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AIR COMMODORE HS RATNAGAR : PART II

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JAGAN PILLARISETTI


Continuing the Story of Homi Ratnagar, who joined the IAF in 1940 and flew with No.1 Squadron under Jumbo Majumdar into Burma. and later with No.2 Squadron during the Arakan Campaign.


Previous: Lysanders to Hurricanes

No.1 Indian Group, Peshawar and First Indian Station Commander, Poona

After returning from Staff College , Ratnagar was posted to Peshawar on the 14th of February 1946 - to join up with the staff of No.1 Indian Group. There was no accommodation problem in Peshawar unlike other stations. So Ratnagar's wife came from Bombay and joined him in April 46 . Having a staff job and good accommodation provided one of the smooth periods in pre independence India. But the period of calm was shattered soon after. As Independence for both the countries neared, Partition riots broke out all over the country. Peshawar was no exception - considerable rioting and mayhem took place - though the military areas and air force personnel were spared the worst of the trouble.

Around this period, a number of RAF and British Officers were posted out - leaving a flurry of vacancies that needed to be filled by Indian Officers.

In May 47, Ratnagar was given his new assignment and promotion to Wing Commander, that at the age of 27 years! Rising from Pilot Officer to Wing Commander in seven years may seem very unusual by today standards, but the fast pace of expansion of the Royal Indian Air Force, and the vacancies in the existing organization caused by departing British officers, meant rapid promotions to eligible Indian officers. To illustrate the difference, Air Commodore Ratnagar recollects a recent visit to the College of Air Warfare where he met a lady officer - A Flight Lieutenant. He asked her the number of years of service she had put in and was amazed at the answer being 9 years. "A Flight Lieutenant after 9 Years of Service?" Ratnagar told the amused Officer, "In my time, I was a Wing Commander in 7 years!"

The immediate task for Ratnagar in 1947 was to go to Poona to take over command of the Station from the RAF officer who would be soon moving out. It was hardly a year and three quarters since Ratnagar had been a mere Flight Lieutnant commanding a Flight - now he was being assigned to command a whole airbase! This was at a time when Independent India had just four major airbases , Ambala, Agra, Poona and Kalaikunda.

The trip from Peshawar to Poona was eventless. Even though there were riots and firing going on in all the major cities, Ratnagar and his family moved to Bombay and then on to Poona without encountering trouble.

On his first day on the new job, Ratnagar was to take over from the RAF officer who was in command. The day was 12th May 47. As soon as Ratnagar went into the Station Commander's office, the RAF Wing Commander immediately got up. Clearly in a hurry, the RAF man started off "Ah, so you have come, Ratnagar? Great. My boat for the UK is to leave on the 14th of May, so I have only two days to pack and leave from Bombay. I have no time for the hand over. See, this is your office, and this is where you sit. Your mess is over there and I am sure you can find a house somewhere on the station." Even before a puzzled Ratnagar could recover, the man continued " I am sorry but I won't be signing any papers nor be able to tell you anything more. All the other RAF officers and airmen who are on the station will also be leaving this place. So you will have to build your own team." And with that the RAF Station Commander went off never to step in again.

In a couple of days the real state of affairs became clear to the first Indian Station Commander of Poona. Nothing of value had been left in the station mess. All the liquor stores were 'missing', apparently pilfered by the RAF airmen leaving the station. Worse (if possible!), all the funds in the public and non-public accounts were missing too. The whole process of operations on the base, from administration to flying operations, had to be re-started from scratch. Nothing was officially handed over, nor was anything signed for.

The first task at hand was to build a team of Indian officers and men. Another Indian officer, Keki Gocal , a former Vengeance and Hurricane pilot who had served with No.7 Squadron was posted in to help out. The other senior Indian officer was the CO of the only Indian unit at that time in Poona . Sqn Ldr MD Suri was commanding No.3 Squadron operating the Tempest at that time.

