The importance of Landi Khana-2

Here are a few other pictures of Landi Khana station when it was open in 1926-32:

Landi Khana camp

Landi Khana camp-2

Unlike now, there are some fortified compounds near the station as well as local habitation.

We also look at the Pakistan Railways timetable of  November 1972. It was still officially called the Pakistan Western Railway.

PWR 1972 001

This also shows the timetables of three of the narrow gauge lines which were all closed by the early 90s.

The line to Landi Kotal now had services only on Sunday, still with the hard-working HGS locos. Sometimes the SGS 0-6-0s were also seen there.

Now we return to the India-Pakistan war of 1971 which resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh. While most of the action took place in what was then called East Pakistan, there were also significant military operations involving the armies, navies and air forces of the two countries.

There were a significant number of POWs captured on both sides. The Indian army officers and other ranks were imprisoned at Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), while the relatively smaller number of 12 IAF officers were sent to a PAF prison at Rawalpindi.

The story of the escape has been covered in several books, such as:

“Death Wasn’t Painful”, by DS Jafa (who was one of the POWs, though not one of the three escapees)

“Four Miles to Freedom”, by Faith Johnston (a journalist who had access to the concerned persons in later years).

and an appendix in “My Years with the IAF” by Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, which is written by another escapee Harish Sinhji.

These are all available from Amazon in and other Amazons.

They are all worth reading, although the second one may be a little better written.

I am not going to recount the full details of the story, which you can read in the books mentioned above. There is also a film “The Great Indian Escape” which is being released in October 2019.

The three who escaped were :

Flight Lieutenant Dilip Parulkar

Flight Lieutenant MS Grewal, and

Flight Lieutenant Harish Sinhji

The actual escape from the prison was not too difficult. The question was how to get back to India. A basic map of the northern half of Pakistan may help:

Pakistan Punjab-map

If you are trying to get from Rawalpindi to India, you have to cross through a long stretch of relatively populated areas and then the well-guarded borders with large defensive positions on both sides. Even in August 1972 (long after the cease-fire) it would be extremely dangerous.

But reaching the Afghan border was simpler. The distance from Rawalpindi to the border crossing at Torkham (beyond Landi Kotal) was considerably less. Then, unlike now, Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful country and it would not have been a major problem to contact the Indian embassy in Kabul or other sources once beyond the border.

So the western route it was. The only problem is that no one was familiar with the exact route to the border. While the IAF had struck as far as Peshawar, no one had a clear idea of how to get to the border from there.

Help came in the form of a variety of books which were sent to them from the stocks of various Pakistani cantonments. One of them was “Murray’s Guide to India” which was probably from the 1920s or the 1930s. This used to be the standard handbook for traveling Brits in India during the Raj, and was packed with exquisite details and maps.

I could not locate the exact edition which the POWs used, but it may have had maps like this one from an earlier edition in 1903:

1903 Afghan Frontier by Murray

 

At that time the railway had ended at Jamrud.

Perhaps a good map would have been like this (an extract from the official Indian Railway map of 1933):

NW India 1933 001

In this map Landi Khana is shown as the terminus, as it was until 1932.

Thus, the escapees reasoned, they should make their way to Peshawar and then to Landi Khana which was only about a mile from the border. They were to pose as PAF officers on holiday.

From Harish’s account:

Landi Khana plan 001

The escape on the night of 12 August 1972 initially went like clockwork. They left through a tunnel to the adjacent road at about 00.30 on the 13th. In a short while they found a Peshawar-bound bus, which reached its destination by dawn. By 06.00 they had got to Jamrud, and then to the fort which is known as the gateway to the Khyber. A friendly local helped them to get on a bus to Landi Kotal, which was effectively the last town in Pakistan. It was then 09.30, nine hours after leaving the camp.

Continuing with their plan, they enquired about transport to Landi Khana which was about four miles ahead. Many of the locals were puzzled, as no one had any reason to go there. Finally they got an offer for a taxi. By then they had aroused a lot of curiosity.

The local Tehsildar’s clerk  came up and started questioning them. What followed is summarized here in an extract from Jafa’s book:

Landi Khana capture

To cut a long story short, they were taken into custody. They were soon on their way back to the prison at Rawalpindi. If only they had known better than to ask for a long-vanished place……

The IAF officers were then sent to the larger and more secure camp at Lyallpur where the 500-odd Army prisoners were already housed. Ultimately all of them were repatriated in early December 1972 after spending almost a year in captivity.

However, if they had kept quiet and somehow made their way to the lightly-guarded border 4-5 miles away, they should have been able to enter Afghanistan and ultimately return to India. Or maybe not, since the people of Landi Kotal were familiar with stranded Bangladeshis trying to leave Pakistan by the same route.

Perhaps today’s IAF pilots have been briefed better. Wing Commander Abhinandan did not have time to plan an escape, which would have been almost impossible as he was the lone Indian prisoner at the time.