No. 6 Squadron - The First Five Years
- Category: The Royal Indian Air Force in the Second World War
- Last Updated: Thursday, 26 March 2015 00:22
- Written by K S Nair
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No 6 Squadron is one of the oldest squadrons of the Indian Air Force, being one of the nine squadrons raised before or during World War Two. Of those pioneering nine, it is probably the one that has had the most varied history, and has assumed the widest range of roles.
The squadron was first raised on Hawker Hurricane IIb single-seaters, to fill the fighter-reconnaissance role, during the Second World War. It converted briefly to the Supermarine Spitfire XIVe after the end of the War. It then changed, just before Independence, to a multi-engine role, that of tactical transport support, and re-equipped briefly with Douglas Dakotas. After being stood down for a period, because of the organisational and logistics disruptions following Partition, it went on to serve in niche Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) and Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) roles, and also in transport support, during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. For much of that period, it flew Consolidated B-24 Liberators, one of the oldest types in the IAF’s inventory, and carved out a unique historic position for itself, as the last mainstream operator of this type anywhere in the world. It also operated converted Lockheed L1049 Super Constellations, at the time the heaviest aircraft operated by the Indian armed forces. When the Indian Navy assumed responsibility for the MR and ASR roles, No 6 Squadron reverted to a combat role, assuming responsibility for Maritime Strike with English Electric Canberra B12s in the 1970s, and for a period also operating Canberra TT418s in the target-towing role. The squadron returned to flying single-seaters when one flight converted to the Sepecat Jaguar IM in 1987, the other following in 1992.
But the preliminary chapters in this varied record were written, like those of so many RAF and Allied fighter squadrons, flying Hurricanes in action during World War Two. This is the story of that period.
Formation and Raising
A premonition about the raising of No 6 Squadron may have been read into a signal from Air Headquarters India Command, dated 11 November 1942. This signal announced that the Coast Defence Flights (CDFs) were to be disbanded on 30 November 1942, and that the IAF Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR) personnel of the CDFs were being posted to form new IAF squadrons equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and Vultee Vengeances. Royal Air Force (RAF) and Fleet Air Arm units were taking over the Coast Defence role; expansion of the IAF role in the Burma campaign had been agreed; and a programme of raising, re-equipping and training new IAF units was being undertaken towards that end.
The Battle Order for India Command at the time shows five IAFVR CDFs equipped with a variety of aircraft. They included in particular No 1 CDF at Madras, equipped with Armstrong-Whitworth AW15 Atalantas (which had been pressed into service from civilian use) and Hawker Harts, and No 2 CDF at Bombay, equipped with Harts and Westland Wapitis. It was the personnel of these two flights, mainly IAF Volunteer Reservists, who were to form the nucleus of No 6 Squadron.
No 6 Squadron formed at Trichinopoly (now Tiruchirapalli) on 1st December 1942 under the command of the redoubtable Squadron-Leader (later Air Commodore) Mehar Singh, with pilots absorbed from the two CDFs. Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh, one of the legends of the IAF, was a larger-than-life figure even in his own time. He was a spirited flier and aggressive leader, and by sheer force of personality appears to have inspired a very high level of effectiveness in his command.
Training, initially at Risalpur, was no picnic. The squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft, of the FR.IIb variant, and designated a fighter-reconnaissance unit. The Hurricane, with its monoplane design, retractable undercarriage and variable-pitch propeller, was the first aircraft with any claim to modernity that the fledgling IAF was being trusted with, after nearly a decade of flying wood-and-fabric biplanes. And the reconnaissance role demanded extra low flying, with eyes out of the cockpit. The RAF historian Air Commodore Henry Probert described the requirements of No 6 Squadron’s tactical reconnaissance (Tac/R) role as follows:
“Operating usually in pairs, they flew at about 50 ft in open country and 100-150 ft over the jungle, heights at which they could achieve surprise and actually see something; as the pilots gained experience they learnt how to look into the jungle rather than at it, and when opportunity offered they would use their weapons.”
Wing Commander Hoshang K “Pat” Patel (Retd), a veteran of Hurricane operations with No 6 Squadron in World War Two, adds,
“It was really tough for pilots flying Hurricanes for the first time on training recce flights. They were instructed to fly not higher than 50 ft agl, and while manoeuvering the aircraft at this low altitude (equivalent to a five-storey building, approx), they were expected to keep jotting down anything they saw (vehicles, troop movements, civilian vehicles etc) on their knee-pads.”
