Senior Officer and Retirement - Wg Cdr C H L Digby - 5
- Category: Jets and Growth 1948-64
- Last Updated: Saturday, 28 March 2015 03:11
- Written by K S Nair
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Back to flying instruction, 1959.
Following an eminently successful period in command of a front-line squadron, Squadron Leader Cecil Digby returned to Hakimpet, where what was previously CTU had become the Jet Training Wing (JTW), the predecessor to the current Fighter Training Wing. He was now Chief Flying Instructor.
Towards the end of his tenure in Poona, the first of the Hunters had begun to arrive. MM Engineer had forbidden Digby to fly the Hunter, something he remains indignant about to this day. "It's an old Air Force tradition", he says. "You fly my aircraft, and I'll fly yours." However he did manage to fly the Hunter, towards the end of 1959, as the photographic evidence herewith attests.
While at JTW Digby formed and led an ad hoc four-aircraft aerobatic team, made up of senior instructors from the establishments based at Hakimpet. It may be noteworthy that the other three members of the team all went on to command Gnat squadrons later. The team was made up of.
Digby as leader; MM Singh (CO of No 4 Sqn in '65, of No 15 Sqn in '71, and later Air Marshal) as No 2; Sunandan "Gullu" (aka "Shoe") Roy (later Wing Commander, one of the IAF's early test pilots, and CO of No 24 Sqn in the early '70s) as No 3; and BS Sikand (who had, as previously mentioned, been a Flight Commander alongside Digby in No 10 Sqn, and was later CO of No 22 Sqn) as No 4.
Towards the end of 1960 Digby was reassigned as CFI of a unit called the Vampire Advanced Training Squadron, a specialist Vampire conversion unit. On 20 December 1960 Digby took this unit from Hakimpet to Jodhpur. Pupil training commenced with this unit on 14 January 1961.
Command and Staff, 1961 to '65.
Digby suffered a personal tragedy in Jodhpur, when he lost a son to gastro-enteritis while based there. His wife wanted to move away from the painful memory, so he requested, and received, a move on compassionate grounds. He was posted to Bangalore, initially to HQ Training Command, as Camp Commandant.
He was promoted to Wing Commander in 1961, and appointed the Director of the NCC for Mysore State, still based in Bangalore. Locky Loughran amplifies that pilots posted to NCC positions, in those days, were always QFIs; and that the Air Force used to make a special effort to place inspirational personalities into those roles, to attract youngsters into the service.
During the '62 conflict with China, Digby went as the Air Force Liaison Officer to XIV Corps, at the base of the Himalayas. Locky Loughran was instructing in Egypt at this time, together with Amrit Lal "BJ" Bajaj, another old flying buddy and comrade-in-arms from those days with whom a similar enduring relationship clearly still holds. The IAF asked for Loughran and Bajaj to be returned for emergency duty in India. The Egyptians did not release Loughran, but reluctantly released Bajaj. "As soon as the Chinese heard that BJ was coming, they sued for peace", Digby and Loughran say with a shared laugh; putting a good face, after all these years, on what was a grim time for the country.
After 1962 Digby was posted as OC Flying at Halwara. Gp Capt GK John (later AVM / Air Marshal??, and AOC-in-C Training Command) was the station commander. Again Digby will not make this point himself, but his tenure as OC Flying there probably contributed to Halwara's good performance during the '65 ops.
Around this time, Digby also added the Dassault Mystere IVA to his logbook.
From Halwara Digby was posted as CO Sarsawa. This is a relatively small station, but in c 1964 he also served briefly as Station Commander Pathankot, taking over from SR "Chico" Bose, who went to Palam. In mid-1964, Digby was selected to attend Staff College in Wellington. The Commandant was Major-General Som Dutt; and TS "Timky" Brar (later Air Marshal) was one of the DS at the time. Others on the course with Digby included "BJ" Bajaj (who went after the course to command No 20 Squadron), Navroze Lalkaka (who had been an instructor alongside him at Begumpet), SK "Polly" Mehra (later CAS), "Tony" Kotval (who had been with him in No 23 Sqn) and the Egyptian Wing Commander Shoukry.
