The distinction of becoming the first Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, after India gained independence; goes to Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee. Having joined earlier the Royal Air Force, he later became the first officers of the Indian Air Force. He had a long distinguished career of three decades during which he was honored with many awards. He earned the moniker of the “Father of the Indian Air Force”.
Subroto Mukerjee was born on March 5, 1911 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in a prominent Bengali family. His father Satish Chandra Mukherjee was an ICS officer, and his mother Charulata Mukherjee was the daughter of a renowned doctor. His grandfather was a Brahmo Samaji and contributed to educational and social reform in the society, and his maternal grandfather was the first Indian principal of the Presidency College.
Subroto was the youngest of his three siblings and went to England when he was three months old. He spent his childhood in Krishnanagar and Chinsura of Bengal while having an ambition to join the air Force, inspired by his uncle Indra Lal Roy who was in the Royal Flying Corps.
Subroto’s early education took place in Calcutta at the Diocesan school and Loreto Convent, and also in Hampstead in UK. In 1927, he passed matriculation from Birbhum Zilla School. He then enrolled in the Presidency College, Calcutta; and a year later went to UK and studied in the Cambridge University.
Career in Air Force
In 1929, to join the Royal Air Force, Subroto passed the Cranwell entrance examination and London Matriculation. After selection, he underwent training at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. On 8th October 1932, Indian Air Force was born, and Subroto was commissioned as a pilot. In 1933, he joined the first squadron at Karachi in British India.
During the 1936 rebellion in the North West Frontier Provinces, near the Afghanistan border, the IAF under Subroto Mukerjee’s command played a vital role in the rocky inaccessible mountainous terrains. For this, he was later honoured with India General Service Medal.
During the World War II, Subroto Mukerjee was the senior most commissioned officer and was made the Squadron Leader. After the war ended in 1945, he was honoured for his distinguished services with the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
During India’s independence and partition, Subroto helped in the reorganization of Indian Air Force. In 1952, he went for advanced training to the Imperial Defence College in UK. In 1954, after his return to India, he took over as the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force, and ranked as Air Marshal. The post was later re-designated Chief of the Air Staff, IAF.
In 1939, Subroto Mukherjee married Sharda Pandit, a prominent social worker who later became the Governor of Gujarat and then Andhra Pradesh. They had one son.
On 8 November 1960, Mukerjee was in Tokyo, having arrived there on Air India’s first flight to Tokyo. While having his meal in a restaurant, he choked to death. His accidental death caused shock and grief; and his body was brought back to Delhi and cremated with military honors, where forty fighter planes of the IAF flew past and dipped their wings as a mark of respect.
Prominent Indians paid tributes to him including the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru in these words, “It is really a tragedy. It is exceedingly sad. We have been deeply shocked… He was a young man with years of career before him. We expected long years of good service from him.”
Subroto Mukerjee has been called the “Father of the Indian Air Force”. He was an avid football fan and member of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club. In his memory, an all-India football tournament called Subroto Cup Football Tournament is held to scout for talents at school level.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah