New Delhi. 08 October 2022. The Indian Air Force was officially established on 8 October 1932. Its first flight came into being on 01 Apr 1933 with six RAF-trained officers and 19 Havai Sepoys (air soldiers). The aircraft inventory consisted of four Westland Wapiti IIA army co-operation biplanes at Drigh Road as the “A” Flight nucleus of the planned No.1 (Army Co- operation) Squadron.

Four-and-a-half years later, “A” Flight was in action for the first time from Miranshah, in North Waziristan, to support Indian Army operations against insurgent Bhittani tribesmen. Meanwhile, in April 1936, a “B” Flight had also been formed on the vintage Wapiti. But, it was not until June 1938 that a “C” Flight was raised to bring No. 1 Squadron ostensibly to full strength, and this remained the sole IAF formation when World War II began, although personnel strength had by now risen to 16 officers and 662 men.

Problems concerning the defence of India were reassessed in 1939 by the Chatfield Committee. It proposed the re-equipment of RAF (Royal Air Force) squadrons based in India but did not make any suggestions for accelerating the slow growth of IAF except for a scheme to raise five flights on a voluntary basis to assist in the defence of the principal ports. An IAF Volunteer Reserve was thus authorised, although equipping of the proposed Coastal Defence Flights (CDFs) was somewhat inhibited by aircraft availability. Nevertheless, five such flights were established with No. 1 at Madras, No. 2 at Bombay, No. 3 at Calcutta, No. 4 at Karachi and No. 5 at Cochin. No. 6 was later formed at Visakhapatnam. Built up around a nucleus of regular IAF and RAF personnel, these flights were issued with both ex-RAF Wapitis and those relinquished by No. 1 Squadron IAF after its conversion to the Hawker Hart. In the event, within a year, the squadron was to revert back to the Wapiti because of spares shortages, the aged Westland biplanes being supplemented by a flight of Audaxes.

At the end of March 1941, Nos. 1 and 3 CDFs gave up their Wapitis which were requisitioned to equip No. 2 Squadron raised at Peshawar in the following month, and were instead issued with Armstrong Whitworth Atalanta transports, used to patrol the Sunderbans delta area south of Calcutta. No. 2 CDF had meanwhile received requisitioned D.H. 89 Dragon Rapides for convoy and coastal patrol, while No. 5 CDF took on strength a single D.H. 86 which it used to patrol the west of Cape Camorin and the Malabar Coast.

Meanwhile the creation of a training structure in India became imperative and RAF flying instructors were assigned to flying clubs to instruct IAF Volunteer Reserve cadets on Tiger Moths. 364 pupils were to receive elementary flying training at seven clubs in British India and two in various princely States by the end of 1941. Some comparative modernity was infused in August 1941, when No. 1 Squadron began conversion to the Westland Lysander at Drigh Road, the Unit being presented with a full establishment of 12 Lysanders at Peshawar by the Bombay War Gifts Fund in the following November. No. 2 Squadron had converted from the Wapiti to the Audax in September 1941 and, on 1 October No. 3 Squadron, similarly Audax-equipped, was raised at Peshawar.

The IAF VR was now inducted into the regular IAF, the individual flights initially retaining their coastal defence status, but with Japan’s entry into the war in December, No. 4 Flight, with four Wapitis and two Audaxes, was despatched to Burma to operate from Moulmein. Unfortunately, four of the flight’s six aircraft were promptly lost to Japanese bombing and, late in January 1942, No. 4 Flight gave place in Moulmein to No. 3 Flight which had meanwhile re-equipped with four ex-RAF Blenheim ls. For a month, these Blenheims provided the sole air cover for ships arriving at Rangoon harbour.

