Early Sikh Pioneers of Aviation
Sikh Pilots in WW2
Early Sikh Pioneers of Aviation
History records that man’s first heavier-than-air flight took place on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, USA. The man was Wilbur Wright in a machine that had two wings attached with criss-crossed wires, a tail, an engine driving a propeller but little else other than a great dream. The contraption flew a few feet above ground for a few hundred yards. Just over Six decades later, man had walked on the moon, and man made machines have gone beyond the solar system. Still, in the few years just after 1903, the Americans were still less enthused about powered flight than were the Europeans and by 1909, many pioneers had built and flown their own aeroplanes. They were mostly French, followed by a few Germans, Dutch and Englishmen.
The first Indian, or indeed Asian, to procure aeroplanes was the then young Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh who was following aviation developments with keen interest. The Maharaja sent his Chief Engineer to Europe for an on-the spot study and then ordered three aeroplanes including a Bleriot monoplane and Farman biplanes, these aeroplanes arriving in the Punjab in December 1910.
The Sikhs have been pioneers in flying ever since, be it in military or civil aviation, as pilots or engineers, virtually from this dawn of flight. Even as the Twentieth Century is at an end and the new Millennium is to begin, Sikhs remain at the forefront of aviation activities be it with the Indian Air Force, Naval Air Arm, Army Aviation Corps, or the air wings of the Coast Guard and Border Security Force. Many are with International Airlines, as Boeing 747 “Jumbo” commanders, flying distant intercontinental routes from Chicago to Bombay or as Captains of Airbus A.320s, operating in South-East Asia. Quite a number are with the Royal Malaysian and Singapore Air Forces, others in East Africa.
First Indian to Join the Royal Flying Corps
However, the very first Indian to fly, join the Royal Flying Corps, get his wings, go into aerial combat on the Western Front, shoot down German fighters and himself be seriously wounded in the air, was an outstanding personality, Sardar Hardit Singh Malik, whose life and times were so extraordinary and his achievements so varied, that it is most meaningful to dwell upon his pioneering career.
Born on 23 November, 1892s in a distinguished Sikh family of Rawalpindi in the Punjab, Hardit Singh was educated at an English Public School (Eastborne College), from where he went to Balliol College at Oxford. Graduating with honours, his scholastic achievements were matched by his sports prowess, getting his blues in cricket and golf. When the Great War broke out in 1914, he was at his second year at Oxford and practically all his British colleagues volunteered to join the fighting services.
Following a personal interview with General Henderson, Commanding the Royal Flying Corps, Hardit Singh joined the RFC as a cadet at Aldershot early in 1917, the first Indian, and Sikh, in any flying service in the world. A specially-designed flying helmet was worn by Hardit Singh over his turban. Hardit Singh was selected for fighters and went ‘solo’ in a Caudron after just 2 1/2 hours instruction. Hardit Singh was posted to Filton, near Bristol, flying the Avro 504, the BE 2C, the Sopwith Pup, the Neiuport and finally the Sopwith Camel, the most advanced fighter at this time. At Filton, RFC pilots were taught combat tactics, including the famous Immelmann turn, Hardit Singh getting his wings in under a month. Posted to No.28 Squadron, equipped with the Camel, the formation soon flew out to St.Omer in France, then to an airfield in Flanders near the village of Droglandt. Here Lt. Hardit Singh Malik first met the new Commanding Officer, the legendary Major William G.Barkar who had come from Canada as a cavalryman in 1915, joined the RFC in 1916, flew Two seaters and fighters, becoming an ace many times over. Barkar was considered the greatest all-rounder pilot of World War One, and he personally initiated Hardit Singh into the art and science of aerial combat, leading him into the first actions including those against the legendary “Red Baron”, Manfred von Richthofen’s Staffel. In one major dog fight over 100 British and German fighters scrapping over the battle lines,
Hardit Singh shot down his first German Fokkerand was to go on to notch another eight aerial victories in the weeks ahead before he, himself, was wounded in action but survived in amazing circumstances. After months in hospital, Hardit Singh rejoined the service, now renamed as the Royal Air Force, flying the Bristol Fighter, probably the best fighter of the war, with No.141 Squadron at Biggin Hill, a specialist unit for defending London from raiding Zeppelins and Botha bombers.
