The | Fledgeling | Years
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Consequent upon the acceptance of the Skeen Committee recommendations, six Indians - HC Sircar, S Mukherjee, AB Awan, Bhupendra Singh, Amarjeet Singh and JN Tandon - were selected by the Federal Public Service Commission for a two year training course in flying at the RAF College, Cranwell, followed by training with RAF establishments. They proceeded to England in 1930, and all except Tandon successfully qualified as pilots: Tandon became the first officer in the equipments branch. Significantly, they were commissioned on 08 Oct. 32, the day Air Force Act became operative. Meanwhile, 29 Technicians had been enrolled as Apprentices and were incorporated into the Indian Air Force wing of the Indian Technical and Followers Corps in 1931.
On the historic day of 1st April 1933, the First Squadron of the Indian Air Force was formed with the raising of its 'A' Flight at Drigh Road, Karachi. The new formation consisted of Squadron Headquarters and one Flight of 4 Westland Wapiti aircraft. Subroto Mukherjee with five other Officers and 19 technicians, then known as Hawai Sepoys, formed the Indian complement. Flight Lieutenant (Later Air Vice Marshal) CA Bouchier, DFC, an RAF Officer was the first commanding officer. He was the pioneer amongst pioneers of the Indian Air Force. Over 26 years later, in September 1959, after meeting Subroto Mukherjee then an Air Marshal and Chief of Air Staff, IAF, AVM Sir Cecil Bouchier KCB CB DFC, was to recall, "The Indian Air Force is what it is today because of one thing only - the imagination, the courage, the loyalty and the great quality of the first little pioneer band of Indian Officers and Airmen, for they were the salt of the earth... they have built up a great fighting Service and I am terribly proud to have been associated in this wonderful achievement if only for a little while..." It was another five years before No 1 Squadron, IAF, with all its 3 Flights came together for the first time at Ambala in July 1938.
The three Flight Commanders were:
Flying Officer S Mukherjee
Flying Officer AM Engineer
Flying Officer KK Majumdar
On 16th March 1939, Subroto Mukherjee took over command of the Squadron. In fact, he was the first Indian to Command a Flight, Squadron, Station, and finally of course the IAF itself.
The Squadron was initiated into operations in Sept. 1937, when its 'A' Flight operated from Miranshah in North Waziristan for operations against tribesman. The small band of four pilots with their four Wapiti aircraft flew 1,437 hours in less than three months. Fg Offr (later Air Marshal and CAS) AM Engineer was the first IAF Officer to be 'Mentioned in Despatches' for gallantry during these operations. The infant Air Force consisting of one squadron continued to grow slowly but with confidence; North-West India was the cradle of its training and the North-West Frontier its area of actual operations. No 1 squadron which operated in the North West Frontier, in conjuction with or as replacement of RAF squadrons, gained very valuable experience over hostile mountainous terrain - an experience which was to stand it in good stead in the war on the Eastern Frontiers of India later. The year 1939 found the Squadron deployed at Miranshah under its first Indian Commanding officer for air blockade of the Waziris. In the month of May alone, 'A' Flight under command of Flt Lt AM Engineer carried out 403 hours of flying, an effort which the then Air Headquarters (India) acknowledged as remarkable in view of the small number of aircraft and crew comprising the Flight (four Wapitis and four Pilots). The quantum of flying by the IAF squadron was always higher than that of any RAF Squadrons deployed in the area. The initiative and dedication of the Indian pilots during operations could perhaps be best gauged from two incidents. On 1st August 1936, Pilot Officer Mehar Singh, the legendary 'Baba', passed out of Cranwell and was posted to No 1 Squadron. Soon after he saw action over the wild mountainous country of the NW Frontier and in one month flew as many as 100 hours which included an experience which would have shaken anybody's nerves. He was attacking a force of tribesman in a particularly wild valley near Shaider. During the attack (the wood and fabric Wapiti could carry a mix of 20 Ibs/ 112 Ibs/ 250 Ibs bombs to a maximum of 580 Ibs) the fuel tank of the aircraft was hit by ground fire. Every second increased the risk of fire which could destroy the fragile Wapiti's fabric surface instantaneously. Mehar Singh and his hawai sepoy air gunner crawled out and ecaded the tribesmen, who had come to the wreckage soon after the crash, and reached a tiny army post manned by half a dozen Tochi Scouts.
