Wing Commander Harish Chandar Sahgal (3024) GD(P)


- Harish Chandra Sahgal - as an Officer Cadet in 1944


Training Days

Harish Sahgal was born on 22 June 1924 at Benares. He was educated at Lahore and volunteered for and joined the flying branch of the Royal Indian Air Force during the peak of the Japanese threat to India during the Second World War. After four months training at No. 2 Officer Cadet Training School (OCTS) Poona from Jan to May 1944, he commenced his flying training at No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) Jodhpur where he flew Tiger Moths and Cornells.

On completion of his basic training at Jodhpur, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 9 October 1944. He then proceeded for advanced flying training to No. 1 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) Ambala. At Ambala he flew Harvards and Hurricanes. He received his pilot’s wings here on 14 Feb 1945. An exceptional pilot, he was adjudged the best pilot in his course and awarded the silver Spitfire trophy. He was now posted to 151 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Peshawar where he flew Harvard’s, and Spitfire Mk Vs and VIIIs.

- c Ambala 14 Feb 45 - HE General Sir Claude Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE CSI DSO OBE ADC, Commander in Chief, India presenting the "Silver Spitfire" trophy to H C Sahgal for standing first in flying in the 27th Course. The Sword of Honour for this course went to Toric Zachariah.
This silver medal was given to Horace for being the Best Pilot in his course at Ambala. -

With No.4 Squadron "The Oorials"

Passing out with an “above average” grading as a pilot, he joined No. 4 R.I.A.F. Spitfire Squadron (The Oorials) at Yelahanka in July 1945. No. 4 Squadron, which represented the Royal Indian Air Force in the Allied Occupation of Japan, had seen extensive operations as a Hurricane squadron in the Arakan. Formed in February 1942, it functioned as a close support squadron and for some time acted as a fighter reconnaissance squadron. Its pilots carried out smoke-laying sorties and low-level and dive-bombing missions. It was specially congratulated by the 81st West African Division for consistent and brilliant close support in the Kaladan. Two of its Indian pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When Harish joined the squadron it had just returned from a successful operational tour of the Burma front in April and was converting to Spitfire VIIIs. On 28 August 1945, the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) General Sir Claude Auchinleck inspected the squadron. In his address he indicated that the squadron might be sent to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (B.C.O.F.).

This was a singular honour for the Royal Indian Air Force and for No. 4 Squadron in particular. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force was an Australian, Lieutenant-General J. Northcott, C.B., M.V.O. The B.C.O.F. formed a part of the Allied occupation forces in Japan, under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur and was drawn from the armed forces of the United Kingdom, India, Australia, and New Zealand, the land component being organised as a Corps of one British-Indian Division (BRINDIV) and two independent Australian/New Zealand Brigade Groups. The air component comprised squadrons from the R.A.F., R.A.A.F., R.N.Z.A.F. and R.I.A.F. No. 4 Squadron was to re-equip with the Spitfire Mk. XIV in preparation for its move to Japan. The R.I.A.F. provided 581 personnel out of the total commonwealth air component of 6272.

The squadron was ordered to practice short take offs so that the Spitfires could be flown off the aircraft carrier which would take them to Japan as part of the occupation forces. The Spitfire XIV had pneumatically operated flaps which could be lowered fully for landing or raised fully up. To ensure that the Spitfires got airborne in the least possible distance the squadron devised a method of getting 15 degrees of flap by inserting wooden wedges while the flaps were being retracted and subsequently the wedges were dropped by lowering the flaps and raising them up once more. There were exacting training procedures to be practiced as the Spitfire XIV had a marked tendency to swing.

Finally, after waiting for six months, preparations were made to move to Cochin from where the aircraft were to be lifted onto the carrier, H.M.S. Vengeance. On 2 April 1946, the aircraft got airborne for the ferry from Yelahanka to Cochin. At Cochin, the aircraft were prepared for loading and the squadron personnel were moved onto the ship. The bulk of the squadron’s personnel were to go by passenger ship, while those involved with on-board maintenance sailed with the Spitfires on the carrier. On 8 April 1946, H.M.S. Vengeance sailed with twenty-two Spitfire XIVs of No. 4 Squadron R.I.A.F. And two R.A.F. Squadrons (Nos. 11 and 17), berthing at Singapore after eight days sailing, for refuelling, and then set course again for Iwakuni, a port on Kyushu island. Nos. 11 and 17 Spitfire Squadrons, R.A.F. And an Air O.P. Flight were embarked at Singapore.

During this voyage, the squadron witnessed a most curious episode. The American lease for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm aircraft on board the ship expired, and all the U.S. – supplied aircraft aboard the carrier were ordered to be destroyed! No. 4 Squadron watched in shock as thirty-five brand new aircraft (Avengers and Corsairs) were pushed overboard and into the sea in order to fulfill the terms of the lend-lease contract.

