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The brave caribous in the dark: How a transport aircraft was converted into a bomber

The writer remembers his father Group Captain VC Mankotia, flying a transport plane turned into a bomber, the valiant Armed Forces fighters, who staked their lives in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Flying down the memory lane and a heartfelt tribute on its 50th anniversary.

By Ajay Mankotia
New Update

Photo courtesy: Special arrangement Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

My late father, Group Captain VC Mankotia, was commissioned in the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1951 as a transport pilot. Through his career, he flew all the transport planes in the IAF stable such as the Dakota, Packet, Otter, Super Constellation, IL-14, HS 748, and AN-12. And, lastly, the Caribou.

In May 1970, he was posted as the Station Commander of the Air Force Station, Gauhati (as then known) which was located at Borjhar. For educational reasons, the family – my mother and the three siblings, did not follow him to Gauhati and took up residence at Delhi Cantonment. We were enrolled in schools close by and my mother took up a teaching assignment in a school.

A squadron of Caribou transport aircraft was based at Gauhati Air Base. The Caribou was (I speak in the past tense because the aircraft has retired from military operations) a Canadian tactical transport plane designed to supply the battlefront with troops and provisions and evacuate casualties. It could take-off and land on short landing strips. It was a rugged aircraft and was used extensively in the Northeast. Its maximum speed was only 216 mph.

The plane was aptly named after the animal – a herbivorous, non-aggressive ungulate. However, its manufacturer, De Havilland, would not have in their wildest dreams ever imagined that the plane, like the animal, could also turn dangerous when provoked. And that provocation arrived on December 3,1971 when hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

We would visit Gauhati during school vacations every summer and winter. During our trip in the summer of 1971, the war clouds were not yet looming. The Bangladesh War was still six months away, but the events leading up to it had already been set in motion. The independence movement was already underway in East Pakistan. The genocide that followed, along with intense flooding, poverty and disease ravaging the population, with hundreds of thousands dying, forced refugees in their millions to pour into India. The refugee camps were deluged by a massive exodus across the border into Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam.

It was during that trip when the US Air Force C-141 and four C-130s arrived there.

Photo courtesy: Special arrangement Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The Americans had come to help, and this aspect of history is still relatively unknown. These planes had been sent for refugee evacuation efforts. In May 1971, India had requested the US to provide four C-130 transport aircraft and crews to help ferry the Bengali refugees. The US State Department asked the request be routed through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After the UNHCR took on this task, the US approved the deployment of four C-130s for 30 days from 12 June till 14 July, 1971. The C-130s flew from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, USA. To support C-130 operations, ten C-141 sorties flew in equipment and provisions from Frankfurt to Gauhati.

The new air force colony was at that time in the final stages of completion. It was located at the foothills of a hillock and appropriately called ‘The Mountain Shadows’ which name my father had come across when he had gone to the US on a flight safety course six years earlier. The Military Engineering Services burnt the proverbial midnight oil and completed the project just in time to welcome the Americans.

The sorties were daunting – eight to ten hours a day with no night halt possible at Agartala because of security reasons and shelling from across the border – the barbed wire fencing between India and East Pakistan ran 15 feet from the dumbbell of one of the runways. Navigation aids were rudimentary, and weather inclement.

The refugees were packed inside the aircraft like sardines. But this was a small price to pay for escaping the grim events unfolding inside their country.

The pilots were Vietnam War veterans, where they had carried out operations under trying circumstances. Captain Wayne Wiltshire was a Texan pilot who insisted on wearing a Texan gallon hat with his flying overalls. He used to fly the C-130 Hercules like a fighter, so much so that when he was executing a tight turn on finals for the runway in Gauhati, a woman refugee who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, delivered a baby during the turn.

Group Captain VC Mankotia with USAAF team | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement Group Captain VC Mankotia with USAAF team | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The Americans promptly christened the baby Bonny Jack. We were there when it happened. The C-130s carried out a total of 308 sorties in 30 days of operations. They flew out 23,000 refugees.

In the August of that year, I heard George Harrison’s single Bangla Desh (as then spelt). It was released three days prior to the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ organized by him in Madison Square Garden, New York (consisting of two shows). The song began:

“My friend came to me / With sadness in his eyes

He told me that he wanted help / Before his country dies…

Bangladesh, Bangladesh / Where so many people are dying fast…”

The concerts were followed by a triple live album and a concert documentary. I would hear and see them much later. Marquee musicians such as Ringo Starr, Bob Dylon, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston, Leon Russel, and others had participated. Overnight, people became educated about geopolitical events they had not even been aware of.

The tragedy in Bangladesh moved to the fore as an international issue.

The War in December of that year put paid to our winter vacation plans in Gauhati.

WITHIN HOURS of Pakistan’s pre-emptive strikes of December 3 and 4, the IAF had gone into action. On December 6, the runway of Tejgaon Airport at Dacca had been cratered preventing the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) from operating Sabre jets. Though it was repaired during the night, the IAF cratered it again the next day. It was vital to keep bombing the runway repeatedly, day and night, to prevent any repairs and thus keep the PAF fleet grounded.

My father came up with the innovative idea of converting Caribous into bombers. Converting the Caribou into a bomber, at first glance, appeared to be foolhardy. However, the Eastern Air Command saw merit in the idea. The objective was to use the Caribous to harass the Pakistani Army and repair teams at the Tejgaon airfield by sporadic night attacks. Subsequent events resoundingly vindicated the concept.

The Caribou pilots enthusiastically supported this novel and onerous task, one requiring them to transcend their lack of bombing training and any problems the Caribou may encounter in its new role. Operating live bombs made for a dramatic change from handling docile cargo.

