A significant contributor in the process of building the credibility for India to establish its own Air Force, while still a colony, was the distinguished service rendered by a small number of Indians who joined the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War as both pilots and technicians.
In a completely different foreign field, Indians such as Ranjitsinhji and the senior Nawab of Pataudi had established themselves as talented cricketers within the English club and county system, long before India had its own team. In the same way, young Indian aviators such as Hardit Singh Malik, S.C. Welinkar, Errol Sen, Indra Lal Roy, and a few others, made the eventual establishment of India’s own Air Force a little surer, the overcoming of establishment objections a little easier, by proving themselves as
respectable and even distinguished aviators within the British military aviation establishment.
The opportunity was, of course, driven by the British need for manpower during the First World War – then called the Great War. The involvement of Indian soldiers during that war was no small contribution. Indian troops were in Belgium’s Ypres Salient within six weeks of the start of the war. At least two divisions remained in Europe till almost the end of the war, enduring grinding trench warfare for years; even larger Indian Army formations served in the Middle East and Africa.
In total, a million and a half Indians served during the Great War. And among them, dapper in their RFC uniforms, was a tiny number of Indians who served in the flying corps, climbing with every appearance of gaiety into the wood-and-canvas biplanes of the time, wrapped up in fleece-lined leather jackets and helmets with scarves flying, and taking to the air over Belgium and France in Sopwith Camels and SE5as.
The numerical contribution of Indian airmen was incomparably smaller than that of Indian soldiers, but its importance is out of all proportion to the numbers. The tiny Indian presence in the air starts with the four Indians who served as combat pilots over Belgium and France: Lieutenant H.S. Malik, Lieutenant S.C. Welinkar, Second Lieutenant E.S.C. Sen, and Lieutenant I.L. Roy, DFC. And at least three others put themselves forward, though they did not actually fly in combat.
Of the four who did two, Malik and Sen, survived the war. Wartime aircrew rarely survived more than a few weeks, so the two of them beat some significant odds. But in some whimsical way, it is Malik and Roy who make the neatest pair for Indian aviation enthusiasts. Like the fictional but iconic aviator buddies and rivals Biggles and Wilks, one flew Sopwith Camels and the other flew SE5as.
Hardit Singh Malik, the first Indian military pilot, was at Oxford when the war began. Like most of his classmates, he volunteered for military service, but was initially rejected as he was an Indian. He served for a period with the French ambulance corps, and was on the point of joining their air corps when his Oxford tutor, a former British Army officer, interceded with Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson, GOC of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to secure his RFC commission.
Malik was selected for scouts (as fighters were then called), and posted to 28 Squadron of the RFC, flying Sopwith Camels, the most iconic British aircraft of the war. Camels were fast and manoeuvrable, but considered difficult for all but the best pilots to fly. This, in fact, was similar to how the iconic HAL-built Gnat fighter was considered in the post-Independence Indian Air Force of the 1960s.
Malik went into action in September 1917, initially in France and then from Droglandt in Belgium. His Flight Commander was the Canadian Captain William ‘Billy’ Barker. Barker ended the War with a VC, two DSOs, and three MCs, the most highly decorated serviceman in the Commonwealth.
Barker’s biography, Barker, VC, and Malik’s own autobiography, A Little Work, A Little Play, both vividly describe one particular dogfight. Malik shot an enemy aircraft down, but at least four others attacked him. Hit in the leg, he crashed and lost consciousness. Pulled from the wreckage and carried to hospital, he recovered but retained two bullets in his leg all his life.
Malik went on to distinction in independent India, serving as India’s first High Commissioner to Canada, and then Ambassador to France, highly respected by British, Canadian and European comrades-in-arms.
While Malik was at university, Errol Suva Chandra Sen was at a prominent British public school and joined the RFC, probably as soon as he turned eighteen, through the OTC, the British equivalent of the NCC. Commissioned in August 1917, he was posted to 70 Squadron RFC, also flying Sopwith Camels. In September 1917, he moved to Poperinghe in Belgium at almost the same time that Malik was at Droglandt, part of the same group of airfields just 5 miles away.
This excerpt from K.S. Nair’s The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.