The first Indian, or indeed Asian, to procure aeroplanes was the then-young Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, who was following aviation developments with keen interest. The Maharaja sent his chief engineer to Europe for an on-the-spot study and then ordered three aeroplanes, including a Bleriot monoplane and Farman biplanes. These aeroplanes arrived in the Punjab in December 1910.
However, the very first Indian to fly, join the Royal Flying Corps, get his wings, go into aerial combat on the Western Front, shoot down German fighters and himself be seriously wounded in the air, was an outstanding personality: Sardar Hardit Singh Malik.
Born on 23 November, 1892 in a distinguished Sikh family of Rawalpindi in the Punjab (pre-partition India), Hardit Singh was educated at an English Public School (Eastborne College), from where he went to Balliol College at Oxford. Graduating with honours, his scholastic achievements were matched by his sports prowess, getting his blues in cricket and golf.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, he was at his second year at Oxford and practically all his British colleagues volunteered to join the fighting services.
Following a personal interview with General Henderson, who was commanding the Royal Flying Corps (“RFC”), Hardit Singh joined the RFC as a cadet at Aldershot early in 1917, the first Sikh and Indian in any flying service in the world. A specially-designed flying helmet was worn by Hardit Singh over his turban.
Hardit Singh was selected for fighters and went “solo” in a Caudron after just two-and-a-half hours instruction. He was posted to Filton, near Bristol, flying the Avro 504, the BE 2C, the Sopwith Pup, the Nieuport and finally the Sopwith Camel, the most advanced fighter at this time.
At Filton, RFC pilots were taught combat tactics, including the famous ImmelmannTurn. Hardit Singh got his wings in under a month.
Posted to No.28 Squadron and equipped with the Camel, the formation soon flew out to St. Omer in France, then to an airfield in Flanders near the village of Droglandt.
Here, Lt. Hardit Singh Malik first met the new Commanding Officer, the legendary Major William G. Barkar, who had come from Canada as a cavalryman in 1915, joined the RFC in 1916, and flown two-seaters and fighters, becoming an ace many times over. Barkar was considered the greatest all-round pilot of World War One, and he personally initiated Hardit Singh into the art and science of aerial combat, leading him into the first actions, including those against the legendary “Red Baron”, Manfred von Richthofen’s Staffel.
In one major dogfight, with over a hundred British and German fighters scrapping over the battle lines, Hardit Singh shot down his first German Fokkerand.
He went on to notch another eight aerial victories in the weeks ahead, before he himself was wounded in action, but survived in amazing circumstances. After months in hospital, Hardit Singh rejoined the service, now renamed as the Royal Air Force, flying the Bristol Fighter, probably the best fighter of the war, with No.141 Squadron at Biggin Hill, a specialist unit created for defending London from raiding Zeppelins and Botha bombers.
As described then,”One of the first to be posted to the new squadron was Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, a Sikh from Rawalpindi .. a keen cricketer and golfer, Malik was one of the most popular officers at Biggin Hill. He staunchly refused to part with his turban and somehow managed to fit over it an outsized flying helmet, earning the affectionate nickname of “Flying Hobgoblin” from the ground crews. Besides Malik the Sikh, the original fighter pilots of Biggin Hill included men from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Argentina, as well as the United Kingdom”.
After the armistice, Hardit Singh was posted to another Brisfit Squadron, No.11, at Nivelles near Brussels, before he finally returned home after the War, a hero in his own right.
Hardit Singh Malik was to later join the prestigious Indian Civil Service. As a postscript, this remarkable man’s chequered career included assignments as Trade Commissioner in London, Hamburg, Washington and Ottawa.
He became Prime Minister of Patiala State and then, Indian High Commissioner to Canada; still later, he was named Ambassador to France.
After retirement in 1956, he returned to his first love, golf, becoming India’s finest player ever, even with two German bullets still embedded in his leg.
Sardar Hardit Singh lived till he was 91, passing away on 31 October 1985.