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The adventures of India’s first fighter pilot

The first Indian fighter pilot who saw active combat, Hardit Singh Malik, fought many decisive battles in World War I

India's first fighter pilot Hardit Singh Malik flew a number of aircraft during the First World War, including the Sopwith Camel.
India's first fighter pilot Hardit Singh Malik flew a number of aircraft during the First World War, including the Sopwith Camel. (Getty Images)

On 1 June 1912, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, playing for the Sussex Martlets, stepped up to bowl to a stylish Indian batsman from an Eastbourne cricket team, from the town of East Sussex, UK. The Indian batsman scored 19 runs out of a total of 852 before being stumped by Doyle’s wily off-spin delivery. His impressive batting skills caught the attention of a friend of Ranjitsinhji, the Indian cricketer, who recommended the teenager, Hardit Singh Malik, to Sussex cricket team captain Herbert Chaplin. By 1914, Hardit was playing for the Sussex County in the English cricket league. However, his future was about to take a dramatic turn, changed by an event in Sarajevo.

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On 28 June 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, by a Bosnian revolutionary in Sarajevo, had led to the outbreak of war. As Germany, Russia and France issued ultimatums to each other, the long shadow of war fell upon Great Britain which would soon join the conflict.

Hardit, who [was born in 1894 in Rawalpindi, west Punjab, grew up in a privileged home and enjoyed an idyllic childhood, and] had been sent to England from India to study at the age of 14, was at Balliol College, Oxford, and paving new paths on the cricket field when war broke out…. 

At Oxford, the choice wasn’t easy. To fulfil his passion for flying, Hardit would have to fight for a colonial power that ruled his country by force…. Watching his peers at Oxford head to the frontlines, Hardit applied for a fighter pilot’s position at the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The prospect of an Indian in that role raised a few sniggers, and his application was rejected. Undaunted, Hardit urged Francis Urquhart, his Oxford tutor, to recommend him for a civilian support role in France.

After graduating in 1915, Hardit was hired by the French Red Cross to drive a motor ambulance to the frontlines…. While driving through the picturesque countryside, Hardit would witness formations of airplanes zooming overhead. Watching those planes triggered memories of his childhood days, that were spent flying kites and another powerful realization: his true passion was flying. 

He asked a friend in Cognac if he could apply to the Aéronautique Militaire (French Air Service) and, to his surprise, they accepted his application. Filled with excitement, Hardit wrote to Urquhart, who was far from elated to hear that a British resident was to join the French Air Force. Urquhart, a respected academic, shot off a terse letter to Major General David Henderson, chief of the RFC. He wrote, if Hardit Singh Malik as a British subject was good enough for the French, why wasn’t he good enough for the British Armed Forces? The letter worked, and a few days later, Hardit was summoned to England and found himself facing General Henderson in the latter’s office. On 5 April 1917, he was fast- tracked into service as Honourable Second Lieutenant H.S. Malik, RFC, Special Reserve. … 

After Aldershot, Hardit honed his skills further at Fulton where he flew combat planes including the Avro 504, the Sopwith Pup, and finally, the Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane and the most advanced fighter at that time. There, Hardit picked up various combat tactics, such as the tricky Immelmann Turn, an aerial manoeuvre that involves a swift dive, climb and loop. After his time at Aldershot and Reading, he was sent to Vendôme in France where he flew his first solo after just three hours of flying. A quick learner, Hardit got his wings in under a month.

In October 1917, he was assigned to the 28 Squadron in France and equipped with the Sopwith Camel. As the war in France intensified, the formation located to an airfield near the village of Droglandt in Flanders. Hardit found a mentor at the squadron in his flight commander Major William ‘Billy’ Barker, a Canadian who had joined the RFC in 1916. A skilful fighter, Barker was considered the greatest all-round pilot of WWI and would go on to win the Victoria Cross for gallantry.

Hardit’s first flight over the German lines took place on 18 October and was relatively uneventful. On 19 October, when the 28 Squadron went into action alongside 70 and 23 Squadrons to make a combined attack against the German aerodrome at Rumbeke, a Belgian village near the town of Roulers, Hardit was part of the task force under the command of Captain Barker. The 28 Squadron’s brief was to surprise and engage the German fighters dispatched to intercept the bombers. At first, it was thrilling to be part of such a large formation. Hardit began to soak in the experience of flying close to enemy lines. Soon, however, the situation took a chaotic turn. Barker, flying alongside, gestured to him. A group of German planes were heading straight towards Hardit.

