Sada Satark – Always Alert
by K Sree Kumar
No 6 Squadron is one of the ten senior squadrons of the Indian Air Force, raised before Independence. Of those pioneering ten, it is probably the one that has had the most varied history, and has assumed the widest range of roles. These have included air-sea rescue, counter-air, fighter-reconnaissance, maritime reconnaissance, maritime strike, target towing and transport. In its time, it has flown single-engined, twin-engined and four-engined propellor-driven aircraft, and twin-engined jet aircraft of two very different generations.
The squadron formed at Trichinopoly (now Tiruchirapally) on 1st December 1942 under the command of the redoubtable Squadron Leader (later Air Commodore) Mehar Singh. The pilots were mainly Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR) personnel from Nos 1 and 2 Coast Defence Flights.
The squadron was designated a fighter-reconnaissance unit, and equipped with Hawker Hurricane FR.IIb aircraft. On completion of equipping at Bhopal in March 1943, the squadron began an intensive period of training and working-up. It participated in the Indian Air Force’s tenth anniversary review at Ambala, and received an award for “the best looking aircraft”. The squadron continued working-up, until November that year.
Operations in Burma:
In November 1943, No 6 Squadron IAF moved to Cox’s Bazar, for its first operational deployment. It took over from 28 Squadron RAF the fighter-reconnaissance role in 224 Group, part of Third Tactical Air Force, for the Second Arakan Campaign.
During this campaign, No 6 Squadron was the only specialist reconnaissance unit available to support XV Corps, and indeed Fourteenth Army, on this front. XV Corps included 5 and 7 Indian Divisions advancing down the Mayu peninsula, and 81 (West African) Division in the Kaladan Valley. No 6 Squadron provided photo mosaics for, and carried out tactical reconnaissance (Tac/R) ahead of, these three bodies of troops, which were advancing over areas that were virtually unmapped till then. For their unstinting support, they earned the name, “The Eyes of the Fourteenth Army”. Flying in the approved Tac/R pairing of Leader and Weaver, they were also known as “the Arakan Twins”.
In mid-January 1944, General Sir William (later Field Marshal Lord) Slim, GOC Fourteenth Army, spent several days visiting the Arakan Front. In his memoirs he makes a point of saying how impressed he was with an IAF reconnaissance squadron. His comments are generally assumed to refer to No 6 Squadron.
As XV Corps continued its advance, most of 224 Group’s squadrons moved forward from Cox’s Bazar, to fair weather airstrips from where they could continue supporting XV Corps at shorter range. No 6 Squadron was moved to Ratnap Strip, at the head of the Naf Peninsula.
The Allied advance was temporarily checked in February, when the Japanese launched their first counter-attack of the season towards India. At this stage, the Allies did not have air superiority over the Arakan, and the reconnaissance Hurricanes were particularly vulnerable. In any case standing instructions on Tac/R and PR missions were to avoid air combat, as it was considered more important to bring back films or tactical information than to get into aircombat with enemy aircraft. On many ocassions, the Hurricanes were intercepted by Japanese Oscar fighters and were shot down. But this did not deter the Squadron from its task. Even so, during one particularly cruel fortnight in February 1944, the Squadron lost five Hurricanes and five pilots missing.
Nevertheless, on 15 February 1944, Flying Officer (Later Air Commodore) JC Verma of No 6 Squadron shot down a Japanese Ki-43 Oscar during a low-level dogfight, his victory being confirmed later by Army observers. Fg Off Verma became the first Indian pilot since the First World War with a confirmed victory in air combat while flying for the Indian Air Force, and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (He was to command the squadron some years later).
