Indian Air Warriors of World War I

Every stamp tells a story. Along with these small, multi-colored pieces of paper come the long, adventurous and out of the ordinary chronicles. These valuable pieces of collectibles unfold the entire journal of past events that collectively tell us lesser-heard stories. They have become unusual pieces of evidence of past and the narrators of modern history. The story that the stamps are telling today is the story of a great war. The war that began as a conflict between the participant countries over the interest of territory turned into a big turmoil that dragged the whole world. Even, the counties which stayed neutral did not remain unaffected. It has been100 years since the armistice of 11 November 1918 ended, but there are still many untold stories of this Great War. One of the participating countries was Great Britain! This tiny country that played many pivotal roles in the war had a gigantic help. India! The jewel in the British Crown! The fuel in this never-stopping machine! The source of all the power of Great Britain!

India directly or indirectly supported the war by being the supplier of animals, jute, cotton, explosives and most importantly the finances. The year 2019 celebrates the completion of the 100th years of the World War I. Hence, to commemorate the centenary of the completion of the war, India Post issued a series of stamps namely “Indian Air Warriors of World War I” which focuses on the key roles played by Indian Air Warriors of World War I.

Indian Air Warriors:

A number of fighter from India in World War I was in millions. Approximately 1.5 million Indians fought in every theatre of the conflict. Little do the people know that a handful of Indians fought in the air! There seems to be little awareness about the role of India’s air warriors in the Great War. Four almost-forgotten Indians flew as combat pilots: Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, Lieutenant SC Welinkar, Second Lieutenant E.S.C. Sen and Lieutenant I.L. Roy, DFC.


Indian Air Warriors of World War I


Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik:

Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik was the first Indian to fly as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Born on 23rd November 1894 in a Sikh family of Rawalpindi (Now in Pakistan), H. S. Malik’s career choice was influenced by his father who was strongly attached to the Sikh faith. His parents also taught their young son the importance of independence as a great virtue and labor of all kinds as an honor. At the age of 14 years, Hardit Singh left his blessed childhood and went to Britain in the pursuit of higher learning.

The time he completed his second year of college at Oxford University, the War broke out. Through the help of his college tutor, Francis Urquhart, he volunteered for service in the French Red Cross. He started out by driving a motor ambulance donated by Lady Cunard to the French Army: where he stayed for a year. In due course, he looked to join the French forces, preferably the Air Force. With the further intervention of his tutor, Hardit Singh became Hon. 2/Lt H. S. Malik, RFC, Special Reserve, on 5 April 1917. Not only was he the first Indian in any flying service in the world, but he was also the first non-Brit with turban and beard to become a fighter pilot – which was against every British Army regulation of the day.

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 on September 1917, initially from the famous St Omer airfield and then from Droglandt in Belgium. In one such fight, Malik shot down one enemy aircraft, but at least four others attacked him. Malik got shot down in the leg and crashed but was rescued and carried to the hospital. After his recovery, He continued flying and returned to France for more operational service.

He survived to see India achieving independence and 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. This flying ace died in New Delhi on 31 October 1985, three weeks before his 91st birthday.

Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy:

Known as India’s ‘Ace’ Over Flanders, Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy was one of Indian World War I flying ace was a gifted combat pilot who served in the Royal Flying Corps and claimed 10 aerial victories – all in a span of two weeks in July 1918. Born on 2nd December 1898, Indra Lal Toy grew up in Calcutta in the household of a barrister. His family was originally from the Barisal district in present-day Bangladesh. His family also lived in London for some time. When World War One broke out, he was still in school, at the 400-year-old St. Paul’s outside London. Shortly after turning 18, Roy joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which was a corps of the British army. He was commissioned in 1917 when he was barely 19 years old.

One of his experiences in the war is frightening and breathtaking. In late 1917, while he was still a rookie, he was posted to No. 56 Squadron RFC. He was knocked unconscious, taken for dead and actually laid out with other dead in a morgue. When he came to, he banged on the morgue’s locked door and shouted for help in schoolboy French. The morgue attendant was so frightened by this apparent resurrection from the dead that he did not open the door till he had a back-up.

After his recovery, he returned to duty on June 1918, he was posted to No 40 Squadron. Over the next two weeks, as mentioned, Roy achieved ten victories, of which two were shared with McElroy. However, this mission turned out to be the last one. On July 22, 1918, Roy took off for dawn patrol information with two other SE5as. The patrol was attacked by four Fokker DVI. Two of the attackers were shot down, but Roy was seen going down in flames over Carvin. L. Roy served death as a hero. He sacrificed his life for the mother nation. He was still four months short of his 20th birthday. Roy was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1918. The armistice ended World War One on November 11, 1918, three weeks before Roy would have turned 20. While serving in the Royal Flying Corps and its successor, the Royal Air Force, he claimed ten aerial victories; five aircraft destroyed (one shared), and five ‘down out of control’ (one shared) in just over 170 hours flying time.


Indian Air Warriors of World War I


Lieutenant S.C. Welingkar:

Along with Lt. Roy and Lt. Hardit, another name that is taken by the Indian Air Force with great pride and respect is Lieutenant S.C. Welingkar. Although very little information is available about one of the best Indian Air Warriors of World War I. Lieutenant S.C. Welingkar was the brave soldier from Bombay, Maharashtra. He was joined the Air Force a little earlier than Lt. Roy but were on the same mission. He was shot down on 27 June 1918 in Dolphin D3691 by Fritz Rumey and Died of Wounds 30 June 1918. During his service, he was awarded the Military Cross. His death in action is commemorated at the Hangard Communal Cemetery Extension, at Somme, France.

Lieutenant E. S. Chunder Sen:

Erroll Suvo Chunder Sen was an Indian pilot who served in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force during the First World War, and who was among the first Indian military aviators. Born in Calcutta, Lt. Sen was the Grand Son of the philosopher and social reformer Keshab Chandra Sen. At an early age, he moved with his mother, brother, and sister to England. He was educated at Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, where he joined its unit of the Officers’ Training Corps.

At the age of 18 years old, he applied or a commission in the Royal Flying Corps and was awarded a temporary honorary commission in the RFC as a second lieutenant. After two months at Reading, followed by 25 hours of elementary flying training and 35 hours in front line aircraft, Sen was posted to the Western Front along with Lt. Roy and Lt. Welingkar. He was appointed as a Flying Officer in the RFC with the temporary rank of second lieutenant.

While he was taking part in an offensive patrol, Sen experienced engine failure and dropped behind the rest of his patrol. In the attempt to catch up with the remainder of the patrol, he was lost in a cloud and was attacked by 4 enemy machines. He was hit & crashed outside Menin (outside Belgium Province). He was interned in Holzminden prisoner-of-war camp for the remainder of the war. He was eventually repatriated to the UK on 14 December 1918 (i.e. after the end of the war).

Following his repatriation, Sen was promoted lieutenant on 17 April 1919, and was transferred to the unemployed list of the RAF He returned to India and joined the Indian Imperial Police as an assistant superintendent (junior scale, on probation) with effect from 20 September 1921. Lt. Sen also witnessed World War II and was doing a war duty. Here ends his story as no news or information about his death has come forward. It is believed that he spent his last days in Burma and tried to walk out of the country, and is believed to have died in the attempt.

Sadly, very little is known about Indian Air Warriors of World War I, beyond the bare facts, in British records. They were from well-off families, attending prestigious schools or universities in the UK. They fought gallantly, served their duties responsibly and faced their future with courage.

A Grad Salute to Indian Air Warriors of World War I!


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