Book Title: The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II
Author: KS Nair
Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)
The book is a sensitive and factual tribute to “those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines”, the bedrock of what today constitutes the Indian Air Force from the fateful day of its establishment on October 8, 1932, to be manned exclusively by Indians. It began with the humble nucleus of 13 officers, 1 warrant officer and 126 Hawai Sepoys of No1 IAF Squadron formed at Drigh Road, Karachi. And how these few, by the time World War II ended in 1945, with slow increments grew to a 10 Squadron IAF manned by 1,389 officers and 41,363 airmen. And they left a trail of dedication and courage, using only the second best aircraft, across the skies above the battlefields in England, France, Germany, Burma and in India in particular over Nagaland, Manipur and briefly even Calcutta.
The author is “a former director and CEO of multinational consulting firms. But, beyond that, he has been a lifelong student of Indian aviation history”, being the son and son-in-law of veteran air marshals. But the book is shorn of sentiment and is based on rigorous research. It is a refreshing departure from the military histories as it spares the reader of “the superficially boring details of equipment, intelligence, logistics and other dreary and indispensable elements”.
The first military flight in Indian skies occurred on January 20, 1916, when Capt Colin McDonald of the British 31 Squadron Royal Flying Corps took off from Pir Pai, now in Pakistan. But the distinction of the first Indian Military pilot belongs to Hardit Singh Malik, a student at Oxford when World War I broke out. He flew in France and Belgium under Flight Commander William “Billy” Barker, a Canadian who “ended the war with a VC, two DSOs and three MCs, the most highly decorated serviceman in the Commonwealth”. In a dogfight with four German aircraft, Malik shot one down before being “hit in the leg...crashed and lost consciousness...recovered but retained two bullets...all his life...became India’s first High Commissioner to Canada and then Ambassador to France”.
Among the notable Indians who trained in England as IAF cadets and fought in World War II in France were Pilot Officer Mahinder Singh Pujji and Karun Krishna “Jambo” Majumdar, decorated with the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). Both went on to fight in Burma too where Pujji earned a DFF and Jambo added a bar to his DFC. He dared the Japanese in their superior “Zeros” and bombed their air base, but met a tragic end after the war during an air show in Lahore. Pujji, who had emblazoned Amrit (his fiancée’s name) on the side of cockpit, survived the war, settled in UK and lived to a ripe age, and is perhaps the oldest of the IAF to be interviewed for this book.
Although in the nineteenth century Indian men in uniform had fought in the “others” wars, it was in 1942-45 that the Indian Armed Forces fought and to a brilliant conclusion, against an external aggressor. And in that endeavour, the young IAF emerged an equal partner in victory with the more than hundred years older and battle hardened Indian Army. Flying aircraft inferior to the enemy, there is the episode of two Hurricanes flown by Flying Officer Jagdish Chandra Verma and Pilot Officer Inder Bhattachrji who were surprised by three Japanese aircraft rolling into attack and raking Bhattacharji’s Hurricane with machine gun fire. Severely wounded, he crashed but luckily survived.
Meanwhile, Verma didn’t attempt to dogfight his more manoeuvrable adversaries. “I was pulling up, skidding, slipping and doing steep turns...but they kept pursuing me relentlessly...the chase continued for several pounding minutes...came a moment when I straightened and closed throttle...and allowed pursuers to overshoot me... as the Japanese were now pulling up in front about 25 yards ahead... I opened fire...could actually see the ‘splashes’ on my target...pieces flying off his fuselage and wings...as shells struck home.....Japanese pilots finally broke off, short of fuel”.
Verma had his first kill as Indian soldiers saw the Zero crashing and also spotted the wreckage and Verma’s action became a standard IAF tactic!
India’s hinterland witnessed her first aerial bombardment on five days in December 1942 exaggeratedly called “Calcutta’s Battle of Britain”. In the normal mobilisation, 176 Squadron RAF arrived at Dum Dum having the highly successful Beaufighters. On the full moon night of January 15, 1943, four Japanese bombers were sighted and Flight Sergeant AMO Pring, who had three kills to his name, took off. “...could see all her navigation lights on and her bomb doors open...waited till he was very close....let her have it and the Jap lit up all over...went down in a blaze...saw two more...took the right had one first...swung gently to left and got the other one...down in flames”! This put an end to further raids.
But there are moments in war which are beyond all wars and sublime. Pilot Officer SPD “Tiger” Thyagarajan was a student of engineering when the war commenced and on August 25, 1944, the day before General de Gaul “was to lead a victory parade down the Champs Elyees”, Tiger “was hit by light flak...crashed into wood and burst into flame....little chance of getting out alive”. The village priest who witnessed the crash was so moved that he decided to honour the pilot “by burying him in the churchyard....and has been respectfully and impeccably tended by locals in the area”!
Tiger’s gravestone carries inscription in Hindi, English and French: “Om Bhagavate Namah. This Hindu Airman is honoured here, Pilot Officer Sayanapuram Duraiswamy Thayagarajan, Pilot RAF, 25th August 1944, Age 26.”
Of those “few”, three rose to be the Chief of the IAF and one, the tallest among them, the Marshal of the IAF! Let us raise a salute to the memory of them all.