As described then,”One of the first to be posted to the new squadron was Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, a Sikh from Rawalpindi a keen cricketer and golfer, Malik was one of the most popular officers at Biggin Hill. He staunchly refused to part with his turban and somehow managed to fit over it an outsized flying helmet, earning the affectionate nick name of “flying hobgoblin” from the ground crews. Besides Malik the Sikh, the original fighter pilots of Biggin Hill included men were from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Argentina, as well as the United Kingdom”.
After the armistice, Hardit Singh was posted to another Brisfit Squadron, No.11, at Nivelles near Brussels before he finally returned home after the War, a hero in his own right. Hardit Singh Malik was to later join the prestigious Indian Civil Service. As a postscript, this remarkable man’s chequered career included assignments as Trade Commissioner in London, Hamburg, Washingtonns and Ottawa, becoming Prime Minister of Patiala State, later Indian High Commissioner to Canada, and Ambassador to France. After retirement in 1956, he returned to his first passion,golf becoming India’s finest player ever, even with the two German bullets still embedded in his leg. Hardit Singh Malik lived till he was 91, Passing away is NOvember 1985.
First Indian pilot to fly Solo from England to India
The next singularly important landmark in India’s tryst with aviation was when, in November 1929, the Aga Khan offered, through the Royal Aero Club, a Special prize of £500 for the first Indian pilot who would fly solo from England to India or vice versa. “It must be a solo flight completed within six weeks from the date of starting. The Prize will remain open for one year from January 1930”. Three contestants entered. They were an enthusiastic JRD Tata (who later founded Tata Airlines, fore runner of Air India and was to become a pillar of the Tata Group). Man Mohan Singh, a civil engineer graduating from Bristol who had learnt to fly in England, and a young Aspy Merwan Engineer (later to be Chief of the Indian Air Force). Flying in single engined, light aeroplanes with simple instruments and without radio aids, the three adventurous young men set out on their long journey with faith and hope. Man Mohan Singh took off from Croydon airport, south of London, in a Gypsy Moth which he called “Miss India”, and Aspy Engineer followed the same route while J.R.D.Tata, also in a Gipsy Moth, started his journey in the reverse direction. After Croydon, Man Mohan Singh flew on to Lympne, Le Bourget (Paris), Dijon, Marseilles, Rome , Naples Catania, Tripoli and Sirle. From Gaza, he flew eastwards to India, with young Aspy Engineer trailing a day behind. ManMohan Singh finally landed at Drigh Road, Karachi on 12 May, 1930, thus winning the historic air race. Aspy Engineer landed the next day and although he was second, owing to a technicality, was eventually declared the winner which Man Mohan accepted heartily. Even though Aspy was awarded the Aga Khan prize, Man Mohan Singh was richly honoured by the Parsi community at Bombay for his magnanimous gesture.
Cadets sent to Cranwell and Forming of the Indian Air Force
The genesis behind the foundation of an air arm for India goes back to the appointment of the Skeen Committee in 1925 which eventually recommended in 1928, amongst other things, that “Indians be made eligible for commissioning in the Artillery Engineers, Signal, Tank and Air arms of the Army in India”.
In the competitive combined examination for admission to Sandhurst, Moolwich and Cranwell in November 1929, the highest-scoring candidate (Prem Singh Gyani) opted for the Artillery while those topping the list for the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell were Bhupinder Singh, followed immediately by his cousin, Amarjit Singh. Also qualified were A.B. Awan, H.C.Sircar, Subroto Mukerjee and J.N.Tandon and these first six Indian cadets proceeded to England in September 1930.
