CHAPTER - 7
THE AIR FORCE MUTINY - 1946
The mutiny in the RIAF (Royal Indian Air Force) occurred at almost the same time as the more serious uprisings in the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) and Army units at Jubbulpore in February 1946. Many historians prefer to call it a strike rather than a mutiny, since there was no violence and neither was any one punished. However, the term ‘strike’ is seldom used in the armed forces, collective disobedience always being called a mutiny, irrespective of the number of persons involved and the gravity of the insubordination. Though they occurred at almost the same time, the trouble in the RIAF was quite different from the insurrection that occurred in the other two services. While the disturbances in the Army and the RIN were confined to Indian soldiers and sailors, the unrest in the RIAF was induced by ‘strikes’ by British airmen of the RAF (Royal Air Force). Since no disciplinary action was taken against the British airmen, the authorities had to take a lenient view of the indiscipline by Indian airmen also. Unlike the uprisings in the Navy and the Army that had some nationalistic element, the demands of the RIAF personnel related mostly to pay, rations and travel concessions.
Though the RIAF mutiny was controlled without the use of force, it had far reaching implications. The Indian Air Force - the prefix Royal was added only in 1943 - was just six years old when World War II began, undergoing a ten fold increase in size by the time it ended. Though still minuscule compared to the Indian Army, it was a potent force that could no longer be ignored. Coupled with the more serious incidents in the other two armed forces, it reinforced the perception of the British authorities that the Indian troops could no longer be relied upon to maintain Britain’s hold over India. This necessitated a serious review of British policy, leading ultimately to the decision to pull out of India.
Three Indians pilots held commissions in the RAF during World War I, fighting with great gallantry. They were Lieutenant H.S Malik, 2nd Lieutenant E.S.C. Sen and Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy. Sen was shot down over Germany and became a prisoner of war, while Roy was killed in air combat in July 1918. It was only in 1930 that a decision was taken to establish an air force in India. Officers selected as pilots were sent to Cranwell in UK for training, while the ground staff, recruited as hawai sepoys (air soldiers) were trained in India. The first batch of five Indians commissioned as pilot officers comprised Sircar, Subroto Mukerjee, Bhupinder Singh, A. Singh and A.D. Dewan. The IAF (Indian Air Force) formally came into being on 1 April 1933, when the first Indianised squadron – No. 1 Squadron - was formed at Karachi, exactly 15 years after the creation of the RAF.1
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, it was decided to form the IAFVR (Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve) to take over the task of coastal defence from the RAF. Following the commencement of the Japanese offensive in South East Asia in December 1941, a flight of the IAFVR was flown to Moulmein to carry out anti-submarine and convoy protection operations. After the capture of Moulmein by Japanese forces, No. 3 IAFVR Squadron was sent to Rangoon for reconnaissance and convoy protection duties. As British forces withdrew in the face of the relentless Japanese offensive, No. 1 Squadron arrived at Toungoo, where they were subjected to raids by the Japanese Air Force on the first day itself. During the next two days, Squadron Leader K.K. ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar led the whole squadron on raids against the Japanese base at Mehingson inflicting severe damage and earning a great moral victory. The exploit not only made Majumdar a hero overnight but also enhanced the reputation of the fledgling IAF in its first major operation during the war. In view of its splendid performance during the war, the IAF was given the prefix ‘Royal’ on its tenth anniversary, becoming the RIAF (Royal Indian Air Force) on 1 April 1943.
