HISTORY OF EASTERN AIR COMMAND: SENTINELS OF EASTERN SKIES
One of the lethal arms of the Indian Air Force, Eastern Air Command (EAC) controls air operations over a vast area that straddles 12 states. It includes the seven north eastern states, Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar and parts of Orissa and Jharkhand covering over three lakh square kilometres. The area of responsibility includes a 6300 km long international boundary with China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The headquarters of EAC is housed in a spectacular location in Shillong, also called the ‘Scotland of the East’. Apart from the operations from permanent air bases, this command takes immense pride in facilitating airlift and air supplies to remote areas in the country’s far east.
EVOLUTION OF EASTERN AIR COMMAND
The Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1958 and the activities of the Chinese forces in 1959 on the Indo - Tibet border were becoming increasingly worrying. As a result, on 01 Dec 1959, the No. 1 Operational Group was upgraded to the status of a command and rechristened as Eastern Air Command. EAC was raised initially at Ranikutir in Kolkata.
On assumption of the status of a command with Air Vice Marshal KL Sondhi as its Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, this formation shifted its Headquarters to the fortified East India Company Complex of Fort William in Central Kolkata to co-locate itself with the Army Command on the same day. Immediately, some new squadrons were raised and new aircraft were inducted.
At the time of its origin in 1959, the Command had Air Force Station at Kalaikunda (West Bengal), Air Force Station at Barrackpore (West Bengal), No. 1 Aircraft Staging Post at Car Nicobar, Air Force Station Jorhat in Assam, No.3 Tactical Air Centre at Siliguri (West Bengal) and No. 5 Air Force Hospital at Jorhat in Assam.
The Eastern Air Command grew steadily between Dec 1959 and Oct 1962 when the nations’ overall security situation was changing rapidly. As China flooded the border with its troops, India felt the need to strengthen its defence, especially to increase the airlift capability of the Indian Air Force. In order to strengthen the Indian position in the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA), as Arunachal Pradesh was then called, the No. 1 Group was formed again at Tezpur on 25 Oct 1962. This formation was assigned the complete responsibility of the NEFA sector. Air Vice Marshal Shivdev Singh, PVSM was the Air Officer Commanding of the Group at that time. In order to achieve its objectives, the Group immediately increased its war potential, inducting a few more operational units and strategically locating them within its area of responsibility.
SHIFTING OF HQ EAC TO SHILLONG
The necessity of increased transport support in the East was felt after the 1962 Indo - China conflict. At the same time formation of few other Commands in other parts of the country was also felt inevitable. The HQ EAC set-up of Kolkata was shifted to Allahabad on 10 Jun 1963 by redesignating it as Central Air Command (CAC). On the same day, No.1 Group moved from Tezpur to Shillong and was upgraded to HQ Eastern Air Command. It then started functioning as a full-fledged Air Command from a few old barracks of the Second World War at Nonglyer village.
1962 The Sino- Indian War
On 20 Oct 1962, China launched a surprise and massive offensive on India simultaneously at NEFA (North Eastern Frontier Agency) and Ladakh. The time was too short; the terrain most forbidding and resources were inadequate for our forces to withstand the massive and well planned Chinese thrust. Eastern Air Command however rose to the occasion by undertaking air maintenance support including induction of troops in the forward areas using helicopters and transport aircraft.
The task of air maintenance support was undertaken by 48 Squadron (Packets) based at Guwahati, 59 Squadron (Otters) and 49 Squadron (Dakotas) based at Jorhat. In addition, two Dakotas from 11 Squadron based at Barrackpore were also stationed at Guwahati during the period.
As tensions came to a boil along the McMohan Line in Kameng Frontier division of NEFA, the IAF was additionally tasked with the air supply to forward posts of Assam Rifles. The daily routine requirement of Army along with the additional needs due to induction of 62 and 68 Brigades in Kameng Frontier area as well as forward stocking of 7 Mountain Brigade beyond Tawang were to be catered by the IAF. The tempo of air supply quickened when No.1 Operational Group was formed at Tezpur on 08 Oct to control all IAF activities in NEFA.
