In the summer of 1935, the Indian Air Force, short of its third anniversary, faced an existential crisis. Of its first five pilots, two had met with fatal accidents and a third had been dismissed. The remaining two, Flying Officers Subroto Mukerjee and Aizad Baksh Awan, were still finding their own feet while mentoring the seven additional pilots who had joined the IAF by then. Apart from their depleting numbers, the new organisation also faced headwinds from certain lobbies in the British establishment that didn’t see the need for a colony to have its own Air Force.
Part of their scheme to derail the fledgling IAF included offering juicy civil portfolios to Mukerjee and Awan – Assistant Commissioners in Burdwan and Peshawar, respectively. But these men were made of a different mettle. As Awan would later recall in his memoirs, he told Mukerjee to, “…inform Flight Lieutenant Bouchier that we set out with the task of making the Indian Air Force when we were at school. Many of our beloved comrades have perished in the struggle. We shall give up this struggle only when our dead body is extricated from the debris of a crashed aircraft. (The) Indian Air Force will be formed, and we shall continue with this struggle [sic]”. As history was to bear witness, their persistence paid off – of course with ample help from Cecil Arthur Bouchier, their Commanding Officer.
Awan hailed from a prominent family of Dera Ismail Khan city in the North-West Frontier Province. Born on 9 July 1910 at Mianwali, Awan developed an early fascination for flying when he saw an Airco DH.6 flying over his school. His dream to fly an aircraft, however, had to wait till the Skeen Committee sanctioned the birth of the IAF in 1927. Soon, the strapping six-footer Awan found himself on his way to England to train at Royal Air Force (RAF) Cranwell. Just over 20 years of age, Awan would have wondered what the future held for him and his five course-mates – Mukerjee, Harish Chandra Sircar, Amarjeet Singh, Bhupendra Singh and Jagat Narain Tandon.
Their training at Cranwell included flying on aircraft like the Avro Lynx, Armstrong Whitworth Atlas and the AW Siskin. Between the flying and classroom training, Awan, nicknamed Zaidi, found enough time to excel in sports – captaining the tennis and hockey teams of RAF Cranwell and later the IAF till 1944. Awan and four other Indians were commissioned as Pilot Officers on 15 August 1932.
Landing at Drigh Road, Karachi in March 1933, they were received by Flight Lieutenant “Boy” Bouchier, who was to be their Commanding Officer, guide, mentor and friend in the years to come. At this time, the IAF consisted solely of the “A” Flight of No. 1 Squadron IAF, comprising four Wapiti aircraft. Allocated the Army cooperation role, their initial time in the flight was spent carrying out extensive practice in close formations, reconnaissance, puff shoots, front camera gun attacks, plucking messages hung on a wire, bombing runs over targets and aerial mosaic photography, etc.
In May 1936, when the squadron moved to Peshawar, Awan was buzzing with excitement at the prospect of flying in the fascinating though wild country. On 20 March 1937 Awan and IAF would fly their first operational mission, with Awan taking K1263 Wapiti to drop leaflets over Arsal Kot, warning the locals of an impending air strike. Awan still hadn’t fired a bullet in anger, though. His chance was to come soon in the summer of 1937.
Awan was to later recall a typical sortie around Razmak when he was flying in support of ground operations, “My air gunner Ghulam Ali noticed ground signals and tapped me on the back. I selected the bomb fuses and made the nose and tail guns alive. Bomb release lever was put in the neutral and ready position as I commenced to dive on the target. Bomb was released. In the same dive I opened up a short burst of front machine gun fire. After pulling out of the dive I placed the machine between the target and our troops and asked Ghulam Ali to fire with the rear Lewis machine gun. This was repeated several times.”
In November 1937 as the operations drew to a close, Awan was tasked to carry out aerial photography of the victorious Bannu Brigade. Finding no troops in the area, Awan, to his horror, discovered that nearly 3,000 tribesmen had attacked the “victorious” Brigade. The Mehsuds had obviously not got the ‘victory parade’ memo! As the melee disintegrated into a scuffle involving “hand-to-hand fight[ing], with daggers and bayonets”, Awan and his No. 2, Karun Krishna ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar, carried out multiple bomb and machine gun attacks in defence of the hapless Brigade. Depleting all his ammo, Awan rushed back to Mirali cantonment and dropped a hand-written message asking for reinforcements to be sent.