A.Singh and B.Singh belonged to a well known Sikh family of Sargodha in the Punjab, Amarjit having studied at the Government College Lahore and Bhupinder at the Lahore Christian College, both being great sportsmen at home and who were to make a mark in hockey and tennis while at Cranwell. After getting their “wings” in July 1932, they were the pioneers who formed “A” Flight of No. 1 Squadron of the Indian Air Force on 1 April 1933. Tragically, both were killed in an air accident six months later during an air exercise near Hyderabad-Sind.
Over the next six years, a trickle of Indian cadets were sent to the RAF College at Cranwell and, after commissioning, slowly augmented the fledgling Indian Air Force. Amongst them were Aspy Engineer, K. K. “Jumbo” Majumdar, Daljit Singh, Narendra, Henry Ranganadhan and Mehar Singh. By April 1938, No.1 Squadron IAF had been expanded to three Flights and were located together, for the first time, at Ambala even as the last of the Cranwell-trained pilots were to shortly augment its strength.
In India of the late twenties, there remained many sceptics who were dubious of India’s ability to raise and run an efficient air force. The key to an effective fighting air arm would not only be the aviators but aircrafts men, mechanics and technical tradesmen who would constitute its backbone. The establishment of an IAF was timely but “it takes more than pilots to create an Air Force” an all important connecting link would be the technical inspectors and senior NCOs and these would have to be British as “we should feel dubious of Indian aircraftsmen”.
Some British advisors however felt that there were selected Indian artisans of considerable proficiency in wood work and metal work, the best coming from the Punjab as “most Sikhs made quite good mechanics and there is one tribe of Punjabi Musalmans which supplies nearly all the regimental armourers for regiments of the Frontier . but the average Indian mechanic is very casual and untrustworthy” . “the care of aeroplanes demand meticulous attention to detail and a conscience which will leave nothing to chance. The lives of airmen depend on the thoroughness with which aircraft are kept in perfect flying trim”.
To the good fortune of the future Indian Air Force, amongst the first to apply were a number of well educated, highly motivated and patriotic individuals who sacrificed better emoluments in order to join what they felt was an important contribution to a future free India. One of them was Harjinder Singh, from Hoshiarpur, then studying at the Maclaghen Engineering College, Lahore but for some time obsessed with joining the air force undeterred by the IAF Selection Ward which first insisted that they only wanted “unqualified and untrained apprentices’, Harjinder Singh finally had his interview, along With other engineering Students and was amongst the first nine to be selected in November 1930. They were asked to report to the RAF Aircraft Depot at Drigh Road in January 1931 as members of the Indian Followers Corps of the RNF in India. (Hawaii Sepoy Harjinder Singh was to eventually become an Air Vice Marshall of the Indian Air Force and in the early 1960s, lay the foundations for a civil aircraft industry, based at Kanpur).
The infant, and tiny Indian Air Force first “cut its teeth’ in operations on the North West Frontier in 1938 and then also gained its first gallantry award. A bombing attack was to be carried out by Flt.Lt. Peter Haynes, with Hawai Sepoy 1st Class Kartar Singh Tounque as air gunner / bombardier.
Coming from a farming family of Lyallpur, Kartar Singh had schooled at Ropar, had done mechanical & electrical engineering at the Victoria Diamond Jubilee Institute at Lahore, getting his diploma in 1933. Applying for the Indian Air Force, he had joined a batch of 80 apprentices in February 1934 and spent two years at Drigh Road (Karachi). As No.65 Hawai Sepoy 1st Class, Kartar Singh was given the trade “Fitter Armourer” but soon qualified as an air gunner as well, and went with ‘A’ Flight to Peshawar in 1936.
