The PAF Legacy

Long before the PAF came into being, there were a few enterprising citizens of the subcontinent who could be counted among the pioneers of military flying. They had joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) of Great Britain , which was constituted on 13 April 1912. Two years later, some of these men distinguished themselves during World War I in which the earliest concepts of employment of air power were being evolved sequentially, from reconnaissance, through artillery direction, to air combat to bombing. One of these Indian pioneers was Sardar H S Malik, the famous golfer, who carried a bullet lodged in his knee. Two others, Indra Lal Roy DFC and S G Welingkar MC, were killed in action.

The seeds of military aviation in India had been sown in December 1913 when a small contingent of the RFC started a Central Flying School at Sitapur under a British officer of the 29th Punjab Regiment. In 1918 the RFC was made independent and recast as the Royal Air Force, which soon extended its influence overseas in Iraq and in Palestine in addition to India, where it quickly developed a system of air control in wild and communication less territory which proved far more effective and far less expensive in lives and material than the earlier army methods.

In India particularly, the army had been perpetually engaged in a confrontation with the fiercely independent warring tribes of the NWFP. The advent of the aeroplane introduced a more effective method of control through aerial bombing of forts and other tribal strongholds and by inhibiting essential economic activity such as harvesting of crops and so on. The success of air control methods in the colonies was one of the major arguments used by Lord Trenchard in persuading the British government to continue to develop the RAF as a potential money saver.

The Skeene Committee

In the late 1920s there was a rising sentiment that the Indian Army ought to have not only its own officer cadre but also its own air support arm. In response to this demand, the government of India set up a committee in 1925 under the chairmanship of Sir Andrew Skeene, the Chief of the General Staff. Mr M A Jinnah was also a member of this committee along with a few other Indians who represented public opinion. The committee took note of the fact that Indians had participated in air operations during World War I, and that some of them had earned gallantry awards for outstanding courage in the face of the enemy. In view of these facts and in deference to popular demand, it recommended the formation of an air arm of the Indian Army.

The recommendations were published in April 1927 and were accepted by the British government after much heated debate in parliament. As a result, the RAF College , Cranwell reserved two seats for Indian pilots. But the proposal was not actually implemented until 1930 when six Indians were selected by the Government of India from various provinces of the country. This batch consisted of Sarkar, Mukerjee, Bhopinder Singh, Aizad Awan, Amarjit Singh and Tandon. It was later joined by A M Engineer who had won the Agha Khan prize for being the first Indian to fly from India to England in a Tiger Moth aircraft. In those days this was no mean achievement.

The next step was to select engineers and technicians for the maintenance of aircraft. The question of recruiting persons with aviation experience did not arise because there were none.  The best alternative was to induct persons with railway workshop experience. Thus 22 men with sufficient experience in such workshops were selected to form the nucleus of the airmen cadre.  They joined as apprentice aircraft hands at Karachi on 19 January 32, with a monthly salary of Rs. 35, which was a princely sum in those days.

The training of these technicians, at RAF Drigh Road , was rigorous; the men were forced to live by strict military discipline to which they were not at all accustomed, and their RAF instructors treated them as inferiors who would never be able to make the grade. However, with the passage of time the British acknowledged the dedicated application of these young Indians to their profession, and so changed their views when a year later, all apprentices completed their training with flying colours.

Air Arm vs Air Force

The Skeene Committee had recommended that “steps should be taken by the Government to create an air arm of the Indian Army”. The government had also accepted this recommendation but Air Vice Marshal Salmond, the Air Officer Commanding in India, put up a vehement opposition to this concept and eventually forced a decision in favour of an independent air force in the subcontinent.

Accordingly, the government introduced the Indian Air Force bill in the legislative assembly.  The bill did not have a smooth passage as the national minded representatives, who had a natural suspicion of British intentions, believed that the government was creating yet another instrument of military repression by means of this bill. So they insisted on pinning certain safeguards on to the bill, such as the recruitment should not be confined to certain regions only, as it had been in the case of the army. The bill was eventually passed into law on 8 October 32 and the Indian Air Force Act came into being.