The aircraft carrier finally arrived at Iwakuni on 23 April and was anchored midstream. The earlier decision to fly the aircraft off the carrier was now changed since excellent facilities for off-loading and transporting the aircraft to an airstrip close to the port were available. The anticipated excitement involving take-offs from the carrier faded away and by the 24th all the Spitfires were transported ashore on barges, from where they were pushed down to the British Commonwealth Air Station (B.C.A.S.).

Harish flew his sortie in Japan from Iwakuni to Miho on 7 May 1946. The B.C.O.F. was allotted the area of the Hiroshima Prefecture, including the cities of Kure and Fukuyama. It was responsible for the demilitarisation and disposal of Japanese installations and for exercising military control of the area. While Kure was the port of entry for the Force, including 268 Indian Brigade [5/1 Punjab Regiment, 2/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles (F.F.), 1 Maratha Light Infantry], the airport of entry was Iwakuni in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, which had been a major Japanese naval and army air base during the war.

The squadron was given a temporary base at B.C.A.S. Iwakuni until the rest of the squadron personnel arrived on the passenger ship. Shortly thereafter on 7 May 1946 No. 4 Squadron moved to its permanent base at B.C.A.S. Miho on Honstin island, where it formed a group along with the two R.A.F. squadrons. From here the squadron undertook various flying tasks that were mainly maritime patrols over the sea to ensure that there was no subversive activity or smuggling. Apart from this, normal flying training also continued. The stay at Miho was very interesting and many extra curricular functions were undertaken. Sports activities also included competition against the two R.A.F. Squadrons and two Australian squadrons stationed at Bofu. At Miho, the R.I.A.F. squadron received its maintenance supplies from Yonago, via Okayama.

As the squadron had twenty-two aircraft on strength, the flight commanders, Flight Lieutenants Shirpurkar and Malik Nur Khan evolved a flying formation depicting the letters ‘IAF’. They had practiced this in Yelahanka, prior to setting course for Cochin, this being the first time such letters were seen in the sky. There were occasional exercises carried out to display air strength to the local population while large formations were flown over the big cities. While in Japan, Nur Khan was posted to the staff at Air HQ in Iwakuni as Squadron Leader Operations. A course mate of Pratap Lal, he later opted for Pakistan, and led the Pakistan Air Force into battle as its Commander-in-Chief during the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict.

No. 4 Squadron remained in Japan for a year. Its duties included demonstration flights and reconnaissance patrols over specific assigned areas. Of particular importance were the recce patrols flown at dawn, noon and dusk, over the coastal areas of the Shimane and Tottori Prefectures in order to check the illegal immigration of Koreans into Japan. On these patrols direct R/T contact was maintained with the ground based army units at Hamada and Shimane Prefectures and with HQ 268 Brigade at Matsue. The ground units were equipped with motor-boats to intercept Japanese shipping. No. 4 Squadron’s Spitfires patrolled 15 miles out to sea along the Shimane and Tottori coasts and reported all Japanese shipping in the area to the army. The squadron carried out its reconnaissance tasks to the satisfaction of the authorities.

In June 1946 General Cawthorn, India’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff Australia (JCOSA), visited 4 Squadron at Miho. He signalled, ‘Royal Indian Air Force Squadron is in good heart and put up an excellent fly past. Their administration stood comparison well with that of Royal Air Force units in same station.’ Harish noted in his logbook “Some VIP visited. Gen Cawthorn. Brig Thimayya accompanied him.”

In November 1946, Squadron Leader M.M. Engineer, D.F.C. (later Air Marshal and AOC-in-C W.A.C.) took over the command of the squadron. Apart from demonstrations and reconnaissance patrols, the squadron also flew relief missions to help the civilian population following the disastrous Japanese earthquake in December 1946.

The Kashmir Conflict

While in Japan, Harish was based along with his squadron at Iwakuni and Miho. He returned to India in May 1947 when he was posted to No. 1 ARD Lahore. He was here when the country achieved independence and when the trauma of partition took place. However, shortly after, following the partition of the country, on 30 September 1947 he was posted to Advanced Flying School (India) at Ambala as a staff pilot. This should have been a peace-time posting, but fate decreed otherwise.

On 22 October 1947, less than ten weeks after the relinquishment of British rule over the subcontinent, thousands of well armed tribesmen from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province led by regular Pakistan Army officers in civvies attacked Kashmir. The outnumbered Kashmir State Forces fought with desperate gallantry, but were unable to stem the onslaught of the invaders. By the 26th of October, the enemy had reached the tiny hamlet of Baramula, barely fifty-six kilometres from the State capital of Srinagar. The prize of Kashmir lay within their grasp, but here the indisciplined lashkars checked their advance to indulge in a two day long orgy of loot, rapine and plunder that sent ripples of shock throughout the State. That evening, Hari Singh, the Dogra Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir signed the instrument of accession, thereby making Jammu & Kashmir an integral part of the Indian Union.

