South Asian Volunteers in the RAF
Following the twin successes in 2018-2019 of ‘Hidden Heroes: The Unknown Story of Jewish Personnel in the Royal Air Force’ and ‘Hidden Heroes: RAF Gibraltarian Stories’, the RAF Museum is now committed to highlighting the South Asian contribution to Britain’s flying services. The Museum is undertaking this project because we are entrusted with telling the story of the RAF Family, which has strong and vibrant branches all over the world. Moreover, we are conscious of the need to provide exhibitions and outreach that are inspiring and relevant to all of our visitors, including growing numbers of British people of South Asian heritage.
The South Asian initiative was launched at an enjoyable and highly successful event at the RAF Museum London on the evening of 23 January 2020. Organised in partnership with Mackrell Solicitors, the event attracted eighty guests; among them senior RAF and Indian Air Force officers and the CEOs of Indian businesses and British firms operating in the subcontinent. The media coverage was very positive, with Indian television’s CNN-News 18 and UK-based weekly ‘Asian Voice’ running features.
Air Commodore Prashant Mohan VM, Air Adviser at the Indian High Commission, opened proceedings with a speech honouring the enduring relationship between the Indian Air Force and its parent Service. Maggie Appleton MBE, CEO of the RAF Museum, then gave a presentation about the South Asian people who have chosen to serve in, and alongside, the RAF over time. The first part of Maggie’s thought-provoking and well-received paper examined the Indian volunteers who served during the First World War.
On 4 August 1914, Britain and her Empire declared war on Germany. Over the next four years, 1.3 million volunteers enlisted in the Indian Army, serving on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and in Africa. Some 74,000 of these men lost their lives and 67,000 were wounded. India bore the cost of this huge army, while offering Britain generous financial loans and gifts and providing vital raw materials and foodstuffs. Indian people also purchased presentation aircraft for the British flying services, such as the RAF Museum’s De Havilland DH9a, one of 18 gifted by the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Why did Indians volunteer to fight for Britain? Like young men all over the Empire, some enlisted for economic or personal reasons or to seek adventure. There were those, however, that considered Britain the ‘mother country’ and identified with her culture, institutions and professed ideals. For them, the war was being fought to defend civilisation, and they were prepared to travel over 4,700 miles to play their part. What is more, they hoped that by proving their loyalty on the battlefield, they would show Britain that they deserved better treatment and ultimately independence from colonial rule. Indian nationalist and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi supported the war for this reason, writing: ‘The gateway to our freedom is situated on French soil.’
The British Armed Forces, for their part, maintained a ‘colour bar’ and few BAME volunteers were accepted. Officer commissions were also denied to anyone not of ‘pure European descent.’ However, as the forces expanded, and casualties rose, this restriction was relaxed and a small number of South Asian volunteers joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Royal Naval Air Service and, from 1 April 1918, the unified Royal Air Force.
Shri Chanda Welinkar was born in Mumbai (Bombay) on 24 October 1894 and read History and Law at Jesus College, Cambridge. He later learned to fly privately at Hendon, receiving RAeC Certificate 3327 on 10 August 1916. While training, Welinkar stayed in Booth Road, Colindale, a two-minute walk from the RAF Museum today.
Welinkar applied to become an RFC pilot, but despite his qualifications, was rejected. The young Indian instead joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in February 1917 but was finally commissioned into the RFC in March.
On 10 April 1918, Lieutenant Welinkar was posted to fly Sopwith Dolphins with No. 23 Squadron at Bertangles, in France, during Germany’s massive Spring Offensive. On the morning of 27 June, he attacked an enemy reconnaissance aircraft that had crossed the lines, but his fighter was then shot down by a Fokker Triplane of Jasta 40 and crashed at Peronne. Three days later, Shri Krishna Welinkar died of his injuries in the field hospital at Rouvery. After the war, a headstone was placed on his grave in the Hangard Communal Cemetery inscribed ‘To the Honoured Memory of One of the Empire’s Bravest Sons.’
Hardit Singh Malik was born in Rawalpindi in the Punjab on 23 November 1894 and went to school in England. Malik won a place at Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled as a golfer and played cricket for his college and for Sussex. With the coming of war, he attempted to enlist in the British Army, but was twice rejected for his race. Nothing daunted, he joined the French Red Cross and later applied, and was accepted, for pilot training with the French Air Service. On hearing this, Francis Urquhart, his former tutor at Balliol, wrote an angry letter to Major General Sir David Henderson of the RFC saying it was a disgrace that the French would accept Malik when the British refused to. The letter worked, and on 5 April 1917, the affable Sikh became an RFC officer. Malik was the first member of the Service permitted to wear a turban and full beard, and was amused when he was obliged to tell an airman off for not shaving properly. He also had a special oversized flying helmet made by a hatter in Piccadilly to cover his turban when aloft.
After training, Second Lieutenant Malik was sent to Belgium to fly Sopwith Camels with No. 28 Squadron. His flight commander was Captain William Barker, a Canadian pilot who would later win the Victoria Cross for gallantry. On 26 October 1917, Barker took him across the lines on an ill-thought out attack on an enemy airfield in poor weather. They were surprised by a large formation of German fighters, and although Malik shot one down, his Camel was peppered with 400 bullets. While he escaped with his life, bullet fragments would remain lodged in his knee for the rest of his life.
