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From Wapitis to Vampires: Indian Air Force aircraft and the politics of decolonisation 1933-1950

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This post has kindly been written for us by Aashique Iqbal, Royal Historical Society Marshall Fellow, IHR

The first aeroplane flown by the first squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF), on its formation in 1933, was the Westland Wapiti. The Wapiti, nicknamed the ‘What-a-pity’, by British pilots, was far from the cutting edge flying machine of its time. Air gunners had to be tied to their seats with a ‘monkey chain’ to be kept in place in the two seater biplane. The Wapiti often needed to be manhandled by teams of men into flying position and threw up great plumes of dust with its rotors. IAF Wapitis did not always come equipped with radios, meaning that pilots sometimes had to carry caged messenger pigeons with them in order to send important communications to ground stations. As the official history of the IAF would later note the force was ‘swaddled in the castaway garments of the the Royal Air Force ‘.[1] By 1950, however, the situation had undergone a sea change. The IAF operated a series of sophisticated aircraft comparable with its British counterpart including De Havilland Vampire fighter jets, Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and Douglas DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft.

Westland Wapiti Bi-plane, Indian Air Force Museum, New Delhi.

Understanding the rapid technological modernisation of the Indian Air Force in the period between 1933 and 1950 involves understanding the politics that underpinned and enabled it. In 1933 India was very much a central part of the British Empire whereas by 1950 the country had emerged as an independent republic. A case study involving a selection of aircraft of the Indian Air Force is revealing of the ways in which technological modernisation is a deeply political act. As David Edgerton has argued it is useful to think of technology as ‘things in use’ since things are owned and their ownership is often revealing of the roots of social power.[2] In the instance of colonial India the slow process of transition from British rule to independence had concrete consequences for the IAF, especially in determining what aircraft the force would fly.

The Indian Air Force was established in 1932, primarily as a concession to Indian political opinion, which had been demanding greater Indian control of the colonial military as a means of reducing the high costs of employing British personnel and of setting India on the path to self-government. The IAF was kept small, equipped with outdated aircraft like the Wapiti and confined to air policing operations against the tribes of the North West Frontier province. This state of affairs persisted into the Second World War when efforts by the colonial Government of India (GoI) to acquire new aircraft were stymied by His Majesty’s Government (HMG). New Delhi’s planned wartime expansion of the IAF had to be shelved since London was unwilling to release critical dollar reserves necessary to import new aircraft for the IAF from the United States.[3] While the IAF was able to acquire a few new aircraft including the Hawker Hart, the Hawker Audax, the Bristol Blenheim and the Westland Lysander these were barely sufficient to meet the needs of the growing force. The newly formed IAF volunteer reserve would continue flying Westland Wapitis well into 1942.

When war with Japan broke out in 1941 the Indian Air Force could have hardly have been less prepared. The force was still no larger than one functioning squadron, though others were being trained, and it was still remarkably ill-equipped. Against the odds, however, the IAF gave a good account of itself during the long allied retreat from Burma in 1942. Indian Air Force personnel emerged as masters of improvisation, inventing a wooden wheel for their Westland Lysander planes, which often suffered from damaged rear wheels.[4] They also managed to repurpose their ‘Lizzies’, which were meant for reconnaissance, with new bomb racks that transformed the aeroplane into a light bomber. For many IAF men the war was an opportunity to expand the force and in doing so to provide India with a military institution it would need to attain true independence. As the Squadron Leader of No 1 Squadron IAF serving in Burma, Karun Krishna ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar stated, the war offered the IAF a chance to escape its status as a ‘flying club’. Whatever reservations IAF men might have about fighting to protect the British Empire could be saved for after the war when Indians had their own air force.[5] When Majumdar’s squadron was ordered to scout Japanese positions it went beyond the call of duty to use its improvised Lysander aircraft to launch light bombing raids on Japanese forces as far away as Thailand from its base in Northern Burma. The raids, often led by Majumdar in person, had little effect in turning the tide of a conflict that decisively favoured the Japanese, but they showcased both the IAF’s expertise in improvisation and its wartime gallantry.[6]

