Military & Aerospace

Military Aviation and the Indian Air Force
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 09 Sep , 2016

The invention of the aircraft in 1903 added a new element to warfare. Now to maintain the balance of military power, the states needed air power also. India was introduced to the aeroplane in 1910. Subsequently, RAF Squadrons came to India for operations in North West Frontiers as also to ensure internal security. The public pressure ultimately led to the creation of an Indian air arm in 1932. However the expansion was very slow until the Second World War (1939-1945). The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II.

Great Britain ruled one fourth of the world because of its strong Navy…

In the nineteenth century, the general belief was that a nation which commands the sea, rules the world. Indeed the Army could fight the battle on land but for overseas conquest, the Navy was vital. Great Britain ruled one fourth of the world because of its strong Navy. The invention of aircraft in the early twentieth century broke this belief when the aircraft crossed the English Channel. The British Navy could no longer hold on the offensive from the other side of the Channel. Consequently, the countries began to develop air arm for their defence. Flying machines were also being added to the Naval inventory as well. Initially, hardly anyone realised that flying machines would also be used for transportation. Civil aviation indeed came in much later. Meanwhile, World War I broke out in 1914 and this necessitated the vast expansion of military aviation.

The aircraft entered India seven years after its invention. Exhibition flights were organised not only to display adventurism; but also to generate funds. In 1915, an Indian Flying School was established. Royal Air Force squadrons also set up their bases in India for internal and external security. The Indian Air Force took birth some years later.

Genesis of Military Aviation

The history of air power for military purpose can be traced back to eighteenth century when balloons were used by some armies for reconnaissance. Tony Mason dates the birth of air power in 1893, when one Major Fullerton of the British Army presented a paper at a meeting of army engineers in Chicago stating that the impact of aeronautics in future would be ‘as great a revolution in the art of war as the discovery of gun powder’.1 However, the use of the expression ‘air power’ was first recorded in H.G Wells’ novel ‘The War in the Air’ in 1908, when he chronicled a fictional worldwide conflict in which threat represented by the invention of airships and airplanes triggered a war.2

Military Aviation is indeed a twentieth century development, related to the invention of power-driven flight…

Military Aviation is indeed a twentieth century development, related to the invention of power-driven flight by Wright brothers (Wilber and Orville Wright) in December 1903. The invention of the aircraft (flight heavier-than-air) brought world closer by reducing the travel time and transformed the pattern of war. The Brothers considered the military as a prospective buyer of their machine and undertook a successful test flight in 1909 before the US military officials. Britain was already tracking the development of a flying machine of their own but it was not until February 1911, that an Air Battalion under Royal Engineers was created. Italy, however invited the Wrights to help in opening an aircraft factory. Meanwhile, France was also making efforts to manufacture flying machines for military use and therefore, requested the Wrights to stage a demonstration as well.

The Wrights, however, did not enjoy the mantle of aviation leaders for long. Attraction of government contracts as well as prize money offered by newspapers brought around many prospective aviators. In July 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel posing a new challenge to British security. Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, now realised that its navy alone may no longer be enough to secure the nation. Something needed to be done. Meanwhile, Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany developed an aircraft capable of even more impressive feats.

Flying machines were first used in war by Italy during the Turko-Italian War in 1911 when Captain Piazza made a reconnaissance flight near Tripoli in a Blériot aircraft. The flying machines were also engaged in the Balkan Wars in 1912 by both the Ottoman and the Balkan countries. There were also some other sporadic cases involving primitive air support in some other world clashes. Indeed at this stage, the flying machines were considered as an eye to the army. Incidentally, air power was first used by France in the Battle of Fleurus (in 1794) when ‘lighter-than-air’, balloon was flown for reconnaissance purpose. It directed the artillery fire of Napoleon’s army against the Austrians. This led to the raising of balloon sections by many armies in succeeding years.

Initially, France became the leading country in the field of military aviation…

Meanwhile, Britain formed the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on April 13, 1912, amalgamating the existing Air Battalions. The RFC included a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School with overall strength of 20 aircrew. The Naval Wing was soon separated and handed over to the Royal Navy. During this period, Germany, France and USA also developed their Air Corps as a part of their land forces.

Initially, France became the leading country in the field of military aviation. Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Rumania, Greece and Mexico bought flying machines from France and sent aspiring aircrew to receive training in French flying schools.3 A wider use of aircraft for military purpose, however, started during the First World War.