The members of No.6 Squadron meet for a ‘chai’ break after a sortie during Jan 1944. From L to R: M S Pujji DFC, H K Patel, Unk, ‘Doctor’, Mehar Singh DSO, Bhattacharjea , E D Masillamani, L R D Blunt, J D Acquino,Aziz Khan.\
During this crucial period No 6 Squadron worked under extreme pressure, delivering PR prints in record numbers, some individual pilots flying six or more sorties in a day. In March the CO, Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh, received the Distinguished Service Order. He remains the only IAF officer to have received this decoration, generally regarded as recognising effective leadership rather than personal bravery.
No 6 Squadron continued flying until XV Corps withdrew from Buthidaung, to ‘sit out’ the monsoon period. It flew its last operational sorties of the season on 31 May 1944, and withdrew on 6 June. It was relieved by No 4 Squadron, Indian Air Force.
During its first operational tour, No 6 Squadron had delivered a sterling performance. The squadron’s photographic section turned out enormous numbers of prints, averaging 16,000 a month. The squadron received numerous messages of gratitude and congratulation, including from Lieutenant-General FW Messervy, GOC IV Corps, and Major-General Lomax, GOC 26th Indian Division.
For services during the squadron’s tour of operations, Flight Lieutenant Rawal Singh was awarded the MBE, and Sergeant BM Kothari, the head of the photographic section, received the British Empire Medal. In addition, Flying Officer (later Air Commodore) JD Aquino and Pilot Officer (later Wing Commander) LRD Blunt were commended by the AOC.
Return to the Frontier and Post War Standdown
After being withdrawn from operations on the Burma front, the squadron moved to Risalpur, and later to Kohat, with a detachment at Miranshah. It remained based at Kohat for the rest of the War, on ‘Air Control’ duties on the North-West Frontier.
Still at Kohat, No 6 Squadron began converting to Spitfires in November 1945. By early 1946, the squadron was equipped with the FR.XIVe variant for fighter-reconnaissance, and the PR.XI for photo reconnaissance.
Through 1946 and early 1947 the Squadron worked up with its Spitfires. However, in April 1947, the squadron was moved from Ranchi to Karachi to re-equip with Douglas C-47 Dakota and assume a new role, that of tactical transport support.
On Independence the RIAF’s assets and units were divided between India and Pakistan. Most of No 6 Squadron’s Dakotas, its infrastructure and other assets went to Pakistan, effectively raising No 6 Squadron RPAF. The personnel who chose to remain with India were merged with those of No 12 Squadron, the IAF’s lead transport unit, for the time being. After distinguished service in its first five years, No 6 Squadron RIAF was temporarily number-plated.
Independence and the first two decades
Three years later, in January 1951, No 6 Squadron IAF re-formed at Poona (now Pune) under the command of Squadron Leader HSK Gohel, with Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) and Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) as its new role. It remains based at Pune to this day, though it has undergone numerous changes of role and equipment in the last 51 years, and frequently deploys elsewhere for exercises and operations.
On reforming the squadron was initially equipped with Consolidated B-24 Liberators, reconditioned and restored to flying condition from Lend-Lease RAF aircraft wrecked and abandoned in India at the end of World War Two. The reconditioned Liberators were to serve No 6 Squadron for eighteen years. Some were fitted with basic ASV 15A radar in the belly, to help with their MR role.
Flying patrols or search patterns on a regular basis at 500 feet over the sea, for sorties lasting eight hours or more each, the squadron pioneered airborne maritime reconnaissance practices in the Indian armed forces. In recognition of the special navigation challenges of this role, No 6 Squadron became one of the first in the IAF to appoint a navigator to one of its Flight Commander positions. The squadron exercised several times a year with the Indian Navy. It also participated in the annual Monsoon Exercise, later the Joint Exercises Trincomalee, based at Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), at which the navies of Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom exercised together, during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The squadron also kept one crew on ASR duty, week in and week out, every day of the year. No 6 Squadron also helped establish the service which became known as “the CarNic courier”. This was a regular milk-run out to Car Nicobar and back, which greatly improved communications with that remote corner of Indian territory at a time when there were no regular civil flights there and very few visits by ship.
