The Great Tragedy Of Poonch

"The news of the air crash came as a shock to the nation and completely overshadowed the news of the death of US President JF Kennedy who also died on the same day."

The Great Tragedy Of Poonch

Poonch valley is contiguous to Srinagar valley, separated only by an aerial distance of 60 km. Had a small portion in Haji Pir, called the Haji Pir Bulge, not been in POK hands, life in Poonch valley would have been quite different. The pass overlooks the road which in fact was the old Moghul trade route. Twice it was wrested back from Pakistan by our army after a bloody fight in both 1965 and 1971, only to be given back to them later as part of an international treaty.

We lived in the Poonch Palace which also housed the Brigade HQ. The palace had well maintained and manicured lawn, where we used to have lunch sometimes in the open when the weather was good. The UN observers also stayed in the Palace and dined with us. The Mess for them was, however, not free and they had to pay for it. There thus was no shortage of funds for messing and with the old Maharaja’s cook in the kitchen; the standard of food was always high.

The (Aérospatiale Alouette III) Alouette helicopters were inducted in the Air Force in mid 1963. We had heard about them being very versatile with the ability to land and take off from almost anywhere. In the third week of November, a delegation of senior Army and Air force officers was to visit Poonch on some operational matter for which, two Alouette helicopters were to come. The VIPs comprised:-

Lt Gen Daulat Singh, the Army Commander, Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Eric Pinto, the AOC-in-c Western Air Command, Lt Gen Bikram Singh, the GOC 15 Corps, Maj Gen NKD Nanavati, MC the GOC 25 Inf Div, Air Commodore (Air Cmde) Murat Singh, the AOC Advance HQ, Western Air Command and our own Brigade Commander, Brig SR Uberoi, MC.

There were several dry runs prior to the D Day; the last one being on November 21. At lunchtime, on the lawns of our Mess, they were discussing the seating plan of the helicopters with the pilot, Flt Lt Sodhi, who said that most probably, the AVM himself will fly one of the helicopters as he had just done a conversion course. At this, Gen Nanavati, who was a quite witty and jovial person, remarked “You know, it can be quite risky at times if a senior officer decides to pilot the aircraft.” At this, everyone had a laugh, but this is exactly what happened.

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On the day of the visit, the AVM sat in the driving seat of the first helicopter, with the Army Commander in the front  and all others in the back seat. When Air Cmde Murat Singh started getting in the first one, he was politely told that he was to travel in the second helicopter. The plan was that the helicopters would first go to 3 Dogra Battalion located in the Betar River area and thereafter proceed to 8 GR located in Krishnaghati (KG). The next halt was Surankot where a phone connection was provided to us at the helipad. Murat Singh took off from KG first and soon after, the second chopper with all the VIPs followed.

At the Brigade HQ, I was the only officer available as both the BM and the DQ were away. Soon after take-off, I got a call from the second in command (2iC) of 3 Dogra who said that he had seen a helicopter going down into the riverbed. I took it lightly and said it must have landed for some reason. After all, we were told that it was a versatile aircraft and could land anywhere. We, however, became serious when he said he saw smoke coming out of the aircraft.

The Brigade Commander’s Rover jeep was on the far side of Betar and kept hopping from one location to another, heading towards Surankot, the next stop. Normally, we have only one operator with the Rover Jeep but for some reason, I had sent two operators with them. I called them on the net and was told that Naik Arumugam had gone down to the site and would return to tell us the facts. It took around 20 minutes for him to return to the top and call us.

He did not know how to convey the news. He was panting badly having climbed the height from the riverbed to the road. I told him to calm down and first get his breath back. After about 5 minutes, when he came on the air again, he said: “Helicopter and all passengers damaged”. After repeated clarifications, I asked him bluntly “Do you mean to say that all officers travelling in the helicopter are dead and there are no survivors ?” His answer was in the affirmative.

I immediately got in touch with Air Cmde Murat Singh at Surankot. He was waiting for the VIPs to arrive, and his pilot had also lost contact with the VIP helicopter. His immediate reaction was that he was heading to the spot, and I should call Jammu base to fly in two Dakotas immediately to Poonch. I then informed the GSO 1 at the Division HQ of what had happened.

I called up the CO of our Signal Regiment in Rajouri to acquire a direct civil line to Jammu so that we could communicate speedily. Only two bodies were not burnt, one of the Corps Commander and the other of Flt Lt Sodhi. Their bodies were, however, not intact. Lt Gen Daulat Singh could only be recognized by his moustache, as part of his upper body was not burnt.

The parliament was in session in Delhi and the Defence Minister announced this sad incident before lunchtime. The bodies were taken to MH in Delhi, where they did some cosmetic treatment to make them look presentable. The funeral was held the next day with full military honours and the Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, came unannounced and attended the funeral.

The news of the air crash came as a shock to the nation and completely overshadowed the news of the death of US President JF Kennedy who also died on the same day. A black-bordered extraordinary Gazette of India was issued on 23 November. The issue was raised in both houses of Parliament of India. The government announced a posthumous award of Param Vishisht Sewa Medal to Lieutenant General Daulat Singh, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, and Air Vice Marshall Eric Pinto.

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A bust of Lt Gen Daulat Singh was erected in a park in Shimla, named after him. In 1980, a memorial was constructed at the site of the accident where a wreath-laying ceremony is held on November 22 to commemorate the deceased distinguished officers.

It is surprising how news gets distorted as it travels. Brig Barreto, the CSO Western Command, called me late in the night to ask how come the telephone lines were stretched right across the airfield runway. It is only after I clarified to him that it was not across the runway but across the Betar River that he felt relieved. He said that at the Command HQ, a lot of rumours were afloat, and that is why he called me up to know the facts.

Days after the incident were hell for me. A series of ‘courts of inquiry’, both Army and Air Force were held. I had to do a lot of explaining on why the wires were there. I told them that our communication with the Unit located across the Betar River had always been a problem as lines laid along the riverbed would get washed away every time the river was in spate. So, we had to resort to GI wire that was stretched across the river with supports at both ends.  I told them that Flt Lt Sodhi – the pilot – was aware of their existence, as I had informed him in our briefing. However, I had no idea whether he had passed on this info to the AVM.

Both the Army and the Air Force Court of Inquiry had concluded the cause of the accident was the rotor of the Helicopter getting entangled with the telephone wires that caused the crash.

As a result of the Helicopter crash, two protocols were issued. One, that no more than two senior officers will travel in the same Helicopter. The second, the most difficult one for me, was that all telephone lines that were laid across the river or culverts, would have coloured streamers along with the wires so that they are visible from a distance. This was a month-long exercise that we went through as hundreds of streamers were made and then the wires were brought down so that   the streamers could be manually stitched to them before being restored on the crossings.

About the Author

Lt Col MA Siddiqui (Retd) was commissioned on 15 December 1957 in the Corps of Signals. He earned a degree in Telecom Engineering and took part in the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars and was awarded Mention-in-Despatch in the 1971 war.

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