Two sides of the same coin : The Raid on Peshawar

 In 1999, I wrote what was my first effort at writing an article related to  IAF History for the Bharat Rakshak Website - The article detailed  the operations of the famous No.20 Squadron, 'The Lightnings' during the 1971 War.

It was based on  a series of personal meetings and interviews with Air Vice Marshal Cecil Vivian Parker MVC VM, the highest decorated serviceman in Andhra Pradesh (even today!), and also partly on hurried notes made from "Lightning Strikes" an unpublished War Diary style document of No.20 Squadron, which AVM Parker graciously let me read through [1]. The article was well read and got good reviews - It got published in Vayu Magazine and was well appreciated all around.  However It had its share of inaccuracies - the result of depending on hand written notes and interviewers memory instead of the good old tape recorder, but since it had appeared in print, the article has not been corrected on the web version.

This particular page displays the correspondence received over one episode recounted in that article. For the readers benefit, I reproduce the excerpt here.

The Raid on Peshawar : Mission 16 ,  4th December 1971.

The first air raid on Peshawar airfield was undertaken by two Hunters flown by Wg Cdr CV Parker and Fg Offr CS 'Channi' Dhillon.  The relevant excerpt from When Lightning Strikes is as follows:

"There being no Hunters with No.20 Sqn. at Pathankot on December 3rd, Parker was authorised to borrow two aircraft from the neighboring unit, the No.27 Flaming Arrows Squadron. Two aircraft were procured, with the mission launch time fixed at around 0430 hours on December 4th to enable both the pilots to reach Peshawar at first light.

Parker took Flt. Lt. C.S. Dhillon as his No.2 and when they went over to No.27 Sqn's dispersal area to pick up the Hunters, he was dismayed to find the Hunters had rocket railings fixed under its wings. Flying at extreme range, the rocket rails would have been a tremendous drag on the aircraft's performance. But time did not permit the ground crew to turn around the aircraft for their removal, and Parker was eager to start of at 0430 hours, so as not to delay the mission which might end up with them spending too much time in hostile territory in day light.

Both Hunters took off on time and after almost 75 minutes of flying, pulled up over Peshawar airfield, as dawn was breaking. Parker and Dhillon noticed three Sabres were already in the air at a distance. But due to the probability of the sun shining in the Pakistani pilots' eyes, the Hunters were not spotted. After identifying the airfield, both Parker and Dhillon went in for the first strafing run.

Dhillon noticed a Bulk Petroleum Installation (BPI) and made it a target for his second run. Parker identified two Sabres on the ground refueling from a bowser, and in his second run totaled it, with big plumes of black smoke confirming his hits. Two strafing runs were all that were allowed for this mission, and both the Hunters rendezvoused to fly back to Pathankot, when the three Sabres which were noticed earlier vectored towards the returning Hunters. The Sabres slowly caught up with the Hunters and some hits were scored on the Hunters.

Parker-Dhillon.jpg (29963 bytes) Fg Offr CS 'Channi' Dhillon, Sqn Ldr Ravi Bharadwaj and Wg Cdr Cecil Parker during the operations.

Photo Courtesy: Air Vice Marshal CV Parker MVC VM. (Retd)

With still a long way to go, and the Sabres slowly making some headway in hitting the Hunters, Parker called for a break. Till then his objective had been to get himself and his wingman out safely, but with his Hunter already having bullet holes in its tanks and fuselage, the prospect of Parker rushing to help Dhillon were dim. On the order to split, Dhillon banked his aircraft hard port and headed towards Jammu. The F-86s split too, with one peeling off to chase Dhillon, while the other two stuck to Parker’s tail.

"This" Parker recalls, "...was a godsend. If they had sent two Sabres to chase the less experienced Dhillon, They might have got him!"

With two Sabres on his tail, Parker arrived over the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, both separated by a negligible distance. The chase was at a low level. And just south of the two cities, Parker noticed some high ground approaching rapidly. He was faced with a dilemma, to increase power and pull up and in the process exhausting his reserves even more or to turn around, he chose a maneuver which would probably have meant death in a dogfight, he turned his aircraft around, dropping half flaps, and losing speed.

The Hunter cleared the obstacle in a tight turn. The Sabre that was chasing him was flying too fast to follow a tight turn and the Pakistani pilot pulled back into a high-speed turn. Parker on coming out of the turn noticed that the Pakistani pilot had in fact overshot him, and having lost sight of his adversary, was searching frantically in the skies by jinking his aircraft around. Parker could not let go of this opportunity and he closed in & fired his little remaining ammunition into the Sabre which plunged into the ground and blew up.

