Beyond The Last Blue Mountain
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retired)
Remembering the saga of Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO
The Chambers Dictionary defines a maverick as a ‘determinedly independent person; a nonconformist’. Through the run of history, mavericks, (call them pioneers if you will), have had problems with conforming. Often on their way to success, they have created their own methods of work or dream execution and have rebelled when restrained. A maverick, a path breaker, thus has a persona not necessarily appreciative of contrary viewpoints. The search for excellence is so demanding on their psyche, that he/she tend to become loners; at times abrasive, impatient with those in authority who do not share their world view, their vision, their insatiable curiosity of what lies beyond the last Blue Mountain…
No. 1559, GD (P) Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO, one of the bravest, most daring, free spirited, fearless, tempestuous and, yes, abrasive pioneers of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was one such maverick. He set standards in flying diverse aircraft, in sheer pilot skills, personal courage, and in his quest to single mindedly reach beyond the last Blue Mountain of flying challenges that are held in awe and reverence in Air Forces of Britain, India and Pakistan till today. Had we a military writer of the class of a BH Liddell Hart or a JFC Fuller, ‘Baba’ Mehar as he was irreverently known, would have had the same visibility as Charles Lindbergh (nicknamed “Lonely Eagle”), the American civilian who made the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew from Roosevelt Airfield in New York on 20 May 1927, piloting a single engine, high wing, fabric covered Ryan NYP monoplane named The Spirit of St. Louis, and landed an astonishing 33 1/2 hours later, on 21 May at the Le Bourget Airfield in Paris, to a hero’s welcome, permanent international fame and a retiring rank of an Reserve List Air Commodore. He also won the $25000 Raymond Orteig prize for being the first to fly across the Atlantic. When Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, cooped up for almost 34 hours alone in that little plane, the New York Sun wrote an editorial:
“Is he alone at whose right hand rides Courage, with Skill within the cockpit and Faith upon his left? Does solitude surround the brave when Adventure leads the way and Ambition reads the dials?”
In my perception, Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh was in Lindberg’s class. Entirely. The details that follow explain why.
Born in a well-to-do family of Lyallpur District (now in Pakistan) on 20 March, 1915, Mehar Singh was selected for the RIAF in 1933, when studying in B Sc. A journalist, P.S. Chanana, who wrote a commemorative article on him in The Tribune titled “Remembering the Air Fighter Who Knew No Fear” in 2003 in the Tribune, notes that during his nearly three years of training at the prestigious RAF training academy in Cranwell, England, (later the alma mater of Marshal of the Air Force [MIAF] Arjan Singh, Padma Bhushan, DFC as well), he impressed the college authorities by his single-mindedness, discipline and spirit of comradeship. His Commandant, Air Vice Marshal H.M. Grave wrote about him: “Keen, cheerful, hardworking and popular. His work compares favorably with that of English cadets. A creditable effort! An exceptionally good pilot, keen on games and has represented the college at hockey of which he is an excellent player.”
Mehar Singh was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in August 1936 and posted to No.1 Squadron, then the only squadron in the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF). It had been raised on 01 April 1933 at Drigh Road, Karachiand was equipped with 4 Westland Wapiti aircraft. The Indian element consisted of 6 officers and 9 technicians then known as ‘Hawai Sepoys’. Mehar was amongst the first 6 pioneering officers who joined the squadron. Flt Lt CA Bouchier, DFC, an officer of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was the first Commanding officer of the Squadron. The squadrons history records that, over 26 years later, in September 1959, Air Vice Marshal Sir Cecil Bouchier was to recall that “The Indian Air Force is what it is today because of one thing only – the imagination, courage, loyalty and great quality of the first little pioneer band of Indian officers and airmen, for they were the salt of the earth. They have built up a great fighting service and I am proud to have been associated in this wonderful achievement, if only for a little while”. When Mehar joined, the squadron was in the North West Frontier (NWF), deployed in its primary role of Army Co-operation. He went into action on arrival against the rampaging tribesmen. His flying log book records one month in which he flew 100 hours.
