The evening of September 1, 1965, saw hectic and desperate attempts by the IAF to stop the rapid advance of Pak Army’s 12 Division offensive against Akhnoor. Vampires, obsolescent but considered suitable for providing close support in the valleys of Kashmir, were hastily called into action.
No 45 Squadron was moved from Poona to Pathankot. The grim situation on the ground found the Vampires at work immediately. Three strikes of four Vampires each had been launched in succession that evening. Much had been made of their success by the IAF, but Major-General GS Sandhu was not impressed; in his book ‘History of Indian Cavalry,’ he recounts how the first Vampire strike of four, leisurely proceeded to destroy three AMX-13 tanks of India’s own 20 Lancers, plus the only recovery vehicle and the only ammunition vehicle available during this hard-pressed fight.
The second flight attacked Indian infantry and gun positions, blowing up several ammunition vehicles. The Indian forces were spared further ignominy at their own hands when an element of two Sabres arrived at the scene. Squadron Leader Rafiqui and Flight-Lieutenant Imtiaz Bhatti were patrolling at 20,000 feet near Chamb. On being vectored by the radar, they descended and picked up contact with two Vampires in the fading light. Rafiqui closed in rapidly and before another two Vampires turned in on the Sabres, made short work of the first with a blazing volley from the lethal 0.5” Browning six-shooter. Then, with a quick-witted defensive break, he readjusted on the wing of Bhatti who got busy with his quarry.
While Rafiqui cleared tails, Bhatti did an equally fast trigger job. One Vampire nosed over into the ground, which was not too far below, the other, smoking and badly damaged, ducked into the trees. It had shaken the Indian pilot, Flying Officer Sondhi staggered back to tell the horrifying tale. The less fortunate Flight-Lieutenant AK Bhagwagar, VM Joshi and S Bharadwaj went down with their ghoulish Vampires, in full view of the horrified Indian troops. Only minutes before, Flying Officer SV Pathak of another Vampire formation had been bailed out after being hit by ground fire. The mauling had been thorough. This single engagement resulted in a windfall of strategic dimensions for the PAF. The shocked and demoralised IAF immediately withdrew over 80 Vampires, together with about 50 Ouragons from front-line service. The IAF was effectively reduced in combat strength by nearly 35% in one deadly stroke, thanks to Rafiqui and Bhatti’s marksmanship.
It may be appropriate to recollect the remarks of USAF Fighter Weapons School (Class of 1956) about Rafiqui's adeptness at gunnery. “Capt Rafiqui was the high individual in air-to-air firing and was above average in air-to-ground firing; had a thorough understanding of methods and techniques used in fighter weapons delivery and aerial combat manoeuvring, valuable as a future gunnery instructor highly recommended that he used in this capacity to the greatest advantage, possible when returning”. The PAF made no mistake and put his skills to good use, as the Chamb encounter demonstrated. However, there was much more to come.
Squadron Leader M Iqbal (Shaheed), Sitara-e-Jurat
Sqn Ldr M Iqbal was born in Sialkot and was the only son. After graduation from FC College, Lahore, he joined PAF on Jan 3, 1952, in 13 GD (P) Course and got commission on June 11, 1953.
When the war broke out in early hours of Sept 1, the destruction of Amritsar radar became the prime objective of PAF, as it had played a key role in directing IAF bombers and fighters into Pakistani airspace. The challenge was thrown to Sqn Ldr Iqbal’s squadron to suggest ways and means of locating the radar. Being an innovative officer, he came up with a novel idea of locating the radar by using the electronic devices fitted in RB-57 ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. Fully knowing the dangers of such a daring mission, he volunteered to lead a formation of four B-57 aircraft in broad daylight to collect intelligence and exact location of Amritsar radar.
In the afternoon of September 9, he took off from Peshawar with the mission to first locate the enemy radar and then direct the PAF fighter strike to destroy it. While he was overhead the Amritsar radar, his aircraft came under heavy fire from enemy ack ack guns and got severe damage on the right wing. The right engine flamed out; however, he remained calm and skilfully piloted his crumbled aircraft, flew at tree-top height and headed for Peshawar. While returning, he directed the fighter strike formation to attack Amritsar radar; however, for lack of intelligence gathering, considerable results were not achieved. On return from the mission, he did not seem to be satisfied with the results and decided to make one more attempt.
On September 11, he planned to make some practice approaches on Rahwali (Gujranwala) radar to refine the procedure of newly assigned role of path finding before launching a final assault on the Amritsar radar. He along with his most reliable and proficient navigator Flt-Lt Lodhi took off from Peshawar in the afternoon and headed for their final and eternal journey. The gallant crew flew initially at high level and then descended to low level as they approached Rahwali radar. Due to lack of coordination and proper communication with the friendly radar, the ack-ack gunners at Rahwali were not aware of the practice attacks or perhaps they panicked and took their own B-57 aircraft for an enemy Canberra- the British version of B-57, which looked the same. In this utter confusion, the gunners opened fire on their own B-57. The valiant crew tried to make desperate attempts to avoid the heavy AA fire but failed. The aircraft was hit and got severe damage. Sqn Ldr Iqbal ejected but was still fired upon and received the fatal bullet during parachute descent. Luckily, the aircraft did not catch fire and after crash, and his body was retrieved.
The great warrior was given the hero’s farewell at his funeral. He was buried with full military honour at his native town at Nangal, Sialkot, in the presence of thousands of mourners. The Shaheed was posthumously awarded Sitara-e-Jurat.