This article is dedicated to the memory of my illustrious father late GP Capt. KL Bhatia Vr.C. He served in No. 7 Squadron from 5th December, 1942 to 11th January, 1946. During his tenure in the World War II, he did 303.35 hours of ‘Operational flying’, most of which was on the Burma front against the Japanese advance into India. He was commissioned on 8th August 1940 and he passed away (while in service) on 20th June 1954. His last assignment was ‘Director of Personnel’ Air Headquarters, New Delhi. During his 14 years in the Air force, he logged 2482.40 hours on 20 different aircraft. He was awarded the Vir Chakra for his heroic role in Poonch in 1948, as Commanding Officer of No. 12 Squadron which was awarded 12 Vir Chakras during the Kashmir Operations. (A record unbroken till today).
In the year or so leading up to the outbreak of World War II, an Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR) was formed, on the model of the IAFVR and similar arms in Australia and New Zealand. Its objective was to build a reserve of personnel who could be drawn on in war. In 1939 the Chatfield Committee on the Defence of India recommended the raising of flights for coastal defence, as the orientation of the Indian armed forces changed to reflect wartime alignments. Flights were initially established at Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Karachi; and they were staffed mainly by personnel of the newly-formed IAFVR. The personnel selected for the IAFVR were brought to Risalpur for flying training. The first three batches were trained at Risalpur, before training shifted to Ambala.
After Japan’s entry into the war, defence of the east coast of India became important. Initially, the flights were equipped with Westland Wapitis and Hawker Harts. In March 1941, they were supplemented by Armstrong-Whitworth Atlanta, mostly taken up from civil airlines, and in December, same year, in some of the flights, these were replaced by the Bristol Blenheim Mk I.
In December 1942, the Coastal Defence flights were disbanded and the personnel were distributed to the new squadrons thus raised.
Formation of No. 7 Squadron.
No.7 Squadron, of the Indian Air Force was formed on 1st December 1942 at Vizagapatnam (where 6 Coastal Defence Flight was operating), under the command of Sqn Ldr. Hem Chaudhuri, under Air Head Quarters Formation order No. 268 dated 18 Nov 42. Personnel from 104 Squadron IAF, and 353 Squadron IAF as well as Nos. 3 and 6 Coastal Defence Flights were drawn to provide No.7 Squadron with manpower. All Navigators released from the Coastal Defence Flights were distributed between Nos. 7 and 8 Squadrons.
Flt Lt CL Mehta was the first Adjutant, Fg Offr. C Cornforth was the first Signals Officer, and Plt. Offr Lobo was posted in as Adm. Officer.
Flt Lt DC Seth was posted in as the squadron’s first Intelligence Officer on 11th Jan, 1943
During this training itself, Fg Offr. R Sitaram, KC Sarkar and OP Sanghi were made the Navigation officer, Gunnery officer and 2nd Flight Commander respectively. Flt Lt MM Srinagesh was posted in as the squadron’s first Medical Officer on 14th Jan. 1943.
The squadron was designated to be equipped with the American made Vultee Vengeance Mk II dive bombers, the allied force’s answer to the German Stuka dive bombers.
The Vultee Vengeance V-72
Engine: Single engine, Air Cooled radial Wright Twin Cyclone GR-2600-A5B-5 engine. Rated at 1600 hp.
Armament: 4 x .50 Calibre Machine Guns in the wings and 2 x .303 calibre Vickers guns in the rear cockpit.
Bomb load: 2 x 500 lbs. bombs in the internal bomb bay and another 500 pounder under each wing. Later for special targets the 250 lbs. bombs replaced the 500 pounders. To provide maximum blast effect, some 500 pounders were fitted with extensions to the nose fuse that caused them to explode just above the ground instead of after impact.
The Vengeance was uniquely designed to dive almost vertically without lift from the wing pulling the aircraft off target. To this end it had a 0 degree angle of incidence on the wing to better align the nose of the aircraft with the target during a dive. This resulted in the aircraft cruising in a nose-up attitude, giving a poor forward view to the pilot, particularly during landing. It had an unusual “W” shaped wing platform. This resulted from an error in calculating its Centre of Gravity. Moving the wing back by ‘sweeping’ the centre section was a simple fix than re-designing the wing root. This gives the impression of an inverted gull wing when seen from an angle, when in fact, the wing has a more conventional dihedral on the outer wing panels.
The conversion course was scheduled to be held at the 152 OUT (Officers Training Unit) in Peshawar. All aircrew of the squadron were first sent to Bombay to attend a W/T course in Andheri, Bombay, after which on 15th January, 1943, they along with the CO Squadron. Ldr. Hem Chaudhuri arrived at Peshawar for the flying training.
Since most pilots were from No. 353 Squadron and had not flown for the past 3 months, they were made to fly Harvards much earlier (from 5th December, 1942 itself) than the rest of the pilots of the newly formed squadron. Towards the end of the month, they went on to flying the Vultee Vengeances.
One of the instructors at 152 OTU was Flt Lt. PC Lal (who late became Air Chief Marshal and Chief of the Air Staff) wrote in his memoirs “My years in the I.A.F”:
“A new type of aircraft, the Vultee Vengeance dive bomber was then introduced. It was meant to be the British and American answer to the German Stukas. The first units to receive this aircraft being were the RAF squadrons and two IAF squadrons, No. 7 and 8 and I was made an instructor on these planes. At that time none of us knew anything about dive bombing. We had to develop our own ways to attack”.
