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PAF s' Chief of the Air Staffs

Air Vice Marshal A L A Perry-Keene, RAF

Allan Perry-Keene missed the command of the much larger Indian Air Force by the width of an additional stripe on his badge of rank. While serving in Indian on the eve of partition Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keene was appointed chairman of the Air Force Reconstitution Committee charged with planning the division of the RIAF’s assets between it and the soon-to-be RPAF. In his memoirs titled ‘Reflected Glory’ he recalls:

“The Prime Minister elect of India and the Governor General-to-be of Pakistan asked for British serving officers to command their forces. I was proposed for the RIAF but as Nehru wanted an air marshal, sir Thomas Elmhirst was chosen and I was offered to Jinnah who accepted me.”

It says much for his sense of fairplay as well as for his immediate concern for the prospects of the air force he was to command that:

“As I was no longer neutral I handed over my chairmanship to Group Captain Barnett but while in the chair I couldn’t help feeling the dice was loaded heavily against Pakistan. India, batting on its own ground put in Air Commodore Mukerjee and Group Captain Engineer, Pakistan only being able to field Wing Commander Janjua and Squadron Leader Asghar Khan.

“I took stock with Janjua. Our real estate prospects looked good. We would inherit all the well built pre-war stations except Ambala. But for the rest we would be very thin. We had been allotted only one of the nine RIAF fighter squadrons: No 9 at Peshawar with which to keep watch and ward on the NW frontier, a task which at times had requires six RAF squadrons. However, as the tribesmen were Muslims we hoped they would keep quiet. We estimated that we had enough pilots to form a second Tempest squadron and to provide crews for a few Dakota transports as well. Our principal concern was the lack of technical personnel so we devised an establishment of RAF volunteers.”

The dilemma of a conflict of loyalties which was to persist through the tenures of all four British chiefs of the RAF posed one of its earliest problems for Perry-Keene:

“My position was not easy. Though I was a servant of the Pakistan Government taking my orders from the Minister of Defence, I held the King’s Commission and had certain responsibilities towards the Air Ministry.”

Air Marshal Perry-Keene’s recollection of a visit to the RPAF at Peshawar by the Quaid-i-Azam invites a thought provoking reflection upon the Quaid’s firm distinction between democratic leadership and military trapping:

“We had a visit by the Quaid-i-Azam and his sister Miss Fatima Jinnah. The Quaid attended a number of ceremonies including a review of the RPAF for which we had a careful rehearsal. The RPAF also gave a dinner for the Quaid-i-Azam at which the Governor and local notables were present. We’d hoped the Quaid-i-Azam would become Chief of the RPAF but he wouldn’t accept any military title.”

Air Vice Marshal A L A Perry-Keene had a long and distinguished RAF career before becoming the first commander-in-chief of the newly formed Royal Pakistan Air Force in 1947. He was born on 10 November 1898, and commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. Towards the end of WWI he was flying sorties against targets in Germany with 115 Squadron, in Handley Page heavy bombers.

During WWII, the eve of the Japanese offensive into Burma saw him as Senior Air Staff Officer to 221 Group. In this capacity, Perry-Keene played a part in the formulation of tactics which preserved RAF air superiority in the skies over Rangoon for so long, in the face of overwhelming enemy superiority.

It was while has was on his third consecutive post-war assignment in India, as SASO to the air C-in-C at Delhi, that Perry-Keene was tapped as the first commander of the RPAF-to-be. Whether or not he felt any degree of disappointment over his ineligibility for command of an air force four time the size of the RPAF, he certainly did not show it. From the very beginning of his tenure in Pakistan, which he began at the age of 49, he showed an acute awareness of the fundamental difference between the situation of the two air forces; the RPAF had been a going concern for several years and was now only having to give up about one-fifth of its assets; the RPAF, on the other hand, did not even exist till 15 August 47 and would now have to be built up step by laborious step, in a national environment which bordered on the chaotic.

During and after his 18 months tenure, he came under some criticism for being too easy going in his style of command and leisurely in his approach to the development of the RPAF. These charges are not borne out by his actions and appear to be a misreading of his virtually unflappable nature which, if anything was an asset in the turbulent circumstances.

Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keene’s overriding concern was that the RPAF had not inherited a single training institution of any kind, and this deficiency had to be redressed at the highest priority. Hence his preoccupation with the establishment of some of the hard core training facilities on which the PAF later built the edifice that stands today. Even at some cost to the development of front line combat strength, Perry-Keene started a flying training school (FTS), a recruits training centre (RTC), a technical training school (TTS), and a medical training centre. In addition, he arranged extensive vacancies for pilot training inn the USA and for technical training in the UK, to bridge the gap while the RPAF’s own institutions gathered momentum.

Parallel with his emphasis on building foundation for the future, he invested whatever remaining resources were available to him in bolstering the combat strength step by step. A third fighter squadron was raised, No 14, and a switchover was begun from the among Tempests to the best piston-engined fighter-bomber of its time the Hawker Fury. To underline the need for professional excellence in the tiny RPAF, he instituted an inter-squadron armament trophy which is contested by combat squadrons to this day, although it has undergone a change of nomenclature. Perry-Keene also commissioned a new maintenance unit, No 103 MU at Chaklala, to drastically reduce the long distance between the users of aircraft spares concentrated in the north and the stockiest located at Karachi.

A few weeks before his departure, Perry-Keene had established a fourth combat squadron, No 11, in anticipation of the arrival of Bristol Brigand twin-engined light bomber aircraft which had been ordered. But the plan never came to fruition as the very first Brigand crashed on landing while staging through Basra on its ferry flight. The incident led to a review of the plan by Perry-Keene successor.

Air Marshal Perry-Keene died in England in March 1987.
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