(This video was first published on 16 December 2019 and is being republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Vijay Diwas.)
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 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.
My Childhood Memories of Caribou Transport Aircraft
A Squadron of Caribou transport aircraft was based in 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.
During the summer and winter holidays in Gauhati, it would be fascinating for us to see the aircraft show its short take-off and landing prowess on the runway, located almost adjacent to my father’s official residence.
The plane was aptly named after the animal – a herbivorous, non-aggressive ungulate. However, its manufactures 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.
Converting a Caribou Into a Bomber
Within hours of Pakistan's pre-emptive strikes of 3 and 4 December, the IAF had gone into action. On 6 December, 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.
The Risky Mission at Midnight
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.
Short of Dacca, the Caribous started climbing to their optimum bombing height of 6500 feet, outside the range of anti-aircraft guns. My father and his pilots had to keep the aircraft steady as any violent movements could result in the bomb ejection system getting jammed.
Fortunately, Tejgaon’s runway was clearly visible at night. The bombing run commenced with no electronic aids for bomb release timing.
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.
Rajesh Pilot, too, Was Part of the Bombing Mission
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 Wing Commander 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. The radio was the only source of information and announcements of the IAF's victories were greeted with loud cheers. Yet these cheers were tempered by the dread of having to hear news of the casualties which would inevitably follow. 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, deep inside enemy territory, dropping bombs and climbing steeply up, would have given anyone, leave alone the families, sleepless nights.
Caribous Helped India Win the 1971 War
The IAF recognised my father's contribution and awarded him. The Caribou as a bomber was indeed a very bold and imaginative concept, used with great success. The war in the eastern sector culminating in the surrender ceremony on December 16, 1971 had several actors, amongst them the humble Caribou.
The Caribou, after 25 years of distinguished service with the IAF, has now retired. Its permanent parking place is at the IAF Museum adjacent to the secondary runway at Delhi airport. It stands proud in its silver plumage as indeed it should. Today, on Vijay Diwas, I salute our magnificent airmen who flew this flying machine with such distinction!
(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)