In Memorium: Nazir ‘Bill’ Latif

Obituary By Air Commodore (retd) Sajad Haider

Air Commodore (retd) Sajad Haider pays tribute to an unsung Christian warrior of the 1965 war


Wing crews in front of a B-57, with leader Bill Latif in centre



Come September, much exaggeration is fed to the ignorant nation to distract it from the chaos, corruption and bloodshed that is today’s Pakistan. Each September 7th, the Defense Services are shareholders in this bizarre state’s corporate extravaganza by the celebration of Defense Day to commemorate the 1965 war as a victory.

Retired veterans are put up by ignorant TV anchors and much unsubstantiated rhetoric unfolds about shooting down the enemy like partridges. The official history of the 1965 War by the Pakistan Air Force is in fact biased and evasive of the real happenings.

In truth, celebrating the war as a victory was a ruse, which was cleverly devised by Ayub Khan’s state propaganda machine to masquerade the debilitating failure of leadership.

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However, no one should underestimate the gallantry of the soldiers of the army and the pilots of the PAF who halted the juggernaut of the Indian invasion comprising two army corps supported by their air force (four times the size of the PAF), against Sialkot, Lahore and Kasur in the North.

It is in this context that I would like to share the story of one of those many real heroes whose legacy as a fearless warrior in war and a thorough professional in peacetime is a legend amongst the men in blue of the vintage PAF. Air Commodore Nazir (Bill) Latif had brilliant eyes, which mirrored his soul and a massive, generous heart. I can still picture him today standing in his uniform, his exceptional pilots’ golden wing on the right breast pocket and the highest individual gallantry award in the row of distinction medals on his left chest.

Every single day he would call me at 11 am with the words: "How are you today; is everything alright? It will be alright, don’t worry"

Bill Latif was born to a Christian family – his father Professor Latif was the renowned psychology professor at the Forman Christian College in early 1950s.

Towards the end of his life, Bill Latif never spoke about his legendary achievements or tribulations. It was unthinkable for this non-controversial warrior to publicly boast to the media about his exemplary career as a consummate professional. That is why few in this nation would have heard about this gallant son of the soil.

Tragically, this legend glided gently, silently into the sunset on the 1st day of July, 2011 (I believe that is the date because no one from the PAF or the retired officers who knew about his death had the compassion to inform me about his sudden death, knowing how very close I was to him as he braved through the last three distressing years).

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Sabres in the 1971 war
Sabres in the 1971 war

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Both of the founding Commanders-in-Chiefs of the PAF, Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan, had held Bill Latif in the highest professional esteem and helped him during his recent desolation when he was hit by a stray bullet, losing one eye, followed by a stroke and prostate cancer. They were not informed of Bill’s demise.

Bill Latif had been alone in the world, after having lost his wife years ago. I was one of his closest colleagues during his difficult years but I never heard a whisper of complaint through his most tenuous moments. Every single day he would call me at 11 am with the words: "How are you today; is everything alright? It will be alright, don’t worry.

" How could one respond to a friend so positive even as he braved a lost eye, a stroke following the extraction of the bullet, and prostate cancer? "Sir, I am on top of the world" was my only reply, even if it was far from reality.

He was the true legend for whom the Hilal-e-Jurat was created, but instead it went to losers in high quarters

Bill Latif was undoubtedly one of the best fighter pilots, bomber pilots and commanders during peace and in both the wars. He was an exceptional case, the only one to my knowledge who was kicked up even as a cadet to a higher batch because he was so good from the start.

He commanded several fighter squadrons, all the fighter wings of the PAF; twice commanded the B-57 Bomber wing, especially when he replaced two mediocre predecessors to perk up the poor performance of the bombers. Bill Latif also commanded the prestigious Fighter Leader’s School (Top Gun School) where I was his flight commander.