From one squadron in 1939 the IAF had grown to three by the beginning of 1942, the year which saw the greatest expansion in its size. By the end of 1942, it had seven squadrons; during the next year another two were added, bringing its strength to nine squadrons by the beginning of 1944. The number of personnel had increased correspondingly, from 16 officers and 269 airmen at the beginning of the war to 1,200 officers and over 20,000 trained airmen, with another 6,000 undergoing training, besides about 2,000 followers. In the early years of the war, 20 Indian pilots had been sent to the UK to help the RAF, which had run perilously short of pilots during the Battle of Britain. These Indian pilots served in RAF squadrons and did sterling work during the critical months, carrying out fighter sweeps over France and escorting bombers. Seven Indian pilots were killed in operations, the remainder returning to India in mid 1942. One of the pilots who returned from the German front with a DFC was K.K. Majumdar, who later died in an air crash at Lahore in February 1945. 2
While World War I lasted four years, World War II continued for six years. When it ended in 1945, everyone was weary and drained out. Many of the participants had been away from their homes for several years and were eagerly looking forward to a reunion with their families. Demobilisation began soon after the end of the war, but the sheer numbers of servicemen, especially from the USA and UK, made the process slow and time consuming. Hundreds of thousands of troops were literally doing nothing, waiting for ships to take them home from remote and inhospitable corners of the globe. The wait seemed interminable, and most men were unable to comprehend the reasons for the delay in sending them home. Coupled with the delay in repatriation, another major problem was the uncertain future that most of the men faced. Resettlement and rehabilitation measures obviously could not cater for all the servicemen, who knew that they would have to fend for themselves. Wartime industries that employed millions of workers were closing down, and most of the men shedding uniforms had neither the training nor the experience for the new enterprises that were coming up.
The first sign of unrest came from American troops based in Germany who held mass parades to demand speedier demobilisation and repatriation. These parades were given wide publicity on the American forces programmes that were very popular and eagerly heard by servicemen all over the world. Similar demonstrations by American soldiers in Calcutta could not leave British troops serving in South East Asia unaffected and it was only a matter of time before the virus spread to other stations. Apart from the logistics, another reason for the slow rate of demobilisation of British servicemen was the uncertainty about the future of British rule in India. As late as June 1946, the Chiefs of Staff in London were still considering various options, one of which was to continue British rule in India, for which seven additional divisions would be needed. This would naturally result in suspending the process of demobilisation, with serious implications, especially the effect on morale.3
Taking a cue from the Americans, British airmen at the RAF base at Mauripur refused to join duty on 22 January 1946. The Inspector General of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, who was on tour in South East Asia, and was passing through Mauripur at the time, held a meeting with the men to ascertain their grievances. The men had many complaints, most of which were related to aspects of demobilisation that could only be dealt with at a higher level by the Cabinet or the Air Ministry. One such grievance was, ‘why is RAF demobilisation so slow compared with that in the Army and the Navy?’ Air Chief Marshal Barratt explained that practically all the points raised by the men had been explained in the demobilisation forms which were a part of the release scheme and kept the personnel fully in the picture, explaining the reasons for the various actions taken, especially with regard to the release under classes ‘B’ and ‘C’.
The men were not satisfied and demanded that a Parliamentary representative should visit them so that they could impress upon him, and he on Parliament, their feelings about the slow speed of demobilisation. A Parliamentary delegation was then in India and they asked that it should visit Mauripur. Air Chief Marshal Barratt assured the men that he would forward their demands to Air Ministry, and asked the men to return to work but they refused. He warned the airmen that nothing would be obtained under threat and urged them to return to duty. The meeting ended with no promises made. The Air Officer Commanding 229 Group stated that he would be able to get the men back to work that afternoon. After making his report to the Air Ministry, the Inspector General proceeded on his pre-arranged tour programme. The situation remained unchanged in the evening. Many of the men showed an inclination to join duty but appeared to be fearful of rough treatment at the hands of others.