On 1 February 1942, No.1 Squadron arrived in Burma with its Lysanders, flying tactical recce missions from Toungoo before transferring to Mingaladon with a flight deployed at Lashio. I A F personnel were soon hanging pairs of 250-lb. bombs on each of their Lysanders and with these, flew low-level unescorted missions against the principal Japanese 20 air bases at Mae-Haungsaun, Cheingmai and Chiangrai in Thailand. However, the Japanese advance was relentless and with the final evacuation of Burma, No.1 Squadron personnel were flown to India, where at Risalpur in June 1942, the unit began conversion to the Hurricane IIB fighter.

No.2 Squadron had also equipped with Lysanders by the end of 1941, being confined to anti-invasion exercises until, in September 1942, it emulated the IAF’s premier unit by converting to Hurricanes. The third IAF unit to operate the Lysander was No.4 Squadron, formed with four aircraft on 16 February 1942. This squadron was to continue to operate the Westland aircraft until it, too, was re-equipped with the Hurricane in June 1943.
Six months earlier, No.6 Squadron was raised with personnel from Nos 1 and 2 flights, being Hurricane-equipped from the outset. Between March and December 1942, 10 aircrew schools were opened in India, and the first Harvard Is and IIs were delivered to No. 1 Flying Training School at Ambala, this school having been established to provide basic and advanced training for IAF pilots over a four-and-half month course. By the end of that year, however, or a decade after the IAF’s creation and three years into World War II, the Service could muster just five squadrons. The coastal defence flights had now been disbanded and most personnel of Nos.3 and 6 Flights were combined with regular IAF personnel to form No. 7 Squadron which was equipped with the U:S. – built Vengeance 1 dive bomber in mid-February 1943. No. 8 Squadron was raised meanwhile, on 1 December 1942, absorbing the remaining coastal defence flight personnel, and also issued with the Vengeance, to achieve operational status on 25June 1943.

The Vengeance suffered numerous defects and teething troubles, necessitating temporary withdrawal from the two IAF squadrons, but the problems were eventually mitigated if not eradicated, and No. 8 Sqn flew its first operational Vengeance sorties against Japanese targets from Double Moorings, Chittagong, on 15 December 1943, No. 7 Squadron, which had flown its Vengeances on some missions against dissident tribesmen in North Waziristan, started operations in the Arakan from an airstrip at Uderbund, near Kumbigram, where it arrived on 12 March 1944, the two squadrons converting to Vengeance IIIs during the course of operations and both flying with considerable distinction. No. 7 Squadron discarded its dive bombers in favour of Hurricane IIs for the tactical-reconnaissance role in November 1944, No. 8 Squadron becoming the first to convert onto the Spitfire VIII during the previous month and commencing operations on 3 January 1945 in the Kangaw area.

Both Nos 9 and 10 Squadrons were raised on Hurricanes in the early months of 1944, and thus, by the end of the year, the operational element of the IAF had risen to nine squadrons, with Nos. 1,2,3,4,6,7,9 and 10 on Hurricanes and No.8 on Spitfires. Five of the Hurricane-equipped squadrons played a major role in the Arakan offensive which began in December 1944, disrupting the enemy’s lines of communication and constantly harrying the Japanese forces until victory was achieved with the re-occupation of Rangoon on 3 May 1945. In that month, No. 4 Squadron became the second IAF Spitfire unit when it re-equipped with the Mk VIII version of this fighter, and No. 9 followed suit to complete conversion by July, by which time No. 10 had begun conversion, and the Hurricane, backbone of the IAF combat element for much of the war, was rapidly phased out.
During the war years, the steady expansion of the IAF had placed all emphasis on army co-operation and tactical reconnaissance; it had continued to fly ageing equipment such as the Hurricane when such aircraft as the Thunderbolt and Mosquito were being inducted in large numbers by other Allied forces in the theatre and it had, in consequence, suffered a sense of equipment inferiority. Nevertheless, assigned the least glamorous of tasks and flying obsolescent equipment, the Service established traditions of courage and efficiency second to none; its personnel had been awarded 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses and a host of other decorations, and in recognition of its achievements, the Service had been honoured by bestowal of the prefix “Royal” on its title in March 1945.