The first batch of pilots was granted King’s Commission on that same day. In later years nine more would be selected for flying training at Cranwell namely Majumdar, Ranganathan,  Habibullah  Khan, Prithipal Singh Narendra, Mehr Singh, R H D Sing, Surrendra Nath Goyal and Arjun Singh. Together with the first batch, they would constitute the total strength of pilots in the Indian Air Force till the outbreak of World War 11 in 1939.

The First Flight

The first unit of the IAF – A Flight of No 1 Squadron — was officially formed on 1 April 33, and its nucleus consisted of the first batch of  Cranwell trained pilots and the technical hands trained at Drigh Road, who were for a time called ‘hawai sepoys’ (air soldiers). There were two RAF officers of whom one was Flight Lieutenant Boucher who commanded the flight; the non-commissioned officers were also all from the RAF. Boucher was known to be a strict disciplinarian and this discipline he now set about instilling in the officers and men of the fledgeling IAF.

The equipment of A Flight consisted of 4 Westland Wapiti aircraft which were slow, sluggish biplanes with a maximum speed of 85 miles per hour. The two open cockpits were located in tandem and the instrumentation was minimal. The rear cockpit was meant for an observer who used to be attached to the aircraft by a monkey chain to prevent his falling out during violent manoeuvres.

It would be no exaggeration to say that even by the primitive standards of those early days the Wapiti was a very uncomfortable aircraft to fly. It had no brakes and no radio worth the name and one flew it literally by the ‘seat of one’s pants’. Nevertheless, it was considered to be a safe aircraft and rarely had any fatal accidents. Veteran aviators could narrate stories of how many a pilot, having lost his way, put his Wapiti safely down in a cultivated field — and took off after ascertaining his exact position! The stresses and strains of present day flying, the complicated instrument panels of these days, the hundred and one checks which a pilot has to perform now, were all non-existent then. Flying — even though awe inspiring and a little risky in those days—was fun, and for many who joined the IAF then, it was a means of satisfying their spirit of adventure and their urge to explore the unknown. 

RAF fighters at Peshawar – 1925.

[Picture Courtesy: DPR, PAF]

For four and a half years, between April 33 and October 37, the A Flight of the IAF devoted itself to intensive training of its aircrew and ground personnel. Flight Lieutenant Boucher insisted that the aircraft be looked after in the most immaculate manner. His weekly inspections were something of an event; not only the hawai sepoys but the pilots as well had to scrub and clean the machines they flew. The training imparted to the flying crew pertained mainly to army cooperation. All the pilots had already undergone a course in this subject at the Army Cooperation School at Old Sarum in England, and they now set about perfecting the principles and techniques they had learned.

First Air Operations

Towards the end of 1937, the government decided that the time had come to test the professional competence of the Indian Air Force in actual operations in the North West Frontier Province. In the autumn of that year, a serious rebellion had broken out in North Waziristan where large scale operations, involving as many as 50,000 troops, had been conducted against insurgent Waziris of Tori Khel. The rebellion was partially contained by the summer of 1939, but Waziristan remained in a disturbed state and periodic air and land action had to be taken against bands of rebels. It was against this back-ground that A Flight flew into Miranshah on 1 October 37 . At this time the flight was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Haynes of the RAF and the 4 Indian officers with him were Flying Officers Mukerjee, Awan, Engineer and Narendra.
During the three months that A Flight remained at Miranshah, it put up a commendable performance. It flew 1,400 operational hours while maintaining a hundred percent aircraft serviceability. This was a record unbeaten by any previous squadron and won the appreciation and respect of the RAF.