The immediate operational task was to make arrangements for refugees being flown in from Pakistan during the build-up towards Independence and Partition. Once in a while an aircraft would fly in from Karachi or from Northern India and drop off refugees who hadbeen evacuated from Pakistan. The arrival of the refugees also brought the stories of mass murder, plunder and massacres that were taking place further to the North. An atmosphere of tension built up due in and around the station.

If not contained, such tension could have had severe effects on the camp followers. Almost all the contract workers of Poona AFS were Muslims. The electricians, wood workers, tailors, servants etc. who made their living by supplying services to the Air Force. Adequate protection for these Muslim citizens became another task for the Air Force. And the arrangements made by Ratnagar and his scratch team ensured that the days passed off without any untoward incidents.

Certainly one memorable occasion for those in Poona in those days was the coming of 15th August 1947, our first Independence Day. As the number of IAF officers and men at that time was not significant, arrangements were made for the local policemen took part in the Independence Day Parade . This took place in the Police Lines but was commanded by Gocal, an Air Force officer! On a more mundane level, Ratnagar found good accommodation at Koregaon Park and remained in command of Poona till October 1948. During his stint at Poona many events occurred. The IAF got involved in the operations in Kashmir - where it committed nearly half its strength to the fighting. On the political front, after the dawn of Independence, the Hyderabad Operations took place. On the personal front, the Ratnagars had their third child, a daughter in June 48.

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Group Photograph of No.2 Wing RIAF at Poona. Wg Cdr Ratnagar is in the seated row (Just above the OC 2 Wing label)

Slowly Poona was built back up, into an operational Air Force station. No.4 Squadron was reformed in Poona towards the end of 1947 on Tempests. Poona as an airbase was developed as a major air station in southern India. Funds for the mess were generated and the Station had a sufficient kitty after some time. Ratnagar had to request Air HQ to send funds required for start-up - and he recalls that "Air HQ was pretty nice about it - They sent thousands of Rupees shortly so that the Mess and other facilities could be started".

To keep up his flying status, Ratnagar flew the Hawker Tempest II from one of the Squadrons under his command. This was the most powerful aircraft he had flown till date and even though he has over 30 hours in that aircraft, his impressions are not completely favourable. "Compared to the Hurricane, I didn't like it at all. It was too heavy to handle". It should be pointed out here that while most pilots graduated from flying Hurricanes through Spitfires to Tempests, Ratnagar never had the opportunity to fly the Spitfirebefore he flew Tempests.

Cabinet Secretariat

In October 1948, Ratnagar was given his next assignment. The move took him away from Poona to the corridors of power in the new nation, South Block in New Delhi. The office of the Cabinet Secretary was the apex body looking after government activities. The Cabinet Secretariat meetings were undertaken where the Service Chiefs would gather on occasions to discuss plans. Wing Commander Ratnagar was now posted there as one of the Secretaries. There was an Army as well as a Navy Officer as secretaries - all under the command of a Brigadier.

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This undated photograph of senior officers is believed to be from around 1948 shows Ratnagar as a Wg Cdr and standing in the second row, just behind AVM Subroto Mukerjee

There aren't many significant memories for Ratnagar from that period. But he does recall that the job took him away from regular flying. With the exception of the deputation to RAF Staff College Haifa, Ratnagar had been able to maintain his flying status by doing the requisite number of hours every month . Even in Haifa, even though he did not get any opportunity to fly, the officers were given flying status and paid their flying pay in full. In other postings like the Group Headquarters or as Station Commander, Ratnagar had been able to get hold of aircraft to maintain his status. However the posting to Cabinet Secretariat made it difficult for him to get back to flying.

Ratnagar's successor as in the Cabinet Secretariat was Wing Commander Murkot Ramunny. Ramunny had earlier served with Ratnagar in No.2 Squadron and both knew each other well.

Ever wondered why Post 1947, we have never seen IAF officers wearing the 'Tropical Shorts' uniform? There are a number of photographs from Burma showing both Indian as well as RAF pilots and officers wearing shorts, long socks upto the knee, and shirt, with a 'Sola Topee' or a Peak Cap. Now this uniform was stopped in the Post Independence IAF. 

