History of the Indian Air Force, 1933-45

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Stephen Graham

Jun 12, 2017, 12:25:20 AM6/12/17
[Group is still on hiatus. sg.]

Gupta, S.C., History of the Indian Air Force, a volume in the Official
History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War, 1939-45,
Combined Inter-Services Historical Section, India & Pakistan, Delhi, 1961.

The First World War brought many changes. For the purposes of this
article, two were most significant. Firstly, increased pressure from the
Indian political class for a greater stake in their own governance,
expressed in part as a desire for Indianisation, or the commissioning of
native Indians as officers in the armed forces. Secondly, the
establishment of air forces as a regular component of national armed
forces. India already had a substantial army, which began training
Indian officers in 1917. There was also a miniscule navy, the Royal
Indian Marine, which would begin commissioning Indians in the 1920s. A
few Indians were commissioned in the RAF during the First World War, but
they apparently did not remain after the war.

By 1928, the decision had been made to begin training Indians for RAF
commissions, allocating six spaces at the Royal Air Force College for
Indians. The first six cadets would be commissioned as Pilot Officers in
1933. The force itself was authorized by the Indian Air Force Act of
1932. The first actual unit, No. 1 Squadron, with one flight of
aircraft, was established on 1 April 1933. One of the six initial
officers, T.N. Tandon, was too short to qualify as a pilot and became a
logistics officer. Of the remaining five initial officers, two were
killed in air crashes in 1933, P/O Armajeet Singh and P/O Bhupendra
Singh, leaving just three qualified pilots.

The first chapter of the History covers the formation of squadrons and
flights of Indian Air Force prior to independence in 1947. No. 1
Squadron grew slowly, gaining a second flight in 1936, and a third
flight in 1938. In the course of 1939, as it became more and more
apparent that a general war was coming, an Indian Air Force Volunteer
Reserve was formed out of flying clubs in the major cities. Its flight
reached operational status in October 1940. At the same time, the Indian
Legislative Assembly voiced unhappiness with the slow growth of the air
force. The training of Indians as officers expanded, still primarily
outside of India. Finally, No. 2 Squadron was officially established on
1 April 1941, followed by No. 3 Squadron on 1 October 1941, and No. 4
Squadron on 1 February 1942, after the outbreak of war with Japan. These
latter three squadrons took more time to fully staff out and train,
although No. 2 Squadron was able to undertake frontier operations in the
summer of 1941. The remainder of the chapter quickly reviews the
formation of another five squadrons in 1942-4, as well as the
disbandment of the IAFVR flights in 1942.

Chapter two gives capsule histories of the nine squadrons of the IAF and
the six coast defense flight. As Geoffrey Sinclair originally mentioned,
No. 5 Squadron IAF was not formed during the war to prevent confusion
with No. 5 Squadron RAF, which had been deployed in India since the
1920s. The capsules cover training in the interior of India and a
limited amount of detail on Northwest Frontier operations, which
continued throughout the Second World War. Active operations in Burma
are covered in later chapters. It's worth noting again that the IAF
squadrons were all trained as Army Co-operation squadrons and employed
as either tactical reconnaissance or fighter-bomber units.

Organization of Air Headquarters, India comprises the next chapter. It's
a rather bare-bones account, notable primarily for repeated
illustrations of the shortages on authorized strength and particularly
Indian officers. The headquarters had no operational responsibility and
only a limited responsibility for aircrew training.

The next chapter covers recruiting for the Indian Air Force, which would
be problematic for the entire period covered. While the pre-war
selection of candidates functioned relatively smoothly if in a limited
number, expansion for war-time needs proved difficult. Originally it was
hoped to recruit suitable Indians with flying experience, to lessen the
amount of training required. Not surprisingly, that pool of recruits was
rapidly exhausted. In early 1940, recruitment of officers was expanded
to those without prior experience. Interestingly, the civil flying clubs
retained a role in the matter, as they provided initial flying training
for candidates Those men would not be commissioned as officer cadets
until after completion of that training. Later in the war, recruitment
was expanded still further to candidates for ground duty position, which
lowered the physical standards needed. By 1943, Indian Air Training
Units were formed at universities. Initially, the goal was to recruit
students for service as technical branch other ranks. Unsurprisingly,
that was wholly unsuccessful, and the emphasis changed to recruitment of
officer candidates. Overall, officer recruitment was rather
unsuccessful. The target eventually set was 104 recruits per month,
which is fairly low considering the population of India. Actual figures
per month varied from 0 to 45, averaging 25 through 1943-4.

Other ranks recruitment was initially the responsibility of No. 1
Squadron, with recruits being enlisted as trade apprentices, prior to
formal enlistment upon completion of that apprenticeship. One constraint
was that all candidates had to have a working knowledge of English,
comparatively rare in India but necessary due to the continued presence
of RAF and Commonwealth ORs in the squadrons. A more general recruitment
scheme came into being with the outbreak of the war. That still
struggled to attract qualified recruits, initially due to poor
organization and lack of publicity. By June 1943, the IAF finally
reached its target recruitment goal for OR of 2750 men per month.
Recruitment results then slid again until the average yield in 1944-5
was only 60% of the target. Adding to the issue was the OR recruits were
targeted for specific trades but the recruiting officers proved to be
poor judges of suitability. The training programs averaged 60% wastage
until reforms were instituted in the autumn of 1944, where men were
enlisted for a specific trade group, rather than a specific trade,
reducing wastage to 10%. Thus there were never enough trained Indian
ORs, requiring use of Commonwealth personnel.

