Squadron Service and Instructional Duties – Wg Cdr C H L Digby – 3

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Back in India, 1947-’49:

Digby’s and No 4 Squadron’s return to India, following service with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, coincided with Independence and Partition in 1947. On their arrival back in India, some of the squadron’s personnel left, having opted for Pakistan. Many of those who chose to remain with India considered leaving the service at that time – most of them were still on wartime Short Service Commissions. However, the new Indian government refused to release them – the Kashmir conflict had started, and there was work for the Indian Air Force.

Between August and October 1947 the squadron reassembled at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), and in November 1947 moved to Delhi. They had started to convert to Hawker Tempest IIs. Hrushikesh Moolgavkar, later CAS, had to do the conversion checks for everyone – there were still no formally-trained instructors even for type conversion.

The Tempest was initially a popular type, with the RIAF – it had a roomy cockpit and powerful armament. “With well-harmonised guns, you could see your targets collapsing!” Before the squadron converted, however, four or five pilots including Digby were sent on an Air Traffic Controllers’ course, under Mehar Singh. “I had a helluva lot of admiration for him”, Digby says. Digby was then sent to Agra for a year, in 1948, as Air Traffic Control Officer.

On finishing his ATC tenure, Digby seriously considered moving to transports. No 12 Squadron, the IAF’s lead transport unit, was based at Agra at this time, and he had put in some hours with them. A number of other experienced fighter pilots were moving to the transport stream, both because the RIAF needed more pilots for this arm, which would become so vitally important for the country, as well as for reasons having to do with their personal prospects later. Pilots making this move included JD Aquino, Des Pushong, VrC (later with Air India), and Nanu Shitoley, DFC. However, it would appear that Shivdev Singh, then Station Commander at Agra (later Air Marshal and VCAS) may have blocked Digby’s attempt to move to the transport fleet.

Nanu Shitoley actually took Digby as his co-pilot into Poonch during Operation PUNCHING. Although not formally a transport pilot (many of those who flew Dakotas during those early days weren’t), Digby flew the aircraft, and generally did “everything except single-engine assymetric handling”.

Digby returned to No 4 Squadron at Kanpur towards the end of 1948. The squadron was almost immediately moved to Poona, to participate in Operation POLO, the Hyderabad police action.

Digby had not had the opportunity to convert to Tempests, and while the squadron was on ops they were too heavily engaged to convert him. Still, he was keen to fly operationally during this action. As it happens, there was a Dakota attached to the squadron, flown by Tilden Wynne, who had been a Bombay Police officer before he joined the RIAF. Digby flew as Wynne’s co-pilot almost continually through the op, on support sorties, “including”, he says, “those of irritating the Hyderabad air authorities while flying across their territory!” It does not seem to have been particularly stressful on him or his colleagues – he describes imitating bird-calls over the R/T while flying during this op, and receiving responses, also in the form of bird-calls.

He was among the first pilots to fly into Hyderabad after the op, in the Dakota together with Wynne.

Immediately after the Hyderabad police action, Digby flew alongside Squadron Leader Ghisad, the CO of No 4 Squadron, in a fire-power display being put on for the population of Hyderabad. Sqn Ldr Ghisad, a former Vengeance dive-bomber pilot, couldn’t pull out of his dive in time, and went in. Digby was in formation with him at the time. He recalls, soberly, that they carried on with, and completed the show.

On another occasion Digby remembers flying together with Tilden Wynne and a young Sikh navigator trainee on a long flight to Bangalore. In the cockpit Digby and Wynne, both of whom knew Bangalore well and had many social connections in the city, talked with roguish, unconcealed anticipation about the many delights of Bangalore’s social circles. (OK, perhaps we can admit it after all these years – they were talking about the girls!!) The young navigator listened, slack-jawed, but did not participate in the discussion. That evening Digby and Wynne went for a dance to the skating rink, and saw a young Air Force officer there with a peaked cap under his arm. It was the same young Sikh officer, who appeared to have shaved his beard off that afternoon. He had clearly been listening.

Tilden Wynne was later to become an instructor on Consolidated B-24 Liberators, and to die in one of just two fatal accidents that this type suffered in twenty years of Indian Air Force service.

Permanent Commission, 1949:

It was not until 1949 that the Air Force got around to thinking about converting Digby’s war-time commission to a Permanent Commission. He was ordered to report to a Selection Board at Dehra Dun for this purpose. Knowing that Kanpur, a major aircraft overhaul, servicing and repair centre, was at the time always short of test pilots, he took advantage of the opportunity to go there a few days before his PC Board. Group Captain Harjinder Singh, the first Indian technician in the service, was the Station Commander then. Digby arrived, and offered to carry out any air tests that were pending. He flew aircraft types he had never flown before, including a Spitfire Mk XIX (the ultimate, highest-performance variant operated by the IAF), and that too after a relatively long break from fighter flying. He then went on to Dehra Dun for his Board. “Oh yes, I’ve just flown a Spitfire XIX”, he confirmed confidently when they asked. “I’m sure I’ll have no difficulty with Tempests.” His PC was duly okayed, and he returned to No 4 Squadron at Poona, fortified by the flying time he had put in at Kanpur, to finally convert smoothly to Tempests.

