The 1965 Indo-Pak war started in April with Pak forays in the Rann of Kutch, duly followed up by its incursion in August in J&K as part of well-conceived Operation Gibraltar (See link http://olivechats.com/t/bloody-september-the-story-of-the-1965-indo-pak-war/770
for the 1965 Indo-Pak War). Initially the air forces were out of the fray, primarily to avoid escalation. The IAF only came into action on 01 Sep 65 when Pakistan forces launched their offensive in the Jammu sector from Chhamb-Jaurian (Operation Grand Slam). At this critical juncture, Indian Government permitted the use of air force to contain the advancing Pakistan armour in the Jaurian sector on the insistence of its Army and Air Chiefs. Rearing to go, the Indian Air Force (IAF) immediately flew its first sortie, in close air support of its ground forces, against Pak ground forces advancing in Chhamb on 01 Sep. When India launched its own offensive inside Pakistani Punjab (See http://olivechats.com/t/the-indian-counter-offensive-punjab-september-1965/773
for the action) on 06 Sep, the scale of both the air and the ground war intensified.
On 06 Sep evening, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) attacked Pathankot, Adampur and Halwara airbases in a pre-emptive strike. This caught the IAF off guard and it lost 11 aircrafts on the ground at Pathankot. Indian fighters intercepted the Pak aircrafts attacking Adampur and Halwara and both sides lost two aircraft apiece in the first air-to-air operation of the war. The PAF intensified its operations by attacking Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal on the morning of 07 Sep and again managed to destroy 09 aircrafts on the ground. The loss of precious aircraft on the ground was a huge setback to the IAF at the outset of the war, and the initial victories definitely went to the PAF.
This jolted the Indian Government and it ordered the IAF to undertake air offensive with a caveat of allowing air strikes only inside West Pakistan. It did not permit the IAF to take any offensive action inside East Pakistan. When the air forces joined the war, quantitatively, the scales were in India’s favor. However, in terms of quality, Pakistan had a clear edge with its F-86 Sabre jets, F-104 Star fighters and B-57 Martin Canberra, along with better weaponry and radars, in its inventory. The recently inducted Sidewinder missiles in the PAF were also far superior to the cannons mounted on Indian fighter and gave them an advantage of both range and accuracy. Although the Government had authorized the IAF 35 combat squadrons in 1963, it had only 25 combat squadrons as against 11 squadrons of PAF when it joined the war. Of these, it retained over 10 squadrons in the Eastern and Central sectors to ward off the threat from Chinaand East Pakistan. At the start of the war, IAF had 466 combat aircrafts against 203 of PAF, but only 290 were available for the air war in the west. The first-generation subsonic fighters like Vampire and second-generation transonic fighters Mystere, Hawker Hunters and Folland Gnats, were a generation behind the Sabres and Star fighters and it is to the credit of the gallant pilots that they still held their own.
After the success of its pre-emptive strikes, Pak planned to destroy the IAF aircrafts on the ground with a bold commando strike by their Special Service Group (SSG).On 06 Sep they para-dropped 180 commandos in Punjab to launch raids on the bases of Halwara, Adampur and Pathankot. The ill-conceived operation was a disaster. The Indian forces and civil population killed or captured all of them and only 15of them could make it back to Pakistan. The IAF bounced back with vigor and vengeance to bombard PAF bases at Sargodha and Chaklala immediately and then continued to target more airbases for the rest of the war that included Akwal, Chak Jhumra and Risalwala. Their deepest strikes went against Peshawar and Kohat airbases on the night 13/14 Sep. Incidentally both air forces were operating their bombing missions during hours of darkness to take advantage of lack of night interception capability of the fighter aircrafts. Meanwhile, the aerial combat was slowly but surely taking a toll on the PAF where their advanced Sabres and Star fighter jets, armed with Sidewinder missiles, were slowly losing their initial edge to India’s Gnat, armed with only rockets and guns. Though much slower than the Sabre, the Gnat’s small size and manoeuvrability enabled it to close in on the enemy and Pakistani pilots confided that it was ‘difficult to see’. Yet, the IAF suffered a major embarrassment when one of its Gnats mistakenly landed on a Pakistani airstrip and was captured as a war trophy.
As the war progressed, the IAF slowly began gaining the upper hand. Yet it now restricted itself to counter air operations. The tempo of air operations was gradually increasing and its quantitative superiority was coming into play when the ceasefire was called on 22 Sep. After its initial losses, Indian pilots acquitted themselves admirably, especially in air-to-air combat and received four Mahavir Chakras (India’s second highest gallantry award) and 43 Vir Chakras. 23 years later, another Mahavir Chakra was awarded to Squadron Leader AB Devayya when a British writer, John Fricker, commissioned by PAF, unearthed his heroic tale of how he used his antiquated Mystere against a Star fighter, and in spite of the aircraft being badly damaged still managed to down the enemy. The two Keelor brothers, Trevor and Denzil, became synonymous with bravery during the war and both received Vir Chakras; the credit of the first aerial combat victory of the war went to former while the latter got the credit of shooting down two aircrafts in the Sialkot Sector.
The IAF flew 3,937 sorties against 2,364 sorties by PAF and lost 14 aircrafts in aerial combat and 11 to enemy air-defence artillery fire, whereas PAF suffered losses of 18 aircrafts in aerial combat and 25 aircrafts to Indian air-defence artillery fire. Moreover, IAF suffered a loss of 53 aircrafts (36 destroyed and 17 damaged) on ground due to enemy air attacks. The IAF Chief Air Marshal Arjan Singh was widely credited for scripting its success and went on to become the only Field Marshal of the Air Force (See http://olivechats.com/t/first-air-warrior-consigned-to-flames-legend-lives/771
). The PAF too had their heroes including Squadron Leader M M Alam, credited with shooting down five Indian aircraft, and Pakistani pilots often boasted of how they held off a larger IAF and came out quits. Yet, in view of the casualties both sides suffered – both in the ground and in air to air combat – their performance was best gauged by John Fricker - the official historian of the PAF – who stated, “The IAF lost the battle on the ground, but won it in the air”.