The first kill

 

                                                                      

An old black and white photograph of  a 40mm L/60 Bofors Gun of 27 Air Defence Air Defence Regiment is one of the most iconic photographs of Indian Air Defence Artillery. The gun in the photograph is the one which shot down the first Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aircraft during the India Pakistan War 1965. According to the history of Corps of Army Air Defence, Indian Air Defence Artillery claimed the first ‘kill’ on September 3, 1965 when a PAF F-86 Sabre was shot down at Akhnoor Bridge. The detachment commander, Havildar Perumal C was awarded the Vir Chakra for this feat.

The citation for Perumal’s Vir Chakra1 notes

On 3 September 1965, while commanding a detachment of an air defence battery guarding Akhnoor bridge, Havildar C. Perumal displayed courage and initiative directing the fire of his 40 MM gun in an accurate manner resulting in the shooting down of a Pakistani Sabre Jet.

September 3 was an eventful day. The war was just two days old and the PAF having scored big on the opening day itself, was looking for more action – and kills. India Air Force was, on its part, wanting to hit back to try and redeem itself, having lost four aircraft on day one. While the Indian Air Force did not suffer any combat loss, it lost a Gnat when Flt Lt B.S. Sikand landed his aircraft at the Pasrur airfield.

However what made this day memorable was that on this day Indian Air Force scored its first air to air kill and that too a F-86 Sabre shot down by Sqn Ldr Trevor Keelor piloting a Gnat. Not to be left behind, Indian AAA also claimed to have shot down an F-86 Sabre on the same day. It was by a detachment of 27 Air Defence Regiment under Havildar Perumal C which was part of an Air Defence Troop deployed for protection of Akhnoor bridge. As mentioned earlier, Havildar Perumal was awarded a Vir Chakra.

The Hindu, a prominent national daily, reported the incident as follows2:

Two Pakistani F-86 Sabre jets were shot down in the last 24 hours in the Chhamb area. One of the Sabre jets was brought down by the Indian Air Force, Gnat fighters (manufactured in India) in an air battle in the area. The second Sabre jet was destroyed by the ground forces which also went into action against the intruding Pakistani aircraft. The aircraft crashed in Indian territory.

But this version of incidents as they occurred on September 3 is often disputed and questioned. There are at least five versions of the incidents as they occurred that day. Truth, as they say, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Firstly, the IAF version. It claims to have made its first air to air kill and awarded Keelor the Vir Chakra but it records no loss of PAF Sabre to Indian AAA. Second version is of the India AAA. It claims to have shot down a PAF Sabre and this is duly acknowledged by the Ministry of Defence records which notes that the Vir Chakra was awarded to Perumal. Third version is as per the official records of Ministry of Defence that mentions both claims- of the IAF and AAA.  The fourth version is as per the Official History of the 1965 war which does not mention the shooting down of the F-86 Sabre by Perumal3. However, if the losses suffered by Pakistan Air Force are totaled up, the incident at Akhnoor Bridge does get included.  The last version is of the PAF which denies any loss on September 3, either of IAF or the AAA. This makes it a verification of the claims all the more difficult.

The war was just three days old and the fog of war was already making it difficult to verify the claims and counter claims. As this narrative is of the claim about the ‘gun that first shot down a PAF aircraft’, it would be wise to remain focused on this claim only.

Thus the moot point is whether the 40mm L/60 Bofors gun, shown in the aforementioned photograph and so well known in Indian AAA, was the first to shoot down a Pakistan Air Force aircraft? The Regimental records and official documents suggests so. But dig a bit deeper and a far more interesting story emerges. To do so, the Kutch Incident of April 1965 needs to be revisited. Like all narratives of conflict between India and Pakistan, its origin lies in Kashmir.

Soon after the partition in 1947, India and Pakistan had gone to war in 1948 when Pakistan invaded Kashmir in an attempt to annex it. Its plans thwarted after a bloody nose, Pakistan bid its time and after the Sino-India war of 1962, thought the time to be opportune to again try and annex Kashmir. That it had a military junta in power, did make Pakistan feel emboldened.

