The world of spy missions cannot fail to thrill anyone. I am also thrilled by spy missions and the spy mission by Captain Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union is one such tale.India also has its fair share of similar missions and a look back into history will reveal many of them. The one mission that immediately comes to mind is the 1959 spy mission over Pakistan.

In 1954, Pakistan brought its hate of India to a new pitch and joined the Baghdad Pact and SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization). The purpose of these pacts was to ring Soviet Russia, but Pakistan joined them to get an edge over India. The Baghdad pact collapsed in 1958, when Lt General Kassam, carried out a military coup and executed the Royal family of Iraq. The USA replaced it with CENTO( Central Treaty Organization). Pakistan continued to be a member of CENTO as well.

The membership of the pacts was a godsend for Pakistan as the USA gave it the most modern hardware in aircraft and guns. The PAF was given the F-104 supersonic interceptor and Infra Red sight enabled Patton Tanks. In addition, the USA constructed secret hangers at Peshawar, Sargodha and Sialkot. These were supposed to be bomb proof. Two of the hangers were constructed underground. 

The Indian think tank was worried at these developments and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Mukherjee informed the defense minister at that time Krishna Menon.  He is a much maligned defense minister in India, but even now people are not aware that in reality, he was a man of mettle. Krishna Menon  was the man who opted for Russian aircraft, when the west totally refused  to help India. It was Menon's diplomacy that carried the day and India was able to get the MIG-21.

Menon agreed with the air chief, that a reconnaissance mission was the need of the hour.  It was proposed that a photo recce Canberra Mk I  of 106 Squadron would take off from one of the forward airfields in Punjab and fly over Pakistan and photograph the hangers at Peshawar, Sargodha and Sialkot. The flight was expected to last only about 10 minutes and all were confident that the mission would be a success.

The Mission

Due to the very nature of the mission, it was known only to 3/4 senior officers. They included the Defense Minister and Chief of Airstaff. Nehru was kept in the picture by Menon.

The IAF chose the 10th of April, as it was the day of Ramadan and everybody was confident that the mission would be a success. The air force selected 2 intrepid pilots in Squadron Leader Sengupta and Flight Lieutenant Rampal (Navigator). The aircraft to be used was the Canberra Mark I which had high resolution cameras.

Unfortunately one of the senior minority officers who was in a honey trap with a Pakistan  woman, leaked the entire flight plan to the lady who transmitted it to Pakistan. This was a godsend for the PAF. Unknown, that they had been betrayed by their own officer, the 2 IAF pilots took of in fair weather for the mission. It is a moot point that nobody remembers this brave duo, while Gary Powers name is chanted all over as a super CIA spy.

Just as the plane entered Pakistan airspace, Sengupta was aghast to see a Pakistan Air Force F-86( sabre jet) already airborne and approaching the Canberra with all guns ablaze. The PAF wanted a kill and was taking no chances as in a few minutes the plane would have entered back to Indian air space. The fact that the Sabre jet was already airborne, convinced Sengupta that PAF knew about the mission. Unfortunately he could do nothing as the plane was unarmed.

The Canberra was hit and caught fire. Sengupta held on for a few minutes, till Rampal bailed out and then he ejected.  Both pilots ejected from a height of 45000 ft and it is a tribute to their professionalism that they landed. Both suffered multiple injuries and were taken by the PAF to their hospital at Lahore. Radio Pakistan broadcast the downing of the Indian spy plane and it was a great propaganda boost for them.

By evening an Indian C47 landed in Lahore and brought the crew back to India. It was a body blow and Krishna Menon cut a sorry figure.


The Air Force top brass and the defense minister were surprised as to how the information could have leaked to Pakistan and an inquiry was carried out. It was easy to pinpoint the culprit,a minority senior officer who was dismissed, but the damage had been done. India claimed the plane had inadvertently entered Pakistan air space and it was wrong for the PAF to have shot it down. 

However it was a morale boost for the PAF and even now they talk about it. The Indians were demoralized and for quite some time Nehru never allowed any similar mission.  The two pilots Sengupta and Rampal recovered, but not much is heard about them. In fact there is no mention about them even in the History of the IAF. It is typical of Indians not to honor or remember  any body for bravery. In my book these men are rated high and the fact that they bailed out at a height of 45000 ft, is by itself a great feat. 


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Comments (2)

  1. vijay

What happened to the senior minority officer?

  1. MG Singh

The officer was court-martialed and dismissed though he merited a death sentence. Nehru did not want the incident to be propagated firstly because it was a big Indian failure and secondly because the betrayer was a minority member.

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