Flying the flag for Inder

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Celebration Memories abound on the occasion of the Flag Day today

flying highThe tricolor fluttersPhoto: Sandeep Saxena
flying highThe tricolor fluttersPhoto: Sandeep Saxena

In school (during World War II) we were taught that a flag was a piece of cloth tied to a pole and served as a symbol. Transition to college in the immediate aftermath of Independence made us familiar with our new national flag and we took great pride in hoisting and flying the flag every August 15 thereafter. Joining the Air Force (1951) however taught me that, in the armed forces, the term ‘flying the flag’ had several subtle connotations and meanings.

Each of the three defence services have their own service flag which carry the national tricolours and service symbol on a coloured background; red (army), white (navy) and blue (air force). ‘Flying the flag’ also meant ‘showing the flag’ (to assert claim by military presence), ‘flags of convenience’, ‘flag waving’, and by extension went on to cover ‘flag marches’, ‘flag meetings’, ‘white flags’, ‘flag ships’, ‘flag officers’ ‘flag cars’ and a few more non-literal meanings and service derivations. As a very young and junior student at our staff college in Wellington (1960-61), my impassioned championing of air power in a joint land – air exercise, led the Directing Staff (DS) in his sum-up to light heartedly laud my ‘flying the air force flag’ so effectively as to make the land forces feel totally redundant! The good natured DS concerned was Lt Col Inder Gill who, immediately following the exercise, invited me to join him at the bar.

Though very much my senior and despite our infrequent actual meetings, our relationship was sustained over the years and I learned to respect and admire this legendary (to quote an army colleague) ‘soldiers’s soldier’. A thorough professional with a colourful personality, down-to-earth attitude and a gift of understated humour, Inder’s great popularity was matched only by his thirst. Though a very busy DGMO (Director General Military Operations) during the 1971 Indo Pak war, he still found time to call up a certain Wing Commander in Pathankot to congratulate him on the award of the MVC and to encourage him to continue to keep our flag flying high!

While commanding our air base in Adampur (1977-1979) I once received an urgent call from the Chief Operations Officer to say that an unscheduled air force helicopter had sought permission to land in 20 minutes, required refuelling and requested that the AOC be informed that Inder was onboard. I had no previous intimation but gave necessary permission, instructed my staff to carry a red 3-star car plate, Lt Gen’s car flag and to alert our officers Mess. As I was leaving for the helipad my Adjutant informed me that we did not have the required star plate or flag. Out of the ‘heptr’ stepped Lt Gen Inder Gill, GOC-in-C Western Command who immediately apologised for lack of notice. He explained that he was on a short notice exercise and did not want his destinations known in advance.

I in turn apologised for not having the required protocol star plate and flag. He laughed and said that his SO had both but, since this was my station and my staff car it must fly my flag and promptly got into the front passenger seat while I took the wheel. Not too many 3-star uniformed generals would be so comfortable being driven in a staff car flying a one-star blue car flag! I drove him around the air base and wound up at our mess where he quenched his legendary thirst. I saw him off at the helipad with his destination known only to himself and the captain of the ‘heptr’. This was to be our last meeting. A few days later I received a hand written personal letter (50 p postage) thanking me for our hospitality and expressing great delight at my flying the right flag! When I received the news that Inder Gill had passed away, I (metaphorically) flew the flag at half mast in honour of an officer, gentleman and great human being.


(The author is a retired air vice marshal)

‘Flying the flag’ also meant ‘showing the flag’, ‘flags of convenience’, ‘flag waving’, and by extension went on to cover ‘flag marches’, ‘flag meetings’, ‘white flags’, ‘flag ships’, ‘flag officers’ ‘flag cars’ and a few more non-literal meanings and service derivations.




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