Subroto Mukerjee

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Some men are born to greatness. Others carve their part to it. Subroto Mukerjee was one of the latter category who paved the way to his own tryst with destiny and laid the foundations of India’s Air Force in the process. The story of his life is one of determination, dedication and total commitment to the cause of the service that he guided from its inception till its transformation into the Air Arm of independent India. In the early 1930’s, when the British government in India could no longer ignore the growing demands of the Indian people for greater representation in the higher ranks of the defence services, it grudgingly began the process of ‘Indianisation’ of the services. As a result, the Indian Air Force (IAF) came into being on 08 October 1932.

Some men are born to greatness. Others carve their part to it. Subroto Mukerjee was one of the latter category who paved the way to his own tryst with destiny and laid the foundations of India’s Air Force in the process. The story of his life is one of determination, dedication and total commitment to the cause of the service that he guided from its inception till its transformation into the Air Arm of independent India. In the early 1930’s, when the British government in India could no longer ignore the growing demands of the Indian people for greater representation in the higher ranks of the defence services, it grudgingly began the process of ‘Indianisation’ of the services. As a result, the Indian Air Force (IAF) came into being on 08 October 1932.

While the older services were marked for partial Indianisation, the IAF became the first truly Indian service, as only Indians could be granted commission or enrolled in it’s ranks. In those early days, a career in the Air Force was an uncharted path for Indians, made all the more difficult by the prevailing discriminatory and obstructive mindset of the majority of the British in India who were extremely sceptical of the ability of the ‘natives’ to fly military aeroplanes. Subroto was one of the six Indians selected for training as pilots at the RAF College, Cranwell. The date of commission of this small pioneering band coincided with the date of formation of the Indian Air Force. Over the next twenty eight years, Subroto was to lead the fledgling service through it’s trials and tribulations, taking it from strength to strength, till it was ready to take it’s place amongst the leading Air Forces of the world.

Tragically, Subroto Mukerjee’s brilliant career was cut short in its prime in 1960. Yet, his legacy lives on, and forms the cornerstone of the hallowed traditions of the service whose very foundations he laid, and whose edifice he built in the early years of its history.

Family Background

Subroto Mukerjee was the youngest child of a close-knit and well known Bengali family. He was born on 5th March 1911, at 7 Ballygunje Circular Road, Calcutta, in the home of his maternal grandparents. His family background was exceptional.

Subroto’s paternal grandfather, Nibaran Chandra Mukherjee, was a pioneer in social and educational reforms in the country. He joined the Brahmo Samaj and was ostracised and left his ancestral home in Hoogly to settle down at Bhagalpur. His wife, Dinatarini Mukherjee was a simple, unassuming person well known to the poor for her quiet charities.

His maternal grandfather, Dr. PK Roy of the Indian Education Service, was the first Indian Principal of the Presidency College, Calcutta. His maternal grandmother, Sarola Roy, was a great educationist and social worker. She founded the Gokhale Memorial School. At a time when progressive ideas and cosmopolitanism were frowned upon, her home became the meeting place of eminent people from many parts of the country and abroad. She believed in breaking the prevailing narrow social conventions, and was really delighted when Subroto became engaged to Sharda, a girl from the well known pandit family of Bombay.

Subroto’s father, Shri SC Mukherjee had joined the Indian Civil Service in 1892. His outspoken nature and independent ways had a profound influence on Subroto. Subroto used to say that he was what he was, largely due to his father. His mother, Shrimati Charulata Mukherjee was one of the first women students of the Presidency College, Calcutta. An educationist and social worker, she had been associated with the All-India Women?s Conference since its inception.

Of the four siblings, two sisters and a brother, the eldest sister Renuka, became a well-known parliamentarian. His elder brother Prosanto was a Chairman of the Railway Board. Nita Sen was the youngest sister and Subroto was deeply attached to her. “And as the youngest you know”, his sister said,”he had to do all the odd jobs in the household. We never took him seriously and we never quite got used to his being the Air Marshal. To us he was always the youngest.”

However, the youngest also had his privileges of course. He had his own way of handling his mother?s purse without her knowing anything about it. Somehow he could always manage a little compensation for the cook who had been ticked off, for the servant who had been given the last chance. And every one loved him. He had the same concern for those he had not seen before. Many people used to come to his father for help and young Subroto saw to it that no servant turned them away. Often he would escort them himself.

