Today marks the 81st anniversary of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and as it showcases its full range of modern aerial capabilities at the Air Force Day Parade at Air Force Station Hindon, it is only right to rewind the clock to the halcyon early days of military aviation in India.
Early years – World War I
As World War I gathered momentum, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) commenced recruiting Indians as front line combat pilots. Of the five Indians who applied for a commission into the RFC between November 1916 and April 1917, Lieutenant Srikrishna Welingkar, Lieutenant Eroll Chunder Sen, Lt. Indra Lal Roy, DFC and Lt. Hardit Singh Malik saw action on the Western front. Welinkar and Indra Lal Roy perished in aerial combat, while Sen was shot down behind enemy lines and captured by the Germans — he was repatriated after the war. The image of the First World War combat pilot was often romanticised and unrealistic — the average life expectancy of a pilot was just 11 days as pilot safety was not a real concern. Lt. Indra Lal Roy was the first Indian to be decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for shooting down nine German planes in less than 14 days. Roy’s life expectancy in sustained combat was above the average — just over a month!
Resistance from the RAF to have Indian commissioned officers in the Royal Air Force, or allow the formation of an Indian Air Force on the lines of the Indian Army continued till as late as 1932. However, flying training of the first batch of six Indian officers commenced at the RAF College at Cranwell from September 1930 — five of them qualified to be pilots, while one became a logistics officer. Sensibly, the British also trained 22 technicians, also called “Hawai Sepoys.” These pilots and technicians can rightly claim to be the “founding pioneers of independent India’s air force.” Air Vice-Marshal Harjinder Singh, one of first batch of Hawai Sepoys recalls the reaction of the British Adjutant of Air Force Station Lahore when he expressed a desire to join the RAF:
You are not even allowed to go near those aeroplanes, leave aside fly them. To be a pilot in the RAF, you must have English blood flowing in your veins.
First squadron and WW II
Though the first squadron of the IAF, No.1 Squadron was formed in 1932 equipped with just one flight Wapiti aircraft, it was deployed in the NWFP only in 1936 after adding another flight. Squadron Leader Subroto Mukherji was the first Indian to command the squadron in September 1939. By December 1939, 23 more pilots had enrolled for flying training at RAF, Cranwell. Of these, 16 remained in service at the start of WW II along with 144 airmen and one squadron (No.1 Squadron) of Wapiti aircraft. Three from the initial pre-WWII lot, Subroto Mukherjee, Aspy Merwan Engineer and Arjan Singh served with distinction through WW II and made it to the post of Chief of the Air Staff, the top slot in the IAF. Severe pilot shortages led to the recruitment of Indians holding a civil pilot's license as part of the Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve Force (IAFVR). Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal was among the initial lot and served the nation with great distinction as did Air Chief Marshal Moolgavkar , probably the only surviving veteran of the Indian Air Force with memories of his training days as an IAF Volunteer Reserve pilot.
From the gloomy days of early 1942, to the time when Assam was being threatened in 1943 by the Japanese advance across the Chindwin River and the stirring campaign of Slim’s XIV Army that turned “defeat into victory” for the Allies in 1944, the IAF truly came of age during the Burma Campaign. Its heroic exploits at Kohima and Imphal have gone down in aviation history as among the most effective counter-attacking aerial campaigns under siege conditions.
No.1 Squadron, IAF, re-equipped with the slow-moving Lysander aircraft and modified to carry 500lbs bombs, moved to the Burma theatre in February, 1942 with 12 aircraft to counter the rapidly advancing Japanese, carrying out daring missions under their young squadron commander, “Jumbo” Majumdar. A daredevil aviator with stirring leadership qualities, Jumbo led a series of successful offensive strikes against numerous Japanese airfields without any fighter escorts. For his exploits in Burma, “Jumbo” was the first Indian pilot to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in WW II for his leadership and daring individual prowess.
From 1942 to 1945, nine squadrons of the Indian Air Force (1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9 and 10 Sqns) flying a variety of aircraft including Lysanders, Vultee Vengeance dive bombers, Hurricanes and Spitfires flew over 16,000 sorties and 24,000 hours in support of various battles of the Burma campaign. In what is arguably one of the best narratives of the IAF’s exploits in the Burma campaign, Air Chief Marshal Lal in his book My Years with the IAF , is very generous in his praise for his contemporaries. He wrote about Arjan Singh, who preceded him as Chief of the Air Staff and later became the first Marshal of the IAF:
‘The first person to actually see the Japanese in the northern part of Imphal was Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh. He had been out on a sortie attacking the Japanese elsewhere and he was coming back to base — he saw on a hill top overlooking his airfield a number of men in a strange uniform —. So he went close to have a look and he recognized them as Japanese troops. He immediately called out his entire squadron on his own initiative —. He was the first to attack the Japanese who had actually arrived on the outskirts of Imphal. He and his boys were the heroes of Imphal.’
Exploits in Europe
The exploits of Indian pilots and navigators in Europe and Africa cannot be forgotten as 24 young Indian pilots went to England in 1940 to fly with the RAF; many of them would take part in the Battle of Britain. Not satisfied with his exploits in Burma after a hectic tenure there, ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar got himself posted to No 28 RAF Fighter Reconnaissance squadron on the eve of the Normandy landings in June 1944, flying more than 65 operational missions on Mustang and Typhoon aircraft and winning the respect of his squadron mates and the gratitude of the RAF in the form of a Bar to DFC. On the 81st anniversary of the IAF, we salute these pioneers!
(Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice-Marshal in the Indian Air Force, a military historian and an air power analyst.)