Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Air Force in War-I
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The public clamour for Indianisation of the armed forces in the early 1930s led to the establishment of the Indian Sandhurst Committee. Along with other recommendations the committee insisted that the officer cadres in the air arm in India should be Indianised. This resulted in four to six Indians being sent to Cranwell, in Britain, for training every year. On the return of the first group, the Indian Air Force was formed on 1 April 1933 by raising No 1 Indian Squadron at Drigh Road with four Wapiti aircraft. At the same time some Indian technicians, called hawai sipahi, who had been trained in aeronautical engineering, were posted to service the aircraft.

A beginning was thus made. Wapiti, an biplane, was the main aircraft of the Royal Air Force Squadron in India and was extensively employed in operations against tribesmen in the Northwest Frontier. After the initial training of three years, one flight of the Indian Squadron was inducted into the Frontier on 1 April 1936 for attachment to the RAF Squadron for operational experience. The flight was stationed at Miran Shah and employed in patrolling army columns, tactical reconnaissance, and close support to army picqueting operational with occasional bombing.

Space-Power-2The aircraft were rickety contraptions, very vulnerable to tribal small arms fire, and force landings because of bullet holes in the body and engine failures because of indifferent refuelling environments were common. But these activities provided sound experience of active operations. Two other flights were formed when aircraft and crew became available, and at the start of the Second World War No 1 Indian Squadron was in good shape and had received its baptism of fire. Indian airmen went all out to prove their capacity to man units efficiently although leadership at the command and administrative levels still remained with British officers seconded from RAF.The leisurely pace of Indianisation, started in 1933, was primarily meant to satisfy demands for nationalizing the services, and this would have continued but for the outbreak of war in Europe and its looming shadow on the subcontinent as part of Britain’s colonial empire in the east. Strategic requirements dictated modernisation of the regular RAF units through a re-equipment programme with newer types of aircraft and expansion of the force in India as a whole for ever-increasing operational commitments. In this regard it was decided to raise Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve units to patrol the long, exposed coastline.

in the future, when mobility is restored on the battlefield by superior generalship and equipment and deeper thrusts are possible, it will be necessary to capture enemy airfields and rehabilitate them speedily to support our operations where possible or devise some method of laying temporary airfields quickly.

Coastal defence flights were raised from volunteers holding civil pilot’s licences at Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, Karachi, Madras and Visakhapatnam. About a hundred volunteers manned Wapiti aircraft, by then discarded by RAF units in favour of better machines. Most of these volunteer pilots were boxwallahs from business houses in India and of British nationality. Nonetheless these units, equipped with antiquated aircraft from Wapiti to Bristol Blenheims and Hudsons, played a useful role in surveillance of Indian coastal waters and provided an escort to ships carrying troops and war material within their limited range. In fact, the first Japanese fleet off the east coast of India was sighted by a coastal defence unit based at Visakhapatnam.

Japanese entry into the war and speedy conquests in East and Southeast Asia spurred the expansion of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Its strength grew in the war years from one squadron to nine, but this was still no more than one-tenth of the total force the Allies employed in the Eastern Air Command area. These units had to be content with aircraft which the RAF units had phased out. While RAF squadrons flew Thunderbolts and Mosquitoes, IAF continued with Hurricanes and Spitfires, and throughout the war this discrimination generated a feeling of being a mere adjunct to a superior mentor. But despite their older and inferior aircraft, Indian airmen made a name for themselves with their efficiency.

In recognition of its services in the war IAF received the title, Royal and its pilots won one Distinguished Service Order and a number of other decorations. Quite a few like Mazumdar and Baba Meher Singh became flying legends. To cope with the expansion of the force, flying schools were set up initially at Walton, near Lahore, and at Ambala, and later, as war requirements mounted, two operational units—one for fighters and another for ground attack craft-were set up at Risalpur and Peshawar respectively. Several ground schools for training technicians and administrative personnel were established for officers as well as men. Rapid expansion raised the strength of the force to 3,000 officers and 25,000 men. The bulk of this force was deployed along with RAF under what was known as the “substitution scheme.” Most of the rank and file saw action in the Burma theatre and were able to gain invaluable experience of manning and maintaining the most sophisticated equipment of that time, and this knowledge proved useful when independence came.

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Although some IAF officers had converted to transport aircraft individually, no transport unit was raised as such. This shortcoming was redressed after the war by raising a transport squadron which, having trained on Airspeed Oxfords, was equipped with Dakotas drawn from war surpluses. The first squadron commander was Shivdev Singh, who rose to be the Vice Chief of Air Staff and had a hand in planning and directing the air war in the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1971.

As for the future Air Force inventory, there is need, as has been stressed earlier, for a close support aircraft slow in speed but highly lethal in weaponry.

The British War Office had worked out the postwar defence requirements in India and had spelt out as late as October 1946 that the existing strength of some ten squadrons should be expanded to a force level of 20, to be organized into a balanced force of fighter, bomber and transport squadrons as an all-purpose combat hitting power. Before these plans could be put into operation political changes left it to the emerging national government to work out its own strategic needs.

Partition of the country into Pakistan and India on the eve of independence changed the entire context in which the British assessment of the force levels of the services had been made. In the division of assets, India retained roughly two-thirds of the old RIAF, comprising some seven fighter squadrons and one transport squadron. Almost all its permanent training establishments and air bases, located in what came to be called Pakistan, were lost to India. The tribal invasion of Kashmir launched the active operations of the new IAF without any respite for dealing with the aftermath of partition and its attendant problems. Under the leadership of Air Commodore Meher Singh, affectionately known as Baba, the Air Force swung into action with verve and courage.

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