Air Marshal Y V Malse : Dakotas in the North East

Part 1

Squadron Command

Inspite of the fast growth in terms of promotion to upper ranks, the airforce at that time was still so small that it had very few squadron command positions open. Since Malse had already reached the rank of Wing Commander, he would not be able to command a fighter squadron which at that time was under Sqn Ldr rank officers. In 1951, after India became a republic, the IAF had only seven complete Squadrons, with just one Transport Squadron and one Bomber Squadron. The only command options left for a Wing Commander Rank officer would be either the bomber squadron (No.5) or the transport squadron (No.12). [1]

It was very likely that Malse would have missed his Squadron Command, but one day he received a call from Air Commodore Aspy Engineer. Aspy told him that he was giving Malse a go at Squadron Command, and it will be No.12 Squadron at Agra then flying C-47 Dakotas.

Malse was disappointed on hearing this. Having spent ten years with fighter units and flying single engined high performance fighter aircraft, being saddled with the command of lumbering transports sounded like a let down. He went down to Aspy Engineer personally and asked him as to why he was being rejected by a posting to Transports.

Aspy reassured Malse saying it was not a rejection, but rather an acceptance that Malse should have a definite career path in the Air Force. A Squadron command would be a requisite qualification in that case. He said "You are not understanding this, Yeshwant, you will never get command of a fighter squadron at this stage. I want you to go to Agra and take over that Squadron."

Malse felt sorry about the decision, but he would not know at that time, that some of the best years of his air force career would come during his command of No. 12 Squadron..

The Yaks at Agra

Malse left his deskjob in early 1951 and moved to Agra, which was the main transport base in those days. No.12 Squadron, the sole Transport unit of the IAF was based there. However Malse's initial posting was to the co-located Paratroopers Training School. (PTS)

The Paratroopers Training School was initially based at Chaklala in its pre-Independence days. After the division of assets in 1947, Sqn Ldr TS Gopalan, the seniormost PJI was to bring along a team of 12 PJIs and 38 undertrainee PJIs to Agra to establish the PTS.

Sqn Ldr Gopalan, according to Malse,

"..should find his name recorded somewhere in a place of Honour, if there was one person who should get the full credit for the development of Paratrooper Forces in India, It is he." [2]

At the time Malse went to PTS, there was no aircomponent to the School. The aircraft were inducted later after Malse took over as the CO. The day to day operations of the PTS was solely run by Sqn ldr Gopalan. Malse was with PTS officially for hardly a month. It was mainly on paper to enable him to undergo conversion training on the Dakota. Within a month he shifted over to No. 12 Squadron as its Commanding Officer. However since the PTS was also next door, Malse was always involved in a continuous process of interaction between PTS and 12 Squadron, and he never felt that he left PTS at all.

Malse's new command, No 12 Squadron,  had a distinguished history dating back to 1945. It was the last Indian Air Force Squadron raised during the Second World War and initially operated the Spitfire under Sqn Ldr Haider, who later went to Pakistan. Soon afterwards the Squadron was scheduled to reequip with the Mosquito fighter-bomber, but since the Mosquito was withdrawn early from tropical service, the Squadron was redesignated as a Transport Squadron and converted to the C-47 Dakota. On Partition, the Squadron stayed with the Indian Air Force and distinguished itself in the Jammu and Kashmir Operations of 1947-48 under Wg Cdr KL Bhatia.

After that the Squadron found itself a permanent base at Agra (which incidentally remains its base to this day!). Wg Cdr Malse took over command in April 50, taking over from Wg Cdr Tahilramani.

The first months in No.12, April and May were spent by Malse to complete his conversion on the Dakota. He dived into full fledged operational sorties straight away. No.12 Squadron's main task was meant solely to fly supply missions. Flying food relief from one part of the country to another , movement of troops and logistics etc. In his task , Malse would always rely on his more experienced Flight Commanders, Sqn Ldr EJ 'Dhati' Dhatighara and CS 'Bal' Marathe.