'Baba' not only rejoined his squadron immediately but was also airborne the very next day. On 7th August 1940, 'B' Flight of No 1 Squadron IAF, based at Miranshah, was operating in the Daur Valley in support of the land forces and in the face of intense hostile ground fire. While flying, Squadron Leader S Mukherjee observed one of the army pickets being overwhelmed by hostiles. The besieged troops indicated that their ammunition was nearly exhausted. Mukherjee instructed his air-gunner Hawai Sepoy KS Tonque to remove ammunition from the magazine of the rear cockpit mounted Lewis Machine gun. They put the ammunition into their socks and successfully dropped it to the troops in a low pass while the hostiles concentrated their fire on the aircraft. The ammunition helped the picket to hold out till another aircraft came and dropped 800 more rounds of ammunition and saved the situation. This was air maintainance in it nascent form.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, the IAF comprised only one squadron, its total strength being 16 Officers and 269 airmen. The use of air power in the defence of India had been considered by an expert committee (also known as the Chatfield Committee). It recommended that for the local defences of India, five Flights should be raised on a volunteer basis for coastal defence duties. Thus was laid the foundation of the Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR) with Coast Defence Flights at Karachi, Bombay, Cochin, Madras and Calcutta.
They were initially equipped with aircraft discarded by the regular Squadrons on their re-equipment. These five flights were in operation, though at half strength, by October 1940. Excepting the Flight at Bombay (No 2 Flight) which had Dragon Rapides and Dominies, all the other were equipped with wapitis. In addition to the Coast Defence Flight of IAFVR a special flight, the 'Q' Flight was formed with No 1 Squadron for duties at Karachi.
The Coast Defence Flights performed a vital role; but what was of greater significance was the fact that when Japan entered the war the IAFVR and CD Flights were able to provide a nucleus for expansion of the IAF along with No 1 Squadron which was veteran by now. By the end of 1942, the CD Flights had virtually been disbanded, and on their foundations the IAF had raised five more Squadrons (in addition to the good old No 1). Eventually the IAF was to reach a strength of nine Squadrons by 20th February 1944 (No 5 Squadron was not raised in the IAF because No 5 RAF Squadron was stationed in India and it was felt that two units with the same number might cause confusion).
In the hour of Britain's dire need, 24 IAF pilots were sent to the UK in Sept 1940. They flew with various RAF units till 12 of them were attached to operational fighter squadrons, including three each to 32 and 43 Squadrons. The remaining were offered to Bomber/Coastal command units. Six fighter pilots flew with the RAF during the battle of Britain, and later, on fighter sweeps and as bomber escorts over Europe. Two of them were killed in action and four returned to India in February 1942 when the tiny IAF was going into action against another major world power. Of the 12 pilots trained on Bombers, two were posted to coastal command squadrons. Five pilots were posted to Wellington Squadrons. One of them, Shivdev Singh (later Air Marshal) had made 22 operational flights over Germany; he later commanded an IAF Squadron in Burma and raised the first Transport Squadron (No. 12) of the IAF. Two pilots became Captains on heavy bombers- one on Lancaster and the other on Sterling. The bomber pilots returned to India in July 1942.
Of the 24 pilots who left India in 1940 to fly for the RAF, eight were killed in operations. Among the survivors were many of the now well known names who nurtured the IAF in the decades to follow. They include HC Dewan (later Air Marshal and AOC-in-C Eastern Air Command during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971), Ranjan Dutt (later Air Vice Marshal), SP Shahi (later AVM) and Shivdev Singh (later VCAS). Many like MS Pujji, OP Sanghi, SS Shah, and Bhaskaran are not so well known. Men like N Haider became unique in the history of Military Aviation: he flew for three Air Forces, the RAF, IAF (which also became RIAF) and finally the Pakistan Air Force.