Early Education

When Subroto was three months old his parents took him to England where they stayed for a year and a half. Later, his early childhood days were mostly spent in Krishnanagar and Chinsura where his father was posted on return from England. From his very early days Subroto had shown an aptitude for a military career – a trait which owed much to the exploits of his uncle, Indra Lal Roy, who had joined the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. Roy was the first Indian to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was later killed in action when his plane was shot down during a dogfight over enemy lines in 1918. In 1917 a tank came to Chinsura for publicity of the war effort and the six year old Subroto promptly turned up for his first “military” photograph.

Subroto had his early education at the Diocesan School and Loreto Convent Calcutta. In 1921 he went to England again with his parents and joined a school at Hampstead. After a year he came back to India as his father insisted that he should learn about his country first.

Subroto then joined the Howrah Zila School and took his Matriculation Examination in 1927. After a year at the Presidency College, he was sent to England ? the intention being a spell at Cambridge University as a prelude to a medical career.

Birth of an Air Force

It was at this time that the Government of India decided that a few Indians would be taken, for the first time, into the Air Force, and Subroto?s father sent him a copy of the press notification. Subroto jumped at the idea but his mother was not quite happy about it. Subroto however, was elated and was very confident. He would never have an air crash, he assured her. Years later Subroto was involved in a train accident and his worried mother received a telegram : ?Who says flying is dangerous?

In 1929 he wrote the London Matriculation and the Cranwell entrance examination almost simultaneously, and was ecstatic when he heard of his success in the Cranwell examination – a career he had been longing for. At the age of 18 he was one of the first six Indian boys selected to undergo two years of flying training at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. Subroto Mukherjee, HC Sirkar, AB Awan, Bhupendra Singh, Amarjeet Singh and JN Tandon were the six young men who embarked for England from India in 1930.

Apart from Subroto and Aspy Engineer, who followed them a few months later, none of them had ever been to England before, and the adventure before them was a hundred times more dramatic and momentous than the journey of any RAF cadet from his home in England to the Air Force at Cranwell.

These young men were embarking not only on a journey to a distant land, they were in fact laying the foundations of a new Air Force; which as yet existed on paper along, and which many believed would never materialise into reality.

The six Indian cadets were among the pick of Indian sportsmen, and soon made a name for themselves at Cranwell. Sirkar captained the hockey team in which Awan, Amarjit Singh and Mukerjee also played and Amarjit Singh also captained the tennis team. Subroto had finally made his tryst with destiny. As a cadet he told his mother ‘Thank God, I didn’t take up medicine.’ During his traning at Cranwell he often wrote to her.


My dearest Mother,

I wonder if I mentioned in my last letter that I started aerobatics about a fortnight ago. It is simply great fun to do loops and half-rolls in the air. Those are the two things I am practicing at present. I have still got to learn full rolls and inverted flying before I go on to service types of machines. I am getting on fairly well in my work. My exam comes off in the middle of next month and I have started revising for it. I do hope I get through it.

Yours Affly


24 June 1931

My dearest Mother,

I had rather a peculiar experience last week. I was sent up for my height test on Tuesday. You are sent up Solo and you have to get as high as you can. I managed to reach 17,200 ft. It was very very cold there but honestly mother I have never seen such a beautiful scene before. With all the clouds beside you just like an ocean. You could see patches of grounds through thin clouds. I stayed there for 10 minutes and then I came down. When I reached 2000 ft. I could not recognise anything and I was completely lost. Besides, this, my beastly watch had stopped and the petrol indicator was not working. So I was not sure how much petrol I had left. I flew round the countryside a bit and after sometime I spotted an aerodrome and I landed there. I rang up my Flight Commander and he came and fetched me back.

Yours Affly


11th December, 1931

My dear Mother,

I wonder if you could send some of our old books over as we have decided to make a library for the Indian Airmen, as they are not allowed to take books from the RAF Library.

Yours Affly


5 July 1933

On 08 October 1932, the six young Indian cadets received their commissions. Subroto Mukerjee, HC Sirkar, AB Awan, Bhupendra Singh and Amerjeet Singh were commissioned as pilots, while the sixth, ‘Tich’ Tandon, was commissioned into the Equipment Branch for no other fault but that his legs were too short to reach the rudder pedals of the aircraft. On that very day, the Indian Air Force Act was passed by the Indian Legislative Assembly, and the Indian Air Force came into being.

