17 Aug 2015

SHOOT OUT AT KURMITOLA



Preface

Vinod Kumar Neb, just out of his teens, was a young ‘under-trainee’ pilot, when he won a VrC in the 1965 Indo-Pak war for shooting down a Paki Sabre. By 1971, he was older and more experienced, The following story is about how he repeated his feat and shot down yet another Paki Sabre in the 71 war. He was once again awarded a VrC, a 'Bar' (tiny metal strip, hardly noticeable, that is worn on the VrC ribbon on his chest). Vinod is VrC & Bar, one among a rare breed of air warriors of great distinction.

It is my belief that during a soldier's life time, he prays to his god of war, for an opportunity to demonstrate his professional skill and valour. He is indeed a fortunate man if war comes twice in his life time when he still has testosterone and the zest to fight. A hero is one who needs to show valour and heroism only once, after all, it is mortal combat where the enemy too attempts to demonstrate valour and heroism. Therefore, those who win ‘Bar’, bar bar, are very special. Something in them which makes them an icon. Vinod is one such person, the bar bar kind.  

Vinod is an affable but reticent person, doesn’t like to talk about himself. So this story was pried out of him, bit by bit, by my sheer perseverance and prodding. I took the liberty of writing it in first person, as if Vinod is the narrator. But any inaccuracy or exaggeration in this story is purely due to my lack of comprehension or misinterpretation on purpose to make this an interesting story. Please forgive me.

CYCLIC

SHOOT OUT AT KURMITOLA
(Air War – Liberation Of Bangla Desh 1971)

I rehashed my name in 1982 and added another B to my name.
But way back in Dec 1971, just before the war started, I was Flt Lt Vinod Kumar Neb VrC, a fully operational fighter pilot, flying Hunter aircraft in 17 Squadron (Sqn), then based at Hashimara in eastern sector. I had earlier won a VrC in 65 war, as a rookie pilot, for shooting down a Sabre in the western sector.

By around 1900 hrs on 3 Dec, because of an All India Radio (AIR) broadcast, most of us at Hashimara got to hear that the Paki Air Force (PAF) had carried out a pre-emptive strike on Indian Air Force (IAF) airfields in the western sector and that a formal war with Pak on the west and eastern fronts had commenced.  Since Jul that year, we had been training and anxiously awaiting such a moment, to be unleashed and ordered to go and make war on PAF and Paki Army in East Pak.

4 Dec 71
The very first offensive operational mission, launched early morning on 4 Dec 71, ex Hashimara, was a two aircraft (a/c) strike package led by then Wg Cdr Supy Kaul (CO 37 Sqn, later the CAS) with Fg Offr Harish (Harry) Masand, later Air Mshl, as his wing man. They were armed with high explosive rockets for attack and front guns for self-defence, or ground attack.


They were immediately followed by a 2 x 2  a/c strike package, similarly armed, led by then Sqn Ldr AW Lele (Flight Commander 17 Sqn) with Fg Offr SS (Buster) Bains as his wing man. I followed in the line-up for take-off, with Fg Offr KS Bajwa as my wingman. We took off, all four of us together in a vick, and were soon heading south at low level.  The two formations were in a loose echelon. Bajwa was tucked into me, behind and to my left. Lele and Buster were similarly tucked in, about 2000 yards to my right. Our mission was to strike Kurmitola with rockets and degrade the airfield, make it dysfunctional.   We were aware that Paki Combat Air Patrols (CAPs),  Sabres, would be waiting for us. The only technology that we had those days to stay alive was ‘Eye Ball Mk- I’. My eye balls were out of its socket and rapidly scanning the sky all around me, I wished to stay alive and had no desire for heroics. I had a wife to return to.


As we approached Kurmitola, with the sun to our left and rising, I saw Supy Kaul’s formation ahead, returning from the strike at low level, few hundred feet above us. Simultaneously I also saw three Sabres ahead, high, closing up on us in a screaming dive.

‘Three Bogies, 2 O’clock high’, I instinctively called out on the radio. ‘3000 yards closing in’.



