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Thomas Elmhirst (1895-1982)

With the British due to leave shortly, chiefs had to be found for the three services of India and Pakistan, since the native officers were still too junior to assume this responsibility

Issue: 10-2014By Joseph Noronha

August 15, 1947, was a day of joy and triumph when India finally threw off the shackles of colonial rule and became an independent nation. It was also a time of great trauma as the country was partitioned. Along with many other organisations, the armed forces of British India had to be split down the middle with a sizeable segment going to the newly carved out nation of Pakistan.

Fate had brought Thomas Elmhirst to the country just a few months earlier and he ended up playing a pivotal role in establishing the fledgling Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) of free India. The Indian Air Force (IAF) owes a great deal to Elmhirst because it was due to his prescience and insistence that the service emerged as a complete and independent entity.

Thomas Elmhirst was born on December 15, 1895, in Yorkshire, England, the son of a clergyman. He joined the Royal Navy and became a midshipman in May 1913. During World War I he was initially part of the regular Navy. However, in 1915, he was sent to join the Royal Naval Air Service as an airship pilot. He participated in the North Sea anti-submarine patrol in May 1915. He commanded a naval airship from 1915 to 1918, after which he took over command of the 8th Airship Squadron. On August 1,1919, he transferred to the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was awarded a permanent commission in the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He went through the mill of field, command and staff appointments for the next 20 years. During World War II he served as Air Commodore in Fighter Command while the Battle of Britain was in full swing.

Elmhirst’s association with India began in February 1947 when he was posted as Chief of Inter-Service Administration in India. With the British due to leave shortly, chiefs had to be found for the three services of India and Pakistan, since the native officers were still too junior to assume this responsibility. The British Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Elmhirst to take over as the first Chief of the RIAF. The force had always been under the overall command of the Army Commander-in-Chief in India. However, Elmhirst insisted that the RIAF should be an independent fighting service directly under the Minister of Defence. He also requested that he be allowed to choose half a dozen senior staff officers from the RAF to help in the first two years. Nehru agreed. Accordingly August 15, 1947, marked the day when Air Marshal Sir Thomas Walker Elmhirst, KBE, CB, CBE, AFC, was appointed Air Officer Commanding, RIAF. On June 21, 1948, Elmhirst’s post was upgraded to Commander-in-Chief, RIAF. This continued till India became a republic on January 26, 1950 and his title was amended to Commander-in-Chief, IAF.

When he took over, Elmhirst had the onerous task of building the service practically from scratch. In this he was ably assisted by Subroto Mukerjee and Aspy Engineer (who later became the first and second Indian officers to fill the post of Chief of the Air Staff, IAF). What remained of the RIAF at partition were No. 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 Squadrons with Tempest fighters, No. 2 Squadron with Spitfire fighters and No. 12 Squadron with C-47 transport planes, plus No. 1 Air Observation Flight with Auster aircraft. There were also a few training institutions but hardly any functioning establishment or administrative setup. On the eve of Independence Day the Commanding Officers of all RIAF units were sent a telegram to be read on parade the next day, after the Indian flag was hoisted for the first time. The telegram informed them that Prime Minister Nehru had appointed Elmhirst as Chief of India’s new Air Force and each unit owed allegiance to the new Indian Government through Elmhirst.

The military leadership had only a few months to sort out the most pressing problems created by partition. Then, on October 27, 1947, the RIAF went to war in Kashmir. No. 12 Squadron’s C-47s commenced the airlift of troops from Palam to the rough and dusty Srinagar airstrip without planning or reconnaissance, as the initial reaction to the insurgent forces pouring across the border. Just three days later, the first Spitfires reached Srinagar and were soon engaged in strafing the raiders. They were followed by Tempests and the forward momentum of the raiders was finally halted. The RIAF continued to be actively involved in the conflict till a ceasefire came into force on January 1, 1949.

The reorganisation and modernisation of the RIAF continued unabated. Elmhirst raised an Operations Group which later became Western Air Command and a Training Group. Many other reforms were introduced that laid a firm foundation for the modern IAF. Unrelated to aviation, it fell to Elmhirst as the then Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee to organise the state funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, following his assassination on January 30, 1948.

However, ill health forced Thomas Elmhirst to end his tour of duty early. He was succeeded by Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman on February 23, 1950 and returned to London. There he received a telegram from India’s first President appointing him an Honorary Air Marshal in the IAF for life, which he considered “a great honour”. He retired from the service in June 1950 and after serving in various civilian capacities, died on November 6, 1982.