We Indians have many role models and heroes. In the post independence era, most of the heroes were eminent politicians such as Pt Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Today’s younger generation probably has most heroes from the Indian Cricket Team or Bollywood. The people conspicuously absent in this list are military leaders. Our country has fought and won wars. In fact our country’s very fabric is held intact by the armed forces. So it is not the lack of military leaders and heroes, but our lack of knowledge which has caused this. Charity begins at home, and hence in next 20 minutes I am going to speak about Air Chief Marshal PC Lal.
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2. One may ask “Why Air Chief Mshl PC Lal when we have such a long list of distinguished Air Force Officers?” The answer has two aspects. Firstly, ACM PC Lal’s career spanned three decades starting with WW-II and culminating with Indo-Pak War of 1971, two most important events of 20th century which shaped the world political map and demonstrated application of air power at its best. Story of his life is mostly the story of the IAF. Second and more important aspect is that it was under the able leadership of Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal, that the Indian Air Force won its most decisive victory in 1971.
3. Aim of this talk is to familiarise the audience with biography of ACM PC Lal and draw lessons relevant to IAF officers today.
4. I will cover this talk under following headings.
Fledgling yeas of IAF
1971 Indo Pak War
Pratap Chandra Lal was born in December 1917, into a family of Allahabad-based lawyers. His grandfather was a lawyer in Allahabad High Court and father, Shri Basant Lal, a government servant. It was his father’s wish that PC Lal continue in the family’s profession and hence he pursued his higher education in Britain. As a student, he had a keen interest in aviation. He became the youngest Indian to earn his Amateur Pilot’s license at age 17, in January 1934. Having qualified for a diploma in journalism at King’s College, London in 1938, Lal expected to return to full-time study of law at the Inns of Court in the fall of 1939. Before commencement of his law studies, he visited India in early 1939. On 03 Sep 39, Britain declared war against Germany. All passenger shipping to Britain was suspended and so were some of the educational courses in Britain. Hence the outbreak of war in Europe precluded his return to England. As part of Britain’s efforts to strengthen India’s defence in such perilous times, the government decided to expand the Indian Air Force (then one squadron of Wapitis). Consequently, everyone in India with a pilot’s license was invited to join up. With inherent passion for flying, Lal decided to join the IAF Volunteer Reserve. He summed up his employment with the IAF as “I do what I like and I like what I do.”
6. P.C. Lal arrived at the training establishment at RAF Station, Risalpur on 12 November 1939. An acute shortage of navigators in India (both RAF and IAF) led to Lal being recruited as a navigator, with the proviso that he would later be trained as a pilot. The training was conducted together for both Indians and British trainees. ACM PC Lal notes in his memoirs that there was neither differentiation nor discrimination in either office or the mess. The instructors conducted the training with utmost professionalism. Only thing notably absent was parade. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force in Karachi in May 1940 as acting Pilot Officer. ACM PC Lal described this occasion as signing o few forms and shaking hands without any ceremony. He soon found himself flying from Karachi as an observer watching out for Axis shipping and submarines. This assignment was quite short and within three months, he was posted back to Risalpur as a navigation instructor. During his tenure there he instructed both RAF and IAF pilots (both of whom he considered rather weak in navigation). In January 1941 he was posted to No.3 Coast Defence Fight based at Calcutta. Two months later he was recalled as Navigation Instructor to No.1 Flying Training School at Ambala. It was during his tenure at Ambala, that Lal earned his ‘wings’ flying Audaxes and Hawker Harts.
7. WW-II continued to affect his personal life. In Dec 41 he was on leave for his marriage when the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour took place. The second front for British India was opened and all leave was cancelled. He was immediately recalled and the marriage was postponed. Eventually he got married in March 1942.
