Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke: Savior of Kalaikunda Airbase
On the night of 6/7 September, 1965, Indian jets retaliated the air action by West Pakistan by attacking air base of Dhaka, then East Pakistan. The Pakistan Air Force’s Sabre fighters were based in Tejgaon airbase of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Due to contradictory intelligence, the Indian Air Force struck Karmitola airbase instead, a mere 14 kilometers away from Tejgaon. The following map shows the two airfields.
Two air bases of Tejgaon and Karmitola
At this very moment of IAF action, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at Tejgaon were getting ready to attack India. Commander of PAF at Tejgaon decided to target main airbase of India in the east, the Kalaikunda base near Kharagpur. 5 PAF jets, led by Shabbir Syed, attacked Kalaikunda successfully, destroying 6 IAF aircraft on the ground.
The PAF was operating with Sabre jets, supplied by the US and had the best operational record of any aircraft, since the end of world war 2. This along with the succesful PAF attack assured Pakistan of its air superiority and of weak Indian defense. Base commander at Tejgaon, Gulli Haider decided to completely eliminate Kalaikunda once and for all. With the main airbase of IAF gone, Pakistan would hold an unchallenged air supremacy at least in the Eastern Front.
Pakistan’s Strategy to Eliminate Kalaikunda
Tejgaon base commander Haider devised a superb plan to meet the objective. The PAF jets would fly low to the Sunderbans delta, proceed towards Dudkundi firing range and finally attack Kalaikunda from the West. Attack from the West when the enemy is on the East would surprise Kalaikunda. The map below shows the route PAF would take. Kalaikunda is based in Kharagpur.
Route taken by the PAF
Secondly, Haider stitched up the above plan with a fake move. Accordingly, a pair of PAF jets would move towards Calcutta and thus all Indian air patrols would move towards those jets for the defence of Calcutta. This would free any threat for the main attack on Kalaikunda. These two plans stitched together would certainly provide the PAF with an overwhelming air superiority for the entire war.
As per Haider’s plan, the fake move worked and attracted Indian air force towards them. Fl Lt. Alfred Cooke and Flying Officer S.C.Mamgain from the 14th Squadron at Dum Dum, India, scrambled their jets (Hunters) towards the PAF fighters moving towards Calcutta. But the PAF fighters remained inside East Pakistan and so no action materialized. The pair had taken off at 8 am on 7th September to face the PAF jets but as they did not cross the border, the duo landed back at Dum Dum airport at 9 am.
Fl Lt. Cooke, being the best pilot of the 14th squadron was not satisfied. He had a gut feeling that Pakistan would seek to eliminate Kalaikunda very soon. His only reasoning was that Indian higher ups would not be expecting a re-attack this soon. So, this was an opportune time for the PAF to strike and eliminate the main Indian Air Base in the East. He repeatedly contacted the radar station, 411SU, asking whether any movement was seen.
On the Pakistani side, Pakistan Strike Force of 4 PAF fighters was being led by Fl Lt. Haleem. He was flying very low to avoid radar detection from Indian side. These were the very fighters who had struck Kalaikunda in the earlier strike. While flying over Port Canning area, 2 of the PAF jets showed themselves on the Indian radar for a few seconds and then disappeared from the radar. Flying low was a frequently used method to avoid radar detection, first used by a bombing raid by England on Germany in World War 2.
The Indian radar, 55SU, reported 2 blips of unidentified aircraft on their screen for a brief period and then disappeared. This information was enough for Fl Lt. Cooke to rush to his Hunter aircraft along with his Flying Officer Mamgain to deal with the PAF fighters cruising towards Kalaikunda. But by that time, the PAF had struck.
The PAF over Kalaikunda decided to keep one aircraft over the top as a lookout and the other 3 would bombard the field. Fl.Lt. Cooke spotted the 4 enemy aircraft and changed the protocol to deal with them. Instead of the established protocol of leader-wingman, he directed Flying Officer Mamgain to take out the lookout on the top while he would deal with the bombers.
Fl. Lt. Cooke takes on Flying Officer Afzal Khan
When Fl.Lt. Haleem was diving down to bomb Kalaikunda, he noticed bullets spiraling all around his jet. He realized that the IAF’s Hunter aircrafts were behind him. Haleem pulled up vertically to take position behind Cooke. At this moment, PAF’s Afzal Khan rushes to aid his leader, firing at Cooke. Cooke pulls up vertically and at 3000 feet reversed his aircraft, heading towards Afzal Khan. Both got into scissor maneuvering, as shown below.
Now, with every passing scissor, Afzal dived down to close ground levels to increase his speed. Cooke followed him and could calculate that he would again dive down. The levels to which Afzal dived were so close to the ground that in one such dive, Cooke’s plane brushed with a shrub. They were close to 30 feet from the ground.
