Farewell To A Gladiator

Farewell to a Gladiator
Air Marshal Dilawar Hussain …You will always be Remembered!

Men who have had the honour of defending the nation in both 65 and 71 are rare. These men are counted amongst the early heroes to whom the nation owes an immeasurable amount of gratitude. One of these enigmatic heroes was Air Marshal Dilawar Hussain, a bold and daring fighter pilot.  It is safe to say that his exploits in both the wars significantly dented the enemy’s ability to advance and thus saved the motherland from an aggressor. Owing to his outstanding achievement, the writers of military history on both sides hold him in high esteem. There is no doubt that officers like Air Marshal Dilawar Hussain have made PAF what it is today, a force to be reckoned with, a force ‘Second to None’

Life is a struggle and there is no better struggle than in the ‘Air Force’, uttered the recruiting officer of the visiting PAF selection team while talking to the students of FSc at Government College Quetta in 1959. Standing in the corner of the hall was young Dilawar Hussain. The words fascinated him and left no doubt in young Dilawar’s mind that his raison d’être was to soar in the endless skies for his beloved country. He immediately made up his mind that he would become a part of the budding Pakistan Air Force. Soon, he had the approval and blessings of his family. He joined PAF Academy Risalpur on 13 August 1959, determined to make his mark. He covered the initial part of his training, standing out amongst his batchmates owing to his relentless drive to learn. He was part of the prominent group of flight cadets who were selected to fly out to the US for advance flying training. He made the most of this opportunity. During his 2-year stint with the US Air Force, he took the reins of various high-end aircraft of the time, including the likes of T-33, T-34 and T-37. During this period, he also had the joy of gaining mastery over the state-of-the-art F-86. At the end of his tenure abroad, he was commissioned as Plt Off in PAF.

Feats during 1965 War

No 19 Sqn soared under the adept leadership of Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider, affectionately known as ‘Nosey Haider’ in PAF. Dilawar was part of that historic and remarkable mission which probably changed the outcome of the 1965 war and in turn resulted in the defeat of the enemy, five times bigger in size. In the morning of 6 September, 1965, Dilawar Hussain along with Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider and Flt Lts M Akbar, Ghani Akbar and Flying Officers Khalid Latif, and Arshad Chaudhry flew in a formation of six sabres with a call sign ‘Zambus’. The night before, the orders had come in from then C-in-C, Air Marshal Nur Khan to fully load their Sabres with 5-inch rockets. The formation flew out at 0900 hours and flew as far as Amritsar. Meanwhile, the Air Defence Commander grew aware of the Indian Army’s advance on Wagah and immediately diverted their formation to target the advancing Indian armour columns, which had grown to a substantial size by then. It was a sight to behold, as the Sabres emerged as angels of destruction to rain hellfire upon the invaders. The enemy scurried to abandon their vehicles, drivers jumping out to save their lives, happen what may to their doomed armour. Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider dived in for the first attack. Next came Flt Lt Dilawar Hussain, releasing a barrage of rockets on Indian armour. It was evident that the enemy had not anticipated retaliation of this scale. Frantic attempts at saving their lives were all they could do in the face of the fireballs raining from the skies, one after another. The ‘Zambus’ made a total of 36 attacks incinerating several enemy armoured vehicles. In a mere 20 minutes of attacks, the Sabres had reduced what was an intimidating array of enemy armour to smouldering embers. The stretch of Grand Trunk Road was riddled with scores of burning tanks, armoured and support vehicles. The formation had exhausted their arsenal of 5-inch rockets. This mission went down in history as one of the most crucial missions in the 1965 war. After the devastating blow by PAF, the Indian Armour was not able to move even an inch from this day till the war came to an end. Along with this, the dream of Indian Army capturing Lahore and having drinks in Lahore Gym Khana also went down the drain.

Then came the most famous and memorable mission of 1965 warStrike against IAF Base at Pathankot. When the strike orders finally rolled in, No 19 Sqn was ready. For months, Sajad Haider had trained his boys at the Jamarud Firing range near Peshawar to accomplish such a mission. They had rehearsed the tiniest details during these mock up drills and had perfected it for days. That’s why when the day came, it proved to be a huge success. It was PAF’s first strike in enemy territory and everybody was well-aware that there was no room for error. Every single pilot in the squadron wanted the honour and it became a bit difficult for Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider to finalize the strike team. In the end, the formation compromised Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider, Flt Lts Mohammad Akbar, Mazhar Abbass, Dilawar Hussain, Ghani Akbar and Flg Offs Arshad Chaudhry, Khalid Latif and Abbass Khattak. Tied escorts consisted of Sqn Ldr Tawab and Flt Lt Arshad Sami. After a thorough briefing and finalizing every single detail of the plan, Sajad Haider made an attempt at lightening the spirit of the pilots. He had somebody bring in a bucket of clean water. As Dilawar Hussain and the rest of the team looked.