Ramunny was short in stature, just about the minimum height required for him to qualify as a pilot. While Ramunny was an excellent pilot and an officer, his appearance in the 'Short Pants' uniform was considered not quite 'Officer like'. It is said that after taking over the Cabinet Secretariat job from Ratnagar, Ramunny attended his first meeting where all the Chiefs of Staff met. The meeting was presided by Air Marshal TW Elmhirst, the first Chief of Air Staff of Independent India's air force. Elmhirst was quite short himself, and was known for his temper. In the meeting room,

Elmhirst saw the Ramunny enter in the short pants uniform. Elmhirst called up Murkot and asked him "Who the hell are you?"

"Sir , I am Wing Cdr Murkot Ramunny, of the Cabinet Secretariat, I am newly posted here."

Elmhirst fired off his second question "Oh..and this is your uniform?"

"Yes Sir."

"You wear these shorts also?" - this was followed by a Yes.

Elmhirst didn't say anything immediately. He simply walked back into his office and dictated his first order of the day "Hence forth, no Indian officer will wear shorts." And before anyone could ask him the reason, he said " They look so bloody awful in the shorts - Nothing doing - Only long pants should be worn". That was it - overnight many shorts across the country were discarded never to be worn again.

"This was all Murkot's doing" says Ratnagar with a twinkle in his eye.

Training Command to Maritime Ops Bombay to AFS Barrackpore

Ratnagar does not really have fond memories of his next posting, which was as the SASO in Training Command. Even though the post involved another promotion, to Group Captain, Ratnagar did not get along well with the AOC TC, and differed with him on various issues. A series of events finally culminated in a personal interview with Elmhirst. Elmhirst decided to send Ratnagar on a different posting .

So in the end it was Wing Commander KS Bhat, who was then on the CAS's staff who went to TC as the SASO on promotion to Group Captain. Ratnagar got posted out as a Liason officer to the Navy. This role was a new one that later evolved into the Maritime Air Operations in the 60s and 70s. Ratnagar acknowledges that then Vice Chief AVM Subroto Mukerjee as well as Air Commodore Aspy Engineer helped in wangling this posting for Ratnagar, who was just as happy to get away from Bangalore and back to his home town.

After settling down in Bombay with the family, Ratnagar was involved in setting up of the combined operations cell along with a Navy designated officer and an Army designated officer.

It wasn't long again before his next posting came up - as Station Commander of Barrackpore. After Poona, Barrackpore was to be his second Station command. At that time Barrackpore was base to the Spitfires of 14 Squadron and a transport unit flying Dakotas.

In 1951, the time came for promotion to Group Captain and the command of Air Force Station, Agra. Agra was home to No.12 Squadron flying Dakotas as well as the Paratroopers Training School. Agra was also the center of all transport operations of the Indian Air Force. Ratnagar says with great relief that being Station Commander of Agra was one of his best postings in his Air Force career. He was there for four and a half years without interruption, which gave him time to do some flying on transport aircraft. It wasn't long before he converted onto the Dakotas and onto the C-119 aircraft.

The War hero and his unlucky day

During the period he commanded Agra, one of the tasks for Ratnagar was to depute a Dakota and a crew to fly the UK Courier. The aircraft would carry a crew of two pilots, two navigators and would start from Delhi and fly to London with stops at Karachi, Baghdad, Malta etc onto London. Aircrew deputed for the courier flight used to look forward for the privilege of a trip to the UK, a rarity in those days.

For one of the flights, Flt Lt Dez was deputed to take a Dakota to Delhi for briefing and there on fly the UK courier. Dez was a decorated war veteran, he had a Vir Chakra for transport missions during the 47-48 Operations and was regarded as one of the best pilots with 12 Squadron. Dez took the crew and the Dakota to Delhi, where the crew was to recieve its breifing and the aircraft would be loaded stores to be taken to the Indian High Commissioner in London. The crew were to be put up in Delhi for two nights while the loading and briefing would go on.