The skills and endurance of the transport and helicopter pilots were tested to the limits in the absence of proper landing grounds and unpredictable weather. 59 Squadron as well as 105 and 110 Helicopter Units carried out daring landings on unprepared surfaces in NEFA to deliver supplies to the Army.
The Otters inducted a brigade (11 Infantry Brigade) from Tezu to Walong. The aircraft on the return journey from Walong evacuated casualties thus saving many lives. The squadron which was mainly operating from Jorhat moved a detachment of two Otters to Tezu. These aircraft lifted tonnes of supplies, troops and also undertook casualty evacuation.
105 HU with Bell 2 Sikorsky S-55 and Bell - 47 helicopters undertook drop of supplies and casualty evacuation. Tsangdhar helipad and dropping zone was the closest to 7 Brigade’s location and on the morning of 20 Oct, one Bell - 47 helicopter of 105 HU was taken by surprise when it landed there on a scheduled sortie and found that the Chinese had overrun the area. Its crew comprising Squadron Leader VK Sehgal and Major Ram Singh from the Signal Corps were killed and the helicopter was badly damaged. Squadron Leader AS Williams, aware that Squadron Leader VK Sehgal had lost radio contact, came in search of him. However, on seeing the enemy occupation of Tsangdhar, Williams turned back but his helicopter was shot at by the Chinese. He managed to force land close to Zimithang, and was rescued by a Mi-4 helicopter. His helicopter however had to be written off. In the meanwhile, the third helicopter at Zimithang was lost when on return from a sortie, it came under Chinese fire. In the chaos of withdrawal, the aircrew and ground staff had to make their way back on foot for three days. 105 HU thus suffered a loss of three valuable helicopters. In Nov 1962, the unit received two freshly arrived Aloutte III helicopters and continued to support the Se La and Dirang garrisons. During the period the unit undertook numerous casualty evacuation sorties by day and night from Tsangdhar and Lumpu helipads. In one of such daring night evacuation sorties undertaken by Squadron Leader AS William, a critically wounded soldier was evacuated from Tsangdhar helipad without any night flying capabilities using only torch light for assistance. Williams went on to carry out numerous search and casevac missions in the subsequent weeks and was awarded Vir Chakra at the end of the war.
110 HU, the other helicopter unit which actively participated in the war, was raised only in September. This unit operated the bigger and better Mi-4 helicopter. In a short time the unit had attained a fully combat-ready status through intensive training. The unit mainly operated from Tezpur and carried out sorties in the Tawang sector. The Mi-4s carried out visual and photo reconnaissance missions in Tawang sector in early October and reported heavy troop build-up across the Thagla Ridge. A detachment of three helicopters was sent to Walong Sector on 26 Oct. There, these machines helped the Otters in the Army build up at Walong. Once the withdrawal of ground troops commenced, the helicopters dropped rations for withdrawing columns and picked up the wounded. Many Army men owe their life to the brave and untiring helicopter pilots. During the supply missions, one helicopter was shot down in Walong on 16 Nov. The crew however managed to escape along with the Army.
1965 The Indo - Pak War
Air Force operations in the eastern sector fell under the purview of two Air Commands, namely Eastern Air Command and Central Air Command. The bases in Assam and further east were under EAC and the bases in West Bengal (Kalaikunda, Barrackpore and Bagdogra) and further west upto Agra were under CAC.
The force consisted of a Canberra Squadron and a Hunter Squadron at Kalaikunda, supplemented by a Vampire Squadron at Barrackpore. The other Hunter Squadrons were based at Jorhat and Chabua. The Chabua Squadron was operating a detachment ex-Guwahati. EAC also had an Ouragan (Toofani) Squadron (No.4) operating at Hasimara.
After the audacious PAF raids in the western sector, the IAF’s plan of counter attacks were put into action on 06 Sep in the eastern theatre as well.
