First Shaheed

Columnist Gp Capt SULTAN M HALI writes about the first brave PAF personnel who gave their life for Pakistan.
“The PAF’s job was to keep the larger Indian Air Force out of Pakistan’s air space as much as possible, and keep it off the back of the Pakistan Army. This it did well.”

—Fizaya : Psyche of the Pakistan Air Force

by Pushpindar Singh and Ravi Rikhye

In the Pakistan-India conflict of 1965, the first 48 hours established the superiority of Pakistan Air Force over its much larger adversary. The major successes which contributed towards the PAF getting the better of IAF are its lightning action on the Grand Trunk Road by F-86s of No 19 Squadron, when on 06 September, Indian Army was prevented from crossing the last defence before Lahore, the BRB Canal just in time as the lead brigade of Indian 15 Infantry Division was about to throw a bridgehead across the BRB Canal when it was attacked by the F-86s that strafed it and other elements of the Division up and down the Grand Trunk Road, throwing the Indians into confusion, delaying the advance, and thus allowing Pakistan’s 10 Division to assume its forward positions, which ended the Indian hope of a quick victory.

The other missions which deserve special credit along with PAF’s successful defence of Sargodha on 07 September are the attacks on Kalaikunda, where No 14 Squadron F-86s from Dhaka destroyed numerous Canberras lined up on the tarmac; No 19 Squadron’s famous raid on Pathankot in which IAF MiG-21s, Gnats and Mysteres were caught off guard on the ground; and No 5 Squadron’s ill-fated strike over Halwara, which ended in tragedy but had far reaching consequences is described in some detail here.

Having set off to a flying start by destroying two IAF Vampires and enabling the destruction of another two on 01 September, Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafiqui, the plucky and outstanding Officer Commanding of No 5 Squadron had set very high standards. On 06 September, when Indian Army launched its three-pronged offensive, like the other squadrons at Sargodha, Rafiqui’s pilots too were kept busy in ground support sorties to stop the Indian onslaught.

At 1300 hours, tasking orders were received for the implementation of the pre-designated strike plan. For a Time Over Target (TOT) of 1705 hours, Squadron Leaders M M Alam and Rafiqui were to attack Adampur and Halwara with F-86s from Sargodha while from Peshawar, Squadron Leader Sajad Haider’s squadron was to strike Pathankot with 8 F-86s and two as armed escorts. All the three squadrons got busy in preparing for the strikes.

When Rafiqui learnt that only four Sabres would be available for the strike on Halwara, he detailed himself as Leader with Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry as No 2, his Flight Commander Flight Lieutenant Yunus, another outstanding pilot as No 3 and Flight Lieutenant Saleem as No 4. Rafiqui reached the Flight Lines along with his pilots at 1600 hours to get airborne at 1615 for attacking Halwara at 1705 but to his surprise, he discovered that none of the allocated aircraft was ready. The morning’s defence of Lahore had taken its toll and there were minor unserviceabilities or the aircraft had landed late and were yet to be turned around. He informed the Station Commander of the delay and was advised to make good whatever TOT was possible. The same was the case with M M Alam as his aircraft were not ready on time either. Meanwhile, Squadron Leader Sajad Haider struck Pathankot exactly on time and achieving complete surprise, carried out textbook pattern attacks and devastated his target.

Alam’s formation got ready before Rafiqui’s and he took off with Flight Lieutenants Hatmi, “Butch” Ahmad and Murtaza to attack Adampur. As Rafiqui approached the aircraft to start up at 1715 hours, his heart was full of remorse. He was not concerned about himself but realizing the suicidal nature of his mission, he was thinking of his other pilots. Yunus, who had been blessed with a second son the previous week but had not been able to go home to see him; Cecil, who had been recently married. With grief in his eyes but determination on his face, he tapped them on the shoulders and wishing them luck, boarded the aircraft. During taxy, No 4’s generator packed up and Saleem was ordered by Rafiqui to abort the mission.

Down to only three aircraft, the formation pressed on in the fading light. As they were crossing the international border, they saw Alam’s formation returning. ‘Butch’ Ahmad called them on the RT and informed them that the formation could not reach Adampur as there was stiff opposition by the Indian Air Force, who were alerted by the raid on Pathankot. Alam’s formation was returning after destroying one Hunter.

