The saving of Chander

In this short piece, Air Vice Marshal C V Parker MVC VM (4346 F(P)) narrates the last mission of his squadron - No.20 "Lightnings" - that could not beat the ceasefire clock!


December of every year takes me back to 1971 and the Indo-Pak war. I was then a wing commander in command of No. 20 Squadron AF equipped with Hunter MK 56A aircraft (ac) based at Pathankot, and tasked primarily with counter air operations. My pilots log book reminds me of the sorties I personally led attacking PAF air bases at Peshawar, Mianwali, Murid, Chaklala, the Attock Oil Refinery plus close air support in Chhamb and Poonch sectors.

To this list should have been added the PAF forward airfield at Chander; this anecdote will relate a little known story.

In the first week of Dec 71, Air Cmde LM Katre who had been sent to control air operations at Pathankot, asked Wg Cdr Johnny Greene the CO of No 2 Squadron with a Gnat ac dett at Amritsar, and myself to a confidential briefing in his office. He had been informed that the PAF airfield at Chander had to be neutralized on a date and a time to be notified by higher authorities. My squadron had been tasked to bomb the runway at Chander with eight ac each carrying 2 x 1000 lb penetration bombs.

Tactically, in the relatively short distance to Chander, we were required to climb to 10,000 ft, drop speed, get into line-astern about 1000 yds apart and deliver the bombs in a steep dive along the length of the runway. Since we would be highly vulnerable, four Gnat ac would give us top cover from Amritsar, which I would overfly en route the target and cover us for four minutes over Chander before they would have to return to their base. For security purposes this plan was referred to as Mission 548 and restricted to a few need-to-know individuals.

TribeTwenty

Johnny and I carried out a mutual briefing covering communication, codes, tactics and I assured him that I would be over Amritsar 15 minutes before TOT (Time on Target). Midway through the second week we received the date and TOT (1630) for Mission 548 which gave my ground staff just enough time to provide 8 ( + 1 standby) ac armed as required. I had obtained some very basic intelligence on the target (R/W orientation, elevation, layout etc) but I had a good professional team both in the air and on the ground.

As we taxied out and neared our own R/W at 1600 hrs, I asked for stream take-off in pairs but was told abruptly to ‘Hold position’. I was deeply concerned as we had nine aircraft sitting on the taxy track though two local Gnat ac were capping the airfield for our take-off. Then came an authoritative voice on the radio, ‘Cecil, Katre here, return to your dispersal where I will be waiting for you’.

We taxied back rapidly and over a cup of tea he explained that he had just received a flash message to say that high level cease-fire talks were in progress and meanwhile no offensive actions across the border were to take place after 1600 hrs.

In his book ‘In the Ring and Standing’ Air Cmde Kaiser Tufail of the PAF paid a compliment to No. 20 Squadron with particular reference to our strike on Murid on 08 Dec 71 where the PAF lost five ac on the ground. Though our RV (rendezvous) with the Gnats over Amritsar never took place, on the suggestion of my pilots soon after the war, we, along with our families, drove down to Amritsar, made our obeisance at the Golden Temple and gave thanks, though tinged with some regret at the last minute cancellation of Mission 548 which saved Chander.

Postscript.

After I had completed my squadron briefing for Mission 548 and was leaving the room, I heard the persuasive voice of ‘Lightning 9’ (the standby pilot with a sense of humour but now sadly no more) offer a bottle of whisky to anyone who had to ‘fall out’! A little later all eight of us had to ‘fall out’; he promptly disappeared into hiding!


A detailed narrative of No.20 Squadron at war is available at this link.