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'Gentlemen, we are at war!'

By Air Commodore NITIN SATHE (retd)
January 19, 2021 18:25 IST
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'I propose to finish it soon, but till then you all will ensure that we strike hard at our enemy.'
'I will not accept any shortcomings or cowardice.'

IMAGE: General S H F J 'Sam' Manekshaw, the then chief of the army staff, with troops during the 1971 War. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Indian Army

In the first of a series on 1971 War Heroes, Air Commodore Nitin Sathe recounted his memories of his father Colonel Bal K Sathe's valour in that war in which India defeated Pakistan.

In the second feature in the series, he met Brigadier M V Gharpurey, another veteran of the 1971 War .

"Losing men in war is a part of the game and we had to learn to carry on regardless and not lose sight of the task at hand," Brigadier Gharpurey tells Air Commodore Sathe in the concluding segment of the interview.

"Sometime in the last week of November 1971, we were asked to come to Barmer for an important meeting.

The officers gathered under a clump of trees and waited for the Brigade Commander to arrive.

In a fancy looking Jonga which did not look military like at all came a man in a specially tailored different looking uniform with the rank of a Colonel on his shoulders.

They were pleasantly surprised to see that it was the Maharaja of Jaipur, Colonel Bhawani Singh, with his ADC.

What a handsome and upright man and what a colorful uniform he wore! While Colonel Bhawani Singh sat down next to the GoC, General Sam Manekshaw, the army chief, and Lieutenant General G G Bewoor, the commander in chief, drove in.

We hadn't expected to meet so many VIPs at one go at this special meeting and it surely lifted our spirits to be with them over tea.

General Manekshaw didn't waste time. He gave a short and sweet speech which went thus: "Gentlemen, we are at war! I propose to finish it soon, but till then you all will ensure that we strike hard at our enemy. I will not accept any shortcomings or cowardice. I have ordered your army commander (General Bewoor) to ensure that you and the troops under your command are supplied all the requirements.'

'Go then.... and best of luck!'


Image: Indian troops advance during the 1971 War. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

General Bewoor was the GoC-in-C of the Southern Command based at Jodhpur. Around end November, I received a call from his office that the army commander wanted to visit the unit commanded by 'Bhau'. 'Who is this 'Bhau?' the officer asked.

I replied that it was me. 'Oh, it is you, is it? I should have known!' the officer exclaimed.

'One tantya (as Maharashtrian soldiers are sometimes jocularly referred to in the army) wants to meet another!' he quipped.

After enquiring if I had the logistics to look after the VIP guest, he left it to me to look after General Bewoor who succeeded General Maneckshaw as army chief.

We were housed in the PWD guesthouse. We used to cook some food for ourselves and augment it with food from the langar, the mess for the men.

The guesthouse was vacated for General Bewoor's visit, but we decided to cook for him ourselves.

General Bewoor was pleasantly surprised to be treated to a sumptuous lunch consisting of Clear Chicken Soup, Chicken a la Kiev, Mashed Potatoes and Baked Spinach and to top it all, chocolate ice-cream and chocolates.

While we were resting in the early hours of the night a loud bang was heard.

We heard aircraft returning west after striking the airbase at Barmer. It was the second of December and the first of Pakistan's pre-emptive strikes.

As he heard the loud bang, General Bewoor rushed out, shouting at the gunners on duty.

'@#$%$%%^ why don't you shoot the @##$%&*?' the general shouted, using the choicest expletives in Marathi.

I later explained to General Bewoor the limitations of my guns.

The aircraft that struck Barmer had been well out of range. If they had fired, their position would have been given away with the patterned tracers lighting the sky.

The general was satisfied with my explanation and gave me a 'shabash' before he left to supervise operations at Jodhpur.

The 1971 War was a success indeed. The operations was extremely well planned, well administered, well motivated, and well operated at all levels of command.

We never once felt neglected, since all rthe commanders where always available and supportive, accepting suggestions. I never felt scared of any of my seniors in the theatre of operation.

My only recommendation is that our system of honouring the brave and recommending the bravery on paper to the highest authority in writing is flawed.

It needs serious thought and a change."

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe retired from the Indian Air Force in February 2020 after a distinguished 35 year career.
The author of three books, you can read Air Commodore Sathe's earlier contributions here.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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Air Commodore NITIN SATHE (retd)