It was now incumbent upon the Government of India to respond to the Maharaja’s plea for help in checking the plundering hordes from across the border. The main road to Kashmir in the old days lay through what was now Pakistan. This had given Pakistan an edge in enforcing an economic blockade of the State in the preceding three months. The only other road-link with the Kashmir valley was through Jammu and this was not meant to take heavy vehicular traffic. Army transportation by this road would have taken unduly long. It was, therefore, decided that troops should be airlifted to Srinagar. The epic airlift of men and materials undertaken by the R.I.A.F., following the accession of the State to India, prompted the Governor General, Lord Louis Mountbatten to later remark that this short notice airlift surpassed anything similarly achieved in the South East Asia Command during the Second World War.

According to the appreciation of the Joint Planning Staff of the Chiefs of Staff prepared on 27 November 1947, the total air forces available at the time were:

  • Six squadrons of Tempests (eight aircraft each).
  • One squadron of Dakotas (seven aircraft – four of these were being used for transport conversion training).
  • About twenty Spitfires at Ambala being used for Advanced Training.
  • One flight of Harvards (four aircraft).

The first three Dakotas of No. 12 Squadron, R.I.A.F., took off from Willingdon (Safdarjung) airport at 0500 hrs on 27 October, carrying jawans of the 1st Battalion, The Sikh Regiment, then deployed on Internal Security duties at Gurgaon. The first operation of independent India’s Air Force had begun! The first aircraft touched down at 0830 hours, just in time to save Srinagar airstrip and the city. The situation was so grave that the Op Order issued to the task force included instructions: ‘to reconnoitre from the air and return to Jammu if the raiders have occupied the airstrip’. The C.O. of the 1st Sikhs, Lieutenant-Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai became one of the first Indian soldiers to fall in the defence of Kashmir. The airbridge established by the R.I.A.F. between Ambala and Srinagar, helped save the vale of Kashmir for India. By the end of October, a brigade strength of men and material had been flown in and the valley was saved.

From then on – till the cease-fire on 31 January 1949, the air force continued giving intimate and regular support to the army in one of the most difficult and hazardous terrains of the world. Spitfires, Tempests and Harvards all gave air support to our troops battling the raiders in remote and far-flung mountain strongholds across the State.

To stem the onslaught by Pakistani tribesmen and irregulars, R.I.A.F. Spitfires were flown in to the valley and based at Srinagar. They rendered valuable support to the Indian Army in their operations against the raiders, attacking enemy positions in Poonch, Kotli, Naushera, Mirpur, Uri and other sectors. The attacks commenced on 29 October 1947 and were kept up until the end of the operations on 31 December 1948. Of particular importance was the role played by R.I.A.F. Spitfires in the Battle of Shelatang, which broke the momentum of the raiders thrust towards Srinagar. Harish was one of these few gallant Spitfire pilots who helped stem the raiders advance into Kashmir and saved the valley for India.

Urgent messages kept coming requesting for quick reinforcements, and depicting the dismal situation in the Kashmir valley. The fly-in of troops and supplies continued unbroken. On 30 October 1947, the raiders were seen concentrating at Pattan. Aircraft of the R.I.A.F. promptly attacked this concentration at 1510 hours. Two Tempests took off from Ambala and strafed the enemy, firing 815 shells of 20 mm ammunition thereby demoralising the tribesmen and destroying their trucks and transport. At 1655 hours another air attack, this time by two Spitfire aircraft from Srinagar airfield, completely scattered the raiders who broke and fled to save their lives.

In the meantime, the Headquarters of 101 Brigade was established in Srinagar and on 30 October 1947. Brig Katoch arrived to take over command. 326 men from 1st Sikh, 1st Kumaon and 1st Mahar Regiments were also flown in together with two 3.7" Howitzers. Similarly on 31 October 47, ‘D’ Company with Major S.N. Sharma in command and the remaining men of the Kumaon Regiment plus three Field Ambulance Units were flown into Srinagar, the total adding up to 586 men and 937 lbs of supplies. Tempests from Ambala kept up continuous strafing operations of the enemy throughout the day, keeping their heads down and preventing any counter attacks. On the same day, four more Spitfires and two Harvards were detached to operate from Srinagar airfield on a permanent basis. The air bridge between various points in India and Srinagar was working like clockwork and troops and supplies continued to pour in at all hours of day and night while the fighter aircraft of the R.I.A.F. attacked the enemy wherever they found them. India owes the vale of Kashmir to the valour of a handful of its soldiers and airmen, who helped stem the advance of the Pakistani raiders in the first few crucial days.

