Indian Air Force: The Beginnings

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    The contributions of Indian Air Force in 1961, 1965 and 1971 wars are very well known and has been extensively chronicled. But as the Indian Air Force completes 88 years on 8th October 2020, we look at the early history of the IAF and how far it has come, from its humble origins.

    The first time an aircraft 'took-off’ in India was on 10th March 1910, when a Corsican hotelier based in Madras Giacomo D'Angelis, flew a Biplane he had designed. Interestingly, that was a mere seven years after the historical flight of Wright brothers, as they introduced the world to their new invention, at Kittyhawk, USA on 17th December 1903.

    Very soon, some British army officers, who became flying enthusiasts, realized the potential of using this new invention in warfare. In 1913, Captain SD Massey of 29th Punjab Regiment, Indian Army, established a military flying school at Sitapur (around 90 km from Lucknow) in present-day Uttar Pradesh. The units trained here went on to serve in World War I (1914-1918), under the unofficial name of Indian Air Corps. Indra Lal Roy (1898-1918), a scion of a wealthy Bengali zamindari family and a member of the Indian Air Corps, is considered to be the first Indian Fighter Aircraft Pilot. His nephew, Subroto Mukherjee would go on to become the first Indian to become the ‘Chief of Air Staff’ in 1954.

    On 1st April 1918, the Indian Air Corps would be reorganized as a part of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which operated out of Risalpur (near Peshawar), Quetta, Ambala (Punjab) Lahore and Sitapur (UP). However, this was just an arm of the British Air Force, used for operations against tribes along the Afghan border. By 1927, there was strong pressure to establish, a separate Airforce for India. In 1930, six Indian cadets were selected for training at the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire UK and in January 1932, around 29 technicians, mostly from railway workshops were appointed as ‘Havai Sepoys’ to work as ground staff. Finally, on 8th October 1932, the then Government of (British) India passed the ‘Indian Air Force Act’ and a new branch of the Indian armed forces was officially born. The new airforce had four Westland Wapiti biplanes at their disposal.

    However, the nascent force received a discriminatory treatment at the hands of the British. There was a wide pay difference between British and Indian pilots of the force. The British technicians would seldom salute Indian Officers, a practice condoned by senior British officers. The senior British Air officials believed that Indians were incapable of flying or maintaining complex machines such as airplanes. In 1934, the RAF’s head in India, Air Marshal Sir John Steele, went so far as to advocate the abolition of the ‘so-called Indian Air Force’. Thankfully saner heads prevailed.

    The turning point came in 1939, when the British Empire declared war against Hitler’s Germany in 1939. A sum of 17 million pounds was immediately sanctioned for the upgradation and expansion of the air force in India. IAF was allowed to raise a Volunteer Reserve (VR) of civilian pilots, who were used for coastal and port defence at the crucial ports of Karachi, Bombay, Cochin, Madras and Calcutta. By the end of 1939, IAF’s strength had grown to 200 officers and men. New aircrafts such as the American built Vultee Vengeance, Douglas DC-3 and the British Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire and Westland Lysander were added to its fleet.

    The IAF did not directly participate in the War in Europe, but batches of pilots were deputed to serve in the RAF for bombing missions over Germany. On the Eastern front, IAF won laurels in their fight against the Japanese, from their bases in Burma, carrying out bombing sorties against their bases in Chaing Mai and Chiang Rei in North Siam (Thailand). However, on 16th February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and on 20th February, the British gave orders to evacuate Burma. Not surprising, the British flying units were given priority over evacuation, while Indian ones were left behind. By March 1942, IAF were still fighting the fast approaching Japanese, providing a cover for retreating British and Indian troops.

    With the conquest of the Andaman and Nicobar islands by the Japanese, the enemy aircraft carriers were in the Bay of Bengal. The Nizam of Hyderabad had provided millions of pounds to the RAF in England, but not a single rupee to the IAF, but with the Japanese threat looming large, he asked the IAF for help. A squadron was stationed in Hyderabad, to provide cover against any Japanese attack. Other squadrons operated out of Chittagong, Tezpur and Imphal flying reconnaissance and bombing missions.

    The Japanese carried out a number of bombing missions in India, but the IAF deflected them very well. By January 1944, it had taken down 44 Japanese planes for the loss of just 7 IAF aircraft. Even the attempts by Japanese planes to disrupt the American air supply chain to China was foiled by the IAF. In March 1945, in recognition of the services rendered by the IAF, King George VI conferred on it the prefix ‘Royal’ in1945. Thereafter, the IAF was referred to as the Royal Indian Air Force (RAIF). By the end of World War II in September 1945, the strength of the RIAF had grown to 28,500 men with 1600 officers.

    India’s independence on 15th August 1947 and the partition of the country, had an impact on IAF, as it lost many of its personnel, important bases and other establishments to Pakistan. But it hardly had any time to recover. Pakistan led tribals invaded Kashmir on 22nd October 1947. The Indian Air Force played a very important role when it transported troops from Palam to Srinagar on 27th October 1947, thereby helping save Kashmir. With India becoming a Republic in 1950, the prefix ‘Royal’ was dropped and it came to be known as Indian Air Force (IAF) again.

    Interestingly, in 1953, the IAF purchased a fleet of Ouragon airplanes, from Dassault Aviation of France, the same company, which is at the centre of the Rafael controversy today. The IAF would also go on to play very important roles in the 1961, 1965 and 1971 wars.

    Today, 88 years on, the IAF has come far from its humble origins and it is a force that every Indian is truly proud of.


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