The contribution of the RIAF in WW2 (in Numbers)

The IAF grew in size from one single squadron to ten squadrons by the end of the Second World War. But it was still dwarfed by the size of the Allied air forces in India at that time. This is a detailed look at how the IAF grew over the years.   An air force is not just about pilots and flight crew, but also of airmen, of ground crew, Administrative and technical officers. It was the strength of the RIAF in all these spheres that made a contrribution to the allied victory in the east.

Just how large (or how small?) was the IAF in WW2?  It was dwarfed by the huge conscript force that the Royal Air Force was made up of. Unlike in India - where joining the IAF was voluntary, there was a draft in the United Kingdom where all able bodied men were encouraged to join up in the force of their choice. Thus the Royal Air Force employed nearly 1.2 million airmen to fight an air war from Europe to North Africa to the Indian Sub Continent to the Pacifiic.  The Indian Air Force on the other hand was entirely of volunteers and was by its very nature a force limited to being based out of India.

The following table , taken from the Official Indian Armed Forces History indicates that on 1st July 1945, the total allied personnel in India amounted over 200,000 and a third of them were Indians - and only about 30,000 wore the uniform of the IAF.  Nearly 40,000 other airmen were non-combatants.  In the end Indians made up 11% of the officer cadre and 18% of the airmen cadre of the Commonwealth Air Forces in India.

   Total  RAF &  Others IAF / Indian  % of IAF
Commissioned Officers  14,863 13,225 1,638   11.0%
Other Ranks   145,582  118,682 26,900  18.5% 
Non Combatants Enrolled   13,727 - 13,727  100.0% 
Non Combatants - Unenrolled  26,469 26,469  100.0% 
Cadets, WAC(I), Civilians  6,991 6,991  100.0% 
TOTAL PERSONNEL 207,632 131,907 75,725 36.4%

The Officer Cadre of the RIAF itself grew from two digits to over a thousand.  At the begining of 1940, the IAF stopped giving permanent commissions and all entrants were taken via the Volunteer Reserve and provided Emergency Commissions valid for the duration of the war.   The following table gives the strength of officers in the Combatant Arms. 

 Year (Start)  Officer Strength
1939 14
1940 148
1941 200
1942 406
1943 829
1944 1031
1945 1250
1946 1375

Although the indianisiation of the air force had grown considerably, it was still hampered by the availability of suitable Indian candidates.  At the begining of 1946, only about nine IAF Officers have attaned the acting rank of Wing Commander. Almost all of them haling from pre-war recruitment period.

An analysis of the data available via the IAF Officers Database shows that at the time of the Japanese Surrender (September 1945), over 1600 IAF Officers served or were commissioned.  The break up of the branches was as follows:

Branch  Officer Strength
Pilots 712
Navigators and Observers 60
Air Gunners 4
Administrative (A&SD) 432
Technical (Armament, Electrical, Engineering) 205
Medical 56
Education 52
Accounts 45
Meterological 29
Balloon Branch 18
Total 1,613

There is some variation in these numbers - for example a few Officers commissioned as Observers would change to Signals - and thus are shown in Technical Branch. A few commissioned originally as Observers would subsequently get further training and end up in the General Duties (Pilot) branch. The table above does not reflect roughly another 200 odd Officers whose details are not known. These could be attributed to some of them leaving service after a short while or because of termination of commission early in their career.

Recruitment throughout the second world war fell far short of the demand. Only a very small proportion of educated. young men possessed ready-made officer qualifications. Large numbers ofrered their services, but only very few were successful in passing the Selection Board tests.  The official history states that between 1 January 1942, and 31 August 1945, the demand for General Duty officers was 3,006 but only 1,298 were trained and commissioned. (About 44%). The demand for Ground Duty Officers during the same period was 1,677, and the supply 856, approximately 51%.  Similarly nearly  74,125 were needed for other ranks, but only  41,324, could qualify approximately 56%. The shortfall was also due to the reason that traditionally the Army attracted the cream of the youth with its large recruitment organisation. 

 It will be noted that apart from pilots, the strongest contingent of officers belonged to the Administrative and Special Duties Branch. It was the A&SD Branch officers who formed the backbone of administration and discipline for many of the RAF Stations.  Almost all the care and maintenance Units (CMU) were staffed entirely by Indian Officers.

The allied airforces lost over 6200 personnel over the years in the air war in the South East Asia Command. Roughly 15%, i.e  900 were Indian Air Force personnel who paid the ulitmate price.   229 Commisioned Officers  and 587 airmen lost their lives in operations and training incidents during the Second World War. Almost all of the officers lost were from General Duties Branch.  



  • The Indian Air Force List - October 1945
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • The Eagle Strikes - by Sqn Ldr R T S Chhina
  • Official History of the Royal Indian Air Force - 1933-1945 - Edited by Dr. S N Gupta - Historical Cell