In his report to the Air Ministry, Air Chief Marshal Barratt had mentioned all their grievances, asking for a reply to be sent to the Air Officer Commanding India. As regards the demand for the Parliamentary delegation already in India to visit Mauripur, he felt that the delegation was visiting parts of the Commonwealth for an entirely different purpose and it would not be wise to permit the members to address the men, as they were not well versed in the intricacies of the demobilisation policy of the government and did not understand the feelings of the personnel in South East Asia. However, it was possible for Mr Harold Davies, the MP for Leek, who was visiting South East Asia, to meet the airmen. Mr Davies had already visited units in India, Burma and Malaya in order to keep the men in touch with the new Government’s policy and, during his tour, had spoken to hundreds of servicemen.4
News of the strike at Mauripur soon spread to Ceylon, the first unit being affected being at Negombo, where the personnel of No. 32 Staging Post refused to carryout servicing of aircraft. The morning York service from Mauripur on 23 January 1946 was serviced by the aircrew themselves, giving an indication that something was amiss. As at Mauripur, the major complaint was that of slow demobilisation, the other grievances being bad administration and lack of sports facilities and entertainment. The men felt that personnel of the Fleet Air Arm should be drafted into the RAF to assist with key trades, and expedite the RAF release. Another cause for complaint was that RAF airmen were being asked to work on BOAC and Qantas aircraft. The men felt that this had two effects: firstly, that the air passage of civilians was delaying release of servicemen and secondly, that the employment of airmen was incorrectly providing aviation companies with cheap labour.
The Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore Chilton was on his way to the Cocos Islands when he received news of the strike. He returned to Negombo and talked to the men, promising to remedy the local problems straightaway. As regards the drafting of personnel of the Fleet Air Arm, speeding up demobilisation and servicing of civilian aircraft, he assured them that these would be forwarded to the Air Ministry. With the resolution of grievances concerning administration, sports facilities and entertainment, it was hoped that the men would resume duty on the following day. Air Commodore Chilton decided to continue his flight since the news of the Negombo incident had reached 129 Staging Post in the Cocos Islands where it was understood that the airmen intended taking similar action.
However, on his arrival at the Cocos Islands, he found the station running smoothly, with no sign of trouble. While he was visiting the station he received a signal asking him to return to Negombo where the situation had deteriorated. The stoppage of work by the airmen had spread from the Staging Post to the rest of the station including the Communication and Meteorological Flights. The men were well behaved but adamant. The Air Officer Commanding tried to convince the men that no good would come of their strike irrespective of what was happening in India. The men continued to complain of the delays regarding repatriation and mails. It was pointed out that by refusing to work they would delay their release and mails even more. Releases were governed by the Manpower Committee in London and the local RAF authorities could do little more than forward the complaints to the Air Ministry.
By this time the disaffection had spread and by 26 January airmen at Koggala, Ratmalana and Colombo were also involved. It was apparent from reports received from various units that broadcasts made by the BBC on 24 and 25 January were largely responsible for the information reaching them, bringing out feelings that were dormant and encouraging them to emulate their colleagues who had joined the strike. Except at Negombo where the relations between the Station and Staging Post were not easy, at other stations the unit commanders and officers were in close touch with the men, addressing them at the first sign of trouble. However, the problems concerning repatriation and release could not be solved by them on their own, though every effort was made to take the men into confidence and explain the policy in this regard. Many of the grievances, such as disparity in releases compared to RAF personnel in UK and faster repatriation of personnel of the Navy and Army were unfounded.
Meanwhile, the strikes in RAF stations in India continued to spread. On 26 January 1946 Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr, Air Officer Commanding, British Air Forces in South East Asia, sent a signal to the Air Ministry giving details of the stoppage of work that had occurred at Palam, Dum Dum, Poona, Cawnpore and Vizagapatnam, in addition to Mauripur. Except at Mauripur, all stoppages were of short duration but it was considered that other units were likely to be affected. The majority of units were ‘striking’ in an orderly and respectful manner in order to register a protest against the Government’s policy, and then returning to work. Air Marshal Carr considered that unless the Government shouldered the responsibility of making a comprehensive statement, even if that statement did not meet the airmen’s requirements, he anticipated that the men would strike again. Units that had returned to work had done so on the assumption that their dissatisfaction with the demobilisation policy had been presented to the Government from which they were expecting a comprehensive statement. No promises were made, but the men had been informed that the questions raised in the Inspector General’s report had been forwarded to the Secretary of State. In conclusion, Air Marshal Carr stressed that he saw no alternative to a Government statement. While he agreed that the Government should not be called upon to issue a general statement as a concession to indiscipline, he felt that in this instance, failure to do so it may have serious consequences.
