When India gained Independence on 15 Aug 1947, the assets of the IAF, along with the rest of the country's Defence establishment, were divided between the nascent nation states of India and Pakistan. The respective personnel strength of the two Air Forces at the dawn of independence on 01 Sep 47, thus stood as under:
The RIAF lost many of its oldest permanent bases and other establishments as a result of the partition of the country. Barely had the brutal realities of partition sunk in, when a mere two months later the Air Force found itself in action against hostile invaders in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Air Force flew the first contingent of the Indian Army into Srinagar on 27th October, the first aircraft touched down at 0830 hours, just in time to save Srinagar airstrip and the city. The situation was so grave that a very unusual rider to the operational instruction issued to the task force had to be included, viz, "to reconnoiter from the air and return Jammu if the raiders had occupied the airstrip". The 1 Sikhs, who were located at Gurgaon, were flown into Srinagar the same day and their Commander Lt Col DR Rai became one of the first martyrs in the defence of Kashmir. By the end of October, a Brigade strength of men and material had been flown in and the valley was saved.
Lord Louis Mountbatten later said that in all his experience of South East Asia command and over the hump flights to China he had never known of such an airlift being effected at such a short notice. Form then on till the cease-fire on 31 January 1949, the Air Force continued giving intimate and regular support to the Army in one of the most difficult and hazardous terrains of the world.
Air Commodore Mehar Singh, with Flt Lt LS Grewal (later Air Marshal and Vice Chief of the Air Staff) as his co-pilot, landed a Dakota at Leh on 24th May 1948 on a sandy strip next to the Indus river at a height of 11,4540 ft above mean sea level. An uncharted route over the Himalayas, where the hill peaks ranged anywhere between 15,000 and 24,000 ft, was opened. The Indian Army's faith in the Air Force was demonstrated by the fact that Maj Gen Thimmayya (later chief of the Army Staff) accompanied the AOC in the Aircraft. This was followed by an Airlift of troops to Leh which saved Ladakh.
Besides the defence of Srinagar and Leh, the Air Force played a significant role in the battles for Kotli, Jhangar, Naushera, Tithwal, Rajouri and Kargil. But it was the performance in Poonch- the 'Punching Operation' as it came to be nicknamed in the Air Force, which optimised the spirit of mutual trust and confidence between the Indian Army and the Air Force.
The Indian garrison at the hill town of Poonch, south west Pir Panjal Pass, had been surrounded by the Pakistani Forces shortly after the Indian 1st Kumaon Regt reached there in mid November 1947. By then refugees of all religions were pouring into the town, besides the remnants of some State Forces battalions. The town remained cut off from rest of the country for nearly a year, the nearest Indian troops were several mountain ranges across and about three days march. The enemy positions on the surrounding hills dominated the garrison.
Besides the troops in the garrison, nearly 40,000 refugees had also too be cared for. The air maintenance commenced with air drops but these were not proving very efficient. The first task, therefore, was to construct an airstrip where Dakota could be landed. The garrison with the help of 6,000 able bodied volunteer refugees enlarged the J&K Militia parade ground to a 600-yard strip in 6 days. Without any earthmoving equipment, this in itself was a Herculean feat. Intensive offensive sorties were flown by the Spitfires and Tempests to keep the enemy from interfering in the work. Once the strip was ready, supply dropping was discontinued and the first Dakota landed at Poonch on 12th December 1947. The Strip was perched precariously in the lap of a hill. The aircraft had to come spiraling down in a steep approach and make an accurate landing so as to come to a stop at the edge of a precipice. No 12 Squadron flew from dawn to dusk; 73 sorties were flown in 6 days and 4,27,000 Ibs of supplies were delivered. On their return trip the aircraft evacuated refugees. No 4(H) FF Mountain Battery was air delivered to Poonch on 13th December.
It was also around this time that the Dakota was used for bombing- another innovation of Mehar Singh- as the Air Force had no suitable bomber aircraft. Thus went the saga of operations in Jammu and Kashmir. From the time they went into action, till April 1948, No 12 Squadron had flown 3,405 hours ivolving airlift of 3.5 million pounds of load, 18,000 Ibs of bombs, 10,000 refugees, 6000 troops and hundreds of casualties.
At the time of independence the Indian Air Force had been reduced to six and a half loosely formed squadrons. This force was totally inadequate and the Pakistani aggression brought out the deficiency. But the immediate task facing the Air Force was consolidation- the evolving of an effective command structure for managing operational commitments like those undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir.
In 1949, the government after a careful assessment of the threat and available resources, authorised a 10 Squadron force level, but directed that training and other establishments should be for a 20 Squadron force. To achieve this, a two pronged approach, one for updating of aircraft and equipment in service and other for expansion of aircrew and ground crew training capability whose infrastructure entailed a long lead time, was launched.
The first step was to procure modern fighters to ensure adequate air defence capability. A batch of Tempest IIs was aquired to make up for the attrition suffered in J&K operations. IAF received its first Vampire F MK3 Aircraft in November 1948. Its later versions, FB MK 52 went to re-equip the renowned No 7 Sqn that had acquired fame in Burma and in Kashmir where the Sqn Commander, Sqn Ldr Sidney B Naronha, was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for valour. The training establishments were re-organized to meet the new objectives.
Meanwhile, in keeping with its traditions of innovation and improvisation, the Air Force resurrected 50 Liberator (B-24) bombers from the 100 odd condemned wreckage left by the RAF in its 'bombers graveyard' at Kanpur. These were used to raise the first bomber squadron and were also employed in the maritime role later. One of these was flown out to Canada in 1968 and stands proudly in the RCAF museum.
India became a Republic on 26 Jan 1950, and on that day, the IAF shed the prefix 'Royal'. In the wake of the Kashimir Operations, a closer look at the needs of national defence became imperative. The Armed Force Re-Organization Committe recommendation to maintain a 15 squadron force was accepted in principle in 1952 and was finally approved by the government in December 1953.
1st April 1954 was a memorable day for the IAF and the country. Exactly 21 years after the raising of its first flight, one of its founder members, Subroto Mukherjee, took over as the C-I-C and Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force. The IAF bade a fond goodbye to its last British C-in-C, Air Marshal Sir Gerald Gibbs, KCB CIE MC. The three British Chiefs of the IAF since Independence contributed much towards building it into a proud fighting service and a force to be reckoned with. The IAF also owes a lot to the other RAF officers who were associated with it in its formative years.
Plans for the overdue expansion and re-equipment of the service were actively pursued in the mid-fifties. In a break with tradition, India selected the Dassualt Ouragan French fighter, nicknamed the 'Toofani' in the IAF, to the newly raised units, while other squadrons were re-equipped with the Mystere IV A. The re-equipment and expansion of the IAF's fighter fleet took place in an era of the changing geo-political realities in the sub-continent. Keeping in view India's security needs, it was also vital to develop the IAF's transport capability at the earliest. The first step in this direction was the addition of a second tpt sqn of C-47 Dakotas in 1951, followed by the acquisition of the Fairchild C119G Packet aircraft from the US in 1954. Two more batches of Packets augmented the tpt fleet in 1960 and 1963, respectively. The packet functioned as the workhorse of the IAF for three decades. Modified in India with a 'jet pack' for high altitude operations, the IAF's Packets created history by landing on an airstrip in Ladakh Karakorams in a place called Daulet Beg Oldi at an altitude of 17,000 ft on 22 Jul 1962.
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