Panther Boss - Wg Cdr C H L Digby - 4
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Squadron Command, 1957
With plenty of flying time behind him, and having endured lengthy delays before his promotion to Squadron Leader, Cecil Digby was considered to have "paid his dues". He received the command of a squadron again in 1957, No 23 Squadron at Poona. And this time there were no ifs and buts about it; it was a mainstream CO position, in a squadron working up to a mainstream fighter role. He was still only in his early thirties.
Flight Lieutenant Ian S "Locky" Loughran was one of his flight commanders, and the sometimes tricky relationship between Flight Commander and Squadron Commander, on this occasion, has clearly endured - 45 years later, the two men are sharing anecdotes over a beer, wearing identical broad grins (though Locky still adds an occasional "sir" when he addresses Digby). SK Dahar, later CO of the gutsy, ill-starred 45/220 composite Squadron during the 1965 war, was another officer to serve as a Flight Commander under Digby (and is remembered by both Digby and Loughran with the highest regard), as was "Murgi" Sinha (later Air Marshal??).
No 23 Squadron was a new Vampire squadron, forming at Poona. The CO of No 17 Squadron ("Baba" Katre, later CAS), also Vampire-equipped and based alongside No 23 at Poona, was "minding" them, pending the appointment of their own CO. The pilots were mostly youngsters from JTW - "Good material", Digby recalls with evident satisfaction.
Digby clearly relishes his memories of squadron command - a highly demanding but potentially happy episode in any Air Force career.
Command is a double-edged thing. It brings with it many of the trappings that set a service career apart - a jeep or car with a small flag, a CO's pennant, a definite position in the local protocol hierarchy, a lasting place in the record books. But command also brings with it a heavy load of inescapable, buck-stopping responsibility, and the need to live with consequences that are not always of one's own making. Many fine Air Force careers have been wrecked by a single mishap during a command tenure, and the mental and psychological strains of bearing those responsibilities often leave long-lasting effects on personality (and even on health). Digby does not talk about any of the downsides, and seems to remember his tenure of command as an essentially happy period. In a real tribute to him, some of the men he commanded recall it equally happily.
His pilots included: at least two who went on to air rank later (Click here to see the Photographs of all the members of No.23 Squadron ); "Pappe" Bhasin, whom families based at Poona during that period remember as having a special party trick on Sundays, doing an enthusiastic hula with a hula hoop, his hair sometimes coming loose and flying in circles; Iype Kovoor, remembered by his contemporaries as a spirited flyer and straight-talking individual, who was to receive one of the few decorations recognising success during the '62 ops; VS "Pat" Pathania, who (by then flying Gnats, but still with No 23) was to shoot down a Pakistani F-86 Sabre during the '65 war - in fact, the first to be downed in Indian territory; RK "Uppi" Uppal and TK "Chau" Chaudhuri, who were to go down in action during that war, "Chotu" Bakhle, later Group Captain and Station Commander Pathankot; Madhavan Ambadi, later Air Commodore, who was to fly the An-12 that Indira Gandhi's ashes were scattered from, after her cremation.
The squadron spent its time working up, practising formation flying, gunnery, air combat and deployment. There was plenty of flying, the pilots would fly around the Dighe Hills, across the Western Ghats, and frequently fly out to sea. They were made to exercise sea-survival skills, and tested by being dropped out at sea in a survival raft, and left for periods of up to a day.
|23 Squadron above ATC Poona||Sea survival - exam time! Photo taken "Somewhere in the Arabian Sea", 1958|
In 1957 the squadron deployed, together with No 17, on an exercise to Khambalia?? The runway at Poona was under repair, so both 17 and 23 Squadrons were detached to this airfield and operated from there for a period.
|Pilots of 17 and 23 Sqns on deployment. The officer in dark overalls, standing 2nd from right, is Sqn Ldr LM "Baba" Katre, then CO 17 Sqn and later CAS|
During Ex AKASH, 1958
Another of the exercises the squadron was involved in was Exercise AKASH, in 1958. The squadron was required to operate as though under wartime conditions, so with great glee all personnel donned old WW2 "tin hat" type helmets, and posed comically for photos wearing them.
During his period of command, Digby once led an entire wing of Vampires, in a massed formation, from Poona to Jodhpur.
Also during Digby's period in command, an aircraft of his squadron was lost in the sea. The formation leader was held responsible, and there were those who wanted to throw the book at him. Probably with memories of his own Vampire canopy-loss incident from a few years previously in mind, Digby defended the formation leader to the authorities, as David Bouche had once defended him. (And you thought "Pay it forward" was just a Hollywood film?).