8. Early in 1943 Lal was posted as flying and navigational instructor to the Operational Training Unit at Peshawar where he oversaw the conversion of two RAF Squadrons and the IAF’s No.7 and No.8 Squadrons to Vultee Vengeance dive bombers, which was the Allied counterpart to Stuka bomber. In October of 1943, after much persuasion, Lal was allowed to join No.7 Squadron as a combat pilot. The squadron, however, didn’t see action until February of 1944, by which time it had converted to Hawker Hurricanes. Between February 1944 and March 1945 No.7 Squadron (along with No.1 IAF) was very active on the Burma front and took part in every major battle: including, Imphal, Kohima, Akyab and Rangoon. Lal was instrumental in destruction of bridge on Manipur river on Imphal- Tiddim road. Lal was given the command of 7 Sqn in May 1944. He led the Sqn from the front and In that one year Lal had managed to log 210 hours mainly in Photo Recce and CAS roles. He ended the campaign as a Squadron Leader. In last few months of war, 7 Sqn flew 1033 hours in Apr 45 and 754 hours in May 45. In October 1945, P.C. Lal was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for undertaking hazardous recon flights deep into Japanese held territory and leading his Sqn in operations effectively.
9. In 1946, Sqn Ldr Lal applied for and received a permanent commission in the IAF. He was thereafter promoted to Wing Commander and sent to Calcutta to take charge of the Inter-Services Recruiting Office in August 1946. This stint lasted a mere five months, and in December that year left to attend a senior commander’s course in the U.K. Upon his return in was promoted to Group Captain and appointed in 1947 to the post of Director of Planning & Training. In 1948 he relinquished training responsibilities to Group Captain (later Marshal of the Air Force) Arjan Singh. In May 1949, Lal was sent to attend courses at the RAF Staff College for nearly a year. He returned to India in June 1950 and was shortly promoted to Air Commodore.
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10. In November 1951, King Tribhuvan of Nepal faced a palace coup and needed to be escorted to safety. A covert op with hush-hush briefings was planned by the IAF for the same. PC Lal was at his breakfast table in the morning of the op when his mother asked him, ” Are you the one going to Nepal to get their King back?” AFWWA network at its best? He nearly choked. Later he came to know that while the IAF was busy behind closed doors, AIR was giving this news a wide publicity. Despite the security lapses, P.C. Lal led the Indian Air Force team that eventually helped bring King Tribhuvan of Nepal to safety. Between 1953 and 1955 P.C. Lal worked as the Military Secretary to the Cabinet. In October 1954, P.C. Lal went to Europe at the head to a team to evaluate new aircraft for the IAF. He became the first Indian to fly supersonic (in a Mystere IVA) and to fly the Gnat. This team was also instrumental in ensuring that the IAF didn’t end up buying the Supermarine Swift.
11. In 1957, P.C. Lal was deputed to the Ministry of Civil Aviation as General Manager of the Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC). During his six years there he oversaw its successful evolution as a corporate entity. It was during this period that he fell out with then Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon over the purchase of replacements for the Airlines’ aging Dakotas. Menon was convinced that IAC’s requirements could be met with the HS748s that the Air Force was acquiring. Lal thought otherwise. In the end Krishna Menon prevailed. And at the end of P.C. Lal’s tenure as GM of IAC on 30 September 1962, Krishna Menon ensured that his services with the Indian Air Force were terminated. By a quirk of fate Krishna Menon’s inept handling of the China crisis in October 1962 forced his resignation before the year was out. In December 1962, P.C. Lal’s services were reinstated by the Air Force as Air Officer Maintenance with the rank of Air Vice Marshal.
12. On 24 November 1963, he was posted as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Air Command. And on 01 October 1964, he moved to Air Headquarters as the Vice Chief of Air Staff. He served in that capacity during the war in 1965. For his contributions during the war P.C. Lal was awarded the Padma Bhushan. IAF gave strong account of themselves and were instrumental in stopping the Pak offensive; but not without many losses. Some of the lessons learnt in this operation formed the foundation of IAF ops in years to come.
(a) Firstly, there was neither joint planning nor joint conduct of ops. The then COAS; Gen JN Choudhary later claimed that Army had appreciated Pakistan’s nefarious designs in May 65. There was no attempt to share the same with other services. Air Force was called into war only when the threat was imminent. Consequently, there was no planning and preparation by any service, let alone joint planning.
(b) Organisationally, the CAS requisition and execution procedures were shown to be ineffectively. While IAF did provide effective CAS at times, it could have been much better and needed to be streamlined. Similarly, there was no joint plan for Army-Navy plan for AD of naval and coastal assets.
