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From WW-II to 1965 victory against Pakistan, the legacy of IAF’s only 5-star officer Arjan Singh

Marshal Singh’s service to the force will remain a hallmark in India’s and the subcontinent’s military history. A look at his life and achievements on his 103rd birth anniversary.

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New Delhi: Born on 15 April, 1919, in undivided Punjab’s Lyallpur, now Faisalabad in Pakistan, Arjan Singh rose to become the first marshal and five-star officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

His presence is intertwined with the IAF’s history and legacy after independence. He had the distinctive honour of leading the fly-past of more than 100 planes over Delhi’s Red Fort, on 15 August, 1947, the day India gained independence.

Arjan Singh with former Vice-President Dr Zakir Hussain | Credit: IAF
Arjan Singh with former Vice-President Dr Zakir Hussain | Credit: IAF

Singh’s service remains unparalleled, especially during the 1965 monsoon war with Pakistan, when the IAF’s campaigns under his leadership helped India gain superiority over Pakistan’s air force. He was recognised with the Padma Vibhushan for his services during the 1965 war.

In 2002, he was conferred the rank of Marshal of the Indian Air Force, becoming its first and only five-star officer. The rank is the IAF equivalent to the Army’s five-star field marshal.

Five years after his passing, Singh remains an inspiration for the IAF’s present as well as retired officers, and Indians across the world. His legacy and service to the force will remain a hallmark in India’s and the subcontinent’s military history. 

On his 103rd birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back on the decorated officer’s life and achievements.


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Early years

In 1938, at the tender age of 19, Arjan Singh was chosen to train at the Royal Air Force (RAF) College in Cranwell, Great Britain. 

IAF sources told ThePrint that Singh had been an ace swimmer during his school years. He held an all-India record in freestyle swimming in 1.5 km and 2.5 km events.

At RAF Cranwell, he topped the course among the batch of Indian cadets. He was vice-captain of the swimming, athletics and hockey teams during his training at RAF Cranwell.

In 1944, Singh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) by the Commonwealth for his services during World War II in Burma.

A year later, prior to India’s independence, he was transferred to RAF Staff College at Bracknell in the UK.

Independence & service with the IAF

Soon after the glorious fly-past over the Red Fort on 15 August, 1947, Singh took over command of the air force station in Ambala as Group Captain.

After a brief stint in Ambala, in 1949, after being promoted to the rank of Air Commodore, Arjan Singh took over as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of Operational Command. This Command was later recategorised as the Western Air Command.

Marshal Singh had the unique honour of having the longest tenure as AOC of Operation Command. He served two terms as AOC first from 1949 to 1952, and then for a second time between 1957 and 1961.

After Partition, Singh played an instrumental role in administering the air force and guiding it through “turbulent winds”. IAF sources told ThePrint that Singh had a key part in managing the air force fairly in the early days, setting it on a path of progress, and dealing with the disruptions caused to the service by Partition.

Pivotal role in 1965 war

By the end of the 1962 India-China war, Singh had been appointed as Deputy Chief of Air Staff (DCAS), and by 1963, he was Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS).

During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Singh played a pivotal role in leading the IAF’s counter against Pakistan’s army in Chamb. The IAF was able to diminish the Pakistan army’s assault at Chamb.

Singh’s planning was also central to ensuring that the IAF gained aerial superiority over the Pakistan Air Force through the monsoon war. This helped India secure strategic victories over Pakistan.

Singh was Chief of Air Staff at the time. After the war, to honour the service of the IAF, this post was upgraded to Air Chief Marshal. Singh retired in 1969 after serving as the head of the IAF for almost five years.

A portrait of IAF Marshal Arjan Singh | Credit: IAF
A portrait of IAF Marshal Arjan Singh | Credit: IAF

Service after retirement

Singh’s service to the country continued after he retired from the IAF.

In 1971, he had the unique honour of being appointed India’s Ambassador to Switzerland by then-President V.V. Giri. After Switzerland, he also served as India’s High Commissioner to Kenya.

In 1989, he was appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Singh also served as chairman of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)


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