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- Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 July 2009 13:55
- Written by Somnath Sapru
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Title: Sky Hawks
Author(s): Somnath Sapru
Publisher: Writer's Workshop - Songbird Books
Year: Dec 2006
Description : Hardbound - Medium Format
ISBN: 81-8157-512-1 (HB) , 81-8157-513-X (FB)
Skyhawks is a new book revolving around the lives of the four Indian airmen that fought in WW I. There is also the story of the little known Dattaraya Laxman Patwardhan who served with the final rank of Hon 2nd Lt in the RAF till 1937.
The book is written by Somnath Sapru, an accomplished journalist with 36 years experience with the Deccan Herald, Pioneer and Indian Express as a defence journalist. Based in Bangalore he has researched for this book since 1971 on his meager resources. He quips that most of his Rs 600 salary went on foreign postage to the British war office and historians in the UK, USA, Canada and most of Europe. The book has been printed in Kolkatta by the Writer’s Workshop with an attempt to keep it as inexpensive as possible. The limited edition is hand embossed in gold, hand stitched, and hand bound in a handloom sari cloth. This limited edition had high quality pictures pasted on the pages rather than printed. This is altogether quite a curious method of packaging a book on such a subject. The paperback is likely to have a B&W still from the movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ on the cover.
Well to start with this is one of those forgotten periods of our aviation heritage that nobody has dared tackle simply because most believe, given the vintage, the resources available must necessarily be very sketchy. Further, many Indian aviation historians have generally given the topic a wide berth for it was really a time well before the growth of aviation in India and was even further removed from the beginnings of the IAF. Although HS Malik’s (the only one to survive from the original four) bearing witness to the Skeene committee about Indians being able fly in combat must surely have played some part in allowing the IAF to be born when it was.
In another first for a book of this ‘aviation history’ genre the author has chosen to write the book by weaving the facts into a novellised narrative almost at the level of ‘A piece of cake’ and ‘Ace’. There’s even a scene of Roy kissing his girl friend Emily. If it works for the younger generation and helps in drawing a larger audience, I guess it must be an editorial call.
The book begins with a description of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the generally accepted cause of the war. Then starts a very detailed description of the lives of each of the five airmen. For a non- flyer especially, someone who never flew in that era, the descriptions of the patrols and combat is inspired almost to the point of being lyrical. It contains all the ingredients of a Great War memoir; wonderful descriptions of war time France and the Italian front, savage dog fights over the lines, an amazing array of characters including Barker, Mannock and Mc Elroy and the forgotten bravery of young men fighting the most brutal and yet the last gentlemen’s war.
The amazing amount of research shines out in every page. All the letters home, condolence messages including a letter of appointment to Roy from the King of England, Posting records, reports on casualties to personnel and machines, Army intelligence/combat reports detailing all combat kills by Roy, Squadron Autho books and daily returns detailing all missions flown by Malik. The details of serials and aircraft markings are a mine of new information that will satisfy even the most jaded researcher. The author has even tracked down the German airmen who shot down these airmen.
Surprisingly there is only a passing reference of one kill by HS Malik in a war diary/intelligence report of 27 Dec 1917 when with 28 sqn over Roulers. In recent times an authoritative commentator has claimed that it was Malik not Roy that brought down 09 enemy ac. The research in this book de bunks that claim quite resoundingly. Several high quality photos of Malik in full dress uniform and Sen in a German POW camp emerge for the first time which is a pleasant surprise although a BE2 is erroneously marked as an SE 5A.
Finally, several historical tidbits from the war abound (it was the 980th war since the dawn of mankind, the first of 16,623 casualties of the RFC was Sgt Maj Jillings who was hit in his behind by a Ulhan carbine round on 22 Aug 1914 while flying low, the origin of the word Archie!, the first aircraft to aircraft kill was when Lt Harvey Kelly chased a German machine to land, and set fire to the it and took off again when the German pilot ran away and the origin of the word 'Straffe', from the German 'Straffen'-- to punish).
It’s a fantastic story in itself and the era and the subject makes it an absolute must for the book shelf of anybody even remotely interested in Indian aviation and aviation history at large.
Review by Polly Singh
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