Use of Aircraft in Military Operations

To begin with, aircraft were used to seek information about the enemy movement behind the battle lines. In 1914, these consisted of light wooden bi/tri planes, with a maximum speed well below 100 mph. It carried a pilot and an observer, who sometimes made pencil sketches of enemy trenches and positions. The planes were unarmed, except for a revolver or a rifle carried by the observer, who occasionally took a shot at something below, or even at an enemy observation plane, which he seldom hit. The pilots of German and British planes sometimes waved at each other as they passed by while on their missions. The emergence of airplanes opened new possibilities in warfare; but closed some others. The cavalry began losing its relevance for reconnaissance. Surprise, which was a key factor in war tactics, now became difficult to achieve.

The emergence of airplanes opened new possibilities in warfare; but closed some others…

In the initial stages of military aviation, people and even some military officers believed that aircraft would merely frighten horses. They considered its value not more than looking over the hills in front of troops. But there were also officers who were more than ready to integrate this new technology as an arm. Though the small size of bombs initially could not frighten enemy troops, its psychological impact could not be denied. A new weapon indeed had emerged and the sky had now turned into a battlefield.

As World War I progressed, better planes were produced for artillery observation, long range reconnaissance, bombing and strafing. Communication from the aircraft to the ground evolved leading to ground control of airplanes. The observation planes started flying at treetop level, in adverse weather conditions and could even keep pace with the advancing infantry. Development was rapid. The planes grew in numbers and size as well as improved in load-carrying capacity and operating range. With the use of increasing numbers of aircraft in the War, the inevitable happened. They started encountering and shooting at each other in the air to prevent the adversary from taking military advantage. It led to the birth of fighter aircraft whose numbers increased drastically in the years that followed. The battle for ‘control of the air’ had begun and air power doctrine started to formulate gradually. The fighters started patrolling the assigned areas in groups in low-flying-pursuits. The bombers started carrying heavier bombs and flocked in formations, escorted by fighters to bomb enemy positions. To counteract the airplanes, anti-aircraft guns were also developed.

Air Power Strategy

The vital importance of the air machine was revealed when the German Zeppelins and Gathos (aircrafts) began long night-time journey from North Sea to drop bombs on military and industrial targets in Britain in 1915. This was termed as first strategic air campaign (strategic bombing) in the history of military aviation.4 Learning from this, the rival countries started raising bomber units. The role of these units was different from support to the land army. Here lay the seeds of an independent air service (Air Force). The military aviation started acquiring new terms such as ‘dogfight’ and ‘ace pilot’. The new strategic theories also began to evolve. Douhet, an Italian General, tuned the theory of total war built around the air power. He saw the aeroplane as a weapon which could pass over the defences of sea and land forces. The concept of ‘command of air’, also termed as ‘air blockade’ gradually came into being by World War II.5

The First World War necessitated the rapid expansion of military aviation…

The aircraft used during World War I could be classified in two categories – those designed to perform a designated mission and those designed to prevent the enemy from carrying a similar task. The bomber’s mission was to drop bombs on enemy positions while fighters took the offensive in the air to shoot down enemy bombers and fighters.

Military Aviation Towards Maturity

The First World War necessitated the rapid expansion of military aviation. The USA, which had 131 officers and 1,087 men when it entered in War in April 1917, enlisted over one hundred thousand personnel and added several thousands of aircraft during the War.6 The Royal Air Force added 240,000 men and 22,000 aircraft.7 These aircraft were indeed manufactured during the War. Britain produced over 54,000 aircraft, Germany 44,000, France 52,000 and Italy 11,000 between 1914 and 1918. Military Aviation also suffered heavy losses. British RFC lost 16,623 personnel and the German air arm suffered 15,906 casualties during the War, although a portion of these losses were not due to enemy action.

By the end of World War-I military aviation had specialised in many combat roles such as artillery spotting, aerial photography, bombing, ground attack, anti-submarine patrols and scouting the ships. Further, the doctrine of command of the skies and support to land forces had been firmly established. Using aerial observers long range artillery could now hit targets accurately, considered impossible earlier. Air Power also provided the ability to see the impact of long range artillery fire on enemy positions. Aviation thus became an integral part of all armies and a vital component of military success. World War I thus played a crucial role in the development of military aviation. Among the men who shaped the contours of air power included General Giulio Douchet of Italy, General Hugh Trenchard of England, Hermann Goering of Germany, Brigadier General William Mitchell and Admiral WE Sims of the United States.

While World War I was a period of developing military aviation, World War-II became a testing ground…

While World War I was a period of developing military aviation, World War-II became a testing ground. The German air attacks on Poland and Great Britain, the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbour, the day-and-night bombing of Germany by the US and the British Air Force, and dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki convincingly demonstrated the destructive potential of air power. No country could now afford to overlook the need of military aviation for the defence of their territory.

