Officers at Ambala Air Force Station were heading to the mess for a dining out—a formal farewell dinner for an officer who is getting posted out—when they got news that Pakistan had started shooting across the border. They would learn later that these were the opening shots of Operation Gland Slam, a bid to take over Akhnoor and the road to Kashmir. “Our squadrons were told to move to the front immediately,” said Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, 82. Then a 33-year-old squadron leader, Denzil commanded the Folland Gnats of Squadron 9.
The battle had begun badly. The Indian Army was not able to stop the Pakistani advance, which had reached Chhamb, Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Air Force sent Squadron 45’s de Havilland Vampires to support the Army. But, on the evening of September 1, a Pakistani squadron of F-86 Sabres, led by their flying ace Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui, shot down three Vampires. It was a huge blow to India. The Pakistani Air Force was exultant.
“Then, at 7.30am on September 3, our radars picked up a Pakistani air patrol at Chhamb. Squadron 23, which had moved to Pathankot, scrambled their Gnats,” said Denzil, alumnus of Lucknow’s La Martiniere. “They assembled two sections of four Gnats each, one led by Squadron Leader Johnny Green and the other by Trevor [Keelor].” Trevor was his brother, exactly a year younger.
Jimmy Goodman flew a decoy ahead of the Gnats. The Pakistani Sabres took the bait and rushed to intercept. Gnats are not so sensitive to radars, so they remained unseen till two Sabres got caught in the formation. Trevor got behind one and shot it down. “That was first blood,” said Denzil, grinning wide. “What a blow it was to Pakistan’s Air Force, which thought it was invincible. There was panic in their ranks even before our Gnats returned to base.”
Trevor became an instant hero, and a Vir Chakra was announced. At the first opportunity, Denzil called him up and said, “Well done, bro!”
The very next morning, one more Sabre was shot down far out on the eastern front. The kill was made by Flight Lieutenant Alfred Tyrone Cooke, another Lucknow boy and a schoolmate of the Keelors. Cooke had intercepted two Sabres over Kalaikunda and, after a fantastic dogfight, brought down one. “The other is a ‘probable’, meaning we are not sure if it was shot down or not,” said Denzil. Another Sabre down, another Vir Chakra announced.
Then, on September 19, Denzil was called to escort four Dassault Mystere fighter-bombers to Chawinda, near Sialkot. Two Army strike corps were engaged in a fierce ground battle here, while the Pakistani Air Force rained bombs on them. “It was late afternoon, around 4.30pm, when we took off in formation,” said Denzil. “Gnats behind Mysteres. We flew low, 100ft above ground, and I could see the battle on the ground through the smoke and the dust. We saw a huge column of tanks heading from the west to the east. It could only be the enemy. At the same time, we sighted four Sabres, targeting our ground forces. I called up [Flight Lieutenant Viney] Kapila and told him and buddy Mayadev to take on the two Sabres to the left, which were higher. Muna Rai and I tackled the lower flying ones.”
Soon, two simultaneous dogfights were on in the hazy sky. As the Sabres and Gnats engaged each other, Denzil noticed a dim burst of fire and thought more Pakistan aircraft had joined the fight. But, he quickly realised that this was anti-aircraft fire. “I was above the Sabres, and so had an advantage,” said Denzil.
Rai could not keep up with the air attack and was ordered to return to base. Through all the smoke, haze and fire, Denzil saw the Sabre in front of Kapila trailing black smoke before it turned sharply and hit the ground. “Kaps, you got him,” shouted Denzil over the radio, even as he tackled his own Sabres.
He got his chance when the Sabre below him rolled out and began turning left and right, searching for him. “He had lost sight of me,” said Denzil. “I took the chance, dived down and fired three bursts. The Sabre was leaking. Kapila joined me and tried shooting the craft, but his guns jammed and we headed back to base. Later, we learnt that the Sabre never made it to base, its pilot bailed out.”
Denzil’s adventures were not over. As he touched down, he realised that his left tyre had deflated, probably hit by anti-aircraft fire. He manoeuvred the Gnat to safety, but Kapila had to fly to Air Force Station Halwara to land. “That night, I learnt that Kapila and I were awarded the Vir Chakra. This time, Trevor called up and said, ‘Well done, bro’,” said Denzil.
The enormity of the day hit him only much later. “It is not like the movies,” he said. “There is so much happening that one does not have time to think of anything but the next action. Even when you land, the ground crew want to be briefed on how the engines and guns performed. And we know it is team work.”
Kapila’s buddy, Mayadev, was shot down and taken prisoner. He returned after a few months. “One does not exult in such an atmosphere,” said Denzil. He admits that once a few pegs are downed at the bar, inhibitions vaporise and tall tales are spun. Denzil’s tales, however, can never be as tall as his achievements. He has had an adventure-packed career, picking up a Kirti Chakra, a Param Vishisht Seva Medal, an Ati Vishisht Seva Medal and eight commendations, making him one of the most decorated officers of the IAF.
The Gnat fights of 1965 go down in history for several reasons. For the first time, three Vir Chakras were given for similar acts, gunning down Sabres. For the first time, two brothers got Vir Chakras for the same feat. And, La Martiniere, Lucknow, became the first school to have three alumni who were awarded Vir Chakras in the same war for the same feat.
So, on September 3, a grateful Indian Air Force will present the proud school with a Gnat, in a ceremony presided over by Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha himself.