Following Staff College, Digby was expecting a desk job - but went instead to command the C&R School, the school for Fighter Controllers, at Jodhpur. (The role of this establishment is now discharged by the Master Fighter Controllers' course at TACDE.) During the '65 war, Digby faked night-fighter runs over Jodhpur. These were high-speed passes after dark, intentionally visible to Pakistani radar, which it was hoped would convince them that we had night-fighters based at Jodhpur. One of the other pilots who carried out these passes was Madhavan Ambadi, who had previously served under Digby's command in No 23 Squadron.
The Pakistanis will almost certainly deny it, but Digby's deception tactics do seem to have had some effect. The PAF made few attacks on Jodhpur; and when they did they were not particularly effective. They climbed to height before the run-in, came in fast - "Too fast for proper target acquisition", Digby says professionally - and got out as quickly as they could. "They were scared", Digby declares, with the experienced, unsparing judgement of a man who has spent years on end making assessments of pupils' attitude, spirit, and courage, by watching the way they fly. No bombs ever fell on the runway at Jodhpur, though the airfield had an open, easy run-in, made even easier by the convenient turning-point offered by the massive, easily-visible dome of the Umaid Bhavan palace.
Shrapnel from a single 250-lb bomb did hit the CGI's office building, which had no real tactical significance; and one fragment buried itself in a bonedome that someone had left behind.
"Neither side had real night interception capability at the time", Digby says dismissively. The PAF had F-104s, but "Too few to make a difference." Civvy Street.
Wg Cdr Cecil Digby retired from the Indian Air Force in 1966.
After leaving the Air Force, Wg Cdr Digby served as a flying instructor at Jakkur Flying Club, near Bangalore, for a period of around a year, from 1966 to '67. Pupils who stand out in his memory include a German working for AEG, a former Luftwaffe cadet; an Englishman working for Dunlop; and an under-age Indian college girl. "I knew she was under-age", Digby says, shrugging. "But she was so keen, I took her on and taught her to fly." In 1967 he emigrated to the UK.
He held the British CFS instructor qualification, and an Indian CPL, and was hoping to find a flying job in the UK. But bureaucracy and other obstacles were placed in his way. And so, sadly, a man with nearly 3,500 hours of flying behind him, a man who had commanded a jet fighter squadron for India (in an era when not all European countries were operating jet fighters), and had held command in his time over several hundred men and dozens of modern aircraft, closed his flying log, and reverted to an uncharacteristically quiet 9-to-5 job in an office.
He worked for several years for one of the big UK High Street banks. The bank manager who interviewed and hired him (and later went out on a limb to protect him, during a crisis) was a former RAF officer. So his IAF experience did bring him a certain cachet, even in that wholly different environment.
Where is he now.
Wg Cdr Digby still lives in the UK. Now deservedly retired, at 78 years of age, he is still cheerfully able to walk down to a pub, to meet a pesky enthusiast such as your correspondent.
He carries discrete tokens, of his IAF past. When he came to meet me he was wearing an old baseball cap with a personalised silver badge, in the shape of a panther rampant above a stylised representation of the figure 23. For those who might not recognise the description, that is No 23 Squadron's old squadron badge. It was designed, as it happens, by his own former Flight Commander Locky Loughran, and the badge itself is one of a small number that Loughran had fabricated and distributed to squadron personnel in Poona.
Wing Commander Digby may live some distance away now, but when you talk to him there is no mistaking some of the things that shaped him: the country of his birth, and "the wonderful service to which I had the privilege to belong" (the words are his) for nearly 23 years. And among the hundreds of pilots who started their flying careers with the Indian Air Force between 1950 and the mid-1960s, there are at least a few dozen who learned, or improved, their flying at his hands. Not a bad claim to be able to make, at the pub or anywhere else.