The stoppage of work on RAF stations in India influenced the personnel of the RIAF also. Reports of men staying away from work were received from Trichinopoly and No. 228 Group. The main cause of discontent - demobilisation – was augmented by complaints regarding leave, food and family allowances. In addition to speeding up their in release, the Indian airmen requested that family and ration allowances should be paid to them while on leave. They maintained that granting only one free rail warrant per annum meant hardship to airmen who had to split their leave in two or three parts. They requested that that either additional railway warrants should be given or permission granted to avail their entire leave at one time during the year.
The strikes in the RIAF alarmed the authorities, since they could have an adverse effect on the political situation in the country. The Air Marshal Commanding, British Air Forces in South East Asia sent a signal to all RAF units informing them of this. The signal, which was not sent to RIAF units, read:
The Government plan for demobilization must be a balanced one: our industries at home require manpower, but this cannot be provided at the risk of endangering the safety of the World. There are still defence problems in India. The public press has recently made it clear that a political crisis is approaching, a crisis which may only be solved by little short of civil war. If you wish, you may quote me as authority for this. The Government at Home are now fully aware that conscripts in the RAF have little or no pride in their service. I do not believe that these misguided airmen who took part in the recent so-called strikes appreciate that their action may be endangering the safety of India. Already their example has been followed by the RIAF. Such actions can only encourage civil disturbances and may lead to grave consequences for everyone in India including those airmen who are not due for repatriation in the near future.5
The Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was also concerned by the RIAF strikes. He signalled all commanders in South East Asia, stressing that it was essential that pay and allowances and other conditions of service in the post-war Indian Air Force should be made known to all concerned, with the least possible delay. The Government of India had set up a committee to examine and make recommendations on the terms and conditions of service to be applied to the post war Indian forces, including the Air Force. The work of the committee would be hastened with due regard to the necessity of arriving at a well considered conclusion. The message continued:
I have collected from various sources a full list of the grievances of the Royal Indian Air Force airmen and will do everything in my power to have them investigated. To do this thoroughly will take time. I must make it clear to all concerned that I cannot condone the serious breaches of discipline that have taken place during the last twelve days, and any improvement in conditions that I may be able to make will not, repeat, not be a concession to discipline. I will always accept honest complaints if passed to me through the correct channels. I would like to assure both officers and other ranks personnel who desire to continue in the service that the Royal Indian Air Force offers a fine career to the right man.
Meanwhile, the strikes in RAF stations continued to spread, with the most serious incident occurring at Seletar in Singapore on 26 January 1946, followed by a similar incident at Kallang on the very next day. The Allied Air Commander-in-Chief visited Seletar and had detailed discussions with the men, which he reported to the Air Ministry. Realising the seriousness of the matter, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Clement Atlee, made a statement in the House of Commons on 29 January, outlining the measures being taken to expedite repatriation and release, which seemed to be the root cause of the trouble. On the same day the men of 194 (Transport) Squadron in Rangoon stopped work. However, they returned to work the next day. The unit was scheduled for disbandment in the near future but in view of this incident, it was disbanded on 15 February 1946.
