The 122nd Pilot Attack Instructor Course in UK

My first visit to England in 1953 was a very major event in my life. I have some good memories and some not quite up to the mark. The three of us (all Flying Officers) were Anil K Munim (51-52 PIC), Johnny William Greene (55 PIC) with me in the middle (53 PIC). We had to go by ship, as we were considered too junior to be entitled to air travel. This gave us a wonderful holiday on P&O’s ship Strathmore for 17 days with a halt on July 14 at Marseilles on France’s (national) Bastille Day.

On disembarking at Tilbury Docks of London, we discovered that we were three weeks early - not for the PAI Course but for a single engine refresher course even though we had been flying Vampires at the time. All three of us had done well at ATW during our Squadrons’ visits there for armament training. At London’s Paddington station I went to buy my ticket to Cirencester, which housed the flying school with Harvards in West England. I asked for a ticket to “Sirenster” as I thought that would be its pronunciation. The booking clerk said, “You mean Siren-cess-ter, Sir”. I immediately replied that if it was near “Lie-cess-ter” or “Glou-cess-ter”, yes that was the place I meant. The clerk smiled and said that we the English do this just to confuse visitors! Cirencester was located in very pretty countryside in the Cotswolds with the Thames just wide enough to hop across with the help of a vaulting pole. Anju Bobby George would probably have done a minor long jump to get to the other side.

The fun came when we started flying. This was on Harvards with the intention to get us back to single engine flying. All went well and we got white instrument ratings on the Harvard. On what became my last flight there, the QFI asked me to do a roll to the left. It was pretty good. Then he asked me to do one to the right. This one was a bit of a mess. He asked me to do it again. I had lost my patience. I told him to do it himself. He took over controls and whistled us down for landing. Within a few minutes I was facing the CO, Sqn Ldr Honeyman. He asked me what was wrong and why I had rebelled against the instructor. I explained to him that we were simply wasting our time there and the course at Leconfield in Yorkshire was about to begin in two days. Besides I told him that we had come straight from Vampire Squadrons and it had only been about six or seven weeks since our last flying in fighter jets. He asked for my logbook and decided that I was right to complain. The next day we left for Leconfield north of Hull in Yorkshire.

On arrival, the first flight was on a two-seater Meteor with a QFI who cleared us for flying Meteors and Vampires in just one sortie each. He also gave us white instrument ratings on jets. The ratings on Harvards were quite worthless. The flying at Cirencester was the clever idea of the deputy air advisor at our High Commission, and was a compete waste of time and money.

The first evening at Leconfield had a prominent event. Johnny went to the bar to have cold drink – he never drank alcohol while we were there and probably hardly any ever since. The Chief Ground Instructor (CGI) Sqn Ldr Shaw (nick named Artie after the band leader) was having a beer in the bar. On seeing Johnny he welcomed him and commented with a very superior air that the Indians had a very tough course ahead of them. The eternally patient and mild-mannered Johnny must have seen red. He retorted that the Central Gunnery School could examine us the next day and that all of us would pass with credit. Johnny also said that the three of us had been briefed to come first second and third.

To cut the story short, Johnny came first, I was second and Anil Munim fifth. After completion of the course, Johnny went up to the CGI and told him that when we got back to India we would fix Munim for dropping two places.

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Members of the 122nd Pilot Attack Instructors Course.  The three Indian Pilots who attended, Kapil Bhargava, Johnny Greene and Anil Munim,  are standing in the top row to the right. The famous 'Ginger' Lacey, Battle of Britain Ace is seated in the front row, fourth from left.

Our Chief Instructor at Leconfield was Sqn Ldr Bob Doe, Battle of Britain hero. He never failed to remind me that he was Indian Air Force's first commander of No. 10 Squadron. The last time I saw him was at Booker (Bomber Command HQ) in the bar as a Wg Cdr. Recently (earlier this year) he inaugurated a bookshop for aviation books. I sent him an email reminding him of our course. Two IAF retired officers living in the UK, Ian Loughran and Wg Cdr Digby, carried it to him. Bob got so excited that all the book signing etc was forgotten. He kept saying that he loved India and Indians and that we had made his day etc. He is now 83 or 84.

When I saw him in Booker, the other person with him was Johnny Johnson, another WW II hero. He was one of our instructors at the test pilots school. Unfortunately I never got a chance to ask him about his wartime feats. He passed away recently. The station commander of Leconfield was Gp Capt Tubby Mermagen who had a lot do with getting Hurricanes and Spits up in the air in time to intercept German fighters and bombers on their raids during Battle of Britain in 1940.

Ginger Lacey with 26 confirmed kills was a co-student. But he did not fare very well at it. The idea was to get him a qualification as a PAI. With it, he became an instructor at Leconfield for the course after ours. Ginger Lacy was the very first pilot to fire a rocket from a Spitfire. His gun-camera films of kills shown to us were quite frightening. He used to get so close to his target that its wings filled the entire windscreen. When he fired his guns debris used to fly past all around his aircraft. It made us duck just watching his shooting. These were our seniors about whom one reads in history books.

My most horrifying moment was on Remembrance Day (November 11, 1953) at Leconfield. We had a parade with us foreign students relegated as supernumeraries to the back of the dais of Gp Capt Mermagen. The shock came when after the march in review order, the Church of England (Protestant) priest was to read the Lord’s Prayer. The officer commanding the parade asked Roman Catholics and Jews to fall out! We three Indians were aghast and glanced at each other surreptitiously. It was just not done in our air force or any other Indian service.

People now-a-days talk in a very derogatory manner about our caste system. But I was in the St Andrews High School Gorakhpur for three years. All students recited the Lord’s Prayer at every morning assembly without a single person of any religion or caste raising a voice against it. We also studied the New Testament in English and Hindi without corrupting our own faiths. I still think that this falling out on thye basis of religion was just madness. Right now France and to an extent Britain are having lots of trouble accepting the Muslim code of dress or other practices. This encourages fundamentalists to be even more awkward and run off to the courts. You will note that our amorphous faith Hinduism is not as rabid. I attended this year’s (2005) Remembrance Day at Bangalore’s famous St Mark’s Cathedral. And I had no problem with it, though I could not keep up with some of the hymns.

Well, I had better stop to let you take a deep breath before I launch into any of my next 18 visits to England. There was a bit of fun when I wrote my course report to send to India. It clearly mentioned the snafu with the flying on Harvards and the waste of money involved. The deputy air advisor pleaded with me to omit it as the report would have first gone to the Ministry of External Affairs and other concerned Ministries, including Finance and Defence before it reached Air Hq.

I agreed to do this on the condition that the next course would not follow the same route. But it was not to be. Mally Wollen (49-50 PIC) and Hari Bhagat (51-52 PIC) still did the flying on Harvards before being let off to go to Leconfield.

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