Amongst my interests is constructing scale models of aircraft. I was assembling a Hawker Hurricane that I wanted to finish in the markings and colours of the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the Second World War. The Indian Air Force (the title of “Royal” was awarded in 1945), had been established in 1933 as an auxiliary to the Royal Air Force. Its first squadron was raised a year later but the force only expanded at the beginning of the Second World War with a number of Coastal Defense Flights (CDF). Some of these CDFs provided the nucleus for nine squadrons of the IAF that were raised from 1941 to 1945 to fight in Burma with a variety of aircraft, including the Hawker Hurricane. The website Bharat Rakshak has comprehensive information on the RIAF in Burma and as I browsed through the pictures and articles, out of the depths of my memories, I remembered my mother telling me that her brother had flown Hurricanes in Burma. My uncle told her how the flying was extremely hazardous and dangerous – and how difficult it was to fit his six-foot frame into the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane.
I had a very good idea of what he looked like in his youth from the picture that my mother always kept on her bedside table and out of curiosity I started looking for a face that resembled him amongst the many pictures on Bharat Rakshak. I concentrated on the squadrons that flew Hurricanes, but not knowing which squadron he had flown with, it was difficult to narrow my search. The strange coincidence is that at this very time when I was thinking of him and how nice it would have been to ask him about the war and so much else, he passed away in Bangalore. When I condoled with his son in the UK, I also mentioned my quest but he had no idea of his father’s war record. However, what he would email to me was a photograph of his father shaking hands with Lord “Dickey” Mountbatten somewhere in Burma. I waited for the photograph with the same eagerness that a child waits for Christmas.
When the picture appeared in my mail, I knew I had struck gold and dived back into Bharat Rakshak. I now had two solid leads to work on. The first was a visit by the Supreme Commander Allied Forces, Lord Louis Mountbatten to a frontline squadron; an event that had to be on record. The second lead was the Sikh officer standing with his back to the picture, who was certainly the squadron commander. In my estimation, there couldn’t have been too many Sikh squadron commanders and both these leads came together (or so I thought), in the picture of Mountbatten decorating Squadron Leader Arjan Singh, who was commanding No 1 Squadron in Burma. Arjan Singh was a brilliant officer who subsequently commanded the IAF during the 1965 War and was awarded the rank of Air Marshal.
I thought that the picture of my uncle and that of Arjan Singh had been taken on the same occasion and it didn’t take much probing to confirm that No 1 Squadron was operating Hawker Hurricanes. Delighted, I informed my cousin but my conclusion was premature and faulty. A few days later I was back into the website of Bharat Rakshak when I saw a picture taken during a meet of the RIAF squadron commanders in Ambala. I realized that out of the nine RIAF squadrons operating in Burma, four were commanded by Sikhs. Life is rarely easy and I was back to my search.
Finally, in the history of No 6 Squadron, I came across the following: “In March Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh (6th Squadron) received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). […] Both Air Marshal Baldwin, AOC Third TAF, as well as Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander SEAC, visited the squadron during this period, and one of them (it is not certain which – sources differ on this detail) personally invested Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh with the decoration.”
Fondly known as ‘Baba’, he was one of the most celebrated fighter pilots of the RIAF and the only one to be awarded a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) which is generally in recognition of effective leadership rather than personal bravery. Air Marshal Asghar Khan who flew operational sorties in Burma in 1944 confirms that, “With the solitary exception of Squadron Leader Mehar Singh, a pilot of outstanding ability, no one was able to inspire confidence among us.” While some flew in 1930 Pattern Flying Boots or in the 1943 Pattern ‘Escape’ Boots, or shoes with stockings, or ammunition boots with anklets, ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh preferred to fly barefoot!
So now Mountbatten had visited two squadrons commanded by Sikhs but the question still remained unanswered as to who was the squadron commander with his back to the camera. Researching history is akin to a detective searching for clues. When I closely scrutinized the pictures I noticed that in both the pictures there was a squadron commander who was wearing a Karha on his wrist. The Karha is a bracelet that has a religious significance for the Sikhs. The arc of search had narrowed further but I still hadn’t hit the bullseye till I came across the unit rosters of the RIAF during the Second World War held by the National Archives in UK. I first scrolled down the roster of No 1 Squadron and drew a blank but when I checked out No 6 Squadron, there he was!