The stimulus provided by the Second World War had raised RIAF personnel strength to 28,500 including some 1,600 officers, by the time hostilities terminated. In August 1945, No. 4 Squadron was designated a component unit of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan, exchanging its Spitfire Vllls for Mk XlVs in October and arriving in Japan aboard HMS vengence on 23 April 1946. Meanwhile, from late 1945, the remaining Hurricane-equipped RIAF fighter squadrons converted to the Spitfire at Kohat, Samungli and Risalpur and by mid-1946 the entire RIAF fighter force was Spitfire-equipped. The year 1946 also saw the establishment of the first RIAF transport unit, No.12 Squadron which had first been raised on Spitfires at Kohat in December 1945 and received C-47 Dakotas in Panagarh in late 1946. A decision had also been taken to re-equip the fighter squadrons with the Tempest II, and implementation of this decision began during the autumn of 1946, No. 3 Squadron at Kolar becoming the first to re-equip, followed by No.10 Squadron later in 1946.

Personnel strength had meanwhile been virtually halved to some 14,000 officers and men in the post-war rundown, but the British authorities had made their own assessment of India’s post-war defence needs. As of October 1946, they envisaged expansion of the existing ten RIAF squadrons into a balanced force of twenty fighter, bomber and transport squadrons. Owing to the rapidly changing political situation, however, definitive decisions concerning Indian defence were, in the event, to be left to the emerging Government of Independent India. No. 4 Squadron converted to the Tempest II upon its return to India from Japan and Nos.7 and 8 Squadrons also relinquished their Spitfires for the more efficacious Tempest fighter during the summer of 1947. Nos. 1 and 9 Squadrons, too, received Tempest lls at this time. But on 15 August 1947, and with the division of both India and its armed forces, these units stood down and their equipment was transferred to the newly created Royal Pakistan Air Force. Thus, the principal components of the RIAF at partition were Nos. 3,4,7,8 and 10 Squadrons with Tempests, No. 2 Squadron with Spitfires and No. 12 Squadron with C-47s, plus No. 1 Air Observation Flight, the establishment of which with AOP Auster 4s, 5s, and 6s, coincided with independence. No. 6 Squadron, which had been in process of converting from Spitfires to C-47s at Drigh Road, had been stood down and its transports transferred to Pakistan.

The RIAF had lost many permanent bases and other establishments as a result of the division of the country, but was to have virtually no breathing space in which to recover from the surgery that had accompanied partition before the Service was to find itself once more firing its guns in earnest. On 27 October 1947, No.12 Sqn was to initiate the remarkable feat of air-lifting the Ist Sikhs from Palam onto the rough and dusty Srinagar airstrip without planning or reconnaissance as the initial Indian response to the sizeable insurgent forces that were pouring across the border into Jammu and Kashmir. On 30 October, the first Spitfires from the Advanced Flying School at Ambala reached Srinagar and were soon engaged in strafing the raiders beyond Pattan. Within a week, the Tempests of No. 7 Squadron were playing a decisive role in the battle of Shelatang which halted the forward momentum of the insurgents.

The fighting was to continue for 15 months, with heavy RIAF involvement throughout, a ceasefire eventually coming into force on 1 January 1949, but despite being continuously on an operational footing throughout this period, the reorganization and modernisation of the Service continued unabated. The Combined Services Headquarters had meanwhile been separated for command purposes and Air Headquarters was established in New Delhi. This included the Operational and Training Commands, No. 1 Operational Group having been formed to supervise all RIAF units and their support elements engaged in the campaign in Jammu and Kashmir.

No. 2 Squadron had re-equipped with Spitfire XVllls in the interim, and No. 9 Squadron re-raised on this type; No. 101 Photo Reconnaissance Flight was formed in January 1948 on Spitfire PR Mk. XlXs. This unit achieved full squadron status in April 1950. To make up for the attrition suffered in the Kashmir operations, a further batch of Tempest IIs was procured from the UK in December 1948. The same year witnessed various equipment changes, one of which was to have a profound effect on the composition of the RIAF. The Service, wishing to establish a heavy bombing element, contracted with HAL to “re-construct” a force of B-24 Liberators from the mouldering remains of nearly 100 ex USAF bombers of this type at the immense Care and Maintenance Unit Depot at Kanpur.