At the same time as the pilots were undergoing their training at Cranwell, twenty nine young men were recruited primarily from railway workshops in India and trained for a year as Apprentice Aircraft Hands, later called Hawai Sepoys, Twenty two of them qualified, and one amongst them who rose to be a legend in the IAF in his own right, was AVM Harjinder Singh, MBE. After completing their course of instruction at Cranwell, the Indian pilots passed through the Army Cooperation School at Old Sarum in Wiltshire. They then served a tenure with an RAF squadron before returning home to embark on the most momentous undertaking of their lives, the formation of the Indian Air Force.

Service conditions in the Air Force in the 1930’s for the Indian officers and men were quite hard. The freedom movement having gained considerable momentum, the young Indian officers and men, fired with the spirit of patriotism, looked forward to making the IAF an independent, efficient and a strong service. But they had to struggle hard for fifteen long years (1932-1947) to achieve the laudable objective they had set before them.

The Indian pilots and technicians were often discriminated against by many of the Royal Air Force personnel under whose direct control they had to function. They soon realised that they had to be twice as good as the RAF pilots, in order to prove their worth, and to be accepted.

In fact, certain elements in the RAF had tried their best to throttle the IAF in its very infancy by insinuating that the Indians were incapable of managing affairs on their own. This not only infuriated the Indian personnel, it further steeled their determination and goaded them on to greater efforts and sustained hard work, not only to keep the Air Force going, but to prove that they were no less, rather better than the British in every field. In the bargain they were often subjected to all kinds of humiliation and hardships. At the same time, it is worth recording that there were many amongst the British establishment who had the best interests of the fledgling IAF at heart. They laboured hard along with the Indian personnel to ensure that the IAF established itself as an independent service as soon as possible.

On 01 April 1933, ‘A’ Flight of the No 1 Squadron, Indian Air Force, was formed at Karachi. Subroto was among the five Indian pilots who made up the flight.

The flight was equipped with four Westland Wapiti biplanes, said to have been acquired by the Government at ?10 each. The Commanding Officer of the flight was Flt Lt CA Bouchier, DFC, of the RAF (later Air Vice Marshal Sir Cecil Bouchier KCBE, CB, DFC).

A hard task master, he had an excellent rapport with the Indian pilots and airmen.

A word about the Westland Wapiti or ‘Wop’ as the aircraft was popularly known. The Wapiti was inducted in No. 1 Squadron, IAF at Drigh Road, Karachi on 01 Apr 1933. It was the IAF?s first aircraft on which the pioneers were trained, and on which the IAF was built. It was put to a variety of tasks by the IAF including escort of convoys, anti-submarine patrols, recce, close air support, strafing and bombing

The Wapiti was a two-seat, multi-role biplane with a maximum speed of 225 kmph and a combat range of 580 kms. It was an antiquated aircraft at that time, and from its inception, our fliers had learnt to make up for the inadequacies by initiative, innovation and excellence. These qualities have created a tradition in the IAF and has paid handsome dividends whenever we have been called upon to stretch the performance graphs of men and machines.

Another interesting feature of the Wapitis was that the Observer/Air Gunner in the rear seat had to be secured to the floor of the aeroplane by a chain attached to the harness at the bottom. Yet there was always a fear that he might fall out off the open cockpit. The relatives of the young Indian pilots must have harboured some apprehensions about the airworthiness of these machines, as is apparent from the following letter:

My dearest Mother,

Father asked in his letter whether our machines were old and the engines bad. Please tell him all the machines both in the RAF and IAF are always kept in tip-top condition and it is very rarely that you hear of an engine failure.

Yours Affly


21st September 1933

Over the next six years, a number of young Indian officers graduated from Cranwell and joined the select band of No. 1 Squadron. They were Aspy Engineer, Karun Majumdar, Henry Runganathan, Narendra, Prithipal Singh, Mehar Singh, RHD Singh, SN Goyal and Arjan Singh. Of these, Aspy Engineer and Arjan Singh later rose to be the Chief of the Air Staff.

On 01 April 1936, a second Flight was formed and the first Flight moved to Peshawar, where, being attached to 20 Squadron, RAF, it gained experience of Frontier warfare. During the Waziristan operations of 1937 it was decided to send this Flight to Miranshah by way of an experiment. Subroto was one of the four Indian pilots that took part in the first ever-operational commitment of the IAF. The Flight did extremely well and earned a high reputation for the Indian Air Force. It was congratulated by the Air Officer Commanding in India for carrying out a record number of operational flying hours during September, October and November 1937. This superlative performance proved, not just the ability of the Indian pilots but also the competence of the ground crew, who kept the aircraft flying. This high standard of flying and maintenance has since become ingrained into the work ethos of the service.