On his return to Pakistan, he was fortunate to be under the tutelage of Rafiqui, Munir and Sajjad Haider. Together they went on to accomplish legendary fighter pilots in the likes of together they went on to accomplish great feats in later years, especially during two wars against the arch rival, India. Initially, he joined No 5 Sqn under the command of legendary Sqn Ldr Sarfaraz Rafiqui and later joined No 19 Sqn, headed by another competent commander, Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider. This was here he was put on the path that would gain him the glory that he was known for the rest of his life.

Lion in amusement, he opened a bottle of cologne and emptied it into the bucket. He mixed it all up. Satisfied, he took handkerchiefs from the pilots and dipped them in the scented concoction. When the handkerchiefs were soaked thoroughly, he wrung them out and handed them back to his pilots.

“It’s a raid!” he bellowed, “If we are shot down by enemy aircraft and meet our Maker, then by God, our bodies won’t stink, atleast!”. The pilots grinned, amused, and wrapped them around their necks. That was the spirit and motivation for which the PAF pilots are still known for.

The formation took off at 1630 hrs to make good on the Time over Target, TOT: 1705 hrs. They climbed to 11000 feet and, as practised, dove down to tree top level and turned towards the IP (Initial point) of the target. It will be interesting at this point to observe the happenings on the other side. A glimpse can be found on the Indian website ‘Bharat Rakhshak’:

“Meanwhile, at the IAF Air Base at Pathankot, the Station Commander, Group Captain Roshan Suri had just returned from a meeting of Station Commanders from Western Air Command. Suri briefed his Squadron Commanders of the impending Army move to cross the international border. As evening approached, Pathankot Airbase received an urgent phone call from Squadron Leader Dandapani at Amritsar Air Defence Centre. He spoke to Wing Commander Kuriyan and informed him that several Sabres had been observed taking off and then go ‘Off the Scope’ as they all went below the radar horizon. This had all the tell-tale signs of an incoming raid. Kuriyan informed Suri about the suspicions of a raid and asked for permission to scramble the CAP (Combat Air Patrol). This is where the Pathankot Base Commander made a vital mistake (for which IAF paid dearly) Suri refused to order the CAP to go off and ordered Kuriyan to go off the shift.”

The formation reached Pathankot at precisely 1705 hrs. It was immediately apparent that they would face little resistance and the base was ill-prepared for the attack. The base had substantial number of Indian aircraft parked in protected dispersal shelters. The most tempting targets were the newly Soviet-supplied MiG-21s. With no air defence and very little retaliation from the ground, Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider made the first strike, following with four more, targeting individual aircraft for his gun attacks. Subsequently, Sqn Ldr Sajad Haider ordered Dilawar Hussain and the other pilots to concentrate on the MiG-21s.

Dilawar Hussain and his comrades complied immediately. The initial battleplan was for every pilot to make two passes each, to ensure safe return. However, facing no retaliation, each pilot made several passes. By then, the heavy ack-ack’s were firing at full throttle but were largely ineffective. One after another, the Sabres delivered lethal blows to the Indian Air Base. Wg Cdr Tawab remained over the airfield, providing cover where it was needed. Later, in his account, he revealed that he had counted 14 aircraft carcasses. Again, an excerpt from Bharat Rakshak covered the strike:

“Wing Commander Kuriyan was just then driving into his garage at his house, when he heard the ack ack guns booming. He looked towards the airfield to see four F-86 Sabres bore down the airfield at low level firing their machine guns, while two aircraft kept high altitude cover. As the four Sabres pulled out, another four dived in. The Sabres strafed military compounds, installations and aircraft on the ground. The Sabres attacked the row of MiGs and Mysteres along the blast pens in the airfield. The CAP was not scrambled. Two of the MiGs, which were being refuelled after returning from an earlier flight, went up in flames. Some Mysteres on the ground bore the brunt of the raid and were damaged as were the two MiG-21s. The Sabres slipped off unscathed as even the airfield defences were caught napping. For the PAF this raid was a cakewalk. All in all, one C-119, four Mysteres, two Gnats and two MiG-21s were destroyed in this highly successful raid by the Pakistan Air Force.”

The pilots returned home unscathed. After debriefing this operation against Pathankot was credited with obliterating seven MiG-21s, five Mysteres and one Fairchild C-119 destroyed on the ground, plus damage to the Air Traffic Control building. Subsequently, Indian MiG-21s were not seen in the air for the remaining duration of the 1965 War. 

