Chapter 1: The IAF in the Preliminary Years


The Indian Air Force (IAF) was officially born on 08 October 1932, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) act became effective. On that day six Indians were granted the King's commission on passing out as pilots and ground duty officers from RAF Cranwell. They had been sent earlier in 1930 and five of them became pilots while the sixth became a Ground Duty Officer. Among the five pilots were such well known names like Subroto Mukherjee, who became the first Indian Chief of Air Staff and Awan who had later opted for the Pakistan Air Force.

No.1 Squadron IAF, came into being on 1 April 1933 at Drigh Road, Karachi. There were five pilots commanded by an RAF officer and the first batch of Hawai Sepoys. The complement of the squadron consisted of four Westland Wapiti biplanes comprising 'A' Flight of the squadron. After 3 years of training, in which time more pilots joined the squadron. It was inducted into the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which is now in Pakistan. The primary aim was to support the RAF and the Army in its operations against the frontier tribesmen.

Stationed at Miranshah, the pilots flew many sorties in their rickety aircraft, often suffering casualties in the form of forced landings or stopped engines due to the tribesmen firing. Throughout this period, with more pilots being trained at a rate of 5 to 6 per year, two more flights were raised and at the outbreak of the second world war, No.1 Squadron IAF was well experienced in its role of army cooperation, having received its baptism of fire at the frontier.

At the outbreak of the war, the IAF put into effect various expansion plans to raise more new squadrons. An RAF squadron at Risalpur was made responsible for training of aircrew and invitations were sent to commercial pilot license holders to join the newly created Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR).

About a 100 such pilots joined the IAFVR and among them were men like P.C. Lal, Rajaram, etc. who rose to high posts after the war. All these pilots after a short conversion course were posted to newly raised coastal defence flights. They flew aircraft like the Wapiti, the Hart, Audax and some other types which have been requisitioned from civil owners. They flew long surveillance missions over the coastal waters and some times escorted ship convoys over sea lanes.

With the entry of Japan into the War, the expansion of the Indian Air Force was rapid. Flying schools were set up at Walton near Lahore and at Ambala. Two operational training units came up at Risalpur (for fighters) and Peshawar (for ground attack). The squadrons grew from one to ten.

A total of 3000 officers and 25,000 men were trained in the period 1942-45. Some 600 pilots flew with the ten squadrons, all of them seeing action against the Japanese in Burma. Some pilots attached to the RAF were sent to North Africa and England and saw action against the Germans and the Italians.

On the Burma front, the Indian AF flew in aircraft inferior to the Japanese. These aircraft, Hurricanes and Vengeances were those discarded by the RAF. Throughout the war, the IAF had to make do with aircraft discarded by the RAF as inferior and it was only at the end of the war did the IAF acquire the latest Marks Spitfires. In spite of this handicap it faired well in the war.

Field Marshal Slim in praising No.6 Dragons Squadron wrote, "I was impressed with the conduct of a reconnaissance squadron of the Indian Air Force. Flying in pairs the Indian pilots in their outmoded Hurricanes went out, time and again, in the face of overwhelming enemy fighter superiority...They were a happy, efficient, and a very gallant squadron." Coming from one of the greatest Generals of World War II it was proof indeed of the bravery of the pilots.

When the war ended Indian pilots had earned 1 DSO, 23 DFCs (including 1 bar) and a host of numerous other awards. In doing so it lost some 60 pilots killed in action. These figures would seem small compared to the RAF or the land armies but it should be remembered that the number that constituted the IAF was also small. The Indian Air Force's contribution to the victory of the commonwealth was recognised by King George VI who conferred the prefix "Royal" to the title making it the Royal Indian Air Force.

After the war ended, the IAF had ten fighter squadrons flying Hurricanes and Spitfire XIV's. It had sent one squadron (No.4) with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. Some were at the frontier undergoing training and keeping guard. About the time it was thought necessary to raise a transport squadron.

Some individual pilots have had some experience on transport aircraft during the war but no special transport unit existed. So accordingly No.12 Squadron was raised with ten Dakotas in 1946. Even before training could commence a tropical storm came and wrote off all the aircraft. Despite this inauspicious start, No.12 began training on Oxfords, till replacement Dakotas began arriving.

More Spitfires and new Tempest II fighter bombers became available and the squadrons re-equipped with them, phasing out the Hurricanes. In the training role Harvards and Tigermoths were the mainstay for years to come. These were supplemented by the Percival Prentice and the Cornell trainers.

