The history of Anti-Aircraft Artillery in India precedes the raising of the first Indian Anti-Aircraft Regiment in 1940. More than a decade earlier, in 1929, a Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery ( 8thHeavy AA Battery, RA) had been placed in the North West Frontier Province making it the first presence of any AA Artillery in India but as it was manned only by British gunners, there was no presence of Indians in this branch of Artillery; as yet.
To trace the first Indian AA gunners, we need to look eastwards at the British garrisons of Hong Kong and Singapore.
In 1841, four companies Madras Army were sanctioned to be formed at Fort St. George and sent to Hong Kong for the defence of the newly occupied territories. The first reference of these companies, called the China Gun Lascars, is available in ‘The Asiatic journal and monthly register for British and foreign India, China and Australasia’of 1842 which mentions the newly raised companies as follows:
Under instructions from the Right Honourable the governor in Council, four companies of gun lascars have been raised for service in China, each consisting of 1 subedar, 1 jemadar, 8 havildras, 115 lascars and 2 bheasties. The companies are to be lettered from A to D, and will be under the orders of the officer commanding the Madras Artillery in China for the general duties of the Corps. Officers in command of these companies are authorized to draw an allowance of Rs 30 a month for stationer, &c.
The Companies were commanded by the Subedar, with no British or Native officer on strength of the company. The men dressed like all other garrison gunners though their duties seem to have been purely orderly and fatigue. The men were recruited from (the then) Madras Presidency. The recruitment base was later expanded to include Punjabi Mussalmans (PM) from Punjab and a PM was duly raised as a pure company.
The class composition of the Lascar companies underwent another change in 1865 when men of all Asiatic nations were first enlisted. These included Portuguese half-castes and Jews though a Punjabi Mohammedan company was retained besides the mixed companies. The duties of the lascars were slowly expanded to include gun drill and musketry with the men showing signs of efficiency. Over a period of time, the fatigue duties were restricted and the focus shifted to gunnery duties.
In 1881, an additional company was sanctioned following the increase in armament in Hong Kong and at this stage, Colonel Hall, the then Officer Commanding Royal Artillery, Hong Kong, expressed a desire that the new company should be composed entirely of Sikhs enlisted in the Punjab, India. The companies were still called the ‘China Gun Lascars’. This led to discontent amongst the Indian gunners, especially the newly recruited Sikhs who had been enlisted in India for the Top Khana(Artillery) but it was not till 1891 that the name was changed from China Gun lascars to ‘Asiatic Artillery’. By now, there were ‘Asiatic Artillery Companies’ at Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon and Mauritius.
To bring about greater control and efficiency, the Asiatic Artillery underwent a reorganisation in 1898 and two separate battalions were formed: “The Hong Kong and Singapore Battalion, Royal Artillery”, headquartered in Hong Kong, and the “Ceylon Battalion, Royal Artillery”, headquartered in Ceylon. The next year, Royal Artillery was split into two distinct branches with Royal Garrison Artillery coming into being. With this, the two battalions were now named the ‘Hong Kong Singapore Battalion, Royal Garrison Artillery’though this lasted till 1924 when it was decided to again merge the two i.e. the Garrison and Field artillery into a single corps.
In 1934, the units underwent another change and were to be called ‘Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA). In May, 1934 HKSRA consisted of one mountain and three heavy batteries at Hong Kong, and one heavy battery at Singapore. With the need for AA defence of Singapore and Hong Kong, 5th AA Brigade (regiment) was formed in 1934 with the a British HQ and 7thAA Battery. Two AA Batteries of HKSRA ( No.s 7 and 9) were raised with Punjabi Mussalman and Sikhs recruited from Punjab in India, and joined the Brigade after training.
These were the first AA batteries of Indian gunners.
By September, 1939, HKSRA had grown into two mountain batteries, two medium batteries, and one heavy battery at Hong Kong, six anti-aircraft batteries at Singapore and one heavy battery at Penang. The AA Batteries were organised in to 1 and 2 AA Regiments, HKSRA.
In 1940, the HKSRA was rocked by a mutiny when all personnel were orderedtowearsteelhelmetsinsteadof pugris. The Sikhsepoys ofthe 20th HeavyBatteryof the12thHKSRA, along with the 2ndBattalion of the 14thPunjab Regiment refused to wear the helmets. The mutiny spread with 83 Sikh sepoys of the 20thBattery displaying collective insubordination on December 19 and the Sikhs of Hong Kong rifles refusing to handle the crates containing the steel helmets. They were joined by Sikhs of the 5 AA Regiment refusing food. The mutiny was quelled by collective court martial of 83 Sikh gunners in January 1941.
The mutiny and insubordination notwithstanding, the HKSRA acquitted themselves with honour once hostilities were joined with the Japanese invasion.
Hong Kong, the first to face the Japanese onslaught had only one AA Battery, the 17thAA Battery, of HKSRA which formed part of 5 AA Regiment. In addition, the regiment had 7thand 18thAA Batteries of Royal Artillery and 5thAA Battery formed from the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.
One Japanese sea-plane was brought down by the 17 AA Battery, HKSRA during the Battle of Saiwan. The Battery suffered losses at Brickhill and Bluff Head when sections where knocked off by concentrated Japanese air attacks.
Faced with overwhelming odds, the British garrison in Hong Kong surrendered on December 26. The situation in Malaya and Singapore was similar as the commonwealth forces were not able to withstand the Japanese offensive.
The AA Batteries in Malaya included the 1stand 2ndAA Regiments of HKSRA and the 3rdLight AA Regiment made of available Light AA Batteries. They were deployed as thus:
1stHAA Regiment, HKSRA
6 HAA Battery at Johore Bahru and Sungei Buloh
9 HAA Battery at Johore State and Naval Base
10 HAA Battery at Tengah and Mount Vernon
2ndHAA Regiment, HKSRA
12 HAA Battery at Nee Soon and Holland
13 HAA Battery at Geylang and Club
20 HAA Battery at Tengah
3rdLight AA Regiment, HKSRAwith its 14 and 16 LAA Batteries, HKSRA and 1 Indian LAA Battery with Indian III Corps
The HAA Batteries were initially deployed at the forward airfields. Alor Star aerodrome had 4 x 3” guns of 9 HAA Battery with four more at Kota Bharu. Sungei Patani had eight static 3.7-inch guns of 13thHAA Battery and two guns at Gong Kedah.
The aerodrome at Tengah was the most heavily defended with 10 HAA Battery and 20 HAA battery deployed for its defence; as was 4 HAA Battery of 1stIndian HAA Regiment.
The LAA Batteries were split up into Troops and Sections for AA defence of Brigades of the III Indian Corps.
The AA defences were later augmented by the arrival of British AA Regiments but they all proved inadequate in the end.
The AA Gunners of HKSRA won the following gallantry awards:
Jemadar Amar Singh, 2 Light AA Regiment, HKSRA
Havildar Udham Singh, 18 Light AA Battery, HKSRA
Naik Mohd Amir, 1 AA Regiment, HKSRA
A large number of AA gunners were taken prisoner and suffered heavy casualties during the campaign.