On this memorable day’s single sortie, Peter Haynes flew level and steady as Kartar Singh switched on the Mk.IX bomb sight, calculated terminal velocity, fed in speed and heading on the compass, completed calculations and released the 112-lb RL bombs over the Pir of Ipi’s fortress. Being in the rear cockpit, Kartar Singh could well observe the great accuracy of the bombing, which was pin point. He was the first in the IAF to be Mentioned-in-Despatches for “Operations in Waziristan 1937-38”.
September 1938 saw the entry of the last batch of Indian cadets to RAF Cranwell (there were no entries in 1937), with Arjan Singh, Prithipal Singh and Kailash Bahl joining the College in September 1938. Bahl was withdrawn in July 1939 but Arjan Singh and Prithipal Singh completed their training by 22 December 1939, the course having been shortened by six months because, in September 1939, war had been declared against Germany, the second great war of the 20th Century.
Flight Cadet Prithipal Singh, a tall, strikingly handsome Sikh from Aithison College, Lahore was one of the finest sportsmen at Cranwell, playing in the Cricket XI, Hockey XI and setting numerous records in athletics. His compatriot, Flt.Cadet Arjan Singh, equally striking and well built, “played magnificently in the defense” in hockey for Cranwell and was awarded Blues in Athletics, Swimming and Hockey. Air Vice Marshal John Baldwin who was Commandant of the RAF College during this period, was mightily impressed by these Indian Flight Cadets who would, soon enough, prove their mettle in action during war operations, hardly three years from the time they left Cranwell.
In the decades to come, the Indian Air Force’s first Air Chief Marshal, Arjan Singh would retunes to Cranwell as the Chief Guest of Honour to review two passing out parades, the College repeatedly saluting one of its most brilliant products.
In, September 1938, “C” Flight of No.1 Squadron IAF with its Wapiti IIA army co-operation in biplanes moved to Miranshah, under Flying Officer “Jumbo” Majumdar, with Flying Officer Mehar Singh on his first of many tours of duty on the North West Frontier. The high standards set by “A” Flight a year earlier in the same area and their exemplary performance was difficult to emulate but Jumbo was determined to do even more operational flying “C” Flight in fact flew nearly 400 hours monthly, Mehar “Baba” (as he was as affectionately titled by ASPY Engineer) achieving a scorching hundred hours himself in the first month. On one of his sorties, Mehar Singh and his air gunner Ghulam Ali had a nasty experience when, during a strafing attack on tribesmen in a particularly wild valley near Shaidar, not visited by the Army since 1890, his Wapiti was hit by bullets and fuel pipe damaged. With great skill and verve, Mehar Singh force landed the biplane with bombs still attached, up-hill on a semi-flat spur on a mountain ledge. It was late in the afternoon, Mehar Singh and Ghulam Ali extricated the lewis gun, took refuge in a cave even as hostile tribesmen searched for them. At nightfall, the airmen walked back without maps, evading the hostiles and returned safely
Battle of Britain
On 1 August 1940, when the Battle for France had been lost and Battle of Britain was imminent, there were almost one hundred Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve (IAFVR) personnel that reported to the Selection Board at Ambala and were commissioned on the very same day. Of them, 24 were hand-picked for secondment to the Royal Air Force and within four weeks, they had sailed from Bombay on board a P&O liner being used as a troopship to England. The 24 Indian officers, to be known as the IAFVR “X” Squad, were mostly between 19 and 25 years old, having had elementary flying training at various flying clubs in India, a large number of them from Walton, Lahore. The senior most amongst them was the redoubtable Man Mohan Singh who had “won” the Aga Khan Air Race ten years later and pioneered many other flights to other parts of the world and in India. Affectionately known to the IAFVR as “Chacha” (Uncle), Man Mohan was, at 34 years old, the most mature and experienced flyer in the Squad . The Indian contingent had, in fact, arrived at the height of the Luftwaffe’s blitz against England and in the midst of what was to be immortalized as the Battle of Britain. The 24 Indians were shortly moved to a Flying School some miles South of Glasgow, in Scotland. After four weeks, the IAFVR ‘X’ Squad was split into two, young Shivdev Singh being amongst those who started advanced flying training near Liverpool where, once again, the Luftwaffe carried out a bombing raid. After a few more months of training, the Indian Pilot Officers were posted to various RAF squadrons and Shivdev Singh found himself posted to the famous No. XV (heavy bomber) Squadron flying the Short Stirling four-engined bomber aircraft, the very first to be so-equipped in the RAF.