By this time No 1 IAF Squadron had been fully formed with two flights, B Flight having stayed behind at Karachi. At the end of its Waziristan tour of operations, A Flight withdrew to Peshawar and from there moved to Ambala, where it was joined by its sister flight, and Ambala became the home of 1 Squadron from then on. In 1938 it was B Flight’s turn to proceed to Waziristan; under the command of Flying Officer K K Majumdar the unit put up yet another outstanding operational performance and thus, gradually, the squadron became fully battle initiated. Such valuable training continued till the outbreak of World War II on 3 September 39 when the squadron commander, Flight Lieutenant Mukerjee, was promoted to the rank of squadron leader.

For the first six years of it’s life the IAF had been kept by the British at a token strength of one squadron on the pretext that the Asians were not yet ready for running an independent air force. Even after the war started, Germany’s early onslaughts plunged Britain into a desperate struggle for survival and it had neither the time nor the resources to attend to the affairs of the subcontinent. As a result, throughout the first eighteen months of the war, the IAF continued to mark time with its single squadron, flying obsolete aircraft like Wapitis, Harts and Audaxes During this period, to achieve some measure of defence along India’s vast coastline, the government conceived a scheme to set up an unofficial Volunteer Reserve force in the IAF.

Coastal Defence

By the end of 1939, young civilian pilots and aircraft from various flying clubs had been formed into five coastal defence flights after short training courses as pilots and observers at Risalpur. Additional aircraft drawn from any available source including the civil airlines, were also distributed between these coastal flights which were located at Calcutta , Madras , Cochin Bombay and Karachi. Later on, a sixth flight was formed at Vizagapatnam. Only one flight was commanded by an Indian, Hem Chaudhry while the rest were put under the command of British personnel who were serving with various firms in a civilian capacity.  

The main task assigned to these units was to exercise vigilance along the coastal areas and to escort convoys in and out of Indian ports. Flying over the sea several miles away from the coastline in the life-expired single-engined aircraft was decidedly a hair raising experience, yet thousands of hours were flown on these missions.

Uptil then, the subcontinent had not featured prominently in Britain’s defence plans but by late 1940, London considered it prudent to build up the IAF to 3 squadrons as a contingency reserve. Accordingly, in March 1941 No 2 Squadron was formed at Peshawar, and in October of that year No 3 Squadron was raised at Kohat. Thus by the end of 1941, the IAF had 3 Squadrons and 5 coastal defence flights.

Pearl Harbour

On 7 December 41, Japan struck Pearl Harbour, and the lightning speed with which it conquered Malaya , the Philippines , Hong Kong and Singapore thoroughly alarmed Britain with regard to the vulnerability of India , the jewel of the British empire. In December itself, No 1 Squad- ron and the two coastal defence flights at Karachi and Calcutta were ordered to leave for Burma . No 4 Flight from Karachi was the first to reach Rangoon and it took them nine days and nearly twenty four hours of flight time per aircraft. At Rangoon they were tasked to perform reconnaissance and communication duties. There was no other role they could play because of their obsolete Wapiti and Audax aircraft which were no match for the Japanese fighters.

On many occasions when they encountered enemy aircraft, they survived only by coming down to deck level and making good their escape. Within a month they were relieved by No 3 Coastal Defence Flight which was equipped with five twin-engined Blenheims. By this time Moulmein , 100 miles east of Rangoon, had fallen into enemy hands and the flight had to move to Bassein from where, besides other tasks, it escorted supply ships in and out of Rangoon harbour. However, within a few days of the fall Rangoon the flight was ordered back to Calcutta.

No. 1 Squadron Strikes

The maximum 1AF contribution to the first Burma campaign was made by No. 1 Squadron which had arrived at Toungoo, some 200 miles south of Mandalay, on 1 February 42. It had 13 Lysander aircraft and was commanded by Squadron Leader Majumdar, with Flight Lieutenant Haider Raza as flight commander. On the very first day of their arrival they were attacked twice by Japanese aircraft. Within two days the squadron gave the enemy a great shock by flying at tree-top height to the Japanese air base at Menongaon, and inflicting heavy damage upon it On 5 February the squadron was shifted to Mingladon, outside Rangoon. In spite of the superior Japanese Oscar aircraft dominating the air, the squadron was able to achieve its task largely because of the experience it had gained in the NWFP in low flying and in detecting enemy hideouts.

