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A Brief Account of the Early Formative Years of the Indian Air Force

A senior Air warrior and a PG in management and law is well qualified to write on contemporary Legal matters

An IAF Wapiti flying over New Delhi in mid thirties

An IAF Wapiti flying over New Delhi in mid thirties

Formation of the Indian Air Force

The Indian Air Force was established in British India as an auxiliary air force of the Royal Air Force. The Indian Air Force act 1932 was passed on 8 October 1932. This was at the behest of the Viceroy of India who was keen that an Air Force be created. Actually pressure was built up because of operations in the North West Frontier, where the British were fighting Muslim tribal clans who time and again espoused a call for ‘jihad’ against the infidels. The battle with the tribal clans had been an ongoing process after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849.

The Raison d’être for the IAF

The British had also a launched punitive campaign against the Afghans twice, but the results were not commiserating with the effort. A general feeling grew that the British army would be better off in fighting the Afghan tribesmen in the North West Frontier, in case the British army could get air cover. The idea was to bomb the tribal hideouts in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

Operations in the NW Frontier

During 1897-99, Gul Shah had raised the flag of ‘Jihad’ and had even succeeded in capturing some British outposts in Waziristan, notably the small fortress of Saragrahi. Despite the victory of the British, there hold was at the best tenuous. The need for air power was thus felt necessary in the light of the air campaigns in World War I. A committee appointed by the British government accordingly recommended the creation of an Indian Air force.

The Indian Air force adopted the Royal Air Force uniforms, badges, brevets and insignia. The first batch of 6 officers was sent to the Royal Flying College at Cranwell. On completion of training these officers returned to India and No 1 Squadron, the first squadron of the Indian Air Force was formed on 01 April 1933. The Royal Air Force with approval from the British government gifted 4 Westland Wapiti biplanes to the fledgling air force. The Indian pilots were led by Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice Marshal) Cecil Bouchier an Anglo-Indian.

No 1 squadron was created at Drigh Road, Karachi (now in Pakistan). A hanger and other ancillary support structures were also erected by the Military Engineering service of the Indian army. Unlike the USA where the Air Force was a part of the Army, called the US Army Air Force, The Indian Air Force was created as a separate and independent arm.

Battles against the Tribal’s

No 1 squadron was pressed into service on the North West Frontier. The IAF carried out sorties against the Pathan tribesmen and their inaccessible hideouts in the mountains were bombed. This added a new dimension to the battle against the restive tribesmen, who used their rifles against the planes to no effect. Not a single plane was lost in action and overall, the IAF allowed the army to gain an upper hand over the tribesmen.

No 1 squadron remained the only operational squadron of the IAF till 1938, but 2 more flights of 4 aircraft were added.


Later Years till 1947

Role in World War II

In 1939 the priorities of the IAF changed eastwards as the Japanese had launched an operation against China and it was expected that they may attack SE Asia. In 1939 the red blob on the IAF planes was removed so that there should be no confusion with the red sun sign of the Japanese Air Force.

The Japanese now struck in full force. Hongkong was captured and Singapore surrendered to the Imperial army. Two capital ships including the Battleship ‘Prince of Wales’, the most modern battleship of the Royal Navy were sunk and the door to Burma opened for the Imperial army. The British government alive to the situation increased the IAF strength to 7 squadrons by 1943. This was raised to 9 squadrons by 1945.

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The Air force was moved to Assam to fight the Japanese who were now advancing rapidly in Burma. In 1943, the IAF carried out its first strike against the Japanese Headquarters at Arakan. They also tried to stem the advance of the Imperial army with strikes against the Japanese air bases at Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. In recognition of the crucial role played by the IAF, King George VI conferred it the prefix "Royal" in 1945. The RIAF fought bravely and with the help of the RAF helped turn the tide at the Battle of Imphal in 1944. This was a crucial battle and a Japanese victory would have opened the road to Delhi.

The Retreat of the Imperial Army

The British 8th army under Field Marshal Slim hung on. It was greatly aided by the RAF and the RIAF which strafed Japanese positions. This was also the period when 45 pilots of Indian origin called the “Tokyo Boys’ were sent to Japan to train along with Japanese pilots at the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Academy as fighter pilots. After the war they were interred by the allies and faced court martial. A few later joined the RIAF.

During this period the Royal Indian Air Force operated Spitfires and Hurricanes. Though small in strength the RIAF did an excellent job and played its part in the retreat of the Imperial army. The RIAF also strafed retreating Japanese columns in Burma till the surrender of Japan in 1945.

First Transport Squadron and Independence

Towards the end of the war no 10 squadron, the first transport squadron of the RIAF was formed with DC-3 gifted by the USAF. With independence round the corner in 1947, the RIAF began to view a changing role. In 1950 the prefix Royal was dropped as the IAF became the Indian Air Force.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 04, 2020:

Tom, nice to know that you read all these books

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 04, 2020:

Westland Wapiti was a biplane and very safe to pilot.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, in all 558 were built and India has the pride of place in displaying the Wapiti. You are right it is the only piece in the world.

tom on September 27, 2020:

sole surviving wapiti in the world is in palam iaf museum,wapiti 1920s best raf fighter ,wapiti is an american deer,nick name what a pity

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

TOM. Thank you for the information. I now recollect that he was from the RAF and went back there.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 04, 2019:


Thank you for commenting

Vivian Coblentz on August 04, 2019:

Interesting history lesson here! I learned something new!

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