The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force’s contribution to World War II
I considered calling this article ‘Flying & Fighting in the Hawker Hurricane: yes, but not quite a first-hand account) to tie in with this site’s series of excellent pilot interviews. Hush-Kit readers are accustomed to informed, authoritative articles, on flying and fighting in various exotic, high-performance aircraft, representing the best of both Western and Russian technology. These first-hand accounts come straight from experienced practitioners. The Second World War is in a different category. Few experienced practitioners from that war are still with us. Of course, articles from former Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, on flying and fighting in the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, would be fascinating. Thankfully, there are many fine books available, which capture those experiences in the authentic words of people who were there. But accounts by those who flew specifically in the Burma-India theatre are still relatively rare – and accounts of Indian and Burmese personnel rarer still. My book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II (HarperCollins India, 2019) makes an attempt to capture some of them.
The Forgotten Few is the first narrative history of the Indian Air Force’s involvement in the Second World War. Informed by access to Indian Air Force squadrons’ war diaries, and first person inputs compiled from over two dozen veterans of the time, it showcases first-person content straight from those veterans, describing the experience of flying and going into combat in Hurricanes, Spitfires and other aircraft of that era. And that experience was very different from the air war over Europe.
The Indian Air Force’s war, indeed that of all the Air Forces in India, was far from being a simple replication of the Battle of Britain in tropical environs. The physical and meteorological environments were completely different, which drove many changes in equipment and operating procedures. Even flying clothing had to be re-designed, as may be imagined. Most importantly, the tasks of the Air Forces in India were different from those of the RAF at home. They were less about shooting down bombers than about supporting ground (and occasionally naval) forces, by the delivery of fire upon the enemy, sometimes within yards of our own troops; and about reconnaissance and the collection of information, on terrain and enemy dispositions, in an environment with none of the infrastructure that could be taken for granted on the Home Front or in Europe. This was all less spectacular than swirling Battle-of-Britain-type dogfights, but of crucial importance to winning the war in this theatre.
Of course, there were some Battle of Britain parallels. Some fine RAF veterans of the Battle of Britain, and also of the Dams Raid, went on to serve in India; and as elsewhere, they were accorded immense respect. They and their comrades of the Indian Air Force and the Burma Volunteer Air Force (as well as the RAAF, the RCAF, the RNZAF and the South African Air Force, all of which served in the theatre) wore mostly identical uniforms, and frequently played cricket or football between flying and fighting. Like them, the Indian Air Force flew Hurricanes (although only from 1943 onwards) and Spitfires (although only when the RAF was moving on to Thunderbolts). They were all young, high-spirited, and given to schoolboy jokes and pranks. They too, like the mythical Kilroy, Were There.
Indian airmen served during the Second World War in far smaller numbers than Indian soldiers, but again like Kilroy, they showed up in many theatres. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France, and also in the Middle East and North Africa. Broad recognition of Indian contribution has improved in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of the First World War. But the Second World War was a more complex involvement. Indians took on more complex roles, sometimes in the face of strong imperial prejudice.
For the most part, India embraced its role. Indian princely families made significant contributions to the war effort, and some young princes joined the Indian Air Force, just as during the First World War some Indian princes joined elite cavalry regiments. The Indian film and entertainment industry actively supported the war effort, and outside official view there were some unscripted romances between dashing young flyboys and glamorous figures from the film industry, even across national divides. There were also connections to the Indian cricket world, although Indian cricketers did not have the celebrity status then which they enjoy now.
Beyond fighting and flying in Hurricanes and Spitfires, there is an incredibly rich vein of Second World War stories in India. This book starts to tell a few of them.
— K S Nair
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Most welcome piece of forgotten history. Marvellous photographs.