Soon afterwards, No. 28 Squadron was despatched to Italy where Malik became allergic to the castor oil lubricating the engine of his Sopwith Camel. Posted back to the UK in February 1918, he joined No. 141 Squadron, which flew two-seat Bristol F2b Fighters on Home Defence duties. While Malik was defending Britain from the menace of German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, his unique flying helmet earned him the nickname ‘The Hob-Goblin of Biggin Hill.’
Malik was undoubtedly popular with his brother officers, but he described an ugly incident in his memoirs:
‘One night in the mess a South African pilot asked what we were coming to, having Indians in the air force. My Observer, a Scot, lunged across the table and gripped his throat till he apologised. The South African left the squadron.’
In the summer of 1918, Lieutenant Malik went to France and again flew ‘Brisfits’ with No. 11 Squadron until the Armistice. After the war, he enjoyed a distinguished career as a civil servant and diplomat, and was involved in the discussions that, in 1932, led to the creation of the Indian Air Force. Hardit Singh Malik, the ‘Flying Sikh’, died in New Delhi on 30 October 1985.
Errol Suvo Chunder Sen was born in 1899 at Alipore in Kolkata (Calcutta). Educated in England, he worked in a bank until he was old enough for military service. Sen joined the RFC on 24 April 1917, and learned to fly Sopwith Camels. On 25 August, he was posted, with the rank of Second Lieutenant, to No. 70 Squadron at Poperinghe, Belgium, during the Third Battle of Ypres. On 14 September, Sen shot down an Albatros fighter, but was himself attacked by another enemy aircraft, which damaged his Camel forcing him to land on the German side of the lines. He was captured and sent to Holzminden, a prison camp notorious for the mistreatment of its inmates.
While at Holzminden, Sen was involved in the mass escape by tunnel of 24 July 1918, in which 29 officers escaped and 10 managed to make it safely back to Britain. Sen was, however, unable to break out and remained at the camp until the end of the war.
Lieutenant Sen returned to his family in England in December 1918 and was released from the RAF in May the following year. According to author Somnath Sapru, those close to him noticed that he had been changed by the war: ‘there was a deep hurt, a melancholic look in his eyes which silently said: I have seen enough.’ After the war, Errol Sen joined the Calcutta Police and then held a variety of jobs in Rangoon in Myanmar (Burma). He appears to have found it hard to settle. With the Japanese invasion of Myanmar in December 1941, Sen decided to walk out of the country and was never seen again.
Indra Lal Roy was born into a close and loving family in Kolkata, West Bengal, on 2 December 1898. Nicknamed ‘Laddie’, Roy was a pupil at St Paul’s School in West London when war broke out in 1914. Laddie was fascinated by aviation and determined to become a fighter pilot like his hero, Captain Albert Ball VC. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the RFC and was commissioned as an officer on 5 July 1917. While training at the British Flying School at Vendome, in France, he wrote to his sister, Leila, promising to buy her an RFC sweetheart brooch. His letter is held in the Museum’s archive.
Second Lieutenant Roy joined No. 56 Squadron in France on 30 October 1917, but on 6 December, he crashed his SE5a fighter and was injured. Roy was sent back to England for remedial training and while there, was classified as medically unfit to fly. Laddie refused to give up on being a pilot, however, and on 19 June 1918, he was posted to No. 40 Squadron in France. One officer remembered him as: ‘…a thorough little gentleman, handsome and as full of guts as a gamecock.’
Laddie Roy’s flight commander was the gifted Irish fighter ace, Captain George McElroy, who had himself been a slow-starter and prone to accidents. McElroy taught him all he knew about air fighting and Roy proved an excellent pupil. In an extraordinary run of success from 6 – 19 July 1918, he shot down 10 German aircraft; a rate of scoring comparable to those of the greatest aces of the war. Sadly, on the morning of 22 July, just three days after his last victory, Roy was killed, aged 19, when his SE5a was shot down in flames by Fokker D VIIs of Jasta 29.
On 21 September 1918, Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy, India’s first fighter ‘ace’, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation described him as ‘A very gallant and determined officer.’ Although Laddie’s mother, Lolita, was beside herself with grief, she was content for her son’s body to rest in the cemetery at Estevelles in France. She later explained that he: ‘had offered his life as a sacrifice for the Peace of the world and it had been accepted.’
Lieutenants Welinkar, Malik, Sen and Roy were educated, skilled and brave. Yet, they were forced to contend with prejudice and discrimination, and despite their achievements, the restriction against non-European enlistment in the British Armed Forces was quietly restored after the war.
Nevertheless, a precedent had been set, and future generations would look to the four pioneer air fighters for inspiration. Subroto Mukerjee, Laddie Roy’s nephew, served as a pilot during the Second World War and later rose to become the first South Asian commander of the Indian Air Force. And, today, exactly 102 years after Indra Lal Roy’s death in action, the RAF is considered one of the very best employers of BAME people.
Not long before he died, Hardit Singh Malik wrote:
‘Much of the tension that exists in the world today is due to this arrogant nonsense of racism. It constitutes one of the major problems of our time and undoubtedly is one of the greatest dangers to world peace.’
Perhaps we are at last heeding the Indian hero’s warning.
I am indebted to historian Andrew D. Bird for the information about Francis Urquhart, H.S. Malik’s tutor at Balliol and for supplying the image of Lieutenant Jeejeebhoy Piroshaw Bomanjee Jeejeebhoy.
‘Skyhawks’, Somnath Sapru (Writer’s Workshop, India, 2006)
www.cwgc.org:Lieutenant Shri Krishna Chanda Welinkar
https://aiucentre.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/a-camel-for-india-hardit-singh-malik/:Hardit Singh Malik:A Camel for India