ONE has heard inspiring stories about the Indian Army and its colourful generals. The dare-devilry of Indian soldiers is the stuff of legends. The Army’s famous battles have been celebrated in books and movies. The Indian Navy, though not so well-celebrated, has got its fair share of public attention. Although there have been not-so-charitable accounts of the Navy, occasionally it has media attention, whether it is about naval mishaps, the tug-of-war between its chiefs and the political establishment or the Navy Queen beauty pageant conducted as part of Navy Day celebrations.
In comparison, the Indian Air Force (IAF) had its glory in the mass memory thanks to “Thunderbolts”, the first aerobatics team that displayed its prowess in 1982 on the occasion of its golden jubilee, and to Hindi films such as Sangam, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Aradhana, Vijeta and Silsila , which depicted dogfights and made heroes of the men in blue.
There are not too many battle lores about the IAF, except the one during the 1971 India-Pakistan war when the young pilot Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, flying the tiny Gnat fighter plane, shot down two of the six Sabres of the Pakistani Air Force that were chasing him before his plane was shot down. He was awarded India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), posthumously. Sekhon, to date, remains the only member of the IAF to have received the PVC. Not much is known about the history of the IAF and its evolution. Somnath Sapru’s well-researched book Combat Lore: Indian Air Force 1930-45 seeks to fill the gap.
The book literally hand-holds the reader through the birth pangs of the IAF and provides a riveting account of its “growing-up” years. The IAF, Sapru says, began with just five pilots, one equipment officer and one aeroplane called Wapiti (the British called this aircraft “what a pity”) on October 8, 1932, when the IAF Act came into force. (Wapitis were open-cockpit planes in which the pilot was exposed to the elements. The plane was started by a hand-turning gear, which the pilot had to turn with full vigour. The occupant in the rear seat was tied down to the floor of the plane with a monkey chain attached to the harness at the bottom, between the legs. There were no wheel brakes and while taxiing the pilot had to depend on two airmen on the wingtips holding on to the outer struts to bring the plane to a halt.)
After persistent demand for a bigger role for Indians in the armed forces, the British set up the Indian Sandhurst Committee, which recommended recruiting a few Indians as officers in the armed forces. As a result, a few vacancies were reserved for Indians in the Royal Air Force too. Through the first all-India competitive examination to fill the vacancies, held by the Federal Service Commission in 1930, six candidates (Harish Chandra Sircar, Subroto Mukherjee, Amarjit Singh, Bhupendra Singh, Aizad Baksh Awan and T.N. Tandon) were selected for training at the RAF Flying College at Cranwell in the United Kingdom.
There is a beautiful description of flying cadet Subroto Mukherjee taking off on his first solo flight “with a song in his heart” and making what his flight instructor described as a “perfect landing”. This made him the senior-most in his batch. Mukherjee went on to become the first chief of the Indian Air Staff on April 1, 1954. Interestingly, of the six, Tandon passed out from Cranwell not as a pilot but as an equipment officer. He was withdrawn from flying as during his first flying class, the instructor discovered that at 4 feet 10 inches, he was too short to operate the rudders in the aircraft. In fact, a minimum height requirement for recruits in air forces across the world was introduced after this.
The author portrays with poignancy how the Cranwell-trained officers, who joined duty at the RAF Depot at Drigh Road in Karachi, were subjected to indignities by their British counterparts. The RAF pilots put humiliating conditions on the Indian pilots. One condition was that they should fly with streamers on their wings so that the RAF pilots could keep their distance from them. The Indian pilots were not allowed to stay in the RAF mess. They were allotted separate quarters. Unlike the British airmen, Indians were not provided uniforms. They were made to wear the Army uniform with puttee. It was in 1937 that the Indian pilots, who had by then familiarised themselves with flying rules and regulations, were sent on their first field operation in the North-West Frontier Province, where they proved their worth. “A baptism of fire” as the author describes it. And one truly worthy of praise, as is evident from a glowing tribute to the grit and imagination of this first batch of six officers by their first commanding officer Flight Lieutenant Cecil Bouchier.
After 26 years, Bouchier was to recall: “The Indian Air Force is what it is today because of one thing only—the imagination, the courage, the loyalty 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.”