I had the honour to serve under him again as squadron commander of No.19 Squadron when he was the Commander of the largest No. 32 Fighter wing at Mauripur (Masroor Base). Later I served with him when he commanded the famous No. 33 Tactical wing at Sargodha, and finally when he was base commander Peshawar, where I left him to join the Air Staff College.

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Four PAF F-86F fighter-bombers return from an interdiction mission - September 1965
Four PAF F-86F fighter-bombers return from an interdiction mission – September 1965

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He was a spectacular flyer, instructor and commander; and he never ever raised his voice or used expletives so common in our profession. That was the quality that made every subordinate and superior place him on the highest pedestal.

Once as a squadron commander he was leading a flight of four fighters, with Flt. Lt. Rehmat Khan as deputy with two younger pilots as wingmen. The weather at Mauripur began to deteriorate and a general immediate recall to all aircraft was ordered by the air traffic control. Bill Latif brought his formation back but the visibility had dropped to below the minimum required for landing.

Low on fuel, he made a swift though ominous decision. He ordered all three in the formation to head in different directions and eject. Three F- 86s crashed to the ground as their pilots parachuted down to safety to live and fly another day.

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The aerobatic team of black F-6s (call sign Rattlers) perform over Sargodha. This team was led by Wing Commander Nazir Latif

The aerobatic team of black F-6s (call sign Rattlers) perform over Sargodha. This team was led by Wing Commander Nazir Latif

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What about Bill Latif? Tinchoo Zaheer, my old buddy, batch mate and a fighter as well as bomber pilot, recalls: "The weather had moved in too fast and when we heard Bill’s formation overhead, the runway visibility was down to 100 yards at the most.

We had a prayer on our lips, as there was no alternative for diversion and the formation had been gone long, thus it was low on fuel. Lo and behold, after the thunder of the four fighters had swished away, we heard the sound of a fighter engine as though someone had landed in that treacherous weather.

Suicidal was the only word to describe the act, and it could only be Bill Latif!" That was my commander, friend and a real warrior. Bill Latif saved one fighter that day at the risk of his own life. This is but one of a thousand episodes which filled the life of this legend.

He was hit by a stray bullet, losing one eye, followed by a stroke and prostate cancer

The performance of the Bombers in the 1971 war was spectacular but it came as a surprise when the Indian historians Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra (and the Official Indian record of war) exposed the truth about the PAF performance during the 1965 war and the Indian Air Force losses to PAF bomber raids in the 1971 war.

Bill Latif not only could take credit for the overall performance by the bombers but he was also the only commander in his air rank that flew dangerous daylight and night missions against the Indian deluge in Khokhrapar sector threatening Hyderabad. He led his men in both wars with great leadership, aplomb and courage.

In 1965 his last mission was the deepest penetration in enemy territory against their farthest bomber base in Agra – with Mig-21s, SAM missiles and the inferno of light and heavy anti-aircraft shells emblazing the sky over the target.

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Nazir Bill Latif with a PAF Martin B-57 Canberra bomber

Nazir Bill Latif with a PAF Martin B-57 Canberra bomber

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He was a spectacular flyer, instructor and commander; and he never ever raised his voice or used expletives so common in our profession

It is an ominous indicator that a Christian warrior, who along with many of that faith fought with exemplary courage (some even gave their blood for Pakistan), it is ominous that such a man was given little recognition by the Government of Pakistan.

He was the true legend for whom the Hilal-e-Jurat was created, but instead it went to losers in high quarters. This odious fracas goes on relentlessly with the highest medals being pinned on ignoble quislings whose only achievement is bootlicking and looting.

Farewell Bill the great fighter, you will always live on in the brave hearts who loved and admired you. I can see a new shiny star in the firmament and know it must be you with such brilliance, in the holding pattern, awaiting your turn for scrutiny.

Surely, the most Compassionate and Merciful Creator will judge you justly as you were fair and good to everyone in your life. May your soul be in eternal peace, far away from this cruel and unjust world.

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