Hardit Singh Malik was the first Indian and Sikh to become an officer in any of the world’s air forces. David Orman has been researching this fascinating history.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon early in 1918, a delegation from the Indian Government was taken from Manchester’s Midland Hotel, where they had enjoyed luncheon, to the Athletic Ground in Fallowfield, just a short distance away.
There, Manchester Chamber of Commerce presented them with an aeroplane – a Sopwith F1 Camel – to mark ‘Lancashire’s appreciation of the splendid part which India was playing in the war.’
The pilot who would fly the Camel from Manchester was 2nd Lt. Hardit Singh Malik.
Hardit Singh Malik
19-year old Malik was playing for Sussex County Cricket Club against Kent the day war was declared. A promising student (he would graduate with honours from Balliol, Oxford) he had a history of sporting prowess with a blue for golf – his first love – and no less than five appearances for first-class cricket in 1914. He was precisely the sort of person the armed forces regarded as officer material.
But while his fellow students’ applications to serve were greeted with offers of commissions, Malik’s was rejected. As he later recalled, ‘there were no vacancies for Indian students.’
Fliers were heroes
Determined to contribute to the war, after finishing his degree Malik joined the French Red Cross, serving in France throughout 1916.
Like many young men, he became enamoured of aeroplanes: ‘Fliers, of course, were heroes’, he commented; ‘and I wanted to be one.’
In contrast to the British, the French and indicated that they would offer him a commission in the Aéronautique Militaire. Malik had kept in touch with F.F. Urquart, his tutor at Oxford, and gave him the news.
Urquart was furious and, according to Malik, visited General David Henderson, Head of the Royal Flying Corps., asking how it was that an Indian could be accepted for a commission by the French Air Force but not the British. The visit was productive: Henderson asked to see the young man in question and, in April 1917, Malik became the first Indian to join any of the world’s air forces.
The Indian Prince and the Red Baron
A devout Sikh, there was no question of Malik cutting his hair or flying without his turban. A compromise was reached: Malik could keep his turban provided that he wore a helmet over it.
This was not a simple matter: helmets of that size simply did not exist. But Malik would not be beaten: ‘I had [a special, outsize helmet] made by a hatter in Piccadilly. It looked rather odd and top heavy….’
In France, he flew under the command of William G Barker VC, a noted Canadian fighter pilot (and Canada’s most decorated serviceman of the war). Barker clearly liked Malik, giving him the sobriquet “The Indian Prince” and teaching him advanced aerial combat techniques. He also provided the leadership that allowed them to mount an attack against the most fearsome of the war’s fliers, the squadron of Manfred von Richtofen – the ‘Red Baron’.
But a fighter pilot’s prospect of survival was not much better than that of the soldiers in the trenches below. During a ‘terrific fight’ with von Richtofen’s squadron, only Barker and Malik survived, and fled for home. ‘There was a sharp smell of petrol and a sharp pain in my leg’, recalled Malik. ‘I crash landed behind our lines and fainted. The plane had more than 400 bullet holes in it.’
After months in hospital, and despite continuing to be troubled by the bullets lodged in his leg, Mailk was posted to a new squadron at Biggin Hill, responsible for defending London from the threat of Zeppelin and bomber attacks.
‘Malik was one of the most popular officers’, wrote Pushpindar Singh. But Malik later recalled some of the inevitable incidents of racism:
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.
When Manchester Chamber of Commerce was to present a new Sopwith Camel named in honour of Indian contributions to the war, it was clear that H S Malik was the most appropriate aviator to take delivery of it, and he travelled to Manchester for the ceremony.
The rain and a fair breeze did nothing to keep people away from the Fallowfield Athletic Ground. Contemporary newsreel footage shows crowds on the field and Malik sitting atop the aeroplane posing for the cameras.
After the war
Malik was the only Indian fighter pilot to survive the war. But he did not opt for a quiet life. He was appointed Prime Minister of Patiala (later part of Punjab); met with Jinnah to discuss whether or not Sikhs would join Pakistan; and was appointed by Nehru as India’s first High Commissioner to Canada. While there, he negotiated with the Canadian government to grant full citizenship rights for Indians in that country. Returning to France in 1949, he became India’s Ambassador in 1949 and remained in that role until his retirement in 1956.
But of the many issues Malik was involved with in his life, it is his knowledge of and active resistance to racism that is perhaps his most enduring legacy.
A December 1952 issue of Jet: the weekly Negro news magazine included a quotation from Malik in its inspirational ‘Words of the Week’ column:
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.
Hardit Singh Malik died in November 1985, a few days short of his 91st birthday, having continued to play golf and still proud of carrying the two German bullets embedded in his leg.
Further reading from the collection of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre:
Malik H. S. A little work, a little play: the autobiography of H. S. Malik. , Bookwise, India. Malik’s autobiography (which he never wanted to write but was persuaded by his family into doing) is a thoroughly human, fascinating memoir of one India’s most influential men.
Remembering forgotten heroes: exploring the Indian Army contribution to the First and Second World Wars. 2005, English Heritage. (ED.14.01/REM )
Omissi, David. Indian voices of the Great War: soldiers letters, 1914-18. 1999, Palgrave Macmillan. (HI.2/OMI)
Imperial War Museum. The Empire needs men: the contribution made in the First World War by Africans, Asians and West Indians. [n.d.], Imperial War Museum. (ED.14.01/IMP)
Morrow, John H. Jr. The Great War: an imperial history. 2004, Routledge. (HI.7/MOR)
‘Chamber of Commerce: Gift of an aeroplane to India.’ The Manchester Guardian, 4 March 1918, p5.
‘Manchester aeroplane gift to India’, Pathe News film footage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfmX-eW7XNY [Retrieved 6 May 2015]
Sapru, Somnath. ‘Flying Sikh.’ Cross & Cockade Great Britain Journal, Vol. 6 (4) 1975 pp180-183.
Singh, Pushindar. ‘Flying Ace & Pioneer’. http://www.sikhchic.com/article-detail.php?id=343&cat=8 [retrieved 23 April 2015]
Supplement to the London Gazette, 26 April 1918, p. 3921.
‘When the child of the Raj could find an ever open door.’ Interview with Trevor Fishlock, The Times, 16 October 1982.
‘Words of the Week’, Jet: the weekly Negro news magazine, 4 December 1952, p38.