The conflict started in April 1965 when Pakistan Army launched Operation Desert Hawkin the desolate region of Rann of Kutch. It was the first of a four-phase plan to annex Kashmir.

The Rann is a poorly connected  area with hardly any roads or tracks on the Indian side with no air base nearby. Pakistan however had an advantage of a having a major base, Badin, located just 30 kilometers from the international border. Pakistan launched an attack on forward Indian posts on April 9 and while the two armies fought it out, C-in-C, Pakistan Air Force(PAF) rang up his Indian counterpart  on April 14 and suggested that the two Air Forces stay away from the ongoing conflict in the Rann4. The Indian Air Force( IAF) Chief agreed to the same. An opportunity to test the operational readiness of both the Air Forces was lost though the loss was more of IAF which in any case was hampered by absence of any operational base in and around he Kutch.

Pakistan Air Force, even as its C-in-C had agreed to stay away from the conflict, moved its combat aircraft to Mauripur and regularly carried out combat patrols and missions in support of its ground troops. No 17 Squadron PAF, which operated F-86 Sabres, was one of the squadrons moved from Mauripur to Badin. Flying Officer Waleed Ehsanul Karim , a young Bengali pilot who graduated top of his class from PAF Academy, Risalpur was one of the pilots.

An Air Defence Exercise was carried out in the sector on April 15 in which Pakistan AAA also participated andall operational aircraft at the two largest bases, Mauripur and Sargodha, were ordered to operate from wartime dispersals in combat readiness, and their operations rooms manned round the clock5.

With both sides continuing to carry outextensive patrolling by the infantry and having regular exchange of artillery fire, the activities of Pakistan Air Force increased by mid April. Armed combat air patrols and reconnaissance sorties by F-86Fs from Mauripur, reinforced by two F-104A Starfighters on detachment from Sargodha were a routine activity. During one of these sorties on April 19, a two F-86 mission of No 17 Squadron, PAF was covering the move of Pak Army when they were engaged by Indian AAA, hitting one of them. The F-86 was being piloted by Flying Officer Waleed Ehsanul Karim  who managed to bring his Sabre back to Badin where it was repaired. Karim carried out another sortie in the evening, a reconnaissance mission, when his aircraft developed engine trouble and plunged into the Arabian sea about 10–15 miles off the south coast of Karachi6. Though the immediate reason of the crash was engine failure, the loss was undoubtedly due to hit by AAA fire.

This makes it the first combat aircraft lost due to enemy AAA action by either of the two AAA in the Sub-continent.

While all details may not be known or ascertained, what is known that one Battery (510 Air Defence Battery) of 103 Air Defence Regiment (TA) had been moved from Bombay to Kutch by Headquarters Maharashtra and Gujarat Area and placed under Headquarters 31 Infantry Brigade.

The Battery was deployed in the forward Zone till April 1965 i.e. during the time this incident occurred, one AD battery was deployed in the given area though the Battery was moved back when ‘Kilo Force’ was raised.

Which gun was this that had hit Karim’s Sabre and who was the detachment commander, remains a mystery.

Maybe one day it will be known and the history of Indian AAA revised accordingly.

Notes

 

  1. Gazette Notification: 131 Pres/65, 10.5.65
  2. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/a-war-hero-remembers/article7610482.ece
  3. Chakravorty BC History of The Indo-Pak War 1965, History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, New Delhi 1992 Chapter Two Page 26. See also Bajwa Farooq From Kutch to TashknetPentagon Books, New Delhi 2012 pp 76.
  4. ibid
  5. Operation Desert Hawk http://urbanpk.com/pakdef/pakmilitary/airforce/war/deserthawk.html. See also 6. Pakistan Army Air Defence in Operations, Pakistan Army http://defence.pk/threads/pakistan-army-information.21550/page-23#ixzz3AqaAKj9A. See also, History of Army Air Defence
  6. Martin W Bowman Cold War Jet combat : Air to Air Jet operation 1950-1972Pen and Sword Books Page 78. See also http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Waleed_Ehsanul_Karim#

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