Harish was one of the “few” who helped turn the tide. From 30 October 1947 he flew daily sorties in Spitfire VIIIs and XIVs, strafing enemy columns and concentrations and carrying our offensive reconnaissance missions in Patan, Kotli, Badgam, Shelatang, Uri, Poonch, Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and numerous other places.

H C Sahgal - just after the Second World War. -

On 25 November 1947, while on a strafing and bombing mission in the Chhamb area his aircraft (Spitfire VIII JF694) was shot up and he had to forceland. On another occasion after getting airborne from Jammu for Ambala in a Harvard, he collected two bullet holes in his aircraft along the way.

In February 1948, Harish was posted to No. 12 Squadron. He converted to twin engine Dakotas as transport pilots were urgently needed for the continuing operations in J&K. He continued flying in these operations in the high Himalayan valleys in 1948. Many gallant deeds were performed during the J&K operations but the pride of place rightly belongs to the transport pilots of No. 12 Squadron.

Besides the defence of Srinagar and Leh, the R.I.A.F. played a significant role in the battles for Kotli, Jhangar, Naushera, Tithwal, Rajouri and Kargil. On 31 January 1949, the cease-fire came into effect, Thus ended the R.I.A.F.s saga of valour and innovation during the 1947-48 operations in Jammu and Kashmir. The state has remained an obstacle in the way of normal relations between India and Pakistan, ever since.

In September 1948 Harish was posted to the prestigious Air HQ Communication Squadron at Palam, flying VIPs.

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Wg Cdr Harish Sahgal's medals (full sized and miniature versions) : General Service Medal 1947 with Jammu and Kashmir Operations Clasp. Independence Medal, The 1939-45 War Medal and the India Service Medal ribbon. An unknown number medals were missing and are not shown here.

Clarkson Trophy and the 60s

In May 1949, Harish was sent for his Flying Instructor’s Course to the RAF Central Flying School (CFS), at Brize Norton and Little Rissington, UK. He successfully graduated from No. 112 Course of the CFS in Jan 1950, winning the Clarkson Aerobatic Trophy. The papers carried the following report:

Sahgal07_Small.jpg (13266 bytes)

Clarkson Trophy for Indian Pilot

F/O H.C. Sahgal of the I.A.F. has won the Clarkson Trophy for ‘aerobatics and forced landing’ while undergoing the Instructors’ Course at the R.A.F. Central Flying School in the U.K. This is the second time in succession that this trophy has been won by an Indian pilot.

Among the many competitors from the various Commonwealth countries, two among the ‘final four’ were I.A.F. pilots.

F/O Sahgal joined the I.A.F. in 1944, two years after graduating from Government College. Lahore. While under training at the I.A.F. Advanced Flying School, Ambala, he was adjudged the best pilot of the course and was awarded a silver Spitfire.

In April 1950 he was posted as a QFI to the Communication and Training (C&T) Squadron, IAF, at Agra. He served in the squadron until mid-April 1953 when he was posted to No. 11 Transport Squadron, also flying Dakotas, at Jorhat in Assam.

In 1955 he was posted to the National Defence Academy at Poona. He then attended the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington in 1957. On successful completion of his Staff College, he was posted to HQ Operational Command (now Western Air Command, WAC) at New Delhi in 1958. Finishing his staff tenure at WAC, he was posted to No. 19 Squadron in October 1960. He served with No. 19 Squadron until January 1962, when, on completion of his conversion training on the newly received C-119 Packets from the US, he was posted in February 1962 as C.O. of No. 48 Squadron flying C-119 Packets, located at No. 6 Wing.

During the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, he flew extensively in NEFA, carrying out supply drops for the far-flung piquets of the Indian Army along that remote Himalayan frontier. He commanded No. 48 Squadron until May 1964, when he was posted back to HQ WAC. This was his final posting.

He retired from the Air Force in mid 1966; thereafter taking up a job with a private firm called Khemka Aviation, engaged in crop spraying in various parts of India. He flew AN-2Ms, Pushpaks and DH 82s in this phase until 1970. He then joined Jajodia Aviation in May 1970, flying the Bumble Bee, Piper Pawnee, DH 82, Saab Safir Quail Commander, Pushpak and AN-2M. He continued flying for various private crop spraying firms until 1977 including Jacks Aviation, Bharat Agro Aviation, Agricultural Aviation.

Horace Sahgal passed away in 2007 at Delhi.

Acknowledgements : Mr Sanjoy Sahgal & Ms Suman Sahgal for providing the authors with the Logbook, Photo collection and medals for the research.

Text Copyright © SUSHIL TALWAR & RANA CHHINA Images Copyright © SANJOY SAHGAL & MS SUMAN SAHGAL. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the copyright holders is prohibited.