(c) IAF as a force had many lacunae in equipment and doctrine. There were large gaps in the deployment of airfds in the western sector causing major constraints on our offensive and defensive ops in large tracts. Similarly, all our ac were parked open or soft shelters. There were significant losses on ground due to pre-emptive strikes by PAF. Also, There was significant asymmetry between IAF and PAF equipment, mainly due to US support to the PAF in preceding years while withholding the same to IAF.
13. At the end of the war he was appointed to head Training Command with the rank of Air Marshal. This was to be a short stint, and in late 1966, he was deputed to head Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd. as Managing Director. During his three years at HAL, P.C. Lal was instrumental in overseeing the establishment of the production lines for HAL’s new MiG-21 and Gnat fighters, and the Hs.748 freighters (the very aircraft he had crossed swords with Krishna Menon over!). What was more ironic is that P.C. Lal, who had almost been thrown of the Air Force, was asked to take over as Chief of Staff effective, 16 July 1969.
14. Destiny seldom gives an opportunity to learn from one’s own shortcomings and to correct them as well. As a CAS, ACM Lal had one of those rare opportunities. Upon taking office, Lal was determined to ensure that the Indian Air Force contribute more decisively to the outcome of any future war. To this end spent much time reorganizing training and logistics. Early on during his tenure, P.C. Lal made it a point to visit various army units in order to understand their needs for air support better. His efforts did not go un-rewarded. In the winter of 1971, P.C. Lal found himself leading the air force in a war against Pakistan. Indeed, who better to lead the IAF in these crucial years than a distinguished pilot, a skilled instructor and a manager par excellence. Improved tactics, training and careful planning all contributed the the ascendancy of the IAF as one of Asia’s most effective air arms. The air force was involved at every stage of this intense conflict which led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. For Lal, the war in 1971 marked the pinnacle of his career. It would not be an overstatement to say that P.C. Lal was the architect of the IAF’s most decisive victory.
15. In 1972, P.C. Lal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan for his leadership of the air force. He retired from the IAF, on 15 January 1973 as the IAF’s most successful chief and its most highly decorated officer. After his retirement from the Air Force P.C. Lal continued to serve in various advisory capacities to the Government of India. Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal passed away in 1984 while he was still working on his memoirs and a history of the IAF. The book was eventually completed by his wife and provides an eminently readable history of the IAF’s first 25 years.
16. Reading a book or going over a biography is of no use if we do not learn from it. Career of ACM PC Lal is replete with examples of personal leadership and provides valuable lessons relevant to all of us.
Passion. His motto of “I do what I like and I like what I do.” was visible in every job he undertook, whether flying or otherwise. If the same passion can be inculcated about our profession, our energies would be channelised in a better and more productive manner.
Professional Competence. It takes over 30 years for an officer to achieve the rank of Air Cmde today. ACM Lal was given this responsibility in just 10 years of service. He performed all possible jobs in air force organisation in op, maint and admin aspects and those of Mil Secy to the cabinet. He also led the IAF to its most memorable victory. Without highest degree of professional competence, all this would not have been possible.
Adaptability. ACM PC Lal also served as the MD of IAC and HAL for extended period. With no prior training and background, he successfully evolved these organisations into corporate entities. This would not have been possible without the ability to adapt to any situation and task.
Loyalty. Perhaps ACM PC Lal must be the only Indian Service Chief who lost his job at one stage and later rose to the highest rank. All throughout this period, he performed with unwavering loyalty and answered the call of the nation when the need arose.
17. Air Chief Marshal PC Lal is one of the pioneers of the IAF who raised it and nurtured to its present form. He performed all roles possible for an air force officer with passion, proficiency and loyalty. Whether in war or in peace, he led the men from front. The width and depth of his accomplishments is difficult to match in today’s world. Paradoxically, unlike the earlier Chiefs, he was no fighter jock. He was an instructor and a manager par excellence. His contribution to India’s aviation industry by virtue of his tenures with the Indian Airlines Corporation and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. bear testimony to his professional abilities. He was just the sort of leader who could, and did, mould a large and rapidly expanding air force into an efficient fighting force, and gave the IAF their most resounding victory. Because of his lasting impact on the IAF and immense influence he had in shaping Indian civil aviation, he remains one of the most accomplished IAF officers.
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