Braving Heights

Braving Heights

We were hosted by a seasoned war veteran and Vir Chakra awardee, Air Commodore, & Chatrath, on our visit to Dalhousie. He lives in a beautiful colonial bungalow with his gorgeous wife, all set to enter the ninth decade of his life. Excerpts from our chat on war & peace with the hero...

“I’m a very old guy, now 89 years old. And I have loved my life in the Indian Air Force. I have spent more than 80 per cent of my tenure on the air bases commanding squadrons, and commanding air bases towards the end of my career...

 

INDO-CHINA WAR, 1962

I had just come back from Egypt, having been on a detachment to train the Egyptian Air Force, when the ’62 war with China started. At that time I was commanding a squadron, and I and my commander were posted at a place called Chabua. We would be asked every morning to do a weather check, to places close to the border. But we were not allowed to fire a shot or even fly over the battle area. When Dibrugarh, the nearest air base to Chabua, was evacuated I, without any authority, supposedly to go for a weather check, diverted along with my commander, Deshpande. Four or five minutes later we were flying over the Chinese. I did not fire a shot. I was so low over them that it was eye ball to eye ball. It was early morning and the clouds were coming. I pulled up and asked Deshpande to pull up also and we went back to base. I told the Officer-in-charge Flying that this is where the Chinese are and I have not fired a shot. But we can easily go and drop thousand pound bombs along both sides of the ravine and that will stop their coming. But I had disobeyed orders and I was told I’d be up for a court martial. I was marched to the Group Captain, Parker, who was understanding enough to assure me that despite having done something without permission, because I had done what I thought was right he’d pretend that it never happened.

 

A POSSIBLE VICTORY

I would like to think that a victory was possible. A day or two after we had flown over to the Chinese territory there was a unilateral cease fire. The Chinese had no air power at all. They were completely out of logistics support because they were at, what we call, the foothills. We had the Hunters and the Vampires standing by and we could see what was going on. We were ready to go but were not given the orders, because our political leaders thought that this may lead to a full scale war. If this was not a full scale war then I’d like to know what is? If we had used the Air Force there would have not been so many casualties and we wouldn’t have been so humiliated. But our army did fight and our last man fought to his last bullet. We take our hats off to them. But we hang our heads in shame because of what the political class thought and decided. The belief was that if we used the Air Force the Chinese would come and bomb Calcutta. We were also called in very late in the Kargil war, at least 24 hours late. In affairs of warfare the Air Force is the first one to take charge.

 

INDO-PAK WAR, 1971

In 1971 after being warned against the genocide that was happening in the then East Pakistan, when Pakistan continued to drive out hordes of Bangladeshis, most of them Hindus, from the territory, the political leadership decided to go for war. The chiefs of all three wings came together and the dates and timings were coordinated, and we went to war. Even then we were hit by the Pakistani Air Force in places like Halwara and Pathankot. Our first strike into East Pakistan was on the 4th of December. And I am proud to say that I was honoured to lead the first strike and hit a place called Kurmitola, which was in the outskirts of Dhaka.

 

SHOOTING DOWN THE ENEMY I

was commanding the 17th Squadrons then. On the 4th, four of us took off in our Hunters, which is a fighter bomber. My sub section leader’s undercarriage would not retract so he had to return to the base, and we carried on with three hunters. I being the Squadron commander was, obviously, leading the first sortee. We got just short of our pull up point; we were flying very low over the Brahmaputra, not more than 15 feet or so. We were against four Sabres which were better equipped with air-to-air missiles. So, it was an uneven fight. Two of us were hit, but all three of came back successfully. I was fortunate enough to be able to shoot down a Sabre, right over the airfield, flying at over coconut tree height.

 

BENEFIT OF DOUBT

I recall it was the third day wherein I was supposed to go and give a close report to a place called Hili, where our troops were being marauded. We were, in fact, taking a lot of casualties. Our target was Hili, but on the left hand side, which was the enemy side. Once getting just shot of Hili, on my left (the enemy line) I saw a lot of dust coming which I had marked being on the enemy side. When we got closer we saw a convoy of several tanks, armoured vehicles and troop carriers. I flew over that and told Arora, a Flying Officer who was with me, to keep his height above 12,000 ft to avoid the ground fire. I flew without any intention of attacking and even after getting close to the area, and the entire convoy opened up.