This characteristic of empathy and a habit of going out on a limb for others would define Awan all his life. Be it his involvement in ensuring that his men ate and lived in decent accommodation or his devotion to duty, when he flew in a surgeon to operate on a British woman, Awan lived by the social code of Pashtunwali. Ironically, he was also conducting offensive operations against tribesmen having similar beliefs, and one can only wonder what mental demons he would have fought or the possible hostility that would have come his way from fellow tribesmen.
Awan’s experience was put to good use when he was selected to impart flying training to cadets of the Afghan Air Force. Having been assessed as possessing “what it takes”, Awan was also placed on a selection board for secondment of Army officers to the growing IAF. By now, Awan had been away from the action for far too long and was itching to return to the Squadron, which had grown to three flights, now commanded by Mukerjee, Aspy Engineer and Jumbo Majumdar. In December 1938, Awan replaced Mukerjee as the “A” Flight Commander; the latter assuming the role of the Unit Adjutant.
Awan’s tenure as Flight Commander saw the squadron convert from the Wapiti to the Hawker Hart and Audax aircraft. He also led a redesignated “Q” Flight, equipped with the Hart aircraft for naval co-operation and coastal duties at Karachi – a totally unfamiliar task that would have seen him overseeing extensive training. Awan then got married to Taj in April 1939. When the second IAF squadron was being sanctioned in February 1941, the responsibility of raising and commanding it rightfully fell on his experienced shoulders.
However, he was to command No. 2 Squadron only for three months, handing it over to Aspy Engineer. He left Peshawar for Delhi to oversee the IAF’s Operations and Training, replacing Mukerjee. The next couple of years saw Awan and Mukerjee mirroring career paths. They both were sent to staff college in Quetta, and replaced each other in Air Staff postings at the Group and Air HQ. In October 1942, when the IAF decided to allocate service numbers to its officers, Mukerjee was given 1551 and Awan 1552; but being course-mates, they were both promoted to substantive Squadron Leaders on the same date. However, by 1943, their paths began to differ.
In August, Mukerjee became the first Indian to assume command of the RAF Station at Kohat. Awan was sent to the US on a “military goodwill” mission. Upon his return, he found that Jumbo, his junior, had been promoted and had left for Europe to fly with the RAF. Aspy, also his junior, was about to be promoted as well and take over RAF Kohat from Mukerjee in late 1944.
Awan felt slighted and made repeated representations to the British officers but found himself back in Peshawar flying with the 152 Operational Training Unit, then to be attached as supernumerary crew to 82 Sqn, RAF at Ramu near Cox’s Bazar. His repeated interviews with RAF Air Commodores “cut no ice” and in May 1944, he was asked to take charge of No. 7 Squadron. A shocked Awan reported to the squadron but politely declined to assume command, instead proceeding on leave. Awan never flew for the IAF again.
About this period, his family adds – “the Air Chief told Awan candidly that there were limited vacancies. Awan said that if that was the case, he would resign his commission. The Chief advised him not to take a hasty decision. Awan left the Chief’s office but in the PSO’s room wrote his letter of resignation and took the train for Peshawar. After about three weeks, he received a telegram from AHQ which said he was required to report to the Chief. During this final meeting, Awan told the Chief he did not wish to serve any longer. The Chief said in that case he would be granted premature retirement with the substantive rank of Wing Commander.”
In hindsight, one can sympathise with Awan, a pioneer whose career came to such an anti-climactic end. He helped set up the fledgling force, took it to battle, fought for his men and was considered a master of Army co-operation. His being denied command of a station remains an unfortunate mystery. Had he stayed on with the IAF, which was rapidly expanding, perhaps he might have got what he so deserved. Retired at the time of Partition, Awan did not join the RPAF where he could have risen in ranks to command their Air Force to mirror the career of his course-mate once again, who became Chief of the IAF.
Awan’s love for the IAF was so great that he self-published his autobiography in 1955, dedicating it to the IAF. He passed away peacefully in Karachi in 1989. His autobiography contains a series of recommendations that he felt the IAF and the PAF would gain from, wishing the best for the two air forces, for “this would keep our souls happy, when we are no more. We who made the first nucleus of the Air Force in our motherland”.
Service profile of Wg Cdr Aizad Baksh Awan can be found here – https://bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Database/1552.
Anchit Gupta @AnchitGupta9 is an aviation history author and currently co-authoring a book on the role of IAF in the Kargil War. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)