Dissapointment awaited Dez in Delhi, for Air Commodore Narendra from Air HQ had come down and informed Dez that he was flying the courier and Dez was to go back to Agra.  Dez got 'quite cheesed off' went off to the Mess. By the evening when he took controls of a Dakota that was to be flown back to Agra, he had downed quite a number of drinks and was not sober as per 'air regulations'. Unfortunately for the Navigator, Flt Lt Purshottam, Dez decided to take off in his inebriated condition  to Agra.

By the time the Dakota reached Agra, the skies have darkened. At Agra, Ratnagar was at his residence when the Flight Control called him up. The Officer at the other end was in panic. "Sir, we have a problem, Dez and Purshottam have come in a Dakota from Agra. Dez is drunk and the aircraft is flying all over the place. He is not in a condition to safely land the aircraft!" . Without wasting a moment, Ratnagar drove down to the control tower as fast as he can.

Dez had already made his first landing attempt. As it was dark and he could not quite make a proper approach, he went around and came for a second attempt. The Dakota came in low over the boundary but went too low that the wing tips clipped the tree tops. The aircraft pulled up and went around again. and so it went on. Luckily Purshottam, the navigator had some experience flying in the co-pilots seat even as a Navigator. he had observed enough landings in his career to offer some help.  Finally the aircraft made a correct approach and the pilot banged the aircraft onto the runway, bounced and landed back again. In the process, the wingtip grazed the ground and got damaged. But both the pilot and navigator were safe.  It is said that Purshottam did more of the landing than the captain!.

Dez was rushed to the hospital and an eqnuiry was held. During the time the enquiry was going on the shocking news came that the Dakota which went on the UK Courier under Air Commodore Narendra crashed in Turkey on the way back, killing everyone onboard except for a sole survivor. An enquiry was held at that time and it was ruled that Narendra probably did not have much experience of flying a Dakota in bad weather.  Dez then realised it could well have been him on that flight and was quite happy that his life was saved. Dez was later given a reprimand. In his later days, after retiring from the IAF, Dez joined up with Air India and flew with them for quite some time.

In 1956, the new station commander came in, who turned out to be Kanwar Jaswant Singh, who had been Ratnagar's CO in No.2 Squadron in 1945. Ratnagar was now posted out to the Army's Western Command as the Air Force staff officer. Western Command was under Lt Gen Kalwant Singh of 1947-48 War fame. This posting took the Ratnagars to Shimla. As there was no suitable accommodation available, the children were put in college in Agra itself while the Ratnagars moved to a hotel in Shimla where they had a cook and servants during their tenure.

Air Attache, United States

It was a common practice for officers to be asked to officially state where they would prefer their next posting to be - although it was not as common for the preference to be honoured. Ratnagar had sometime previously written down that he wanted to go as the Air Attache to the United States of America. It was done tongue-in-cheek, for the positions of Air Attache to the USA and UK were two of the most coveted positions for senior IAF officers of that time.

One fine day in Shimla, Ratnagar got a call from the Senior Officer Administration from Air HQ.

It was Anantanarayana. He said "Homi, come up to Delhi immediately, the Chief wants to see you for an interview."

Ratnagar asked "Kyon, kya ho raha hai?"

"Nothing" was the reply. "You are going out somewhere". That was it. Anantanarayana did not give any more details to Ratnagar.

So Ratnagar left as early as he could by taxi and caught the Kalka Mail to arrive in Delhi. Soon he was in a meeting with the Chief, Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee. Subroto told Ratnagar "Homi, I am sending you to Washington, America as Air Attache. Do you want to go?".

This was a bolt from the blue - and it was exactly what Ratnagar wanted. He immediately confirmed that he wanted to go.

Mukerjee then gave him the details "We have Wing Commander Kelly in Washington. He was supposed to come back a long time ago, but we could not find anybody to send there. He has been extended there for some time and he wants to come back. So you go straight away - within the next fifteen days".

