Chief Lynx looked down at the watery green carpet and swooped low from over Kamalpur in northern East Pakistan. Taking off from Tezpur, he had flown a circuitous route to avoid detection should the Pakistani radars be able to spot him.
The terrain was all too familiar.
The chief of the “Lynxes” squadron was Ramesh Sakharam Benegal, then a Wing Commander, the Commanding Officer of the 106 Squadron flying the English Electric Canberras on bombing and photo-reconnaissance runs.
In an earlier life, Benegal was in jail. He was jailed by the British for being a member of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. He was also called “Tokyo Boy”. The Japanese had selected him for training in the Imperial Japan Air Force Flying Academy during World War II.
A natural choice for the Indian Air Force, Benegal deployed his men and flew missions himself over Karachi before the Naval raid that took out the Pakistan port city’s fuel dumps, and to inspect the damage after the Battle of Longewala.
Benegal’s life was at once among the most dramatic, as it was a hyphen traversing tumultuous times. What runs through it is a yearning for adventure and Independence through World War II, India’s freedom movements, incarceration by the British and finally his career in the Indian Air Force. He wrote a book “Burma to Japan with the Azad Hind”, on his time with Bose’s Indian National Army that gives glimpses of what he cherished and the values that he brought to the service. (He also inspired the biopic on Bose by his nephew Shyam Benegal).
Subhas Chandra Bose, aka Netaji, visited the academy in Japan where Benegal had been seconded to be trained by the Imperial Air Force, he writes. In 1944, Bose was scheduled to visit the academy. The Indian cadets were all agog. Each had a portrait of Bose in his room.
“We were made to stand in front of our rooms as Netaji had expressed his wish to meet each of us individually. We all had photographs of Netaji in the INA uniform in our rooms and took the golden opportunity of having them autographed by him. Signing forty-five photographs on a visit like this was time-consuming, but he did it patiently and with a smile.
“Netaji spent at least two minutes with each cadet and asked about each one’s welfare. When he came to my room, he astounded me by telling me that my brother Sumitra was in the Rangoon Headquarters and was quite well. He then asked me if I had received any letters from him and when I replied that no one had written me any letters, he said that he would remind Sumitra to write to me. He then signed my photograph and moved on to the next room. I have since held responsible posts as a commanding officer and I know what it means to an individual when a superior officer remembers his name and anything about his family…”
In a sense, Benegal was used to danger and hardship since he was in his teens. Born in Rangoon (Burma, now Myanmar), he and his mother tried to flee the country when he was just 15, and failed. Months later, he was acquainted with Bose and the INA. He sailed to Singapore to sign up with Azad Hind Fauj. He was seconded to train with the Japanese and undertook a voyage in two vessels that were torpedoed and landed up in the Phillippines. After Japan’s surrender, he fetched up in Madras. He was imprisoned by the British and was one of those accused of treason in the INA trials at the Red Fort, but was released by the authorities, who were increasingly fearing the consequences as the freedom struggle in India gathered momentum.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Ramesh Benegal brought into the Indian military a flavour that did not have its origins in the Royal Indian Air Force, but a tradition of an Independence movement that was largely eclipsed by the imposition of an idea of the “mainstream”. But the values he brought saw him lead a squadron that operated both in the eastern and western theatres of the 1971 war.
His MVC citation reads:
“As the officer commanding of an operational reconnaissance squadron, Wing Commander RS Benegal carried out a large number of missions over enemy territory and obtained vital information about enemy air force and other installations. The missions entailed flying deep into enemy territory and to heavily defended targets. The information brought back from these missions facilitated the planning of Army, Air Force and Naval operations and thus directly contributed to the attrition of the Pakistan war machine. It is further to the credit of Wing Commander Benegal that he never returned from any of these innumerable missions without having achieved his objective in full measure. While flying repeatedly deep into enemy territory, Wing Commander Benegal displayed conscientious devotion to duty and professional skill of a very high order.”
The Su-7 hero
The aircraft with tail number B858 sits in the museum of the Indian Air Force at Palam, Delhi, today. It was repainted in its original camouflage colours. Harcharan Singh Mangat, the Commanding Officer of the number 32 Squadron, flew the plane.
He is still known as the man who flew a jet with a missile that rocketed into it, but did not explode.
Wing Commander (later Air Cmde) Mangat was flying the Sukhoi-7 on December 4, 1971 — a day after the Pakistan Air Force attacked Indian airbases and formal hostilities were declared. There were 118 counter-air sorties on Pakistan airfields by the IAF that included, apart from the Sukhoi-7, MiGs, HF 24s and Hunters.
Wing Commander Mangat of the Thunderbirds (32) squadron was flying the Sukhoi-7, newly imported from the then Soviet Russia, when a Sidewinder missile from a Pakistan Air Force J6 jet rammed into his aircraft. Before that, ground anti-aircraft fire in East Pakistan had chewed away at his plane’s rudder and ailerons. Mangat limped back to base in Kalaikunda, southern West Bengal.
His experience led to new survivability studies on the aircraft.
His MVC citation reads:
“As the Commanding Officer of the fighter bomber squadron, Wing Commander Harcharan Singh Mangat undertook a number of interdiction and close support missions, as also many reconnaissance sorties, deep into enemy territory, bringing information of great value to the Army and the Air Force in their operational planning. While on a strike mission, his aircraft was hit thrice by intense anti-aircraft fire but he pressed forward until he found that the other aircraft in his formation had also suffered serious damage. At this point, enemy interceptors came on the scene. Despite this, he extricated his formation from the hazardous situation and led it safely back to base. On landing, it was found that his aircraft was extensively damaged. Only superb flying skill enabled him to bring a badly damaged aircraft back to safe landing. Wing Commander Mangat displayed conspicuous gallantry, determination, professional skill and leadership of a very high order.”