|The ‘Dragon’ emblem was initially carried on the B-24 Liberators of the Squadron, as can be seen in the picture on the right. The tradition was continued on the Connies and the Canberras that came later on. A modified version of this dragon is shown on the Patch currently worn by the pilots of the Squadron.|
It was probably during this period that the squadron received its current crest, depicting a dragon with both flippers and wings, representing its association with both the sea and the air, and its motto, Sada Satark (Always Alert). A squadron veteran interested in heraldic matters informs us that the crest as originally designed violated accepted rules of heraldry, in having the dragon facing from left to right. (This is because when flown on a flag, crest designs conventionally show the flagstaff on the left, which would have resulted in the dragon moving backwards when the flag was marched.) The error was only noticed after the President had consented to the design, and was therefore never officially corrected. However, when carried on the squadron’s aircraft, the dragon is always shown facing in the direction of the aircraft’s travel.
In October 1961 the squadron received nine former Air India Lockheed L1049 Super Constellations. Some of these were modified for the MR role with the installation of ASV 21 radars in a retractable ‘dustbin’ radome beneath the belly; others were left in their original configuration and used as freighters or troop-carriers, for transport support. For several years, No 6 Squadron operated both Liberators and Super Constellations in different Flights.
The squadron participated in Operation VIJAY, the liberation of Goa, in December 1961, carrying out off-shore maritime patrols, and sanitising the sea approaches to Goa. Its operations included flare-dropping at night, to assist in identifying coastal traffic, and dropping leaflets bearing call-to-surrender messages to the Portuguese garrison and messages of support to the civil population of Goa.
The squadron also participated in the border conflict with China in 1962, providing transport support.
In 1965, both during the Kutch incursions in April and May, as well as the full-scale war in September that year, the squadron was tasked with maritime reconnaissance over the Arabian Sea. It carried out this role in conjunction with the Breguet Alizes of No 310 Squadron, Indian Navy. However, the age and limitations of its aircraft were beginning to be felt by this time. In support of the Navy, the Liberators and the Super Constellations flew 24 sorties amounting to 188 Hours, some of the sorties having been mounted in search of the submarine Ghazi of the Pakistan Navy.
The long-serving Liberators finally retired from IAF service at the end of 1968, some individual airframes having accumulated nearly 40,000 hours’ flying time in IAF service. Their last operational sortie for the IAF was a mercy mission on, appropriately enough, Christmas Eve that year.
By the time its Liberators retired, No 6 Squadron, Indian Air Force, was the last remaining operator of this vintage aircraft type anywhere in the world. Over the late 1960s and the early 1970s, several of its Liberators were donated or sold to museums and warbird operators in Canada, the UK and the USA..The last Liberator Flight Commander of the squadron, Squadron Leader YS Marwah (later to command the squadron), provided conversion training to USAF and Canadian Forces’ crews, before the aircraft were handed over.
1971 Bangladesh War
During the 1971 war No 6 Squadron’s maritime reconnaissance capabilities were put to a significantly sterner test. Commanded at the time by Wing Commander KD Kanagat, the squadron came under the primary control of No 1 Maritime Air Ops Centre in Bombay (now Mumbai), which had responsibility for maritime air operations in the Arabian Sea north of Goa. Some squadron assets were also used to respond to the needs of No 3 Maritime Air Ops Centre in Cochin (now Kochi), responsible for the southern Arabian Sea. The squadron’s first wartime sortie, by a Super Constellation, was airborne by 2345 hrs on 3rd December itself, the very night that hostilities commenced with the PAF’s attempted pre-emptive dusk strike on Indian airbases.
During that first night, several contacts were made, but none proved significant. Over the next two days also, several contacts were made, and two were positively identified as Pakistani merchant ships, but the unarmed MR aircraft were unable to act against them. An Indian Navy frigate did mount a pursuit of one.
