‘Tiger Squadron’ Birth of Military Aviation in India

anil chopra, air power asia, Tiger Squadron, Aviation History

October 1932 was a historic month for Indian Aviation. Indian Air Force was officially established on 08 October and on 15 October JRD Tata of Tata Airlines flew his aircraft beginning an airmail service between Karachi and Madras via Ahmedabad and Bombay. The month thus marked the birth of both military and civil aviation in India. The airline was later to become Air India. No.1 Squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) ‘Tigers’ was formed on 01 April 1933 at Drigh Road, Karachi with four Westland Wapiti IIA army co-operation biplane and was manned by 6 officers and 19 Hawai Sepoys.

Westland Wapiti IIA Army co-operation biplane. Image Source: military.wikia.org

Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice Marshal) Cecil Boucher was the Commanding Officer. The first five pilots were Harish Chandra Sircar, Subroto Mukherjee (Later IAF’s first Indian Air Chief), Bhupendra Singh, Aizad Baksh Awan and Amarjeet Singh, and J N ‘Tich’ Tandon was on logistics duties. In the next lots were some others who became legends Aspy Engineer (later Air Chief), ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar, Narendra, Daljit Singh, Henry Runganadhan, RHD Singh, ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh, SN Goyal, Prithpal Singh and Arjan Singh (Later Air Chief and finally Marshal of the IAF).

Officers of ‘A’ Flight IAF at Drigh Road in 1935. L-R are Aspy Engineer, HC Sircar, Daljit Singh, an Army Liaison Officer, AB Awan, KK Majundar and Narendra. Image Source: bharat-rakshak.com/IAF

          The Squadron saw first action in North Waziristan against insurgent Bhittani tribesmen. By 1938 the squadron had full compliments of aircraft, with 16 officers and 662 men and was the sole IAF formation when World War II began. To support the war, Coastal Defence Flights were formed and the ‘Tigers’ tasked to create the nuclei. The Squadron was initially re-equipped with Hawker Hart and later Audax aircraft. By mid 1941, the Japanese advance into Burma was imminent. 12 Westland Lysander aircraft were purchased from the Bombay War Gifts fund and presented to the Squadron by the Governor on behalf of citizens of Bombay. The Squadron thereafter also came to be known as the ‘Bombay Squadron’.

Wapitis IIAs of ‘A’ Flight, No.1 Squadron being inspected at Kohat, 1936. Image Source: imrmedia.in

Burma Campaign

          In February 1942, the Squadron arrived in Burma with its Lysanders, flying tactical recce missions from Toungoo before transferring to Mingaladon with a flight deployed at Lashio. IAF personnel soon modified the aircraft to carry bombs and flew low-level unescorted missions against Japanese 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 flew back to Risalpur in June 1942, and began conversion to the Hurricane IIB fighters. No. 1 Squadron once again reached Imphal on 3 February 1944, this time led by a 25 year old dashing young officer Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh and remained in action there for next 14 months, taking vital part in the fateful siege of Imphal followed by the trans-Chindwin and trans-lrrawaddy offensive. Tigers commenced operational flying immediately on 5 February, carrying out offensive, tactical and photographic reconnaissance mission. The Japanese offensive against Imphal began on 8 March, attempting to cut off the 17th Indian Division. Squadron’s task was to locate the position of the Japanese troops. On 29 March, after a late evening spotting of enemy troops the entire Squadron took-off led by Arjan and hammered enemy positions with guns and bombs and decimating the Japanese advance battalion. In April 1944 the siege of Imphal tightened and the Japanese came within artillery fire range of Imphal airfield. Squadron flew 412 sorties attacking mechanical transport, gun positions and troops. As Japanese retreated, the Squadron operated from forward bases and air effort increased considerably. British Army made repeat appreciation of the air support of the Squadron. The IAF established traditions of courage, and its personnel were awarded 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses among many other decorations. In recognition of its achievements, the IAF was bestowed with the prefix “Royal” on its title in March 1945.

