THE GREAT ESCAPE: Part III
The persevering attempts made by 12 IAF officers (02 of them were repatriated earlier due to their severe injuries) caught as POW and locked inside Pakistani jails were again the show of strength and superiority of the pilot’s own judgement. Their undefeatable Indian spirit was clearly visible an year later, when they marched across the borders at Wagah on 01 December 1972. This is the saga of their escapade continued. Read second part @
The daring dozens included: Wg Cdr BA Coelho (OC No.7 Sqn-Hunters), Sqn Ldr DS Jafa (was ADC to the Chief of Air Staff but had returned back to his Sqn for flying duties), Sqn Ldr AV Kamat, Flt Lt Tejwant Singh, Flt Lt Bhargava, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, Flt Lt MS Grewal, Flt Lt Vikram Pethia, Flt Lt Harish Singhji (29 Sqn), Fg Offr Chati, Fg Offr K. C. Kuruvilla, Fg Offr HND Mulla Feroze.
With everything else set, now they started the actual work of removing the filling between the bricks. This was not as easy as all they had for their tools were the forks; spoons and knives instead of hammer and chisel …..
Karmbhoomi: Number 3 Provo & Security Flight, Rawalpindi
The entire POWs were kept in a POW camp which was in fact the Number 03 Provost and Security Flight located at Rawalpindi. As any other P&S unit, this one was also a small one. But enough security measures were taken to convert the normal office rooms into cells to house the Prisoners. The doors and windows of each room were secured with new iron bars. The unit was located near the Mall road, a small road that turned off the Rawalpindi –Peshawar Road. The P&S flight gate could be seen on the left, about 100 yards after leaving the highway. As one entered the camp, one could see the PAF Police Corporal on duty sitting inside the Guards office on the left. There was an open lawn with Volleyball court in between where prisoners were allowed to play, sit or stroll during the daytime. A little ahead there were four Prisoner cells and a bathroom. The Camp Commandant’s office, Interrogation room, Airmen Mess and Kitchen were in a row adjoining the cells. The remaining three cells were further away from this wing on the other end of the camp.
Karmsthal: Cell Number Four
The freedom that the daring dozens sought was beyond the cell number four. Cell number Four was the largest of all the cells. The “gully” between the cell and the toilet was a narrow gap between the two buildings. The southern end of the gully had barbed wire. Beyond the barbed wire, there was a Recruiting office and Petrol Pump. From within, the guards were used to frequently looking into the gully during their patrolling rounds. As time passed and talks of repatriation were circulated by the guards, they realised the POWs were not thinking of any escapades. As a result, their security measures were relaxed. They bought the story told by the inmates about wanting to play cards till late in the night as they were unable to sleep. They allowed all of them to be together in Cell number four at night.
Around mid-July, the ordeal started with sham bridge sessions. They had selected the southern wall of the cell for the excavation. A bed with blankets was used to cover the rectangle cut out in the wall. Footwear was neatly kept under the bed in rows to fool the sweeper from discovering the dust underneath. Around 2200 hrs, they used to shift the bed and start removing the filling from the bricks. Flt Lts Parulekar and Grewal were tasked for this while the others like Flt Lt Harish, Sqn Ldr Kamat and Fg Offr Chati stayed alert looking for any signs of guards. They switched off the bulb and help the two excavators to pack the dust in empty gift cartons that they received from the Red Cross. After every two-three days they would get rid of these “dust hampers”.
The work progressed well in spite of their meager tools such as the table knife, the barber’s scissors, a screwdriver and a piece of iron. When they reached the last piece of brick, they saw only a thin layer of plaster that was left. It could be knocked off and they would escape, they thought. But it was not so simple. The day they made the big hole, it started raining heavily and one of the Guards on duty, realised the turned off bulb. He became suspicious but voices of all the inmates of the cell killed his curiosity to check them further. Now they had a bigger problem at hand: they had made the hole but they were not yet going to make the flight soon. So, if the hole was discovered by the employees of Recruiting Office, on the other side of the barbed wire, while parking their cycles, all the effort would be wasted.
Udaan: Journey to Peshawar
They were lucky for two weeks as no one realised the existence of the hole till the D-day: Saturday 12th August 1972. It was the beginning of a long weekend. The Camp Commandant had left for a trip to Murree, a hill station; the WO-I/C live at the other end of town; so the camp was in the hands of a Police Corporal Mehfooz Khan. Nature too provided them with an opportune moment as a storm was building up. As per Sqn Ldr Jaffa’s idea, Flt Lts Gary, Parulekar and Harish Singhji were all set with their disguised identities, a little ration, money and POW Identity cards. As they placed Dummies on their beds, they waited for the midnight. At midnight, Fg Offr Kuruvilla asked the guards to take him to the toilet. This way he managed to keep them away from any commotion caused during the flight in Cell Number 04. Some crumpled pieces of paper with sketch maps of Sind region were thrown in the corner of the cell to deviate the search and rescue party which would be activated once their absence was noticed.
One by one, all three of them bid adieu to Fg Offr Chati and moved out of the hole. Outside, the storm had started and as a result, it was very chilly. They waited for sometime before entering the Mall road to ensure that it was completely empty. Getting out on the road, they caught a bus to Peshawar. To their surprise, the conductor asked them for the fare in broken English! This troubled them a lot, but they had nothing else to do but sit tight and wait for the bus to start. They reached Peshawar at around daybreak the next day. And now their troubles increased further as they got down and hired a Tonga to go a general city area. The Tongawala was very curious and kept asking all kinds of questions which Flt Lt Grewal somehow managed to answer. After some time they were more than happy to give him five rupee note instead of the four that they had agreed to and asked him to keep the change.
From here, most of the journey was done on foot in auto-rickshaws and/or in a bus, at times. They had entered the North West Frontier Province. This was a tribal area predominantly occupied by the Pathans who were mostly dressed to kill. Nearly every adult was carrying guns and ammunition with them. It was believed that no Pakistani: Sindhi or Punjabi would enter this area. Everyone was looking at them and it was clear that they were suspicious about these three, not so Pakistani-looking people! They managed a bus to Landi Kotal and wanted to get on to Landi Khana from there. They thought of a way to merge with the crowd could be to wear the skullcaps like others and so Flt Lt Dilip went on to buy them. While the other two waited for him to return, someone agreed to take them in a taxi to Landi Khana. As they marched together towards freedom, something happened which none of them had foreseen till now.
A few hundred Miles away from Home were they!
Did they make it? Did they reach their Motherland?
Read more about it in the concluding part of the Great Escape Series