1971 Air war: How Indian Air Force became the Ruler of skies over East Pakistan
We as Indians always take huge amount of pride in the success of our armed forces in 71 war. The image of Gen. Niazi signing the surrender document is well etched in our memories. This was one war where all three branches of our armed forces coordinated and performed as an effective unit on multiple fronts to ensure a quick dash to Dacca….while Pakistan wanted to prolong the war in order to get the UN or the superpowers involved and get a ceasefire in place. It almost succeeded when the US 7th fleet moved into the Bay of Bengal, but retreated when there were unconfirmed reports of a Soviet attack submarine shadowing the fleet.
So, how did the Pakistani armed forces who proved to be a strong adversary and held their own against Indians in the 65 war (and also believe that they were better placed when the ceasefire was announced) lost the war in 16 days. There are many pertinent reasons for that- one major one is the tactical decision of the Army formations which were rushing towards Dacca, to not engage in a battle of attrition against well-entrenched Pakistani forces in major towns and cities along the way. Most of these locations were by-passed by the army. Another big reason was acquisition of total air dominance over the battle area by the Indian Air Force, very early in the War. This prevented PAF from supporting its ground troops and slowing down the Indian advance. But, how was this achieved?
On the morning of 6th Dec 1971, eight Mig-21 FL fighter-bombers took flight from Gauhati AFS. Four of them had 2X500 Kg bombs attached to them with micro-delay fuse. Other four were supposed to provide cover using K-13 air to air missiles. In the 65 war, Mig-21s were although available with the IAF but couldn’t be used effectively. Many of the squadrons had recently become operational with minimal practice and experience on the feared flying machine. But by 1971, all such squadrons which underwent MiG-21 conversion had become adept in utilizing the awesome capabilities of this beast. One such tactic practiced and perfected was steep glide bombing to take out major enemy air force bases. The idea was to not just give a few cuts and bruises to the enemy…but to push a dagger through its heart. Risk was high, these maneuvers allowed defending AA gun crews a better chance at shooting down the raider, but the risk was accepted by the IAF when it decided to attack Tezgaon air field…the main PAF base in East Pakistan, located in the outskirts of Dacca.
All the eight MiGs flew at low level to Dacca to avoid radar interception. As they approached the target, the bombing group, one by one went into a steep vertical climb…at 15000 feet they rolled over and began a steep vertical dive…with the Tezgaon runway right below them….it seemed as if they were trying to draw a ‘perpendicular bi-sector’ line with Tezgaon runway as the base. Fearsome roar of the MiGs Tumansky engines filled the air (I have the heard the roar of a Mig-21 taking off on afterburners…trust me…it stays with you for a long time). Due the steep dive, accuracy of bomb delivery was much higher…all the four Migs hit the runway.
Now, each air force knows that the enemy would try to knock out their runways. So, they have some basic repair set-up ready to patch-up the craters and the runways are operational within a day or two. These patch-ups can take care of 4-5′ deep creaters, but how do you repaire a 30’X 20′ deep crater made by the bombs which had delayed fuses…they first penetrated the runway because of their high vertical speed and then detonated under the surface. (when the bombs were released at a height of 1 Km, all the Migs were close to 1000 mph + gravitation accln). Each Mig hit a different portion of the runway and from then on, PAF pilots, who till then had shown lots of guts in taking on the IAF, would be rendered as mute spectators of the war.
IAF didn’t stop after this raid…they kept coming back to Dacca to make bigger holes in the runway. They also hit other airstrips close to Dacca in case the PAF moved the aircraft by road. The F-86 sabre-jet needs a fairly short runway to take-off but the IAF bombing was so accurate and effective that there was no section of the runway left for them to use.
After the war, IAF pilots who had participated in the first raid visited Tezgaon and had their pictures taken while standing within those huge craters…as if stamping their claim on them.
This raid allowed IAF to get full control in the air. They didn’t have to worry about spending resources to tackle PAF threat. Their focus was now mainly on supporting ground troops…taking out enemy armor(tanks etc)…gun positions…supply trains..depots etc.
Again, I believe more Indians should know about these wonderful acts of valor by our armed forces. These stories shouldn’t be hidden inside books or operational diaries.
Ref. ‘Eagles Over Bangladesh’ by P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra.
Airfield at Kurmitola (near Dhaka). Notice the accuracy of bombing…line of craters on the runway.
IAF pilots inside the craters they made at Tejgaon runway.
IAF Mig 21 flying over East Pakistan