Military Aviation in India

The history of military aviation in India is associated with the birth of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1912 and later, the creation of the Royal Air Force (first Independent Air Service of the world) on April 01, 1918. Meanwhile, a detachment of RFC was deputed to India in 1915. Later, some RAF squadrons were also attached with Army in India. But the real Indian combat aviation was born on October 08, 1932, when the Indian Air Force came into existence.

The history of aviation in India, however goes back to early 1910 when Colonel H.S Massy of Aerial League of British Empire delivered a lecture on aerial navigation in Allahabad. During the lecture he spoke about evolution of aviation and that India could be a new area for the enterprise. Further, a Committee of Exhibition was also planned.8 Consequently, in November 1910, two Bleriot monoplanes were transported by sea to Bombay. These planes were taken to Allahabad by train and assembled there. The first flight was undertaken from the Polo Ground by an Englishman Keith Davies on December 10, who circled the ground at a height of 30 feet. Meanwhile, the Maharaja of Patiala also procured three aeroplanes in December. During the same month, a Belgian air pioneer also organised an air display at Calcutta.

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Meanwhile, a British party brought two Bristol Boxkites to Aurangabad. They demonstrated the military application of the aeroplane by participating in military exercises alongside the cavalry and infantry units. On January 16, 1911, the pilot of one Boxkite took an artillery officer as an observer and carried out an aerial reconnaissance. Captain Norman Macmillan considers it the first ever army manoeuver of an aeroplane.9 The event was followed by a Frenchman Henri Pequeit who carried out the world’s first air mail service, flying Sommer biplane from Allahabad to Naini in February 1911. These flights were followed by a number of air demonstrations conducted by air pioneers in different parts of India. Many curious Indians rushed to see the flying show by paying as much amount as Rs 5 and some of them taking joyride with lordly sum of Rs 25. During an exhibition at Hakimpet (near Secunderbad), one could even touch and inspect the aircraft by paying Rs 1.10 In the meantime, the British Indian Government enacted the Indian Aircraft Act, 1911 with the intention to regulate the manufacture, possession, use, sale, import and export of airplanes,11 such activities though commenced decades later in India.

Formation of the Indian Flying School

Some British officers of Indian Army learnt flying at their own expense while on leave in England and earned their wings. In February 1914, an Indian Flying School (also called Central Flying School) was established at Sitapur in United Province (now Uttar Pradesh) under the command of Captain SD Massey of 29th Punjab Regiment. The Indian Army officers who knew flying were posted as flying instructors. The objective was to teach flying to some selected officers of the Indian Army under local conditions. The effort was to raise an Indian Flying Corps on the pattern of Royal Flying Corps of England. Before it could be pursued properly, World War I broke out and the officers and aircraft of the Corps were sent to Egypt to supplement the aviation resources of England. Consequently, the Flying School was shut down and India was left without an aeroplane.

The history of military aviation in India is associated with the birth of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1912…

During the War, some Indians joined the Royal Flying Corps and flew the airplanes in actual combat. Sardar Hardit Singh Malik who joined the RFC in 1917 became India’s first military aviator. Indra Lal Roy (first Indian DFC), S Welingkar, MC and EC Sen followed him.

Royal Air Force in India

Meanwhile, a Squadron (No 31) of Royal Flying Corps (later RAF) came on detachment in December 1915 to Nowshera for watch and ward duties in North West Frontier. The Squadron, the first in India, thus bore the crest with motif five pointed star of India and motto ‘Primis in Coelum Indicum’ (First in Indian Skies). Considering the serious operational requirement of aircraft in North West Frontier, an additional Flight was sent to India towards the end of 1916. Though there were lot of demands from India for air squadrons, but these could not be met in view of large requirements in the different theatres of War. Subsequently, when War ended, two more squadrons of RAF were ordered to be deployed in India in mid 1919. Incidentally, aircraft were first used to quell internal unrest during the disturbances in Punjab in 1919.12

By 1923, the number of RAF Squadrons in India rose to six and the strength almost continued till the start of the Second World War in 1939.13 These squadrons were organised under a Group Headquarters located with the Army Headquarters. Some airfields were also developed in India during the inter war period. Meanwhile, some Civil Flying Clubs were set up in cities such as Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi in the late 1920s. These clubs encouraged adventurous young men to learn flying as a sport. Many of them later joined ‘Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve’ during the Second World War.

