The Hunter Fiasco: 1971 War

"I always took good care of my olive green uniform which was kept crisp. I would stand in front of the mirror and look at myself before going off to work. That Fig Leaf would draw my attention and I would feel elated. My chest would swell with pride."

The Hunter Fiasco: 1971 War

Ground to air communications (Comns), is a vital factor for successful air strikes in support of ground troops by the Air Force in a war. Till just before the 1971 war, the radio set used was BE 201, a WW2 vintage set that worked on bulky secondary batteries and was not portable. This limited the mobility of the Air OP officer, who had to remain confined to the road only.

The induction of VHF set GU 734, which worked on nickel-cadmium batteries, was revolutionary as it was portable, and the Air OP officer could take the set along with him to a vantage point for effective briefing of the pilots before the airstrike. There was however, one disadvantage as the set could work only on four fixed frequencies out of which, one was for international use and one for civil aviation. That left only two frequencies available for our use.

One Sunday morning, I was asked by the CSO to come to his hut with a GU 734 set. On reaching there, I found that the EME head was also present. He perhaps, was a telecom engineer and he opened the set, took out one crystal and showed how simple it was to replace the crystals. I had no idea of what they were planning and came back.

Upon return, when I asked our mechanic to switch on the set, nothing happened. He tried to figure out what was wrong with no result. The next day, we took the set to the EME workshop who refused to look at the set, saying that they neither had any literature nor any trained staff on the new set. So, in the process of demonstrating his skills, the EME head had damaged one of the two reserve sets that we had.

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On 01 Dec 1971, I was asked by the SOI (Sigs) that orders for change over to the new set of frequencies have been received and I should take the sets to the EME workshop who will fix crystals for new frequencies. I told him that it cannot be done as the sets were no more with me but already deployed with their respective dedicated formations. At this, he gave a brilliant suggestion that I withdraw sets from each division at a time (four sets), get the new crystals fitted and send them back.

Then I do the same thing with the other two divisions and we would have thus changed all our sets to the new freqs. It was a highly impractical suggestion as it meant that if the war broke out, no close air support to our troops would be available for want of ground to air Comns. When I tried to reason out with him, I was firmly told that orders had to be implemented.

Unfortunately, the CSO was away, and I could not contact him to get the order reviewed. I then went to 5 TAC comdr, Gp Capt. Gopalan explained my problem. He promptly called the CSO of Eastern Air Command who told him that our own HQ Eastern Command, have conveyed their readiness to switch over to new freqs and in their aircrafts, this has already been done. I told the  Group Capt “Sir, your aircrafts are at the base but my sets are not with me and already deployed with their respective formations where no technical help is available.

Getting all the sets back, would mean no ground to air communication for the duration the sets are under process at the workshop. I also shared my experience of how one set got damaged in the process when the EME head was demonstrating his skills the other day. The Gp Capt understood the problem and again called the CSO Eastern Air command and told him of the practical difficulties at our end and got the order reversed. Their aircrafts then switched back to the original freq. It was a great relief for me as the war broke out2 days later, on 03 December 1971.

Hawker Hunter - Wikipedia
Hunter aircraft; File Photo

War on the Western sector started out on 03 Dec. However, 4 Corps offensive in the Eastern Sector were launched on 04 Dec. First attack was on Akhaura Railway Station complex, opposite Agartala on our side. The H hr (time of attack) kept getting postponed while waiting for an airstrike by our air force to materialize.

Gen Sagat Singh, the Corps Commander, was observing the operation from the ATC tower at the airport and he decided that if the air strike did not come by a certain time, the attack would go in without further delay. Finally, we received a flash message giving the TOT(time on target) for a sortie of two Hunter aircrafts.

Our Air OP officer with his radio set was at the vantage point for the final briefing of the pilots. Air Op or FAC (Forward Air Controller, an AF officer), both have the same task of guiding the pilot accurately on to the target. I recall once an enterprising Air Op, climbed a tall tree as he could not find a suitable vantage point  from where the target was visible. He perched himself comfortably on a branch and briefed the pilots on the target, thus enabling them to close in on the target and release their arsenal accurately for optimum lethal result

We were all keyed up at the JOC before the airstrike was to materialize. Excitement in the air was quite palpable as this was going to be the first ever airstrike in support of our ground troops. I had positioned a GU 734 set there, so that we could get a firsthand account of the air strike by listening to the audio of the pilots and the air op. At about 1355 H, the radio set became alive, and we could hear the conversation between the aircraft pilots but there was no audio of the Air Op.