As partition became inevitable, so was the division of the Armed Forces. New India’s share of the Air Force amounted to seven fighter and one transport squadrons. Pakistan received two fighter and one newly raised transport squadron. The RIAF lost all of its permanent training establishments and major bases as they were all located in Pakistani territory. So all establishments had to be rebuilt from scratch.

The first Chief of Air Staff was Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst of the RAF. He was later succeeded by Air Marshal Sir Ivelew Chapman and later by Air Marshal Sir Eric Gibbs. All the three British service Officers served the Air Force well during their tenures as Air Chiefs. It was under their tenure that the expansion plan of the Air Force was drawn up and that the IAF fought in its first war.

Free India's Air Force had its first taste of action during the invasion of the Kashmir valley by the frontier tribesmen. These tribesmen, financially aided & armed by Pakistan and led by Army deserters, poured into Kashmir on 20 October 1947, and went into a frenzy killing, ransacking and pillaging through the Kashmiri villages. In reply to the Maharajah's plea for help and after his signing of the accession, India decided to send troops to Srinagar by air.

No.12 Squadron with its DC-3 Dakotas along with those of private airlines helped in the airlift. It was a remarkable achievement at such a short notice. Taking off from Palam the first Indian troops were landed at Srinagar airfield at 0930hrs on October 27th. At that time it wasn't even known whether the airfield has fallen to the tribesmen or not, but the risk was taken. On the first day the IAF and civilian Dakotas had airlifted the 1st battalion, The Sikh regiment and thus secured the safety of the airfield.

On October 28th, Tempests from Ambala attacked Enemy positions at Patan. Two days later the first Spitfires were flown to Srinagar, joining the Harvards which were already flown there. Fuel to keep these aircraft was hard to come by, but the Army developed ingenious methods to provide the necessary fuel. As soon as any Dakota landed, a jeep with a drum in its back would approach the aircraft, and with the pilots consent, the men would siphon off any extra amount of fuel that the captain of the aircraft would spare. The fuel thus collected kept the Spitfires flying later for the crucial battles of Badgam and Shalateng.

On November 3rd, the decisive battle of Badgam was fought in the vicinity of Srinagar airfield where the enemy launched a surprise attack. It was in this battle that Major Somnath Sharma was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) posthumously.

Two RIAF Spitfires came to the aid of the Indian Army by strafing the enemy attackers. The combined Army-Air Force onslaught beat back the attack. Four days later on November 7th, the battle of Shalateng took place which routed the enemy. The tribesmen kept retreating till Uri. Tempests of No.7 Sqn played an important part. according to Brigadier L.P. Sen, 400+ bodies were counted between Srinagar and Baramula, almost all due to air action.

Later on, Tempests provided much needed air support to the Army in the area of the Uri bowl where the fighting had stabilized. RIAF Tempests strafed and rocketed enemy concentrations at Kot, helped in the advance to Tithwal, dropped vital ammunition and food supplies to the beleaguered Skardu garrison. They destroyed enemy field guns at Poonch, and in a daring and spectacular low level air raid, destroyed the bridges over the Domel and Kishenganga rivers in the face of heavy ack-ack fire.

The lone transport Squadron was not left behind. No.12, in the course of its regular casualty evacuation and transport duties, airlifted 25 Pounder field guns to Poonch, flew the first troops to Leh, which was the first aircraft to land at Leh, and even bombing sorties in support of the army with the bombs being rolled out of the cargo bay by the aircrew.

The main driving force behind the squadron was Air Commodore Meher Singh, the head of the operational group in J&K. Meher Singh himself led many of the pioneering flights including the ones to Leh and Poonch. For leading and guiding the air operations in Jammu & Kashmir, he received the Maha Vir Chakra. Wing Commander K.L. Bhatia, CO No.12 Squadron, got the Vir Chakra as did many pilots of the squadron.

The fighting ended on 31 December 1948, the cease-fire bought about by UN Mediation. The IAF acquitted itself well earning four MVCs and 23 VrCs. Not much is known about its losses but at least one fighter, a Tempest was lost in the Tithwal area due to ack-ack fire. The pilot, Flying Officer U.G. Wright, baled out and had a harrowing experience during his parachute descent. He was fired at by rifles, LMG's and even 3" mortars! But he made it back to our lines.

