1947 - 48 KASHMIR OPERATIONS
AN AIR FORCE PERSPECTIVE
- India gained Independence at mid-night on 14/15 Aug 1947 but at the cost of its partition on the basis of religion. As per Independence of India Act passed by the British Parliament, various subordinate princely states of the British Indian Empire had two options : -
1. To join either India or Pakistan.
2. To opt forIndependence.
- The Maharaja of Kashmir, with its border contiguous to both India and Pakistan, had plans to opt for Independence. Once it became clear to Pakistan that the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir was not going to accede to Pakistan, Pakistan permitted her tribesmen led by her Army officers in civilian garb to cross over into Kashmir on 22 Oct 1947 to loot and plunder the Kashmiris. The tribesmen were well armed with automatic weapons, mortars and flame-throwers. The Maharaja of Kashmir, on 24 Oct 1947, requested the Indian Government for military aid. Indian Government conveyed to the Maharaja that it would be legitimate to send the Indian troops to Kashmir only after Kashmir is formally acceded to India. By 26th Oct, Kashmir looked indefensible and Pak militiamen were knocking at the doors of Srinagar and were just 50 km away. At this late stage, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession. J & K acceded to India on 27 Oct 1947 and the unprepared Indian military got sucked into a war.
- After the signing of the Instrument of Accession, it became the duty of Royal Indian Army and Royal Indian Air Force to defend the territorial integrity of India. The Union Cabinet tasked General Sir Rob Lockhart, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Indian Army and Air Marshal Sir Thomas W Elmhirst, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Indian Air Force to liberate the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the intruders. The total aircraft strength of the RIAF at that time was as follows :-
1. Six Squadrons of Tempest fighter bomber aircraft with eight aircraft per squadron.
2. One Squadron of Dakota light transport aircraft with seven aircraft.
- Twenty Spitfire fighter aircraft.
- One Flight of Harvard fighter with four aircraft.
Tactical Constraints in Positioning the Troops
- The only all weather road link to the Kashmir Valley was through Rawalpindi and Murre in West Punjab and fair weather road link was through Rajauri, Punch and Uri after passing through the Haji Pir pass, portions of which were already under control of militiamen. The road link through Banihal was bad. Induction of Army by road would have taken long time and not served the purpose of saving Srinagar from the fast advancing militiamen. The only viable option was to airlift troops to Srinagar before the militiamen over run the Airfield.
Air Bridge to Srinagar
- The airstrips at Jammu and Srinagar were made for the small light personal aircraft of the Maharaja and were short and unpaved. There were no navigational aids, landing aids, fire fighting facilities or proper refuelling facilities available either at Jammu or at Srinagar. The high mountain ranges of Himalayas were often covered with clouds and had to be negotiated by the Dakota aircraft with limited ceiling and negligible navigational aids. Each take off and landing would raise a cloud of dust from the unpaved airstrip and reduce the visibility further. The airlift requirements demanded landing / take off of aircraft in quick succession leaving hardly any time for dust to settle.
The First Sorties
- The Government wasn’t sure if the airfield at Srinagar was occupied by the militiamen or not. The mission order had an unusual rider attached to it i.e. " To reconnoitre from the air and return to Jammu if the raiders have occupied the airstrip". The first three Dakotas of No 12 Sqn RIAF took off from Willingdon (Safdarjung) airfield at 0500h on 27 Oct 1947 with troops of the 1st Sikh Regiment ex-Gurgaon. The first aircraft touched down at 0830h, within hours of the signing of the Instrument of Accession and just in time to save the Srinagar airstrip and the city from being overrun by the militiamen.
Air Lift of an Infantry Brigade
- An Infantry Brigade was to be airlifted to Srinagar. The Dakotas did the transportation while Tempests, Spitfires and even Harvard’s provided the necessary Close Air Support to the Army. Even help of Airlines, their pilots and ground crew was requisitioned and they rose to the occasion and did a magnificent job. Air Cmde Mehar Singh, AOC Operational Group, with his professional acumen accomplished the uphill task in record time of five days. Lord Mountbatten acknowledged this achievement of RIAF saying that in all his experience of South East Asia Command and ‘Over the Hump Flights’ to China, he had never known such an airlift being affected at such a short notice.