SubrotoMukerjee and his able second, Aspy Engineer, both were men of vision and foresight. These two bold daring men, in 1936, ventured to introduce ‘Inter-Community Messes’ in the Air Force, where the Hawai Sepoys of all castes and creed sat and dined together ? something unthinkable in those days. Thereby they got over the formidable caste barrier and infused the spirit of integration into all ranks of the IAF. It was indeed a daring experiment as in case of failure, besides other repercussions and consequences, it would have resulted in outright dismissal for both these officers, of which they had been warned by the RAF. But on the contrary, the experiment proved to be a great success and these inter-communal messes became a living example of integration for all to follow.

Operations on the North West Frontier

In the autumn of 1936 a serious rebellion broke out in North Waziristan. The famous ‘Faqir of Ipi’ raised the standard of revolt against the government, and the Pukhtoon tribes of the North West Frontier responded in time honoured fashion. This entailed large-scale operations by the Army and the Air Force and at one time as many as 50,000 troops were engaged in this remote border uprising.

The Frontier District is a wild and mountainous country. Inhabited by the fiery Pathan tribes whose names have passed into history – the Wazirs, the Mahsuds and the Afridis – it covered the whole length of the Indo-Afghan frontier.

The tribesmen were a hardy lot, who unable to till the land in these arid mountains, subsisted by plundering and robbing the fertile valleys. To make things more difficult, they retired over the Frontier into Afghanistan after carrying out their raids in the valleys below. The task of maintaining law and order in these remote mountain ranges involved a vast expenditure of military energy before the advent of Air Power. By bombing the villages of hostile tribesmen, after a warning had been given, a step forward was taken in the pacification of this area. Now it was the turn of India?s own Air Force to shoulder the responsibility of policing this turbulent frontier and ensuring peace and prosperity for the peasants in the rich valleys. This was the first example of Air Power, being used for policing duties.

It was here that ‘A’ flight of the IAF gained its baptism by fire in the time honoured tradition of India’s North West Frontier.

On 1st October 1937, it flew into Miranshah – a fort situated deep in the valley of the Tochi River in the interior of Waziristan. The fort was surrounded by the ranges and precipices of Wazirstan. A single road connected it with Bannu and convoys bringing supplies and mail moved up this road twice a week under heavy escort.

It was unsafe to walk outside the walls in daytime for fear of sharp shooting Pathans, and even the aircraft were kept within the fort walls. When a flight took place, the doors of the fort were opened and the aircraft wheeled out on to the aerodrome. The aircraft took off, carried out their missions, landed and taxied into the protective walls of the outpost. Once again the aerodrome and the valley in which they were nestled were empty. At night it was not uncommon for bullets from Waziri snipers to ping against the roof of the barracks.

All flying crew were given protection certificates in Pushtu and Urdu informing captors that if the bearer was brought back safely after a forced landing or a crash they would be suitably rewarded. Flying conditions were difficult and landing and take off from aerodromes as high as 7000 feet was not easy in the rarified air.

At this time Flight Lieutenant Haynes, RAF, commanded the Flight and the four Indian Officers who went with him were Flying Officers Mukerjee, Awan, Engineer and Narendra.

‘A’ Flight flew hard and dug their teeth into their first operational work. In a month it was common for the four pilots to average 370 hours of flying, which in peacetime was then considered a good monthly average for a whole squadron. Led by Subroto, the senior-most Indian pilot, these four young men made an indelible mark on the collective mindset of the British military establishment, and forever silenced the critics and sceptics in the British ranks.

After that, the IAF grew at a slow but steady pace. By July 1938, No. 1 Squadron consisted of three Flights. The Flight Commanders were Flying Officers Mukerjee, Engineer and Majumdar. The outbreak of the second world war saw the formation of the Coastal Defence Flights (CDFs) of the Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve. While the CDFs took on the task of patrolling the Sea-Lanes and thousands of miles of India’s coastline, the responsibility of policing the North West Frontier increasingly passed to the regular Squadron of the Indian Air Force. In 1939, Subroto Mukerjee was promoted to Squadron Leader and took over command of No 1 Squadron, IAF.