The squadron’s history goes on to say that the courage and initiative of the Squadron pilots is evident from the legendary ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh’s escape from the hostile tribesmen in 1937, when he was attacking them in a valley near Shaider, a place which had not been visited by the Army since Lord Kitchener’s expedition in 1890. During the attack, the fuel tank of his Wapiti was hit by ground fire. Every second increased the risk of fire which finally resulted in the crash of the fragile Wapiti in rocky terrain. Fortunately, the bombs on the aircraft did not explode and Baba and his air gunner crawled out of the wreckage safely. Thereafter they successfully evaded the hostile tribesmen till darkness came to their rescue. As dawn broke, they reached an Army Tochi Scout post. With his indomitable spirit, Baba not only rejoined the squadron immediately but also was airborne the very next day.
Chanana, in his article, records that in 1942, the AOC-in-C presented Mehar Singh a Commendation Certificate in recognition of his operational flying in Sindduring the Hur disturbances in that province. A few months later, Mehar Singh accomplished a feat which, as per the AOC-in-C, “Any air man of any Air Force in the world would be proud to accomplish.” Details are regrettably not available of what this flying feat involved, but it probably had something to do with his never-say-die, intrepid spirit and ability to take risks that would deter all but the most daring pilots.
In December 1942, Squadron Leader Mehar Singh was selected to raise No. 6 Squadron RIAF at Trichnapally, now Tiruchirapally. The squadron’s history records that the squadron was raised as a fighter-reconnaissance unit with Hawker Hurricane aircraft. In November 1943, No. 6 Squadron moved to Cox’s Bazar as a part of RAF Third Tactical Air Force (Third TAF), for the Second Arakan Campaign. During this campaign, No. 6 Squadron was the only specialist reconnaissance unit available to support and the Fourteenth Army, on this front, earning the name “The Eyes of the Fourteenth Army”. They were also dubbed “The Arakan Twins” for flying in the approved Tactical/Reconnaissance pairing of Leader and Weaver. Returning from his Arakan Front visit in mid-January 1944, General Sir William (later Field Marshal) Slim, GOC Fourteenth Army, wrote in his masterly memoirs, “Defeat into Victory” how impressed he was with this reconnaissance squadron. “I was particularly impressed with the conduct of the squadron (No. 6 Squadron, RIAF) led by a young Sikh squadron Leader, Mehar Singh”. Coming from the normally taciturn and quiet Slim, universally considered one of the greatest captains of war in the 20th Century, this was high praise indeed.
On 28 March 1944, the richly deserved award of Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was announced for his remarkable performance; the only such award ever made to an Indian officer of the RIAF/ IAF. The citation read:
“This officer has completed a very large number of operations, and has displayed great skill, courage and determination. He is a most inspiring leader, whose example has been reflected in the fine fighting spirit of the squadron. This officer has rendered most valuable service.”
About this period of his career, it is in order to quote two veterans who saw Mehar at close quarters. One is MIAF Arjan Singh, Padma Bhushan, DFC, ex Chief of Air Staff from August 1964 to July 1969 and himself a living legend the country especially every one in uniform is proud of. He says, “Our fighting on the NWF prepared us for the fight against the Japanese. Mehar Singh distinguished himself both in the NWF and against the Japanese…. Two of our best fighters, in fact, were Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO, and Wing Commander KK Majumdar, DFC and Bar.” The other veteran is the liberal minded Air Marshal Mohd Asghar Khan, who became Pakistan’s first Air Chief (1957-65) and also it’s youngest, at the age of 36. He is the son of Brigadier Thakur Rahmatullah Khan Bahadur. Asghar Khan was educated at the Doon School, and the Prince of Wales’s Royal Indian Military College, Dehradun. He joined the Indian Military Academy in 1939, was commissioned into the Royal Deccan Horse (9 HORSE), a famous cavalry regiment of today’s Indian Army. He was seconded to the RIAF in Decemeber 1940. He commanded a flight of No.9 Squadron RIAF in Burma in 1944-45 and took part in air operations against the Japanese. About Mehar he recalls: “With the solitary exception of Squadron Leader Mehar Singh, a pilot of outstanding ability, no one else was able to inspire confidence amongst us. He was the only man who measured up to my expectations,” referring undoubtedly to his flying experiences under ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh.