The Assam Floods airlift

Interrupting his recollections of those times, Air Marshal Malse suddenly asked us "Do you believe in Intiution?" . Seeing our blank stares - he continued "Well, I do believe in it" and went on to tell us the story of how intuition helped the Squadron ready itself for one of its biggest challenges in Post 47 India.

After taking over 12 Squadron, several months flew by . On 16th August, Malse was looking at his aircraft's poor serviceability figures. Even though the Squadron was supposed to operate atleast ten C-47s in flying status regularly, it barely managed about half of that.

He called up the Flight commanders to his office and spoke to them.

"Look our servicing is very poor, we only have four to five aircraft serviceable at any point of time and they are all in Jammu and Kashmir. We must get more aircraft serviceable."

Dhatighara responded, "Sir we have not got any spares and tools, Where would we get these from?"

"HAL" would be the answer they were looking for.

An HAL Detachment with the Squadron undertook the maintenance of the Pratt and Whitney Radials of the C-47. HAL had the access to all the spares and tools that are needed, but they are mostly at their headquarters in Bangalore.

So Malse planned to fly down to HAL Bangalore and scrounge whatever he can in spares and tools. Without wasting much time, he took off in a Dakota the very same day for Bangalore. After spending a day there, which involved "Begging and borrowing" whatever he could from HAL and other places, he took off for Agra again on the 17th, his aircraft fully loaded with the required spares and tools.

On landing back at Agra, news came in that there were some severe floods that occurred in Assam, with great loss of life and property. On 20th August, Malse received a call from Air Commodore Aspy Engineer, the AOC of Operational Command. Aspy mentioned about the natural disaster in the North east and continued "You know Yeshwant, I am sorry to put this your head , but send atleast one or two aircraft to Assam".

"Like a great man" Malse recalls "I said to him, Sir, how many aircraft do you want to send to Assam?"

Aspy was curt, "Yeshwant, Don't talk of your hat, I know your serviceability levels."

"Sir, you just tell me..." said Malse. "and I will do the needful"

Malse's confidence rose from the fact that the personnel of No.12 Squadron were already working on the aircraft, using the spares and tools that arrived from Bangalore. And as promised, No.12 Squadron was able to put up six aircraft for the proposed Assam Detachment.

The Detachment took off on Aug 22nd, led by Sqn Ldr Dhatighara. Wg Cdr Malse was also in the formation along with his crew, but Dhatighara led the detachment as he was more experienced in Transport Operations and especially in the Eastern Sector. The aircraft landed in Gauhati on the afternoon of August 23rd. At that time, Gauhati did not have a tarmac runway - it had a PSP runway.

On landing, the pilots found out that there was no accommodation arranged for them - nor was any available at that point of time. For two days the pilots and crew slept in the aircraft in the night and worked on them during day time. As Malse recalls "It was a miserable thing!"

On the second day - a note came for the detachment asking for Malse to come down and meet with the representatives of the Assam Government to discuss operations. But there was no transport arranged. So Malse took the public bus to the secretariat to meet up with one Mr. Rustomji, the advisor.

After discussing the operations , Rustumji also arranged for some accommodation at the circuit house - but found out only one room was available. Malse took it and the officers and men of the detachment shared the room for the rest of the duration. Everything was done with the room as base - rest for the crew, cooking, cleaning etc. 'It was all done ad-hoc" says Malse .

The first operations started on the 25th of August. The Army had sent in some soldiers from the Air Transport Company and with the loading and ejection crews, several supply dropping missions were carried out in the flood affected areas. The operations from Gauhati were concluded smoothly.

Panditjis visit to Jorhat

Within days, the base for operations shifted to Jorhat, which was located further to the North East. Malse's hopes of better accommodation facilities at Jorhat were dashed when as with Gauhati, the pilots were allotted just one room in the Circuit House. Further enquiries revealed that Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru was scheduled to visit Jorhat and the whole of Circuit house was booked for officials accompanying Panditji.