One RIAF DC-3 went missing on the second day of the conflict, during the airlift and nothing was heard about the pilot, Ft. Lt. C.J. Mendoza and the 20 passengers till almost 40 years later, when the wreckage was stumbled upon and the remains of the crew members were laid to rest. No air-to-air encounters took place between the RPAF and the RIAF but on one occasion a lone RPAF Dakota was intercepted by two Tempests over Chilas.

Squadron Leader Masamalani and Flight Lieutenant Dogra were rocketing Chilas and stumbled onto the RPAF Dakota. However, inspite of radio warnings and firing across the path of the Dakota, the RPAF pilot slipped across the border. Later getting a "Sitara-E-Juraat" award for the escape.

Meanwhile down south, the Hyderabad police action was in progress. Here too the RIAF lent a hand to the Army. Tempests and Dakotas saw much action ,strafing, bombing and dropping leaflets against the Nizam's forces. However the scale of operations is minuscule compared to the Kashmir operations.

The end of the hostilities gave the RIAF some breathing space. It went ahead with its re-equipment plans and to build up as a 20 squadron force. About a 100 Spitfires and Tempests were acquired from Britain. To build up a bomber complement, the RIAF salvaged about 40 odd B-24 Liberator bombers from the ex-USAAF scrapyard at Kanpur and put these relics into the air. Initially, Lancaster bombers were offered by Britain, but it was decided to acquire more fighters with the same money and build up the required bomber force with the salvaged aircraft.

In November 1948, the RIAF became the first air arm in Asia to equip with Jet fighters. No.7 Sqn started inducting De Havilland Vampires bought from Britain and eventually some 400 were acquired. These vampires saw action even after 23 years in the 1971 war.

1950 saw India becoming a Republic. This led to all Royal titles being dropped and the RIAF was no exception. On 26 January 1950, she was just know as the Indian Air Force (IAF). Also, in order not to become dependent on only Great Britain for its arms purchases, the IAF started purchasing aircraft from other sources. In 1953 the Dassault Ouragan re-christened Toofani by the IAF was inducted. Belonging to the same generation as the Vampire, 104 of these straight winged fighters were received by the IAF.

On 1st April 1954, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee took over as the first Indian Chief of Air Staff. Mukherjee was the first Indian to command a squadron in the IAF and now he was the first Indian Air Chief. He had a good relationship with Nehru and this helped him to get the required allocation of finances for the air forces expansion plans.

During this period it can be certainly be said that the Air Force received privileged treatment more than the Army. When its Pakistani counterpart started inducting F-86 Sabres, efforts were made to acquire Hunter Mk.6 from the British. But the British did not release the Mk.6 for export and they offered only the Mk.4. So Mystere IV-A fighter-bombers were acquired from France. It was with the Mysteres that IAF pilots could break the sound barrier for the first time and later when the Hunter Mk.6 was cleared for export, the IAF acquired them too.

The offensive capability received a boost with Canberra bombers being purchased and Gnat fighters supplemented the interceptor force. Besides India, Finland was the only country to operate this diminutive fighter, while Britain operated Trainer versions.

The transport fleet was also increased to meet with the demands of India's great geographical size. Besides inducting more trustworthy Dakotas, Devons and Viscounts were bought in. One squadron of Ilyushin-14's were purchased. American Fairchild C-119 flying Packets joined the transport fleet. This aircraft could carry twice the cargo load that a Dakota could manage and thus were a welcome addition to the force.

The decision to manufacture the new Avro Hs.748 was taken and the agreement with Britain was signed in 1958. In 1960, No.44 Squadron was raised on Antonov-12s, which were the Russian equivalent of the American C-130 Hercules, which Pakistan had already got. In spite of all these additions, India's transport force was stretched to its limits by the increasing geographical and strategic demands.

The helicopter wing of the air force was born with some Bell 47 two seaters forming the initial equipment and soon some S-55 Whirlwinds joined the force. To cope with the High altitude operations the Russian Mi-4 was tested and found suitable and large numbers were inducted.

One thing is certain, the IAF was never starved out of money. Its expansion plans proceeded at an uninterrupted pace, without much canvassing on its part. What made the government favour the IAF over the Army? One theory is that the government was more keen on developing a "visible military force" as part of its political diplomacy, and the IAF fitted the part.

It was a lopsided policy, we had the best transport aircraft that money can buy but had no adequate parachutes to drop supplies at forward posts. The government would be most eager to buy shiny new fighters but be most miserly in purchasing spares for them.

Aircraft like the Spitfire and Tempest continued in service till 1956, the Dakota was in service till the 80s and the Liberator till 1967. It became difficult for the IAF to manage an effective air arm but it managed nevertheless, thanks to the men who led it.