The second Sabre was nowhere to be seen and Parker never knew what happened to the second Pakistani pilot, who probably was lost in the chase. Now devoid of any adversaries on his tail, he set course for Pathankot. Parker received some sporadic ground fire just near the border, which could have come from either side. He had radioed to Pathankot about his precarious fuel situation and Pathankot ATC cleared him to land "at any runway, any place."

Meanwhile Dhillon was coming in from the direction of Jammu, to Pathankot. He had received several hits from the Sabre but all the same shook him off and lost him. Dhillon too made a similar call to Pathankot, and was approaching it with his fuel reserves at the minimum.

Parker being nearer to the airfield landed first, his engine flamed out due to lack of fuel. Dhillon too landed with empty tanks. Both the aircraft had numerous bullet holes. Parker's aircraft received 22 hits from the tail controls right up to the cockpit area. Two Sabres on the ground were confirmed destroyed, as was one Sabre in air combat. [2]  Not bad for a first strike of the war!"

The Pakistani Version:

Apparently there were people who disagreed for us. So I was one day knocked out of my chair when I received an email from a Pakistani Pilot who wanted to share his side of the story . The email came from Capt Tariq Syed, A pilot from the Pakistan International Airlines [PIA]. Tariq Syed was a Flt Lt during the 1971 war and happened to be flying one of the Sabres over Peshawar that the incoming Indian pilots had noticed. Interesting details emerged from his email.

"Dear Jagan Mohan,

I read the IAF account of its Hunter strike at Peshawar on 4th Dec (0715AM) with great interest, as I was No 2 of a six-ship strike formation of F-86's taking off at the time of this IAF raid. Your facts, however, are not accurate. In the interest of preserving the facts for the sake of history, I offer my account of this episode, as follows.

On the reported morning of the 4th, Dec, I was detailed as No.2 to a strike mission of 4 F-86's along with two CAP aircraft (total six Sabres). The Squadron commander, Wg.Cdr Changhezi was the leader. All six aircraft lined up for take-off. Lead and myself rolled and shortly after breaking ground, even before gear retraction, we heard a call from "Killer-control" that two Hunters had pulled up from the N.W (Jamrud) side and were attacking the airfield. We veered off to the left of the runway and jettisoned our stores.

The rest of the formation, which were sitting ducks at that time, continued their take-off and all got airborne safely, jettisoning their stores off the sides of the runway(R/W 35 was in use). It is truly amazing that the Hunters failed to notice our aircraft getting airborne right under their noses, and instead, attacked some dummy F-86's parked on the open tarmac across the runway. They did succeed in hitting the dummies.

Tariq.jpg (16798 bytes)
Flt Lt Tariq Syed, PAF   while serving with the Mirage Squadron.

Photo Courtesy: Usman Shabbir

In the mean time, I had maintained low level and skirted wide around Peshawar city in a right hand turn. All my stores had jettisoned, except my right drop-tank. While heading in a southerly direction, accelerating to combat speed, I was amazed to see two Hunters exiting across my path towards Cherat. They were very fast and judging from their exhaust smoke, they must have been maintaining full power at that point. I turned left in their direction, following their smoke trail, having lost contact with the aircraft. I, however, knew that they would have to pull-up to cross the Cherat hills shortly.

That's exactly what happened and I regained contact. By this time, I had closed the gap and when they crossed the hills, they came back on power and I began to close in fast. I also vectored the rest of the formation towards the two Hunters.

The Hunters were flying a strange battle formation, only about 1500-2000 feet apart at a very low altitude of about 50-100 feet AGL. Their look-out was very poor, especially the Hunter on the right, presumably Parker. Due to my asymmetrical load, my rate of closure was not as fast as some formation members that finally caught up with the exiting duo. I was about 3000 feet astern of Parker when Sqn.Ldr Salim Gohar(No.3) raced in behind Dhillon (on the left) and opened fire. It was an amazing sight. While I was closing in on Parker, I was treated to a live airshow, going on to my left! Initially, Saleems bullets landed short and below Dhillon and a shower of exploding rounds traced his flight path against the earth. Saleem was closing too fast and was forced to break off his attack in a sharp turn to the left. Even then, Saleems aircraft almost overshot Dhillon dangerously close. And all this while, Parker was asleep! He simply failed to notice all this activity and give his wingman proper tail clearance warning. I think this was criminal on his part, for which Dhillon should feel rightly grieved. However, even Dhillon was only slightly better in his look-out as he spotted me at a mere distance of less than 600 feet right behind Parker, before he gave a break to the right.