As per our training doctrine, I anticipated an instinctive hard right by all four of us in the formation, a turn right into the oncoming Sabres to take them head on. Hence, I punched my tanks and threw in an immediate turn, with Bajwa reacting along with me with unspoken reflexes of combat pilots trained for such contingencies.  For some strange reason Lele and Buster were slow to react. At that instant, perhaps for a few seconds, Lele may not have spotted the threat. And in that instant, what seemed like hours, I thought I was leading Bajwa and going to collide with Lele and Buster. 


So I allowed my nose to ride up in the turn and went right over Lele and Buster and in the bargain lost visual contact with them.  I had Bajwa with me behind my left wing. The cloudless early morning sky was all around us, brilliant with myriad colours. I had no time or inclination to enjoy the rising sun. My eyes and brain was focused on this one horrifying Sabre, streaking straight at us, with his guns blazing. Perhaps for a few seconds my brain may have wandered, asking silly questions, as to why the enemy was taking so long to shoot me down, asking for trouble, and closing in for a front gun kill. I don’t remember.

The three Sabres perhaps saw me pull up and turn into them. They had two Hunters going away but four of us coming into them.  So, like all fighter pilots in a close quarter aerial dog fight situation, they perhaps split, it was the natural thing to do. Perhaps two went after Lele and Buster. But what mattered to me was that one of them was hell bent on killing me.  We started to jockey in time and space for the right shooting loop.  I had to kill or be killed within the next few seconds, I had no choice.

This was perhaps the longest aerial combat of my life, on the very first morning of that war. Despite our numerical strength, the odds were against us because we were sluggish and weighted down with fuel and full load of munitions. However, we believed that the Hunter was a pilot’s dream in close combat. We believed that it could out turn the Sabre in killing manoeuvres with front guns. Both the Sabre and the Hunter had similar fire power, so it was a matter of who could first pull the sucker punch.

So we began to manoeuvre all over the sky, chased by the Sabre. The enemy, as well as us, we pulled incredible amount of ‘g’ that rushed the blood from head to foot and made us feel five or six times heavier than our body weight, our vision blurred. The enemy was as good as us, or perhaps better. I was hyperventilating, I could hear my own breathing volubly in my earphones. I think my pulse may have shot up two and half times the normal, the adrenalin may have been copiously released into my blood stream, all of it quite usual in dog fights, in practice and in deadly real life drama. 

What may have seemed incredible to others afterwards, I had got Bajwa and myself into a scissor manoeuvre at low level. Many said afterwards that this is not possible, but that was perhaps exactly what I did, the unconventional thing. We perhaps did three scissors, with Bajwa taking pot shots at the enemy. I was too unsettled, could not get the enemy within the pipers on my gun sight and hence never pulled the trigger during the initial three scissors.


Sometime during the third scissor, my fire warning light and the  low fuel warning light started to blink. I tried not to look at the blinking lights, there was nothing I could do about them. Instinctively I pulled back the throttle and eased out of the turn. I saw Bajwa over shoot me, guns blazing. The enemy now was turning into Bajwa with his guns blazing, each hell bent on killing each other. I was being ignored. I bashed open throttle instinctively and did a wing over turning upside down. And right there, while being on my back, I saw the enemy glide by. He was so close that I could perhaps   have reached out and touched him. With my left hand, I adjusted the pipers, got the shooting configuration using a bit of trigonometry and the wing span of the Sabre, perhaps it took just a second. I now had the enemy right in the centre of my gun sight. I pressed the trigger. The four Aden guns blazed away, I was lucky that there was no jamming of the guns. I could see the yellow tracer arrow into the enemy followed by high explosive and armour piercing rounds. A few seconds later, I saw him disintegrate. The wings broke away from the body of the Sabre and they plummeted towards the earth individually. I did not see the pilot eject. Incredible even to myself, I had achieved my second kill.

I rolled over, got my aircraft level and did a quick check of the controls and the instruments on the dashboard. The fire warning and the low fuel light were still blinking. I perceived that I may have been hit, that I was low on fuel and my engine on fire. I suppressed my panic and for a few fleeting seconds, I thought of ejecting. But the aircraft was still flying and responding to me and the panic subsided as quickly as it came.