Apparently no contact between them was established. Finally, the pilots decided to take one more round, and if still there was no contact with the Air Op, they would return to the base. There was complete silence at the JOC with everyone looking at me with a question in their eyes; what happened ? This, after so much hype I had created about the new radio sets only a few days earlier.

Those were the most uncomfortable moments for me. As if this was not enough, a Flash message is received from our Radar Station at Shillong, warning us of two hostile Aircrafts approaching in our direction. There was a panic at the JOC as they were worried about the safety of our Hunters.

We had heard of the Pak F 86 Sabres, being deadly with their sidewinders that enabled them to take on the targets on their flank as well. Gp Capt Gopalan exclaimed, "Oh My God! Siddiqui, do something! Our Hunters are sitting ducks for the Pak Sabres''. I said "Sir, we are located in a depression with hills on both sides.

Let’s go out in the open and you can make a transmission on our radio, hoping that the pilots can hear you". Quickly, we rushed out in the open and I handed over the mic to Gopalan and he made a frantic transmission, warning the pilots of the Pak Sabres in their vicinity. Just then we heard the sound of the aircrafts and looked up. We saw the Hunters overflying our location.

Both Gop and Mohan, the SASO ( Senior Air Staff Officer) looked at each other but said nothing and went back to the JOC, leaving me behind to rue over our communication failure. At least this is what came to my mind at that time, and I decided to find out the truth of what exactly went wrong.

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Fortunately, it was a full moonlit night and driving was not a problem and one could cruise at 25-30 km/hr speed. We reached the HQ of 311 Mtn Bde, where our Sigs officer, HK Bajaj was the BM (Brigade Major). From him, I learnt that the Hunters never came to the target area. It later transpired that due to a mix up in briefing at the airfield, the Hunters went in a different direction. Since they were not where they were supposed to be, our Radar station at Shillong, mistook them and declared them hostile, leading to the commotion at the JOC.

Another interesting incident also comes to my mind. The pride of our Navy, INS Vikrant, sailed into the Bay of Bengal, sometime on 6/7th Dec and joined the action on the Eastern front. So, now we had additional air effort available to us. They came as an outstation on our airfield net. One day, the Corps HQ initiated an immediate AirSupport demand on a target on the 8 Mtn Div axis. The TOT was given as 1400 H. At that time around 12noon, INS Vikrant was not accessible on our net and we were unable to pass the message.

So, I informed the GSO1 (Ops) of the situation and his typical bureaucratic answer was,“ You bloody Signalers! when the GOC asks, your answer is, ‘through Sir’. It is your problem how you pass the message” and disconnected. I was stumped for a while and then said to myself, “If INS Vikrant is here, there must be some naval establishment in Kolkata with whom they must be in touch”. I thus asked our exchange to be connected to them and spoke to their Signals Officer, who confirmed that they had a radio link with INS Vikrant, and it was functional.

This is how we passed the immediate Air Support demand and got their acknowledgement and the TOT and the air strike did materialize at the specified time. ometimes, with quick thinking, you can find the solution to a problem. Sometimes, with quick thinking, you can find the solution to a problem.

Later, when INS Vikrant came up on our radio net, I asked them the reason why they had gone off the net without any notice. We were told that there was a fire on their deck and hence, they had to switch off their radio set to deal with the problem.

Except for the above incident when the pilots went to a wrong location, our air support communications functioned with remarkable stability. There was never an occasion when our communications ever failed. In fact, when the 23 Mtn Div was in hot pursuit of the Paks, their rearward communications failed and ours was the only communication that existed at that time.We were then told by the CSO not to close down our radio communications till further orders, as normally, our nets close down at dusk as no air activity happens during the night.

Once our role in the war was over,we were waiting to get a green signal to return to our peace location. Finally, we got orders to return and we took the route via Dawki-Shillong-Guwahati- Tezpur. This was a much shorter route and in three days of comfortable driving, we were back to our peace location. Everyone was keen to go on leave to spend time with their families as they had not seen them for close to a year as leave of all personnel was stopped due to the impending war. Life was back to normal for us with normal peacetime activities.

One early morning the CSO rang up. “Congratulations Siddiqui you got a mention in despatch, although I had recommended you for a bigger one. Still, something is better than nothing. Have a great day”. Though it is a tiny one in the hierarchy of gallantry awards that allows you to wear a Fig Leaf on the war medal.

I always took good care of my olive green uniform which was kept crisp. I would stand in front of the mirror and look at myself before going off to work. That Fig Leaf would draw my attention and I would feel elated. My chest would swell with pride and make me look taller than my short stature. A smile would appear on my face as I turned away.

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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