The plan by CAC entailed a pair of Canberra carrying out an early morning raid over Chittagong to neutralise the PAF aircraft, if any, on the ground. A low-level flight by two Canberras of No. 16 Squadron, led by Wing Commander PM Wilson was planned. The time gap between the two aircraft was 10 minutes to allow for safe transit and possible fighter opposition at Chittagong. The No. 2 aircraft was to orbit the second lighthouse until called in; if there was fighter opposition, it was to return to base.
Hunters of No.14 Squadron ex-Kalaikunda were to simultaneously get airborne, carry out a sweep over Tejgaon/ Jessore area and land back at Dum Dum, refuel, re-arm and carry out a raid over Tejgaon. The four Hunters carrying out a strike over Tejgaon would be supported by two more Hunters in AD roles piloted by Flight Lieutenant Cooke and Flying Officer SC Mamgain. The Vampires from Barrackpore were also tasked with Jessore and the Toofanis (Ouragons) from No. 4 and 29 Squadron were to strike Lalmunirhat.
The two Canberras from Kalaikunda led by Wing Commander PM Wilson found their mark at Chittagong airfield in spite of bad weather. Though the bombs dropped by Wilson failed to explode, the bombs dropped by the second aircraft (Squadron Leader Karve) exploded on the runway. Unfortunately, no enemy aircraft was seen on the ground.
The Vampires, similarly hampered by bad weather, returned from their first strike without any results. However, the Commanding Officer and Squadron Leader Banerji decided to repeat the attack and targeted Jessore runway and a lone hangar in the second wave. Hence, the Hunters which carried out the high level sweep over Jessore were de facto also providing cover for Banerji’s Vampires.
As Kalaikunda’s first wave consisting of two Canberras returned, PAF’s counter-attack in the Eastern Front with Squadron Leader Shabbir Syed of 14 Sqn (PAF), leading the raid consisting of five Sabres made their TOT over Kalikunda at 0640 Hr. They destroyed the Canberras of Wilson and Karve as well as four Vampires of 24 Squadron. The PAF struck Kalaikunda flying at low level, partly over the sea with no air opposition as the Indian Hunters were patrolling between Dum Dum and Kalaikunda at that time. The PAF decided on a second wave little realizing that this time, the IAF AD would be ready and waiting. Four Sabres were picked up on Radar by 55 SU and Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke and Flying Officer Mamgain, who were on CAP mission 60 miles north of Kalaikunda, were vectored back over base. Incidentally, earlier in the day Cooke and Mamgain had been similarly scrambled for PAF Sabres without any result.
As Cooke and Mamgain arrived over Kalaikunda, they saw the Sabres in attack and they both split up and proceeded to tackle the Sabres. In an extremely low level dog fight that ensued was witnessed by hundreds of awe struck students that pitted the two ‘fourteens’ over the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (later proven from the gun camera film). Cooke fired at four different Sabres. One crashed close to Kalaikunda and the other three managed to escape and were rendered unworthy of battle, (one having crashed just across the border). Cooke and Mamgain were both awarded Vir Chakra for their valiant efforts.
Meanwhile, EAC had its own plans. The detachment at Guwahati was erroneously tasked by the Station Commander to attack Kurmitola instead of Tejgaon, losing out an excellent opportunity to destroy the Sabres on ground. Accordingly, three Hunters from Guwahati got airborne for Kurmitola. Bad weather and poor visibility hampered navigation. Nevertheless, the three aircraft identified and strafed the airfield and fired rockets on other infrastructure. The Ouragans (Toofani) from Hasimara claimed the destruction of several vehicles and jeeps at Lal Munir Hat.
In the following days of the war no offensive action was planned by the IAF on instructions from higher formations. Most strike aircraft were flown out to safer bases inland viz. Gorakhpur, while the AD ac continued to maintain CAP missions in defence of the skies. PAK Sabres however attacked Bagdogra airfield on 10 September destroying a Packet and damaging a Vampire. Again on 14 September, three F-86 attacked Barrackpore and damaged the flying control tower and destroyed one Packet and a Dakota. Enemy aircraft also raided Agartala airfield.