The mutiny by ratings of the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946 added a new dimension to the problem, especially at Bombay, where the RIAF airmen went on a sympathetic strike. To subdue the mutineers who had taken control of ships and were threatening to bombard Bombay, one of the measures being seriously considered was air attacks using rocket projectiles. However, in view of the strike by RIAF personnel, the authorities felt that Indian squadrons could not be used for this purpose. Responding to an appeal from Sir Roderick Carr, Air Officer Commanding British Air Forces in South East Asia, the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, Sir Keith Park agreed to divert some aircraft from his resources. However, in view of the recent experience in Java, he advised Carr to obtain the approval of the C-in-C India before using RAF and RIAF aircraft in an offensive role against the local population. 6
RIAF personnel refused to report for duty at many stations for varying periods. The Naval strike came to an end on 23 February 1946, leading to improvement in the situation at Bombay, though the airmen had still not resumed duty. Other than Bombay, the stations that continued to be affected were Cawnpore, Allahabad and Jodhpur, though conditions seemed to be improving and were expected to become normal soon. However a serious incident occurred in Rangoon, where 140 RIAF personnel failed to report for duty on 23 February. When asked for their grievances, the airmen listed the following demands:-
· Equal rights with BORs in the Unit canteen
· Equal distribution of Unit dues between the RAF and RIAF.
· Separate Mess for RIAF with half BOR and half Indian type rations.
· Weekly show of Indian films.
· Separate recreation room with Indian periodicals.
· Full entitlement of leave for all RIAF personnel.
· Better living conditions.
· Higher scale of pay and allowances.
· Second class railways warrants
· Speed up demobilisation.
On the night of 24 February the Commanding Officer interviewed two of the of the men’s representatives and informed them that their grievances had been forwarded to the Air Marshal Commanding Air Headquarters Burma. Grievances that could be resolved locally would be dealt by the Air Marshal personally while the remaining questions concerning pay, allowances and demobilisation would be forwarded to higher authorities. The Commanding Officer emphasized that the men must return to duty before their demands could be considered. The representatives agreed and gave an assurance that they would do so, but the men did not join duty until 28 February 1946.
In February there was strike at Kohat, the only Air Force station in India manned by the RIAF, where the Station Commander was Group Captain (later Air Chief Marshal) A.M ‘Aspy’ Engineer. An account of the strike and how it was handled has been described by Squadron Leader (later Air Vice Marshal) Harjinder Singh, who was then posted at Air Force Station Peshawar. On 26 February Harjinder received a telephone call from Flight Lieutenant Shahzada, Adjutant of the Air Force Station Kohat informing him that the airmen had gone on strike that morning. The men had collected at the aerodrome from where they intended to take out a protest march through the city. Group Captain Engineer had asked the Adjutant to inform Harjinder that he had already requisitioned some Gurkha troops from the Army to erect a road block at the aerodrome gate, and if necessary, open fire on the strikers if they tried to force their way out. Harjinder asked his Station Commander, Group Captain Vallaine, to permit him to fly to Kohat, without giving him any reason. Fortunately, Vallaine agreed, and detailed Flying Officer Glandstein to take Harjinder to Kohat in a Harvard aircraft.
After reaching Kohat, Harjinder reported to the Station Commander who gave him some more details of the strike. Apparently the men were in no mood to listen to any officer and he advised Harjinder not to go near them. Harjinder felt that unless the situation was brought under control immediately, it would be the end of the only Indian Air Force station in the country. He asked for permission to approach the strikers and talk to them. Engineer refused, but when Harjinder insisted, he relented, telling the latter that that he would not be responsible for his life. When Harjinder approached the strikers, who had collected on the airstrip, one of them shouted: ‘Don’t let this officer come near, because he will call off the strike.’ But there were others who differed, and wanted him to come. Harjinder proposed that they take a vote by show of hands, and was pleasantly surprised when the majority elected to hear him. After talking to the men, Harjinder found that they had heard that it was planned to bomb and machine gun the Naval ratings that had gone on strike in Bombay. When asked for their demands, they said that the Station Commander should send a message to the Commander-in-Chief in Delhi telling him that the Indian Air Force Station Kohat refuses to cooperate in bombing their colleagues in the Navy. Also in the signal it should be clearly mentioned that the Air Force Station Kohat sympathizes with the relatives of the people who have been killed in the firing at Bombay. The rest of the story is best described by Harjinder in his own words:
To my mind, it was a reasonable demand and I asked them: “Is that all?” and they all said “Yes”. So I told them:” I will guarantee that the Station Commander will do what you have asked, and what is more, there was never an intention of sending Indian Air Force Squadrons to bomb and machine-gun our naval colleagues and there must have been some misunderstanding.