The IAF was expanded and rapidly modernised by the Government of India following the string of defeats in 1942. Eight squadrons formed during the war would be equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft.[7] While the Hurricane was not the fastest or most sophisticated aircraft available it was considerably more advanced than anything the IAF had thus far flown. Perhaps most well-known for its role as a fighter aircraft in the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane was used by the IAF on the Burma front primarily for tactical reconnaissance. Hurricane aircraft would take the majority of the 16,000 photographic prints taken by the IAF during the war, serving as the eyes of the Allies in Burma. Since the Hurricane was inferior to the Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighter plane, the IAF had to perform reconnaissance while remaining unseen.[8] IAF personnel used tactics pioneered in air policing operations on India’s North West frontier, flying low and slow to avoid detection by the fast high flying Japanese fighters. While technological inferiority prevented Hurricanes from engaging Japanese aircraft they were encouraged to strafe ground troops. The IAF wreaked havoc on Japanese supply lines, attacking any targets of opportunity. Japanese troops quickly learned to take shelter in the thick Burmese jungle from IAF planes but their supply lines remained vulnerable. IAF Hurricanes strafed cattle trains, boats and, on several instances, elephants bearing Japanese supplies.[9]

iaf-ground-crew-with-lysander

Ground crew with Lysander aircraft c 1942. Photo Courtesy: J.R. Nanda.

The fact that the IAF was not equipped with a plane suited for air-to-air combat was a consequence of its low position in the hierarchy of allied air forces. IAF needs were second to those of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in a theatre that was itself of relatively low importance for the British air planners. The premier fighter of the period, the Supermarine Spitfire, was not provided for the IAF until 1944, well after Allied air superiority had been acquired on the Burma front. Even when IAF squadrons received Spitfires there is some evidence to suggest that they were tasked away from zones where air combat might potentially occur. This was likely aimed at preventing Indians from gaining combat experience in the war and also reflected the widely-held notion that Indians were second-rate aviators. IAF Squadron No. 8, the first Indian squadron to be equipped with Spitfires was, for instance, tasked with defending the city of Calcutta, which had not been attacked by Japanese aircraft for over eight months.[10] The lack of Spitfire aircraft for much of the war and the tasking of the IAF meant that the IAF saw very little air-to-air combat during the war, with only one confirmed enemy kill in a dogfight in the entire conflict.[11] Nevertheless, the IAF was highly successful in utilising the Spitfire for bombing operations in the last two years of the war. The IAF’s reputation for accurate light bombing was further burnished with the adoption of the American Vultee Vengeance bomber, a plane infamous for the crashes occasioned by its high speeds. Assigned to the IAF partially because of its unpopularity with RAF personnel, the Vengeance came to serve as a highly precise means of delivering light bombardments thanks to a dive-bombing technique pioneered by IAF personnel in keeping with their penchant for improvising with the often problematic aircraft with which they were equipped.[12]

The extraordinary success of the IAF in the Second World War was recognised by the granting of the prefix ‘Royal’ by the King Emperor to the service on 12 March 1945. Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) Hurricanes had the distinction of escorting Major General Numata of the Imperial Japanese Army to the surrender ceremony at Rangoon later that year. At the end of the war the IAF could boast 1 Distinguished Service Order, 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 1 bar to Distinguished Flying Cross, 3 Air Force Crosses, 2 Orders of the British Empire, 7 Members of the British Empire, 5 British Empire Medals, 45 Mentions in Dispatches and 285 Jangi Inams.[13] It had expanded from a single squadron force of 16 officers and 269 airmen in 1939 to a nine squadron force that, in July 1945, included 1,638 officers and 26,900 Other Ranks.[14] The small force had sustained substantial casualties during the war, with 688 killed, 367 wounded and 3 captured.[15]

