Every year, on September 6, the nation pays homage to the martyrs who laid down their lives while defending the country during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India — six times bigger in population and size. 6th September (Defence Day) is one of the most important events in the archives of Pakistan’s history when our military officers and soldiers heroically foiled India’s attempt to dent the fortress of Islam. During 17 days of war, the entire nation was cast into the mould of a cohesive unit. Politicians shunned their differences and all the political parties and people of Pakistan stood by the armed forces. The people of Pakistan hold the military in very high esteem because of the supreme sacrifices they made in defence of the motherland during the 1965 war.

The longstanding border disputes, communal tensions, and conflict over the question of Kashmir flared up in a full-scale war between India and Pakistan in September 1965. On September 6, 1965, Indian troops invaded West Pakistan, in an attack which appeared to be aimed mainly at the city of Lahore. On that day, the Indian army crossed the international borders of Pakistan without a formal declaration of war. It was the time when our soldiers defended our homeland and defeated the Indian Army and made them retreat on all fronts.

The War of Rann of Kutch

Skirmishes at the Rann of Kutch flared up almost accidentally in the spring of 1965, and India and Pakistan found themselves drawn into the first of their two undeclared wars. The dispute goes back to the days of British rule in India. The Rann was the bone of contention between the princely state Kutch, and the British Indian province of Sindh. When British India was partitioned, Kutch acceded to India and Sindh to Pakistan. The issue was inherited by these two states along some 3,500 sq. miles of territory. From January 1965 onwards, border incidents became frequent. By all accounts the Indian forces were badly defeated in the Kutch area by the Pakistan army.

The War in Kashmir

Events in Kashmir were also moving towards a climax. The Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri added more fuel to the fire by taking steps to absorb Kashmir further into the political body of India and stated that the Kashmir problem occupied a secondary place in successful relations between India and Pakistan.

The Lahore Offensive

At 3:00am on September 6, 1965, without a formal declaration of war, Indian forces crossed the international border of West Pakistan and launched a three-pronged offensive against Lahore, Sialkot and Rajasthan. There was a fierce tank battle on the plains of Punjab. The domestic Indo-Pak conflict had transformed into an international conflict. The war began in early August 1965 and initially the fighting was confined mainly to the ground. Later, however, as the war progressed, the war took on another dimension as the two sides began air operations against each other. Although the two forces had previously taken part in the First Kashmir War which had occurred shortly after the partition of India in 1947, that engagement had been limited in scale compared to the 1965 conflict and the air operations that both sides had undertaken were limited and largely confined to interdiction and other strategic purposes such as re-supply and troop transport operations. Although there had been one incident where Indian fighter aircraft intercepted a Pakistani transport, there had been no significant air-to-air combat. During the 1965 conflict, however, the PAF flew a total 2,364 sorties while the IAF flew 3,937 sorties.

The Main Battle

The aerial phase of the war began on 1st September 1965 when the Indian Air Force (IAF) responded to an urgent call for air strikes against the Pakistani Army, which had launched an attack known as Operation Grand Slam. In response to an SOS from the Indian Army, IAF hastily launched 26 aero planes to blunt the Pakistan Army’s offensive in Chhamb. The IAF’s 45 Sqn was tasked to carry out close air support missions in support of Indian troops. The squadron had recently been moved from Pune to Pathankot, after a merger of No 220 Sqn into it, under the command of Sqn. Ldr. S.K. “Marshal” Dhar. Gp Capt Roshan Suri, the station commander painted a grim situation of the Indian army’s position at Akhnoor and the Pakistan Army armour’s thrust at Chhamb on the river Tawi (near Jammu). Twenty eight aircraft were tasked, with the first planes taking off at 1719 hours. These 26 planes flying in Finger-four formation strafed Pakistani positions and attacked Pakistani tanks and ground targets, though a lot of damage from “friendly fire” was also reported later on. When these Indian aircraft were sighted, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) scrambled two F-86 Sabres, flown by S/L Sarfraz Rafiqui of No 5 Sqn and F/L Imtiaz Bhatti of No 15 Sqn to intercept. In the ensuing dogfight over Chhamb where S/L Sarfraz Rafiqui took on flight leader and wingman and F/L Imtiaz Bhatti went after element leader and element wingman India lost four aeroplanes, all 4 IAF Vampires, flown by Squadron Leader Aspi Kekobad Bhagwagar (flight leader), Flight Lieutenant Vijay Madhav Joshi (element leader), Flight Lieutenant Satish Bharadwaj (element wingman) and Flight Lieutenant (later Group Captain) Shrikrishna Vishnu Phatak (wingman) with both Pakistani pilots claiming two aircraft kills each. This swift action forced the IAF to immediately withdraw about 130 Vampires, together with over 50 Ouragons, from front-line service.