No initials, no service number but certainly an entry of “Plt Offr Butt”. Armed with this information I approached the webmaster of Bharat Rakshak and got an immediate response from Jagan Pillarisetti who is an authority on the history of the RIAF and its predecessor.
Jagan diligently went through various records and confirmed that Mahmood joined the 10th Pilot Course and was trained at the No. 1 Service Flying Training School, Ambala. He was commissioned on 15 October 1941 and most likely allotted service number IND/1766. There is no record of when he joined No 6 Squadron which was raised in December 1942 under the command of the redoubtable ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh. The pilots were mainly from the IAF Volunteer Reserve and transferred from No 1 and 2 Coastal Defence Flight (CDF). The squadron was designated as a fighter-reconnaissance unit, and equipped with Hawker Hurricane FR.IIb at Bhopal in March 1943. In November 1943, it moved to Cox’s Bazar, for its first operational deployment to support the Third Arakan Campaign.
The squadron role was to provide air photographs as well as tactical reconnaissance (Tac/R) ahead of the troops advancing through virtually unmapped jungle and mountainous terrain. The Hurricanes were always visible to the troops flying in the Tac/R pairing of Leader and Weaver and the brace was referred to as “the Arakan Twins”. The Leader would navigate, whilst the Weaver (slang for Wingman) maintained a lookout for the deadly Japanese Oscars, which was a highly nimble fighter. Jagan sourced a report of a Tac/R sortie that “Plt Offr Butt” had flown probably as a Weaver on 11 December 1943, in which the pair attacked a 15 cwt truck. Flying 50 feet above the jungle canopy at 200 mph was stressful. While keeping an eye on the instruments, the pilot had to navigate through valleys, dodging tall trees and high ground and keeping a lookout for thunder storms. Simultaneously he had to search for any telltale signs of the Japanese; a bridge that looked destroyed but well-worn tracks on both ends suggested the passage of vehicles; several tracks converging on a point might be an indication of a mechanical transport park. The moment he spotted something, he had to mark the spot on his map and furiously scribble the details on his little pad. It is on record that pilots were flying up to six sorties a day, each averaging an hour and a half.
Jagan also located an entry in the war diary of No 6 Squadron that puts a date to the picture of my uncle and Mountbatten: “14/12/43. Louis Mountbatten visits the Squadron and meets the officers.” Three months earlier, Mountbatten had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command (SEAC). General William Slim, the Commander of the Fourteenth Army in Burma also visited the squadron and in his book Defeat into Victory records: “I was particularly impressed with the conduct of the Squadron led by a young Sikh Squadron Leader [Mehar Singh]. They were a happy and efficient unit.” Under the leadership of Mehar Singh, the Hurricanes of No 6 Squadron came to be known as the Eyes of the Fourteenth Army. Unlike his contemporary Arjan Singh, Mehar Singh resigned from the IAF in 1948. Sadly, he died in an air crash in 1952 when his commercial flight from Jammu to New Delhi was caught in a storm.
At Independence, Mahmood Butt decided not to immigrate to Pakistan. “Who will look after the Muslims here if we all leave?” he said to my mother when she asked him if he was coming along. During the riots he used to drive around the bloodstained streets in uniform rescuing Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. Mahmood subsequently transferred to the UP cadre of the Indian Civil Service and made a name for himself. An Indian friend tells me that he was one of the legendary members of the ICS and there were legions of stories about him. His name “Mahmood Butt” was uttered in awe by the public in whose mind he had a huge presence for being fearless and tough. He was an able, no nonsense administrator who would not give into the harassing or threats by the “netas” (politicians).
Mahmood Butt, was the first Muslim Chief Secretary that UP had and held the office from 1975-77 in which period Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. On his retirement, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him to join the Congress. “Why didn’t you?” asked my mother to which he replied, “Tahirah! I had seen her from too close and did not like the woman at all.”
Another great read. Well done Maj Gen.