Hard flying training followed and Shivdev Singh’s “extraordinary performance” got him onto an operational tour very quickly. Raids over Germany included night attacks on the German submarine pens at Kiel, the bombers flying through heavy black fire with searchlights lighting up the night sky. Raids on German industrial centres in the Ruhr were equally tough and Shivdev’s Stirling once got battered from flak, losing an engine, with flight controls damaged.
Of the 24 Indian pilots who had volunteered to serve with the Royal Air Force in Britain, six did not measure up to standard and were assigned other general duties. Of the 18 who then flew with the RAF, seven were selected as fighter pilots, two of them, Ranjan Dutt and Mohinder Singh Pujji, distinguishing themselves.
Pujji flew rhubarbs with a Spitfire Squadron over France, and Hurricane missions over Burma.
In Pujji’s words,
” I was posted to No. 253 Squadron RAF, flying Hurricane IIB fighters from RAF Kenley, which is a couple of miles south of Croydon. We were a mixed bunch, with pilots also from Poland, America, Canada and Australia. Equipped with twelve machine guns, our Hurricanes were extensively flown day and night, to intercept German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft.
I was later attached with No.43 Squadron, flying Hurricanes from Martlesham, the RAF fighter Squadrons being switched from base to base every few weeks, but remaining in the Greater London area. Later, we converted to the Spitfire Mk.V and I was promoted to Flight Commander. Our operational task now included fighter sweeps over occupied Europe and we made low-level attacks on enemy targets when we were not required to provide fighter escort to RAF bombers. During these operations, I was involved in many dog fights with Luftwaffe fighters and my total tally was two Messerschmitt Me 109s confirmed as shot down and three damaged”.
Fg Offr Mohinder Singh Pujji
Shivdev Singh, who was to have a most distinguished career in the IAF, rising to Air Marshal and becoming Vice Chief of Air Staff, in characteristic modesty, attributed his fame “to mistaken identity, that with Chacha Man Mohan Singh” whose long and varied flying experience had resulted in the latter’s immediate command of a Sunderland flying boat with RAF Coastal Command, hunting German submarines during the battle for the Atlantic. Tragically, ‘Chacha’ Man Mohan Singh was to be killed in action in January 1942 while gallantly rescuing Dutch civilians in the distant port of Broome, north-western Australia.
Indian Air Force in Burma Campaigns
Meanwhile, back in India, the IAF was being expanded to seven Squadrons and modernized with Hurricane fighters and Vengeance dive bombers. No.3 Squadron IAF, commanded by Sqn.Ldr. Prithipal Singh and flying Hurricane II fighter bombers from September 1943 to January 1945 became mainstay of the North West Frontier Watch and Ward duties. For four years, with brief interruptions for conversion paining or special duties for training with Army units, it carried out the W&W task and its experienced pilots became a pool from which were drawn many IAF officers to command or stiffen the new IAF squadrons in the years of great expansion. Nos. 3 and 4 Squadrons were re-equipped with the Hurricane IIC in January and June 1943 respectively but the third IAF formation to fly Hurricanes was No.6 Squadron under redoubtable Sqn.Ldr.Mehar Singh who was its commanding officer for over two years from December 1947 till end December 1944.
No. 6 Squadron had a very high serviceability record, their Hurricanes immaculately maintained and the Squadron was adjudged the smartest unit during the IAF’s 10th Anniversary parade and fly past at Ambala on 1 st April 1943.