Predicting Afzal to again dive down after a scissor, Cooke was ready with his position and gun. When Afzal dived again, Cooke fired. Flying Officer Afzal’s aircraft burst into flames.
Fl.Lt Cooke takes on Fl. Lt. Habeeb
As soon as Cooke broke off from Afzal, he was attacked by Fl.Lt. Habeeb, right hand man of the leader of the strike group, Fl.Lt. Haleem. As Habeeb dived down to gain speed, Cooke reversed and used the higher speed of his Hunter to gain on Habeeb. Firing at a close range, he seriously injured Habeeb’s Sabre jet, as large parts of his wings flew off. Habeeb fled towards East Pakistan. Fl. Lt Haleem saved Habeeb by diving onto Cooke, distracting him.
As Habeeb’s aircraft was seriously damaged, it crashed right across the border in East Pakistan with Habeeb ejecting successfully.
Fl.Lt. Cooke takes on Fl.Lt. Haleem
This was the battle between leaders. As Haleem dived to saved his no.2, Habeeb, Cooke was always situationally aware of Haleem’s position. So, as soon as Haleem took position behind Cooke, Cooke broke off vertically. Cooke knew that Haleem’s Sabre aircraft does not have a height advantage and would not be able to reach him. Unable to reach Cooke, Haleem broke off the engagement and fled towards East Pakistan. Cooke was waiting for this very chance. With Cooke behind Haleem, Haleem pulled vertically, Cooke doing the same to remain at his tail.
Cooke’s firing rounds on Haleem chipped off some pieces of his aircraft making him flee to safety in East Pakistan.
At this very moment, Cooke realized he had run out of ammunition and his speed indication was damaged. He let Haleem go off to East Pakistan.
Fl.Lt Cooke takes on FL.Lt Basheer
Flying Officer Mamgain had been given the task to take out the 4th aircraft circling on the top. Mamgain had successfully scored some hits but Basheer was still very active and was closing in on Mamgain. Basheer was positioning himself behind Mamgain to deal a fatal blow when Cooke arrived on the scene.
With no ammunition, Cooke flew directly towards Basheer threatening to ram him. Basheer pulled off his engagement with Mamgain, who was ordered to go to Dum Dum airport to initiate recovery. Cooke stuck to Basheer and no matter what Basheer did, Cooke would not leave him. Basheer was waiting for Cooke’s bullets but when they did not arrive, Basheer knew something was wrong and with this opportunity, he fled towards East Pakistan.
Cooke’s repeated calls to Kalaikunda airbase to send more fighters fell on deaf ears as PAF had successfully bombarded the communications unit of Kalaikunda. Still, Cooke followed Basheer right till the border.
Fl.Lt. Alfred Cooke, the Vir Chakra awardee
Fl.Lt. Alfred Cooke had successfully took on 4 PAF jets and did not land his aircraft even when he was out of ammunition and some parts were damaged. His actions foiled the plans of Gulli Haider to completely neutralize the most important Indian airbase in the East, the Kalaikunda airbase. Cooke’s actions destroyed 2 of the PAF’s jets (Flying Officer Afzal Khan and Fl.Lt. Habeeb), injured one another beyond repair (Fl.Lt. Haleem) and successfully chased off the remaining (Fl.Lt. Basheer).
Fl.Lt.Haleem reported that there were 9 IAF jets at Kalaikunda while in reality there were 2. This shows the ferocity of Cooke’s maneuvers and attacks. Fl.Lt. Alfred Cooke and Flying Officer Mamgain were awarded the Vir Chakra for defending Kalaikunda.
Joshi, S. (2019, September 07). 1965 India-Pakistan war: How IAF's heroes slayed PAF's superior Sabre fighter jets. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://theprint.in/defence/1965-india-pakistan-war-how-iafs-heroes-slayed-pafs-superior-sabre-fighter-jets/287642/
Joshi, S. (2019, May 12). Story of Flt Lt Alfred Tyrone Cooke: IAF's unsung 1965 hero & his classic 1 vs 4 air combat. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://theprint.in/opinion/heroics-of-1965-war-an-indian-air-force-pilot-engaged-four-pakistani-sabre-jets-all-alone/234459/
Pietrucha, M. (2016, April 07). Rediscovering Low Altitude: Getting Past the Air Force's Overcommitment to Stealth. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://warontherocks.com/2016/04/rediscovering-low-altitude-getting-past-the-air-forces-overcommitment-to-stealth/
Image credit: http://www.combataircraft.com/en/Tactics/Air-To-Air/Vertical-Rolling-Scissors/