The real Indian combat aviation was born on October 08, 1932, when the Indian Air Force came into existence…

Birth of the Indian Air Force

In the early 1920s, the idea of setting up an Indian Air Arm was floated. Public opinion as well as Central Legislature demanded the entry of Indians in the Air Arm soon after the First World War. In 1925, the Government of India set up a Committee under Lt Gen Sir Andrew Skeen to advise on the Indianisation of the Services. The Committee, recognising the services rendered by Indian pilots during World War I, recommended creation of an air arm in India.14 The recommendations of the Committee were accepted and in March 1928, the Government decided to send some Indians to RAF College Cranwell. Selected through Federal Public Service Commission (now UPSC), six Indians were thus sent to Cranwell in 1930 for two years training. Five qualified as pilots while one as an equipment officer. Many more Indians followed in the succeeding years. On completion of training, they all were posted to No 1 Squadron, IAF.

Meanwhile, thirty nine men were recruited by railway workshops and trained for a year as apprentice for aircraft maintenance at Drigh Road, Karachi. Of these, 22 qualified and came to be known as Hawai Sepoy. During the same time, an Act was passed giving birth to Indian Air Force (IAF) on October 08, 1932. On April 01, 1933, the first Flight, called ‘A’ Flight (No 1 Squadron) was raised at Drigh Road, Karachi. It included six IAF and two RAF officers. The Flight consisted of four Westland Wapiti aircraft which could fly at a speed of 80-85 miles per hour.

The formative years of the Squadron were related to training in Army Co-operation, then considered the prime role of an air arm. Subsequently ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights were added in 1936 and 1938 respectively. The Squadron remained busy in operations in North West Frontier and in Waziristan during the period 1937 to 1939 and earned a good reputation. Operations in the Frontier areas with practical experience of low-flying in tortuous terrain, produced efficient pilots in the IAF. The Squadron’s flying standards and serviceability of its aircraft earned the admiration of all concerned. In social terms, the squadron had a mixed class composition and men of various communities and castes stood shoulder to shoulder and dined in a common mess. The Squadron was converted to Hart aircraft in June 1939 and to Lysanders in August 1941.

In the early 1920s, the idea of setting up an Indian Air Arm was floated…

The IAF during World War II

World War II broke out on September 03, 1939, when the IAF was still in its infancy, comprising 16 officers and 144 men. The massive requirement of manpower during the War led to a large expansion of the IAF. Indeed the reverses suffered by the Allies in the early stages of the War necessitated the expansion which was further accentuated by the entry of Japan into the War.

In view of the expansion, training facilities for aircrew were to be provided in India. Elementary Flying Training Schools were, therefore, established at Begumpet and Jodhpur while advanced flying training was started at Ambala (shifted to Risalpur in 1942). Similarly, the technical airmen were trained at Ambala and the non-technical airmen at Lahore. Subsequently, more training institutions were set up to train the airmen and aircrew for the IAF. Still some aircrew were sent to England and Canada for flying training. Now, officers were given emergency commission for the duration of the War. The IAF Volunteer Reserve Scheme was launched and many Indians who had learned flying in civil aviation schools were commissioned in the IAF. Six Coast Defence Flights of the IAF at various coastal cities were raised to guard against any offensive from the sea. In 1940, an expansion plan for the IAF provided for raising of four squadrons by April 1942. However, in 1941 the target was enhanced to ten squadrons.

By October 1940, No 1 Squadron in its full strength and Coast Defence Flights with partial strength, became operational. Meanwhile, No 2 and No 3 Squadrons were added in April and October 1941 with Wapiti and Audax aircraft respectively. No 4 Squadron equipped with the Lysander aircraft followed in February 1942. The Coast Defence Flights were disbanded and their strength was absorbed in 6, 7, and 8 Squadrons (equipped with Vultee Vengeance aircraft) raised by-mid 1943.15 Raising of two more squadrons was delayed due to paucity of pilots; but finally with the help from RAF, Nos 9 and 10 Squadrons were added by early 1944 with Hurricane aircraft.16 By the end of 1944, all squadrons were converted to Hurricane while in mid-1945, Nos 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons were re-equipped with Spitfire aircraft.

