved the aircraft and crew — such are bomber tales from 1971.
Describing the mission profiles with remarkable clarity, Ahluwalia recalls, “For the day raid on Sui Gas Plant, we flew from Bareilly to Jodhpur, refuelled there and then flew at 300 feet and got down to 100 feet approximately 150 miles from the border. A minute before the target and at speeds of slightly over 500 km/hr, we pulled up to 300 feet, dropped our bombs and got back to 100 feet till we entered Indian territory. For the Haji Pir night mission, we flew directly from Bareilly to Srinagar at 20,000 feet and descended to 6,000 feet over Srinagar airfield; we then navigated to Poonch airfield and further on to Haji Pir, returning via same route after bombing the Pakistani brigade.
The pilots were responsible for the accurate navigation to the target area, situational awareness and the evasive action to be taken to avoid ground fire or any ongoing aerial threat. The navigator assisted the pilots in the navigation as also used the improvised gun sight to decide the right moment to release the bombs before which the rear door was opened — the tail gunner and flight signaler would then come into action as they would first activate the fuses and then allow the cradles to slide out of the rear doors even as the pilots pitched up the nose and accelerated the aircraft for the bombs to fall under the force of gravity. While 44 Squadron has the distinction of being the first transport squadron to have been awarded with Battle Honours by the President of India, Squadron Leader Gursaran Ahluwalia and his navigator from the squadron, Flight Lieutenant PB Kalra were awarded Vir Chakras. Wing Commander Vidya Bhushan Vashisht was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for his intrepid and daring leadership of 44 Squadron through the conflict. Excerpts from his citation reveal much:
“On the night of December 5, 1971, he led a formation of his bombers, this time to attack enemy positions in the Haji Pir Pass in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The difficulties and dangers of this operation were due as much to the great volume of ground fire in the target area, as to the hazards of flying his large aircraft and leading his formation at low level through mountainous terrain. Wing Commander Vashisht pressed home the attack and achieved marked success in hitting the enemy’s positions. In addition to these, he led many other missions deep into enemy territory where opposition could be expected from fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire. In all these raids Wing Commander Vashisht completed the tasks to him without any loss to our aircraft. He has displayed inspired leadership, exceptional devotion to duly, and conspicuous bravery in repeatedly leading attacks against heavily defended enemy targets, night after night.”
— The writer, a former fighter pilot and military historian, occupies the President’s Chair of Excellence at the National Defence College
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