Soon after World War 2 ended, Mehar Singh was called upon to assist in the task of reorganization of the RIAF and training of its personnel. In 1947, when a Wing Commander, he was appointed a member of the Armed Forces Nationalization Committee and Deputy President of No. 7 GHQ Officers’ Selection Board, Dehra Dun. Promoted as Air Commodore in November, 1947, he took over Command No 1 Operational Group in Jammu and Kashmir. Brig CB Khanduri, in his book, “Field Marshal KM Cariappa – His Life and Times”, records that under Mehar, the IAF was the master of the skies during the 1947-48 Kashmir War withPakistan. Apart from the dramatic fly in to Srinagar using Air Force and chartered Dakotas on 27 October 1947 (following the signing the Instrument of Accession by Maharaja Hari Singh) to bring in elements of 1 SIKH under its brave CO, Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, MVC (Posthumous), the IAF provided close air support effectively. IAF fighters and bombers struck at Gilgit, Chilas, Skardu and damaged the Domel and Kishanganga bridges. A great spirit of camaraderie existed between the Army and IAF, writes Brig CB Khanduri.
During the 15 months of the War, the IAF lifted troops, mortars, ammunition, casualties, refugees and even animals. Working under AVM Subroto Mukherjee, OBE, (later Chief of Air Staff), Air Commodores AM Engineer (later Chief of Air Staff) and Mehar Singh, the author says that the IAF delivered results seldom surpassed in history. They lifted 6000 of the 10000 refugees from Poonch and maintained the besieged garrisons of Poonch and Skardu, including the use of Dakotasto carry out bombing on enemy positions, using 500 pound bombs with jugad (improvisational) skills. Then General “Kipper” Cariappa remarked to the author that “Operation Rescue was the first operation our Army and Air Force were called upon to undertake after we got our Independence. Almost every one of the officers there had little or no experience of the high commands they held… but every one rose to the occasion and did their job splendidly”. Air Commodore Mehar Singh, who, as OC 1 Operational Group was responsible for air transport operations in J&K, emerged, in the words of the author, as the “most dare-devil Air Force officer of the War. He showed unflagging enthusiasm for transport operations despite opposition from his superiors for risking the crew and machines to increased dangers from ground fire”. He took Mukherjee in a Beech craft to assess the feasibility of landingDakotas at Poonch. His subsequent night landing at Poonch in a Dakota packed with howitzers is the stuff legends are made of.
With the tragic fall of Skardu and the Pakistani presence at Zoji La forcing a battle for its clearance by the Indian Army for the road to Leh to be opened, Cariappa was a deeply worried man, as was his ground commander, Maj Gen KS “Timmy” Thimayya, DSO, (later Chief of Army Staff). Brig Khanduri records that the situation at Leh had become so precarious that it was a matter of ‘touch and go’. Thimayya had no choice but to request the OC 1 Operational Group to commit what was almost professional hara-kiri. The book records that over strawberries and cream, Thimayya broached the subject with Mehar Singh. “I am ready to go” the flying Sikh is reported to have responded without flinching, “but what about the Dakota? It has no de-icing facility or pressurization”. Thimayya responded by saying he would go with him. “Oh, well then, we’ll go!” said the fearless Mehar and so they did. In so doing on 24th May, 1948, Mehar entered the Aviation record book of the world for the world’s then highest landing at 11,540 feet ASL. The book records that, flying over Zoji La and Fotu La at 24000 feet, the aircraft began losing height. Mehar was tempted to turn back but courageously went on to land at Leh after Thimayya reminded him of his promise. The possibility of air transport of troops thus opened up and resulted in moving a company of 2/4 Gurkhas led by their CO, Lt Col HS Parab to Leh. The rest, as the book says, is history.
Establishments the world over are rarely well disposed or tolerant towards mavericks who, on account of being mavericks, end up cocking a snook at them. The relationship between the RIAF and later the IAF and Air Commodore Mehar Singh was no different. For quite a few years, Mehar had had a deep resentment building up inside him that his worth and achievements had been given short shrift. He also had serious differences with his seniors on a host of flying, management and administrative issues which he felt were irreconcilable. Consequently, he chose to resign from the IAF on 27 September 1948, at the age of 33.
The attitude of the RIAF and later the IAF towards this uncompromising maverick is best reflected in the words of Air Chief Marshal PC Lal (July 1969-January 1973) who has written that “Mehar Singh was conscious of his own rare abilities and unique contribution. But all this made him uncompromising, a born dictator… he felt he was not being fairly treated”.