Training pilots from a VR background, many of whom would have cut their flying teeth as weekend fliers at flying clubs, followed by relatively sedate coastal patrol routines, to fly Hurricanes to these demands, cannot have been easy. Between January and February 1943 at least three pilots of the squadron (Pilot Officers MS Belekar, Kartar Singh and M Jayachandraraj) lost their lives in flying accidents.
On completion of initial operating training, the squadron began an intensive period of exercises and working-up. During this period the squadron, or detachments, frequently deployed across the length and breadth of the country. On one such occasion, in March 1943, fifteen aircraft led by the Squadron Commander took off for a ferry flight from Allahabad to Bhopal. Out of this number six aircraft of ‘B’ Flight lost their way and force-landed at Boira. It must have been an inglorious moment, and worse still, Flying Officer BR Sanjana lost his life.
But the squadron clearly pulled itself together. It participated honourably the following month in a major review and flying display at Ambala, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Indian Air Force. The Official History says it won “the first prize for the best looking aircraft” at this event – presumably an award for turn-out. This would have taken some considerable work from the groundcrew, as the squadron’s aircraft would not have been new. (Most of the Hurricanes that the IAF was then receiving were second-hand – “clapped-out”, is the inelegant description the squadron’s technical tradesmen would have used – machines that had already put in some service in the Middle East.) Whatever the case, the squadron was clearly putting the unfortunate events of March behind them.
From April to November 1943, the squadron continued intensive working-up. In April 1943 a detachment participated in an army co-operation exercise in Nagpur. In May, the entire squadron underwent an army co-operation course at the Infantry School at Saugor, including specialised training in Allied and Japanese armour recognition. Following the course, the squadron left for Cholavaram on 3 June, and carried out a number of army co-operation exercises in that vicinity in June and July. Exercise FOG took place at Ramanathapuram from mid June to early July. Messages were received after conclusion from AOC HQ 225 Group and HQ 173 Wing praising the efficiency, enthusiasm and excellent maintenance of aircraft of the participating detachment. Another detachment went to Secunderabad for exercises with 44 Armoured Division through most of July. In the first week of August the squadron moved back to Trichinopoly. A detachment at Ulanderpet, under Flight-Lieutenant Hassan, one of the Flight Commanders, took part in Exercise TRUMP that month. On 3 September the squadron deployed to Kalyan where two months were spent in further intensive training. Sadly two more pilots, Flying Officers MM Hussain and Bashir Ahmed, were lost during this period. The squadron sent two detachments for army co-operation exercises at Kolhapur in October and at the beginning of November.
Operations in Burma
On 3 November 1943, just two days after the establishment of South East Asia Command (SEAC) on 1st November 1943 at Delhi with Admiral Lord (later Admiral of the Fleet Earl) Louis Mountbatten as the Supreme Allied Commander, the squadron received orders to move to Cox’s Bazar (now in Bangladesh). The advance party left on the 17th and the rest of the squadron followed by the 24th. No 6 Squadron’s first operational deployment had begun.
The context into which they flew was the Second Arakan Campaign, one of the largest operations in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre in the 1943-44 campaigning season. The Arakan is a coastal area of Burma, bordering, and stretching southwards from, Cox’s Bazaar in the south-eastern corner of what is now Bangladesh. It is separated from the plains of central Burma by parallel ranges of hills known as the Arakan Yoma. Rivers, including the Kaladan and the Kalapanzin (which later becomes the Mayu) flow through the valleys between these ranges. Towards the southern end of the Arakan are the port of Akyab and the island of Ramree, regarded as key to the re-conquest of coastal Burma.
Key objectives along the way were the smaller port of Maungdaw (now Mongdauk), at the estuary of the Naf River, and the small town of Buthidaung, at roughly the same line of latitude but further inland, on the banks of the Kalapanzin River. Between them was a Japanese stronghold area known as “the Tunnels”, because it included one of the few East-West roads in the area, passing through two tunnels in the mountain ranges between Maungdaw and Buthidaung. The objective of the Second Arakan Campaign was to retake the Maungdaw-Buthidaung area and prepare for the possible recapture of Akyab, as steps towards the eventual reconquest of Burma. This was very difficult jungle and swamp terrain, and largely unmapped till then. Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Christison’s XV Corps1, part of General Sir William (later Field Marshal Lord) Slim’s Fourteenth Army, was to launch southward from Chittagong. The plan was for 5th Indian Division to advance down the coast, 7th Indian Division down the Kalapanzin Valley, and for 81st (West African) Division down their eastern flank in the Kaladan Valley – innovatively for the time, relying for supplies totally on air-drops. As the terrain was so inadequately mapped, these three bodies of troops, advancing along three broadly parallel but separate axes, would be relying for direction almost entirely on photo mosaics produced by supporting Air Force reconnaissance aircraft.
