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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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