No.6 Squadron’s efficiency, enthusiasm and excellent performance evoked numerous messages of praise which was to result, in November 1943, in its selection for the coming campaign in Burma, the first squadron of the newly equipped Indian Air Force to go to War of the Second Arakan Campaign, achieving great distinction and earning the sobriquet “Eyes of the XIV Army”.
Before the 1943 winter campaign began, in which Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse had “ordained” that the Indian Air Force was to go into battle with their new Hurricanes and Vengeances, he called a meeting of the seven IAF Squadron Commanders in New Delhi, four of which were ready to go into the front line, the others then converting to their new aircraft. Interestingly, of these seven Squadron Commanders of the Indian Air Force, five were Sikhs: S / L Arjan Singh (No.1 Squadron), S/L Surjit Singh
(No.2 Squadron), S/ L Prithipal Singh (No.3 Squadron), S / L Dalip Singh Majithia (No.4 Squadron)and S/L Mehar Singh (No.6 Squadron). The C.O.s were ordered to fly in their own aircraft from wherever they happened to be and report at Air H.Q. for the opening of the conference by the AOC-in-C. All got the signal in ample time to act on it, except for Sqn. Ldr.Mehar Singh, commanding No.6 Squadron. As recorded, “He was taking his boys to the front at the time and had only received the signal at nine o’clock on the night before he was supposed to report to Delhi. He took off at 10 p.m., on a moonless night to fly alone and without wireless aids to Delhi. He flew at fourteen thousand feet, landed at Allahabad to refuel and reached Willingdon airport, nine hundred miles from his starting point at 4 a.m. He was at the opening session of the conference that morning with all the others, as if nothing had happened. It was a magnificent flight. Sir Richard described it Sater, as “a feat of which any air force in the world would be proud”.
In his classic account of the War in Burma “Defeat Into Victory”, Field Marshal Sir William Slim describes his visit to No.6 Squadron and its C.O. Sqn.Ldr.Mehar Singh who were keeping up steady patrols with Tactical-Reconnaissance Hurricanes: “I was impressed by the conduct of a recce 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 hone when news had come in that the last patrol had run into a bunch of Oscars and had been shot down. The Sikh Squadron Leader, an old friend of mine, at once took out the next patrol himself and completed the mission. His methods, rumour had it, were a little unorthodox. It was said that if any of his young pilots made a bad landing he would take them behind a basha and beat them ! Whatever he did, it was effective, they were a happy, efficient and very gallant squadron”.
In April 1944, No.6 Squadron notched a scorching 620 hours of operational flying, when the Kaladan and Mayu valleys received increased attention. Flt.Lt.Mohinder Singh Pujji, one of the Flight Commanders who had earlier been with the RAF over France and the Middle East, flew as many as six sorties a day, clocking 61 operational flying hours in one month.
At the beginning of June, after an incredible operational tour, No. 6 were withdrawn from the front. Squadron Leader Mehar Singh was awarded the only DSO to an Indian of the Air Force. “Meher ‘Baba ‘ remains perhaps the greatest legend of the Indian Air Force. His extraordinary, and inspired flying skills and leadership were at their most brilliant during the traumatic months before partitions of India in 1947 and then immediately thereafter, during the Kashmir operations of 1947-48. To chronicle these would fill many volumes.
NO 1 Squadron of the Indian Air Force was to be in the thick of the vital battles of 1944, returning to war and glory under command of Sqn. Ldr. Arjan Singh. The “Tigers” had earlier been based at Kohat, operating Hawker Hurricane IIBs when during December 1943, the C-in-C Indian Army Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck visited the RAF Station and also inspected No. I Squadron. He was most impressed by its standard and spirit and when Sqn.Ldr. Arjan Singh advocated the intense desire of No. I Squadron to go back into battle, keenly supported by the RAF Station Commander, he gave his acquiescence. Within a week of this request, No. I Squadron was ordered to move immediately to Imphal on the Manipur front where massive buildups were taking place on both sides of the Assam Burma border. The next fifteen months were to be breathless with action and epoch marking in the already checquered history of the Tiger Squadron.