Despite the scepticism on the part of the US and British advisers concerning the feasibility of the scheme, the first half-dozen HAL-reconditioned B-24s were ready by November 1948 and, on the 17th of that month, No. 5 Squadron was formed with these heavy bombers. Later, in early 1950, No. 6 Squadron was to reform at Poona also with B-24s, while No.16 Squadron was to be established to provide back-up training on the type. To supplement the Tiger Moths, Prentice basic trainers were delivered to the RIAF during the course of 1948, eventually to see service at Jodhpur, Tambaram and Ambala. But truly epoch-making in so far as the Service was concerned, was the arrival in India of three Vampire F.Mk.3 jet fighters on 4 November 1948. These were the precursors of more than 400 Vampires of various types that were procured by the Service over the following years. The achievement of operational status on the Vampire FBMk.52 by No. 7 Squadron in the following year was to give the RIAF the distinction of becoming the first Asian air arm to operate jets.

In January 1950, India became a Republic within the British Commonwealth and the Indian Air Force dropped its “Royal” prefix. At this time, it possessed six fighter squadrons of Spitfires, Vampires and Tempests, operating from Kanpur, Poona, Ambala and Palam, one B-24 bomber squadron, one C-47 Dakota transport squadron, one AOP flight, a communications squadron at Palam and a growing training organisation. Training adhered closely to the pattern established by the RAF, most instructors having graduated from the CFS in the UK and in addition to No.1 Flying Training School at Hyderabad with Tiger Moths and Harvards, and No. 2 FTS at Jodhpur with Prentices and Harvards. There were IAF colleges at Begumpet, Coimbatore and Jodhpur. License manufacture of the de Havilland Vampire had been initiated by HAL which, after building a batch from imported major assemblies, went on to manufacture a further 250. In addition, 60 Vampire T Mk. 55s were to be built of which 10 were assembled from imported kits. Nos.2, 3 and 8 Squadrons followed No.7 Squadron on the Vampire, but, extraordinarily, 1951 also saw the formation of the last piston-engined fighter combat unit when No. 14 Squadron was raised on the Spitfire Mk. XVIII. Vampire NF Mk. 54 two-seat night fighters were obtained in May 1953 to re-equip No. 10. Sqn at Palam, thus endowing night-intercept capability upon the IAF for the first time. At this time, relations between India and Pakistan were again steadily deteriorating and the IAF, its combat strength virtually unchanged since partition in 1947, was scarcely ready for any full-scale conflict. Plans were accordingly framed for major expansion during the period 1953-57, and the Government began to seek non-traditional and alternative sources of combat aircraft procurement.

Selection of the Dassault Ouragan fighter from France at this time reflected the decision to initiate diversification of supply sources. The first four of over 100 Ouragans, or Toofanis as they were to become known in the IAF, reached Palam from France on 24 October 1953, and this type re-equipped Nos. 8, 3 and 4 Squadrons in that order. The Toofanis were eventually to be passed on to newly-raised units Nos. 29 and 47 Squadrons, with the re-equipment in 1957 of Nos. 3 and 8 Squadrons with the Mystere IVA from the same Gallic stable.

Re-equipment of the combat units necessarily assumed an overriding priority in view of the growth of what were seen as threats to India’s integrity, but expansion of airlift capability was also vital. A second transport squadron, No. 11, had been formed on C-47 Dakotas in September 1951, and considerable enhancement of the Service’s logistic support capacity was heralded by procurement of 26 Fairchild C-119G Packets from the United States which reached India by the end of 1954. Rapidly to assume the status of an airlift backbone, the C- 119Gs were issued to No. 12 Squadron, which, for some years, operated them in concert with the C-47s, the older transports eventually passing to a newly-raised unit, No. 43 Squadron. A second batch of 29 C- 119Gs was obtained in July 1960, and the transport fleet was further augmented by another 24 C-119Gs in May 1963 under US emergency military aid.