Within 24 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese had effected a landing on the Siamese side of the Kra Peninsula and their aircraft then proceeded to attack strategic British airfields in Burma. To meet the Japanese air onslaught a handful of RAF and IAF pilots were flown hastily from bases in India. With their Wapitis and Audaxes they were perhaps just a symbolic force, but with the courage these men in their flimsy machines more than made up for the handicaps. With the advance of the Japanese towards Moulmein, No 4 CD flight had to be withdrawn to bassein. On 25th January 1942, No 3 Coastal Defence Flight under Hem Chaudhri, re-equipped with twin engined Blenheims, replaced No 4 Flight. This was the situation when the first and the only regular IAF Squadron arrived at Toungou with 12 Lysander aircraft on 1st February 1942.
The Japanese acknowledged the arrival of No 1 Squadron with a bombing raid on Toungou airfield the same night, followed by another attack at dawn. Squadron Leader Karun Krishna Majumdar, 'Jumbo' to his friends, decided to repay the compliment by bombing the Japanese at taken off. But No 1 Squadron was an Army Co-operation Squadron, trained and equipped as such. The Lysander was essentially a reconnaissance aircraft and was unsuited for the new role of a Bomber which it was required to discharge. Nevertheless, as the winter sun came up, Majumdar set about getting his aircraft fitted with bomb racks. The next day, with two 250 Ib bombs, one under each wing, Jumbo set out in a lone Lysander to bomb a major Japanese air base. Flying low, skimming tree tops of the dense Burma Jungles, Jumbo found the target and placed his bombs squarely on the aircraft hangar at Mae-Haungsan: the hangar was smashed along with the aircraft inside. On the following day i.e. 3rd Feb, he led his entire Squadron into another attack, each aircraft loaded with 2x250 Ib bombs. They scored direct hits on the airfield building and the wireless station, besides numerous hits and near misses on aircraft dispersed around the landing ground. The Squadron went unescorted, the slow Lysanders, rendered slower with their heavy bomb loads, would have had no chance against Japanese fighters. here was the courage and professional skill which was to symbolize the traditions and ethos of the IAF and which led to the adoption of the official post-independence motto "Nabhah Sparsham Deeptam" - "To Touch the Sky With Glory".
As the tide of battle began to flow more strongly against the allies, the work of No 1 Squadron increased. On 5th Feb 19 42, the Squadron was called Mingladon (Just outside Rangoon) in Support of the Army fighting a losing battle at Moulmein. A large scale raid by No 1 IAF Squadron and No 28 RAF Squadron was under taken under the overall leadership of Jumbo. Gen Wavell, the C in C, later personally congratulated Jumbo and his Squadron. During the second week of Feb, the Squadron was split- the Squadron Commander with one Flight Commander, Flt Lt Prithipal Singh, took a detachment north to Lashio to support the Chinese Fifth Army. One detachment, under Flt Lt Prasad, remained at Mingaladon, while Flt Lt Raza went to Toungou to carry out reconnaissance sorties from there. Such was the calibre of officers and men of the Indian Air Force's first Squadron which saw action for the first time in a major war against first rate power under the inspired leadership of 'Jumbo' - Today a legend in the IAF. Three years later, Jumbo died on 17th Feb 1945 doing his duty, leaving behind cherished legacies.
On his grave in Lahore is a Marble headstone with the Air Force Crest and an epitah-
"Go passer by
And do if you can as he did
a man's part
In the defence of liberty."
KK Majumdar (Jumbo) was the first IAF pilot to be awarded the coveted DFC- the ultimate aspiration of a pilot in those days. Two and a half years later, he was again the first to be awarded a Bar to the DFC- this time for his exceptional performance with No 268 RAF Squadron operating in support of the Allied invasion of Europe, a task for which he had volunteered and even offered to relinquish his Wg Cdr's rank. He was the sole volunteer to carry out reconnaissance of the heavily defended Falaise-gap and obtained photographs for Field Marshal Montgomery. Unknown to many, in a study conducted by 'Life' magazine after Second World War, Jumbo was rated as one of the twelve best pilots of the entire Allied Air Forces.