|Mehar Singh with Air Vice Marshal Pearse during a visit to the front lines.|
Supporting XV Corps from the air was Air Commodore A Gray’s 224 Group, part of the Third Tactical Air Force (TAF) commanded by Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin. This Group at the time comprised:
Three RAF fighter squadrons equipped with Spitfires (this campaign marked the first time Spitfires were being used in South-East Asia);
Six fighter-bomber squadrons with Hurricanes (mainly IIc variants);
A single tactical reconnaissance squadron (No 6 Squadron, IAF)2, equipped with the Hurricane IIb; and
Two light bomber squadrons (one of which was No 8 Squadron, IAF, commanded by Squadron-Leader Niranjan Prasad), equipped with Vultee Vengeances.
These units were initially based in the Chittagong, Comilla and Agartala areas, from where they supported the initial stages of XV Corps’ advance.
No 6 Squadron’s Hurricane Mk IIbs had been specially modified for the fighter-reconnaissance role, by fitting each with a two-camera mounting. They began operations with a tactical reconnaissance sortie on 30 November 1943, on which Flying Officers GCS Babra and Jagjit Singh, flying BG852 and BE291, surprised a party of some 150 Japanese troops near Indin, south of Buthidaung. Six Hurricanes of the squadron later joined in a strafing attack on this enemy force. It was an auspicious beginning to the squadron’s tour.
In remembering No 6 Squadron’s record, it is important to recognise that they were not a fighter (in the sense of an interceptor) squadron. Much as we would like to read about Battle of Britain-style dogfights over the Arakan, No 6’s success is not to be measured by the number of aircraft they shot down. Their role was reconnaissance – indeed, they were the only specialist reconnaissance unit in 224 Group. The role and employment of reconnaissance squadrons had been defined earlier through Operational Directive No 9, issued by Air HQ India in July 1943. This Directive stated in part,
“There appears to be an impression that these are fighter squadrons used for reconnaissance. In fact, they are Tactical Recce squadrons forming part of a Tactical Air Force”
and added that although
“it was decided that the squadrons should be equipped with fighter types so that they could carry out their tasks where there was enemy air opposition … this did not imply any change in the role of the squadrons. It is no part of the duty of Tac/R pilots to become involved in air fighting. They have received special training in military subjects and in co-operation with ground forces and are not, therefore, interchangeable with fighter pilots.”
The squadron continued its assigned work throughout December, flying in the approved fighter-reconnaissance tactical pairing of Leader and Weaver. In a sign of things to come, by the end of the month they had completed over 350 hours of operational flying, in less than 25 days. The work included tactical reconnaissance, message dropping, technical reconnaissance and strafing. The squadron operated in the Arakan area covering Maungdaw-Razabil-Indin area on the coast, Buthidaung-Rathedaung area in the Mayu valley and Daletme-Paletwa-Kaladan area in the Kaladan valley. As planned, their primary duty was to carry out reconnaissance ahead of three separately-advancing bodies of troops – in the Kaladan Valley and on the east and west sides of the Mayu range. In each case, they would fly ahead of the troops, photograph the areas the troops were advancing into, return to base to have their films developed, and then fly back over the troops to drop the processed photos to them. But there were certainly opportunities to fire their guns, and sometimes on interesting targets – on 12 December a Japanese river-steamer was attacked near Buthidaung.
No 6 Squadron was also tasked with artillery observation in the initial stages of the campaign, but in early 1944 the Taylorcraft Austers of 656 (Air Observation Post) Squadron, flown by army pilots, arrived to take over that role.
|A Recce Hurricane skims in low over the River Irrawady's Maya Bridge during a Photo-Ops mission.|
The aircraft of No 6 Squadron, out in pairs, soon became a familiar daily sight for XV Corps and its constituent formations. It is said that each of the ground formations had its own nickname for them: the 5th Division called them “the Maungdaw Twins”, while the 7th called them “the Buthidaung Twins”. The West Africans in the Kaladan Valley had yet another name for them – “The Kaladan Twins”. XV Corps itself called them “the Arakan Twins”. In recognition of its role, the squadron came to be referred to as the “Eyes of the Fourteenth Army”3. Its aircraft were often to be seen up and down the embattled Arakan Valley, passing low over trees or appearing round a bend in the road, not much higher than the road-bound traffic! The pilots must have revelled in the opportunities for low flying, and no doubt this experience contributed to the IAF’s ingrained tactical preference, retained many years into the future, for staying low.