Four Caribous, led by my father, took off for the bombing mission on December 7 midnight. The target – Tejgaon Airport, Dacca. Flying Caribous at night was a hazardous exercise. Though the Squadron was experienced in carrying out paradrops by night, there were few visible landmarks in the dark. The crew picked up features they could make out on the ground; however, cloud cover, combined with the darkness, ensured they lost sight of the features yet again.

The Caribou pilots used a combination of guesswork and instinct to time the bomb ejection mechanism.The switch had to be flipped with a simultaneous opening of the throttle to full power, which raised the nose and put the aircraft in a climb.

Each Caribou released ten 1000 lb. bombs before heading back to Gauhati. The round trip took more than four hours for the lumbering Caribous; all four returned safely. The objective of the Caribou raid was to harass the PAF, to make sure there was no rest for those on the ground. They succeeded; there was no rest for the PAF that night.

Tejgaon airfield was bombed on three nights, and the Pakistani brigade at Brahmanbaria was bombed on two nights. Some of the other pilots who took part in the sorties were SS Sane, VPS Gill, Dellinder Kohli and Rajesh Pilot. It was an act of the highest courage to undertake these missions in a plane not conceived, designed or ever used anywhere in the world as a bomber.

Back home, we were totally unaware of the details. Imagine a family of three children and their mother huddled around a transistor radio through two weeks of cold December nights — ears pricked to catch every word of the newsreader through the static. Imagine sitting in a darkened room with a solitary candle casting eerie shadows on the blackened window panes. Imagine shivering and breaking out in cold sweat in spite of the room heater. Imagine hoping that no news was good news.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing that we were completely ignorant of the bombing missions of the Caribous. The very thought of a slow flying plane, conceived and built only for transport duties, ponderously flying in the dark over tree tops deep inside enemy territory, dropping bombs and climbing steeply up, a sitting duck for enemy artillery, would have given sleepless nights to even the most hardened military person.

DURING THE WAR, my father’s brother, then Major PC Mankotia (who retired as a Lieutenant General), of Kumaon Regiment, was also seeing action in the North Western Sector of Bangladesh in the Battle of Bhaduria. The battalion was probing the defenses of the Pakistani army and in the ensuing stand-off, the Commanding Officer was injured and evacuated. The mantle of command of the battalion was donned by my uncle (who was promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel).

Bhaduria was a heavily built-up area, with lots of trees and well defended bunkers. It was held by three companies of the Pakistani Army who fought with great determination because Bhaduria was vital to them. Under my uncle’s leadership, the battalion captured Bhaduria with tanks being employed in a supporting role.

The War was over on December 16, much to our relief. We finally heard our father’s voice over the telephone after what seemed to be an eternity.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman visited Delhi en route to Dacca on January 10,1972. He stopped for a few hours here on his way to rejoin his people in Dacca after more than nine months of detention in West Pakistan.The British Royal Air Force Comet that brought him from London, where the Pakistani Government flew him two days ago after it had freed him, arrived at Palam Airport at 8 am.

He and Mrs Indira Gandhi rode in the motorcade to Parade Ground, Delhi Cantonment, the venue of the public rally, cheered by thousands along the eight‐mile route in the shivering cold.

He told cheering Indian throngs that both the countries would be bound in eternal friendship as brothers. “The people of India stood by us in our darkest hour and we will never forget it,” he said.

The whole visit was televised live by Doordarshan, which we watched with pride and joy.

After the War, the IAF recognized my father’s contribution and awarded him Bar to the Vayu Sena Medal. He had earlier won the Award as Squadron Commander of an AN-12 Squadron in Chandigarh. My mother was present for the Investiture Ceremony.

This is what the citation read:

“During the operations against Pakistan in December, 1971, Wing Commander Vijay Chand Mankotia was the Station Commander of a Transport Base. He provided such remarkable facilities at his Base that the fighter operations during the conflict went through with exceptional smoothness and success. He ensured that all the needs of the fighter force, both administrative and operational, were fully met. In addition, he converted a transport aircraft for operations in bombing role. This employment of a transport aircraft, the first mission of which he himself led, played an important part in the harassment role over enemy airfields at night and in the strike role over defended targets by day.Throughout, Wing Commander Vijay Chand Mankotia displayed courage, professional skill and devotion to duty.”

We went to Gauhati during the summer of 1972. During the flight from Calcutta to Gauhati, the pilot pointed out important landmarks of the War – a broken bridge over river Padma, the scene of a battle, towns whose names had become familiar over the course of the independence movement and the War.

During our visit, we attended many official and social programmes organized to celebrate the victory. The ladies composed a song whose starting lyrics I still recall –“Bharat ke hum hawa baaz, kamaal kar dala humne, Purab Paschim Asia ka itihaas badal dala humne”.

To commemorate India’s victory, Lata Mangeshkar gave a public performance at Ramlila Maidan, Delhi in 1972. She sang Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna and Jayate Jayate Jayate composed by Jaidev. A day earlier, Lata along with Usha, Hridayanath and Jaidev, visited my uncle – late Satish Bhatia – music director, for tea, where I had the pleasure of meeting all of them.

In the song Bangla Desh, George Harrison sang:

“Now please don’t turn away

I want to hear you say

Relieve the people of Bangladesh

Relieve Bangladesh.”

Our nation didn’t turn away.

They liberated the people; they liberated the country. It’s been 50 years today. On this Vijay Diwas, both the nations owe a debt of gratitude to India’s armed forces.

The writer is a former Income Tax Commissioner.