Perhaps the most important aircraft inducted by the RIAF in the 1940s would not be adopted during the war. The American Douglas DC-3 Dakota would only come into service on 1 December 1945 as part of the newly-raised No 12 Transport Squadron. The Dakota would play a key role in the two events that defined the passing of British rule in South Asia; partition and the Kashmir war of 1947. The Imperial defense of South Asia from the Japanese had been successful but costly. Colonial military control of the subcontinent was eroded by the passing of military technologies such as aviation from British to Indian hands and some form of Indian independence became inevitable after the war. Independence in 1947 was accompanied by the violent partition of British India into the independent dominions of India and Pakistan. As it became increasingly apparent that the creation of the two states would require the rapid movement of Muslim officials to Pakistan and non-Muslim officials to India, RIAF Dakotas were pressed into service. The interiors of the planes were stripped of seats and carpets to enable more passengers to board them. Thousands of government officials, along with their families, were moved to the dominions in which they were desperately required in order to expedite the formation of independent states. Even as the partition crisis was winding down, the two newly-created dominions of India and Pakistan went to war with each other over the disputed semi-autonomous state of Kashmir. As tribesmen backed by Pakistan poured into Kashmir in late October 1947, hoping to capture the state and hand India a fait accompli with the onset of winter, RIAF Dakotas were mobilised to fly in Indian troops to defend the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. The war between the two new dominions would see the use of Dakota aircraft on both sides to move troops and supplies over Kashmir’s mountainous terrain. Again displaying the spirit of improvisation that had characterised it during the Second World War, the RIAF also used Dakotas for bombing operations by rolling bombs outside the planes’ open hatches.[16] Though the conflict ended in a stalemate it is clear that without the Dakota Indian forces would have been unable to occupy as much of Kashmir as they were eventually able to. Indeed it is possible that without the Dakota India may have been forced to concede most of Kashmir to Pakistan. The Kashmir dispute has served as the most significant source of hostility between India and Pakistan ever since 1947 and the Dakota enabled India to launch, sustain and eventually escalate military involvement in the region.

India’s main combat aircraft in the Kashmir conflict was the Hawker Tempest. The Tempest had come to replace the fabled Spitfire in the RIAF’s arsenal, reflecting the rapid development of aviation technology in the decade. As with the Second World War, the conditions of the Kashmir conflict ensured that there was little dogfighting over Kashmir. Consequently, RIAF Tempests were able to draw on institutional skills pioneered on the North West Frontier and honed during the Second World War in the conflict. RIAF Tempests were used extensively in light bombardment and tactical reconnaissance to interdict enemy lines of supply.[17] Their presence on the Kashmir front also served to deter the Royal Pakistan Air Force from using its aircraft to openly aid Pakistani forces, though covert operations were undertaken.

A major lacuna for India during the Kashmir conflict was the lack of heavy bombers. The British commander of the RIAF in independent India, Air Marshal Thomas Elmhirst, had suggested that India import Lancaster bombers from the United Kingdom, which continued to remain the prime supplier of aircraft to India. RIAF personnel led by Group Captain Harjinder Singh had a different idea.[18] Following the Second World War the RAF had been forced to dispose of a number of Consolidated B-24 Liberators in India which it had received from the United States under the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement. Liberators were sent to Kanpur, where they were damaged by RAF personnel in a variety of ways. Trucks and bulldozers were run into the aircraft, damaging their fuselages. Cockpits were smashed by dropping aircraft from cranes on which they were raised and engines were filled with sand, rendering them unusable. However, the RIAF, which had for years relied on salvage and repair operations to keep its equipment-starved squadrons operating, was able to repair the Liberators. Some 42 Liberators were flown from Kanpur to Bangalore by Jamshed Kaikobad ‘Jimmy’ Mistry, a Hindustan Aircraft Limited test pilot with no previous experience flying four-engine aircraft.[19] At the Hindustan Aircraft Limited factory at Bangalore aircraft were once more made air-worthy using spare parts cannibalized from other Liberators at Chakeri. Three Indian squadrons – No 5, No 6 and No 16 – would eventually be equipped with Liberator bombers. The RIAF became the last air force in the world to fly the Liberator which it only retired in 1967. In a testament to the excellent engineering skills of the IAF, the Royal Air Museum would ask for and receive a Liberator aircraft for display at its museum. The Liberator, which was flown in 1974 from India to the United Kingdom, is still on display.[20]