Initially the going was relatively easy, and on 9 December XV Corps occupied Maungdaw, one of the campaign objectives. They then wheeled left and pressed inland towards Buthidaung, the other. By the end of December they faced the enemy’s main defensive position, their ‘Golden Fortress’ on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road.
By the New Year, January 1944, No 6 Squadron, still engaged in photographic and tactical reconnaissance from Cox’s Bazar, had begun to take casualties. Flying Officer G Daniel had been lost in December 1943. On New Year’s Day the squadron lost Flying Officer P Reporter 1].
On 15 January 1944 Flying Officer Bhullar, flying Hurricane HL881, was shot down during a PR sortie to Razabil and Buthidaung. On this occasion, happily, Bhullar escaped the crash and made it back to the squadron. Unfortunately on 27 January he was shot down again, and this time he was captured by the Japanese. He survived captivity, and returned to the IAF after the War.
General Slim, GOC Fourteenth Army, makes a point of saying how impressed he was with the work of an IAF reconnaissance squadron during this period. In mid-January, he spent several days visiting the Arakan Front, and spent an evening with No 6 Squadron. In his memoirs, he noted that Japanese fighter-bombers were coming over in formations of up to a hundred at the time, and wrote this frequently-quoted tribute to an IAF reconnaissance unit:
“Our Spitfires, much inferior in numbers, fairly laced into the Zeros and began most effectively to knock them out of the sky. While these whirlwind dogfights streaked about high in the clear air, our reconnaissance Hurricanes kept up their steady patrols. I was impressed by the conduct of a reconnaissance squadron of the Indian Air Force. Flying in pairs, the Indian pilots in their outmoded Hurricanes, went out, time and again, in the face of overwhelming enemy fighter superiority. I looked in on the squadron just at a time when news had come in that the last patrol had run into a bunch of Zeros and been shot down. The Sikh squadron leader, an old friend of mine, at once took out the next patrol himself and completed the mission. His methods, rumour had it, were a little unorthodox. It was said that if any of his young officers made a bad landing he would take them behind a basha and beat them. Whatever he did, it was effective; they were a happy, efficient and very gallant squadron.”
He does not explicitly identify the IAF squadron he is referring to, but most historians seem to believe it is No 6.2]
By the end of January most of 224 Group’s squadrons were able to move forward to fair weather airstrips, from where they could operate at shorter range to support XV Corps’ advances. In particular on 4 February No 6 Squadron moved south to Ratnap Strip, at the head of the Naf Peninsula. The airstrip had been constructed under the supervision of Flying Officer (later Air Commodore) JD Aquino, one of the squadron’s pilots.
A major Allied offensive had been planned for 4 February, but on 1 February the Japanese pre-empted this with a counter-attack of their own, launching their first drive of the season towards India, Operation ‘Ha-Go’. This counter-attack was intended to destroy the two divisions facing them, to capture Chittagong and so embroil Fourteenth Army’s reserves in Bengal that they would be unable to assist on the Central Front when another major Japanese offensive (the better-known ‘March on Delhi’) opened on that front a month later. General Slim had actually been alerted to the likelihood of a Japanese counter-attack in the Arakan by increased enemy air operations, reported in part by No 6 Squadron.
Almost the whole strength of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF)’s 5th Hiko Shidan (Air Division) was committed to provide air support for ‘Ha-Go’ from 3 February. At this stage of the campaign, the Allies did not have air superiority, and the reconnaissance Hurricanes were particularly vulnerable. Standing instructions on Tac/R and PR missions were to avoid air combat, as it was considered more important to bring back films or tactical information than to shoot down enemy aircraft. But No 6 Squadron’s mission profiles, particularly when taking the swathes of pictures required for photo mosaics, demanded straight, predictable flight-paths, which were vulnerable to lurking enemies.
In any case the Hurricane could not match its main fighter adversary in the theatre, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Allied code name Oscar, the IJAAF equivalent of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi Zero), in climb or manoeuvrability. In addition, according to the aviation historian Geoffrey Thomas, IJAAF aircrew in the theatre were “probably … the most combat experienced aircrew in the world, many having served on operations since the start of the war against China in the early 1930s.” No 6 Squadron was up against some very capable adversaries and, like other reconnaissance squadrons during World War 2, paid a heavy price for the valuable information they collected.