I still couldn’t decide whether it was our troops or theirs because it was just into the bomb line. I made another pass and again the whole thing opened up. I, in my initiative, decided that it was a Pakistani convoy which we need to attack. I and Arora got into an attack formation. When we’re going for a close report we carry four guns in the Hunter and four rocket projectiles which are meant for hard targets like tanks and bridges. My first rocket overshot the tanks that I had over sight. The convoy began to rush into the mangroves, back into the East Pakistan. And I got three tanks with my rocket projectiles. After we reached the base operations room and reported that we attacked this column of troops and got three tanks. There was pin drop silence in the room because I was informed that there were only Indian troops there are no one from the enemy side. I couldn’t grow over the fact because I knew what havoc had been played in our attacks. But the mystery was resolved when I got a call at midnight that ‘the core commander sends you his heartiest congratulations. These were the same Pakistani troops and tanks that were on a rampage over our Indian army in Hily.’ That was a relief.

 

POLITICAL UN-WILL

We had 93,000 Pakistani troops as prisoners of war after it was over. They were all very well looked after, because we treated our prisoners of war as per the Geneva convention. But this is where the political leadership failed. We did not follow through. When we had these 93,000 prisoners of war I don’t think there were many families in Pakistan who didn’t have a father, son, nephew or a brother who was not a prisoner of war. We could have solved the entire Kashmir situation.

 

CORRUPTION

There are several hundred systems that go into making an aircraft, and several companies that come into play. During procurement deals people used to come and go, about which even the high commission didn’t know and these deals would be done. This corruption started as something prominent especially after Rajiv Gandhi’s time. He personally, I believe, was an honest man, but many people fired shots off his shoulder. There were many big companies who had their connections with the babus and big deals were done. I don’t want to name anyone, but the netas would then automatically come in. That is when the corruption started, and ever since there was not even one deal that was done transparently. I’ve seen it happen right in front of my eyes and when I tried to interfere in one of them because they were charging too much, I was asked to stay out in the next meeting.

 

LIFE IN A FIGHTER BASE

Life in a fighter base is beautiful. It’s like an exclusive club. What you see on celluloid is not even close to how a proud fighter pilot feels. It takes a lot of hard work and the cream of the lot is selected. Every fighter pilot vies for doing more and more sorties every day, and he is never afraid. If he is afraid, then we know he is and he is pushed out.

Other than that there is no formality as such. I was a Wing Commander then, and my younger officers used to come to wife and say, “Ma’am aj toh hum ye khaengey,” and Pam (Pamela, his wife) would humour it. We had lovely dance parties. My young officers would ask Pam for a dance and it was alright. It was never taken amiss. In the Army, you’d never be able to meet a brigadier or a station commander without making an appointment, but it’s not like that in the Air Force. It’s very homely kind of an environment where anybody can drop in at any time and that will be OK. Also, our airmen are technicians, so they are highly educated.

 

THEN AND NOW

We came from very different backgrounds. Generals’ children would join the army. The Air Marshalls’ children would join the Air Force. But it’s not like that now. You will hardly find any child whose parent is in the services joining the army. It has become like any other job option for youngsters now.

In the old days if you were going to the mess there were separate clothes for it. You couldn’t wear jeans or t-shirts or shorts inside the mess. Also, no children were allowed inside. Now if you go to the mess, families come with toddlers and babies in their arms. But I don’t blame it. But the background of the people who joined the services is dying out. The corruption in the services is also coming in because of this shift in the background.

Siddharth M Joshi
I love words. They help me lie to my girlfriend and earn a living. My obsession with music often gets on the editor's nerves, but that never stops me from talking about it. And I make up for it with an age-old fixation on food. Love fermented brews.