1971 The Indo - Pak War
The curtain raiser for the air campaign for the war took place early in November when the first engagement between Gnats of 22 Squadron of IAF and Sabres of 14 Squadron of PAF took place on 22 Nov at Boyra located in the North West part of East Pakistan. The 9th Division of Indian Army had made significant progress towards Jessore by capturing localities of Boyra and Garibpur when appx fourteen Chaffee tanks along with repeated air strikes by PAF Sabres were called in to support the beleaguered 107 Brigade of PAF. In response on 21 Nov, four Gnats of 22 Squadron were scrambled on two occasions but the Sabres had vanished from the area by the time the IAF fighters arrived over Boyra. However on 22 Nov, in the classical aerial dog fight between IAF Gnats and PAF Sabres, Wing Commander Chaudhry, the Commanding Officer of the PAF Squadron managed to get back in a damaged aircraft but his two formation members were shot down by Flight Lieutenant Roy Massey and Flying Officers Lazarus, Ganapathy and Soares. Flight Lieutenant Roy Massey and Flying Officers Lazarus and Ganapathy were the IAFs first Vir Chakra awardees for the conflict.
The news of the PAF pre-emptive strikes on Indian airfields all along the Western Border was received by EAC Ops Room at 1800 Hr on 03 Dec. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Marshal HC Dewan, put all forces in EAC under instant alert. The Canberra force carried out its mission of attacking Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields on the night of 03-04 Dec.
Taking into account the weather at some IAF airfields and in the Dhaka complex, counter-air missions were ordered to strike from 0705 Hr on o4 Dec. Eight Hunters of 37 and 17 Squadrons from Hasimara, escorted by MiGs from Guwahati, were the first to attack Tezgaon airfield, near Dhaka. Thereafter, continuous pressure was maintained on both the airfields at Tezgaon and Kurmitola (also near Dhaka). The PAF lost seven F-86 Sabre aircraft in aerial battles over Dhaka, (this was subsequently confirmed by Pak Air Officer Commanding Dhaka after the surrender), and three Sabres, one transport and two light aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. In one such mission Wing Commander S Sunderesan, Commanding Officer of 14 Squadron (Hunters) and his No. 2 Flight Lieutenant Tremenhere were bounced by six Sabres over Tezgoan. Flight Lieutenant Tremenhere during the fight was shot down but ejected safely. The leader Wing Commander Sunderesan meanwhile got behind the Sabre that shot down his No. 2 and managed to shoot him down. Throughout the day the airfields of Tezgaon and Kumitola were attacked by Hunters, with top cover being provided by the MiGs.
The main task for the day on 05 Dec was to eliminate the remaining Pak F-86s and increase support to the Army. It was decided to ground the PAF by bombing Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields near Dhaka. The Canberras, in the raids of the two previous nights, had left the runways untouched. MiG-21s were, therefore, detailed to bomb the runways with 500 kg and 1000 lb bombs. The bombing by eight MiGs was very accurate and the runways were deeply cratered. Photographs taken with a hand held camera by one of the MiG pilots showed the bombs exploding on the runway. This pilot also brought back photographs of Tezgaon airfield clearly indicating the layout, and it was most useful for briefing pilots detailed for subsequent missions.
With PAF virtually grounded by midday on 05 Dec, a MiG-21 squadron deployed at Kalaikunda was moved to the west. Eight of its aircraft reached Chandigarh by the evening of 05 Dec and four followed on 08 Dec. The AN-12 and Packet fleet ably supported the special re-deployment of the Squadron.
On 06 Dec an R/T intercept led to the discovery of a landing strip at Barisal which appeared to be in use. The air-strip and a hangar were attacked with bombs and guns, and rendered totally unusable. Subsequent to this strike Barisal airfield was handed over as a naval target. The main counter-air effort in the east continued to be bombing attacks on Tezgaon and Kurmitola, to keep them totally unserviceable.