After addressing the men further and quietening them down I told them that they had disgraced themselves by striking, and before it was too late they should report back to work; and as a first consequence, they should immediately fall in. The men readily agreed. I got them fallen-in in three ranks and marched them to the Cinema hall. I told them to accept any punishment that the Station Commander gave without hesitation and if the station Commander asked them: “Did you go on strike?” they should say “No, we never had any such intention.” It took me exactly ten minutes to settle the issue in this way.
After marching the airmen into the Cinema hall, I reported to the Station Commander and briefed him on what to say. In fairness to Aspy I must say he sent the signal to General Auchinleck on the lines that I had promised the airmen. When he went into the Cinema hall and asked the men whether they had intended to go on strike, the men with one voice shouted: “No.” As preplanned, he said: “All right, but as a punishment for your indiscipline this morning, I am ordering extra parades in the afternoon for the whole Station for one month.” They filed out of the hall quietly enough.
After the ‘strike’ was over, I took off for Peshawar. Some days alter I heard that the Station Commander had been called up by Delhi and given a sound dressing down because of the signal which he ah sent concerning the Indian Naval mutiny at Bombay.7
Another strike that was defused by an Indian officer was the one at the Factory Road Camp in Delhi. The strike lasted four days and was eventually broken by sympathetic handling by Group Captain (later Air Chief Marshal) Subroto Mukerjee, who was ably assisted by Warrant Officer Verghese. After the strike ended, RAF Intelligence was asked to identify the ring leaders. Based on their report, Air Headquarters decided to discharge the personnel involved in the strike. Surprisingly, the first name on the list was that of Warrant Officer Verghese, who had been instrumental in subduing the strike. It was only after Subroto Mukerjee intervened with Air Marshal Sir Rodrick Carr that the orders for Verghese’s discharge were withdrawn.
Though officially classified as a mutiny, the incidents in the RIAF were nothing more than ‘strikes’. In almost all cases, the airmen resorted to stoppage of work or a sit down strike. They was no slogan shouting, waving of flags or processions, as happened in the mutinies in the other two services that occurred at almost the same time. No violence was used, by the strikers or the authorities, and in most cases the strikes ended after the intervention of officers who assured the men that their grievances would be looked into sympathetically. None of the participants were punished, though a few of the ring leaders were discharged from service. Though the strikes were not serious, they brought to light the feeling of discontent among the Indian personnel serving in the Air Force, forcing the British authorities to review the dependability of the armed forces in India. This played a part in the decision of the British to quit India in 1947.
This chapter is largely based on N. Mansergh and Penderel Moon’s The Transfer of Power, (London, 1982); Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes’ Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993); Air Commodore A.L. Saigal’s Birth of An Air Force – The Memoirs of Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh, (New Delhi, 1977); and documents in the Ministry of Defence, History Division, New Delhi. Specific references are given below:-
1. Air Commodore A.L. Saigal (ed.), Birth of An Air Force – The Memoirs of Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh, (New Delhi, 1977), p. 34.
2. Saigal, p. 216.
3. Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon, (ed.) The Transfer of Power 1942- 47 (12 vols, London, 1982), vii, pp. 894-5
4. A Brief History of Events Associated with The Disaffection and ‘Strikes’ Among Personnel in the RAF units of Air Command, South East Asia, Ministry of Defence, History Division, (MODHD), New Delhi, 601/9768/H, pp. 1-2
5. ibid., p. 10.
6. ibid., p. 24.
7. Saigal, pp. 218-21