In the course of the development of the IAF, Subroto was a man with innumerable ‘Firsts’ to his credit. He became the first Indian to command a Flight, a Squadron, a Station (Kohat), and finally, the Service itself.

On another occasion, he also had the unique distinction of being the first IAF pilot to carry out an airdrop over a beleaguered army picket. In the spring of 1941 the Faqir of Ipi again became active and the IAF renewed their acquaintance with this wild man of the mountains. Operations started quietly towards the end of 1940 when Subroto was in command of Miranshah. Except for a minor battle in the Tappi hill area, the big stuff was reserved for the coming spring.

On 7th August 1940, ‘B’ Flight of No 1 Squadron of IAF, based at Miranshah, was operating in the Daur valley in support of the land forces and in the face of intense and hostile ground fire. While on a sortie with Hawai Sepoy (later Wing Commander) Kartar Singh Taunque as his Air Gunner, Squadron Leader Subroto Mukerjee observed one of the army picquets being overwhelmed by hostiles. The besieged troops indicated that their ammunition was nearly exhausted. As he flew over the post, he realised their desperate plight. At once he instructed his air gunner to remove the spare ammunition from the magazine of the rear cockpit mounted Lewis machine gun. Then putting the ammunition in their stockings, they successfully dropped it to the troops in a low pass while the hostiles concentrated their fire on the aircraft.

The ammunition helped the troops to hold out till another aircraft came and dropped 800 more rounds of ammunition and saved the situation. This was Air Maintenance in its incipient form. More than that, it is indicative of the spirited response of our intrepid fliers to the kind of situations which had no copy-book solutions. Over 26 years later, the first Squadron Commander of No 1 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, Air Vice Marshal (then Flight Lieutenant) Sir Cecil Bouchier KCBE, CB, DFC, RAF, was to recall in September 1959 when he met the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee.

Subroto “…with my hand on my heart, I can say I do not think I ever put so much heart into, or tried so hard to make a success of anything throughout my whole service life as I strove to make a success of the Indian Air Force at its birth. Few people except perhaps Air Marshal Mukerjee, know of the battles I fought, and the midnight oil I burnt. However, the Indian Air Force is what it is today because of one thing only – the imagination, the courage, and the great loyalty of the first little pioneer band of Indian officers and men, for they were the salt of the earth; they have built up a great fighting Service, and I am proud to have been associated in this wonderful achievement, if only for a little while …”

By the time World War II started in 1939, Mukerjee was the senior-most officer in the IAF and as such the responsibility weighed heavily on him. He was known to be a good, sound and a steady pilot and was known not to take unnecessary risks in flying. He met with no accidents except for a forced landing when caught up in a fierce storm of long duration. For his participation in the North West Frontier operations in 1942, he was Mentioned-in-Despatches. He became the first Indian to take over an RAF Station, when he commanded RAF Station Kohat from August 1943 till December 1944. In June 1945 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (Military Division).

Subroto’s even natured temperament helped defuse tensions and avoid unnecessary confrontation. As the senior-most officer, he was ideally suited to act as a buffer between the Royal Air Force from whose control the IAF was trying to extricate itself, and the young Indian officers and men who often chafed at the manner in which some members of the RAF treated IAF personnel. He would mollify such situations and further strengthen their resolve to work for higher aims and greater achievements. He defused such volatile situations and infused the spirit of integration among all the ranks of the IAF. “Are we pilots risking our neck and self respect for the pay we get – or the airmen sweating it out for the petty pay of Rs 45 per month (that was the pay of Hawai Sepoys in 1930s) ? We must work for a cause, otherwise there will never be an Indian Air Force.”

His touching and inspiring talks always had the desired effect, goading officers and men to work with devotion. This role paid rich dividends in the long run.

Genuine Conviction

After long years of struggle, Indian Independence became a reality on the 15th of August 1947. However, freedom came at a cost and the partition of India into the dominions of India and Pakistan was part of the price that the people of the long-suffering sub-continent had to pay. Along with the Army and the Navy, the assets of the Indian Air Force were also divided between the two new countries.

A heavy burden of responsibility descended upon the shoulders of young officers like Subroto Mukerjee, who suddenly were faced with the enormous task of reconstruction in the face of the sudden vacuum created by the departure of the British.

However, to Subroto?s great credit, in all the decisions to be made, the interests of the country and the service were ever uppermost with him. When the Governor General, Lord Louis Mountbatten asked Mukerjee, the senior-most officer in the IAF, as to how long British officers should remain with the IAF, Mukerjee replied, ?For five to seven years?. Though this was a decision which delayed his own promotion by a good seven years ? it showed how genuine in conviction and action were the thoughts and deeds of the man.

