Wing Commander Jagi Nath: The Man who Shot from The Sky

Sub Title : A tribute to a legendary IAF pilot who had the distinction of earning Mahavir Chakra twice on account of exceptional bravery and courage

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, Vsm (Retd)

Page No. : 61

Category : Regular Features

: August 2, 2023

Wing Commander Jagan Mohan Nath, who breathed his last on 21 March 2023, was a remarkable military man, renowned as the lone surviving officer among those who have been conferred with the Maha Vir Chakra twice. At the ripe age of ninety-six, his legacy was his courageous aerial photography, that made a significant impact on India’s understanding of its geopolitical landscape, particularly relating to China and Tibet. However, some of his pivotal findings weren’t always acted upon, even though they held the potential to alter the course of history.

In an interview with Claude Arpie he had stated; ‘If we had sent a few airplanes (into Tibet), we could have wiped the Chinese out. ”And everything could have been different in the 1962 War,’ ‘They did not believe me there was no Chinese Air Force,’ ‘Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time?’ ‘The Chinese would have never dared do anything down the line.’

The son of KN Rai, Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath, was born in Layyah, Punjab (now, in Pakistan) on 08 August 1930. He came from a family of doctors, but he had a passion for planes from an early age. He got an opportunity to follow this passion in 1948 when he joined the Air Force Administrative College in Coimbatore for his initial training having earlier studied in Government College Lahore and was commissioned as a General Duties (Pilot) in the Royal Indian Air Force on 14 October 1950, in December 1957 he was selected to fly the Canberra’s.

During the Sino-India War of 1962, Squadron Leader Nath was a Flight Commander with the Strategical Reconnaissance Unit. He displayed conspicuous courage and was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.  During 1965 Indo-Pak War, Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath again led a Photo Reconnaissance Squadron flying the Canberra aircraft. He led his unit several times over hostile enemy territory to obtain vital information about the enemy. His courageous endeavours were vital in India’s success in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. For his conspicuous courage and exemplary leadership, he was again awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.

Nath idolised the former Chief Air Staff, Air Marshal Arjan Singh and said he was a father figure who dearly cared for him and was a source of guidance for him. He dedicated his Bar to Maha Vir Chakra to Air Marshal Arjan Singh. In a letter to Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in 2014, he wrote: ‘Like a father figure, he had always been concerned and caring. I owe my Bar to MVC (in 1965) strictly to him.” “His personal allocation of all reconnaissance tasks, code naming me ‘Professor’, kept me safe and alive on all my missions.’

No 106 Squadron (Lynx) was based in Agra, and its role was to provide military aerial photography and aid in other operations. The Squadron regularly made low flying sorties, photographing all Chinese movements. In Tibet, the PLA simply did not have the means to intercept these aircraft which had a free run of the skies.  They flew over Aksai Chin, Tawang, Sela and Walong . Apart from these missions, there were strategic missions carried out that were controlled at the highest level.

Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath affectionately known as ‘Jaggi ‘was part of this Squadron and flew his twin-engine English Electric Canberra PR 57 high-altitude long-range reconnaissance aircraft on these tough missions.

The aircraft was fitted with one camera for surveillance and four cameras for pictures. He would regularly take off from Agra cross the Karakoram Pass, then head all the way to NEFA keeping the great Himalayan Range to his right, before re – entering India along the Lohit Valley. While flying over Tibet, Xinjiang, he saw many Chinese soldiers positioned and the pictures clicked by his camera of their deployment and movement were sent directly to Air Headquarters in Delhi.

In his book ‘1962 The War That Wasn’t’, the noted military historian Shiv Kunal Verma talks about Squadron Leader Jaggi Nath meeting Lieutenant General BM Kaul ‘in Army Headquarters with photographs of Chinese deployment after a routine sortie over Sinkiang and Tibet.’ “We got pictures of everything – vehicles. Guns, their defences, especially in the DBO, Qara Qash and Galwan Sectors.”

His missions proved immensely useful to learn about the Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan plateau in the years preceding the 1962 war but unfortunately, the political leadership refused to believe the hard evidence gathered during his sorties and draw logical conclusions.

Maroof Raza in his book ‘Contested Lands ‘mentions that Jaggi Nath had filmed and reported the presence of Chinese soldiers in Aksai Chin stating; ‘ I could not count them but they were there in good number and I took photographs.’ Later, when taken to see the Defence Minister all that Menon asked of him was; ‘Did you see the Chinese soldiers ? ‘He answered ‘Yes sir I saw them. Menon responded; ‘That’s all right, you can go”.

During 1962 Sino-India War Squadron Leader Jag Mohan Nath performed a number of risky operational, including flying over challenging mountain terrain both during the day and at night, inclement weather, and with utter disregard for his own safety. He showed notable bravery, a strong sense of duty, and a high level of professional ability.  For his gallantry he was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.

During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath, MVC   was the Flight Commander with No 106 Squadron, the Strategic Photo Reconnaissance Squadron flying the Canberra aircraft. As per Kunal Verma in ‘1965 A Western Sunrise’; “Wing Commander Jagan Mohan Nath was an unusual man who performed the most unusual tasks. With direct access to the Chief of Air Staff, at times even his Squadron Commander was not privy to the exact task being undertaken by him.

While there was a sense of déjà vu when three years after the Chinese conflict he was again asked to perform similar missions, there was a fundamental difference which made the task even more challenging. As the threat of both the Pakistan Air Force fighters and also ground based anti-air craft systems existed. All his missions were done at deck level during daytime. To avoid being picked up by Pakistani radar he flew just above tree top level but as the field of view was limited once over the target, he would increase his height and hoping not to be picked up by the radar would turn on his camera and film the area.

Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath who had earned a distinction for his heroic actions in 1962, was given the task to fly low over Pakistani territory and do aerial reconnaissance which would help the Indian Army carry out operations across the International Border. This information would enable the Army to know the positions of fortifications and bridges in the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the strength of troops and record their movements

He is credited with filming the Ichhogil Canal to check Pakistani build up around Lahore during this conflict.  Getting airborne from Agra he entered Pakistani airspace opposite Pathankot and flew along the canal. His sortie literally chartered the canal.

The unescorted missions, which were in the nature of reconnaissance, entailed flying long distances over the enemy territory and well-defended airfields and installations during day light. On each of these missions, Wing Commander Nath was completely aware of the risk he was taking. Yet, he opted to carry on the perilous missions by himself. He only gave his colleagues permission to complete some dangerous tasks after much convincing.

The data he obtained throughout his trips turned out to be crucial for the Indian air effort. The sorties gave Indian Air Force the ability to attack crucial enemy objectives, which caused the adverse damage to enemy war effort.  Wing Commander Nath received the Bar from Mahavir Chakra for exhibiting bravery, tenacity, and devotion to duty.

There is no doubt that the meticulous mapping of the adversary’s terrain, deployment and movement by Wing Commander Jaggi Nath in both the conflicts was an outstanding feat. The information gathered by him during his missions which proved vital to Indian efforts during the wars. The missions in 1965 enabled our Air Force to attack key enemy targets and this adversely affected the enemy’s war effort.

By the time of the 1971 war, Nath had joined Air India, but his Squadron continued to carry out significant photo-reconnaissance missions. Even in the modern era, dominated by satellites and drones, the courage and skill exhibited by pilots like Nath, flying unarmed Canberras over hostile territories, remain unparalleled. The significance of Nath’s aerial photographs continues to resonate today, a testament to his indomitable spirit and extraordinary service to the nation.