By then   I was all alone. My formation had disappeared somewhere in the blue sky. I decided to divert to Rupsi (Bhagdogra) which was closer than Hashimara from where I had got airborne. However, when I reached overhead Rupsi, I was overwhelmed by ‘get-home-itis’, and decided to head for home. There was an a/c doing an emergency landing at Hashimara with unserviceable air speed indicator. But to my good luck, he landed safely and did not crash or block the runway. Buster and I landed one after the other uneventfully. While taxying back to dispersal my engines conked-out due to fuel starvation. The fire warning was perhaps spurious. After I got down from the a/c, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had lived to fight another day.

While we were returning to Hashimara, a second 2 x 2 formation of Hunters led by Wg Cdr Chatrath (CO 17 Sqn) had got airborne, perhaps for the same target Kurmitola. I was busy preparing for a second strike and hence did not keep a track of Chatrath’s mission.

My second mission, about an hour after we returned, was once again a 2 x 2 strike package led by Lele, a repeat of the earlier mission, with the same pilots, this time to strike Tezgaon (Dacca) airfield.  To my utter dismay, my aircraft would not start.  So Lele left me behind, with Buster as my wingman, to follow as soon as possible. Lele and Bajwa managed to strike Tezgaon without being bounced by Sabres and were recovered at Kumbigram since they did not have enough fuel to come back to Hashimara. Because of the undue delay in repairing my Hunter, and none other was available, Buster and I were then asked to proceed directly to Kumbigram to join Lele and operate from there. Rest of 17 Sqn led by our venerable CO also moved to Kumbigram and we operated from there for the rest of the war. 

By 6th Dec Lele, Buster, Bajwa and I had become a team and continued to fly together. Early morning on 6th, we did another 2 x 2 strike mission with Lele leading to strike Kurmitola. Due to poor visibility, we missed the target on the first pass. Much against my wishes, Lele decided to climb and make another run.  We were bounced by two Sabres, perhaps assisted by ground control radar. We spotted them as we began our run-in. However, because we had by then begun to descend, we perhaps went into the ground clutter on the enemy radar and the Sabres perhaps lost visual contact. They broke off and went away. We continued with our attack and returned to Kumbigram home safe. Rest of the day, and on the next day we did several more uneventful missions mostly destroying other tactical targets indicated by the army.

On 7th evening four of us were once again at it, this time an attack on Comilla Cantonment. Lele and Buster were to do the attack while Bajwa and I were to set up a CAP overhead Comilla to cover them. On target, while Lele and Buster went into attack, Bajwa and I circled overhead, 1800 opposite to each other, round and round exercising our eyeballs, looking out for Sabres.
‘Sabre on your tail’, Bajwa called out suddenly.
Instantly, reacting out of conditioned reflex, I punched and jettisoned my drop tanks, pushed open the throttles to the gate, and commenced a hard left climbing turn. Still climbing, I saw an aircraft 50 yrds ahead and slightly higher than me. I rolled out of the turn facing North East in the same direction as the other a/c. He suddenly jettisoned his two tanks and the tanks zipped past, almost colliding with me.
‘Perhaps he is Buster’, I thought to myself, taking my finger off the trigger. Though so close, in the fading light, I did not discern the distinctive contours of a Sabre. Then the thought occurred to me, just two drop tanks, Buster had four under his wing, ‘this is a bloody Sabre’. I began the chase a few seconds too late. The enemy seemed to have sensed danger. I think he bashed open throttle and the last I saw him, he was diving and accelerating away from me. I lost him against the myriad colours and darkness of the ground in the fading light. It was such a close thing, so easy a kill, but I lost the opportunity because I took a few seconds too long to make up my mind. It was his day, to live another day. Doing a 3rd kill was something that even I could not imagine.  
   
On one of the CAS missions, Lele and I were briefed to attack Birkal. The attack was to be coordinated with a Chetak h/c acting as an airborne FAC to help us locate the targets easily.

Once we reached the area, we saw that there were two hills with a river in between, going from north to south west. The river had a prominent bend that took it around the hill. The enemy had fortified bunkers and gun positions right on top of the two hills as well as on the eastern bank of the hill in the north. We neutralised the gun positions, direct hits with rockets, and the bunkers by strafing with front guns. I was given to understand recently that Maj Parvez Mushraff was present there in the bunkers and survived our attack. Perhaps his destiny was not to die that day, but to go on and become the President of Pak.
      