Subroto MukerjeeThe first three Air Chiefs of independent India, Air Marshals Sir Thomas Elmhirst KBE, CB, AFC, Sir Ronald Ivelaw Chapman, KBE, CBE, DFC, AFC, and Sir Gerald Ernest Gibbs, KBE, CIE, MC, were from the RAF. The IAF was lucky to have as Chiefs of Air Staff, men of such calibre, integrity and experience. Sir Thomas Elmhirst guided the IAF through the stormy days of independence, partition and reconstruction. He made it abundantly clear at the very beginning, that as the Air Force of an independent country, the Indian Air Force was to be an independent service and not merely an adjunct of the Indian Army, as it had been during the days of the Raj. It fell to his lot to organise the truncated IAF into a viable fighting force. In this task he was ably assisted by Subroto who tried to utilise these years by gaining worthwhile experience in the appointment of Deputy Chief. He held this appointment under the two subsequent British Air Chiefs as well. In December 1952 he proceeded to England to undergo a course at the Imperial Defence College, London to further equip him to take over the top appointment.

On his return to India in 1954, Subroto took over as the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force on 01 April 1954, in the rank of Air Marshal, with the passing of the Change in Designation Act, 1955, the title of “Commander-in-Chief” was dropped, and from 01 April 1955, it came to be known as the “Chief of the Air Staff”.

The First Indian Air Chief

April 1st 1954 was a red-letter day in the history of Indian Air Force. On this day, the only surviving officer of the first batch of six Indian cadets trained at Royal Air Force Flying College, Cranwell, London, commissioned in 1932, Subroto Mukerjee took over the reins of Indian Air Force. It was also on this day that, with the departure of the third British Air Chief, Air Marshal Sir Gerald Gibbs, the last links of the IAF with the British Raj came to an end.

On this memorable day, while getting into the car to take the salute at Air Force Day, which also coincided with his taking over as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force, Subroto told his wife, ?Believe me Sharda, I don?t deserve all this at forty three, it is all God?s grace”. It was the finest prayer anyone could offer his Deity.

This unassuming, humble man took over as Commander-in-Chief of the IAF at a turning point in its history. On assumption of this high office Air Marshal Mukerjee brought with him the intimate understanding of the problems of the Air Force, with the full import of responsibility, having been with it since its inception in 1932. Having held all types of appointments from Pilot Officer to Air Marshal, he was fully equipped with abundant maturity and an incisive insight, of which he made full use in the six years that he was the Air Chief. Years later, Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, DFC, wrote of him in his memoirs.

“Imagination, improvisation, quick reaction were characteristic of him. Remarkably even tempered, he showed hardly any signs of stress even under the most trying circumstances, such as the partition riots in Delhi, the Kashmir fighting of 1947-48, the Hyderabad operations or working with a strong personality like Mr Krishna Menon as Defence Minister. Perhaps the only sign of stress was his incessant smoking ? and stubbing out the cigarettes after a few puffs. He smiled often and spontaneously.”

Subroto laid great stress on the welfare of the men and their families. His genuine understanding of human nature, his love for his men and his humane approach to their problems endeared him to one and all, whereby he came to be known as the ‘Father Figure’ in the Air Force. His deep concern for the officers and men could not have been portrayed better than in the words of Sharda Mukerjee, which she says “Every time one of his men was killed in a crash, Subroto felt that he lost a part of himself.”

Subroto Mukerjee had an able partner and the epitome of a perfect helpmate in his wife, Mrs Sharda Mukerjee nee Pandit. Mrs Mukerjee took a keen interest in welfare activities, and did her best for the families of men and officers. Air Chief Marshal Lal elaborated upon her role and contribution in the following words:

“Life in the Defence Services, and I speak specially of life in the Air Force, with which I am familiar, is not quite like civilian life. It is much more of a community life and the principle of synergetics works here. Two plus two is not just four but plus. A sense of belonging to a service, to a community contributes considerably to that intangible but important ?something? called morale and espirit de corps.”