As a result of complete air superiority, the IAF was able to use the Gnats and MiG fighters in the ground attack role. Five Gnats from Bagdogra were moved to Dum Dum to support 2 Corps’ operations. Also, all the ten serviceable aircraft of No. 7 Squadron (Hunters) were moved from Bagdogra to Nal, for operations in the west.
Counter-air missions by MiGs on 08 Dec continued against the Dhaka airfields while Gnats and Hunters attacked Barisal and Ishurdi. On this day, full photo cover was also obtained of both Tezgaon and Kurmitola. They clearly showed the damage to the airfields and installations. Since there was no further danger from the PAF, all air defence guns in the east, except those deployed at some radar stations, were released for the western sector. Caribou aircraft continued their night harassment on 08/09 Dec of Tezgaon and Kurmitola airfields.
Counter-air operations in the East on 09 Dec were maintained with the aim of preventing repairs to the runway.
On 11 Dec an intelligence report during the day gave rise to the suspicion that six Pak aircraft would try to land near Dhaka in an attempt to evacuate Major General Farman Ali and other senior Pak Officers the same night. Measures were taken to foil this attempt. Canberras were detailed to attack Chittagong airfield in the evening. Two of them bombed the runway and the taxi track. On the night of 11/12 Dec, the IAF maintained continuous pressure on the Dhaka area. Eight Canberras bombed Kurmitola and Tezgaon airfields between 0230 and 0400 Hr. The big 4000 lbs high explosive bombs were used for the first time against Tezgaon. They were meant to inflict maximum damage to standing structures by blast effect. Photographs taken after the cease-fire confirmed that a light aircraft and the Officers’ Mess were completely destroyed by them. Four MiGs and two Caribous also maintained constant surveillance in the area. These aircraft operated singly at varying intervals to cover the period before and after the Canberra raids. No Pak aircraft entered the area that night. On this day, an IAF Mi-4 helicopter on a flight from Agartala to Aizawl force-landed because of a fire in the air. It was completely destroyed but there were no casualties.
The air operations were suspended to enable the evacuation of foreign personnel from Dhaka on 12 Dec subsequent to the counter air mission by MiG and Hunter aircraft against Tezgoan and Rangpur. The operations were resumed after the evacuation at 1500 Hr on 13 Dec. The MiGs bombed the repaired portion of runway rendering the Tezgaon airfield again unusable.
Pockets of Pak troops at Sylhet, Bhairab Bazar and Comilla had been putting up stiff resistance. Agartala had therefore been activated as a fighter base on 09 Dec when four Gnats had moved there from Kumbhirgram. Seven more Gnats were moved from Dum Dum on 15 Dec. These Gnats were extensively employed against the enemy pockets isolated by the rapid advance of 4 Corps troops towards Dhaka.
For the first time in its history IAF undertook massive airborne operations over the enemy territory using AN-12s, Dakotas and Packets on 11 Dec. Airdrop of 2 Para Battalion and elements of 50 (Indep) Para Brigade at Tangail was an exemplary operation bringing out our precise planning and well executed professionalism. Mi-4s were extensively used for air-bridging operations over the water obstacles.
On 14 Dec, based on interception of a message by Indian intelligence about a high level meeting of the civilian administration in East Pakistan, a strike was launched against Dhaka with MiG-21s of 28 and 4 Squadron. This was the major turning point of the 1971 conflict.
As a result of such sustained strikes, Air Support Missions, Airborne Operations for transporting troops, arms, ammunitions, food supplies and runway bombing by IAF during the period from 03 Dec to 14 Dec, PAF operations in East Pakistan were totally paralysed compelling the Pakistani Forces to surrender on 15 Dec.
In addition to these wars, the Squadrons from EAC were deployed in IPKF Operations in Sri Lanka and in Operation Cactus in Maldives in the late eighties. The role played by EAC during the insurgency operations in the North East, evacuation and supply drops during natural calamities like food, cyclone, tsunami and earthquakes is beyond words of praise.