It wasn’t a regular lethargic Saturday afternoon for me, as I was sure of an appointment with Mr. K Sree Kumar (alias K.S Nair), who is a graduate of IIT Delhi and IIM Bangalore, and has served at senior levels up to Vice President, CEO, and Director, at several multinational and boutique firms, in the areas of management consulting, investment and development.
Now what is so unique about a white-collar corporate figure like him to share an exclusive appointment with me on a weekend? So, it happens that outside of his professional corporate interests, he has been writing on the Indian Air Force (IAF) and military issues in developing countries for over 20 years now. And, that’s the point of profound common interest.
A son and son-in-law to senior Indian Air Force officers, both of whom served from 1950 till the 1980s, Mr. Nair had a fascination for the world of aviation and military since his childhood. The “Biggles” book series and “Commando War Stories” of British origin were the favorite reading materials for him as a kid. Even now, he says they showcased reasonably accurate backgrounds to World War II stories – except that there was very little Indian presence in those stories. Undeniably, they have remained a form of inspiration since then to his sober and gentle soul-mind now.
Mr. Nair, who started publishing on aviation and military issues at an early age of 30 so far, has published around 50 related articles, including some in American, British and Japanese publications. He also contributed to well-acclaimed books like Dragon Fire, The India Pakistan Air War 1965, Burma Air War and others. It started with his participation on e-mail groups and forums, which combined young Defence enthusiasts like him with veterans from the military services.
Recently, on October 11th, the writer raised a toast with his family and close friends to celebrate the ‘on-shelf’ moment for his new book, titled – The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War Two in New Delhi, India.
His new book is a contemporary one-volume narrative history, of the Indian Air Force’s contribution during World War II. The author believes that the World War II was an important part of India’s journey to Independence and national identity; yet till recently the Indian contribution was almost untouched by contemporary writers. The Indian Air Force in particular is a young service branch which stood with only one Squadron since its inception in 1932. It gradually acquired larger scale, initially by inducting hobby flyers, who had to turn into professionals as the force took wing.
In his view, the war remains one of the greatest global transformations in history, and Indians were involved on a truly massive scale. And yet, the Indian component of this globe-straddling story, reverberations of which still echo today, is barely known. And if the land campaign is barely known, the air component of India’s effort is virtually non-existent, in wider memory.
Interacting with the WW-II veterans was a spare-time pursuit to the author for long. It got stimulated, when he had the opportunity to find ‘Original Sources’ of the eras. That was a turning point, to join the dots for him to shape-up the manuscript accurately. The author points out that, in the UK as a policy government records that are 30 years old are automatically ‘Declassified’ and made available for public scrutiny on common domains.
Hence, getting his hands on the Op-Records and other docs of the first 10 Sqns till independence wasn’t a maze run at all. He was able to take references which backed his own decades-long personal research works.
The Forgotten Few – will bring back to light some of the lost and unsung stories of the Indian Air Force. It claims to recall Indians who built the foundations of human and physical infrastructure for what is now the world’s fourth-largest Air Force in the world today.
It will show Indians flying into grim battle in criminally obsolete aircraft in the first years of the war, and yet emerging with credit. It will show them flying iconic Hurricane fighters from the green fields of England, alongside Churchill’s “Few”. And it will follow them, as they became a key component of the massive war machine that reconquered Burma. These are almost completely forgotten stories, and The Forgotten Few promises to re-tell them to a new generation.
The book benefits from several first-person interviews with some of the last Indian survivors of World War II. In addition, the author has secured access to original war diaries held at the UK National Archives, which still holds copies of Indian units’ documents up to 26 January 1950. These enable a high level of fidelity in the book.
The Forgotten Few starts by recounting efforts to establish and build the IAF. When there was an official acceptance at high levels of the Raj-era government, of the need for an Indian Air Force. The book accounts the considerable resistance and scepticism at lower levels, which was there then.
The chapters also follow the struggles of the early years, including for credibility with the British. Growth was painfully slow; attrition among Indian personnel was high; and in even two years into World War-II the IAF had painfully was able to build itself up to just one squadron.
Overall there are total of 10 chapters in the new book, to which two chapters were dedicatedly focused on 1944 that witnessed the IAF fully committed to large-scale fighting, as part of the massive offensive into Burma. Attacks into Burma are successful at first but are pushed back by fierce Japanese resistance and terrain challenges. Late during the Arakan campaign, the Japanese launch separate offensives themselves, on both the Northern and the Southern ends of the front. IAF squadrons are closely involved in the quick blunting of the Japanese offensive in the South, but the Northern one succeeds at first, and three crack Japanese divisions fight their way to within a stone’s throw of the plains of Assam. The IAF is then called to join the critical battles of Kohima and Imphal, which represent the final turn of the tide in Burma against the Japanese.
These were some of the classic land and air campaigns which have been accounted well in the book by the author. Alongside, growing years like 1941, 1942, 1943 till 1947, when finally, on 15 of August, the RIAF flies the first flypast of Independent India over Delhi, as the tricolor is unfurled and hoisted aloft.
In the course of an in-depth read, one would also get to enlighten with the large-scale expansion of Indian armed forces that contributed to major social transformations, strengthening India’s readiness for Independence, then and how. These developments form a pivotal part of the background to the narrative.
The Forgotten Few includes coverage of a little-known aspect of the IAF’s experience, that they continued operations and endured some losses for a year or more after World War II had nominally ended, in Burma, South East Asia, and Japan itself.
Whilst I recommend this good read to you all, I must admit in recent years, some books have begun to emerge, both in India and overseas, which have started the process of documenting Indian involvement in the World Wars.
This is welcome, but the new books remain focused almost entirely on the (admittedly much larger) land component of the wars. Whereas, The Forgotten Few, takes you to those heights of thought where one gets an aerial bird eye view to actuals then, and, now of our potent and always combat-ready air warriors. Happy reading! and Safe landings.
(The writer is a Delhi-based independent contributor to print and online publications)