The pilots accommodated themselves in the meager facilities provided to them. A day or so later, when Malse heard that the Prime Minister would be visiting the Circuit house and everything was to be kept neat and proper for the 'inspection', Malse deliberately left his flying helmet in the aircrew room.

Not surprisingly, the flying helmet was noticed during the visit by the Panditji's security detail and one of the officials, Handu Goel , later approached Malse in the day and asked him, "How come you left your helmet in the room at Circuit House?"

Malse replied "I am very sorry you know we had only one room and I had to get ready in a hurry."

"One room?" said a surprised Handu

"yes"

"repeat again?"

"one room"

Malse left the conversation at that. Later he would discover that after the Prime Minister's party had left, they found a notice board put up which stated that   "On the Prime Minister's orders the whole of circuit house was now reserved for the IAF". Handu apparently did not waste much time on arranging this. It also speaks high of the esteem in which the armed forces officers were held in by the civil services staff - something which is missing nowadays.

After the visit was over, Panditji went to the Jorhat airfield the next day morning. He had arrived in an IAF Dakota of the Air HQ Squadron flown by Wg Cdr NK 'Nanu' Shitoley DFC. At a meeting with Shitoley and Malse, Panditji stated that he had planned to takeoff from Jorhat at around 6.30 pm in the evening.

Jorhat in those days had very primitive navigation aids. The Dakota was not better equipped either. Night flying in those areas had an element of greater risk and Malse, as the seniormost IAF Officer present decided against the 6.30 take off time. But Panditji would not agree. He had a bad temper on that day and he thundered "What Wing Commander Malse, are you ordering the PM of India as to what time he should go?"

Malse kept his calm and said in a very firm voice "Sir, I am just ordering - that aircraft over there cannot take off at 6.30".

According to Malse, "Nehru hemmed and hawed and said all sorts of things" but Malse did not budge from his position.

So finally  the take off time was moved forward by three hours and Shitoley made plans to takeoff at 3.30 pm. As Panditji got ready to leave, Malse did not go for the send off. He remained in one side of the Maintenance hangar where a Dakota was parked. He sat down at the place playing cards with some of the men. Soon Handu Goel came looking for him. On spotting Malse, he came over and shouted "Yeshwant, Are you mad?, Panditji is taking off and you are not there to see him off?"

Malse replied cooly "Sir, As per official regulations, on a political visit of a PM , the OC Dett will not be there to see him off."

Handu replied back furious, "Don't quote rules, you just come with me and see him off".

Finally Malse relented and went along with Handu. They stood there, waited their turn to say good bye. He saluted Panditji's aircraft as it started up and started to taxi. But suddenly Shitoley switched off the engines. The door of the Dakota was opening and Malse thought to himself, "My god, something went wrong again. ... whats going to happen now!" .

Someone opened the door and out popped the Prime Minister again. He gestured to Malse, "Wg Cdr Malse, come here".

An exasperated Malse went upto the aircraft door, expecting a rocket on some issue. Nehru said "Why are you looking so glum? I am taking off as per your orders. Am I not?"

With that he closed the door again, the aircraft started up and took off., leaving a bemused OC Dett wondering what a complex character the country's Prime Minister was!

During the days in the North east, No.12 Squadron did some fantastic work flying the mercy missions over Assam. The Detachment in Assam was over 2000 miles away from its main station, but carried out its maintenance and other servicing by themselves. Malse gives full credit to the airmen in his squadron,

"I had flown approx 140 hrs and Dhati must have flown much more. In those two months with the detachment to do this sort of flying I would like anyone else to try it! It is a tribute to our men and my Sergent Samuel and of course my men. You check up your records and if you find it mentioned anywhere u tell me that. This was the operation carried out. The Squadron did some fantastic work - but no one in Delhi would know about this because Delhi history is Delhi centric!"

