He is one of the few five star officers in the world and the senior-most officer in the country. The five stars on his shoulders reflect the enormous military aviation experience under his belt. Now that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, is no more, he is the only five-star military officer in the country.
As the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 80th inception day on October 8, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh’s eyes still shine when he speaks about his exploits in the World War II and 1965 Indo-Pak war as the indomitable pilot of the IAF—the fourth largest in the world.
At 93, the zest for life for the first and only five star officer of the IAF, the service’s equivalent of Field Marshal, has not diminished one bit. He still walks with that unfaltering military officer’s gait and best of all plays golf in the morning. On seeing the camera, Singh insisted on changing into better shirt—a military habit to look impeccable at all time.
Once he was satisfied with his attire we settled down for an interview. What do you ask an officer who was commissioned in the Royal Indian Air Force at the young age of 20 years in December 1939 and then led the Number 1 Squadron in various campaigns during World War II and had the unique honour of leading the fly past of more than 100 IAF aircraft over Delhi’s Red Fort when India began its “tryst with destiny” on August 15, 1947? Singh exhibited his mantle as Chief of Air Staff during the decisive victory over Pakistan in 1965 war and became the First Marshal of the IAF. His calibre was recognized by not only Indian military but also the British, who conferred the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) upon him in recognition of his services.
“I was fortunate to have seen action in my profession. I was very lucky that way,” Singh said. Many armed forces officers retire without ever having to go to war. Singh is known to have expressed his dissent in announcing ceasefire during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. “We had only consumed 8-9 per cent of our resources. The war was too short,” the Marshal of the Air Force had said. “I feel in the hindsight that had the IAF known that the war was going to be short it could have used the resources in a bigger way,” he added.
He had taken the command of the force only in 1964 and it was the first time since independence the IAF was used in a war, an experience that proved valuable during 1971 Indo-Pak war.
The Pakistan Army’s incursions in India culminated on September 1, 1965, in a massive attack in the Chhamb sector (Jammu and Kashmir) by the Pakistan forces. The IAF finally joined the conflict on September 6 with a full-blown war breaking out on the western frontier of India. The Pakistani incursions in Jammu and Kashmir continued for about a month till the ceasefire was affected under the aegis of the UN Security Council on September 23, 1965.
Singh, his memory still razor sharp for his age, says that the IAF, after starting off at a disadvantage, soon gained advantage over the Pakistan Air Force. “We had an impression that the Pakistan Air Force was better equipped as it had air-to-air missiles, Sabre fighter aircraft and better radars than us. On the other hand our Gnat aircraft had short reach and were smaller,” Singh said sitting stiffly for a man of his age.
He added that Gnat was not famous before and nobody liked to fly it, as it was difficult to fly and did not give any scope of error. “But as the war progressed the Gnat shot down two Sabre aircraft, boosting our morale. Its small size was also a good advantage because it could not be seen properly on radar,” Singh said proudly. Close air support missions of the IAF in the Gujranwala sector, in the Sialkot-Lahore-Ferozepur axis and in the Khem Karan Kasur sector in Pakistan, contributed to the destruction of 300 US-made Patton tanks of Pakistan.
“We had planned for a three-month war. Our strategy was to attack Pakistan’s rail and communications and at the same time stopping Pakistan Air Force from attacking our bases and operation areas. We wanted to surround Lahore and not capture it as it would have been difficult to sustain,” Singh said.
Eventually it was the ‘failure of communication links’ that forced the Pakistan Army to retreat.