Brig CB Khanduri records in his book that it was only on then C-in-C Indian Army General Cariappa’s persuasion that the Air Force hierarchy relented and, post his retirement put him up for award of a MVC. A grateful nation thus awarded the first MVC won by the Indian Air Force to one of its bravest and most daring sons, on 26 January, 1950. His citation reads:
“Throughout his tenure as A.O.C. No. 1 Group controlling operations in Jammu & Kashmir, Air Commander Mehar Singh displayed great devotion to duty at personal risks and set an example to those serving under him. He was the first pilot to land an aircraft at the emergency landing ground at Poonch and at Leh. These tasks were not part of his duty but in view of the fact that these were hazardous tasks, he was first to carry them out to give confidence to his junior pilots”.
Air Commodore Mehar Singh was never ungrateful, as behooves a man of honour and pedigree and was passionately attached to the IAF. Chanana, in his article, records that Mehar Singh remarked that the Air Force had taught him to fly, made him an engineer, gave him administrative experience, taught him to fight and fly with colleagues in good and bad days, made him humane in his effort to understand their problems and difficulties and resolve them.
Flying remained central to his life though. Post retirement, he became personal adviser to Maharaja Yadvindra Singh ofPatiala, in his capacity as Raj Pramukh of PEPSU. He flew the Maharaja for his engagements and it was on one such duty, when he was flying fromJammutoNew Delhi, that he was caught up in a thunderstorm on the night of 16 March 1952, and crashed. A legend had come to an untimely end, a few days before his 37th birthday.
RM Lala has written a masterly book on the life of JRD Tata, the famous Industrialist from the house of TATAS and an Air Commodore [though Honorary] in the class of Mehar Singh and Charles Lindbergh titled “Beyond the Last Blue Mountain”. In his Preface, the author records the prescient remarks of MV Kamath, the well known journalist. He wrote in a eulogy after JRD’s death, that “In his life what JRD did was what a pilgrim might have wished to do: go always a little beyond the last Blue Mountain, wishing to know what lay there”. JRD was a gutsy pioneer, a flyer, who, in 1929, gained international fame by flying in a Gypsy Moth from Karachi to London, in response to a competition announced by the Aga Khan to fly from London to Karachi or vice versa within 6 weeks (Tata lost by a whisker to Aspi Engineer, who later joined the RIAF and rose to become Chief of Air Staff of the IAF (Dec 1960-July 1964).
Doubtlessly, all three Air Commodores, one a combatant, the others Honorary or on the Reserve List, were mavericks of a rare order; each filling the qualitative requirement of being declared a maverick admirably. The contribution of Lindbergh set the aviation world ablaze. JRD Tata is credited with being the Father of civil aviation in India, besides being an enormously successful, principled Industrialist. Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO, can be impartially credited with being one of the sterling pioneering spirits who have given the Indian Air Force its current reputation of being one of the most professional Air Forces in the world. He stretched the boundaries of what is achievable throughout his distinguished 12 year combat flying career by always wanting to go beyond the last Blue mountain; the last Blue mountain of courage, true grit, spectacular achievement and fearlessness against overwhelming odds. It is perhaps not coincidental that Lindbergh, JRD and Mehar were essentially lonely people at the pinnacle of their careers. They shared some outstanding values in common with each other – values captured so accurately by the New York Sun editorial quoted at the start of the article: Courage, Skill, Faith, Adventure and Ambition.
Mehar Singh di Kothi, in Mehar Singh Colony on the Patiala – Sirhind Road, outside Patiala, where his ashes lie interred, should have been a national memorial of courage and deathless sacrifice, not just for men in uniform but an entire grateful nation of a billion plus. Its current abysmal state of neglect and upkeep indicates that, as a Nation, we really do not have a sense of history; nor are we grateful or care for those in uniform who sacrifice everything for the National good. We distinguish ourselves, though, in making grandiose promises, generating empty goodwill and mouthing meaningless platitudes on select commemorative occasions. Let us not lose heart, though. There is a solution at hand.
The Indian Air Force, the Indian Army and the Indian Navy should, across the Service divide, set a handsome precedent and join hands; synergize their efforts to honour their brave dead; their deathless air, land and sea warriors; honour men like Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO, and his numerous counterparts in the Army and Navy who have, by their achievements and selflessness set standards of excellence for future generations of Indians across all leanings and across gender, to follow.
A shortened version of the article was published in South Asia Defence and Strategy Magazine in Feb 2010.