THE GREAT ESCAPE
Sqn Ldr Jafa on RT: “Last attack.”
“I knew I should have bailed out but having turned homewards I wanted to delay getting out-the border was less than two minutes flying time away and I wanted to cross it.”
Flt Lt Mohan: “Eject….bale out…..Jafa……eject.”
“By this time the aero plane was spinning, hopelessly out of control, the flames were frightening, and I pulled the ejection lever. Those two minutes of flying time cost me one full year in Pakistani jails……”
On 16 December 1971, the commander of East Pakistani forces General Niazi surrendered and the long war with our neighbours ended. One of the major reasons for the speedy surrender of the otherwise outspoken, over-assertive Pakistani General was the accuracy of Indian bombing. The Russians felt it was a computer-guided exercise. The Americans could not believe and reconfirmed the accuracy of bombings done by Sukhois. What they all could not believe was that all this was the work of “nothing more and nothing less than two Indian eyes in an Indian skull” In the words of Sqn Ldr Jaffa “The only other aid our pilots have, in addition to the magnetic compass and a clock is Eyeballs Mark II installed in an Indian skull.”
If this was not enough, 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 year later, when they marched across the borders at Wagah on 01 December 1972.
“I was mentally prepared to sustain serious injury or death, but before that day I never contemplated the reality of being captured by the enemy. I thought, “This is going to be hard on the folks,” only to realize that I actually verbalized my thought out loud. As the English-speaking officer and I walked side by side, he said, “War is terrible, isn’t it?”― Oliver Omanson
Like any tale of survival in POW camps, this tale is also full of moments of despair overcome only with genuine camaraderie. Many who have narrated this tale before me have focused on the genius of three of them, who actually undertook the flight from the No. 3 P&S Flt, Rawalpindi. In my blog I would like to look at the whole episode from not only a combatant’s eyes but also from all the eyes of all the others who made this escape possible.
“Indian Skull trained to live”
Let’s begin with how an IAF pilot is trained.
Behind the infinite successful hours that the pilot spends in the sky taming his/her machine, it is that gruel some training that s/he undergoes on ground in various phases that actually makes up his psyche in the cockpit. The regular physical fitness sessions, the long detailed ground briefings before sorties and equipment checks prepare the pilot to produce the expected results in the heat of the moment. In addition to this professional training, an integral part of the training process for Indian Pilots is the Jungle and Snow Survival Course (J& SS) which prepares them for the hardships they will face in case of air warfare with the neighbouring countries. Through these training courses, it is made sure that some important procedures such as ejections, the Geneva conventions, survival in POW camps and most important, attempts to escape from such camps with important intelligence related to the enemy become an inherent aspect of the combatant’s behaviour. Another aspect covered here is something known as “inculcation of Officer-like Qualities” which most of them already possess but which need to be polished from time to time. This happens officially through buddy systems, combined PT Parades, Drills and Formation flying practices and unofficially at Officer’s mess bar counters and squadron parties. In short, an officer is trained hard to remain “satisfied, happy and alive” in whatever the situation might be, more importantly, if s/he gets caught as a POW by the enemy.
The daring dozens, as I would henceforth call these officers 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.
“Eyeball Mark II: Observation”
For some days after the Daring Dozens got caught, they were kept in solitary confinement. All of them waited not so eagerly to meet their own, but used this solitude to absorb the locale. They slowly started counting the cells, the doors, windows, ventilators and any other detail that could be significant later. Once when they united with each other, they shared their thoughts. Flt Lt Parulekar was the first to mention a plan of escape as he had noticed a loose bar in his cell. It was a big cell and he could accommodate others to hasten the plan. Keeping in mind the repatriation talks initiated by the government, nobody thought they would have to use this technique. But they started observing the movement of guards and other details closely.
“Right man for the right job”
To say that the escape was the work of only three of the daring dozens would be ignoring the whole ethos of an Armed Force as specialized as IAF. Although Flt Lt Parulekar initiated the idea, he did not stop there by making it a personal agenda. He convinced others and started choosing the “TEAM” for the Mission. The first to be picked up was obviously the Sardar. (faujis will understand the caliber of these fierce warriors). Fondly known as Garry, Flt Lt Grewal and Parulekar were old friends so it was easy to convince him to join the Mission. But more importantly, he was absolutely the fittest of them all, at that point of time. The next one to be recruited was Sqn Ldr Jafa. He was regularly interrogated by different Pakistani and American officers about the secret behind the accuracy of IAF’s bombings. He did not budge but ended up making some good relations with some of the Jail authorities, instead. As a result, they could easily manage to get a few more to live in Cell no.04 along with Parulekar.
“Know your Locale”
“The one who learns to live in the prison is always free and the one who fights for freedom is always prisoned”
― P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar
The human spirit is the same even when it donnes the Pakistani Uniform or the IAF overall. Flt Lt Parulekar knew he required a map to plan the route they would take after breaking out of the Jail. With the help of Sqn Ldr Jafa, he convinced the Camp Commandant Sqn Ldr Usman about a Holiday trip he wanted to undertake immediately after being repatriated. Usman did not buy the story instantly, but Parulekar pursued the matter every day until, one fine day, Usman handed over an Atlas to him. He totally forgot about it in the hurried Handing over-Taking over he did while he moved as the ADC to the Chief of Air Staff, PAF. Usman would turn out to be a friend in need for them later on too.
More about it in the next blog.