Wednesday, December 21, 2011

COLUMN | On Air Marshal Nur Khan (1923-2011)

By Jagan Pillarisetti
Flt Lt with 4 Sqn, 1945

Much has been written about Air Marshal Malik Nur Khan, who recently passed away in Pakistan on the 15th of December 2011.  Pages and pages of tributes have been written about his days as the Chief of Pakistan Air Force during the 1965 War with Pakistan -- and rightly so. It is to Nur Khan’s credit (and to his predecessor) that the Pakistani Air Force did well in that war, managing to hold its own against a larger adversary. But very little has been written about Nur Khan from his early days when he was part of the undivided Indian Air Force -- and about his time after retirement from the Pakistan Air Force and as the Governor of West Pakistan.

Nur Khan was a highly respected and regarded officer within the IAF before partition. Originally a product of the Royal Indian Military College (now Rashtriya Indian Military College), he was commissioned into the Indian Air Force as a Pilot Officer on 6 Jan 1941. Those were still the days when entrants were given commission on the date they reported to the IAF.  He belonged to the 6th Pilots Course (PC).  6PC was unique in that it had other Muslim officers who later formed the backbone of the new PAF. There was Pilot Officer Asghar Khan, who due to his Army service had seniority, and there was M Akhtar and M M A Cheema , all of who would rise to senior positions in the PAF.

After training at the Initial Training Wing at Lahore till May 41, Nur Khan reported for flying training at the Flying Training School in Ambala, completing his flying syllabus by late November 1941. During this time he was flying types like the Westland Wapiti, Hawker Hart and Hawker Audax biplane aircraft.

His first posting after training was to No.3 Squadron at Kohat in December 1941, then equipped with Hawker Audaxes. Over the following year, he would fly proscription sorties in the Miranshah area, dropping leaflets, flying road opening sorties, occasionally undertaking punitive bombing against villages. In October 1942, he was promoted to Flying Officer, along with Asghar, Cheema and Akhtar who happened to be with the same Squadron as well.

Nur Khan stayed with 3 Squadron till mid 1943 at which point he may have been posted for Vengeance Conversion at the Operational Training Unit in Peshawar.

With Flt Cdr Henry Runganadhan
On 8th May 1944, he reported to No.7 Squadron which was at that time operating the Vultee Vengeance Dive bomber under Sqn Ldr Hem Chaudhary. Nur Khan was put in ‘B’ Flight then under the command of  Flt Lt Erlic Pinto. (As a matter of interest - the other flight commander in the Squadron was none other than P C Lal, who would go on to command the IAF in 1971). Nur Khan flew his first dive bombing sorties two days later on the 10th.  Over the next month Nur Khan flew several missions. However his time on the Burma Front lasted just about a month when the movement orders for 7 Squadron came through. By 12th June 1944, the Squadron found itself relocated to Charra. During this time Nur Khan took over the role of the Squadron Sports Officer. In November 1944, the Squadron converted to the Hurricane fighter bomber. Towards the end of January 1945, Nur Khan was posted to No.9 Squadron, which was then on Hurricanes on the Burma Front.

It was here that Nur Khan honed his flying skills and soon made himself quite  famous, sometimes bordering on being a reckless showoff! Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, who served in 9 Squadron remembers that Nur Khan would show off landing approaches in a Hurricane - while inverted! This involved approaching the runway for landing in inverted position, then at the right moment lower the undercarriage (which in this case would open upwards) and then do a last minute roll before flare out and touch down. Handling a Hurricane in such a regime required utmost confidence and handling skills.

One can easily deduce that Nur Khan was  a flying “hog”, never losing an opportunity to fly a new type of aircraft. Even in his last years in the PAF, he ensured that he was upto speed on all new aircraft being inducted, flying such types as the F-6 and the Mirage III.