Both the establishment of a Maintenance Command and resurrection of the Auxiliary Air Force took place in 1955, two units of the latter being formed as Nos. 51 and 52 Squadrons at New Delhi and Bombay. A third AAF unit, No. 53 Sqn, was raised at Madras in the following year, and four more added over the next two years, Nos. 54 (Allahabad), 55 (Calcutta), 56 (Bhubaneshwar) and 57 (Chandigarh) Squadrons. The AAF squadrons were equipped with the HAL-designed HT-2 trainer – officially introduced into service on 10 January 1955 – and the Harvard, although Vampire FB Mk. 52s were added in 1959.

Both the establishment of a Maintenance Command and resurrection of the Auxiliary Air Force took place in 1955, two units of the latter being formed as Nos. 51 and 52 Squadrons at New Delhi and Bombay. A third AAF unit, No. 53 Sqn, was raised at Madras in the following year, and four more added over the next two years, Nos. 54 (Allahabad), 55 (Calcutta), 56 (Bhubaneshwar) and 57 (Chandigarh) Squadrons. The AAF squadrons were equipped with the HAL-designed HT-2 trainer – officially introduced into service on 10 January 1955 – and the Harvard, although Vampire FB Mk. 52s were added in 1959.

Expansion and modernisation Particularly significant in IAF was the year 1957, which witnessed true beginnings of the major re-equipment programme that was to raise the Service fully to world standards. Deliveries began of 110 Dassault Mystere IVAs, carrying the service into the realms of transonic flight for the first time, and both Hawker Hunters and English Electric Canberras began to enter the IAF inventory. A new No. 1 Squadron was raised on the Mystere, the existing Vampire-equipped No. 1 Squadron being redesignated as No. 27 Squadron; No. 5 Squadron re-equipped with the Canberra B(l) Mk. 58, and, at the year’s end, No. 7 Squadron began conversion to the Hunter FMk.56. It was perhaps appropriate that the year which saw commencement of an immense infusion of modern hardware should also witness the end of the IAF’s piston-engined fighter epoch: No. 14 Squadron, the last firstline piston-engined fighter unit, flew in its Spitfire Mk. XVllls to Halwara in preparation for re-equipment with the Vampire.

The IAF’s energies were now taxed heavily with implementation of an expansion programme aimed at raising the Service from a 15-squadron force to no fewer than 33 squadrons over an extremely short span of years: a Herculean task when performed simultaneously with sweeping equipment changes. Several new squadrons, such as Nos. 15, 17, 20, 24, 27 and 45, were raised on Vampire FB Mk. 52s as interim equipment; Canberra B(l) Mk. 58s had equipped two additional squadrons, Nos. 16 and 35 by 1959, No. 106 Squadron having equipped with Canberra PR Mk. 57s and by the end of 1961, six squadrons (Nos.7, 14, 17, 20, 27 and 37) were equipped with the Hunter. Growth was not restricted to the combat elements, the IAF’s transport force was enlarged to six squadrons, three with C-47s (Nos. 11, 43 and 49), two with C-119Gs (Nos. 12 and 19) and one with DHC-3 Otters (No.41).

The early sixties were accompanied by the IAF’s induction of yet more new aircraft types, the most interesting of these arguably being the Folland Gnat lightweight fighter. With its startling agility, the Gnat proffered outstanding cost effectiveness and during the mid-fifties a licence agreement was concluded for its manufacture by HAL following delivery of 23 complete aircraft and 20 sets of components by the parent company. The first IAF unit, No. 23 Squadron, converted from the Vampire FB Mk. 52 to the Gnat in March 1960. No. 2 Squadron re-equipped with the Gnat at Ambala early in 1962, and No.9 Squadron soon followed suit.