220 Squadron, IAF - Unsung warriors of 1965

The events of September 1st, 1965 are seared into the minds of every Air Force veteran who fought in that conflict.  In no small measure to the sacrifice made by three pilots of No.45 and 220 Squadron, flying obsolete Vampire FB52s in the face of the overwhelming odds against the Pakistani offensive in Chamb. In this article Mrs. Sandhya Janorkhar writes about her one of the 'few' who didnt return that day.

It happened fifty years ago today, but when I let myself think about it, it seems to have been only yesterday that I was a young bride just a few months into marriage with a dashing young Flight Lieutenant of the Indian Air Force, Vijay Joshi. The mind drifts now and memory fades, but the essence remains as an acutely felt experience locked into a microchip…slip it into a pc and it starts to unspool.

We had just arrived in Pune on the train from Mumbai to a warm welcome from my husband’s young bachelor brother officers who had arrived with a band and a motorcycle escort to take us to the Air Force station where after a wait of some months we had been allotted quarters. We were excited at the prospect of setting up house and although we knew that our home would consist only of a room and a kitchen, I had taken along the fridge, a Bosch sewing machine and a complete dinner set of Swedish bonechina! We settled down in a jiffy, all our possessions stacked up wherever there was space and I was ready to assume my role as a housewife after a starry-eyed two years as a journalist with a leading newspaper.

Behind the bonhomie there was tension and disquiet. The past few months had been difficult for our country. Belligerent Pakistan, well armed by the United States and itching for a fight was trying its level best to raise our shackles. There was talk of an invasion by infiltrators from the Kutch side of the border and incursions on the Kashmir front. Our government didn’t seem to be doing much about it except for spouting the usual platitudes of tit-for-tat and brandishing of weapons. But the people of India, it seemed, knew better. The mood was somber and everyone discussed the looming possibility of a real war with Pakistan.

It was July, 1965. There were troop movements and the Air Force station was on alert. Vijay had just been posted to 220 along with a few other colleagues. One weekend, some young officers arrived and we thought we would have a party, so the bachelors could enjoy some home cooking. There was Horsey Bharadwaj, Raji Varma,Sadarangani, Bhagwagar, Bo Phatak, Popo Sahay and others: in the Air Force, everyone has a nickname. Vijay’s was Joe. They were in high spirits; there was talk of moving into action soon, but given the nature of the operations, no one would say which squadron would move out, where they would go etc. “We’ll show the …… what we are made of” they chanted. The party went on till the wee hours of the morning……looking back, it was the last post for some of the comrades. On August 29, the Vampire squadron was ordered out. I was disappointed. “ But we just got here”, I protested. “It goes with the job,” Vijay said lightheartedly. “You go back to Bombay and I will keep you posted about my whereabouts. The transport arrived at the crack of dawn, the next day. We said our good-byes and then Vijay was gone. After a while I heard the droning of engines as the aircraft began their run up for take off from the Lohegaon airbase, Pune. I rushed to the back door and peered at the sky. The sun was rising and one by one, the Vampires, quite stately in flight went past. I waved in the general direction and went back to make my preparations for the return to Bombay.

During the next two days, the newspapers were full of reports about heavy fighting in the Chamb-jaurian sector and about our ground troops wilting under pressure from the enemy.The news was ominous. On the first of September, we went about our daily chores a little perturbed about what might be in store for our dear ones at the front. The late evening radio bulletins brought scanty news about what was happening but there was talk about army casualties, about aircraft being shot down, about pilots being captured, but no confirmations or hard news of any kind.

And then, on the 3rd of September, an AirForce jeep pulled up infront of our building and three officials alighted. My mother in law and I had just returned from an outing and were about to enter the lift when these gentlemen arrived. They informed us that Vijay was “missing in action” and having done their duty as best they could, they departed. It is impossible to describe what each of us went through in that short span of time, nor is this the occasion to delve into our anxiety over the next few months. The purpose of this story is to pay a tribute to the unsung heroes of Squadron 220, who lost their lives in a pitifully unequal fight with the enemy through no fault of their own.

As bits and pieces of news came in and some of the officers passing through came to see us, we were able to piece together the news. Squadron 220 had stopped at Jamnagar air base first and had then moved to Pathankot. They had been immediately pressed into service in co-ordination with Squadron 45 to provide air cover for the Armoured Corps, the first ever war operation of the Indian Air Force after Independence. Of the 12 aircraft, 7 were from Squadron 220 and the Squadron was now officially Squadron 45. They flew from Pathankot as the sun was setting in formations of four and started to fire at the enemy troops below. Within minutes, the Pakistan Air Force retaliated with Sabre jets, at that time one of the most advanced fighter jets in the world. Our guys were in Vampires, remnants from the second world war and no matter how brave the pilots, were no match for the Sabrejets. Our aircraft were flying low, probably around 500 feet altitude for ease of identifying and hitting the targets. A brief chase and dog fight ensued with our pilots doing their best despite the odds. They were shotdown and couldn’t even eject because of the low altitude.

Vampire-BB445-Chamb Pakistani Ground troops recover part of the wreckage of an ill-fated Vampire FB52, one of the four shot down over the Akhnur / Chamb area on September 1st.. 

Everyone knew how well equipped the Pakistan Air Force was. Even now, 50 years on, the question nags: What was sought to be achieved by putting on the line the lives of 12 highly trained pilots and their flying machines into an operation that common sense would have indicated was doomed from the start ? Four aircraft were shot down,three pilots lost their lives and one pilot whose aircraft was shot managed to bail out on our side of the border. Ironically, he too almost lost his life because the villagers mistook him for an enemy pilot and soundly thrashed him.Later, there were even hurtful comments like”they shot at our own troops instead of the enemy’s…….” “ they were flying at very low altitudes and were shot down by ground gunfire, “ etc. Was anyone held accountable for what is a distressing episode in the over 60 year history of the Indian Air Force? It has been reported that the Vampire fleet was pulled out of frontline duty after this battle. In our younger days we would try to find out about what went wrong but nobody wanted to talk about it and so we let it be. The Air Force took care of the affected families well. Our men were gone…..what good would it do? But it is never too late to pay a tribute, to acknowledge their bravery and say a prayer for them. Amen.

I can think of no better way to end this piece than with a verse from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew

Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

65-FLtSBharadwaj.jpg (9134 bytes) 65-Bharadwaj.jpg (8139 bytes) 65-FLt-VMJoshi.jpg (8296 bytes)
Flt Lt Satish Bharadwaj
6348 GD(P)
45 Squadron
KIA 01 Sept 1965
Flt Lt Satish Bharadwaj was flying Vampire aircraft over Chamb. He was shot down by a F-86 Sabre
Sqn Ldr A K Baghwagar
5284 GD(P)
45 Squadron
KIA 01 Sept 1965
Sqn Ldr Baghwagar was lost flying Vampire aircraft over Chamb. He is presumed downed by AA Fire.
Flt Lt V M Joshi
6019 GD(P)
220 Squadron
KIA 01 Sept 1965
Flt Lt V M Joshi was in the same formation as Satish Bharadwaj, flying Vampire aircraft over Chamb. He was shot down by F-86s.

via Air Force India Group