Unfortunately, while I was nearing gun range, I noticed that my gunsight had disappeared. However, I knew that with the very high rate of fire and sheer volume of "Buck-shot" delivered by the six .50 Brownings, I could easily walk my tracers through the target, which was doing nothing but straight-and-level at the time. I got so close that I could have reached out and smacked his tail with my hand! But Parkers luck was with him that fateful day. When I pressed the trigger, my guns did not fire! I only got time to zip a shocked glance inside the cockpit and noticed the gun fire circuit-breaker had also popped out! Talk of bad luck (for me) and darn good luck (for Parker)! I was literally so close that I could not have missed, and would probably have received debris damage from Parkers aircraft, had my guns fired. I may have also earned the distinction of being the first pilot to record a kill from my squadron. But fate works in strange ways. The prayers of Parkers family must have been answered that day!

Dhillon (presumably, if he was on the left) called a break to the right. I had to take severe action to the left to keep the Hunters at as high angle-off and G as possible as my rate of closure was very high. Still, I managed to overshoot the two in a very high rate climbing turn to the left. Dhillon reversed, seeing that I had overshot, though I was never in danger as my rate and G was too high for them to follow. Even so, I think Dhillon took a wild shot , because we were so close that I could hear his 30MM cannon firing!

The Hunters were already low on fuel, so they preferred to get back to hugging the deck in an(understandable) effort to get home. Changhezi and another formation member took up the chase and fired at the Hunters as they crossed Mangla lake. The gun-camera showed rounds impacting the lake water. Some rounds appear to have punctured the wing tank of a Hunter as it trailed white (fuel). However, neither Hunter came down in Pakistani territory, nor did any Hunter shoot down any of our aircraft on that day. The IAF Hunters were very, very lucky during this first raid to Peshawar. The second raid did not fare well, as Saleem Baig shot down one over the outskirts of the city, to the south.

This is the true story, as we flew these sorties. It is, therefore hoped that fiction be set aside and the truth be recorded. Also, if these two pilots are still alive, they may be rebuked from my side for exceptionally poor look-out on their side. They were so lucky, they will never realize how amazingly close they got to being shot down. Pure luck,

that's all!

With best wishes,

Then Flt.Lt Tariq Nazir Syed.
Member of 26 Sqn. Peshawar during the 71 War.

Indian Readers might be put off at the harsh tone employed by Flt Lt Tariq Syed. But it needs to be remembered that he was writing the mail to the author and not with the intention that the letter will one day be put up on the Internet, or that it will be read by the person that he wanted to rebuke. When I asked if I can forward the email to AVM Parker so that he can clarify some of the issues, Tariq Syed sportingly accepted it, saying:

"Please feel free to show my E-Mail to AVM Parker and my apologies for sounding harsh, but to a fighter pilot, some basics are hard to overlook, especially in times of war, when your wingman depends for his life on your vigilance. One possible reason for your pilots flying unusually close in battle formation could have been the typically poor winter visibility at low level in the early morning hours, with smoke and mist haze, combined with the relatively poor rear visibility of the Hunter aircraft."

AVM Parker replies:

I spoke with AVM Parker and he expressed his interest in reading Capt Tariq Syed's emails. After I handed over the copies, AVM Parker assured me that he will send me a response to the emails I had sent him and also gave permission for the letter to be put up on our website. The three page letter arrived in due course of time.

"Dear Jagan,

Thank you for your letter dated 5th November 200x. After our return from Delhi, we had been very busy with various commitments hence this delay in responding.

I have read through the em by Tariq Syed. He is ofcourse entitled to his opinions but the facts (along with his deductions there - from) as seen from his cockpit, differ from the facts as observed from Dhillon and my cockpits. Though a shade over 30 years have elapsed, the events of our strike on Peshawar on 4th Dec 71 are quite clear.

Contrary to Tariq's observation, both Dhillon and myself had two Sabres in sight behind us and above during our recovery to base. I suspected that there were more than two: both Dhillon and I were in communication throughout, being low on fuel, I waited till they posed an immediate threat before calling a break. My intention was to get Dhillon safely across the rapidly approaching border to the north as I knew our pursuers would not enter Indian Air Space, while simultaneously drawing them on to me. On my reversing after the break (during which I intentionally dropped IAS) the Sabre behind me could not hold the turn and overshot me right to left in a climbing turn. The last 12 rounds were fired at him and we have the gun camera shot of an F-86 jinking as he obviously lost sight of our aircraft. Meanwhile Dhillon assured me ha had crossed the border.