But there were initial setbacks as well. For example, on March 8, 1934, the fledgling IAF came close to being disbanded when the Air Commander-in-Chief, Air Marshal Sir John Steel, addressing the Indian officers and airmen at Drigh, told them: “We knew fully well that Indian will not be able to fly and maintain military aeroplanes. It is a man’s job and all you have done is to bring the greatest disgrace on yourself, you are incapable of paying attention to details, a most essential feature of military aviation. I, therefore, intend to disband the so-called Indian Air Force. So be prepared for the shock.” This came in the wake of two mishaps: one in which pilot officers Amarjit Singh and Bhupendra Singh, brothers and from the first batch of officers, were killed in a crash while Bhupendra Singh was piloting the aircraft, and the other in which the plane flown by Sircar crashed into a column of soldiers on the ground, killing 14 of them. But despite those harsh words, the leadership of Subroto Mukherjee then saved the day for the infant IAF.
The first real accolades came when the Second World War broke out, and the British, who were outwitted by the Japanese on the eastern war front, were left with no alternative but to draft the No.1 Squadron of the IAF into Burma (now Myanmar) to counter the invading Japanese forces. The IAF performed brilliantly, with the Indian pilots winning 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Distinguished Service Order. In recognition of the services rendered by the IAF, the King of England prefixed “Royal” to the service. Thus, the IAF was known as RIAF until January 26, 1950, when India became a republic and the RIAF was reconverted to IAF.
But in spite of the brilliant performance by the Indian flyers and airmen, the British remained sceptical. In November 1946, Air Marshal Wamsey wrote to the defence consultative committee: “If the RAF is withdrawn out of India, Indians will not be able to maintain the existing 10 squadrons. Actually they cannot even maintain one squadron in the air technically.” The RAF withdrew and the IAF not only survived but thrived. From six officers and 11 airmen at the beginning, the force has more than 1,27,000 personnel (according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies) and 1,499 aircraft (according to the Flight Global estimates). It is the only air force in the world to have set up an aircraft manufacturing depot.
The author, a senior journalist who is considered an expert in the history of military aviation in the country, has enlivened the book with first-person accounts, anecdotal references and newspaper reports. Many incidents have been described in lucid detail such as the jubilation that followed when Subroto Mukherjee became Squadron Leader. It was on September 3, 1939, that the IAF’s No.1 Squadron got its first Indian Commanding Officer, Subroto Mukherjee. All British officers were withdrawn making it an all-Indian squadron. Another landmark event was on July 12, 1942, when the IAF got its true identity when it got its badge and colours from the Duke of Gloucester. Another big day was April 1, 1954, when Subroto Mukherjee took over as the first Chief of Air Staff. President Rajendra Prasad presented the colours to the IAF then.
The book not only provides a glimpse into the lives and minds of IAF personnel, but the flying machines as well. How the IAF has travelled a long way from Wapitis to the era of Jaguars, Sukhois, Mirages, and MI-17 is an interesting study. The book, courtesy the memoirs of late Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh, AOC-in-C Maintenance Command (who is considered the Father of the Maintenance Command of the IAF), gives an insight into the evolution of the ground crew.
Initially, 11 people were selected for training in Karachi. The recruits encountered a lot of hardships but they were determined to slug it out. The book pays tribute to the untiring efforts of an English gentleman, Warrant Officer H.E. Newing, who was the technical instructor of this first group of airmen. He boosted the morale of the demoralised boys, saying, “staying the course here will be your chance to prove that Indians can face it and learn to defend their own country; if you fail now, there will never be an Indian squadron”.
Sapru has chronicled some of the revolutionary feats carried out by the IAF at that time such as having a common mess for officers and airmen. Similarly, he provides interesting details about how the Army uniform was discarded and the new, blue RAF-type uniform was introduced in July 1940.
He also gives interesting details about how war-time vocabulary changed with the entry of the Americans and how words such as OK and jeep became part of everyday language. Similarly, aerodrome became airfield, landing ground became airstrip or runway, aeroplane became aircraft, and so on. Details about the Engineer brothers, both ace pilots, and the colourful Wing Commander K.K. Majumdar, fondly called Jumbo by all, add to the readability of the book. Accounts of the officers not familiar with red tape, dealing with dreaded auditors, are entertaining.