On September 2, both sides flew in support of their ground forces; however, no major aerial engagement was observed. The appearance of the Sabres necessitated a move by the IAF to send the Folland Gnat fighters to the forward base of Pathankot. IAF used Mysteres flying at slow speed as bait to lure Sabres to attack where the waiting Gnats would take them on. Two Sabres were scrambled but one had to turn back without entering the fight when the pilot could not jettison the fuel tanks. The other one flown by Flt Lt Yusaf Ali Khan, spotted the IAF planes and tried positioning himself behind them before attacking. 

Just as he got his cross-hairs on them he felt thuds on his own jet, as he was surrounded in a cloud of Gnats repeatedly being attacked. A Lockheed F-104 Starfighter lurking in the area was pointed to the dog fight by base control along with scrambling another one from base. The first Starfighter crossed through the dog fight at supersonic speed. The Gnats after scoring a kill started aggressing. IAF’s Squadron Leader Trevor J. Keelor of No. 23 Squadron claimed to have shot down the F-86 Sabre on that day (3 September), claiming the first air combat victory for the IAF of the war and subsequently received the Vir Chakra and the title of ‘Sabre Slayer’. However the Sabre he ‘shot down’ was somehow flown in badly damaged condition and rough landed back at the base. The Sabre pilot, Flt Lt Yusaf Ali Khan, was given Sitara-e-Jurat for surviving dog fight alone (while his wingman was ordered to leave since he couldn’t jettison his fuel tanks) with six Gnats and bringing the damaged Sabre back home. In the same incident, an IAF Gnat pilot was overheard warning others of the incoming Starfighter. Also, a Gnat piloted by Squadron Leader Brij Pal Singh Sikand, mistakenly landed at an abandoned airstrip in Pasrur, when he thought he had safely crossed the border. On realising his mistake, his subsequent takeoff attempt was aborted due to the presence of a Pakistan army jeep on the runway. 

He was taken POW and later handed over to PAF. On 4 September, an F-86 Sabre was lost. The PAF claimed the cause to be friendly ground fire while the IAF claimed to have shot it down by Flight Lieutenant Pathania.

Rafiqui was shot down over Halwara on 6 September, while Bhatti ended the war with 34 combat missions to his credit, the maximum combat missions flown by any pilot during the war. According to official Pakistani sources during the conflict, the Pakistani F-86 Sabre Flying Ace, Muhammad Mahmood Alam allegedly shot down seven Indian aircraft including claims of two as ‘probable’. According to PAF, during a sortie on 7 September 1965, five attacking IAF Hawker Hunter aircraft were shot down by Alam over Sargodha air base in one minute, of which Alam claimed victories over four in 30 seconds. 

On 6 September, the Indian Army crossed the border at Lahore to relieve pressure on the Chamb Jaurian sector. On the evening of the same day, the PAF responded with preemptive attacks on Indian airfields at Pathankot, Adampur and Halwara. The attack on Pathankot was a great success, as the IAF lost almost ten aircraft on the ground at Pathankot, while the attacks on Adampur and Halwara were failures.

The Adampur strike led by Sqn Ldr M. M. Alam turned back before even reaching Adampur while the even later Halwara strike led by Sqn Ldr Sarfraz Rafiqi somehow evaded all IAF aeroplanes and managed to reach Halwara airfield at night where preemptive bombing couldn’t be carried out due to CAP flown by IAF. Though heavily outnumbered, deep in enemy territory two of the three attacking raiders were shot down for the confirmed loss of two Indian Hunters in air combat. As per IAF, both the Indian pilots survived as they ejected over their base, whereas both the intruding Pakistani pilots were killed in action. This included Flt Lt Yunus and Pakistani flying ace Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafiqui who couldn’t survive low level ejection. Sqn Ldr Rafiqui had earlier shot down two Vampires on 1 September, before being shot down, Sqn Ldr Rafiqui is credited with shooting down first of the Hunters, bringing his total kills to three. He was later posthumously awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat for the Chamb action and the Hilal-i-Jurat for the Halwara action. Only Flt Lt Cecil Chaudhry somehow managed to come back alive from this suicidal pursuit.