Naturally, training is the topic of the next chapter. It starts by
noting that at the outbreak of war in September 1939, the IAF consisted
of one incomplete squadron with 16 officers and 144 other ranks. No
breakdown is given of IAF versus RAF personnel. There was no training
structure in India beyond the squadron and the Aircraft Depot, Karachi.
By the end of February 1944, the history cites a total of nine
squadrons, given as three fighter reconnaissance squadrons equipped with
Hurricanes, two ground attack squadrons with Hurricanes, two fighter
squadrons with Hurricanes, two light bomber squadrons with Vengeances,
and one AA co-operation unit of four flights equipped with a mix of
Vengeances and Defiants. Personnel on hand amounted to 1,190 officers
and 11,745 airmen, with a further 86 officers, 304 officer cadets, and
10.418 airmen in training.

The chapter goes on to detail the organizations formed for training,
beginning with conversion of a RAF squadron at Risalpur. When that was
over-whelmed, the structure expanded to an Initial Training Wing, two
Elementary Flying Training Schools, a Service Flying Training School,
and two Operational Training Units, one each fighter and bomber. Then
follows about a page on ground training, another page on the university
Indian Air Training Corps, and then a discussion of wastage in pilot
training. A summary of factors affecting training notes language
difficulties, particularly with technical vocabulary, and climactic
factors limiting the hours of training - air turbulence from heat
limiting operations during the middle of the day. The author again notes
problems with technical training due to lack of experience; in
particular it was difficult to provide sufficient training and
experience to produce qualified Indian instructors, with over 90% of the
instructors provided by the RAF in 1944.

The next chapter covers welfare operations. As one expects, troops did
better when provided sufficient and varied meals, opportunities for
recreation, and entertainment in various forms. Naturally, given the
geographic scale and number of personnel, a fair amount of effort was

The administrative history ends with a chapter on "Some Other Services",
all of which had to be built up from nothing. Intelligence was hampered
by a desire to have it staffed at the squadron level by IAF officers
and at higher levels by a necessary mix of IAF and other officers. The
difficulty this lead to was that an Intelligence School couldn't be
maintained due to low numbers. That resulted in a lack of trained
intelligence officers to serve as replacements due to sickness, injury
or promotion. There was also a lack of higher slots to promote squadron
intelligence officers into. An additional problem was the lack of
suitable records for air operations on the NWF, as they hadn't been
well-kept and were scattered amongst several different commands and
staff sections. Maintenance, as is no surprise, suffered from a shortage
of trained Indian personnel but managed to perform its duties. Areas
which didn't cause any issues were legal affairs and meteorology. Civil
life provided sufficient numbers for the relatively small demands of the

The remaining eight chapters and 105 pages are an operational history of
the IAF in Burma. As you would expect, chapters are divided by campaign
and time period. There is some detail on ground actions but anyone
unfamiliar with the overall history of the war in Burma would likely be
very confused. "The Initiation" starts by covering Indians posted to
Britain or Canada for training. Initially 24 Indian pilot candidates
were sent in September 1940. After completion of Elementary Flying
Training School, twelve were posted for fighter training and twelve for
bomber training. Six of the pilots qualified for operational status in
RAF fighter units. Of those, two were killed on operations and four
returned to India in 1942. What happened to the six who weren't selected
for operational employment isn't specified. Of the twelve sent for
bomber training, eight passed the course. However, details are given on
fourteen officers posted to Bomber or Coastal Command units, so I'm not
entirely certain what's going on. Of the 24, eight were killed on
operations in Britain and the remainder returned to India in 1942. Other
training detachments, usually 24 or 25 pilots were sent to Britain or
Canada three more times, with mixed results. The remainder of the
chapter covers operations on the NWF in 1937-1941.

"The First Burma Campaign" covers the operations of No. 1 Squadron and
Nos. 3 and 4 Flights, as well as some more general coverage of air
operations. Claims of the number of Japanese aircraft destroyed look to
be based on initial Allied claims, without verification from Japanese
records. No. 1 Squadron carried out a variety of bombing missions, some
general attacks on Japanese airfields, but mostly tactical bombing in
support of Army units. Otherwise, tactical reconnaissance was the mission.

"Build-up" covers what one expects, mostly constructing infrastructure
in Eastern India to support operations. Some attention is paid to the
First Arakan Campaign, which didn't see IAF participation. The chapter
does cover the deployment of the No. 2 Squadron detachment to Imphal.
That detachment mostly flew contact missions in support of the First
Chindit Expedition, locating the columns for air drops.

"Second Arakan Campaign" covers the operations of No. 6 (Hurricane
reconnaissance), No. 8 (Vengeance tactical bombing), and No. 4
(Hurricane fighter-bomber) squadrons in the 1943-4 dry season. "Battles
for Imphal and Kohima" covers the operations of No. 1 (fighter
reconnaisance), No. 7 (Vengeance tactical bombing), and No. 9 (fighter)
squadrons, with No. 9 squadron usually handling escort duty for
transport squadrons. Then come chapters on the Central Burma Campaign
and the Third Arakan Campaign, followed by a final chapter covering the
end of the war in Burma. Oddly, nothing is really mentioned concerning
air planning for the invasion of Malaya.

This is very much a specialized volume of limited interest and generally
mediocre scholarship and writing. It's a glimpse of the air war in
Burma. Otherwise, you need to be interested in either the Indian Air
Force or the process of Indianisation of the military to read it.
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