The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II…

The ten-squadron plan was thus almost achieved. However, the IAF was neither given bomber aircraft nor transport planes during the War. It was only in 1946, that No 12 transport squadron was raised with Dakota aeroplanes. During the War, all IAF squadrons were perpetually engaged in operations in areas such as the North West Frontier, North East India, Burma and Arakan. Many senior IAF officers also got the chance to command Squadrons.17 Two of them even commanded the RAF Station Kohat. This experience stood them in good stead just after the independence when India got involved in operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Though in fledgling stage and with limitations, the IAF brought laurels for its role in World War-II. It earned 22 Distinguished Flying Cross (one Bar to DFC), one Distinguished Service Order and many other gallantry awards. The IAF flew more than 16,000 sorties in Burma alone, involving more than 24,000 operational flying hours. As a mark of recognition for its contribution in the War, the IAF was granted the title ‘Royal’ by His Majesty the King on March 12, 1945.

During the War, the demand for manpower in the IAF was high, particularly between 1942 and 1944, when Japanese offensive in South East Asia called for maximum effort. By this time, British and US aircraft factories had increased their production and could supply aircraft in the numbers required. Efforts were also made by Walchand Hirachand to manufacture aircraft indigenously, but could not last long. Between January 1942 and August 1945, the IAF needed 4,304 officers and 74,125 airmen, however could find only 2,533 officers and 41,324 airmen. Many were wasted out during training. At the end of the War, the IAF had nine squadrons and a strength of 1638 officers and 26,900 men. It is estimated that 12,953 personnel of RIAF were demobilsed towards the end of 1946.


The invention of the aircraft in 1903 added a new element to warfare. Now to maintain the balance of military power, the states needed air power also. India was introduced to the aeroplane in 1910. Subsequently, RAF Squadrons came to India for operations in North West Frontier as also for internal security. Public pressure ultimately led to the creation of an Indian air arm in 1932. However, the expansion was very slow until the Second World War (1939-1945). The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II.

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The Second World War led to substantial growth in infrastructure. It necessitated the building of several air bases country-wide which proved to be useful after independence. The expansion during the War again provided a sound basis for future development of the IAF. Indians again got an opportunity to serve with US and British air force personnel augmenting their vision. At one time, there were 13,225 officers and 118,682 other ranks in the Royal Air Force units operating in India. About the end of 1943, a total of 3,699 planes of various air forces were based in India.18


  1. Tony Mason, Air Power: A Centennial Appraisal (London: Brassy’s, 1994), p. 3.
  2. H.G. Wells, The War in the Air (London: MacMillan, 1908)
  3. Charles J. Gross, “George Own Squier and the Origins of American Military Aviation”, The Journal of Military History, vol. 54, no. 3 (July 1990), pp. 281-306.
  4. Phillip S. Meilinger, “Trenchard and Morale Bombing: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine Before World War II”, The Journal of Military History, vol. 60, no. 2 (April 1996), pp. 243-270.
  5. Guilio Douhet, The Command of the Air (Dehradun: reprint 2003, first published in 1927), pp. 26-44. Also see Lord Tedder, Air Power in War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), pp. 29-52. According to Tedder, General Smuts was first to advocate the concept of ‘air supremacy’.
  6. GR Simonson, “The Demand for the Aircraft and the Aircraft Industry, 1907-1958”, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 20, no. 3 (Sep 1960), pp. 361-382.
  7. Meilinger, ‘Trenchard and Morale Bombing’, pp. 243-270.
  8. Aeronautics in India”, Times of India, January 26, 1910. Also see “Aviation Progress: Lecture at Allahabad”, Times of India , January 10, 1910.
  9. Capt Norman Macmillan, Air Strategy (London: Hutchinson, 1950), p. 7.
  10. P Anuradha Reddy, Aviation in the Hyderabad Dominions, p. 8.
  11. Indian Aircraft Act, 1911”, vide Act No. XVII of 1911 (23 September 1911).
  12. Srinath Raghaven, “Protecting the Raj: The Army in Indian and Internal Security, c. 1919-39”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 16, no. 3 (December 2005), pp. 253-279.
  13. SC Gupta, History of Indian Air Force, 1933-1945 (Delhi, Historical Section, 1961), p. xviii.
  14. The Skeen Committee had two Indian Members Moti Lal Nehru and MA Jinnah. Nehru however tendered his resignation in March 1926.
  15. During that period, No. 5 Squadron of RAF was located in India, keeping this in view no squadron was raised in IAF by this number to avoid confusion.
  16. Formation dates of squadrons are, however different in different sources.
  17. On cease of hostilities in August 1945, six of the nine IAF squadrons were commanded by Indian officers. See “AOC’s Internal Minutes”, 1945.
  18. Bisheshwar Prasad, India and the War (Delhi, Historical Section, 1966), p. 258.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Narender Yadav

PhD in Military History, working as an Assistant Director in History Division, Ministry of Defence.

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