He further went on to write: “An RAF officer who had been to America visited the factory where the aircraft were designed, took one up for demonstration. He went into a dive and never recovered from it. He went straight into the ground, the aircraft blew up and he was killed. This was a spectacular way to demonstrate the bombing”.
Flt Lt. Lal was one of the instructors at the OTU who was primarily responsible for developing the dive-bombing techniques.
An eyewitness to the squadrons training at Peshawar was the famous writer Francis Yeats-Brown, who later in his book ‘Martial India’ in 1944 wrote:
“At an Operational Training unit in Peshawar, a Vengeance dive bomber flight is at work. With a glitter of his steel bracelet, a Sikh pilot waves away the ground crew and taxis down the aerodrome. He is Green-Formation leader, and is followed by three other Vengeances piloted by a Punjabi, a Parsi and a Pathan.
Each Vengeance has four small bombs under its belly: practice 8 pounders, with a charge of Stannic Chloride, which gives a puff of white smoke, enabling the instructor to locate a hit.
Up they go, climbing fast, and are soon lost to view. But not to the Radio Telephone. Green Formation Leader is asking each member of his team if he is ok. Meanwhile, quicker than a car can carry us, let us transfer ourselves in imagination to the bombing range. A white circle 15 yards in diameter, marks the target. We are standing about a thousand yards away, by a control group consisting of a sergeant and two radio telephonists. The sergeant has a quadrant with which to take a bearing on the hits. Another party is posted to our flank, also with a quadrant: the two bearings give the location of the bombs. The telephonist takes up his microphone and speaks to the invisible bombers: Range control calling. Are you receiving me? The answer comes: Green formation leader calling. Have I permission to bomb? You have permission to bomb.
Green Formation Leader is getting ready to attack. He banks round in a tight turn. The nose of his plane is on the target (more accurately, the leading edge of his right wing, just where it joins the fuselage). His height is now 12000 feet. His right hand is on the stick, his left hand on the throttle, with thumb on the bomb firing switch, more familiarly known as the “tit”.
As he dives, he puts on his dive brakes (opens out the flaps in the trailing edge of his wings to retard his speed) and engages the selector switch, which causes a white light to glow on his instrument board, showing him that his bomb circuit is live. He is diving at 340 miles per hour, eyes on target, which creeps up to the leading edge of his right wing.
Just when he has lost sight of it (not before) he presses the button, and his bomb shoots down. Simultaneously, he pulls out of his dive angle and turns away to gain height for another attack.
The correct angle is 80 degrees. Almost vertical, but not quite. No. 3 is diving too steep. Too steep! He is flying into the ground.
It was really an ugly moment. One wants nerves of steel to watch such things happening. He saved himself just when a crash seemed certain: the margin of error is small when one is moving at 180 yards a second.
Well that’s over and the formation is gaining height again.
Dive bombing demands the acme of physical fitness to avoid a black-out owing to the sudden variation in atmospheric pressure and stresses of Centrifugal force”.Francis Yeats-Brown, ‘Martial India’ (1944)
The squadron suffered its first casualty when Fg Offr. Kartar Singh along with his Air-Gunner/WT Operator, Tech Sergeant Crashed into the Kabul River on 7th February 1943.
On 5th March, 1943, the aircrew completed their conversion onto the Vultee Vengeances.
On 20th April, 1943, the squadron received their first two Vultee Vengeance aircraft. However, one of them became unserviceable almost immediately and had to be grounded due to the lack of spares. Nevertheless, all the aircrew managed to fly at least two sorties each by the end of the month on the lone aircraft AN 976.
On 7th May, 1943, the squadron received three more aircraft.
Thereafter, on 8th March, the squadron moved to Phapamau (near Allahabad), for further training.
On 21st May, 1943, the squadron moved to Bairagarh (near Bhopal), to undergo Armament and Gunnery training at No.1 Advanced Training Unit (ATU). The course commenced on 31st
May and was completed on July 2nd.
On completion of the course at Bairagarh, the squadron moved to Campbellpur on 4th July 1943, where they were based for nearly eight months. This long stay gave the squadron an opportunity for uninterrupted training. Normal flying, Navigation, Bombing and Gunnery exercises were carried out. Training for frontier operations were undertaken at Miranshah in November and at Nowshera in early December. Some pilots were sent for mountain warfare course at Kakul in September-October. In November, Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin from Air Headquarters paid a visit to the squadron to assess the operational standards reached. For this dummy exercises were held. ‘A’ Flight of the squadron flew exhibition flights for the War Services Exhibition at Nagpur in early December.
Air Chief Marshal PC Lal in his above referred book has written:
“I was an instructor for both navigation and flying till October, 1943. With great difficulty, I managed to persuade my superiors that I should go on to Operations and that I did not join the Air Force simply to become an instructor. So, I was posted to No. 7 Squadron that is hem Chaudhuri’s squadron which I had to train at Peshawar. At that time the squadron was at Campbellpur, which was little to the east of Peshawar, just across the Kabul River”.
He reported to the squadron on 8th October, 1943, and took over as Flight Commander ‘B’ Flight.