Particularly during the early stages of the ‘Ha-Go’ offensive, engaged as it was in constant support to Fourteenth Army, the Squadron suffered more than its share of casualties. On 4 February, the very day the squadron moved to Ratnap, Pilot Officer MF Gracious, on a tactical sortie over Taung Bazar, was shot down by enemy fighters, and killed.
On 7 February the squadron located anti-aircraft gun positions in Buthidaung area, which were strafed later by Spitfires. The next day, 8 February, twelve Oscars were reported over the squadron’s area of operations, but were driven off by Spitfires. The respite, alas, was only temporary: later in the day a four-aircraft formation from the squadron was bounced by Oscars over Taung Bazar. Flying Officers JC De Lima and D Ranga Reddy, the second pair in the formation, flying AP892 and BG868, were both shot down. (There is an unconfirmed suggestion from one of the other pilots on the same mission that Fg Off Reddy may have shot down one of the Japanese fighters before he was shot down himself.) 28 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight was hurriedly moved to Ratnap in support the following day, but returned to Imphal a week later.
|The members of No.6 Squadron meet for a 'chai' break after a sortie. From L to R: Flt Lt M S Pujji DFC, Fg Offr H K Patel, Unk, 'Doctor', Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh DSO, Fg Offr Bhattacharjea , Fg Offr E D Masillamani, Fg Offr L R D Blunt, Flt Lt J D Acquino, Fg Offr Aziz Khan.|
On another, happier occasion, Flying Officer (later Group Captain) ED “Massi” Massilamani located a well-camouflaged Japanese forward headquarters from the smoke of their cooking fires. There is also an account of a pilot of No 6 Squadron saving Allied troops from walking into a Japanese ambush. While out on a reconnaissance over the Taung Bazar area, the pilot observed Allied troops approaching a grove of trees where he had a short while earlier noticed a body of Japanese soldiers. The Allied troops were unaware of the presence of hostile troops in the vicinity and were carrying their arms at the slope. There were “guns tight” conditions (restrictions on shooting) in force in this area, as it was very close to Allied positions. The pilot flew over to 7th Indian Division headquarters and dropped a message asking for permission to shoot. Without waiting for permission, he flew back to the spot and, risking court-martial for disobedience of standing orders, opened fire on the enemy troops. About ten Japanese were killed and the approaching Allied troops were alerted, and saved from ambush.
On 15 February another of No 6 Squadron’s Tac/Rs was intercepted by Japanese fighters, leading to an epic combat. Flying Officer (later Air Commodore??) JC Verma as Leader and Pilot Officer Bhattacharjea as Weaver were flying an offensive reconnaissance over Taung Bazar. Finding a force of over 200 Japanese trying to build a bridge, they pulled up to attack. As Fg Off Verma, the Leader, was about to roll in, he saw a Japanese fighter diving towards his Weaver. His operations report reads:
“I broke off the attack, at the same time warning my No 2. I gave the attacking Oscar a burst but on looking around found two other Oscars diving on me.
“I skidded, slipped and went as low as I possibly could and steered north, but they followed me on and on without giving me a chance to cross the hills on the left to get home. I had now been chased for five minutes. During the chase, I was pulling up, skidding, and doing steep turns to avoid the Oscars but they kept pursuing me relentlessly. Finally I flew straight and throttled back completely. Both Oscars, coming on at great speed, overshot me and one came right within my gunsight at about 20 yards. I gave a long burst and noticed direct hits on the wings and fuselage. The Oscars rolled away. But I had no time to see any more of him since the other Oscar was turning in for me. The chase carried on for another ten minutes.”
Plt Off Bhattacharjea, in HW428, was shot down, but Fg Off Verma made it home. He knew he had at least damaged one of the enemy fighters, during his unequal fifteen-minute running battle at low-level among the trees; he had seen pieces flying off his adversary’s wing as he fired. A few days later Army observers confirmed that the Japanese fighter had indeed been seen to crash. Recent correspondence with a Japanese historian suggests that Verma’s victim may have been Corporal Tsuneo Nabeta of the 204th Sentai. (It is hard to be certain, because the records of most IJAAF units in the theatre were destroyed later in the War.)