In the second week of February, one flight of the squadron was moved to Tashio and the other one to Toungoo; Flight Lieutenant Raza commanded the latter. When the overall situation at the front deteriorated, the majority of RAF units and all other IAF elements in the area were ordered back to India, except these 2 flights, led by Majumdar and Raza respectively. For a fortnight Raza carried out raids all on his own and bombed enemy targets of opportunity regardless of enemy fighters. He continued to get away with this one-man war until the CO was suddenly reminded of Raza’s plight by a desperate signal about the ‘dhobi’ arrangements: “This private guerilla war is fun but one pair of trousers and one shirt is a bit hard for a whole fortnight in the jungle!” Even when everyone else had left Raza had one more job to do before leaving Burma. Two Hurricanes, probably service- able, were known to be at Mingladon airfield at Rangoon, which was about to fall to the enemy. Raza quickly stuffed 2 Hurricane pilots into the back seat of his Lysander and flew them into Mingladon where the Hurricanes were found to be serviceable. They took off and Raza followed them; he was the last pilot to leave Rangoon.

The overall performance of the IAF during these operations, and of No 1 Squadron in particular, was of a very high order. The latter’s outstanding feat was the way it turned itself into a bomber unit almost overnight. The Lysanders had never carried any bomb loads before nor were they designed to do so. However, the squadron’s initiative bestowed upon the aircraft this capability which was very effectively employed during the campaign. Besides, compared to standard RAF practice in that theatre, most of the IAF’s missions were flown without any fighter escort and the raiders were left to fend for themselves.

Crash Programme

After the Japanese victory in Burma, the British government became seriously apprehensive about the security of India. With the enemy’s occupation of the Andaman islands and his assault on Colombo , war had come to India’s doorstep. The government launched a crash programme to boost its defence forces, which included the expansion of the IAF to 10 squadrons. Recruiting offices were set up in all major cities and 4 regular flying training schools were established including one at Walton airfield near Lahore. Two operational training units were raised, one each at Risalpur and Peshawar. On 1 February 42, a fourth squadron was formed with Lysanders at Peshawar. The coastal defence flights were disbanded and 3 more squadrons — Nos 6, 7 and 8 — were formed with their personnel. The last 2 were equipped with Vultee Vengeance dive bombers while No 6 Squadron was converted on to Hurricanes. By the end of February 44, Nos 9 and 10 Squadrons had also been raised with Hurricanes and a large number of airfields built all over the subcontinent. But throughout 1943 the much feared Japanese attack on India failed to materialize, and this provided the vital time needed to train the rapidly expanded IAF for the operations to come.  

In the meantime, in August 43, a South East Asia Command had been formed under Admiral Mountbatten to drive the Japanese out of Burma. Thus the second Burma campaign opened in December 43 with the British forces crossing the watershed from Ledo into the jungles below the main mountain ranges. On 19thJanuary 44, a British corps began its advance down the Arakan coast. It was in these land operations that the IAF was called upon to play a crucial role, by carrying out tactical reconnaissance and extensive close support to the army.

Second Burma Campaign

In November 43, 6 Squadron and later 8 Squadron were moved to Cox’s Bazar on the Arakan coast. By January 44, another 2 1AFsquadrons were brought into the theatre, 1Squadron operating from Imphal and No 7 from Kumbigram a few miles west of Imphal. These squadrons were also tasked to provide tactical reconnaissance and close support to the army. Every army offensive was preceded by extensive aerial recce and, where necessary, by softening-up bombing attacks, the raids usually involving upto 6 aircraft carrying 1,000 to 1,500 Ibs of bombs between them. By the end of February 44, No 6 Squadron pilots had completed over 1,000 operational sorties; averaging 6 sorties a day per pilot they had set a record for the entire 3rd Tactical Air Force.