Once I was briefed thoroughly, a long briefing using reconnaissance photographs and what seemed very accurate grid coordinates. I was to go and strike a black top building, 400 yards opposite the railway station that was believed to be an ammunition dump. On reaching the target area unmolested, we orbited, correctly identified the building and attacked it with rockets. After repeated direct hits, all I managed to achieve was to make a big hole, but there was neither an explosion nor fire. Rather strange for an ammunition dump. While orbiting, I saw that there was another black top building further away, with what looked like ventilators just above the ground. The rockets were finished but I decided to put a few rounds into this strange building with ventilators.  We strafed the building and perhaps a few bullets went through the ventilators. To my utter surprise the whole building exploded, the debris narrowly missing me as I was pulling out.  That much for detailed briefing and interpretation of reconnaissance photographs !!

On another ground attack mission, the FAC on ground asked us to fire on a low building with a large red cross on it. Though beset with some moral qualm, we engaged the target. Once again to my utter consternation, the building blew up like a gigantic Napalm bomb and set fire to the entire neighbourhood. Apparently it was a fuel dump.

On 12th Dec evening I was asked to ferry an aircraft that was due for routine maintenance, ferry it from Kumbigram back to Hashimara. Once in Hashimara, I was asked to stay put and continue operating from there. On 13 Dec, I went out for a CAS mission with Fg Offr Ranawat as my number 2.  While returning after the strike, I saw a strange looking ‘Otter’ aircraft, painted grey, operating from a stretch of straight road, temporarily barricaded on either side with vehicles.   Randy and I did several orbits, trying to establish its identity, even calling up ‘Eastern Control’ in Shillong. There were no FACs about and no sign of any army or battle on the ground.  ‘Chabao’, Randy advised. Once again I was beset with moral qualm. I was aware that then Gp Capt Chandan Singh had adapted an Otter with guns and rocket pods and had trained a nascent Bengla Deshi  air force who were doing clandestine operations deep inside East Pak. I had even seen it in Kumbigram. I did not wish to shoot the good guys, even by mistake. Fratricide is a horrible cross to bear. So we turned away and returned to base. After landing at Hashimara, during debrief, the army GLO told me that the man I let go was none other than Lt Gen Niazi, the butcher of Dacca. Perhaps he too had a destiny to keep, to sign the surrender ceremony four days later.

Foibles of war. Some live to tell tales, some don’t. For my contributions in 71 war, I got a bar to my earlier VrC. I went to Hashimara Officer’s Mess bar to celebrate, when the surrender ceremony got over in Dacca.  I never got to fight any more battles, except in the bar, perhaps ‘bar bar’ !!  

10 comments:

  1. Hi Kartha sir,
    Sundeep Desai here, the narrative is brilliant as expected. My appetite is still not satiated.
    Kindest regards.

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  2. Wonderful narrative sir. What would have never surfaced but for your persistence.

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  3. Sir.. A gripping story. Like a typical 'pongo', I thought only our battles make interesting reading.. I just couldn't stop, waiting for more

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  4. Extremely well written ..... in fact you have got his manner of speaking , the inflections , his understated humour and some of his pet phrases down absolutely pat..
    Now if you could ask Vinod to send you the gun camera pics of his kills , this story will be as realistic as you can get in print.

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  5. Enjoyed this sir. I was fortunate to have heard this including the first kill in 1965 from Winco Nebb himself way back in 1997 in Suratgarh.

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  6. So much for the superiority of the much vaunted F 86 Sabres against our one generation older Hawker Hunters! What ultimately matters is the caliber of the pilot in the cockpit. Bravo !!

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  7. Can you mention that there were any squadrons in Kurmitola in Dec 1971 or you were just attacking an empty airfield? What exactly was the PAF strength in East Pakistan in Dec 1971?. Thanks

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  8. Read it for the fourth time. Brilliant piece of work, feels like I was sitting as no. 2 with Nebb Sir. This goes into my compilation of dog fight stories; which also includes the Split S by Crazy Egyptian Pilot in his Mig-21 at 3000 Ft (I have heard it takes 6500 ft to do Split S with Fishbeds) during 6 day war, against Mirage of Israeli Pilot Giora Epstein. Fantastic narration of the fantastic act by a fantastic pilot. hats off. Waiting for more to come

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