Digby's training was clearly effective; by the time he was through with them many of the squadron's pilots, even relatively inexperienced ones, were able to hold their own in ACM exercises against far more experienced pilots, even some with formal FCL qualifications. He and Locky tell in particular of Pilot Officer TAK "Tommy" Taylor, and Flying Officer KA "Hari" Hariharan, both of whom went up on different occasions for ACM exercises with an experienced FCL. Tommy Taylor got onto the FCL's tail and hung in there, bringing back an 8-second film sequence showing the FCL's aircraft squarely in the middle to prove it. On the occasion when Hariharan went up for the same purpose, listeners heard the FCL call over the R/T, after a few moments' mock combat, "Lost contact." Whereupon Hariharan, known for his crisp, clipped R/T, came on the air: "On your tail!"
As squadron crest and badge enthusiasts know, No 23 Squadron called itself the Panthers. The Maharaja of Patiala (and/or his son by a Belgian wife, Rajinder "Ralph" Singh) presented a panther skin to the squadron. Locky Loughran organised a collection of around Rs 2,500/-, through donations from the squadron and from HH the Maharaja, and had the panther stuffed and mounted in a rampant pose, similar to that on the squadron badge. For many years this panther greeted visitors to the Mess.
|23 Sqn during Ex AKASH. Back row, L-R: "Bader" Badia, VS Paul, "Yul" Sharma, Ahluwalia, Boss Digger, Ahuja, M Ambadi, TK Chaudhuri, "Locky" Loughran. Front row, L-R: "Pat" Pathania, "Chotu" Bakhle, KA Hariharan, "Honky" Mukhoty.|
It wasn't all work and no play. An officer who was a young pilot under Digby's command at this time, and retired a few years ago holding air rank and a decoration for distinguished service, has his own recollections of this period. Grey-haired and eminently respectable now, he recalls with a twinkle that he and his contemporaries used to regularly get into various kinds of scrapes, as fire-eating young bloods out on the town in Poona.
Equally regularly, Digby used to get them off the hook with MM Engineer, by then Station Commander Poona, by appealing to their shared memories of Japan: "We used to go out every evening, to the RSI or somewhere, have a few drinks, have fun, maybe get into a brawl. On Monday morning we'd be up on the carpet in front of Engineer. He'd call Digby, very angry, 'Digger, see, your boys are in front of me again, what am I to do with them?' Digby would say, 'Sir, they're young, they have to let off steam, remember we used to do the same in Japan?' And then Engineer would shout, 'Get them outta here, hurry up, I don't want to see them here any more!!' And the next Monday, sure as clockwork, we'd be up in front of him again!"
It was while Digby was still in command that No 23 Squadron was promised conversion to Gnats, by Air Vice-Marshal Ranjan Dutt. Folland/HAL Gnats were at the time one of the hottest types, among the new generation of fighter types being inducted into the Indian Air Force, together with Hawker Hunters. Digby doesn't say this himself, but another veteran from the period says quite explicitly that the selection of No 23 as the lead squadron for conversion to Gnats was clearly a reward, for a spell of effective command and good results.
A number of the earliest pilots selected and sent for conversion to Gnats, even before they began arriving in squadron service, were drawn from No 23 Squadron, including JN Jatar (later Air Commodore). However the conversion didn't actually occur until after Digby had handed over command to his successor. (Meanwhile No 17 Squadron next door had also been selected as one of the two lead squadrons for conversion to Hunters.) Squadron Leader S "Rags" Raghavendran, who had just returned to India from a Fighter Combat Leader course in the UK, took over command of No 23 Squadron from Digby in 1959. At the time No 23 held no fewer than four trophies from gunnery meets, including for both air-to-air as well as for shallow dive work.
When Digby left the squadron, the squadron personnel put together an album which included some spectacular photographs taken during his period in command (some of which are included herewith), inscribed "To Boss Digger", and personalised with some wonderfully whimsical little cartoons illustrating life under Digby's command, drawn by Locky Loughran.
|Last Flypast - Done by 23 Sqn for their departing CO, on the day that Sqn Ldr Digby relinquished command.||Vampires of 23 Sqn over the West coast||Vampires of 23 Sqn over the Western Ghats|
Says Loughran 45 years later of Digby, when he was out of earshot: "Damned good squadron commander. Like Katre, he didn't try to do everything himself - he delegated, he was constantly building you up that way." This is one of the most sincere tributes an officer can make to a former CO - particularly when it is about 40 years too late to make a difference to anyone's ACR!
Five years later, during the 1965 war, No 23 Squadron turned in a superb performance. Commanded by Wing Commander S Raghavendran, it clearly justified its position as the lead Gnat squadron. It posted the first Sabre kills of the war, and four of its pilots received Vir Chakras.