Air Marshal Mukherjee died an untimely and tragic death in Japan while still in service and was succeeded by Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer. Air Marshal Engineer, a DFC from Burma, was one of the famous Engineer brothers. It was in his tenure that the Indo-China conflict flared up. But before we go into this conflict, let us see how the IAF did in other short but limited encounters.

After more than twelve years, the Indian Air Force saw combat in a foreign land, fighting for a world cause. Six Canberras from No.5 Squadron were attached to the United Nations force in Congo. India also sent a brigade of troops there, and the Canberras were to support the operations of the UN there. The Canberras were under the command of Wg. Cdr. AIK Suares.

On 6 December 1961, after clashes broke out between UN forces and the Katangan rebels, The Canberras, operating from Leopoldville, attacked the Katangan airbase at Kolwazi. In the raid, they destroyed four Fouga Magister jets, the fuel dump and a bridge at Lufira. Besides they flew close support sorties for UN troops fighting on the ground, as well as escort missions for the USAF transport aircraft bringing in supplies. This was the first time that jet aircraft of the IAF went into action. The IAF acquitted itself well in this operation.

In the same month back in India, Operation Vijay, the plan to liberate Goa took place. There was no Portuguese air opposition and Canberras, Hunters, Ouragans and Vampires operated with impunity. Dabolim airport and the airstrip in Diu were put out of commission. Portuguese strong holds were attacked to smoothen up the Army's advance.

However, on one occasion, Vampires of No.45 Squadron operating from Belgaum were called up by the 2 Sikh LI to soften up Portuguese positions at Mapusa, and they ended up bombing positions of our own, 17th Para Fd Regt, injuring two. Throughout the action no Portuguese anti-aircraft fire was encountered and the whole operation can be termed as an exercise for the Indian Air Force to test itself.

The dawn of the new year bought forth new threats to the borders. A confrontation with China happened in October 1962. The Army had established posts in remote corners of Ladakh and NEFA. It became the IAF's responsibility to supply these posts from the air. The IAF had for some years did supply dropping in the jungles of Assam, and it continued doing so in Ladakh and NEFA.

Most of the time during the supply drops, the parachutes carrying the supplies would drift away into inaccessible valleys and gorges. A policy of reusing used parachutes recovered from these places saw supplies falling to the ground with unopened parachutes. In all the Army estimated that it recovered only 40% of the supplies airdropped by the Air Force, and it was barely sufficient to maintain its posts.

The Indo-China war started on 20th October 1962, with Chinese troops launching a heavy attack on Indian positions at the Tsangdhar area, in NEFA. On that day the IAF lost two Bell helicopters in quick succession to Chinese ground fire.

Before that, while the Indian troops were fighting for the posts, a lone Dakota came over lazily on its usual supply dropping run and the crew were shocked at being fired upon by the Chinese. This was the first indication that the IAF had of the war. No one had informed the Air Force authorities of the battle that had started three hours before.

Throughout the hostilities, IAF helicopters were primarily engaged in evacuating casualties. And after the Chinese ceasefire, in picking up numerous stragglers of the broken up 4th Infantry Division making there way back to the plains, most of these stragglers were forced to trek back across the country and suffered severe mental and physical strain on the way.

Scores of them were picked up by the helicopters including a Divisional commander himself. One Mi-4 helicopter was lost to ground fire in November 1962, another was abandoned at Zimithaung and it fell into Chinese hands intact. They later returned it after the ceasefire as a "gesture of goodwill."

On the Walong front, the IAF was the only means of supply and reinforcement to the Indian troops there. The only aircraft capable of operating from that airstrip was the Otter. These flew in supply and CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation) missions till Walong fell.

One Otter which was made unserviceable by the Chinese shelling was abandoned. This was also later returned by the Chinese as a goodwill gesture. In most other wars, aircraft are deliberately destroyed to prevent their capture in the enemy hands. Sadly, no one found time to undertake such measures in the race to retreat.

While the situation in NEFA was bad, the IAF's performance in Aksai Chin in Ladakh was nothing short of excellent. The IAF's only AN-12 Squadron operated in this sector. They flew in reinforcements in the form of additional troops and AMX-13 tanks to everywhere, from Daulet Beg Oldi to Chushul. The PSP runway at Chushul almost disintegrated under the daily landings of these aircraft. At Leh, when after the cease-fire, a detachment of American C-130's landed there and the pilots were amazed at the tough and backward infrastructure facilities existing there. And with which the IAF was operating regularly.