Op Brahmaputra

While Air Marshal Malse rues the fact that the operations in the North East in those forming years were ignored at many levels - whether in the Army or in the Air Force, One person, however paid considerable attention to the issue of air logistics in Army Operations in Assam. That was Maj Gen WDA Lentaigne, who was the Commander of the famous Chindits during WW2 and the then commandant of the Staff College at Wellington.

Lentaigne had done an exercise at Staff College called Operation Brahmaputra, that involved planning for the Army operations and movements in Assam. He took Malse's inputs for the exercise. Malse had sent him the Ops Orders for the exercise which he had returned after completion.

However Malse noticed that the Ops Orders were full of Red ink entries, entered by the Commandant at places where he didn't agree. Malse simply sent the Ops Order back with one comment written on top "But it worked".

Lentaigne was sportive enough to send it back with a written comment "Yes I agree that is what matters!".

Lentaigne had not only conducted the exercise but it became a standard exercise adopted by Staff college thereafter. Later in his career, when Malse went to the Air Land Warfare School in Secunderabad to do a course, he was pleasantly surprised to find that they had an exercise on the Operation Brahmaputra to draw lessons on Eastern sector ops.

The UK Courier

Part of the duties for No 12 Squadron involved regular courier flights to the UK. At regular intervals, aircraft from 12 Squadron would fly all the way to Heathrow, carrying the Diplomatic bag, as well as supplies, embassy requisitions and if required even personnel to support the High Commissioner's office. As the CO, Malse himself had undertaken a couple of these Courier flights.

In one of the first flights he made to the UK, he was looking forward to landing at PAF Mauripur, because the Station Commander at Mauripur had been one of the pilots in his 'B' Flight, No.2 Squadron during the Arakan Campaign. Even before the flight commenced, Malse had informed Mauripur of his arrival and made sure the Station commander was informed - But to his disappointment, the Station Commander - a Wing Commander , did not turn up.

Since the route involved staying overnight at Mauripur, the crew had checked in at a hotel in Karachi. Late in the night, there was a knock on the door, and it turned out to be his friend , the PAF Station Commander. He had bought along his wife for the meeting. The Wg Cdr apologized for not meeting up with Malse earlier - He was sorry for not turning up, he said, but 'you know how it is nowadays' - a PAF officer meeting up with an IAF officer in the mid 50s was reason enough for eyebrows to be raised. Malse replied that he understood the problem and that the Station Commander need not worry.

The Courier flight started off the next day and proceeded to London, UK. During the stay with the High Commission, he made friends with a Colonel Bilgrami of the Pakistani Army at one of the official dinners. Bilgrami was originally an officer in the Hyderabad Army, who opted to go to Pakistan after 1947.

It so happened that both Bilgrami and Malse met again at a night club in London. After spending some time at the club, Bilgrami tried to pay the tab with a Pakistani 100 Rupee note , which the club management refused to accept - In those days they accepted only 'Indian Rupees', Bilgrami was told. Malse had no problems paying his tab with the Indian currency he had.

Seeing the easy acceptance of the Indian Rupees, Bilgrami asked Malse if he would exchange his Indian Rupees for Pakistani Rupees. Malse agreed - but 'Only if you give 140 Pakistani Rupees to the 100 Indian Rupees' therby setting an impromptu exchange rate even in those days! Ofcourse the offer was made in jest - Malse took care of Bilgramis tab and was later paid back by Bilgrami.

Bilgrami left for Pakistan soon after and that was probably the last meeting Malse thought he would have had. But when he was making the return trip to India, Malse had a surprise when he stopped by Karachi again. Bilgrami was there to meet up with him!. Bilgrami was away in the north at that time but coming to know of Malse's arrival at Karachi. So he flew down all the way and met up with Malse. His willingness to meet up with his new friend was a refreshing change from the fear displayed by his erstwhile No.2 Squadron Junior.

Station Commander Barrackpore

At the end of his tenure as CO of No.12 Squadron, Malse was sent to Operations Command as a Staff Officer and soon after again sent to the East - as Station Commander Barrackpore in the rank of Group Captain. He took over from his colleague from No.1 Squadron, 'Andy' Ananthanarayan. Commanding Barrackpore was an experience in itself for Malse. It was the only major Air Force Station east of Kanpur supporting transport operations. Barrackpore did all maintenance and support of Transport aircraft based in the North East.

