|Damshung, the first civilian airport, North of Lhasa (circa 1955)|
In the evening of November 19, 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru sent, in panic, a letter to Kennedy.
Early in the day, he had already written to the US President asking for help: “The situation that has developed is really desperate. We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India,” said the second letter.
Nehru insisted on the importance of the Air Force to ‘save’ India; he wrote: “We have repeatedly felt the need of using air arm in support of our land forces, but have been unable to do so [due to] the present state of our air and radar equipment,” he wanted immediate help from the US to “strengthen our air arm sufficiently to stem the tide of Chinese advance.”
Like many in India, I believed this version of history; until I met Wing Commander Jag Mohan ‘Jaggi’ Nath a few months ago in Mumbai.
His mentor was Arjan Singh, the only Marshal of Air Force (India just celebrated his hundred years), who had code-named Jaggi, ‘Professor’.
Jaggi flew specially camera-fitted Canberras for 8 years under 106 Squadron, the most secretive unit of the Indian Air Force, which was tasked to photograph the Chinese deployment in Tibet; from 1960 to 1962 (before and during the war with China), flying every day in reconnaissance missions over the Aksai Chin and Tibet, the young pilot earned his first Maha Vir Chakra (MVC); the citation says: “Squadron Leader Jag Mohan Nath has fulfilled a number of hazardous operations tasks involving flying over difficult mountain terrain, both by day and by night, in adverse weather conditions and in complete disregard of his personal safety. He has displayed conspicuous gallantry, a very high sense of duty and a high degree of professional skill.”
His missions proved immensely useful to learn everything about the Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately, the political leadership refused to believe the hard evidence gathered during of his sorties. Jaggi’s conclusions were: China had NO Air Force worth its name on the Tibetan plateau in 1962.
The fate of the Sino-Indian War could have been totally different had India used its own Air Force, but the Government in Delhi chose to ignore the brave pilot findings and …and take the extreme step write to Kennedy.
‘Jaggi’ is still today fired-up by the events of 1962: “'If we had sent a few airplanes (into Tibet), we could have wiped the Chinese out. …And everything could have been different in the 1962 War. …They did not believe me there was no Chinese air force. …Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time? …The Chinese would have never dared do anything down the line.”
According to a book published last year on Kindle, The 1959 Tibetan Uprising Documents: The Chinese Army Documents, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) was extensively used in Eastern Tibet to ‘bomb’ the Khampa rebellion: “The Tibetan uprising was the only conflict in which the use of the Chinese Air Force was important. In any other armed conflict since 1949 the Chinese Air Force was not used nor did it have much influence on the outcome.”
The book published official statistics: “We can see how many bombs were dropped, how many bullets or shells from fighter aircraft and bombers were fired in the direction of members of the Tibetan resistance.”
But that was in 1957-1959.
Some of these sorties were ‘bombing’ missions (22 with 313 bombs of a weight of 100kg each were dropped). Some 120 tons of food and ammunition were also airdropped (as well as 150,000 propaganda leaflets to convince the recalcitrant Tibetans of the goodness of Mao’s regime).
Later the situation changed, on 10 February 1960, a report issued by the Tibet Military District spoke of “shortcomings and technical difficulties”.
The Tu-4 bombers (Soviet copy of the US B29) used by the PLAAF were stationed in Golmud at an altitude of 2,700 meters; although lower than Central Tibet, the range and bomb load was limited to about fifty percent of its normal capacity. In Tibet itself there was only one airport at Damshung, 120 kilometres north of Lhasa; it was practically not used.
A momentous event took place around that time; Mao decided that Nikita Khrushchev was a ‘revisionist’ and split with the Soviet Union. As a result, China had no spare parts for its Soviet-made fleet and most of the PLAAF airplanes were grounded.
Worse for the PLAAF, there was no fuel available in Tibet anymore.
While in 1960, 2,220 tons of fuel could be imported from outside China, probably courtesy Tursun Uljabayevich Uljabayev, the corrupt Party Secretary of Tajikistan (via Xinjiang and the Aksai Chin road), Uljabayev was sacked in 1960 and the amount of imported fuel fell to 95 tons in 1961 and 30 tons in 1962. There was clearly no question of running sorties on the Indian borders without spares and fuel.
Why was Nehru not informed of these facts? Or was he?
He was probably too much under the influence of his Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon. In a secret report written as he was forced to resign in November 1962, the flamboyant and arrogant minister wrote: “China is reported to have the third largest Air Force in the world. This may well be true.” Menon was aware of the fuel issue: “[China] had inadequate capacity in fuel in terms of war requirements,” he was however told that Mao had some 2000 fighter bombers (and it was an underestimate according him).
The truth was that China had no aircrafts, no spares, no fuel; Mao had bluffed Nehru and it worked. That is today called IW (Information Warfare).