Every effort has to be made, and is made, at each station for adequate housing. Education has to be provided to children at any cost. Medical care is most essential. Even entertainment has to be organised. And where there is sorrow, one had to stand beside the stricken, not merely for the moment, but for the future as well. Much of this is done officially.But a substantial contribution comes from the personality, the drive, the sensitivity, compassion and emotional involvement of the CO and his wife in making a station or command or cohesive unit, an extended family. The men who have to take risks when called upon to do so as part of their duty, can be expected to contribute more of themselves, be more purposeful, if they are confident that their families will be looked after. Mrs Sharda Mukerjee, petite, trim, pleasant, intelligent with a deep sense of self-discipline without being pompous about it, made a distinct contribution to service life. She set an example to follow, a tradition to live up to. And many an anonymous Air Force wife has done it.

Humane Approach

In keeping with his humane approach to every problem, he was averse to finding fault just for the sake of it. He did not believe much in overly formal inspections. He preferred to conduct those in an informal manner, with a view to helping the unit, rather than to find faults in the functioning.

In Bombay, once in the absence of the Station Commander, while inspecting a unit, Mukerjee sat in the Adjutant’s chair and went through the day’s mail. On finding a number of reports and returns being asked for by Air Headquarters, he enquired of the Adjutant if all those were relevant. On being told otherwise, he dictated a letter from there itself, asking his Staff at Air Headquarters to review the relevance of such returns and reports. He did not order these to be discontinued unilaterally; he was much too considerate in his dealings with his subordinates. His positive approach helped create an atmosphere of pleasant and relaxed efficiency.

The End of an Era

However, this idyllic phase in IAF history was too good to last long. Air India inaugurated its service to Tokyo by a proving flight in the first week of November 1960. Air Marshal Mukerjee and Air Commodore (later Air Chief Marshal) PC Lal went on this flight while on an official visit to Japan. It was a happy and comfortable journey. On reaching Tokyo on 08 November 1960, Air Marshal Mukerjee stayed in the city, while Air Commodore Lal went on a sightseeing trip to Mt. Fujiyama and Lake Hakone. Late on night, he received a message that struck him like a bolt from the blue “Air Marshal Mukerjee has passed away.” While having a meal with a friend of his, a senior officer in the Indian Navy, in a restaurant in Tokyo, a morsel stuck in the windpipe choking him to death. Before a doctor could be summoned, it was all over.

Thus ended a life full of hope and promise and a twenty eight year long career of dedication, devotion and loyalty to the service and to the country. With his death, the Indian Air Force lost one of its most illustrious officers. His untimely demise was something that the country or the service could ill-afford. The body was flown to Palam Airport on 09 November 1960 and on 10 November 1960 he was cremated with full military honours. His only son, Sanjeev, lit the pyre. A grateful service paid its tribute in the form of a fly-past of forty nine aircraft, one for each of his forty nine years. As each aircraft dipped its wings in a last salute to the ‘Father Figure’ of the Air Force there were many moist eyes among the gathered congregation. The honours and mourning were not merely a matter of protocol and form, they were conducted amidst genuine tears and sorrow. Subroto Mukerjee was the foremost pioneer of military aviation in India and because of his friendly, kindly disposition, he was loved and admired by many.

The second British Air Chief, Sir Ivelaw Chapman held Subroto Mukerjee in high esteem and paid his tribute on his death in the following words – “Subroto was not only my Deputy Chief of Air Staff, but for the whole time that I was in India, he was also my friend, adviser and confidante. Never could a Commander wish to be served more loyally or with greater efficiency by his second-in-command.”

The Funeral – 10 November 1960

A thick pall of gloom descended on the Air Force by his sudden demise. It was truly as if, along with him, an era had passed into history. His wife, the graceful Mrs Sharda Mukerjee bore this grievous loss with her characteristic dignity, grace and fortitude. Since then, Mrs Mukerjee entered politics and became a Member of Parliament and a distinguished Parliamentarian in her own right. Therefore, she held the office of Governor of different states both during the Congress and Janata rule.

The mentor of the Indian Air Force, Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee has passed into history, but he left behind the indelible imprint in the annals of the service, of a man to be emulated and remembered with respect and reverence.

Aspy Engineer, a close associate and a comrade-in-arms of Subroto, on assumption of command of the IAF as Air Marshal on 01 Dec 1960, issued a Special Order of the Day, paying a glowing tribute to this man of destiny.

Air Headquarters

New Delhi

01 Dec 1960

Special Order of the day

From Air Marshal AM Engineer to all ranks and civilian personnel of the Indian Air Force.