Barrackpore was otherwise known as No.6 Wing, There were two Squadrons there, the newly raised No.11 Squadron, also flying Dakotas and No.14 Squadron flying the Spitfire XVIIIs. Malse recalls proudly that both Squadrons had an excellent relationship between them, complimenting each other. "They operated like nothing you can imagine".

Barrackpore would be the main staging base for all Transport aircraft maintenance. It was also during Malse's tenure that the regular CarNic Courier flights were activated. No.11 Squadron providing the Dakotas required for that effort. Malse has a special affinity to No.11 Squadron. Since the squadron was newly raised, it saw its baptism flying operations from Barrackpore. Malse, often used to point out to the CO, Wg Cdr Purushottam, that "Both Squadrons (No.11 and 12) mean the same to me. The only differentiating factor is that I belong to 12 Squadron but 11 Squadron belongs to me!" -

ICSC SE Asia

One of the major operations undertaken for Barrackpore was the provision of airlift services to the International Commissions for Supervision and Control in South East Asia. In 1954, the International Commission of Supervision and Control in Vietnam was set up by the United Nations to oversee the transition of three Indo-China countries - Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia - to independence from colonial rule. The ICSC consisted of staff from Canada, India and Poland with its Headquarters in Saigon. India was the Chairman of the ICSC from its inception until 1975.

Malse03 Small Air Commodore Arjan Singh DFC with Canadian and French Officials of the International Commission of Supervision and Control in Vietnam. All VIPs and personnel of the Commission were flown in by 6 Wing, Barrackpore.

The airlift of personnel for the commission from India to places like Saigon, Phenomphen, Hanoi etc were all done by aircraft from 6 Wing. In addition to the Dakotas of No.11 Squadron, Air HQ had sent one C-119 packet and a Constellation from Air India to support the airlift. Nearly 2000 personnel going to various locations in SE Asia were transported by air. Barrackpore carried out all Custom Clearance procedures, provisioning, fuelling of aircraft.

Malse proudly recollects,

"This meant aircraft operating from Calcutta and over Arakan, Burma then Saigon. The Wing was able to complete this operation within the specified time without any accidents. Now that according to me these are the hallmarks of the transport operations. And when you mention transport Ops, you don't.. you cannot just forget this. Anyone can tell me - those 2000 people who went to Saigon. They didn't just walk there."

Looking back

Air Marshal Malse looks back at his career in Transports with a pride that can only be seen while talking with him about it. For ten years he had been a Fighter pilot - flying Wapitis, Audax, Lysanders, Hurricanes and Spitfires - The next he was on Transports. For him the shift from Fighters to Transports was a drastic one - which he compares to his posting out of No.1 Squadron to No.2 Squadron on the eve of operations. As with the earlier transition, he initially felt disappointed, but never regretted it afterwards.

"When I took over 12 Squadron, I was very sorry about that. (leaving fighters). But I never regretted after I went to agra and did the job. I was very happy. It was one of the most magnificent experiences I had in the airforce. Commanding 12 Squadron and flying Operations in the North East."

The association with the Transport Operations and the North East would continue with his command of No.6 Wing at Barrackpore for four years. Effectively the Fighter pilot had successfully changed to being a Transport pilot - and he loved every moment of it.

Next: The tale of Three wars


End Notes:

[1] The year 1951 saw the raising of another Transport Squadron, a Bomber Squadron and four more fighter squadrons
[2] Sadly Sqn Ldr Gopalan would perish in a tragic accident in 1956, when two C-47s on a paradropping exercise collided in mid air and crashed

Acknowledgements:

Air Marshal YV Malse (retd) for providing time for a personal interview and access to his logbook Group Captain AG Bewoor (retd) for arranging the interview with AM Malse