This Day 70 Years Ago
Lt General N.S.BRAR
In all my extensive experience as Allied Commander in South-East Asia and Pacific during the Second World War, I have never seen an airlift of this magnitude with such slender resources and at such short notice
-Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy and Governor-General of India
At 0500 hours October 27, 1947, six requisitioned civil Dakota transport aircraft took off from Safdarjung (then known as Willingdon) Airport, New Delhi. At the same time three Dakotas of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) were getting airborne from Palam Airport. By 1000 hours they had landed the first elements of the Indian Army at Srinagar.
It was to change the history and geography of Independent india.
The events leading upto October 27, 1947 began with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed by Prime Minister Atlee to “take Britain out of India before June 1948”. Lord Mountbatten, a man in a hurry, arrived in Delhi on March 22, 1947 and set August 15, 1947 as the date to end British rule.
The leaders of the emerging Dominions of India and Pakistan as also the 565 Princely States were expected to resolve the merger of these states with either of the Dominion by then when British Paramountcy would lapse.
Having failed to convince the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir to accede to Pakistan, and notwithstanding the standstill agreement, a tribal invasion was launched on October 22, 1947. The plan envisaged a force of six 'Lashkars' of about 1000 men each stiffened with regular Pakistani troops to advance and thereafter capture Banihal to isolate the Valley.
On October 24, the raiders captured Mahura and the power house, plunging the valley into darkness. Brigadier Rajendra Singh, Chief of Staff of the State Forces, personally assumed command of the State Forces troops at Uri and held the raiders for four crucial days. The steel bridge over Uri Nallah was destroyed to delay the raiders. He was posthumously awarded the first Maha Vir Chakra.
After a period of uncertainty of acceding to the Indian Union, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir signed the instrument of accession on October 26, 1947 when the enemy was literally at the gate. The same evening at about 2200 hours Army Headquarters was asked to airlift troops to Srinagar early on October 27. No Britisher was to be involved in active operations.
The only unit readily available and commanded by an Indian Officer was 1 Sikh which had moved from Clement Town, Dehra Dun, on August 27 for internal security duties and was strung out around Gurgaon and Rewari.
The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, had assumed command on October 21. The Battalion was able to immediately muster barely two weak companies. Another company was organised from three officers and 104 Sikh troops of 13 Field Regiment, Royal Indian Artillery (RIA) under Captain RL Chauhan, then stationed at the Red Fort Delhi, again on internal security duties, and some Sikh personnel from 2 Field Regiment RIA (the prefix Royal was dropped by all the services on January 26, 1950).
Thus 1 Sikh less two companies and the Composite Company RIA was ordered to be airlifted on October 27. The remainder Battalion was to be mustered and flown in subsequently. The troops for the initial airlift were concentrated at the airports by 0400 hours. No 12 Squadron of the RIAF, the only transport squadron, was also able to muster only three aircraft. These were augmented by the available civilian Dakota aircraft. The Operations Order was handed over to the Commanding Officer by Captain (Later Lt Gen) SK Sinha at the airfield.
Tactical Headquarters 1 Sikh and a platoon were assigned the three RIAF aircraft from Palam. The six civilian aircraft from Safdarjung were to lift the C Company of 1 Sikh. The second wave of eight aircraft was to lift the Composite Company RIA at 1100 hours and the third wave of eleven aircraft to lift the D Company of 1 Sikh. The remainder Battalion was to be airlifted the next day.
The airlift was not totally unexpected or without any warning. The requests for help emanating from the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir from October 22, onwards had initiated some contingency planning on October 25. Army Headquarter was warned on October 26, to prepare for intervention in Kashmir. An Oxford aircraft from Ambala carried out reconnaissance of the Srinagar airfield on October 26, and confirmed the absence of the invaders. Nevertheless, the airlift on October 27, was fraught with uncertainties and hazards reflected in the directions to the Commanding Officer to circle the airfield and land if it did not appear to be held by the raiders.
The first wave took off well before dawn. The leading aircraft (VP 905) was very appropriately piloted by the Commanding Officer No 12 Squadron RIAF, Wing Commander KL Bhatia with Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, Commanding Officer 1 Sikh, on board.
It was a clear, bright and sunny day.
After nearly three and a half hours the first lumbering piston engine aircraft landed at Srinagar airfield at 0830 hours and by 1000 hours the first wave had disembarked. The second and third wave consisting of eight and eleven Dakotas took off at 1100 hours and 1300 hours and by the end of the day the 28 sorties had landed 1 Sikh less two companies and the Composite Company RIA at Srinagar; a total of 300 men.
While C Company and the Composite Company, RIA were dispatched immediately on arrival to reinforce the State Forces troops at Baramula covering the main Uri – Baramula – Srinagar Axis, D Company was tasked to deny the bridge over the Jhelum at Sopore and secure the airfield and the town. A defensive position was taken up by the C Company and the Composite Company RIA at Mile 32 East of Baramula.
Lt Col Rai, along with A and D Company, set out towards the C Company position on October 28. He was killed in action that evening and awarded the MVC posthumously. Under pressure and overwhelming strength of the invaders, the Battalion, along with the Composite Company RIA, withdrew and took up a defensive position at Mile 16 near Pattan.
This position was held and the raiders kept at bay. This enabled the build up of troops at Srinagar on October 28 and 29. Two Spitfire fighter aircraft operating from Ambala carried out strafing of the enemy on October 28, helping the defenders to hold their ground. These aircraft thereafter landed at and operated from Srinagar.
On October 29, Tactical Headquarters 161 Indian Infantry Brigade was established at Srinagar airfield. 56 men of 1 Sikh and 218 men of 1 Kumaon (Para) were also flown in. The defence of Srinagar airfield was now taken over by 1 Kumaon (Para) and the remainder troops of 1 Sikh under Maj Harwant Singh, MC, who had assumed command of the Battalion, moved forward to Pattan where the situation was critical. Repeated enemy attacks on the Pattan position were beaten back.
On October 30, two 3.7” Howitzers of the Patiala State Forces under Lieutenant Jabar Jang Singh were flown in. The written instructions to the troop commander were to hand over the guns at Srinagar and return. He and his men were not to be involved with the ongoing operations. The guns were without sights.
As the guns were being unloaded a group of raiders was observed preparing to move towards the airfield from the direction of Badgam. The guns were immediately brought into action and fired by sighting along the barrels. The raiders dispersed. Two more guns arrived the next day. Notwithstanding the non availability of sights, the guns were immediately deployed in direct firing role and continued to do so till the sights arrived.
D Company of 4 Kumaon, under Major Somnath Sharma, was flown in on 31 October. On receiving information on November 3, about the concentration of raiders near Badgam, he was sent out to reconnoitre. While returning, his company was surprised by the raiders, however, the company held its ground. In the fighting that ensued, Major Somnath Sharma was killed. He was the first winner of the Param Vir Chakra.
On November 7, 161 Infantry Brigade launched an attack to throw back the invaders from around Srinagar at Shalateng where heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy by the combined firepower and bayonets of the infantry, two Daimler armoured cars of 7 Cavalry under Lieutenant David, artillery and strafing from the air. By the evening of November 7, Pattan had been recaptured and Baramula was captured the next day. Uri was captured on 13 November. The threat to the Valley had been eliminated.
Aircraft returning from Srinagar were invariably overloaded for evacuating civilians. Amongst them was a three year old boy, the future Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash.
(Lt General NS Brar (Retd) is former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff)