An account based on the personal recollections of Wing Commander Donald Michael (Retd) about his return from a mission during the 1947-48 Kashmir War in a Battle-damaged Tempest.
Fg Offr Donald Michael joined No.8 Squadron flying Tempest IIs in Sept 46, before going on to a coveted posting with No.4 Squadron which was at that time part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces at Miho in Japan. Don spent nearly an year with the Squadron, flying the Spitfire XIV with No.4. Towards the end of July 47, the squadron embarked on the troopship HMS Devonshire for the journey back to India. The members disembarked at Madras and then went by train to Kanpur.
Most of the officers with the Squadron held emergency commissions given during World War II. As peace was now at hand, their future was uncertain in the Air Force. Many of them had requested their release from service, as there were opportunities available with civil airlines in India.. The newly appointed RAF C-in-C of the Indian Air Force , Air Marshal TW Elmhirst flew down to Kanpur to dissuade the officers from leaving the Air Force. Don Michael was one of the officers who was convinced by the promise of a permanent commission and withdrew his application for early release. It would be another twenty years before Don would have to hang up his uniform in retirement.
At this time, Don Michael got his second posting again to No.8 Squadron RIAF in Jammu on the 3rd. Feb. ’48. The Squadron had just then moved in to the theatre for operations.
No.8 Squadron was led by Sqn Ldr PS Gill, a veteran from the No.1 Squadron’s first tour in Burma. He was a well-liked officer as he looked after the concerns of the squadron personnel quite well.
In Jammu, three RIAF Squadrons were actively engaged in operations against the Pakistani regular and irregular forces. No.7 Squadron was in action from November 47. It was joined later by Nos. 8 and 10 Sqns in December 1947. The Tempests were involved in repeated attacks and tactical recce missions over Naushera, Poonch, Rajouri, Jhangar and Handwara areas causing heavy damage to enemy strongholds. The strikes over vital enemy strongholds at Pilandri, Domel and Kishan Ganga bridge had effectively stopped the enemy troop movements and literally paralysed them.
|Pilots and men at Jammu airfield, Don Michael is sitting fourth from the left, Dr. Mukerjee is standing tallest on the top in the back row.|
|Pilots and airmen with a Tempest II at Jammu airfield during the operations|
All the three squadrons had about 8 Tempest IIs and 1 Harvard IIB-1 two-seater as unit establishment. The Official History records indicate that No.8 Squadron’s serviceability remained low due to shortage of engine spares. The massive Bristol Centaurus Mk V sleeve-valved radial symbolized the peak in the development of the piston engine, churning out a mind-blowing 2,520hp. They also needed intensive maintenance from the ground crews, and spares consumption was unusually high during the conflict.
The reason for the poor serviceability of the No.8 Squadron’s engines lay not far from the mission profile of No.8’s aircraft. Don Michael explains that the Tempests were only cleared to carry two 500lb bombs in the J and K sector while operating from Jammu airfield. In the mountainous region, this munitions load had little impact against the kind of targets the RIAF were attacking.
To better support the Army needs, the pilots decided to use 1000 lb. bombs for all their missions. Now with two 1000-pounders slung underneath the Tempests, the length of the runway at Jammu was barely enough. The pilots could just clear the far fence by a few feet and that too only if they didn’t use the filter.
Official rules recommended that filters be used during take off, because being sleeve-valved engines, the wear and tear of each take off on the Centaurus’ without the filter was horrendous. However, using the filter resulted in engine backfires and take offs having to be abandoned.
It was a situation that could not be avoided. If the Air Force wanted to give the close support the Army was requesting, then it necessitated aircraft carrying 1000-pounders taking off without engaging the engine filter.
The authorities warned the pilots that Tempests were burning out their engines too fast. Don Michael recalls that when a new C.O. took ever No.8 Squadron, he again reminded them of the issue of the pilots taking off without the filters.
The pilots assured the CO that they were taking off with filtered air. But the CO was having problems. Every time he tried to take off using the filter, he had to abandon take off because of a blow-back. This happened for a number of days, till he eventually took off and everyone knew without saying a word that he had got the message.
|Left: Terry Hookins (Intelligence Officer) Micky Blake and Walter Wamsley. Right: Doc Mukerjee, Curley Kirloskar and Donald Michael at Jammu circa 1948.|
No.8 Squadron got straight into operations on Tempests in the Punch, Uri, Zambur, Patan, Naushara, Jhangar, Sadabad, Philandri, Mirpur, Bhimbar, Tunnels in the Muzaffarabad Area, Chakoti, Rajouri, Kotli and in between areas.
In March, about a month after he joined No.8, Don flew Recce as well as close support missions. This involved about ten sorties over Naushera, Poonch, Rawalkot etc, some of them being close support, and some of them being recce.
