Defence minister Jagjivan Ram (third from right) garlands the three Gnat pilots who shot down Pakistani Sabres over Boyra on November 22, 1971
In December 1971, India and Pakistan were at war for the third time since Independence. This time the war resulted from political developments in Pakistan’s eastern wing, culminating in a fast and furious two-week campaign that saw the end of East Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh.
A ruthless military campaign had been unleashed in East Pakistan by the Pakistan army, leading to a massive exodus of refugees into India. By November 1971, incursions by the Pakistani army and air force into India in pursuit of Mukti Bahini members had become quite frequent. The Pakistan President accused India of subversion and interference in its affairs and spoke about a “total war” with India as early as July 1971.
November 22 became a red-letter day for the Indian air force with 22 Squadron tasting its “first blood” in a classic killer style by downing three Pakistani Sabre aircraft. The squadron came to be known as Sabre Slayers.
BOYRA DAY November 22, 1971
The Sabre aircraft were shot down 11 days before the formal declaration of war at Boyra, north of Calcutta. The honours went to 22 Squadron commanded by Wg Cdr Brijpal Singh Sikand, who retired as Air Marshal.
The squadron was based in Kalaikunda but a detachment had moved to Dum Dum airport in September 1971 for the defence of Calcutta and the strategic port carrier. This half of the squadron, the Dum Dum detachment, was on constant duty and doing strategic flying from dawn to dusk.
The radar unit giving coverage was 254 Signals Unit based in Barrackpore. This unit had reported a lot of enemy activities close to the border in Boyra, where the Indian army was facing action against regular Pakistani forces locked in infantry-artillery-armour operations with Mukti Bahini. The Indian army fired in retaliation, destroying quite a few Pakistani tanks.
Our radar had on November 21 picked up Pakistani Sabres from Dacca and Jessore providing close air support to their army. On November 22, the 254 Signals picked up four Sabres carrying out attacks. At 0811 hours, they intruded into our territory. Our Gnats were scrambled for interception but without contact. The Sabres returned to their base by the time we got there.
A second similar intrusion at 1025 hours could not be checked either but a third such sortie, this time from Jessore at 1448 hours, had the Gnats in the right position for interception.
The Sabres were from 14 Squadron and this was a three-aircraft formation. When they pulled up to 2,000ft before going in for an attack for just about a minute, the Fighter Controller Fg Officer K.B. Bagchi in control from the SU scrambled four gnats. Roy Andrew Massey, Fg Officer Sunith Francis Soares, Flt lt Ganapathy and Donald Lazarus as Cocktail 1,2,3,4.
It took them about seven minutes to reach the location and the Sabres were making repeated front gun attacks on the ground targets from 2,000ft to less than 500ft. The gnats had to get them as they flew over a 2mile stretch inside the Indian territory.
Soares was the first to make visual contact with the Sabres coming head-on three to four miles away. Mause (Roy Massey) took on the leader around 2,500ft and got into close combat, getting lower and lower to fight on his terms and finally shot him at 500ft.
Meanwhile, Ganpathy called out “Murder! Murder! Murder!” (the code for scoring a kill) at 1500 hours and Don Lazarus repeated the transmission when the third aircraft was shot by him so close that he flew through a bit of debris.
The aircraft shot down by Flt Lt Massey was flown by CO 14 Squadron PAF Wing Cdr Choudhury and his aircraft crashed near Chagacha.
The other two pilots who ejected on Indian territory —Fl Lt Parvez Mehdi Qureshi and Fg. Officer Khalil Ahmed —were taken Prisoners of War. Qureshi became Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistani air force 30 years later.
On November 23, the President of Pakistan declared national emergency.
Ganpathy, Massey and Lazarus were awarded Vir Chakras and defence minister Jagjivan Ram flew down from Delhi to congratulate the trio and CO 22 Squadron for the great job done.
Wing Commander Rier VM is a fighter pilot with the maximum flying on the Gnat/Ajeet aircraft in the IAF. He was part of the Dum Dum detachment and took an aggressive part in the 1971 operations. He was commended for gallantry.