Two questions remain in the readers minds about the 1962 conflict. Why was the Indian Air Force not used in an offensive role? And would it have made any difference if it had been used? It was thought at that time that the Chinese Air Force would retaliate if our air force was bought in.

The decision not to use the IAF was purely a political one, which unfairly displays a lack of trust in the ability of our own Air Force to defend our side. It was not known at that time that the Chinese Air Force was grounded due to shortage of fuel and if it had tried to bomb Indian cities, the IAF would certainly had the upper hand, as both our pilots and aircraft were much better than those of the Chinese.

The answer to the second question depends on a lot of factors. In Ladakh the Chinese attacked in masse, and in open areas and in broad daylight, employing field and rocket artillery. In the terrain, in which there was no vegetation, the IAF would have had a field day in attacking the ground targets. The Battles of Rezang La, Gurung Hill and Chushul would definitely have had different outcomes.

But we suffered our main reverses in NEFA where the Chinese employed no artillery, no road transport, where they had lots of forest cover to use for hiding, and most important of all, the Chinese there fought by outflanking moves, never using the road, but the numerous tracks in the jungles. Air power can only be used during the day, and the Chinese mounted night attacks at most of the places. They could afford to lie low during the day and move only in the nights. Thus nullifying most of the airpower advantage we had.

The IAF might have won a victory in the air but it would not have altered the situation in NEFA. Achieving air superiority would be meaningless if it was not exploited to wreck the enemies ground forces and more so if our own ground forces lack the ability to defend itself, which was what actually happened. Having the air situation in your favour does not alter the fact that your Generals are not up to the mark.

If it wasn't for the Chinese war we would have been caught off balance in 1965. And the consequences would have been more than the loss of barren uninhabited territory, and the 6000 men killed, missing or POW as in the Chinese invasion. The IAF came through the war with a bitter sense of disappointment.

It was not allowed to have a crack at the enemy, and its pride wasn't better from the fact that the Prime Minister Nehru had asked for protection for Indian cities from American planes while it was there to do the job. It would have been fair to say that it was not the defeat of the Armed Forces but the defeat of our politicians pet dreams.

After the war aid came from all over, Canada supplied Caribou STOL transports, France speeded up the supplies of Alloutte III helicopters, while the Americans loaned us the services of a C-130 Squadron and also supplied some old used Packets. A squadron of Otters was also procured from the Canadians.

The government entered into an agreement for the supply of MiG-21 fighters from the Soviet Union. Preparations were made to undertake production of the fighter. Old disused airfields in the North-East were reactivated, the result of which in the war nine years later, the IAF had no shortage of airfields to operate from.

To beef up the radar and communications network we got some old radar units from the United States, called the Air Defence Ground Environment System or ADGES. A plan was mutually agreed to set up a troop-scatter communication system. And one unit was being set up when the 1965 war started and further work was stopped.

To help the IAF assess its weaknesses and rectify them, an exercise was conducted jointly with the USAF and the RAF in 1963. For the first time, IAF Hunters operated alongside the Javelins of the RAF and the F-100 Super Sabres of the USAF. The Exercise aptly named Siksha was helpful for the IAF in gaining invaluable experience. Though the object was to learn to meet the Chinese threat, it helped in assessing the Pakistani threat too.

Perhaps the most important development was the approval of the government for the Indian Air Force to expand to a 45 Squadron force. The implementation of this plan would demand a tremendous effort from all those in the service.

On 1 August 1964, Air Marshal Arjan Singh D.F.C. took over as the Chief of Air Staff from Air Marshal Aspy Engineer. A tall and well built Sikh, he was a man of courage, no flamboyance, a rare combination of dignity, modesty, firmness and decision. He saw action in Burma, and was a distinguished pilot, and was the first Air Chief to be medically and operationally fit to fly all types of aircraft, including the latest type of jet fighters.

He had kept himself in flying trim by going to the squadrons and flying with them during their training. And as a flier to the end of his term he could have led a squadron into battle if the need ever rose. On Arjan Singh fell the responsibility to supervise the increase in the size of the Indian Air Force and train it in the shortest possible time.

Air Marshal Aspy Engineer was doing just that for an year and seven months and it was now Arjan Singh's job to complete what his predecessor had started, to forge the Indian Air Force into a formidable fighting machine. But he would never know that, because both he and his command would be put to test in less than an year.