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‘Plane broke into three pieces’: Hardit Singh’s first flight over German lines in Droglandt

In 'Lion of the Skies', Stephen Barker writes about Hardit Singh Malik. The first-ever Indian to brave the skies and fly as a pilot for the RAF.

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Hardit’s first flight over the German lines in action occurred on 18 October, when each of the three flight commanders took off accompanied by two other pilots. The aim of this combined sortie with 32 Squadron was to patrol the front lines, with the Camels protecting the slow and clumsy R.E.8 planes carrying out their primary role of spotting for the artillery on the ground, in preparation for the next major assault in the salient. Between 1000 and 1100 hours that morning, Hardit fired off several long-range bursts at enemy aircraft to no avail, knowing that the only way to make a kill was to get up close, yet coming into contact with the enemy for the first time relieved the tension somewhat.

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The following day, 19 October, C Flight took to the air once more, a pair of aircraft at a time, the visibility once more truly appalling. Much time that day was spent preparing for the first big ‘show’ the following day, when 28 Squadron would go into action alongside 70 and 23 Squadrons. The aim of the operation was to make a combined attack against the important German aerodrome at Rumbeke, close to Roulers. Rumbeke was the home of Jasta 2, the German squadron named after its now posthumous commander Oswald Boelcke.223 The raid was an ambitious one for the relative newcomers, though taking part in a large formation of over seventy aircraft offered some protection, yet once dogfights began there were few places to hide. The machines employed in the operation would be required in both fighter and ground attack roles, and while 70 Squadron was tasked with bombing the aerodrome, those of 23 Squadron were to patrol at high altitude and pick off enemy fighters. Hardit’s task with 28 Squadron was to sweep around as far to the east as possible and surprise those Germans sent up to engage the bombers. That morning, he took up Camel B3887 alone at 1000 hours on a short test flight, perhaps uncertain about its performance. Reassured, he left Droglandt at 1110 hours, part of the entire squadron complement of eighteen machines, under the command of Captain Barker.

It was a tremendous thrill to be part of such a large formation, over fifty planes, all looking for Germans. We soon ran into a small party of them, taking them by surprise. Shooting started and there was considerable confusion. Our planes and those of the Germans got hopelessly mixed up. There were bullets flying in all directions. We had been instructed that each pilot was to pick out one particular target, and I soon found myself diving on the tail of an enemy who, instead of turning back to attack me, kept on diving. He must have been as frightened as I was! I must have started shooting from too great a distance, for at first nothing seemed to happen. But suddenly I hit him and first his plane started to smoke, and then went down spinning in flames.

Meanwhile, the raid on the Rumbeke aerodrome was going well. The bombing attack had gone in at a height of 400 feet, falling on the Albatros D.Vs lined up on the airfield, whilst other munitions burst in the hangars and sheds. This was followed by the Camels of 70 Squadron firing at the ground crews and into the hangars and buildings from low level. As Hardit followed down his falling victim, he could see the black smoke issuing from the burning buildings in the distance, but he had other more pressing considerations to attend to. He had dropped too low and needed to climb quickly if he wasn’t to share the same fate. There was nothing more vulnerable than a machine close to the ground from an attack from above and his Camel was also isolated. Fortunately, Barker had spotted his predicament and brought C Flight down to his aid. The six of them climbed back to a safer altitude and headed for Droglandt.

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For Hardit however, the excitement of his first day of serious aerial combat wasn’t over. On the way back, he encountered some desultory antiaircraft fire from the German positions below. He thought nothing of this until he began his landing procedure at 1235 hours, an hour and twenty-five minutes after taking off:

I found to my horror that when I tried to straighten out from the mild dive while approaching the airfield, there was no response when I pulled the joystick back to flatten out. So, I dived straight into the ground and my plane broke into three pieces. I found myself still strapped in my seat, with that section of the plane upside down, the petrol from the gravity tank pouring down my face! Fortunately, the plane did not catch fire and I was pulled out by our engine fitters who had rushed out to the crash. The gods were certainly with me because I did not even have a scratch. When we examined the wrecked plane, we found that one of the wires from the control stick to the elevator had been badly damaged. It had been hit either by a bullet or anti-aircraft fire, and the one strand that was holding it together must have snapped when I pulled out of the dive.

An alternative version of events exists in relation to his plunging into the ground that day. The commander and fighter ace, Lieutenant Ludwig Hanstein of Jasta 35 was credited with bringing Malik down as part of the action of 20 October, following their dogfight south-west of Moorslede.

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Nevertheless, having recovered his composure, Hardit joined the others in the officers’ mess, where there was an air of celebration. Everyone had returned from the mission unscathed and the wiser for the experience, and the squadron’s contribution was judged to be a great success by the high command:

On the conclusion of the operation, congratulatory telegrams poured in on the Squadron from all sides. The General Officer Commanding Fifth Army wired, congratulating it on a ‘splendid start’, and General Trenchard telegraphed to the same effect. Rarely had a newly arrived squadron made such a successful showing of its first serious operation.

There was also disappointment for Hardit however. Whilst Barker, Mitchell and Mulholland of 28 Squadron were each awarded a ‘decisive combat’ in the squadron logbook, the term for an enemy plane being confirmed shot down, or a ‘kill’ or ‘victory’ as it was usually known, the only statement against Hardit’s name was ‘crashed on landing’, which was of course accurate. There were a number of reasons possible for the discrepancy between Hardit’s claim of a kill and the lack of an official confirmation. Once combat reports were submitted, they were assessed by Wing headquarters to decide upon the merits of each. These were then passed up to Brigade headquarters. The final decision rested upon the degree of verification available vis-à-vis each claim. The way in which kills were defined may have made a difference also.

This excerpt from ‘Lion of the Skies’ by Stephen Barker has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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