Rafiqui’s formation reached Halwara at 1800 hours. By then visibility had reduced considerably and they were having difficulty in locating the target. As they were positioning themselves to execute the attack, they spotted two Hunters flying in front of them, Cecil and Yunus who were criss crossing behind their leader to keep them clear of the enemy threat from the rear, saw the Hunters as soon as Rafiqui called contact with them. Rafiqui positioned himself behind them, and called to Cecil to take the Hunter on the left while he would take the one on the right. Since Yunus was in a better position and Cecil had lagged slightly behind, Yunus suggested that the leader should take the one on the left and he could take the one on the right. Rafiqui agreed and while Cecil cleared the tails of both the Leader and No 3, Rafiqui’s guns found their mark. Its pilot was seen ejecting before Yunus could shoot, his target broke viciously to the right. Yunus followed him in the turn just then two more Hunters appeared from the right. Both Cecil and Rafiqui spotted them and as Rafiqui manoeuvred to position himself for the kill, Cecil took up defensive position behind him. Cecil was wondering why the Leader hadn’t commenced firing, when Rafiqui’s calm and confident voice called out that his guns had jammed and Cecil should take over lead. At that time they were heading west and could have easily disengaged from the combat taking advantage of the fading light heading into the setting sun. This would have meant abandoning Yunus, whom they had lost in the melee while he was chasing his target.

Cecil overshot from the left, throttling forward. As he positioned himself behind the trailing Hunter, he saw the Hunter Leader pull away but by then he had opened fire and to his satisfaction he saw the enemy aircraft streaming smoke and the pilot eject. Cecil suddenly became aware of the eerie silence surrounding him. He looked around for his Leader and called him on the RT but received no response. The next instant he observed an F-86 in a classic scissors manoeuvre with a Hunter and thought it was Rafiqui but when he saw its guns blazing, he realized it must be Yunus since Rafiqui’s guns had jammed. Before Yunus could get his target, another Hunter pounced on him and Yunus was shot down. Left alone and running short of fuel, Cecil bravely fought his way out and managed to reach Base to narrate the details of the courage and determination displayed by Rafiqui and Yunus. It is worthwhile to examine the Indian version of this epic encounter as narrated on the website Bharat Rakhshak:

“Halwara was situated Southwest of the Industrial township of Ludhiana, Punjab. It was not far from the border and was surrounded by numerous agricultural fields. In this Airbase were two Hunter Squadrons, Nos 7 and 27. No 7 Squadron had moved to Halwara from Ambala in August. The war was expected to come, so from the second half of August, the airfield was flying Combat Air Patrols (CAP) regularly.

About the time of the attack on Pathankot, four Hunters from No 7 Squadron were on patrol near Taran Taran. This formation code-named ‘GREY’ was led by the Squadron’s CO, Wing Commander A.T.R.H. Zachariah, and consisted of Squadron Leaders A. K. Rawlley and M. M. Sinha and Flight Lieutenant S.K. Sharma. The patrol reached Taran Taran when they spotted four Sabres coming in at low level. The Sabres were led by Squadron Leader M M Alam on a raid to Adampur. The Sabres on spotting the Hunters shed their drop tanks and started gaining height, while the Hunters did the same. In the fight that followed, Rawlley was shot down and killed by Alam. Alam then aborted the attack and extricated his aircraft from the fight. Alam’s Sabre formation exiting out of the area crossed another Sabre formation led by Squadron Leader S A Rafiqui on a strike to Halwara Airbase. Alam had warned Rafiqui’s formation about the presence of the Hunters. Rafiqui carried on with his strike mission. The Hunters being low on fuel left the Sabres and started making it back to the base. Zachariah reported the loss to the base and the two Hunters on the Operational Readiness Platform were ordered to take off.

At that time on ORP were Flying Officer A. R. Gandhi and Flying Officer P.S. Pingale of No 7 Squadron, Gandhi who joined No 7 Squadron in May 1965 was flying his fourth sortie of the day and Pingale was on his first. The two Hunters took off for their CAP over Halwara. Ten minutes later, Halwara Air Control informed them that they were under attack by F’86s. The Hunters arrived over the airfield and they couldn’t figure out anything in the confusion. The first indication they had that something was wrong was when bullets fired out of nowhere slammed into Pingale’s Hunter. The Sabres had jumped the Hunters. Pingale suffered systems failure and loss of engine power. He ejected from his stricken aircraft safely and was picked up later. Meanwhile, the Sabre that had shot down Pingale attacked Gandhi’s aircraft and overshot him. Presented with a nice target, Gandhi manoeuvred behind it and started firing his cannon. Even though he did not take good aim, the 54 foot spread of the Hunter’s four 30 mm cannon shells took care of the Sabre. Gandhi could see the Sabre was streaming smoke and was at 150 feet, when the cockpit canopy flew off. The Pakistani pilot had pulled his ejection lever and, before the ejection sequence began, the Sabre nose-dived into the ground and blew up. Flying Officer Gandhi had got the first kill for the Battleaxes.