Fg Off Verma was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for this victory. More than twenty IAF aircrew received DFCs during the Second World War, but Verma’s was the first since the First World War for a confirmed victory in air combat.
|Flying Officer Jagdish Chandra Verma being awarded the DFC by Air Vice Marshal Taylor. Verma was the only IAF pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in aircombat. He shot down a Japanese Nakajima fighter 'Oscar' while flying a Hawker Hurricane with No.6 Squadron.|
If Geoffrey Thomas’ records are accurate, Fg Off Verma was on this sortie flying BG852. This was the very same aircraft flown by Fg Off Babra during the squadron’s first sortie of its tour, which resulted in the spotting of a Japanese troop concentration – clearly a lucky aircraft!
Wg Cdr Patel, who helped to debrief Fg Off Verma that day, recalls that Plt Off Bhattacharjea was found in the wreckage of his crashed Hurricane by a patrol from an Indian Army forward unit, so badly injured and burnt that he was not expected to live. The Army unit commander built a kutcha airstrip, from which a small air ambulance aircraft evacuated him, hovering on the edge of a coma, to a larger airfield (possibly Ramu; see footnote below). From there he was evacuated further to the rear by an RAF Dakota4. The Dakota was itself bounced by IJAAF Oscars as it headed rearwards, and Plt Off Bhattacharjea came to briefly just as the aircraft was jinking to evade its attackers – it must have seemed like a continuing nightmare to him! Mercifully, he lapsed back into unconsciousness almost immediately. The Dakota did escape, and Plt Off Bhattacharjea was placed in intensive care in the Military Hospital at Jorhat. He did not recover for a long period, measured in months, but amazingly did survive, although he did not fly again.
The tide turns
During this crucial period, the Japanese Ha-Go offensive made some gains, and the Allies were under extreme pressure. The Japanese succeeded in encircling a large part of 7th Indian Division for a period, during which the Division was sustained entirely by supplies dropped from the air, courtesy RAF and USAAF Dakotas. 26th Indian Division was brought up in support, and 5th Indian Division outflanked the Japanese by making a landing from the sea. There were continuous demands for tactical reconnaissance and close air support throughout this period. No 6 Squadron responded well to the pressure, some pilots flying up to six or seven sorties in a day. In the first fortnight of February the squadron flew 193 sorties. While reconnaissance for the purpose of ascertaining Japanese movements and locating their gun positions was the main task, the pilots also attacked Japanese rivercraft and troops whenever sighted. They destroyed many Japanese boats in the Hthitwe, Buthiduang, Kyauktaw, Kwazon and Rathedaung areas and accounted for a number of enemy soldiers.
On one occasion during this period, Flight Lieutenant (later Air Marshal) Shivdev Singh, one of the Flight Commanders, and Fg Off Verma were on a ground-attack sortie when Flt Lt Shivdev Singh’s aircraft was damaged by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Flt Lt Shivdev Singh nursed the aircraft to an emergency landing strip nearby and put it down safely, only to find that fighting at almost hand-to-hand quarters was swirling around the strip, and Japanese troops already held one end. Fg Off Verma strafed the Japanese and helped the Allied troops on the ground to silence them, but it was not certain how long the strip would remain clear. He returned to base where, alerted by radio, the CO Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh was waiting for him in the cockpit of a North American T-6 Harvard “hack” aircraft. Fg Off Verma climbed into the second seat of the Harvard, and he and Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh took off, escorted by four of the squadron’s Hurricanes. With Fg Off Verma as his guide, Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh found the emergency strip, and landed the Harvard alongide Flt Lt Shivdev Singh’s damaged Hurricane. Having determined that there was no way to carry out long-term repairs to the Hurricane where it was, quick temporary fixes were effected, including to a huge hole in the leading edge of the port wing by stuffing it with “gunny (jute) sacks and bed-sheets” , while the escort Hurricanes continued circling protectively overhead. Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh then sent Flt Lt Shivdev Singh and Fg Off Verma back in the Harvard, and flew the Hurricane himself, temporarily patched-up, out of the emergency strip and back to base, still covered by the four escorting Hurricanes. He must have handled the aircraft especially gently, on this flight!
Throughout this period the IJAAF remained active, and unescorted flying by Hurricanes remained fraught with danger. The IJAAF mounted daily sweeps “by fifty or more aircraft” to intercept the Hurricanes and Vengeances of the RAF and IAF on close-support duties. The slower Hurricane, once spotted, had little chance of escape from the faster and more manoeuvrable Japanese fighters. As recounted above, between 4 and 16 February alone the squadron lost four pilots and five aircraft to hostile action. By contrast, Hurricane units flying from Imphal and Kohima, on the Central Burma front around the same time, saw “scarcely ever a sign of enemy aircraft”.
