The first Indian Pilot Of WW1- Hardit Singh Malik
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Hardit Singh Malik was born into a well-to-do Sikh family on 23rd November 1894 in the bustling city of Rawalpindi in West Punjab, pre-partitioned India (now in Pakistan).
He grew up in the family's old mansion in a joint family arrangement consisting of his father and his three brothers, and their families along with their servants.
Hardit Singh’s father was a major influence in his early days. He worked as a contractor who took on major contracts building railroads and bridges. His success in business enabled the family to become one of the big landowning, propertied families in their part of the country.
He was spoilt by his father who bought him everything he asked for (such as silk socks, elaborate playing cards and train sets). By contrast, he never asked his mother for these things as he knew she would not indulge him in the same way. She was a devout Sikh who did her best to ensure her son was strongly attached to the faith. Instead, she preferred to guide him towards a non-materialistic life of spiritually and service. It was this strong sense of faith that would stay with him when he was away from home for long periods among foreign people and cultures. When he was given a steel bracelet, or ‘kara’ , by a Sikh holy man, he wore it throughout his flying service in World War 1.
With government-run schooling in the local area of poor quality, Hardit Singh’s father enrolled him at a kindergarten run by an Anglo-Indian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. Afterwards he received private tuition in English and Maths from two Indian professors of the local Gordon Mission College.
His parents also taught their young son the importance of independence as a great virtue and labour of all kinds as an honour (and not disgrace). Indeed, he was made to read the famous book ‘Self-Help’ by Samuel Smiles until he knew it almost by heart. Despite a pampered upbringing, Hardit Singh grew up into more or less a healthy-minded youngster (although he did consider himself to be an insufferable brat!).
Hardit Singh’s natural love for sports was encouraged by his father, who arranged coaching in cricket and tennis. Although he didn’t attend school, he was able to organise local boys and create his own teams in cricket, hockey and football against schools and private teams. Over his long and eventful life, he would continue to pursue his sporting interests wherever he went in the world.
Another one of Hardit Singh’s favoured pastimes was kite-flying. It was typically played on the rooftops so accidents sometimes occurred (and hence his parents disapproved of him playing). He would get the best kites made of brightly coloured paper stretched across thin cane frames, and coat the cords with powdered glass. This type of cord would cut the cord of rival kites in aerial combats. These dogfights demanded considerable skill to manoeuvre kites into the optimal position to bring down rivals. The thrills experienced by Hardit Singh in these mock battles were a forerunner to his WW1 exploits.
The young Hardit Singh had always harboured an ambition to go to England just to be able to say he had been to ‘vilayat’ (or Blighty)! He had to work hard to persuade his parents. While youngsters went abroad for studies after they had graduated from Indian universities, it was almost unheard of for a young boy to go for schooling in England. They initially rejected his suggestion but eventually gave in to the stubborn petitioner (it also helped that he would be staying with his elder brother and cousin who had already set sail for England).
In 1908, 14-year-old Hardit Singh travelled down from Rawalpindi across British India to Bombay, took a ship all by himself to Marseilles in the south of France, then caught a deluxe express train to Calais, sailed on another boat across the Channel to Dover, took a second train journey to Charing Cross (where he was met by his elder brother, Teja Singh) and finally sped across the streets of London in a horse-drawn carriage to a boarding house in West Kensington.
Hardit Singh attended Linton House, a prep school in Notting Hill. He next went to Eastbourne College, a public school in the south of England. He spent three happy years there, enjoying the cricket, riding his bike and teasing the girls in the town.
In 1912 he was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford. Under the able guidance of his tutor, Francis ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, he shifted his focus from Greek and Latin (his favourite subjects at school) to study modern European history. His scholastic achievements were matched by his sports prowess, getting his blues in cricket and golf.
In August 1914, Hardit Singh was playing a great deal of cricket.
He had completed his second year at Oxford, and had been selected to play for Sussex County. It was on the eve of a match against Kent that news broke that Britain was at war with Germany.
On his return to Oxford in October practically all his British colleagues had volunteered to join the fighting services. His efforts to join the British Army as a commissioned officer were twice rejected because of the prevailing attitude towards race (no white man was ever to be commanded by a black man).
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. He practically learned to drive it on the road to Southampton.