Before he could revel in his triumph, the remaining three Sabres made a beeline for his aircraft. His right wing got hit repeatedly. The Hunter lazily rolled to the right and entered into a spin. Gandhi ejected and landed on the outskirts of Halwara.

This see-saw battle was not over yet. The airfield’s ack-ack guns shot down one of the F-86’s which dived headlong into the ground near the airfield. The last two Sabres were continuing their strafing, when No 27 Squadron came to the rescue. Two Hunters flown by Flight Lieutenant D.N. Rathore and Flying Officer V.K. Neb were returning from a sortie and were directed towards the Sabres. Rathore, the flight leader latched onto one of the Sabres and it went into a strafing run and sent it down in a sheet of flame some six miles from the field. The other remaining aircraft abandoned its attack and pulled up steeply to gain height. Flying Officer Neb lost no time in aiming and firing. The Sabre’s left wing shredded in an instant and it blew up. Even as the pieces were falling onto the ground, both the Hunters formed up and flew back to Base. Two of the PAF pilots who were killed in this battle were Squadron Leader S Rafiqui, who earlier claimed the Vampires over Chamb and Flight Lieutenant Yunus, No 2 to Rafiqui. Pakistan claims that only these two were lost in combat. The third pilot Flight Lieutenant Cecil Choudhry reportedly made it back to Base.”

It is difficult to assess how many Indian aircraft were in the air to defend Halwara when Rafiqui’s strike formation arrived. It is beyond comprehension that after being alerted by the successful PAF attack with ten F-86s on IAF Base at Pathankot they would have only two in the air and later divert two more. Rafiqui’s formation shot down two and lost only two and not three as claimed by the Indians.

Sarfraz Rafiqui’s determination to lead the attack on Halwara, deep inside enemy territory, being heavily outnumbered and having lost the element of surprise speaks volumes for his sense of duty and courage. Although he would have been perfectly justified to leave the battle area but his decision to continue the engagement with the enemy despite his guns being jammed is in the highest traditions of chivalry. For him the end was never in doubt but his dedication and selfless devotion even beyond the call of duty has blazed such a trail of glory that it continues to inspire us generation after generation.

The gallantry of Rafiqui is acknowledged by Indians themselves. Pushpindar Singh and Ravi Rikhye write in Fizaya : Psyche of the Pakistan Air Force on p.39: “It was on September 6 that PAF lost Squadron Leader Rafiqui over Halwara, when his guns jammed as he attempted to protect one of his flight in trouble when the PAF Sabres were bounced by IAF Hunters. He was given Pakistan’s highest leadership award, the Hilal-e-Jurat, also awarded to the PAF’s chief, Air Marshal Nur Khan. One Hunter was credited to him. Later, the PAF base at Shorkot Road was named after him, a fitting tribute to a brave and dedicated young Pakistani.”

For the Indians to suffer the ignominy of being shot down over their home base in front of their own officers and men was the ultimate humiliation and must have shattered their confidence and morale. The supreme sacrifice made by PAF’s first Shaheeds, Rafiqui and Yunus, culminated in Pakistan Air Force getting the better of its vastly superior adversary.

Post Script:

All three participants of the ill-fated Halwara Strike were awarded Sitara-e-Jurat while Sarfraz Rafiqui Shaheed was also awarded the Hilal-e-Jurat for his outstanding qualities of Leadership and solidarity. The Government awarded 77 acres of prime agricultural land as recompense with the awards of HJ & SJ which was most generously bequeathed by Rafiqui’s parents to the Sarfraz Rafiqui Welfare Trust administered by the PAF to benefit widows, orphans and the needy. Yunus Hussain Shaheed’s widow brought up her sons Sajjad and Fawad who are now both serving in senior positions in PAF.

On the Indian side, Flying Officers Gandhi and Pingale were awarded the Vir Chakra and rose to the rank of Air Marshal. As narrated by Cecil, he met Gandhi many years after the 1965 War in Iraq where both were on deputation. Gandhi duly acknowledged Cecil as the victor and introduced him as such to his wife.

PAF Base Shorkot was named after Rafiqui as a tribute to his bravery and rekindle the spirit of his chivalry.