JC “Bandy” Verma, DFC, was the Station Commander, at Poona. “I wanted to go on twins”, Digby recalls, but Verma, again, wouldn’t allow him to. Instead, Verma recommended Digby for a QFI’s course in the UK, in the same year that he got his PC, 1949.

This was not just a random denial of a requested specialisation. The IAF was expanding, and (no doubt with unpleasant institutional memories of the ad hoc approach to instruction that had characterised training during World War 2) had chosen to invest in formally qualifying flying instructors. They had clearly taken on board Trenchard’s dictum, that training was second only to accommodation, in building up an air force. The Indian Air Force had just begun the long, arduous process of growing, from the roughly six-and-a-half squadrons that it was left with at Independence, into what it is today, a few dozen squadrons plus numerous additional helicopter and other units. And some of the most indispensable contributions to that growth were to come from a number of capable men who took on the unglamorous, often thankless work of flying instruction.

Central Flying School:

The QFI course that Digby attended was held at the Central Flying School at Little Rissington in the UK, the premiere flying school in the world at that time. “Damn good instructors”, Digby confirms, with evident feeling and respect. His own instructor was a Mosquito veteran from World War 2. Digby had always been fascinated by the de Havilland Mosquito, and had built a model of it earlier. During the course at Little Rissington he actually had the opportunity to fly three sorties in a Mosquito. “Lovely damn aeroplane”, he says with feeling – flying it was clearly something of a dream come true for him.

As part of the development of their instructional skills, course participants had the opportunity to fly several different aircraft types. Besides the Mosquito, Digby also flew three sorties in a Gloster Meteor, and some in an Avro Lancaster, though he was not allowed to fly the Lancaster without supervision by a check pilot. (Only one IAF officer on his course, who had previously accumulated some considerable multi-engine experience, was allowed to fly the Lancaster without supervision.) Early during this period, Digby recalls an occasion when he was travelling by tube in London. A gentleman sitting next to him, who to all appearances was European, addressed him in Hindustani. Digby’s own Hindustani was not particularly strong, so he responded in English. His European-looking interlocutor responded in robust Hindustani, demanding to know why Digby was “pretending to be English”. He turned out to be a Pakistan Air Force officer (with a French mother, which accounted for his appearance) called “Polly” Shah, who was on the same Instructors’ course. Other Pakistani officers on the course included Mohammed Ashraf (later Wing Commander, PAF), Mick O’Brien (later Air Commodore, PAF), and El Edroos, all of whom Digby recalls as “excellent chaps with a good sense of humour.”

First instructor tenures:

On his return from CFS, Digby was posted to No 1 Air Force Academy (AFA) at Ambala as an instructor. He was still a Flying Officer, still only in his mid-twenties; but he now had the QFI qualification under his belt, and several more types in his logbook.

The Station Commander Ambala at the time was Ehrlich Pinto, himself a former CO of No 4 Sqn and later AOC-in-C Operational Command. Other instructors there at the time included Stan White and Digby’s old course-mate Wilbur McNeill.

He began instructing on the same types on which he had commenced his own training, Tiger Moths and Harvards, with the composite 51st/52nd Pilots’ Course. “Rags” Raghavendran (later Air Marshal and VCAS) and Denis La Fontaine (later CAS) were among the pupils there at the time.

- Bruce Pears with a pupil (believed to be Lt CR Menon, IN) and a Tiger Moth, at AFA
Bruce Pears with a pupil (believed to be Lt CR Menon, IN) and a Harvard, at AFA. Two civilian Dakotas can be seen in the background -

  At Ambala Digby also started flying with the Conversion Training Unit (CTU). This unit flew Spitfires.

- One of the small number of Spitfire T IX two-seaters operated by the IAF, c 1952. This example is HS-538

Another senior instructor at Ambala then was Flight Lieutenant LRD “Creamy” Blunt, VrC (later Group Captain), who had raised the Flying Instructors’ School there. Creamy Blunt drove a small motor-car (possibly a Sunbeam?) of his own, which he must have been proud of – not many junior officers, in those days, owned their own cars. On one occasion when the car was left parked outdoors, a high-spirited group actually dismantled the car and re-assembled it inside his room as a prank. There was an earthquake later, which trapped everything inside; and when it was clear the car had to be dismantled again and re-assembled outside. On yet another occasion, when the car was left parked between two pillars, the same rowdy group lifted the car bodily, swung it through 90 degrees, and left it all but wedged, with just inches of space to spare, in a transverse position between the two pillars.