As a result of an interview sought by the Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Arjan Singh with Gen Auchinleck, the C-in-C, to press for active participation of No 1 Squadron which had been with drawn from Burma on 12th march 1942, the Squadron went back into operations against the Japanese on 3rd Feb 1944. It remained on active service for a record period of 14 months and was now commanded by Squadron Leader Arjan Singh (later Air Chief Marshal and CAS). It had spent the intervening two years in re-equipment and training on Hurricanes. Operationally it saw duties on the N-W Frontier, and also mothered the raising of additional IAF Squadrons. At Imphal the Squadron again found their friend from the Frontier days, No 28 RAF Squadron operating there; the latter was, however, withdrawn in June and, thereafter, the total burden of the salient fell on No 1 Squadron. When the Squadron landed at Imphal, the Japanese offensive towards the Brahmaputra valley was well on its siege of Imphal, began on 8th March. On 14th March the Japanese crossed the Chindwin. By April the Allied troops were fighting with their backs to the wall. At one stage Imphal airfield came within range of Japanese artillery. The Squadron lived within the battle area. After busy days, their nights were disturbed by air raid warnings, and few men slept without a gun in their reach. At times, the pilots slept under the wings of their Hurricanes, ready for anything. The ground crew had a still harder time, and the knowledge that they might well have to physically fight it out with the tough Japanese made their task no easier. Yet no one faltered; inspired by the leadership of their Squadron Commander, No 1 Squadron once again Blazed the trail of glory for the whole air force, then and for times to come.
By the end of the first 20 weeks at Imphal, No 1 Squadron had flown 1,600 operational sorties, totalling 2,000 operational hours. By May their aircraft ranged over the entire battle field of Burma. In June, 25 year old Arjan Singh was awarded the DFC. By 26th March 1945, when No 7 Squadron, IAF arrived at Sinthe (where No 1 had moved to keep pace with the Army's advance) to officially take over the operational task, No 1 Squadron had flown 4,813 operational sorties totalling over 7,219 hours. The tour had covered a crucial phase of the war which began just prior to the Japanese thrust across Chindwin in March 1943 and ended on the eve of their evacuation of Rangoon. The price paid by the squadron had been heavy: only 5 of the original 20 pilots survived.
Immidiately after the setting up of the South-East Asia Command on 1st November 1943 at Delhi with Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, GCVO CB DSO ADC as the supreme allied commander, the first operational sortie by the Hurricanes of No 6 Squadron was flown on 30th Nov 1943 and by the time the Squadron was withdrawn for rest at the beginning of June 1944, it had earned itself the name "the eyes of the 14th Army" (commanded by General Sir William Slim). The Hurricanes flew in pairs. The leader undertaking reconnaissance while the No 2 nick-named Weaver, because of constant maneuvering, protected his tail. The Squadron pilots out on reconnaissance soon became one of the familiar daily sights for 15 Corps. But these Hurricanes were no match for the fabled Japanese Oscar, the Army counterpart of the agile Naval 'Zero' fighter. On 5th February 1944, the Squadron lost two Hurricanes and their pilots when these were jumped by the Japanese Oscars. There is also the saga of the young pilot Jagdish Chandra Verma who was detailed for an offensive reconnaissance over Taung Bazar and succeeded in shooting down an Oscar in a thrilling dog-fight. JC Verma was decorated with DFC - the first IAF pilot to have shot down any enemy aircraft till Trevor Keelor re-opened the score twentyone years later by downing a Sabre over Chhamb.
No 6 Squadron worked at top intensity throughout its period. It completed its thousandth operational mission in Arakan on 1st May 1944, exactly after three months. The flying hours totalled 1,350. It wore out the airfield and engineers had to be called in for repairs. To carry on operations the Squadron had to operate from an alternative strip. The pilot for allied operations in the 3rd tactical Air Force commanded by Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin. Some pilots like MS Pujji DFC, one of the Flight Commanders who had earlier flown for RAF on Fighter sweeps over France and again in the Middle East, flew as many as six sorties a day, and clocked 62 operational flying hours in one month. The Squadron was turning out an average of 16,000 photo prints each month. As many as 1,500 prints were produced in 24 hours period alone. The 29 year old Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Mehar Singh, was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, AOC, 3rd TAF, flew down to present the coveted decoration in person. The Supreme Commander, Lord Mountbatten, came down to meet the Squadron pilots.