"Fifteen days??" Ratnagar thought. He was based in Shimla with all his luggage in storage in Agra. There was no way he could pack and go in fifteen days. Explaining this he told Subroto "It can't happen in fifteen days".

Subroto mulled it over . "Okay, leave by the first boat if possible we will have no aircraft ". The first boat was in September which was about three months away. So that gave Ratnagar ample time prepare for his move to the US. Subroto then told him to meet the Foreign Secretary at South Block for another interview. This one was a formality, the Foreign Secretary met Ratnagar and within five minutes issued the orders sending him to the United States.

The trip to the US from Bombay was a twenty day journey by sea. 15 days to London and there on 5 more days to New York. Gp Capt Ratnagar and his family reached the US on 5th September 1957. His tenure as Air Attache lasted four years in the US. The job also involved being accredited as the Air Advisor to the Indian High Commissioner in Canada. This bought him in contact not only with personnel of the US armed forces but also with the Canadian Armed Forces.

Mostly the activities were ceremonial. These included liason with the diplomatic staff of the Indian Embassy. Or attending events on special occasions, like the first Boeing flight by Air India to New York, which happened at that time.

On some occasions there were welcome opportunities to interact with the US military forces. On one ocassion, Ratnagar got a flight in an F-100 Super Sabre as a second pilot. This was his first supersonic flight, and on completion, he was presented with a pin designating the breaking of the Sound Barrier. Breaking the sound barrier in level flight is a common accomplishment among military pilots today, but in the 50s, the number of people who had done that in the Indian Air Force could have been be counted on the fingers of one's hands.

This was not the only occasion Ratnagar got to fly a military aircraft. As the Air Advisor to the Indian High Commission in Canada, Ratnagar was invited on a couple of occasions by the RCAF. On one such occasion, he flew a Sikorsky S-62 helicopter that India was trying to acquire from Canada. On another occasion, they flew the transport aircraft being bought out by the De Havilland Canada company. But by and large the tenure as air attaché took him away from military flying.

- Group Captain Ratnagar (2nd from right) after a flight in the Sikorsky S62 Helicopter in Canada. Ratnagar was the Air Advisor to the Indian High Commissioner in Canada

As his Air Attache tenure came to an end, the US Government had planned to award the 'Legion of Merit' to him. The Legion of Merit was instituted by the US in 1943 to recognize the contributions of military officers of friendly countries. Previous recipients included the first Indian Commander in Chief of the Indian Army - General (later Field Marshal) K M Cariappa.

Unfortunately by this time, the Defence Minister was Krishna Menon. Krishna Menon did not fancy the idea of the US bestowing medals on Indians, and he was in US at that point of time. The grant of the medal was formally refused. This was communicated by the Defence Secretary Mr. Pulla Reddy to Ratnagar.

In 1961, Ratnagar was given his next posting - to come back to India and join Operations Command as the Staff Officer Administration. Operations Command was the predecessor of Western Air Command. It was under the command of Air Vice Marshal Ehrlich Pinto. Pinto was another old friend of Ratnagar from his Bombay Flying Club days. Pinto had joined the IAF in 41 and served with the RAF in UK.

The return trip to India was also by ship. While Ratnagar and his family came down to Bombay, the luggage was sent by air and went to Palam. Ratnagar was planning to go to Palam and report for duty in Delhi with Ops Command. But before that he got a call from AVM Pinto. Pinto was in Bombay for a visit and wanted to meet up with him. When they met up, Pinto told Ratnagar not to take the trouble to come to Delhi to Ops command. Ratnagar was going to be promoted to Air Commodore and would be posted elsewhere. When asked as to where the posting would be, he was given the answer - 'Secunderabad'.