Hardit Singh stayed with the French for a year, running the ambulance to different hospitals all over the Western Front. In due course, he looked to join the French forces, preferably the Air Force. When his application was approved, he wrote to his former tutor, Francis Urquhart. He in turn wrote an angry letter to Major-General David Henderson of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), saying that if Hardit Singh as a British subject was good enough for the French, why wasn’t he good enough for the British Armed Forces? The letter worked, and, following a personal interview with General Henderson, 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, he was also the first non-Brit with turban and beard – which was against every British Army regulation of the day – to become a fighter pilot.
As a cadet in Aldershot, Hardit Singh wore a specially-designed flying helmet over his turban. This would later earn him the affectionate nickname of ‘Flying Hobgoblin’ from ground crews.
Hardit Singh learnt fast – he was selected for fighters and went ‘solo’ in a Caudron after just two-and-a-half hours instruction. He was posted to Filton, near Bristol, flying the Avro 504, the BE 2C, the Sopwith Pup, the Nieuport and finally the Sopwith Camel, the most advanced fighter at this time.
At Filton, RFC pilots were taught combat tactics, including the famous Immelmann Turn. Hardit Singh got his wings in under a month. Posted to No.28 Squadron and equipped with the Camel, the formation soon flew out to St. Omer in France, then to an airfield in Flanders near the village of Droglandt.
Here, Malik’s flight commander was the legendary Major William Barkar, a Canadian who would later win the Victoria Cross for gallantry. Barkar was considered the greatest all-round pilot of World War One, and he personally initiated Hardit Singh into the art and science of aerial combat, leading him into the first actions, including those against the legendary ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen. In one major dogfight, with over a hundred British and German fighters scrapping over the battle lines, Hardit Singh shot down his first German Fokkerand. He went on to notch another eight aerial victories in the weeks ahead, before he himself was wounded in action, but survived in amazing circumstances.
On 26 October 1917, Barker took Malik over the lines in an attack on an enemy airfield in poor weather. They were surprised by a large number of German fighters, and although Hardit Singh shot one down, his aircraft was struck by an incredible 450 bullets, two of which pierced his leg. Seriously (but not fatally) wounded, and with his petrol tank hit, he crash-landed in France. He survived, having lost much blood and broken his nose.
A stint in hospital followed, then a posting to Northern Italy, where No. 28’s Camels had been sent to bolster the Italian front after the disaster at Caporetto. There was a long train journey to Milan, where the ladies apparently thought the turbanned pilot especially exotic. He was wounded again in a dogfight and was invalided home, this time complicated by an acute allergic reaction to the castor oil used to lubricate the Camel’s rotary engine.
Back in England Hardit Singh was posted back to England in February 1918, rejoining the service, now renamed as the Royal Air Force, with No. 141 Squadron. It was based at Biggin Hill, a specialist unit created for defending London from raiding Zeppelins and Botha bombers.
In the summer of 1918, Lieutenant Hardit Singh returned to France and flew Bristol Fighters with No. 11 Squadron until the end of the war. Like millions of others, he prepared for life after demobilisation. When asked by a senior British officer what he was going to do now the war was over, he answered that he was first take some leave to go home, then continue with the RAF in India, or join the Indian Civil Service (as had been his pre-war intention).
After the armistice in November 1918, Hardit Singh secured eight months leave and began his journey home after an 11-year absence. It was by a strange coincidence that the ship he boarded at Marseilles was the very same that he had travelled on in 1908 when making his way to England.
On-board the P&O vessel he was befriended by an Indian Army officer, Captain Keen of the 28th Punjabis.
One evening Keen asked the Sikh what his plans were. Hardit Singh told him that he would join the RAF in India. Keen warned him: ‘You know we don’t want Indians in the RAF. You will find one fine day you will go up and your plane will break up in the air.’
He arrived at Bombay on 10 March 1919, and travelled by train across the dusty plains and up into the hills to his home. He received a hero's welcome in Rawalpindi.
In his post-war years, he fell in love, got married, but had to promise to leave flying. He also enjoyed a distinguished career as a civil servant and diplomat. He became Prime Minister of Patiala State and then, Indian High Commissioner to Canada; still later, he was named Ambassador to France.
His unique experience saw him involved in the discussions that led to the founding of the Indian Air Force in 1932. After retirement in 1956, he returned to his first love, golf, playing until the age of 88, even with two German bullets still embedded in his leg.
In 1983, Hardit Singh was interviewed by historian Charles Allen about his wartime experiences. You can hear this interview on our Spoken Histories page.
The ‘Flying Hobgoblin’ died in New Delhi on 31 October 1985, three weeks before his 91st birthday.