The Indian Air Force is celebrating its 85th anniversary and just last month the force lost its father figure, Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh DFC, Padma Vibhushan.
A national swimming champion, decorated warrior, diplomat, and administrator.
That is the smallest possible introduction, though he surely does not need any. Arjan Singh was a larger than life figure, both literally and metaphorically. A life of self-created glory recognised by the world. He lived life on his own terms, until his final take off on Saturday, 16 September 2017.
Marshal symbolises one of those who is extremely difficult to be addressed in past tense. The tales associated with Marshal are as varied as the man he was. A man whose very presence was inspiration to those around him, however, brief it was.
Being born leader, Marshal excelled in everything he did. He used to swim to school everyday, which later led him to be a swimming champion. He held the national record for the one-mile and half mile free-style in swimming. His exploits in the defence services are many, and have been written about in books and articles; each story is as unique as the man himself was.
In remembering him, it is worth recollecting a particular incident at Miranshah and Imphal on the Burma front; it gives glimpse to the man we all loved.
In the late1930s, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was deployed to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of undivided India. Their role was aerial policing of the various warring tribes in the area. As a young officer, Arjan Singh saw action in the rugged mountainous region, and had his baptism in fire.
On 6 October 1941, Arjan Singh and his flight gunner Ghulam Ali flew out for a close air support mission in their Audax aircraft, with British troops on the ground. The Army and the tribesman were locked in a gunfight with rifles and machine guns across a narrow rivulet called Khaisora, with both sides placed on higher ground than the river flowing below and separating them.
Arjan Singh swooped into attack on the tribesman, with his machine gun firing through the propeller. The gunner, Corporal Ghulam Ali, who was seated behind the pilot would fire at the tribesman with his machine gun just as the aircraft pulled out of its dive.
The tribesmen came out of hiding and began shooting at the aircraft as it would pull out if its dive. On his third pass over the area Arjan Singh felt a bullet hit the engine and before long the propeller stopped turning. He quickly manoeuvred the aircraft and force landed the aircraft on the near dry Khaisora river. Arjan Singh suffered an injury on his face, as he hit the instrument panel during the crash landing. His gunner, Ghulam Ali was lucky to escape unscathed. Upon climbing out of the aircraft, somewhat disoriented by the crash, the gunner started running, except that it was in the wrong direction. Arjan Singh saw Ghulam Ali run towards the positions held by the tribesmen who were already firing at him.
Bleeding profusely from the nose, Arjan Singh dashed towards Ghulam Ali and finally caught up with him with bullets flying all about them’ he turned him around and asked him to run to the opposite side where the crashed aircraft was lying. By this time, the Army units had taken position and were engaging the tribesmen.
Under fire, Arjan Singh managed to save the life of the gunner who are promoted to Sergeant Ghulam Ali on his recovery, about a week after the incident. The went on to undertake further missions against the tribesman.
The actions in Miranshah and over the NWFP prepared Arjan Singh for his future air operations against the Japanese.
Arjan Singh took over command of the No1 Squadron in the rank of squadron leader, in September 1943, while at Kohat, which is now in Pakistan. He lead the squadron into war, in the northeast frontier of India, during the most critical period when the Japanese laid siege to Imphal.
Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh had 16 Hurricane fighter-bombers under his command, and the No1 squadron played a stellar role in pushing the Japanese out of India. Arjan Singh was just 24 years old at that time.
It is interesting to note how No1 squadron moved to the north eastern theatre from Kohat to fight the Japanese. The Commander in Chief India, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck visited Kohat, sometime in the beginning of December 1943, and the young Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh sought an interview with the Commander-in-Chief – something that would be considered a bold step even today. He expressed intense desire for the No1 squadron to be sent into operations in the war on the Burma front. The station commander at Kohat, a British officer supported young Arjan Singh’s plea. The squadron moved to Imphal in February 1944, just before the Japanese offensive started.
The No1 squadron, which Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh led, already had an established reputation in peace and war among the military forces of that time. But the tales of the No1 squadron during the Burma campaign is stuff of legends. Arjan Singh led his men to victory, playing a seminal role in the war. The number of squadrons were raised at this point of time, but the No1 squadron, called the Tigers, served at the most crucial phase and under the most demanding conditions, for the longest unbroken period of 14 months during the Imphal siege. Lord Mountbatten, then Supreme Commander South East Asia Command had also remarked that Arjan Singh had done a great job.
Books have been put together retelling the tale of No1 squadron and the heroics of Sqn Ldr Arjan Singh during the Burma campaign, but nothing sums it up better than his citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, a singular honour, that he was awarded for his leadership during the war.
(Arjan Singh, C.O. of No. 1 Squadron IAF, being handed command during World War II. Photo by: Royal Air Force official photographer. This is photograph CI 857 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.)
(Authority: London Gazette 36542 dated 30th May 44, page 6)
Such outstanding leadership was to be repeated in years to come, ultimately leading to his elevation to the rank of Marshal of the IAF and going on to be recognised as a father figure to the Indian Air Force.
Since I am from a later generation, these are tales that are passed down from people who knew him, and also shared by the Marshal himself.
On the 85th anniversary of the Indian Air Force, we pay homage to an icon --Marshal Arjan Singh. The country will forever be indebted to him in the years to come. For now, Angels fly on his escort.
(The writer is a defence analyst and head of special projects at the Delhi Defence Review)