For his heroics in the war, Dilawar Hussain was awarded Sitara-e-Jurat. His citation paid homage to his achievements in these words: “Fit Lt Dilawar Hussain was one of the greatest sources of inspiration for his squadron mates throughout the operation. He displayed great keenness to operate in the battle area with great commitment and determination in the face of heavy odds. He flew at all times in a manner that befits the best of the fighter pilots of the PAF. His personal score of enemy tanks and aircraft on the ground was three aircraft, and eight tanks destroyed; one aircraft and four tanks damaged; one armoured vehicle and thirteen others destroyed; nine vehicles and one gun damaged. He flew ten Air Defence sorties and 17 Strike/Close support missions. On one occasion, he continued his mission without being in the least bit apprehensive after having been hit by ground fire. For his courage and high spirits in the performance of his duty, Flt Lt Dilawar Hussain is awarded SJ.”

Heroics in 1971 War

Sqn Ldr Dilawar Hussain had a chance to shine during 1971 war as well. After his brief stint in Saudia Arabia where he took part in the Battle of Sharoora, he was sent to Dacca, to serve the No 14 Sqn. Once again, the odds were stacked against him. Despite being outnumbered by 10 IAF sqns to one of PAF’s in the eastern sector, the morale of the air warriors of No 14 sqn was at its all-time high. They stood like Gladiators’ against all odds till the very last and didn’t budge under pressure. Especially, Dilawar was undeterred. One episode which exemplifies his courage during these testing times can be considered to prove this claim. During one of those days during the war at Dacca, he was heading towards the flight lines when his wing man remarked that they would be heavily outnumbered in the air by the IAF as their lone No 14 sqn was up against 10 IAF sqns. Sqn Ldr Dilawar, took a deep drag on his cigarette, snapped his fingers and said in Punjabi, “Fayr ke hoya. Chal Chaliyay”. (So What, Let’s Go). Such was the unmatched courage of this man which motivated others to stand tall.

On 4 December, at around 1600 hrs, Sqn Ldr Dilawar Hussain took off accompanied by Flg Off Sajjad Noor for the 3rd CAP of the day. Soon, he could detect two bogies on his radar at their 11 o’clock but to the pilot’s bafflement, the enemy aircraft were nowhere to be seen. Sqn Ldr Dilawar Hussain decided to undergo a belly check by banking to either side. Abruptly, he spotted an IAF Hunter, poised to shoot at him from about 1500 ft. Doing a rapid break, he not only managed to shake it off but was able to position himself behind the Hunter after it had overshot. He fired a short burst of canons which set the intruder’s wing ablaze. The pilot, Flt Lt Kenneth Tremenheere, ejected immediately from his destroyed aircraft.

On the morning of 6 December, Sqn Ldr Dilawar Hussain did an air sweep with a formation of four F-86s to aid the Pakistani troops in Comilla Sector in south-east Dacca. During this mission, one of his formation member, Flg Off Shamshad shot down an IAF Hunter. Just as the formation landed at 1000 hrs, the feared attack on Tezgaon runway by IAF was undertaken. A 4-aircraft formation of MiG-21s dropped eight 500kg bombs along the entire length of the runway, damaging it significantly. The same night, almost all personnel at the base put in their all to repair the runway as best as they could. The repaired patch was half the length of a standard runway but was usable for the F-86s.

The next morning, Dilawar Hussain was on his way to the Air Defence Alert (ADA) Hut when he saw a MiG-21 approaching for attack. As he looked on in dismay, the MiG-21 bombed the repaired runway, bifurcating it into two unusable halves. With this, the PAF exploits in Dacca came to a tragic end.

Career until Retirement

After the war, Dilawar remained on various command and staff appointments, which included command of No 14 Sqn, command of No 32 Flying Wing, Director of Operations at AHQ, Officer Commanding CCS, Base Commander PAF Base, Sargodha, and ACAS (Operations) at AHQ. On promotion to a two-star rank, he was entrusted with the prestigious appointment of DCAS (Operations) at AHQ. As an Air Marshal, he served as the DG PAC Kamra as well.

Air Marshal Dilawar Hussain passed away peacefully on 24 November, 2020. He was laid to rest in PAF graveyard at Chaklala with full military honours. PAF Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan expressed his heartfelt grief on the demise of the war veteran. Acknowledging his glorious feats in 65 and 71, the Air Chief noted that he was an exceptional pilot who would always be remembered for his valour and professionalism.

Air Marshal Dilawar Hussain was a kind of a person who is hard to find during these materialistic times. A fighter pilot par-excellence, he was in a league of its own. One quality that surpasses many of his others, was his undaunted courage and boldness. Throughout his exciting career, he stood like a Gladiator, not ready to give-in. For his unparalleled courage, devotion to duty and above all love for the country, he would be remembered for decades to come…