The Navy and Air Force were both aware of the potential threat posed by Pakistani submarines, and No 6 Squadron’s ASV 21 radars were exercised to their limits while on patrol. But for the first few days of the war, no MR missions were flown in the direction of Saurashtra, to avoid drawing Pakistani attention to Indian Navy task forces in that area. As is now known, the Indian Navy attacked Karachi, to devastating effect, on the nights of both 4th/5th and 8th/9th December before withdrawing from the area. Unfortunately, INS Kukhri was torpedoed on station the following night.
As soon as INS Kukhri’s fate became known, a Super Constellation of No 6 Squadron, already airborne at the time on MR duty in a different area, was diverted to begin searching the area. Relays of aircraft, many from No 6 Squadron, continued the search all that night and through the following four days. Possible enemy contacts were made in the course of the day on 10 December, and three Indian Navy frigates directed to the contacts. In addition, the Super Constellations helped to locate dinghies with survivors from the Kukhri, and guided friendly ships towards them. The search for the Kukhri’s attacker continued, by both sea and air, and was not called off till 13th December.
On 13th December itself, a search by the squadron’s Super Constellations, further south in the Arabian Sea, located an aircraft-carrier, with supporting ships. The aircraft-carrier was identified as HMS Albion, a Royal Navy fleet carrier now converted to commando carrier configuration (Prior to her conversion, HMS Albion had been a sister ship to HMS Hermes, which was later to become INS Viraat.). HMS Albion had participated in the Suez intervention in 1956 – her intentions in 1971 have never been explained.
From 14 December onwards, in the understated words of the Official History, “MR activity was on a reduced scale as Pak warships, having been engaged off Karachi by IN missile boats, were not likely to venture near the Indian coast … But patrols off Saurashtra continued.”
By the end of the war, No.6 Squadron had flown 39 sorties in support of Maritime Operations, totalling 391 hours! For their services during this conflict, four of the squadron’s personnel, including the CO, Wg Cdr Kanagat, were decorated with Vayu Sena Medals, and three with Vishisht Seva Medals.
Post 1971 – Farewell to the Connies.
In the mid-1970s, after some debate, the Maritime Reconnaissance role passed to the Indian Navy. In August 1976, eight IN pilots and six observers assembled in Poona to receive conversion training on the Super Constellation from No 6 Squadron. In November that year, Indian Naval Air Squadron 312 was formed, to take over No 6 Squadron’s MR role. The squadron’s MR-configured Super Constellations were transferred to the Navy, and personnel of No 6 Squadron were deputed to the Navy for some months, to strengthen the new unit and provide continuation training. No 6 Squadron and the IAF retained two freighter-configured Super Constellations. INAS 312 still discharges the long-range MR role today, now re-equipped with Tupolev Tu-142s, the Super Constellations having been phased out in the mid-1980s.
Throughout the period that it operated Liberators and Super Constellations, the squadron was called upon frequently during civil emergencies. It rendered aid to civil authorities in flood relief and troop movement operations, in air-sea searches, and the rescue of seamen in distress. Like other transport and multi-engine units of the Indian Air Force, it delivered invaluable services, on a continuing basis in peace as much as in war, with little fanfare.
Jet Era – Canberras and Jaguars
Even after handing over the MR role to the Navy, No 6 Squadron has continued its long association with maritime air operations. In January 1972 the squadron acquired a batch of Canberras, primarily the B12 variant but including two T13 trainers. These were previously RNZAF aircraft (including NZ6109 and NZ6151, the last two Canberra airframes ever built, which became F1188 and Q1191 in IAF service), refurbished and re-equipped for the IAF. With these aircraft the squadron assumed the role of maritime strike.
In July 1979 the squadron assumed the additional task of target towing, for which role it received Canberras of the TT418 version. This version was unique to the Indian Air Force, an Indian modification of the T4 trainer with some features of the British TT18 variant, and flew in eye-catching high-visibility colour schemes.