Also on 7 September, the IAF mounted 33 sorties against the heavily guarded PAF airfield complex at Sargodha. The IAF lost two Mysteres and three Hunters due to the defence mounted by the PAF’s local squadrons. One of the Indian Hunter pilots, who ejected near Sargodha, was made POW and released after the war. 

The war lessened in intensity after 8 September, with occasional clashes between the IAF and the PAF. Both air forces now changed their doctrine from air interdictions to ground attack and concentrated their efforts on knocking out soft skin targets and supply lines. On 10 September, there was another air battle involving eight aeroplanes over River Beas. It involved two PAF F-86 Sabres flown by Sqn Ldr Muniruddin Ahmad and Flt Lt Imtiaz Bhatti and six IAF planes involving four Mystere and two Gnats loaded with two 30 mm Aden cannons led by Flt Lt V Kapila and Flt Lt Harry Sidhu, where both IAF pilots claimed gun stopping during combat with Sabres with Gnats behind Sabres. Both PAF pilots claimed victories of shooting and damaging 1 IAF aeroplane each. Same day IAF records acknowledge losing one Mystere with the pilot Flying Officer D P Chinoy safely ejecting over the Pakistan side of the border during evening and walking back to safety at night.

On September 13, another encounter happened between PAF Sabres from Sargodha and IAF Gnats from No. 2 Squadron. An Indian Gnat was shot down by a PAF F-86 Sabre flown by Flt Lt Yusaf Ali Khan although the Indian pilot managed to eject safely. The other Gnat was engaged and damaged in air combat by Flt Lt Imtiaz Bhatti. The experienced pilot somehow managed to return to base, where according to All India Radio the Gnat’s pilot later died of wounds sustained during the combat. He was said to have brought his damaged aircraft back to base and to have died during landing. His funeral was attended by the Indian President. Yusaf Ali Khan was credited with a kill whereas, Imtiaz Bhatti was credited with damaging the IAF Gnat despite the later confirmation that the pilot died of wounds and the Gnat crashed during its landing attempt. Later in the night of 13/14 September, Indian Canberras undertook the deepest penetration of Pakistani airspace of the war, attacking Pakistani bases around Peshawar and Kohat. Rather than bombing the Peshawar runway, however, IAF bombers mistook the mall road in Peshawar as the runway and dropped their bombs there instead. The Canberras were intercepted by a Pakistani F-104 near Lahore but they managed to evade the Starfighter and return home safely. They also had an encounter with F-86 Sabres, one of which fired at the Canberras, which sustained some damage. 

On 18 September a Sabre was shot down by a Gnat over Amritsar; the matter was reported by the Collector, who had witnessed the entire dogfight. The same day a Pakistani Sabre shot down a civilian Indian aircraft even after the civilian plane indicated its identity, the PAF pilot assuming it to be a reconnaissance mission. Years later, the PAF pilot wrote a letter to the Indian pilot’s daughter to apologize for shooting down the aircraft. The aircraft had been carrying the then Gujarat Chief Minister Balwant Rai and his family.

On 21 September, a PAF F-104 intercepted a Canberra bomber on its way back from Sargodha and shot it down, while one Hunter pilot Flight Lieutenant (later Air Marshal) K. C. Cariappa who was son of Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa, the first Indian Army Commander-in-Chief was shot down by anti-aircraft fire; he ejected and was taken POW. On realizing the identity of the wounded soldier at Kargil, Radio Pakistan immediately announced the capture of the younger Cariappa. General Ayub Khan himself contacted General Cariappa, who was living a retired life at Mercara, his hometown, with information about his son’s safety. When Ayub Khan offered to release his son immediately, Cariappa is reported to have scoffed at the idea and told him to give his son no better treatment than any other POW. Singh recounts that Cariappa replied, “He is my son no longer. He is the child of this country, a soldier fighting for his motherland like a true patriot. My many thanks for your kind gesture, but I request you to release all or release none. Give him no special treatment.” The ceasefire was declared on the night of 22 September 1965.