It is under very tragic circumstances that I am called upon to take over the duties of Chief of the Air Staff. As you know, our late Chief, Air Marshal Mukerjee, joined the service when it was formed and as such was associated with the growth of the IAF from its birth. With his unflinching devotion to the Indian Air Force and his hard work and able guidance, he ensured its emergence as the powerful force that it is today. Therefore, let us for all time remember him as the Father of the Indian Air Force and cherish his memories as such.

The task of building up of the IAF to its full stature is yet to be completed and the period of consolidation lies ahead of us and take this opportunity to call upon all ranks to carry out with the same zeal and devotion to duty. As a united force, we must march ahead without ever faltering and with the fullest confidence in our history I know I can rely upon each and everyone to do this.


Air Marshal




OBE (Military), India General Service Medal with clasps ‘North West Frontier 1936-37’, and ‘North West Frontier 1937-39’; 1939-1945 star; War Medal 1939-1945; India Service Medal; India Independence Medal; King George VI’s Coronation Medal; Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation Medal; Presented “Peoples Army 1st class”, and decorated on behalf of the President of Yugoslavia on the occasion of his visit to India in December 1954.

Awarded ‘Mentioned-in-Despatches’ in 1942 for service during the operations in Waziristan, NWFP.

Awarded an OBE in June 1945. Appointed Honorary ADC on the personal staff of H.E. the Governal General on 15-8-47 and then again from 21-6-48 to 21-1-50.





No. 5 New Delhi, Wednesday, November 9, 1960/ Kartika 18, 1882

Ministry of Defence


New Delhi, the 9th November, 1060

No E. 11 – The President has heard with the deepest regret of the sudden demise of Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, Chief of the Air Staff, Indian Air Force at Tokyo on the evening of Tuesday, the 8th November, 1960. By this untimely death, India has lost a most distinguished airman who devoted his whole life to the service of the country.

Air Marshal Mukerjee was born in Calcutta on March 5, 1911. After his early education in India, he went to the United Kingdom in 1929 for higher studies. Shortly after his arrival in the United Kingdom an announcement was made that for the first time Indians would be admitted into the Air Force. He sat for the competitive examination and was selected. He was one of the first Indians to be trained at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. In 1932 he was awarded his wings as a Pilot.

For about a year he served with an RAF Squadron in England. His association with the IAF began with the constitution of the first IAF Squadron on April 1, 1933, he became the first Indian Officer to command a Squadron. As Squadron Commander, Air Marshal Mukerjee took part in the Miranshah operations for which he was Mentioned-in-Despatches.

After graduating from the Staff College, Quetta, he held various Staff and Command appointments until he came to the Air Headquarters in 1944. In November 1947, he was appointed Deputy Chief of Air Staff, and was the first Indian to hold this post. Seven years later he assumed the high office of the Chief of Air Staff, and again was the first Indian to do so. In 1955 in addition he became Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee which position he held until the day of his death.

Air Marshal Mukerjee played a very import part in the building of the Indian Air Force from the very beginning. His deep knowledge and experience of operational and administrative matters were invaluable to the Defence Forces and the Indian Air Force in particular. Because of his understanding and human approach to problems he was greatly loved and respected by all who came in contact with him.

The Government of India mourns the loss of a very distinguished and conscientious officer and wish to place on record their appreciation of his exemplary devotion to duty. But his untimely death, the Services and the country have suffered a grievous loss.

To the bereaved family, Government offer their sincerest sympathy.




“… the late Air Marshal had distinguished himself as Chief of the Indian Air Force, for the progress that this young Service has made in recent years, much credit will be given to him and his inspiring leadership. His sad demise at this juncture has come to us all as a blow.”



“It is really a tragedy. It is exceedingly sad. We have been deeply shocked… He was a young man with years of career before him. We expected long years of good service from him.”



“… the Air Force has lost an experienced and courageous officer and leader; the country, a patriotic and devoted servant and citizen; and his colleagues, a loyal comrade and an understanding leader. Air Marshal Mukerjee has left his mark on his Service, which is a greater tribute than I or anyone can pay in words.”




Air Headquarters ‘In Memoriam’ Issue of the IAF Quarterly – Ist April 1961.

Air Chief Marshal PC Lal ‘My years with the IAF’ – Lancer International, Delhi . 1986.

Singh, Ranbir ‘In the footsteps of our legends’ – Book Mates Publishers, Noida. 1998.

Air Commodore AL Saigal ‘Birth of an Air Force’ – Palit & Palit Publishers, Delhi. 1977.


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