Sikh fighter pilots over Europe and Merlins in Afghanistan
A documentary about British-trained Sikh fighter pilots and a seminar about Merlins at the RAF Museum at Hendon
The British premiere of a documentary about British-trained Sikh fighter pilots of the First and Second World Wars is to be screened at the RAF Museum at Hendon, northwest London, on November 22. A seminar about the deployment of the Merlin helicopter in Afghanistan will be held at the same venue on March 10.
Diverse as they are, these two events illustrate what a small world of unexpected inter-relationships exists within the RAF. Both the first Sikh pilot, Flight Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, and the speaker at the seminar, Merlin pilot Squadron Leader Simon Reade from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, are products of No 28 Squadron RAF. Reade is the squadron’s second-in-command.
Hardit Singh Malik was born in Rawalpindi in 1894 and educated at Eastbourne College in East Sussex. He joined the forerunner of the RAF, the Royal Flying Corps, in 1917 as the first Sikh, and indeed the first Indian, to serve with any air force. During the First World War, he flew with No 28 Squadron in France, managing, it appears, to fit his turbanned head into an outsized flying helmet as well as shooting down a number of Fokker fighter planes in dogfights. The documentary includes his only television interview and a rare interview with his daughter Harji. He died in 1985.
Among the Sikh heroes of a later war, also featuring in the documentary, is Squadron Leader Mohinder Singh Pujji, DFC, now 91 and living in retirement in Britain. Pujji qualified as a pilot in India before volunteering for the RAF in 1940, subsequently flying Hurricanes out of RAF Kenley, near Croydon, to intercept enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as participating in Spitfire sweeps over occupied Europe. Although wearing his turban, helmetless, into combat led to irreparable lung damage (it prevented his fitting an oxygen mask when flying at high altitude), his tally was nevertheless two Me109s confirmed shot down and three damaged, and he was treated as a hero in wartime Britain. Serving with the Indian Air Force later in the war, he flew “Hurri-bombers”(Hurricanes adapted for reconnaissance and ground attack) over Burma — another point of contact with No 28 Squadron, as that unit, too, was heavily involved in such operations.
Commissioned by the Sikh Art & Film Foundation based in New York, the documentary, Flying Sikhs: A History of Sikh Fighter Pilots, is directed by Navdeep Singh Kandola, himself a Sikh. “It’s an important subject because in Britain today there is very little remembrance of the Sikh community’s sacrifice in the two world wars,” he says. “Yet, during the Second World War in particular, the Sikh contribution was very much recognised and respected by the British. Sikh fighter pilots — the men with the wings and the turbans — were very well known and often got ushered to the front of cinema queues or invited to eat free in restaurants.”
Currently only 868 RAF personnel — 2.2 per cent of the total — come from an ethnic minority (the Sikhs among them are still welcome to wear turbans, except when they should be wearing flying helmets, in which circumstances even an under-turban, the patka, is not permitted). Kandola hopes that the RAF might use his film for a recruitment campaign among the Sikh community.
Squadron Leader Reade’s enthusiasm for the Merlin helicopter could also have an impact on RAF recruitment when he gives his seminar, “The Merlin in Afghanistan”. As he told Global Aviation Resource this year: “ a large aircraft and I think the impression some people might form is that it is probably more like a bus than a sports car, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s manoeuvrable, powerful and aerodynamic . . . Whatever else life is throwing at them, we’ll deliver troops to the battlefield in a comfortable, mission-ready state.”
Last week the Ministry of Defence announced that the first Merlin helicopter crews were ready to deploy to Afghanistan after training in the US, adding: “The Merlins, from RAF Benson, due to deploy soon, will provide vital support to ground operations and increase the capacity of the UK helicopter lift in Afghanistan by a further 25 per cent.”
Just how vital that support may be is illustrated by the profile of another No 28 Squadron Merlin pilot, Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, which appears in one of the RAF Museum’s online exhibitions, “Women of the Air Force”. It was for her intrepid night-time manoeuvring of a Merlin to rescue a seriously injured soldier in the centre of Basra, Iraq, while under fire in 2007, that Goodman won the DFC, the first to be awarded to a woman.
For details of Flying Sikhs, “The Merlin in Afghanistan” and other free events at the RAF Museum, Hendon, and its sister museum in Cosford, Shropshire, visit www.rafmuseum.org.uk
Courtesy of Times Online