An engaging account of the IAF’s air campaign in the 1971 Bangladesh war

Taking off from their detailed and incisive analysis of the air war in 1965 in their first book, The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, the duo of P.V.S Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, two of India’s leading modern military aviation enthusiasts and chroniclers, have come up with another engaging book on the air war in the Eastern theatre during the 1971 India-Pakistan war titled Eagles over Bangladesh. In the absence of adequate archival information, the authors have reinforced the book with painstaking interviews with numerous IAF and PAF veterans of the conflict. I was rather surprised the authors chose to concentrate only on the IAF’s air campaign over Bangladesh while a better contested aerial battle was concurrently going on in the Western Sector. Combining the aerial battle on both fronts would have offered greater value to any student of air power or modern Indian military history.

During the Air war in the 1965 war the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) with its new F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters fought it out during the first week of the conflict and then ran out of steam. After the 65’ war, the IAF embarked on a large-scale modernisation programme, phasing out its older platforms like the Vampire and Mystere jets and upgrading the versatile Hunter multi-role fighter-ground attack that had shown much promise, but had lesser range and loiter time. Filling the gap were the brand new MiG-21 FL (or T-77 as the IAF called it) with significant ground attack capability, the Hunter Mk 59 with significantly enhanced range, the Sukhoi-7 fighter-bomber, and more squadrons of the proven Gnat fighter, also called the ‘Sabre Slayer’ after its splendid dominance over the Sabre in aerial combat in 1965.

The canvass tackled by the authors is vast and the run-up to the conflict is interesting as it offers insights into the induction and operationalisation of the MiG-21T-77 and the refreshingly aggressive approach of young IAF operational commanders like Gp Capt ‘Mally’ Wollen, the Station Commander at Air Force Station, Tezpur, and Gp Capt Chandan Singh at Jorhat. The systematic manner in which the IAF orchestrated its forces in the East and exploited all the available airfields for fighter operations by operating detachments and building infrastructure at airfields like Panagarh is testimony to the vision of its cerebral and highly experienced Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal.

The interesting description of the aggressive reconnaissance forays by Hunters of 37 Squadron into East Pakistani airspace as early as October 71’ highlighted a change in the mindset amongst operational commanders and IAF aircrew, and this portion is a compelling read. Complementing this is the account of enhanced capability of the IAF in executing heliborne and airborne operations with the Indian Army. It brings out that it was on 21 Nov 71’ that the IAF swung into action to support operations by the combined forces of 350 and 42 Infantry Brigades, supported by the Mukti Bahini in the Boyra bulge of Jessore sector; Gnats of 22 Squadron being scrambled from Dum Dum to intercept attacking Sabres. The IAF however drew first blood only on 22 Nov when two Sabres were shot down over Boyra by a four aircraft formation of Gnats from 22 Squadron. The scenes of jubilation in the squadron when it was visited by the CAS and the Defence Minister prompted the chief to remark – ‘It seemed as though we had won the war before it had even started.’

The authors have gone into great detail describing the air war, which officially began on December 4 after the PAF’s pre-emptive air strikes in the west on December 3. The relentless pounding of Dacca, Kurmitola, Tezgaon airfield, Chittagong and other Pak Army targets by Hunters and MiG-21s of 14, 7, 37, 28, 4 and 30 Squadron come alive in the racy narrative as Gnats of 15, 22 and 24 Squadron provided top cover whenever required and looked after the air defence of IAF bases and the tactical battle area. Canberra bomber operations have also been highlighted as 16 Squadron made deep forays into East Pakistan. The innovative bombing of airfields from steep dive attacks by Mig-21’s with Russian M-62 bombs from 05 December onwards left the PAF marooned on the ground due to the deep craters left behind. Pilot narratives offer a glimpse into the minds of combat pilots and field commanders infusing a touch of panache and glamour, so typically associated with fighter pilots. I also found the narration of events surrounding the formation of a fledgling ‘Kilo Flight’ of the Mukti Bahini air force with its two Dakota and Otter aircraft, and an armed Aloutte at Dimapur, to be quite fascinating.

Close Air Support and interdiction operations in support of the three main Indian Army Corps, II, IV and XXXIII Corps was readily forthcoming and streamlined with air effort being effortlessly switched from sector to sector depending on the progress of the battle. Lt Gen Sagat Singh’s IV Corps had the maximum effort available including the availability of almost 10 Mi-4 helicopters, which allowed him to plan and execute the first Special Heliborne Operation (SHBO) around Sylhet and land a battalion of Gorkhas behind enemy lines in three waves supported by rocket firing Alouette helicopters. Hunters and Gnats firing rockets and guns ably supported the Gorkhas in the ensuing fire fight against determined Pakistani defenders. Apart from the daring heliborne operation by Mi-4 helicopters across the River Meghna with a Gorkha battalion, two other operations that have been described in great detail are the Tangail paradrop of December 11 and the relentless attack on the Governor’s house in Dacca on December 14. While the former was initially planned as a brigade drop with multiple objectives including the capture of an airfield, a vital bridge and reinforcement of the force earmarked for the capture of Dacca, it was later pruned to a battalion drop with a single objective of capturing the bridge over the Poongli River to cut off retreating forces from reinforcing Dacca. Almost fifty aircraft comprising An-12s, Packets, Dakotas with Gnats and MiGs as fighter escorts were involved in this operation, finally dropping 2 Para Battalion, a supporting field battery and other supporting elements with little opposition.

Much has been written over the years about the psychological impact on East Pakistan’s military leadership of the air strikes on the Governors residence by MiG-21’s of 28 and 4 Sqn, and Hunters of 37 Sqn on 14 Dec, and their impact on Lt Gen Niazi’s decision to surrender. This operation comes alive towards the end and provides a fitting finale to a compelling narrative. There is much in the appendices for the statistician too with great effort having gone into objective recording of force levels, orbats, sorties flown, attrition, weapons used and awards won.

The book clearly focuses on how a rejuvenated IAF played a critical role along with the Indian Army in pulverising the East Pakistani politico-military leadership into submission. It is a must read for not only air power enthusiasts, but anyone interested in India’s modern military history.

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