In his account: ‘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 at 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.’ Flying too low, Hardit needed to swiftly ascend to avoid a similar fate. Luckily, Barker noticed his predicament and guided the task force to assist him. They climbed to a safer altitude and set course for Droglandt. Determined to stamp his country’s presence in the war, despite officially representing Britain, Hardit proudly had ‘India’ written on the side of his aircraft. In the weeks that followed, he achieved eight more aerial victories, demonstrating his exceptional skill. …

[T]he Red Baron had acquired iconic status by downing over 80 British aircraft in dogfights. The Baron’s squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG1), was referred to as the ‘flying circus’ due to their colourful aircraft and distinctive style of aerial combat….

It was during the Battle of Passchendaele, a brutal and costly WWI battle fought in the eponymous Belgium village from July to November 1917, that Barker heard about the presence of the Red Baron and his circus across the lines in the nearby village of Marckebeke. He moistened his lips; this was the moment to take on the German aces in another duel. Sidestepping his cautious boss, he obtained permission to attack the Germans and chose a crack team of skilled pilots for combat. Including Barker, the roster consisted of Lieutenants N.C. Jones, J.B. Fenton and Hardit Singh Malik.

On 26 October 1917, they set off towards the village of Poelcapelle, an area in Belgium, heavily affected by battle. It was a dark and wet day; it had been raining all night in Poelcapelle and there was no sign of the showers abating. Visibility during the day was poor. To fly was dangerous, let alone duel in the sky. But Barker had other ideas. …

On the soggy RFC field at Droglandt, Hardit looked up from his Sopwith Camel B5406, wondering if it was the most reckless decision to fly that day. At 1045 hours, the ground crew watched as four planes struggled to lift off, navigating through a soft drizzle and disappearing into the darkness.

Around the same time, four Albatros fighter planes took off from Harelbeke, a German-occupied town in West Flanders, Belgium, and headed into the showery, robust southwest wind. The German fighters were manned by four of the most seasoned veterans of Jasta 18 – Paul Strähle, Otto Schober, Arthur Rahn and Johannes Klein – who were ready to take on the British fighters. It was going to be a busy day.…

Owing to poor visibility, Jones was separated from Barker and so was Fenton. Hardit, though, stayed close to Barker’s B6313, barely managing to keep him in his sights in the bad weather. West of Roulers, the German Albatros formation flew into the paths of the Camels of Barker and Hardit. 

Hardit swerved from the path and dived down to engage German targets on ground. Strähle decided to chase him, and Rahn followed. Klein and Schober now teamed up to engage Barker. The two British pilots had been outnumbered by the Germans. The weather wasn’t making it easy, but Hardit managed to shoot Rahn who gave up and tried to land his aircraft.

Strähle, though, was unflappable and determined to hang on to Hardit’s Camel. The Indian realized he was being tailed and tried to weave out of the way, pulling out different tactics he knew of. The dogfight got intense as both ace pilots tried to evade each other, flipping their machines and changing directions to get a good shot at the rival. …

Hardit managed to hit Strähle and saw smoke coming out from his aircraft. A moment later, the former experienced a sharp, metallic pain. Two of Strähle’s bullets had hit him. The pain began to spread to Hardit’s thighs and waist, and he could see his bloodied trousers. His head throbbed relentlessly, yet he held on.

On his tail, the Germans fired relentlessly – over 400 bullets – at his aircraft. Hardit tried to fight the pain, the enemy and the weather as he looked for an escape plan. The cockpit grew increasingly hot as the petrol tank had been hit. His mind began to fade into a peculiar numbness. In the distance, in the sky, he could see Barker being surrounded by the Germans. That was the last he saw of Barker on that day.

Hardit dove downwards as he struggled to keep the aircraft steady. His plane stuttered and swayed sideways as it rapidly lost height. Where could he land his Camel? The clouds had disappeared and just one spot of swampy land was visible. The searing pain in his leg was unbearable by now. Should he risk the swamp? A soft surface would absorb the velocity of impact and maybe save him. Hardit landed inside the French territory, skidding along the mud-spattered surface, swaying and tilting dangerously till he lurched to a screeching halt.

One of the medical orderlies who took him out on a stretcher later recounted it was a miracle Hardit had survived. He had lost a lot of blood, broken his nose and taken bullets. He had, however, retained his indomitable spirit.

Doctors advised Hardit to leave the lodged bullet in his thigh, as attempting its extraction posed greater risks than living with it. During his hospital recovery, he wrote a report detailing the operation and expressed his concern for Barker, whom he had last seen surrounded by German airplanes, unsure if he would survive the encounter. Incidentally, Barker did survive. Ironically, his report was identical to Hardit’s except he said he didn’t think the Indian would survive! 

Excerpted with permission from Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories from Battlefields by Probal Dasgupta, published by Juggernaut Books, 336 pages, 699

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