IAF's Lilliputian Gnats were tiny and low-tech yet brought terror to the Pakistani Air Force 

Kolkata: Exactly 49 years ago, soon after 3pm on November 22, four tiny Gnats were ‘beating up’ Kolkata (then Calcutta), even keeping other aircraft from landing at the city airport . The IAF pilots were ecstatic and engaged in low-level flying across the city, prompting residents to look up in wonder. And not without reason. They had turned into the ‘Sabre Slayers’ overnight.

This is particularly significant as the IAF, on Friday, concluded its two-day familiarisation exercise at Kolkata airport. The aircraft they flew were British-origin Hawk trainers, barely 4m longer than the 8.7m Folland Gnats that made history in 1971. Like the Hawks, the Gnats were British-origin jets. They were not trainer aircraft but fighters, but didn’t enjoy the transonic capabilities of Hawks during a dive. The Gnats were never considered a match for the transonic US-origin F86F Sabres of the Pakistan air force (PAF).

“That is the whole point of familiarisation. Just as the Hawks that concluded their exercise on Friday, the Gnats of 22 Squadron were based at Kalaikunda till they started operating from Kolkata airport after familiarisation. Had they been in Kalaikunda, they may have been too late in reacting to the Sabres operating over the Boyra Salient. This was a landmark achievement even before the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War began officially,” an IAF official said.

The action on the ground was to be later immortalised as the Battle of Garibpur. Bangladeshi Mukti Joddhas, assisted by Indian troops, had destroyed Pakistani Chafee tanks when PAF was called in. The Pakistani Sabres started operating over Indian territory on November 22 morning. While the radar at Dum Dum did pick up incursions by the Sabres twice, they had turned back by the time the IAF Gnats reached Boyra.

“They weren’t as lucky during the third sortie. Around 2.48 pm, the Dum Dum radar picked up four Sabres approaching Boyra and a similar number of Gnats took off from Kolkata, flown by Flt Lt R A Massey, Flt Lt M A Ganapathy, Fg Off Donald Lazarus and Fg Off S F Soarez. In eight minutes, the Gnats were over the Boyra Salient and shot down two of the Sabres. The third fled towards home, trailing smoke. The entire operation was coordinated by Fighter Controller Fg Off K M Bagchi who operated from the Air Traffic Control in Kolkata. While Massey, Ganapathy and Lazarus received Vir Chakras, Bagchi was awarded the Vayusena Medal. The pilots of the Sabres shot down were captured. This air battle was a game changer and the Gnat pilots ‘beat up’ Kolkata and the airport on returning,” the official added.