No 1 Squadron of the IAF at the crucial battle of Imphal in 1944. Their CO, Squadron Leader Arjan Singh, later the iconic five-star Marshal of the IAF, is at the wheel of the jeep. Image Source: deccanchronicle.com

Partition and Initial years

At the end of Second World War ‘RIAF’ had a strength of 28,500 personnel including 1,600 officers. Late 1945, the unit converted to the Spitfire. Summer of 1947 No. 1 Squadron received Tempest IIs. At the time of partition, all assets of the Squadron were transferred to the Royal Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the unit in India number plated and later resurrected in 1953 on Vampire night fighters at Palam under command of ‘Timky’ Brar (later Vice Chief of Air Staff). In 1956 the Squadron converted to the newly acquired Dassault Mystere IVA aircraft under command of Dilbagh Singh (later Air Chief). For the Goa operations in 1961, Tigers operated from Santa Cruz airport in their first battle after independence. A four aircraft mission against the Daman fort on 10 Dec 61 found the traditional surrender flag fluttering on top. During 1965 Indo-Pak war Squadron was in Adampur, where it was to remain for the next 17 years. Under command of Wg Cdr ‘Omi’ Taneja, the squadron was tasked to be the first to fly a strike against the PAF Airfield Sargoda. A patrolling Starfighter tried to intercept the Mysteres and got into a dogfight with Squadron Leader AB Devayya who managed to shoot down the Starfighter, but died in the sortie. His was posthumously award of the Maha Vir Chakra.

01 April 1954, Air Mrashal Subroto Mukerjee tales over as Air Chief from Air Marsshal GE Gibbs. Image Source: frontline.thehindu.com

The Legends

            Subroto Mukherjee, OBE, of this Squadron was the first Air Chief. Subroto probably joined aviation influenced by his uncle, Indra Lal Roy who had joined the Royal Flying Corps in First World War and was the first Indian to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Subroto took part in air operations against tribesmen in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and was the first to be awarded a gallantry medal. In 1939, Subroto was promoted as a Squadron Leader and took over command of No 1 Squadron. Later, he became the first Indian to take over an RAF Station at Kohat in August 1943. In June 1945 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (Military Division). He not only commanded the first IAF Squadron but also became the first Indian Air Chief in 1954 initially as a “Commander-in-Chief” and later the Chief of the Air staff (CAS). He died young at 49 years while on an official visit to Japan in 1960.

Minoo, Aspy and Ronnie Engineer, all awarded the D F C. Jangoo Engineer, who is not in this photograph made his mark in civil aviation as well. Image Source: zoroastrians.net

Aspy Merwan Engineer, a close associate of Mukherjee, became the CAS on 01 December 1960. His first Special Order of the Day was a tribute to Subroto Mukherjee calling him the “Father of the Indian Air Force”. Subroto, a football lover, had conceived the idea of an inter-school all-India football tournament which was started after his death. The tournament is called Subroto Cup. Aspy was the eldest of the famous Engineer brothers. Engineer won the Agha Khan trophy for being the first Indian to fly from London to Delhi in a Gypsymoth. At only 17, he was the youngest Indian pilot of that time. He was Flight Commander of the Tiger Squadron in NWFP operations. Engineer later served as the Managing Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited from 1958 to 1960. During his tenure, the indigenous ‘Kiran’ jet trainer and the first jet fighter, ‘Marut’ flew their first sorties. Aspy was at the helm during the Goa Operations of 1961.

Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh. Image Source: http://blog.juggernaut.in/

Arjan Singh DFC was the son of war veteran Risaldar Darbara Singh of the famous Hodson’s Horse and fourth generation of military men. Commissioned as a pilot officer in December 1939, he saw initial operations in NWFP, and later Arjan led No.1 squadron during the Arakan Campaign in 1944, where he was awarded on-the-spot DFC by Lord Mountbatten the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia himself. He was the IAF Chief from August 1964 to July 1969 and retired at the age of 50. His tenure for 5 l/2 years is the longest for any Chief of the three Services. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1965 and has been Indian Ambassador to Switzerland and High Commissioner to Kenya, and the Lt. Governor of Delhi. He was made the first ever Marshal of the Air Force in January, 2002. Arjan has been described as an intrepid soldier who stands out as an example of how a leader with dignified behaviour and soldierly élan, can energetically lead with distinction in war and in peace.

