From the IAF Vault: The story of how IAF's first chief was picked
IAF historian Anchit Gupta narrates the story of how the first chief of the Indian Air Force came about to be decided on. A period of 30 days in June-July 1947, hectic negotiations and parleys, and a surprise twist by later to be IAF's first Indian Chief Subroto Mukerjee.
Three questions needed answering -- Will there be a chief for each service or one commander-in-chief? What rank will the officer tenant? Who will be the officer? All of these were being deliberated in parallel, and Air Marshal Hugh Walmsley, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) India, set the ball rolling.
On 1 July 1947, he sent his recommendations to Loud Louis Mountbatten, though the ultimate decision rested with Nehru and Jinnah, respectively. Also, a key influencer in the process was Claude Auchinleck, then Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army.
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The name of Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst to be the Pakistan Air Force seems to have been at the insistence of General Auchinleck, who wrote the attached letter directly to Mountbatten on the recommendation.
Lord Mountbatten quickly moved the ball forward but made it clear that if Elhmirst is to be considered, he should be considered for India too. This would turn out to have a major impact eventually.
Air Marshal Walmsley would lead the deliberations. On 10 July 1947, Mountbatten informed him that both India and Pakistan had agreed to have an Air Officer Commanding from the Royal Air Force of the rank of Air Vice Marshal. This surprised Walmsley, as Mukerjee would be knocked out.
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Not only did Walmsley find this shocking, he thought Mukerjee would be shocked too. This implies that the brass felt that Mukerjee had positioned himself as the defacto choice for the Indian Air Force's top job.
All factors put together, including the fact that not too many RAF officers were keen to volunteer for the job, Walmsley did find the most suitable officer for India (given his boundary conditions) -- Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keene. AVM Perry-Keene was a fine choice because he had spent considerable time in India across roles from 1935 and was reasonably well-known amongst officers in India.
At Walmsley's insistence on 18 July 1947, Mountbatten met with Mukerjee and was surprised at his views. Mukerjee put the needs of the service above his and was supportive of a senior RAF officer. He was concerned about parity with Army and hoped to be Chief in two-three years. Mukerjee was aligned with Mountbatten, Walmsley, and Perry-Keen, and it seemed on 22nd July 1947, Perry-Keen would make the Chief of the IAF, but a twist was in the offing.
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On 21st July, Nehru wrote to Mountbatten encouraging him to consider Air Marshal Elhmirst for the IAF. Apart from him and his defence minister's opinion, it seems Auchinleck would have weighed in as well, being close to Nehru and held in high esteem by him.
On 23 July 1947, Mountbatten arranged a meeting between Nehru and Elhmirst so that the latter could be convinced of the job. This meant that the chief's rank would no longer be AVM, but Air Marshal, at least for the IAF.
Nehru was able to convince Elhmirst on July 26, and it was decided for him to become chief. While Mukerjee had his wish of having an Air Marshal at par with the Army come true, unknown to him then, he would have to wait seven years to become Chief himself as Air Marshal.
In parallel, Mountbatten aligned Jinnah to have a very capable and willing AVM Perry-Keen be the Chief of the PAF. On 27 July 1947, the announcement was made. The IAF was to have Air Marshal Elhmirst as its first Chief and Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keen as the first chief of the PAF.
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