After less than six months with 9 Squadron, Nur Khan earned his promotion to Flt Lt Rank and was posted to No 4 Squadron RIAF in June 1945. No.4 Squadron was at Yelahanka flying the Spitfire VIII under the command of Sqn Ldr Boyd-Berry. No.4 soon moved to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in early 1946. In one of the first display flights over Japan, Nur Khan led a formation of Ten Spitfires in the shape of a “4”.  His stint as a Flight Commander lasted about 18 months and in November 1946, Nur Khan transferred to the HQ BCAIR (The Air component of the BCOF) as a Staff Officer in the rank of Sqn Ldr. When the Indian component of BCOF wound up in Japan, Independence was around the corner. The Indian Armed Forces were being partitioned and officers being given options to join one or the other country. As he hailed from an area of Punjab that is now part of Pakistan, and also for the fact that many of his colleagues that he served with in 3 Sqn and 9 Sqn were going to Pakistan (Asghar, Cheema etc), it was a natural decision for Nur Khan to opt for the Pakistan Air Force.

The rest of his career with the PAF and his long stint with the PIA had been well chronicled, as is his role as PAF chief during the 1965 war with India. Some points however are worth recounting.

When Nur Khan took over command of the PAF in July 1965, he had but two weeks notice about the launch of Operation Gibraltar. He would say later that his staff reacted with disbelief and he was himself perturbed and shocked hearing about the plan from the Army Chief.  But  he went about “doing as he was told”. He got himself immersed in the business of fighting a war which had flared up as Nur Khan expected.   The PAF did well in the war, enough to actually save the Pakistani Army from disaster many times. But the writing was on the wall: Pakistan was ill-equipped to fight a long term war, and Ayub Khan very wisely accepted the ceasefire when it was offered.

The relatively good performance of the PAF masked the actual truth about how close the Pakistan Army had come to running out of gas while fighting. Subsequent chest thumping and propaganda completely overshadowed any effort to take an unbiased and impartial look into how the war was conducted. Nur Khan himself would lament later  that an opportunity was lost by not conducting an impartial study. He opined that many things that went wrong later on would have been avoided if there had been a serious study conducted by the Pakistanis.

Nur Khan remained PAF chief well into 1968, and would have served more if not for the transfer of power to General Yahya Khan of the Pakistan Army. Yahya imposed Martial Law and offered Nur Khan the Governorship of West Pakistan. Nur Khan bought into the theory that military rule and martial law was good for the country and took up the offer as the Deputy Martial Law Administrator.  Since he could not hold two offices at the same time, Nur Khan resigned his post as the Chief of the PAF and went on to serve six months as the Governor of West Pakistan before resigning in early 1970.  If it hadn't been for the Martial law and the offer of Governorship, he may well have been the air chief during the 71 war (Going by the fact his predecessor served six years at the helm). More importantly he may have had given some sane advice that would have prevented the Pakistani Army from self imploding in 1971.

But from another perspective, it was better for Nur Khan to have retired earlier as he left public service with his stock and reputation still intact. The debacle of 1971 rendered quite a a battering to his successor Air Marshal Rahim Khan. 

Perhaps the results of the 1971 war had reshaped Nur Khan’s views on the earlier conflicts. He had come to arrive at the belief that the Pakistani Army chiefs were the root of the problems that Pakistan had faced throughout. He became a strong proponent of the fact that it was Pakistan which instigated the 1965 war and India was merely defending itself (which runs contrary to the thought process of many Pakistanis). In an interview, when prodded if the conflict of 65 was a “decisive class of arms between Hinduism and Islam”, Nur Khan shot down the idea with a curt “I do not believe there were any ideological compulsions behind the war”. His recent interviews with Dawn TV (available on Youtube) re-iterate these view points again and again. One could not but wish that Nur Khan’s views percolate down to the history lessons that common Pakistani students study, which would result in less hostility between the two nations.

While I never knew Nur Khan directly, several IAF officers have expressed high opinions about him over time. Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif’s comment on his flying skills have been mentioned earlier in this column. Another officer - Air Marshal S Raghavendran, who retired as Vice Chief,  recently wrote that Nur Khan was one of the two of the greatest pilots & commanders of the undivided Indian Air Force that the IAF lost to partition. The other being Asghar Khan who was also well regarded by the veterans of that time. Such respect from officers of the opposing air force does not come easy.

