My Tryst with the Indian Air Force

A Personal Account by Air Marshal Sir Thomas W. Elmhirst KBE CB AFC (Retd.)

Come 15 August I947, and India became Independent. On the same day, the RIAF also came on its own, independent of the Army, under the helmsman ship of Air Marshal Sir Thomas W. Elmhirst. it was Elmhirst who insisted on having an independent Air Force, and had his way in the end. In this rare narrative, India's first Air Chief takes us down memory lane through those momentous days when history was being made.

It was January, 1947, the coldest and grimmest of winters. England was frozen up for two months; we were still on 'rations' and suffering from exhaustion and lack of coal to keep central heating on or our houses warm. I was an Air Vice Marshal and Director of Intelligence at the Air Ministry, Not a job I liked but after four years of the war serving overseas I was due for a 'home' job and, having served some seven years in 'Intelligence' during the previous twenty years, it was a job I had to expect. Towards the end of the month I had a telephone call in my office from Jack Slessor (Air Council Member for Personnel) saying that he had a job for me in India and would I give it consideration. And I did.

I knew little or nothing about India other than that its size and population was ten times that of England and that it was held, under the King-Emperor's Crown, by a very small contingent of the British Army together with a larger Indian Army officered by British Officers. Also I Knew from my job as Director of Intelligence in Whitehall that it was the policy of Atlee's Labour Government to fulfill the promise (made more than once in World War II) to turn over India to the Indians as soon as the War was won, and that it must be 'turned over' quickly in 1947, and that Lord Louis Mountbatten was the man to do it. I had also realised that there was no alternative.

What were my impressions? As I have said, from my background knowledge when for the past eighteen months I had been Director of Intelligence in Whitehall, I knew the British government policy and entirely agreed with it. The alternative to handing over India to the Indians was to hold on to it by force against another Gandhi campaign. We had not the forces, nor, in England, the wish to hold on after a war just finished to free nations from conquerors. My last impression of those two months before 'D' Day was that if it had not been for Jinnah, who saw himself as 'the Emperor' of the new Muslim nation of Pakistan, it would have been quite possible for the British to have handed over India to a Hindu-Muslim government in Delhi, with perhaps Gandhi as President.

As newly created Chief of Inter-Services Administration, I did not see that there was other than an impossible job for the holder of the new appointment if he was to take away from the Air Officer Commanding the RAF and the Admiral Commanding the Indian Navy, their organisation, supply and medical staff, and likewise remove from direct control of the Field Marshal, both his Adjutant and Quarter-Master General!

The Start of an Air Force

It was the first week in August 1947 and I was closing up office, at GHQ in Delhi preparing to leave India before Independence Day on the 15th of the month, and returning to London with a Royal Air Force appointment at Washington in view. The telephone rang, the Viceroy wishes to speak to you. 'Dickie' Mountbatten spoke, "Tommy, I hear that you are about to depart, don't go until you have seen me, my staff will fix an appointment later today." I walked across to the Viceregal Palace that afternoon and saw the Viceroy. He told me that it was his job within the next few days to find six Officers to command the three services of the two, new Dominions about to come into being. He said he had asked the two new Prime Ministers-to-be, Nehru and Jinnah, to put forward names but both said that they would leave it it him except in the case of the new Indian Air Force-to-be when Nehru had put forward my name as its Commander. (I had not till then met Pandit Nehru, but I later learnt that my elder brother was a friend of his.) Mountbatten went on to say that he would like me to take the job and stay and help India as he intended to-do as Governor-General for a short time after Independence Day. But he said, "Make your own contract with Nehru, I will fix for you to have an interview with him tomorrow."

That evening I pondered over the terms of a possible contract. The Royal Air Force in India together with its small Royal Indian Air Force contingent was then and always had been under the overall command of the Army Commander- in-Chief in India. The first requirement in any contract I made with Nehru was that his Indian Air Force would be an independent fighting Service under me as its Commander-in-Chief being subordinate to his Minister of Defence and then to him only as Prime Minister. The second point I must be sure on, was that I must have the right to choose from the Royal Air Force in England, half a dozen senior staff officers on the technical side to help me in the first two years. My third point would be that I must have the right to appeal to him personally if I should have difficulties with any of his subordinates, Political or Civil Service.

I saw Mr. Nehru alone the next morning. We talked for half an hour. He accepted my independent Air Force requirement and my right to appeal to him; other points "were small and could be easily adjusted." There was no contract. He was prepared to accept me and I was prepared to accept the job. We shook hands.

The eve of Independence Day came and I went to my new office and together with two senior Indian Air Force Officers, Subroto Mukerjee and Aspy Engineer, drafted a telegram to the Commanding Officers of every Indian Air Force Unit to be read on parade the next day when they were to haul down the British flag and hoist the new Indian flag. The telegram told them that each unit owed allegiance through me to the new Indian Government under Mr. Nehru who had appointed me to the post of the Commander of the country's new Air Force.