On 22 January 44, 8 Squadron was moved up to Joari airstrip and tasked to interdict enemy lines of communication in the rear. Before long the airstrip became unusable due to excessive use and the squadron had to move to Mainber airfield. During its period of operation the squadron, carried out 1,420 sorties dropping 1,379 250-lb bombs. In July, 8 Squadron was with-drawn for rest and sent to Quetta. 

Towards the end of March 44, 4 Squadron joined the operations when it was moved first to Feni airfield, and then to Comilla in June to replace 6 Squadron. In May, 9 Squadron was also moved to Comilla after a brief spell of tactical reconnaissance duties over the Imphal front. During August 44, the 2 Squadrons carried out intensive bombing of enemy positions in the Sangu river valley, specially for three consecutive days in Labawa to support an offensive by 81 Division to expel the Japanese from the area.

By the end of December 44, Nos 2 and 10 Squadrons had also been moved into the operational area, at Mamber and Ramu respectively. Thus by the close of 1944, there were 4 IAF Squadrons operating in this sector — Nos 2, 4, 9 and 10.  In early 1945 Nos 3 and 8 Squadrons were assigned to this front as well, the latter having converted on to Spitfires. All these squadrons remained engaged in extensive close support of army operations in this area; they made a notable contribution to a combined assault against Myebon Island on 12 January 45.

On 8 March 45, the Japanese launched a three-division attack on the Imphal front in which No 4 Indian Corps was cut off from its supply sources. During this virtual state of siege, No 1 Squadron carried out 1,600 sorties of armed reconnaissance totalling 2,200 hours until the arrival of relief. They managed to achieve this volume of flying despite their operations being inhibited by Imphal airfield’s vulnerability to enemy artillery. In fact, in this second Burma campaign, it was No 1 Squadron again which made the greatest aerial contribution towards the Allied successes. During its tour of 14 months it carried out 4,813 sorties totaling  7,220 flying hours, and delivered over 120,000 reconnaissance photographs.

On 12 March, No 7 Squadron equipped with Vultee Vengeance dive bombers, arrived at Kumbigram and was tasked to bomb ammunition dumps, troop concentrations and lines of communication over a wide area. In April and May alone it flew 697 operational sorties totaling 1,241 flying hours. One of the most important achievements of this squadron was the destruction of Manipur Bridge which was a vital supply link for the Japanese advance on the Imphal front.

With the fall of Rangoon on 3rd May, the operations in Burma were reduced to mopping up of small pockets of resistance. By the end of June most of the lAF’s squadrons were with-drawn, leaving only 8 Squadron to assist in the mopping up. This squadron stayed in Burma until the Japanese surrender on 15 August 45.

The Exclusive Prefix

Starting in March 1941, the token one-squadron IAF, had burgeoned into a reckonable 10-squadron fighting force in less than three years. Moreover, during this period of rapid expansion, each of its newly raised squadrons had very soon joined active operations, enabling the force as a whole to make a substantial contribution to the Allied war effort in the east. This was gratefully recognized by the British government on 12 March 45, when the IAF was awarded that exclusive prefix which entitled it to be called the Royal Indian Air Force.

After three and a half years of gallant service in Burma, the RIAF now addressed itself to the task of establishing its future direction in the post-war years. Here it was faced with problems very different from the kind it had so successfully overcome at the battle fronts. To begin with, there was large scale demobilisation to shed the emergency manpower which would no longer be required in peacetime. Many of the officers and airmen who had joined during the war had discovered that despite the hazards involved, the air force gave them an exciting profession and a respectable social status; they were now loath to part with it and the demob machinery’s ruthless pruning caused a lot of heartburn and discontent.

