Kolkata,Few things instantly strike an aviator on arrival over the Imphal valley in months preceding or during monsoons. Firstly, the sky above is seen covered with rain-bearing clouds. Secondly, the ground below seems a vast lake with paddy fields overflowing with rain water. Thirdly, densely covered hill features can be seen on the horizon all around.
All of the above are not quite the ideal conditions for flying leave alone nurturing thoughts of engaging anyone in aerial combats in a single-engine propeller-driven aircraft with no detailed maps of the area and practically non-existent navigational aids. Add to that the nigh possibility of search and rescue in case of a crash in the jungles as a ruled out option. No one is getting airborne here readily as yet.
However, 70 years ago when Indian Air Force was barely over a decade old, daring RIAF pilots (IAF still affixed the 'Royal' prefix then) accomplished just that and with much aplomb. Astonishingly, during the months from early February until end-June 1944, when Imphal was nearly under siege by the Japanese forces, pilots of No. 1 Squadron flew nearly 1928 duly recorded sorties in such circumstances.
There were pilots also from other Air Forces flying in the region including those from the RAF, commonwealth forces and of air elements of the USAAF. Together the allied air forces made the 'Sentais' or the Japanese air 'squadron' components ineffective and redundant in the air battles over Imphal.
The "Tigers" as the IAF's No. 1 Squadron is known was then led by a young and brave Squadron Leader, who is today a living IAF icon, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh. Having tasted early success in Burma in 1942, the squadron equipped with 14 Hurricane IIB fighters volunteered to fly into a war zone that would see one of the fiercest battles ever fought by the British and the Allied Forces anywhere during the Second World War.
Ironically, consequent to an online poll conducted by the National War Museum in UK, and deliberations by military historians and experts later, the combined Battle of Imphal/Kohima in 1944 where over 200,000 Japanese, Britons, Indians, Gurkhas and men from several other nations clashed in the hills and valleys of Manipur was chosen as the greatest land battle Britain and/or its allies ever fought.
Twenty other top land battles fought in a span of 400 years beginning from the English Civil Wars to the recent unrest in Afghanistan vied for the honours. The other battles that figured in the top five included D-Day/Normandy (1944), Waterloo (1815), Rorke's Drift (1879) and Aliwal (1846) in that order.
In so-far-as the air battles are concerned, aerial combats over Imphal may not have been as celebrated as those fought over European theatres where 'flying aces' of the WW-II era were heralded. But by no means the valour or heroism displayed by intrepid IAF pilots here in Imphal any less in comparison. It will be fair to say that the war provided an opportunity for the IAF to grow in stature as well as to be counted amongst one of the most formidable and professional evolving air forces in the world.
Intriguingly, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC in a foreword message of a coffee-table book on the 80th anniversary of No. 1 Squadron, AF released earlier this year in January, had this to say: "The World War-II was quite a boon to the Indian Air Force. The performance of No. 1 Squadron in Burma in 1942 against the superior Japanese Forces had proved the fighting skills of its pilots and highly recognised efficiency of our technicians against a formidable enemy. That is how the rapid expansion of the IAF took place."
No. 1 Squadron was tasked to provide close air support and offensive support to the 17th Indian Division, as well as offensive support to the 2nd Indian Division. The stunning air effort by No. 1 Squadron for the defence of Imphal helped the British-led ground forces make the Japanese suffer one of their worst defeats on land.
At the end of 14 months of continuous air battles in Burma and Imphal by March 1945, No. 1 Squadron deservedly had earned six Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), an unique glory indeed. It was in the hallowed airfield of Koirangee (Imphal Main as it was then known and now, an abandoned airstrip) where Lord Louis Mountbatten pinned the DFC on Squadron Leader Arjan Singh's lapel.
Five others including Flight Lieutenant R Rajaram and Flying Officers - AR Pandit, PS Gupta, BR Rao and KN Kak also were decorated with DFCs. There were also ultimate sacrifices made here and several others lost their lives in operations and accidents including PS Gupta and KN Kak, both DFCs.
The glory of No. 1 Squadron that has so far given eleven 'Air Chiefs' including a much revered 'Marshal' is indeed a history synonymous with IAF's history in its formative years. The "Tigers" are however, still around and prowling. Their roars are today far more thunderous, claws much more sharper and they still bare their fangs ever so menacingly.
(The author was at Imphal for the 70th anniversary commemoration of 'Battle of Imphal' recently)
By Gp Capt Tarun Kumar Singha VSM & Bar, CPRO (Def), Kolkata
Photo courtesy: IAF archives/personal collection of Jagan Pillarisetti