Air Bridge to Poonch
- In the Poonch Sector along the Pakistan-Kashmir border, the Indian troops had taken up tactical positions in the important towns along the Jammu-Srinagar Highway at Sunderbani, Naushera, Borripatam, Bhimber, Mirpur, Kothi, Rajouri and Poonch. They were constantly being troubled by the invaders who had entrenched themselves in the hills. The Indian Army had a great problem at their hands i.e. provisioning of supplies not only for the troops but also for the forty thousand refugees. With the road link to Jammu under threat of being cut off, the only option was an air bridge to Poonch but there was no landing ground there. A decision was taken to construct an emergency airstrip at Poonch. Six thousand refugees worked day and night and constructed an airstrip within a record time of one week. AVM Subroto Mukherjee and Air Cmde Mehar Singh landed the first ac on the newly constructed airstrip at Poonch on 8th Dec 1947. The landing and take off at Poonch was not easy as the Airstrip was surrounded by streams from three sides and the approach was extremely steep. Despite these difficulties and against heavy odds Air Cmde Mehar Singh created a sort of record by landing a Dakota with three tons of load against normal rated load of one ton. In a span of six days, No 12 Sqn RIAF carried out 73 sorties, averaging more than two sorties per aircraft per day, carrying more than 210 tons of supplies to Poonch and evacuating thousands of refugees during the return journey. The air bridge to Poonch was maintained for one year till the declaration of ceasefire on 01 Jan 1950.
Spitfire Fighter Operations
- Spitfires from Advanced Flying School Ambala were inducted at Srinagar on 30th Oct 1947 and were soon engaged in strafing of intruders beyond Pattan. During the first week of Nov 1947, the enemy was able to close in undetected as much as upto half a mile from the Srinagar airfield when the fighters spotted the enemy concentration. After that the enemy was strafed so thoroughly that it broke the backbone of their resistance. This engagement was the turning point as it removed the immediate threat to Srinagar airfield and brought a successful close of the first phase of campaign. Notable among the Spitfire pilots was Fg Offr Dilbag Singh who subsequently rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshal and retired as the Chief of Air Staff.
Tempest Fighter Bomber Operations
- Within a week of the commencement of air operations, Tempests of No 7 Sqn RIAF ex-Ambala were playing a decisive role in the battle of Shelatang checking the advance of Militiamen. The Tempests were involved in repeated attacks and tactical recee missions over Naushera, Poonch, Rajouri, Jhangar and Handover areas causing heavy damage to enemy strongholds. The strikes over vital enemy strongholds at Pilandri, Domel and Kishan Ganga bridge had effectively stopped the enemy troop movements and literally paralysed them.
Air Bridge to Leh
- District of Ladakh with HQ at Leh is a high altitude desert with stark barren land East of Kashmir. There were small villages along the river Indus. During the spring of 1948, the invaders captured Skardu Fort and cut off the road link from Srinagar to Leh. The garrison at Leh was too weak in numbers and armament stores to offer any meaningful resistance to the invaders and was poised to be overrun. Maj Gen KS Thimayya, GOC 19 Div had realised that the only way to save Leh was to augment supplies through the air. Landing a low ceiling aircraft like `Dakota’ at such high altitude after negotiating Himalayan mountain ranges, was the greatest challenge any pilot could have thought of.
- 24th May 1948 was a historic day in the history of Indian Air Force when Air Cmde Mehar Singh, with Maj Gen Thimayya as passenger, led a flight of Six Dakotas of 12 Sqn RIAF across the high mountain ranges of Himalayas, towering up to 24, 000 feet negotiating the Zojila and Fatula Passes and landed at an improvised sandy airstrip next to the Indus river at a height of 11, 540 feet. Air Cmde Mehar Singh in his ancient Dakota didn’t have the luxury of de-icing equipment, cabin pressurisation or route maps. A big airlift was called for to save Leh but the weather wouldn’t co-operate and no airlift could take place for the next three days. From 28th May 1948 onwards, braving all odds, No 12 Sqn flew in soldiers armed with arms and ammunition, food supplies, tentage equipment and medical stores before the enemy arrived i.e. after three days. No 12 Sqn flew 700 sorties and airlifted 1000 tons of stores during the air bridge operations to Leh from Srinagar.