Political Upheavel

But overshadowing this and all other lesser problems was the national agitation for independence which had been steadily gaining momentum since the early 40s. After the cessation of hostilities in August 45, national attention now focused on this issue with renewed vigour and the country was caught up in an escalating tide of unrest and civil strife. These countrywide developments inevitably affected the RIAF. Where earlier there was a gentlemanly rivalry between British and Indian air force personnel, this now gradually turned to mutual antagonism as pressure mounted to end colonial rule on the sub-continent.

Within the RIAF itself, relations amongst the several communal and ethnic groups had generally been free and easy in a natural way; there were some close friendships between individuals of different communities. This was poignantly illustrated by an incident involving a Muslim and a Christian pilot at the Burma front. Mercott and Zadani were the closest of friends and squadron mates who flew together as often as they possibly could. One day Zadani was shot down while the pair were attacking some Japanese tanks. After returning alone, Mercott was so agitated and overcome by the loss of his friend that he quickly rearmed and went back to the battlefront to avenge Zadani’s death. Mercott never returned from that mission.

Distribution of Assets

Twenty days after the announcement on 7 June 47 that there would be two sovereign states of India and Pakistan, an armed forces reconstitution committee was formed to distribute the defence assets of undivided India between the proposed states. An air force sub-committee was headed by Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keene and included amongst others, Air Commodore Mukerjee and Group Captain Engineer to represent the RIAF, and Group Captain Janjua and Squadron Leader Asghar Khan to represent the RPAF-to-be.

There was considerable heated debate over whether the distribution of assets should be on a communal ratio basis or related to the assessed operational needs of each contender. The first formula would have favoured the Indians by awarding them 8 out of the 10 operational RIAF squadrons; the latter would have been to Pakistan’s benefit by awarding it 5 squadrons instead of only 2. In the end a compromise was reached and the force was split 7:3, with Pakistan’s share comprising 2 fighter and 1 transport squadron. All other movable assets were to be distributed in the same ratio. Another problem stemmed from the absence, within the proposed territorial limits of Pakistan, of any training facility, flying, technical or otherwise. The sub-committee decided, optimistically as it turned out, that Pakistani flight cadets would continue to receive training at RIAF flying schools for upto six months after partition, while the RPAF set up the basics of its own flying training system.

Communal Discord

At this juncture in mid-47, when the emergence of Pakistan became a declared certainty, there was first bewilderment in the ranks of the RIAF because not many amongst them had hitherto bothered with the country’s politics. There had been minor cases of friction between Hindus and Muslims here and there, eg over the question of halal vs jhatka meat vs vegetarian meals in airmen’s messes. But invariably these disputes were speedily and amicably resolved in a spirit of accommodation. Now however, with the country about to be partitioned, such disagreements began to occur more frequently and more ominously until, in tune with the mounting communal discord on a nation-wide scale, the RIAF began to be riven by mutual suspicion and hostility. 

The overall climate of uncertainty added to the prevailing laxity in the enforcement of discipline and in the formulation of plans and policies. The RIAF had really come of age almost entirely during WW II when there had been little time or need for such refinements except as they applied directly to the conduct of operations. Now, in peacetime, a much more mature attitude was required towards such basic aspects of the profession as strict adherence to flying regulations, faithful observance of methods and procedures, and so on. But the devil-may-care attitude engendered in the RIAF by three and a half years of uninhibited operational life during its very infancy, was not to be shed easily. And the RIAF’s mentor, the Royal Air Force, having itself lived that life much longer and more fully was hardly suited to play the role of counsellor.

The Legacy

Thus it was that, on the eve of independence while the RIAF stood out as an air force brimming with a proven spirit of adventure and an unbounded enthusiasm for flying, it was also an air force wanting in its respect for discipline and authority and in its commitment to systems and procedures. And on 14 August 47, it bequeathed these same characteristics, in full measure to its offshoot, the Royal Pakistan Air Force.