Indian Air Warriors

Subroto Mukerjee fought with RFc in World War I and later became the first Indian chief of the post-Independence Indian Air Force. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

(November 11 Was Armistice Day)

World War I finally came to a blood-soaked end Nov. 11, 1918. As we mark the 99th anniversary of the Armistice, there is increasing recognition of the roles played by Indians in that war.

Books by Shrabani Basu, Gordon Corrigan, Vedica Kant and others have contributed as, counter-intuitively, did the film "Dunkirk" – though set in another war – for omitting Indians.

Around 1.5 million Indians served in World War I, mostly in the Army. There was also a tiny Indian presence in the air. Four almost-forgotten Indians flew as combat pilots: Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, Lieutenant S.C. Welinkar, Second Lieutenant E.S.C. Sen and Lieutenant I.L. Roy, DFC.

Malik and Roy make a neat pair for Indian aviation enthusiasts; like the fictional aviators Biggles and Wilks, one flew the Sopwith Camel and the other flew the SE5a.

Malik, the first Indian military pilot, was at Oxford when the war began. His tutor interceded with Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson, general officer commanding of the Royal Flying Corps, to secure a commission for him.

Malik was selected as a scout – as fighter pilots were then called – and posted to an RFC squadron flying Sopwith Camels, the most iconic British aircraft of the war. He went into action in September 1917, initially from the famous St. Omer airfield and then from Droglandt in Belgium. His flight commander was the Canadian Captain William "Billy" Barker, who ended the War with a Victoria Cross, two Distinguished Service Orders and three Military Crosses – the most highly-decorated serviceman in the Commonwealth. 

Barker's biography, "Barker, VC," and Malik's autobiography, "A Little Work, A Little Play," both vividly describe one particular dogfight. Malik shot down one enemy aircraft, but at least four others attacked him. Hit in the leg, he crashed and passed out. He was pulled from the wreckage and carried to hospital. He recovered but retained two bullets in his leg all his life.

He continued flying, and returned to France for more operational service. He was the only one of these four to beat normal aircrew survival odds – wartime aircrew rarely survived more than a few weeks' operations.

Malik went on to distinction in independent India, serving as India's first high commissioner to Canada and later as ambassador to France, highly-respected by British, Canadian and European comrades-in-arms. 

While Malik was at Oxford, Shrikrishna Chundra Welinkar, from the Gwalior royal family's household, was at Cambridge. He enlisted in February 1917, and was immediately assigned to an RFC Cadet battalion, probably because of Brigadier General – later Air Vice Marshal, and later still U.K. Director of Civil Aviation – Sir William Sefton Brancker, an early advocate of training Indian aircrews.

Welinkar probably overlapped with Sen during training. He was injured in a crash in August 1917 but recovered, completing training by early 1918. In April he was posted to the No. 1 RAF Squadron in France, flying Sopwith Dolphins, a new design but notorious for poor crash survivability.

On June 27, 1918, Welinkar took off at 9:45 a.m. He was seen engaging an enemy aircraft in combat, but never returned and was declared missing. It emerged later that he survived his downing but died in a German field hospital three days later. The Germans appear to have made efforts to save him but to no avail.

Lt. Welinkar was the first of those four pioneers killed in action. He is memorialized at the Hangard Cemetery in France, near the Somme battlefield.

While Malik and Welinkar were at university, Errol Suva Chandra Sen was at a prominent British public school and joined the RFC through the Officers’ Training Corps, the British equivalent of the National Cadet Corps. Commissioned in August 1917, he was posted to an RFC squadron, also flying Sopwith Camels. In September 1917, he moved to Poperinghe in Belgium at almost the same time that Malik was at Droglandt in the same area. 

 At 7:00 a.m. on Sept. 14, 1917, Sen took off on patrol. At 7:45 a.m. he was attacked by several enemy aircraft. His aircraft was hit and seen trailing fuel. He was eventually forced down, the first Indian aviator lost in action. He survived, was captured, and made a prisoner of war. He was repatriated after the war and left the RAF soon after. He is believed to have worked for a British merchant house in India and Burma after the war.

Indra Lal Roy, fresh out of school like Sen, was commissioned a month earlier. He is credited with 10 combat victories. Clearly an incredibly gifted combat pilot, he achieved those victories over just two weeks, in July 1918. Three of them came in four hours, on one day.

Roy was born in Calcutta but finished school in the U.K. Shortly after turning 18, he joined the RFC, and was commissioned in July 1917. After training, he was posted to 56 Squadron RFC, the first to fly the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, another iconic British type. In December 1917 he crashed, was knocked unconscious, taken for dead and actually laid out in a morgue. When he regained consciousness, he banged on the morgue door, shouting for help in schoolboy French. The morgue attendant was so frightened by this apparent resurrection from the dead that he did not unlock the door immediately.

After returning to duty Roy was posted to No. 40 Squadron RAF. His Flight Commander was the Irish Captain George McElroy, MC and bar. They clearly combined well in the air. Over the next two weeks, Roy flew into the record books with 10 victories, two shared with McElroy.

Roy's first victory came on July 6, 1918. This was followed by that brilliant spell of three victories in four hours, including a formidable Fokker DVII, July 8. He also achieved two on July 13, two on July 15 – both DVIIs – and one each on July 18 and 19. 

Three days later Roy took off on patrol with two other SE5as. They were attacked by four Fokker DVIIs. Two attackers were shot down but Roy went down in flames over Carvin. He was not yet 20.

Roy was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He is buried at the Estevelles Communal Cemetery, 100 km from where his compatriot Lt. S.C. Welinkar lies. Both graves are marked and well looked-after.

The war ended Nov. 11, three weeks before Roy would have turned 20.

Fourteen years after the war, Roy's nephew Subroto Mukerjee was one of the first Indians at the RAF College, Cranwell. Mukerjee later became the first Indian chief of the post-Independence Indian Air Force, thereby establishing a link between those four forgotten Indians over Flanders and the thousands who have worn IAF uniform since.

Sadly, very little is known about these young men, beyond the bare facts, in British records. They were from well-off families, attending prestigious schools or universities in the U.K. They were probably highly westernized and spoke impeccable English. But they are no less Indian for that. In every unit they served in, they would have been known as "the Indian."

A century after these four heroes put themselves forward for service in the Flying Corps, perhaps our film industry can consider a production like "Dunkirk" on them – before we, like Hollywood, forget.

(The author is a lifelong student of Indian aviation, maritime and military history and the author of several articles on the Indian Air Force. The views expressed are personal. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor/www.southasiamonitor.org)

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