Jagan Pillarisetti, a well-known voice on military aviation and its history, is the co-author of The India Pakistan Air War Of 1965, a seminal work for which he was awarded a Commendation by the Chief of Air Staff in 2007. Jagan is based in the United States. He wrote this obituary exclusively for Livefist on request.

16 comments :

Anonymous said...

Nur Kha is one of the rare Pakistani Armed forces officer to openly acknowledge the fraud that ,'defense of Pakistan day'; celebrated with much fervor in Pakistan;actually is.

Pratik Das said...

More Aman ki Asha like nonsense. India and Indians are expected to be magnanimous on account of being the larger country, the parent country, or some such rubbish while they're simultaneously expected to absorb one act of terrorism after another.

Not for me, thanks.

Mihir said...

Pratik Das,

There is a difference between what you call "Aman ki Asha nonsense" and respect for a professional warrior, even if he was an enemy.

Jagan's piece is obviously a case of the latter.

It has got nothing to do with absorbing terrorism, or being magnanimous because we are the bigger country. I don't how you got all that from a biographical column on Air Marshal Nur Khan.

Anonymous said...

me too pratik !!! had enough of these pakis!!!

Anonymous said...

Bloody Indian appreciating an enemy

Pratik Das said...

Mihir, let me know when respect for a professional warrior is reciprocated.

The last I heard, dead bodies of our warriors were returned mutilated: "Indians were angered by media reports of the death of pilot Ajay Ahuja, especially after Indian authorities reported that Ahuja had been murdered and his body mutilated by Pakistani troops."

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kargil_War

A stark difference in behaviours. I'm not suggesting an eye for an eye here. Nevertheless, there's no need to go out of our way in singing paeans for the enemy either.

Wonder why you didn't get any of that.

Mihir said...

Umm... one respects a competent and professional warrior because he lives up to a certain ideal, embodies a warrior spirit that often transcends national boundaries, and most important of all, there is much knowledge to be gained by such an exercise. A Basil Liddell Hart respects and befriends people like Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein because of their sheer mastery in directing and prosecuting a professional military campaign, irregardless the atrocities of the Nazi rulers of Germany. In discussing their theories and experiences, and finding common ground on many of the technical issues involving mechanised warfare, they formed a bond of friendship independent the politics that led them down their respective paths.

Did you notice that many of the people who seem to have partaken in this "Aman ki Asha like nonsense" are former fighter pilots who fought for their country, like ACM Idris Latif? What will you do next, question their patriotism as well? Allege that they too are glossing over the antics of the Pakistanis while being pally with them? Or will you understand that recognition of an enemy warrior's strengths has got little to do with reciprocity, and very little do do with the atrocities that Pakistani soldiers visited upon captured Indian soldiers?

And since you desire reciprocity, here is one example.

Anyway, I'm still hoping you would show me how a writing a short biography of a Pakistani officer equates to expecting Indians as a whole to be magnanimous to the Pakistanis while absorbing their acts of terror.

Pratik Das said...

The "short biography of a Pakistani officer", Air Marshal Nur Khan in this case, is hardly routine affair on Livefist! If he was chosen on account of being an exceptional warrior then would he be the only one in all of Pakistan of such merit? Wouldn't a long line of biographies of the meritorious in Pakistan's air force, navy and army also be in order?

Or does he deserve special mention for his controversial (in Pakistan) suggestion well after the event that Pakistan Army instigated the 1965 conflict? Lot of good that achieved then or since. The enemy remained the enemy. No surprises there.

If, on the other hand, a biography of an exceptional Pakistani warrior is in order simply because he was Pakistani (the opposition/enemy/whatever) and he was exceptional then, frankly, I'm not sure what "knowledge to be gained" there is now that he has passed away. Did he actually communicate with the Indian armed forces during his tenure or after to improve bilateral relations between the two nations in any significant manner? If not, how is/was the mutual respect between him and his Indian counterparts, albeit genuine, of any relevance? It is understood that the armed forces on either side of the border at Wagah have cordial relations. So what?