It was during one such mission on 15th March 1948, that Don had a really close shave. He was flying Tempest PR-749 on a strike at Naushara and the surrounding area in Kashmir. This was his second strike over Naushera that day in the same aircraft and lasted about an hour and twenty minutes. Apparently during the strike his aircraft was hit by ground fire. Some of the bullets also hit his port tyre.
|Mar 15||Tempest||PR749||-SELF-||Naushara Air Strike (Ops)||1.20||Tyre shot up. CRASHED!!! Dug out of cockpit in four-minutes. Aircraft then went up in flames’|
Jammu airfield at that time had a grass strip with trenches dug on either side of the runway for covering the surface with tarred canvas. Don on his return, not realizing that the tyre was hit, touched down on the airfield. On contact with the canvas, the port tyre of the Tempest peeled off and the undercarriage went into the trench. The massive aircraft nosed over and kept on tumbling tail-over-nose five times, before coming to rest inverted!
The Tempest had broken into two just behind the cockpit, and Don was still trapped inside. Don had passed out during the crash and doesn’t remember what happened till he heard voices outside the cockpit. The voices were desperately calling out to get him out from under the aircraft.
|Tempest II PR-749 surrounded by Army personnel after overturning on landing at the Jammu airfield. The aircraft has broken up in two and the pilot Fg Offr Donald Michael is still trapped inside the aircraft.|
The voices belonged Desmond Pushong, a Transport pilot from No.12 Squadron, who was hacking away with a pickaxe around the cockpit. Pushong was joined by other pilots on the airfield, including Tom Anderson, Terry Hookins, John Dunbar Aquino and a few others who were trying to pull Don Michael out. Don recalls:
“A Tempest weighs seven tons, realizing they could not lift it before it blew up, Des Pushong and a few friends found pix axes and started to hack away around the cockpit asking me to keep my head to one side. Imagine being inverted, still strapped in, with a parachute and dark, I could only see a pickaxe missing my head by inches!”
As soon as Don was extricated out of the cockpit, his red scarf was mistaken for blood soaked cloth, by the MO, Doc. Mukherjee, who was convinced no one could have survived a landing like that. As it turned out, apart from being pretty sore from cartwheeling after impact, Don got away with just a few bruises.
The only person authorized to have a camera on the airfield was Flt. Lt. Sharma, the Met. Officer. He managed to get some pictures immediately after the crash. One showed the inverted aircraft with its shot-up left wheel surrounded by Army personnel from the engineering regiment who were trying to cover the runway surface between take offs and landings
Barely a few minutes after the crash, what with leaking fuel and live ammunition still on board, the aircraft caught fire and exploded. It was said that John Dunbar who was checking out the crash at the time moved so fast he left a trail of dust that took ages to settle! Sharma’s second picture of the day captured the explosion.
As a point of interest, the next day Wg. Cdr. Ranjan Dutt flew down from AHQ to see why the pilot should not be court-martialed for the accident! Evidently, quite a number of Tempests were being written-off in those days in bad landings. The Tempest had a nasty tendency to swing during takeoff and landing and required a considerable amount of skill and attention from the pilot. More often than not, failure to correct the swing would result in great stress on the undercarriage and pressure on wheels resulting in tyre bursts. This was usually followed by the Tempest swinging on the ground to one side and overturning, writing itself off in the process.
Fortunately for Don, the tyre on his aircraft clearly had a bullet hole in it. Plus about 20 bullet holes were counted in what remained of the fuselage. In light of the evidence, Ranjan dropped the idea of the court martial and congratulated Don on surviving. Operations resumed as usual.
Don Michael had been a flying instructor from the latter part of 1948 till retiring in 1967. From Tiger Moths, through Spitfires, Vampires, Hunters he had spent a lot of his time teaching combat flying. He trained pilots of the Army and Navy and pilots for the Nigerian and Afghan Air Force at our Indian Air Force schools, Hakimpet, Jodhpur and Bidar. He was also the Officer in Charge of Flying at Palam and ran Exercise “Shiksha” to evaluate our air defences. During the ’65 conflict with Pakistan, he was involved in directing operations Air Defence at Ambala.
In Canada since 1969, he has remained with flying instruction, including 10 years as chief ground instructor with Toronto Airways at Buttonville Airport, north of Toronto. He also conducted flight tests and issues pilot licenses on all types of single and multi-engine aircraft on behalf of Transport Canada. He has written a couple of flying instruction manuals. Don is probably one of the last ex-IAF pilots of his vintage still at the controls! In 2003, he discovered through checking his logbook, that a Liberator, donated to the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa by then-CAS, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, was the very aircraft he had flown back in 1957 in Poona…but that’s another story.