Foreign exchange saved by not importing Lancasters was spent instead on pushing India into the jet age with the purchase of licenses to build De Havilland Vampire fighter bomber jet aircraft. This was part of a broader attempt by the newly-independent Indian state to eventually indigenise aircraft production, which it saw as being central to the maintenance of Indian sovereignty. Over 410 Vampires would serve in the Indian Air Force over the next three decades, including night fighting and training variants.[21] The first of these was inducted into service with No 7 squadron in 1949. Only a decade earlier the Indian Air Force had been a tiny force flying Westland Wapiti aircraft.

The induction of Vampire jet planes built in India on license into the Indian Air Force in 1949 not only signaled the beginning of the jet age but reflected the vast political changes that had swept the continent in the preceding decade. Initially denied modern aircraft, the IAF had been modernised largely as a response to the exigencies of the Second World War. This modernisation in turn had the effect of loosening colonial military control, contributing ultimately to the decision to terminate British rule in the subcontinent. Aircraft inducted into the force after the war played a critical role in shaping modern South Asia, not least by drawing present day Indian borders in Kashmir. The RIAF was able throughout the period to excel in often adverse circumstances through improvisation of both aviation technology and flying techniques, eventually clawing its way into the jet age by bringing into existence entire bomber squadrons from scrap. In the decades after 1950 the IAF would continue to expand, eventually becoming the fourth largest air force in the world. The history of its aircraft in its first two decades serves as an example of the ways in which poorer countries engage with high technology. It is also revealing of the manner in which technological modernisation is deeply implicated in politics.

[1] B. Prasad, History of the Indian Air Force 1933-45, (New Delhi, 1961), p xix.

[2] D. Edgerton, The Shock of the Old, (London, 2008), p 212.

[3] B. Prasad, Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation 1939-45, (New Delhi, 1956), p 142.

[4] S. Sapru, Combat Lore, (New Delhi, 2014), p 153.

[5] M.Edwards, Spitfire Singh, (New Delhi, 2016), p 146.

[6] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 61.

[7] V. Seth, The Flying Machines, (New Delhi, 2000), p 21.

[8] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 113.

[9] See for instance: Ministry of Defence (MoD), 601/9616/H, Operations Record Book No 1 Squadron.

[10] MoD, 601/9621/H, ORB No. 8 Squadron, 3 March 1945.

[11] B. Prasad, History of the Indian Air Force 1933-45, (New Delhi, 1961), p 177.

[12] J.J. Halley, The Squadrons of the Royal Air Force and Commonwealth, (Tonbridge, 1988). p 523.

[13] R. Chinna, The Eagle Strikes, (New Delhi, 2006), p 236.

[14] B. Prasad, Expansion of Armed Forces and Defence Organisation, (New Delhi, 1956), p 153.

[15] TNA, AIR 23/3426, History of the Royal Indian Air Force.

[16] R.K. Pal, Sentinels of the Sky, (New Delhi, 1999), p 26.

[17] B. Kumar, An Incredible war, ( New Delhi, 2007), p 53.

[18] M.Edwards, Spitfire Singh, (New Delhi, 2016), p 321.

[19] http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Aircraft/History/927-B24.html, accessed 10.1.2017.

[20] http://warbirds.in/ovb24/227-consolidated-b24-liberator.html accessed 10.1.2017.

[21] V. Seth, The Flying Machines, (New Delhi, 2000), p 39.

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