But in the face of all these threats the squadron remained fully effective. Despite their regular exposure to enemy action, and although conditions were primitive and uncomfortable in the extreme, from the accounts of veterans who served at the time, it would seem that morale remained sky-high. The personnel were young and high-spirited, and livened the dangers and difficulties of their existence with competitions and pranks. Their stories, recounted with animation by veterans, speak volumes about their continuing high morale.
One anecdote recounted by Wing Commander Murkot Ramunny (Retd), another veteran of the squadron from that period, tells of one of the CO’s particular contributions to squadron morale. During the mango season, Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh authorised a flight back from Delhi by the hack Harvard to divert, and collect a load of mangoes for the squadron from an orchard owned by a relative. (You have to have lived in India, to understand what access to fresh mangoes in the mango season can mean, to men in an inaccessible forward area!)
In March Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He remains the only IAF officer to have received this decoration, regarded as recognising effective leadership as much as personal bravery. Both Air Marshal Baldwin, AOC Third TAF, as well as Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander SEAC, visited the squadron during this period, and one of them (it is not certain which – sources differ on this detail) personally invested Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh with the decoration.
|Baba Mehar Singh showing a photo mosaic compiled by No.6 Squadron to the visiting AOC , Air Marshal Baldwin.|
No 6 Squadron completed its 1,000th operational mission in the Arakan on 1 May 1944. 1,350 flying hours had been logged in this period. The squadron asserts, with particular relish, that it wore out its airstrip as a result of the sheer intensity of its operations, such that engineers had to be called in to repair it, while they operated temporarily from an alternative strip. They did in fact set the record for the monthly average of sorties flown per pilot in the Third TAF. Flight-Lieutenant (later Squadron-Leader) MS Pujji, another of the Flight Commanders, logged 61 operational flying hours in one month.3]
When the monsoon rains began in May there was little reduction in Allied air activity despite increasingly hazardous weather conditions. Continuing air operations during the monsoon was one of the innovations of Third TAF – previously, air operations had come to a complete halt, for the duration of the monsoon. This year, as the Japanese air strength diminished (partly because of the monsoon; partly because of the unsustainable lengthening of Japanese supply lines; and partly because of their own re-deployments), operations by Third TAF continued and increased in scale. At last, a measure of virtual air superiority had been achieved.
The Hurricanes of No 6 Squadron IAF continued flying regular tactical reconnaissance sorties, by now over the “Tunnels”, the Japanese stronghold area between Buthidaung and Maungdaw. They continued to do so until XV Corps withdrew from Buthidaung, to hold a line from Taung Bazaar to Maungdaw, there to ‘sit out’ the monsoon period.
On 31 May, No 6 Squadron flew its last operational sorties of the season. It withdrew from the Burma front on 6 June. Its duties were taken over by No 4 Squadron, Indian Air Force, fresh from the gruelling armament practice course at Amarda Road. No 4 Squadron was to be commanded by Sqn Ldr MS Pujji, who had been a Flight Commander with No 6.
During its first operational tour, No 6 Squadron had delivered a sterling performance. Using equipment acknowledged to be outmoded, the squadron had nevertheless turned up unrivalled results by most measures – flying hours, sorties, availability, photographic prints produced. The Squadron received numerous messages of gratitude and congratulation from the units with which it had co-operated. Lieutenant-General FW Messervy, GOC IV Corps and previously GOC 7th Indian Division, sent thanks for support given against the Japanese in Tara Ga area, particularly on 30 March when air action helped to complete the rout of the Japanese. Major-General Lomax, GOC 26th Indian Division, sent a message in appreciation of the effective air support given by the squadron in the Htinshabyin area. Another message came from Brigadier Peirse and tank detachments expressing their gratitude for support especially fighter and photographic reconnaissance which materially assisted tank victories and reduced casualties. The squadron’s photographic section turned out an average of 16,000 prints a month, the highest total produced in one day being 1,500 prints.
Flight Commanders during the squadron’s tour, besides Flt Lts Hassan, Pujji and Shivdev Singh who have already been mentioned, included Flight-Lieutenant Nazirullah Khan. Interestingly, from among the officers who served with the squadron in Burma, both Fg Off Verma and Fg Off Aquino were to command the squadron in later years.