- The large scale operations in Jammu and Kashmir were planned, directed and conducted almost entirely by Indian officers. The few British officers still holding some senior appointments in India gave some advice and assistance only in the first few months of the operations. The Indian officers of whom Cariappa was the senior most, had till then little experience in the higher planning and conduct of war. It is a remarkable evidence of their high calibre and professional competence that they managed so well the long compaign which took place in exceptionally difficult circumstances.
- As already related, there had been no previous planning at all for any military action in J&K. The first troops were flown to Srinagar with hardly a couple of days’ planning and preparation. During the long campaign, the small RIAF lost a total of 32 officers and men who laid down their lives for the nation during these operations. In this roll of honour, there were no less than 9 officers. The enemy casualties were definitely many times the total of Indian Army and RIAF casualties, and one estimate concluded that the enemy suffered 20,000 casualties, including 6,000 killed.
- RIAF’s contribution to the success of the J&K operations cannot be over emphasised and it was the one weapon to which the enemy had no answer. Only the impromptu air lift to Srinagar in October 1947, saved the Kashmir Valley. A hundred planes landed every day on the improvised airfield at Srinagar, bringing in troops, ammunition and supplies and evacuating casualties and the refugees. The Air Force and civilian pilots of these Dakotas defied the mountains, the weather, and fatigue to continue the airlift till the valley was saved. Leh and the entire Ladakh region was saved by Air Cmde Mehar Singh and his gallant boys; Mehar Singh himself landing the first Dakota at the hastily prepared and untested air strip at Leh. Flight Lieutenant DE Pushong similarly landed the first Dakota at Punch, and made almost a hundred landings thereafter, bringing in, often under enemy shelling, the urgently needed 25 pounder gun and essential supplies. Sqn Ldr VP Hegde, Flight Lieutenant LS Grewal and Flight Lieutenant DN Ghadiok were among the many other transport pilots who supplied the hard-pressed garrisons in Punch, Tithwal, Dras, Kargil, Leh etc. in innumerable sorties, in spite of getting hit many times by enemy ground fire. They all received the Vir Chakra award for their skill, dedication and gallantry.
- In the close support role, intrepid fighter pilots like Sqn Ldr D Subia and Sqn Ldr RS Kalavaniwala accurately and repeatedly attacked enemy positions at Gurais, Zoji La, Pindras, Rajauri etc., winning many Vir Chakra awards. One can well imagine the skill and courage required to hit pin-point targets, among high hills and deep valleys, in the face of heavy machine gun fire. Though Skardu could not be maintained by air supply and fell after six months of siege when ammunition was totally exhausted, and tough inclement weather over the high hills sometimes kept the planes grounded, the overall performance of the RIAF was superb indeed. Not only Air Cmde Mehar Singh, the AOC of No. 1 Group RIAF controlling all the air operations in J & K, but also Wg Cdr MM Engineer, Wg Cdr H Moolgavkar and Wg Cdr SB Noronha were honoured with the MVC for this superb performance and their vitally important contribution to it. The RIAF won, in all, four Maha Vir Chakra and 28 Vir Chakra awards in operations in J & K in 1947-48.
- Apart from the Army and the Air Force, even civilians acted like heroes in these operations. The dedication and skill of the civilian pilots flying to Srinagar in October 1947 have already been noted. But, few might be aware that a civilian Dhobi (Washerman), Ram Chander, won a MVC for rescuing an officer wounded during an ambush, shooting down several enemy troops in the process. Another civilian, a porter named M. Ismail, also won a MVC for similar heroism on the Zoji La front, while another porter Zuma Mohammad received the Vir Chakra for saving the life of Lt Col MM Khanna when he was severely wounded in an enemy ambush near Pandu.
- Thus in the very first military campaign forced on India after her Independence and Partition, her totally unprepared armed forces and many civilians gave an account of themselves of which any Nation may feel proud. Her good old sword, the world saw, was still not rusted. And this ancient land of sages was also the land of heroes.