At the beginning of the Second World War, the Indian Air Force numbered only 1,638 men, and had no complete squadrons. Men from wealthy families, who were weekend flyers at private airclubs, like Dodla Ranga Reddy, were quickly taken on. A few other men were sent to Britain to train with the RAF.
The airport facilities were often improvised and the planes outdated. The pilots trained in wood-and-fabric biplanes, like Tiger Moths.
Ranga Reddy's Squadron (No.6) went on to use Hurricanes, 'the first aircraft with any claim to modernity' used by the IAF, but even these were often second-hand. They operated from a makeshift airstrip made of bamboo matting and steel mesh, and the planes were no match for the high-performance Japanese fighter planes that they encountered.
The job of 6 Squadron was 'tactical reconnaissance,' and they flew in pairs, with planes fitted with a two-camera mounting.
"It was really tough for pilots flying Hurricanes for the first time on training recce flights. They were instructed to fly not higher than 50 ft above ground level, and while manoeuvering the aircraft at this low altitude (equivalent to a five-storey building, approx), they were expected to keep jotting down anything they saw (vehicles, troop movements, civilian vehicles etc) on their knee-pads."
(Wing Commander Hoshang K "Pat" Patel)
Here's a letter Ranga Reddy wrote to his family.
From 1943 onwards one of the objectives of the Allied troops in the Far East was to recapture Burma. To approach from the Indian border meant crossing vast areas of swamp and jungle which were largely unmapped. The pilots of No.6 Squadron would fly ahead of the troops on the ground, photograph the areas they were advancing into, return to base to have the films developed, and then fly back over the troops to drop the processed photos to them.
They became know as 'the eyes of the 14th Army.' The Commander of these forces, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, wrote this about them in his memoirs called 'Defeat Into Victory.'
"Our Spitfires, much inferior in numbers, fairly laced into the Oscars and began most effectively to knock them out of the sky. While these whirlwind dogfights streaked about high in the clear air, our reconnaissance Hurricanes kept up their steady patrols. I was impressed by the conduct of a reconnaissance squadron of the Indian Air Force. Flying in pairs, the Indian pilots in their outmoded Hurricanes, went out, time and again, in the face of overwhelming enemy fighter superiority. I looked in on the squadron just at a time when news had come in that the last patrol had run into a bunch of Oscars and been shot down. The Sikh squadron leader, an old friend of mine, at once took out the next patrol himself and completed the mission."
(Field Marshal Sir William Slim)
The day that Ranga Reddy died is remembered very clearly by another pilot called Murkot Ramunny.
It was on 8th February 1944, during the Japanese offensive code-named Ha-Go, that aimed to invade India by way of Assam. Four planes from No.6 Squadron, in two pairs, flew out yet again to check the enemy positions. Faster and more manoeuvrable Japanese Oscar planes attacked them and a tail-chase developed. Ranga Reddy was shouting over the radio to Ramunny 'Jap on your tail! Jap on your tail!" and pursued this Oscar until he shot it down, saving Ramunny.
This act of heroism cost Ranga Reddy his life, because another Oscar latched on to his plane while he was concentrating on Ramunny, and he was shot down almost immediately.
Military records have never confirmed that Ranga Reddy shot down an Oscar. Murkot Ramunny feels certain that he did, or he himself wouldn't have lived to tell the tale. It is a cause of great distress to him that Ranga Reddy is an unsung hero.
Along with many pilots, Ranga Reddy's body was never recovered. He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial at Kranji. He was 22.
With grateful thanks to K.S. Nair, and to Jagan Pillarisetti of http://www.bharat-rakshak.com