In 1952 No 1 AFA moved to Begumpet. Only the new Flying Instructors’ School, which was now beginning to turn out Indian QFIs, remained for some time longer at Ambala, before moving to its current location at Tambaram, outside Madras (now Chennai). Ehrlich Pinto was succeeded by Ranjan “Ronnie” Dutt (later Air Vice-Marshal) as Station Commander at Begumpet.

- An aerial view of No 1 AFA: Line up of Tiger Moths, in front of the Old ATC Building at Begumpet.

The instructors who served at Ambala, Begumpet and Hakimpet during this period represent a positive galaxy of stars, to an IAF historian. They include many who went on to senior rank and resounding operational successes later, and many others who are remembered and spoken of in postively reverential tones by the generations of IAF officers who learned flying (and a few other important things) at their hands.


A galaxy of stars: Instructors at Begumpet, c 1952. Standing, L-R: Trevor Mullinaux; “Teddy” Trehon; Babla Senapati (later CO 17 Sqn, Hunters); PM “Pete” Wilson (later CO 16 Sqn, CO ATW, and Air Commodore); Guy McKenzie; CGI Phillip; “Stumpy” Watts; ED “Dud” Venner (later Wg Cdr); Brian Stidson, then CFI (later Gp Capt); Mel DuCasse; “Tex” Rampal.

Sitting, L-R: “Jaggu” Shaw; Unid’d; Unid’d; Navroz Lalkaka (later Gp Capt); AL Almeida (passed away Jan ’03); Don Michael (later Wg Cdr)

Mind you, the pupils who passed through these establishments during this period represent a not unfamiliar group of names themselves. Many of the generation who were front-line flight commanders and squadron commanders in 1965 and ’71 started their flying careers with the IAF during just this period. So did many of the second generation of test pilots, and many who made indispensable contributions to the IAF in less visible ways, such as in aviation law, aviation medicine and Engineering.

After instructing for a period at AFA in Secunderabad, Digby asked to go across to CTU at Hakimpet. Instruction at AFA had been of an ab initio nature, and it is a time-honoured joke among instructor pilots that nothing turns the hair white faster than teaching ab initio flying to brand-new pupils.

Zafar Shah, VrC (later Group Captain), was the Station Commander at Hakimpet. Instruction at CTU was to altogether more experienced pupils, and in more advanced aircraft, Spitfires and Tempests. Other instructors there included “Tempest” Murthy, later with one of the private airlines, of whom AVM CV Parker, MVC, VM (who himself cut his fighting teeth on Tempests at Hakimpet at this time), has remarked, “We would have killed, to fly a Tempest the way he did!”

- “Tempest” Murthy addressing a batch of his pupils, c 1952. L-R: Murthy, KK Malik (later Air Cmde), Lt Jayachandran IN, DE Satur (later AVM), MN Singh (later Wg Cdr and CO 27 Sqn), KD Hoon, Unidentified, BK “Granny” Dhiman
Digby addressing a group of pupils by a Tempest. L-R: VK Singh , MN Singh, Lt Jayachandran IN, RL Badhwar, Digby. -

No 10 Squadron, 1953:

In March 1953 the Tempests had to be grounded, because of frequent engine fires. Digby, who was clearly seizing any opportunity he could to carry out air tests, took a Tempest from Hakimpet to Kanpur, for examination there. He recalls that Roshan Suri, who was then the Chief Test Pilot at Kanpur, initially did not believe the Tempest engines were failing. Digby demonstrated by putting the aircraft into a dive. “You could hear the engine surging”, he recalls. “I said, ‘There! Can you hear that? Can you hear that??'” From Digby’s satisfied expression, as he recounts this story, it is clear that the Chief Test Pilot had to admit he could.

On another occasion Digby was required to ferry a Tempest to Bangalore for a major repair. The fuselage runners were warped, so the cockpit hood would jam. Only Bangalore had the rigs to fix this problem, so the aircraft had to be ferried there. The only way to fly this aircraft was to fix the hood closed before take-off, but that left a risk of inhaling CO2 fumes inside the cockpit. So the aircraft had to be flown with the oxygen mask on, whatever the altitude. The original flight plan called for a landing and overnight stop at Poona; but Digby, the old Bombay boy in him coming to the fore, persuaded Gp Capt Harjinder Singh to let him stop at Bombay instead, so he could catch up with family and old friends in that city. (“Harjinder would always listen, to a pilot!”) When he landed in Bombay he found that there was no oxygen to refill his O2 bottles there. He eventually flew on with a tube rigged from his mask to the outside of the cockpit.