Subsequently it was revealed that one my guns had jammed fully. I do not know who the pilot of the Sabre was but it seems to have been Tariq, was this luck? With his constant reference to 'Prayers' and 'Luck', I take it that Tariq is a devout man but not averse to a belief in 'chance'. As an experienced filer he should know that it takes a great deal more than prayers and luck to attain your aim. The Bottom line is that between two to six Sabres (with all the advantage on their side) were unable to prevent two Hunters from achieving their aim of a safe recovery to base. What terribly bad 'luck' all of them had.

I share Tariq's concern for wingmen. He may like to know that in 35 years of fighter flying, I have not lost a wingman in peace or in war. Probably my good 'luck'. Do assure him that both pilots are very much alive. Dhillon runs a successful trucking business and Parker is lucky enough to have just entered his seventieth year in excellent health… .and prays it will stay that way, Inshaalah.

Since Tariq accused lady luck of favoring me and frowning upon him, it might be of interest to recall that purely by chance, I met an Air Marshal O Brian in a south London pub some years ago. He was apparently the DCAS of the PAF during the 1971 war. Naturally we discussed the air operations of 1965 and 1971 and the role of luck in the air. This is what he said:- "people believe in luck because they do not know how to explain the success of others". Ofcourse this is only his opinion, but strangely relevant to this topic.

There was one major handicap the first mission to Peshawar had. My squadron not being at base, I was instructed at very short notice (at night) to take two aircraft from our sister squadron and execute the mission. All their aircraft were configured for their close support role. When the aircraft were handed over to Dhillon and self, I was aghast to find that there was no time to remove them. So I had to accept that my loss in fuel would leave me no fuel for combat at all. We were thus low on fuel from take off. And this factor determined all my decisions luck notwithstanding.

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY: Hunter A-485, of the No.27 Sqn, after the raid on Peshawar. Wg. Cdr. C.V. Parker, CO - No.20 Sqn, was flying this particular aircraft.  
The ground crew counted 22 bullet hits from the Sabre's guns. Also seen in the picture is damage to the tail drag chute compartment. Parker landed without the chute.

In Feb I travel to old school to attend its platinum jubilee, it seem I am now the sole survivor of the founding year in 42. Bu a strange coincidence, in my earlier school in Calcutta in 1941, a co-pupil of mine was Mehmood Alam later an Air Cmde in the PAF and a co member of mine at the RCDS in London in 1980.

With all good wishes for Christmas and the coming year. Hopefully a better one than what the world has seen in 2001


Cecil Vivian Parker "

More Observations:

AVM Parker had been quite modest in explaining about the fuel situation of the Hunters.  When he writes  "I had to accept that my loss in fuel would leave me no fuel for combat at all", he was right on the mark.

The Hunters barely had enough fuel to do more than two passes on Peshawar airfield, it certainly was not the time to hang around on the enemy airfield and mix it with the defending fighters.  Contrary to what Flt Lt Syed says about the Hunters missing the Sabres on take off, the No.20 Squadron war diary clearly mentions that the pilot noticed three Sabres already in the air when they arrived over the city.

What Flt Lt Tariq Syed does not know , and what AVM Parker does not mention in his letter is how AVM Parker's Hunter flamed out on the runway soon after touching down at the  Pathankot airfield, even before it turned around at the end of the Runway. Or how Channi Dhillon's Hunter actually flamed out 5NM from the threshold.  Dhillon refused to eject, and glided the Hunter down in a successful dead stick landing [3]. 

Would Tariq Syed change his opinion if he had known these facts? I wouldn't know because I never did receive an acknowledgement from Tariq Syed after I forwarded a copy of AVM Parker's letter. I would assume that he now understood the Indian Pilot's precarious fuel position.  But there is no way to tell for sure.

What we do now know is that this is the first time we have all the details on of an event from both sides of the fence. And hopefully this will be an interesting resource for future aircombat historians.


. I must clarify here that the original title of the web article 'When Lightning Strikes' was independently arrived at even before I knew the existence of the War Diary with the similar sounding name
. As it turned out the claim of the Sabre in aircombat was incorrect. The Sabre was claimed as 'Probable' even in No.20 Squadron's records and was not a confirmed kill. The Author accepts all the blame for the misinterpretation
. A recommendation of an immediate Vir Chakra went out for Dhillon that night, but he was awarded a Vayusena Medal after the war.