Further north and close to besieged Imphal, No 7 Squadron, IAF moved to Kumbhirgram on 22nd March 1944. The Squadron was commanded by another legendary figure of the IAF, Hem Chuadhri, who had earlier led the Calcutta Coast Defence Flight Blenheims into Burma in 1942. He had Flt Lt Pratap Chandra Lal as his Flight Commander. The Squadron, formed on 1st December 1942 at Vizag, and the first to be equipped with Vultee Vegeneance dive-Bomber aircraft, had been on the N-W Frontier. Just before its move to Assam, it carried out intensive training in army co-operation and close support with Wigante's troops at Gwalior where they were training for a second expedition. Excepting the CO and one pilot, all others were going into battle for the first time. But within the next four days, the Squadron dropped 1,26,500 Ibs of bombs on Japanese postions at Kenji, Kaungken and other targets along the Chindwin. In April, in spite of the early onset of the monsoon and marshy landing strips, 2,74,500 Ibs of Bombs were dropped in 344 operational sorties.
The Squadron moved back to Ranchi on 12th June and Squadron Leader PC Lal took over command on 8th Oct., 1944. The Squadron was re-equipped with Hurricanes and fully committed for duties on the N-W Frontier. It returned to Burma on 26th March 1945 to take over the operational task of No 1 Squadron and operated initially from Sinthe, and later from Magwe. Operations were carried out till 22nd May. During this period, the Squadron supported XXXIII Corps in its victorious advance down central Burma. The Corps came to depend on the Squadron heavily and expressed the "most appreciative thanks for the excellent support given during the Burma Campaign". For the month of April and May, the Squadron operational hours totalled 1,033. During April and May, the Squadron had flown more operational hours than any other Squadron on the central Burma front. The serviceability of their aircraft had been 97% for April and 99.43% for May. "Only those who have had to service aircraft operating from the ankle deep dust of kutcha strips in Burma know just how great was the achievement in serviceability and flying effort." But anyone who knew PC Lal would understand.
Other IAF squadrons also played a prominent part in the Burma campaign, when they were not busy carrying out watch and ward duties on the N-W Frontier, or were re-equipping, tarining, moving, checking and conducting displays. When the war came to an end, the only IAF Squadron in operations was No.8. It had arrived at Mingaladon airfield with its Spitfires (MK VIII) on the 26th July 1945, and operated as a fighter bomber squadron in support of the army. On 14th August 1945 Japan made an unconditional surrender, and World War II came to a close.
The IAF was built up solely as a tactical air force. It was trained and equipped only for reconnaissance and army co-operation work. The consequence was that the more spectacular work of their air force which lends glamour to the achievements of the air crew was outside the scope of the Indian Air Force.
In spite of these adverse circumstances, in the war against the Axis powers, the Indian Air Force played a part in keeping with the great tradition of Indian Arms. The IAF pilots flew over 16,000 sorties in Burma alone involving more than 24,000 operational flying hours. All the nine Squadrons acquitted themselves well, the contribution of No 1 Squadron being the most outstanding.
The grant of designation 'Royal' on 12 March 1945, by his Majesty the King was a recognition of the signal contribution made by the IAF mainly towards the victory over Japan. One DSO, 22 DFCs, a Bar to DFC, 2 AFCs, 2 OBEs, 7 MBEs, 4 BEMs, 45 Mentions-in-Despatches, one Card for Good Service, one commendation for gallantry and 225 'Jangi Inams' were earned by the members of the Indian Air Force-all, except a very few, during the war in Burma. Time and again the pilots of the IAF were recipients of praise from the ground forces and from Group and Command HQ for their gallantry and useful work. But this achievement was not without price. During the war the IAF lost more than 50 pilots in operations in Burma alone. The end of war brought its own problems: demobilization, rehabilitation of individuals and consolidation of the force. The first transport Squadron, No 12 was raised with Douglas C-47 'Dakotas' a veritable work horse which has rendered yeoman service to the country. By 1945, the IAF had reached its planned and promised strength of 10 Squadrons - alas, to be split two years later, when the country was partitioned.
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