No 6 Squadron received the President’s Standard in recognition of its outstanding services and history, from the then president, Shri Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, on 20 December 1980.
In June 1987 the squadron moved on to a new generation of aircraft and equipment, when it received the HAL-built Sepecat Jaguar IM maritime version. No 6 Squadron was the last IAF unit to equip with Jaguars, and received a unique variant, the IM maritime version. This variant is distinguishable from other IAF Jaguars by its nose profile, which differs from others by the housing for the Agave radar. The ASTE had, over the preceding two years, carried out a programme of trials and integration for the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile, giving the Jaguar IM a potent strike capability against maritime targets by both day and night. The Jaguar IMs initially re-equipped one flight of the squadron, while the other retained Canberras.
The Canberras continued to be used for target towing, and also for type training, for a few years longer. However in June 1992, the second flight of the squadron was also re-equipped with Jaguar Internationals. The squadron then assumed the additional role of counter-air operations.
With its maritime strike role, No 6 Squadron is regarded as a something of a specialist among the Jaguar units. Says a serving Jaguar pilot, of No 6 Squadron’s role, “ … Sea flying is tricky. You have to be good in instrument navigation, especially at night. Good accurate and mature flying required there, can’t fool around.” The same pilot adds, demonstrating the professional respect that No 6 enjoys from its peers, “That squadron has more experienced guys, they always do good. In all exercises and gunnery meets. Always.”
The squadron continues to fly today, operating two different variants of the Jaguar, for its two continuing roles of maritime strike and counter-air. And behind the crew-cut young men who today ride their powerful 15-ton twin-jet Jaguars into the skies, and service them when they return, there stand the smiling shades of nearly sixty years of predecessors. Those predecessors flew very different aircraft, ranging from 3.5-ton Hurricanes to 65-ton Super Constellations, and a variety of other sizes and types in between. But a few things have stayed the same. From the Liberator period onwards, their aircraft all carried that same Flying Dragon badge painted on the fuselage. Across the generations, they would all recognise the “Crossed Coast” signal that the aircraft of this squadron routinely transmitted, as they headed out over the seas that wash India’s shores. And wherever they are, they share a common stamp, in their log-books and in other senses, which came with their common membership, of No 6 Squadron, Indian Air Force.
Aircraft Types operated by 6 Squadron
|Aircraft Type||From Date||To Date|
|Hawker Hurricane IIc||Dec 1942||Jun 1946|
|Supermarine Spitfire XIVe||Jun 1946||Apr 1947|
|Douglas Dakota C-47||Apr 1947||Aug 1947|
|B-24 Liberator||Jan 1951||Dec 1968|
|Lockheed L.1049G Super Constellation||Oct 1961||May 1975|
|English Electric Canberra B(I)12 , TT418||Jan 1972||Dec 1992|
|Jaguar IM, IS, IB||Jun 1987||Till Date|
Aircraft of the Indian Air Force 1933-73 – Mr. Pushpindar Singh
History of the Indian Air Force 1933-1945 by Mr. S C Gupta, Combined Historical Cell, India-Pakistan Armed Forces.
The Forgotten Air Force by Air Cmde Henry Probert, Brasseys 1995
The Sky was the limit – Wg Cdr (Retd) Murkot Ramunny
Official History of the Indian Armed Forces – The 1971 India Pakistan War – Dr. S N Prasad (Available on the Internet)
No.6 Squadron History, Official Indian Air Force Site at http://www.indianairforce.nic.in/airforce/afsqnn6.htm
Common Wealth War Graves Commission Website http://www.cwgc.org
Lockheed L-1049G Super Constellation by Mr. Anandeep Pannu
The Decade of the Shamsher – Mr. Pushpindar Singh, Air International November 1988.
Unpublished Recollections of Serving and Retired Air Force personnel
The RNZAF Canberra section at the ADF Serial Numbers http://www.adf-serials.com/nz-serials/nz6101.shtml