School of Land Air Warfare , Secunderabad

So two months later on 6 June 1961 Air Commodore Ratnagar went to the School of Air Land Warfare in Secunderabad as the Commandant. (The SLAW later became the Joint Air Warfare Schoole, and is today the College of Air Warfare). The previous Commandant was Air Commodore SN Goyal , who was one of the original Cranwell graduates. Goyal had taken over from K L Sondhi and had hardly spent about four to five months as Commandant before requesting a posting elsewhere. To fill up the vacancy, Ratangar was posted in Goyal's place.

SLAWGroup.jpg (110596 bytes)

A Group photograph at the School of Land Air Warfare in Secunderabad. Air Commodore Ratnagar is sitting in the front row fourth from the right. He was then Commandant of the School.  Photo Courtesy : Wg Cdr HK Patel

One of his old friends Gp Capt SW Bob was the Station Commander at Begumpet. Ratnagar took Bob's help in getting his accommodation and luggage sorted out in Secunderabad before his arrival. SW Bob was also with Ratnagar when he went to the Secunderabad Club soon after arrival in Secunderabad. Ratnagar asked the club management to dig up records related to his membership dating back to 1942. They did so and promptly advised him that his membership of that time had been cancelled as "Two of the Club fee payments Rs 12.50 were not made in time"!

Air Commodore Ratnagar was to serve as the Commandant of SLAW for six years from 1961 to 1967, which was an unusually long period. Being in Secunderabad would have given him the opportunity to go flying in the neighbouring establishments at Begumpet and Hakimpet. However one day Ratnagar lost conciousness at home. Though the doctor came and checked him up, he was not able to find the reason. Subsequently a medical check in IAM Bangalore also failed to trace the reason, but the incident resulted in his medical category being downgraded - which prevented him from flying anymore. In spite of further medical check ups at IAM, Ratnagar never got his flying category back.

Once his medical category was downgraded, Ratnagar decided that he would quite the Air Force. The day came in 1967, when he was about 47 years old with 27 years of service. Ratnagar opted for premature retirement and came into the civilian world. In his own words "You had a better chance at getting a suitable job at 47 years of age than later in your fifties - the choice was quite clear for me."

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Air Commodore Ratnagar , browsing through his logbook detailing missions from Burma in October 2003.

The Wings and medals of Air Commodore Ratnagar. Since he retired quite soon after the 1965 War, the group does not contain the Raksha Medal, which he was entitled to.

After Retirement

Having lived in Secunderabad for over six years, the Twin Cities now became a comfortable place to settle down. After retirement Air Commodore Ratnagar never really stopped working. He was to work successfully as a manager with ICRISAT - The International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics which was started outside Hyderabad at that time. After ICRISAT he was with the hospitality industry for some time and was manager of the Diners Club Center.

During this time he had to face a personal tragedy - the loss of his daughter to cancer and subsequent loss of his son-in-law. But Air Commodore Ratnagar accepts it as part of life. His reasoning was simple. "There are ups and downs are there in life, but all these experiences leave you stronger and stronger." Who can disagree with that?

 


Epilogue: (Added 23rd March 2004)

I had met Air Commodore Ratnagar for the last time on 27th November 2003. I went to return his photographs and logbook and we chatted for about half an hour about it.  Part 1 of this article went online on 1 Jan 2004, and Part II on 1 Feb 2004.

In the first week of February 2004, Air Commodore Ratnagar lost his wife - they had been married for over sixty years. It was a sad loss for him.   Less than two months later, on 19th March 2004, Air Commodore Homi Shapurji Ratnagar, breathed his last.  One of the pioneer 'Tigers' had now taken off for his final sortie. I regret that I was not able to meet him again after the last meeting in November, though I wanted to.  Sir, RIP.

-Jagan


Acknowledgements:

Late Air Commodore H S Ratnagar (retd) for providing time for a personal interview and then providing his logbook and photographs
Wing Commander H K Patel (retd) for arranging the interview and the SLAW Photograph.
K S Nair for taking the effort to edit this document to weed out all errors and typos.
Zaheer Karanjia for providing the S-62 Photograph


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