No. I Squadron reached Imphal (Main) on 3 February 1944 and were thereafter to remain in action for a record 14 months, taking vital part in the fateful siege of Imphal followed by the trans-Chindwin and trans-Irrawaddy offenses. Once again, No. 1 Squadron IAF shared the base with their old colleagues-in-arms, No.28 Squadron RAF, both being Tactical Reconnaissance Units (Tac/R), cooperating closely with the Army.
No.1 Squadron under Sqn.Ldr. Arjan Singh commenced operational flying immediately, with sector reconnaissance flown on the 5 February, carrying out offensive, tactical and photographic sorties to observe Japanese movements on the Chindwin, beyond Tiddim, and as far east as the Myitkyina-Mandalay railway, much valuable information being obtained by the Squadron.
The siege of Imphal was finally broken and the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions began to disintegrate and while still resisting, were definitely on the retreat. However, in the Palel area and the area south of Imphal, the Japanese 33rd Division hung on grimly to their positions but on 2 July, the Japanese actually discontinued their Imphal operations, and concentrated on forming defensive lines to check the Allied advance. Following opening of the Imphal-Kohima road, No. 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes were involved, in addition to the tasks referred to, in reconnoitring the Japanese lines of communication in use by the retreating troops and attacking them. Sqn.Ldr. Arjan Singh’s leadership had a distinct style: quiet courage, no flamboyance, firmness but with a ready smile.
Arjan Singh and indeed the Indian Air Force itself, the Supreme Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten, personally flew into Imphal and in the presence of Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse and the assembled Squadron at the airfield, pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Arjan Singh’s tunic. In the few words of the Supreme Commander “He had done a great job”. Twenty years later, Arjan Singh was to be appointed Chief of Air Staff and led the indian Air Force during the September 1965 war. After retiring in 1969, he served as India’s ambassdor in several countries and became Lt. Governor of Delhi. Most active on the Golf Course, he is still regarded by nearly as simply “The Chief”.
The next Sikh to be Chief of Air Staff, after Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, DFC was Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh (198l – 84), a highly regarded fighter pilot who had taken part in the J &K operations in 1947, raised and commanded No. 1 Squadron with the new French Mystere IVA fighter-bomber in 1957 and repeated such a pioneering task in 1963 when he raised and commanded No. 28 Squadron with Russian MiG-21s, “the First Supersonics” . (Sadly the news came in as this article was being published that Sardar Dilbagh Singh ji passed away in city of Dehradun on Feb. 11, 2001)
These are myriad examples of legendary flying Sikhs in the Indian Air Force and, indeed, in the air arms of other fighting Services in India. Flying Officer Lal Singh Grewal joined the last IAF formation raised during World War II, No.10 Squadron, with whom he flew Hurricane IICs in the Arakan in 1944-45. After the war, and conversion to multi-engine aircraft, he was amongst the first to fly troops into the Vale of Kashmir in October 1947 and, in November 1948, formed No.5 Squadron, the IAF’s first heavy bomber unit with B-24 Liberators. In 1963, and the aftermath of the frontier war with China, Lal Singh was handpicked to establish the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) for special operations, about which very little has still been revealed. Air Marshal Lal Singh Grewal later rose to be the Vice Chief of Air Staff. There have been other Sikh Vice Chiefs of the Air Force, including Air Marshals Shivdev Singh and Air Marshal Prem Pal Singh. The present (April 1999) Vice Chief is Air Marshal Pritam Singh “Ben” who, in 1982, had formed the IAF’s first dedicated formation aerobatic team the Thunderbolts, flying Hunters.
Source:History of the Indian Air Force – Pushpinder Singh