Karun Krishna “Jumbo” Majumdar, DFC & Bar was the first Indian officer to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Image Source: military.wikia.org

Wg Cdr Karun Krishna Majumdar, gave the IAF its first war hero in World War II. A born leader, and a daredevil pilot, Majumdar was the only pilot in the IAF to be decorated with a Bar to the DFC. Popularly called “Jumbo”, Majumdar took over command of the Squadron in June 1941 and moved to Burma in February 1942. The Japanese Air Force attacked Toungoo the very next day, destroying allied airfield installation and aircraft. Due good camouflage, Squadron aircraft were unscathed. Majumdar immediately planned a retaliatory raid on the airfield from where the attackers had taken off. Majumdar flew at low level, almost skimming tree tops to achieve complete surprise at the Japanese airfield, and dropped bombs with unerring accuracy on aircraft hangar, destroying all the aircraft. Jumbo was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his leadership, the first for IAF. Two years later he volunteered for a posting to a RAF Squadron flying Spitfires in the allied invasion of Europe. Majumdar was awarded a Bar to his DFC in January 1945, again the first and the only Indian to be so decorated. On 17 February 1945, Majumdar died in an air crash during an aerobatic display sortie.

Harjinder “Spitfire Singh” at the 1st HS748. with the Defence Minister Krishna Menon. Image Source: Twitter Mike Edwards

Among the initial young men trained as Apprentice Aircraft Hands, later called Hawai Sepoys, one who rose to be a legend in his own right was AVM Harjinder Singh, MBE. He was instrumental in converting the Lysander air observation aircraft into a light bomber during Squadron operations in Burma. He later rose to be Air-Officer-Commanding Maintenance Command.

Image Source: chandigarhdak.com/

Few names in the IAF evoke such awe and inspiration as Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh. Mehar joined the Squadron in 1936. Later during the tribal invasion of Kashmir in 1947, then as an Air Commodore, Mehar flew many pioneering and daunting missions himself. He flew a Dakota to the newly constructed air strip at Punch. He led the air move of troops to Srinagar in 1947 and piloted the first ever flight, a Dakota, to Leh and landed it at the highest airstrip in the world. He is regarded as the real saviour of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1950, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), the first for IAF.

Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, Ashok Chakra, Hero of The Soviet Union. With Ship Commander Yury Malyshev, right, and Flight Engineer Gennady Strekalov, left. The cosmonauts were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present day Kazakhstan in a Soviet Rocket Soyuz T-11.
Photograph: Kind courtesy Spacefacts.de

Tigers Go Supersonic

          The Squadron converted to supersonic Russian MiG 21s in 1966 and operated them till 1985. Wg Cdr Upkar Singh led the squadron during 1971 Indo-Pak War and was tasked with Air Defence role. The Tigers flew 513 sorties and won many gallantry awards. India acquired Mirage 2000 delta-wing, fly-by-wire fighters from France. IAF pilots and technicians who trained on the Mirage 2000 in France returned and converted the Squadron to the French fighter in 1986. During the 1999 Indo-Pak Kargil conflict the Mirage 2000s successfully targeted enemy camps and logistic bases. Strikes on Muntho Dhalo and the heavily defended Tiger Hill finally paved the way for their early recapture. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, Ashok Chakra, Hero of The Soviet Union, who flew aboard Soyuz T-11 in April 1984 became the first Indian in space, is an Ex Tiger. There is a saying “Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger”. Tiger is the logo for largest number of military formations in the world. Even today The Tigers tirelessly continue to train for higher operational standards. They live to the Squadron motto ‘Ekta Mein Shakti’ (Strength in Unity). Presently under the command of Gp Capt Patil the squadron personnel work to attain higher standards of professional excellence and to ‘Touch the Sky with Glory’.

Header Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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