In October 1953 Digby was posted to No 10 Squadron himself, as Commanding Officer but still holding Flight Lieutenant’s rank. The squadron was based at Halwara but moved in December to Palam, where the Station Commander was Hrushikesh Moolgavkar. Flight Lieutenant BS “Sikky” Sikand (destined to become a POW in ’65; CO of No 22 Sqn, which scored the first air-to-air victories against the PAF, in ’71; and later Air Marshal) was one of the Flight Commanders.

No 10 was on paper a Tempest unit at the time, earmarked to become a Vampire night fighter unit; but because of the grounding of the Tempests, it had only a handful of Harvards on strength. The officer who was to become the next CO, Squadron Leader David Bouche (“Pop” Bouche’s younger brother), was at this time away in the UK, together with some of the other pilots, doing a night-fighter qualification course and preparing to bring the night-fighter variants back to India. Until these aircraft arrived there was nothing much for the rest of the squadron, kicking their heels back in India, to fly.

Noises were made, about this state of affairs. In December that year Air Commodore Pinto, SASO Operations Command  rang Digby and asked, “How would you like some Vampires?” The response may be imagined! Pinto gave No 10 Squadron four Vampire FB52 day fighter-bombers, and said, “Get some experience on these, before the night-fighters come.” The squadron and its personnel set to mastering their first jets, with a will.

In mid-1954 Sqn Ldr David Bouche, now the designated CO of No 10 Squadron in its new night-fighter role, and the first small cadre of night-fighter qualified pilots, arrived back from the UK, with NF54 night-fighter variant Vampires strapped to their bottoms, plus night-fighter qualifications under their belts. In June Sqn Ldr Bouche formally took over command of No 10 from Digby, who remained with the squadron for a period.

Bouche commenced training the rest of the squadron for the night-fighter role. On one occasion during that period Digby was taking off in a pair with Flight Lieutenant SR “Jackie” Powar and for some reason had to abort his take off. In a hurry to re-join Jackie, he went back in a rush, and forgot to clamp his canopy shut. As he was accelerating down the runway the second time the canopy flew open. It broke off completely at the hinge, and disappeared backwards over his tail, luckily not impacting on the Vampire’s wide tailplane.

This was potentially a serious blot on Digby’s copybook. Moolgavkar, the Station Commander, had a justified reputation for throwing the book at any pilot who damaged an aircraft, even unavoidably – and Digby is the first to admit that this was an avoidable incident. But David Bouche mounted a spirited defence of Digby to Moolgavkar. Moolgavkar gave Digby a severe telling-off, but took no other action.

Jackie Powar, by then a Squadron Leader himself, took over No 10 when Sqn Ldr Bouche’s tenure ended.

Hindi Headaches: This would be comical if it hadn’t had serious career implications. In the mid-50s it was made compulsory for all central government employees to pass Hindi exams. Digby failed his Hindi test five times. His promotions were therefore stopped.

Without questioning what the national language has brought about, institutionalising the use of Hindi was during that transition period clearly much more difficult for the Air Force and Navy (many of whose personnel came from English medium schools and English-speaking, or South Indian, backgrounds) than for the Army. Those who have watched Salt of the Earth, Kunal Verma’s history of the Indian Air Force, will have smiled at a sequence re-enacting some of the terrors felt at the time.

In 1955 Digby finally passed his Hindi exam, and was promoted to Squadron Leader. He was then posted as Chief Ground Instructor to No 2 Air Force Flying College, Jodhpur.

Jodhpur 1955:

HC “Harry” Dewan (later Air Marshal, and AOC-in-C EAC during the ’71 war) was the Station Commander at AFFC, Jodhpur.

Digby recalls that he didn’t enjoy the CGI’s job. There was plenty of flying to be had, but the reason he found the position so distasteful was the other responsibilities that went with it. Jodhpur was one of those IAF establishments, like Jamnagar and Gwalior, which had enjoyed close identification with, and moral and material support from, the local princely family. Partly as a result, Jodhpur owned a large amount of valuable material and equipment, which had been presented to it by the royal family. The inventory of this material included a movie camera (this was a major luxury, at the time), and would also have probably included material such as historic documents, hunting trophies, hunting and riding kit, oil paintings, shooting kit, and silverware. It would have represented quite a treasury, of historic and period artefacts. The custody of all these assets was the responsibility of the CGI – one that Digby did not relish at all, and which he thinks of as a losing battle. “For me, this was a punishment posting”, he says. It does seem, sadly, that there was constant, petty pilferage from that wonderful repository.

But his next posting was to make up for the tribulations of this one, in ample measure.


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