This Panaromic view of the Republic Day celebrations at Red Fort shows the Liberator flypast . 
Click for a larger view

It was perhaps a good thing that this telegram was sent. Officers and men in three services hardly knew where they stood and to whom they owed allegiance and the stories in the press did not help. Mountbatten was still there at Government House in Delhi, but as 'Governor-General' of the new Dominion and not as Viceroy. Claude Auchinleck, late C-in-C of all three services in India, was still in Delhi, but with no power. British battalions, RAF squadrons and British staff officers and unit commanders were to go "in days"!

There was 'freedom' in the air, a fact which was shortly to make things very difficult for the senior officers of the three new services - mutiny. "We are all free men now, why should Officers have disciplinary control of us?" Indian Independence Day was a great day. It seemed that the whole population of New and Old Delhi, thousand million, had moved out to the Maidan (Public Park in New Delhi) to see the Viceroy of the previous day haul down the Union Jack and Mr. Nehru, head of the government of the Dominion of India, hoist the new Indian flag.

My first job was to find out what and where were the Indian Air Force Units now under my command and to organise them so that a simple 'chain of command' came into existence and all Unit Commanders would know what their immediate job was and who their immediate superior Officer.

Air Marshal Elmhirst (Second from Left) along with Sardar Baldev Singh and Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru during the Independence Day Celebrations at the Red Fort    Air Marshal Elmhirst talks to the British test pilot who flew in the first Vampire jet fighter from the UK, even as Pandit Nehru checks out the cockpit of the first Jet.

The next job was to get to know the senior Officers and attempt to judge their ability and worth and give them the acting higher rank and post them to fill the jobs of the RAF officers leaving for England as fast as they could be released.

After that came the question of how big the Air Force was to be? Nehru had told me at my contract interview that in the first year so many crores, approximately twenty million pounds, was all that the country could afford. The financial experts at AHQ had to work out what that would mean in terms of pay, food, new aircraft, buildings, signals organisation, and supplies and spares. luckily, I had the experience under Lord Trenchard at the London Air Ministry in the twenties of watching him lay the foundations of the RAF and remembered his policy of "training and accommodation" first, followed by re-equipping squadrons or forming new ones later. I had a bit of luck in a hint an old friend, Sam Eisworthy, who was closing down the old RAF base at Karachi (in Pakistan). "Had I use for fifty new Spitfires in cases there?". I said put them on the first ship to Bornbay. They gave a great start to two squadrons and the Flying School.

In the building of the Air Force I had naturally to leave a lot to my two deputies, Mukerjee and Engineer. The details of appointments, promotions, recruiting and training of Officers and men I left to them entirely, except that they had to come to me to explain the qualifications and reason for the promotion to posts of Command, Squadron, Wings, Stations and Groups.

Click to Enlarge Air Marshal Thomas Elmhirst (Center) in discussions with Pandit Nehru. Air Vice Marshal Subroto Mukherjee is standing on the left.
Air Marshal Thomas Elmhirst and the staff of RIAF at the Air HQ. Click to Enlarge

Another thing, the first Kashmir war, regrettable in itself, but it certainly helped to get the Air Force into its stride. Sad as it was for the two new nations, for the Indian Air Force it gave an date objective. Pilots came under fire and had to fire their guns and rockets. Leadership or failure is itself regrettably as it all was in principle, in fact, nothing could have been better for the morale.

Besides the organising and control of the Indian Air Force, my primary job, I took on myself, in first few months of Independence, the secondary job of organising the control of the three services by Indian Government. I was the only Officer serving the Government, who had recent first hand knowledge of the successful war time 'set up' of the Committees that ruled the three British services in Whitehall the paper I prepared on the subject and offered to the Minister of Defence was welcomed by him an (Civil Servants and with few alterations was put into practice. In Whitehall a 'Board', 'Admirality', 'Air' etc, is the ruling head of each of the armed services, but in India the heads were the three Commanders-in-Chief who, under the Minister of Defence, were all powerful. When I say all powerful, they would not very far in building their services unless they had the backing of the Minister and his Permanent Secretary and Financial Secretary. Without the agreement of these three, the Chiefs could get no money! Within three or four months the new Committees were set up and functioning.

I left India in the spring of I950 and, on arrival in London received a telegram from the President appointing me an Honorary Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force for life, a great honour. I had enjoyed job both for the interest of the job and for the help it was giving to the new nation in its early years. Day after my return I reported to the Chief of the Air Staff in Whitehall, an old friend, Jack Slessor. He welcomed me, but said it was the end of my time in the Royal Air Force. I had 'lost my place' by being three years away in India and the rule in force then was "55 and out" if you had held a C-in-C's job. I had both qualifications! However, he said that my name would go to the 'Great and Good retired Officers' list, a further British Government job might come my way. Well, life is like that. But then I have no regrets.


About the Author:

Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst was born in December 1895 at Howden, Yorkshire, and was educated at the, Naval Colleges at Osbome and Dartmouth. He came to India in February 1947, as the Chief of Inter-Staff Administration at Armed Forces Headquarters in New Delhi, and when India became a Dominion, he was appointed Air Marshal Commanding Royal Indian Air Force from 15 August 1947. He laid down the office on 21 February 1950. This article is taken from the IAF Yearbook 1997 issued by Air Headquarters.

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