If Air Marshal Malik (Late) Nur Khan was one of the best PAF had then surely every PAF pilot was not as good as him and his capabilities provide no measure of PAF, especially PAF today.

Your example of reciprocity isn't worth much considering that the scoundrel like behaviour of Pakistan Army and ISI continues unabated. It is amusing that an apology from an individual for an old conflict has any relevance when new threats are in design by an army and intelligence agency all along. Great for TV specials and Aman ki Asha articles but not much else.

The Kargil war was a wonderful response soon by Pakistan after the Lahore Declaration. Aman ki Asha indeed.

If any member of the Indian armed forces is beyond reproach simply on account of having fought, even valiantly perhaps, then why don't we let them run the country? Why isn't India run by veterans? Why don't these veterans, who know best, organise a coup to end the misery of all Indians suffering the genuine or imagined ineptitude of our civil service and government?

Mihir said...

Okay, let’s take these one by one…

The "short biography of a Pakistani officer", Air Marshal Nur Khan in this case, is hardly routine affair on Livefist! If he was chosen on account of being an exceptional warrior then would he be the only one in all of Pakistan of such merit? Wouldn't a long line of biographies of the meritorious in Pakistan's air force, navy and army also be in order?

That’s not a bad idea. Why don’t you write to Shiv and make the suggestion? He asked Jagan to write on Air Marshal Nur Khan alone, and he (Jagan) did. That’s the end of that. If you want to make the argument that this piece shouldn’t have been written because there are other Pakistani officers deserving of the same, I encourage you to take it up with Shiv.


Or does he deserve special mention for his controversial (in Pakistan) suggestion well after the event that Pakistan Army instigated the 1965 conflict? Lot of good that achieved then or since. The enemy remained the enemy. No surprises there.

Who’s denying that Pakistan is still an enemy? And what is your point? How is all that relevant to a simple column about Nur Khan’s early life?


I'm not sure what "knowledge to be gained" there is now that he has passed away.

“I’m not sure what knowledge is to be gained” ≠ “I’m sure there is no knowledge to be gained”.


Did he actually communicate with the Indian armed forces during his tenure or after to improve bilateral relations between the two nations in any significant manner?

Again, what’s your point? Did Guderian or Manstein communicate with the Allied or Russian armed forces to “improve bilateral relations… in any significant manner”? No. But there are still studied in detail, and their skills are duly acknowledged.


If not, how is/was the mutual respect between him and his Indian counterparts, albeit genuine, of any relevance?

It was relevant enough for a post on LiveFist :)
Again, I don’t see your point.


If Air Marshal Malik (Late) Nur Khan was one of the best PAF had then surely every PAF pilot was not as good as him and his capabilities provide no measure of PAF, especially PAF today.

Strawman. Nobody claimed that his capabilities provide any measure of the PAF.


Your example of reciprocity isn't worth much considering that the scoundrel like behaviour of Pakistan Army and ISI continues unabated.

Nice bait and switch there :)

You asked for an example of reciprocity, of a Pakistani showing due regard and respect for an Indian soldier, and I gave you one. Now you say it is not worth considering by bringing something irrelevant about the ISI into the picture.

Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not biting.


The Kargil war was a wonderful response soon by Pakistan after the Lahore Declaration. Aman ki Asha indeed.

Yeah, let us all vilify every Pakistani, and pretend that there is nothing to discuss about a highly skilled pilot and leader, simply because he is Pakistani. I’m sure that will prevent future Kargils from happening.


If any member of the Indian armed forces is beyond reproach simply on account of having fought, even valiantly perhaps, then why don't we let them run the country?

Gigantic strawman. Nobody is arguing that they should run the country. What I am suggesting is that self-styled internet warriors think twice before casting aspersions on people who have laid their lives on the line fighting for this country, and think a million times before questioning their patriotism. I think it is a fair suggestion.


BTW, I’m still waiting for you to show me how this piece specifically makes a case for Indians as a whole to be magnanimous to the Pakistanis while absorbing their acts of terror.