On 9 June, coinciding with the end of the squadron’s tour of operations, Flight-Lieutenant Rawal Singh was awarded the MBE. In addition, Sergeant BM Kothari, the NCO in charge of the photo unit, received the BEM, and Fg Offr Aquino and Pilot Officer (later Group Captain) LRD “Creamy” Blunt (later the first CO of the IAF’s Flying Instructors’ School) were commended by the then AOC.
Return to the Frontier
At the beginning of June 1944 No 6 Squadron was withdrawn from operations on the Burma front, the advance party leaving on the 6th and the air party on the 11th. By 29 June the entire squadron had reached Risalpur. The squadron stayed there till the middle of August when it moved to Kohat. On 19 September ‘B’ Flight of the squadron went as a detachment to Miranshah. Kohat and Miranshah were not quite peacetime locations, as Watch-and-Ward and Air Control duties had to be flown in the face of occasional hostile fire from Frontier tribesmen.
On Christmas Day that year the squadron acquired a new Commanding Officer, Squadron-Leader (later Captain) JM Engineer5. Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh, DSO, was promoted to Wing Commander and posted to Air Headquarters. He had left an impression such as few unit commanders ever have the opportunity to.
On 13 January 1945, sadly, two pilots of the squadron, Flying Officer Ishwar Dass and Flying Officer Jagjit Singh, both of whom had been temporarily attached to the IAF Display Flight, died in a mid-air collision.
In March 1945 the Indian Air Force was re-titled the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF), in recognition of its contributions to the war effort. No 6 Squadron had contributed in no small measure to the body of effort which had earned this mark of recognition for the IAF.
Until May 1945 a detachment of No 6 Squadron remained stationed at Miranshah for operations. The rest of the squadron stayed on at Kohat, carrying out normal flying training including navigation, artillery reconnaissance, formation flying, technical reconnaissance, aerobatics, air to ground firing, photo reconnaissance, and message dropping.
The post-war period
At the end of the War in the CBI Theatre, all the fighter/ground attack and fighter-reconnaissance squadrons of the RIAF returned to India. Their Hurricanes were replaced by Spitfire Mk VIIIs, most of these being transferred from RAF fighter squadrons which were themselves either receiving Spitfire Mk XIV aircraft, or winding down. No 6 Squadron, then still based at Kohat, was preparing for ‘Air Control’ duties on the North-West Frontier and No 7 Squadron was awaiting re-equipment at Lahore. These two units received their first Spitfire FR.XIVs in November 1945. By early 1946, No 6 Squadron was fully equipped with the FR.XIVe for its fighter-reconnaissance role, and had in addition received two Spitfire PR.XIs in April for PR purposes. The other RIAF squadrons were re-equipped with Spitfires of Marks VIII and XIV for the fighter role.
Through 1946 and early 1947 the Squadron worked up with its Spitfire Mk XIVes. To those familiar with early-War period Spitfire variants and their graceful elliptical wings, the Mk XIV, which had a five-bladed prop, low-backed fuselage, teardrop canopy, and squared-off wingtips, was barely recognisable as a Spitfire. But its 2,300 hp Griffon engine (which had nearly twice the rating of the Merlin engines of early Mark Spitfires) gave it significantly more power and better performance, and that must have been welcome.
However, in April 1947, the squadron was moved from Ranchi to Karachi. The intention was to re-equip with Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft, and to assume a completely new role, that of tactical transport support.
The squadron never had the opportunity to settle into this new role. On Partition, No 6 Squadron was one of the three RIAF squadrons allocated to Pakistan. With most of the squadron’s Dakotas, its infrastructure at Karachi, and most other squadron assets having gone to Pakistan, it was deemed sensible to merge those of its personnel who had opted for India with those of No 12 Squadron RIAF, as that unit was more experienced, if only marginally, in the transport role. After distinguished service in the first five years of its existence, No 6 Squadron RIAF was temporarily number-plated.
It was to re-form a few years later, in January 1951 at Poona (now Pune), as a B-24 Liberator squadron with Maritime Reconnaissance and Air Sea Rescue as its new role – but that, as they say, is a whole new story!
1 One account, from another veteran of the squadron, suggests that Fg Offr Reporter was lost in a piece of bravado: attempting to fly along a river so low as to leave an observable wake on its surface – recalling an incident in the British novel Piece of Cake, about a Hurricane squadron in France. Whatever the official position on such flying, this driving need to measure oneself against challenge was an essential element of the spirit of a front-line squadron.
2 In fairness, it should be added that some veterans of No 6 dispute some details of this story!
3 For comparison, among RAF Hurricane pilots in the same theatre, 40 hours in a month was regarded as an achievement.
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