Wg Cdr HS Gill has been missing since his aircraft was shot down over Badin, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, on 13 December 1971. His is an intriguing story of a daredevil pilot who went on his last sortie during the war with a premonition that he would not return.
Hersern Singh Gill, born in Nowshera in Pakistan in 1933, was the commanding officer of the No. 47 Squadron (Black Archers) operating out of Jamnagar during the war. “High Speed Gill” to his colleagues, he has been described by someone who served with him as a “hard taskmaster, teetotaller, superbly fit, tall and wiry”, and it is said that everyone dreaded his searching questions in the daily briefings.
He was a man so passionate about flying that he tried every possible stunt, beat several records and specialised in breathtaking aerobatics. His air shows on MiGs at the Tilpat ranges were much talked about for their precision and skill. He was the happiest watching the sunrise from his perch up in the sky, in the cockpit of a MiG or a Hunter.
In December 1971, Gill was in a state of happy expectancy because the “balloon” (military slang for the beginning of an armed conflict) was finally going up and he was about to fulfil his dream of duelling with the PAF. Between 12 and 13 December, Gill and his squadron were tasked with destroying a heavily protected signal complex at Badin, which housed a radar station. He led several missions during this operation.
On the morning of 13 December, they had just returned from a strike mission on the underground Ops room and the communication centre with 57mm rockets. Earlier reconnaissance sorties had revealed a ring of thirty-six anti-aircraft guns defending the Badin complex. One plane on this mission had incurred some damage due to the ack-ack firing.
Upon landing back at Jamnagar, Gill discussed strategy with station commander Pete Wilson, and a decision was taken to employ the more powerful S-24 rockets to penetrate Badin’s formidable concrete structure. But before the aircraft could be loaded with the new ammunition, the western air command ordered the squadron to carry out one more urgent strike. Gill was not happy to go on the mission with the old ammunition and voiced his frustration. But theirs is not to question why.
Air Cdr IJS Boparai (Retd), then a flight lieutenant, was the lead escort on the four aircraft missions. He recalls the whole operation vividly: “HS was quite upset at not being given time to arm himself with S-24 rockets because the bunkers at Badin were proving resistant, as they were heavily protected with earthen embankments. A ring of thirty-six ack-ack guns also defended the signal unit (SU) complex.”
The flight commander, Sqn Ldr Viney Kapila planned the flight details and put Gill in the first strike aircraft with himself at number two. But Gill switched places with him and put himself in the second position. His curious remark – “The Black Archers must always come back with the leader” – was to prove portentous.
The four MiGs headed for Badin, with Kapila and Gill in the strike planes and Flt Lt Boparai and Flt Lt BB Soni as escorts. They found themselves a little off-target but quickly corrected, and the two attack planes dived and released their bombs. Suddenly, Soni indicated that he was low on fuel. “Bingo” was the code word for all four to head back to base if any one ran out of fuel.
As the others pulled away, Gill made one last lone pass over the complex – that was when his aircraft got hit by the ground fire. The others heard a garbled sound on their radio sets. Flt Lt Boparai could not see Gill’s aircraft, so he returned to the target area to find out what happened. He saw a dust trail, about one and a half kilometres long, starting near the SU.
The downed aircraft had gone through the perimeter fence and come to a halt in one piece. Boparai did not see any parachute in air or on ground, but felt that Gill could have ejected over the target area.
That evening, a broadcast over Pakistan’s Hyderabad radio station announced that an ace pilot of the IAF had been shot down over Badin and captured. Though Gill was operating from Jamnagar, the radio announcement said the pilot was from the Hindon airbase (the squadron’s peacetime location). A later announcement said that the pilot, Wg Cdr Gill, had died with the aircraft and could not be identified.
When prisoners were being repatriated after the war, the Indian authorities enquired how Pakistan knew that the pilot was Wg Cdr Gill if his remains could not be identified. No answer ever came, and he is still listed as missing in action.
In 1972, in response to Basanti Gill’s request to trace her husband, the air headquarters informed her that the ICRC had forwarded the following information from the Pakistan foreign office: “One MiG-21 aircraft was shot down near Badin on 13 December 1971. The pilot did not eject. The aircraft crashed and caught fire. The body or any other personal effects could not be recovered, therefore, the identity of the pilot could only be established through the Indian reports, which declared him missing and in that area. The radio report is incorrect.”
But the air headquarters simultaneously said to her that it was not satisfied with the information received, “because if, as the report states, ‘the identity of the pilot could only be established through Indian reports’, then it would mean that his identity could only be established after 12 May 1972 when we first told ICRC of the date/area in which your husband was missing. And yet, it was broadcast by Pakistani radio on 13 December 1971 that he has been captured. We have therefore asked the government to get further information through the ICRC to reconcile this discrepancy.”
In subsequent years, as Wg Cdr Gill’s brother looked for a way to bring him back from Pakistan, two significant pieces of evidence emerged to support the belief that he was alive and in captivity in Pakistan.
Basanti had a sister who was a flight attendant with the British Overseas Airways Corporation, and she often flew from India to the UK via Pakistan. She struck up a friendship with a Pakistani flight attendant whose fiancé was from Badin. The colleague checked with his family, who told her that an Indian pilot had ejected and landed near their home during the war. When he was captured, it was discovered that the officer was bald.
“You see, HS had shaved his head just as we landed in Jamnagar a few days before the war broke out, and even Basanti did not know of this. She at once called me to ask if it was true that he was bald on his last sortie. I confirmed to her that this was true, and the realisation of what the news conveyed by the Pakistani flight attendant meant shook us all,” remembers Boparai. That Gill was flying with a shaved head on that fateful day was also confirmed by Kapila.
Boparai was in for another shock when he went to Iraq as an instructor, from 1979 to 1981. Some of the cadets he was teaching had returned from a training assignment in Italy. Italy offered its forces for UN peacekeeping missions, and possibly had a base where soldiers from different countries were stationed. One of these cadets relayed a story shared with him by a US officer in a bar.
The account in Boparai’s words: “The US officer had revealed that they had an ace IAF pilot, whom they got from Pakistan after the 1971 war, to test a MiG-21 aircraft. This was a MiG which Israel had stolen from the Iraqis, and was later given to the US for evaluating against other aircraft. The unnamed Indian pilot apparently did wonders as he flew the aircraft for the US. It’s very likely that he was talking about Wg Cdr Gill because he was the only ace MiG pilot missing since the war. I said to myself, ‘Beda gark!’”
Excerpted with permission from Missing In Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back, Chander Suta Dogra, HarperCollins India.