Jagan said...

Pratik,

I am not much into this political and strategic stuff but as a late comer to this discussion, Let me give you some answers (as the author of the above piece) about some points you raised in the last post

">>he was chosen on account of being an exceptional warrior then would he be the only one in all of Pakistan of such merit? "

No there are others in the PAF - Haider Raza, Asghar Khan - maybe more

">>Wouldn't a long line of biographies of the meritorious in Pakistan's air force, navy and army also be in order?"

Yes it would be, and there will be similar articles on the above mentioned names as well. .. at some point this write up (and the new ones) will be found in the Bharat-Rakshak.com website - IAF > History > WW2

">>does he deserve special mention for his controversial (in Pakistan) suggestion well after the event that Pakistan Army instigated the 1965 conflict?"

..and that too...

Reg the speculation about the motivations and reasons behind this piece, everyone will draw conclusions on what they will believe. .. take it for what it is. and Like it or dislike - as per your choice. Its a free world after all, and I totally get it.

Pratik Das said...

Mihir, I'm not going to go into a detailed point by point response to your reply. I'm amused you seem to have taken it upon yourself to put me in place, so to speak, when the piece was written by Jagan and the blog belongs to Shiv.

You can call anything a bait and switch as you deem fit. I have a problem with honouring people from an institution that is well below unethical and continues to terrorise. I don't care if 0.1% of them are exemplary warriors. You might have no trouble in treating each person on a case by case basis. I said my very first this wasn't for me, and I've explained my point of view. Take it or leave it.

Jagan, you're right. It is a free world. You'll note that I haven't once disparaged the quality of your writing and I was fairly certain you were of BR fame from the effort you've taken in putting this piece together which is commensurate with the quality of material in BR. It is the subject that I've written about. It is only my opinion, as I've stated before, that your considerable effort and the opportunity to broadcast your efforts through this blog would've been better spent on the Indians involved in the 1965 war.

Pratik Das said...

And Mihir, you can keep waiting for anything and everything. I have explained that I see the Pakistani Armed Forces as one entity that should be held accountable for their actions.

We can honour the heroes amongst them when the treachery ceases.

Mihir said...

I'm amused you seem to have taken it upon yourself to put me in place

Who, me? Why would I want to put you in place, kind sir? I objected to your silly outburst against the author and retired armed forces personnel.


You can call anything a bait and switch as you deem fit.

Thank you. I shall also call it bait-and-switch if it indeed is that.


I said my very first this wasn't for me, and I've explained my point of view. Take it or leave it.

You expect me to believe that? Your comments were nowhere near as benign as would merely arise from you explaining your "point of view" :)

Sam said...

I cant believe this. Why are we eulogising somebody who fought for the Terrorist State of porkistan.

Maybe it is a well written article but it should be on a paki defence forum. Not an indian one.

Also for the author who seems to eulogise Asghar khan - you should try reading his book "The Second Round" on the 1965 war and see if you do not die from pure laughter. Basically the story is that in 1965the great muslims thrashed cowardly hindu pilots but of course the politicians lost the war for Pakistan.

Essentially these pakis military personnel are uncouth liars, bigots and filthy terrorists and that is the only respect they deserve.

Arun said...

The problem is a lot of Indians - like Jagan, Mihir etc see war as some sort of game where both sides play a hard match and tehn relax after the game with drinks, and backslapping in plenty. That certainly is the attitude seen in many officers of the prepartition era. Point out that eulogies of the Pakistani side, especially when they are butchering Indians day in and night out, are unseemly and you'll be called an internet warrior as Mihir called Pratik. All said and done, our NRI gentlemen can afford to show a lot of grace for "Warriors" from the Pakistani side, we in India are heartily fed up of Pakistan and all that it represents.

Anonymous said...

Great article ! His interviews on u tube are refreshing as perhaps he is the only Pakistani who spoke the truth about the actual issues in pak with so much candour and so fear lessly. To all the critics of this article - please go see his interviews first, you might end up respecting him for what he stood for - honest professional , non political leader who for a change did not hate India.