Indians over Flanders

Only four Indians are definitively known to have been military aviators in World War One. They blazed a remarkable trail for the six hundred odd who took up that occupation in World War Two (including at least one Bollywood actor), and the three thousand-odd who serve in that role in India today.

Those four pioneers were Lt Hardit Singh Malik, Lt SC Welinkar, 2Lt Errol Sen, and Flt Lt Indra Lal Roy, DFC. (Two or three others are known to have received temporary commissions, but cannot be determined to have flown operationally.) Of the four, the two whose names are relatively best-known are Hardit Singh Malik and Indra Lal “Laddie” Roy. They make a neat pair for Indian aviation enthusiasts; for rather like the fictional characters Biggles and Wilkes, one flew Sopwith Camels and the other flew SE5as.

Malik PilotLieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, the first Indian to qualify as an aviator, was born in Rawalpindi, and happened to be at Oxford University when the War broke out. He completed his degree in 1915, and like many thinking Indians overcame some personal ambivalence to sign up for the War, initially as an ambulance driver with the French Red Cross. It is now legend that he was on the point of being accepted for pilot training by the French Aéronautique Militaire, when his old tutor at Oxford went directly to Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson, GOC of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to secure Malik’s RFC commission.

Malik underwent ground training at Reading in England, and initial flying training at Vendôme in France, where his first instructor was Captain Roderick Carr. (Thirty years later, Air Marshal Sir Roderick Carr would be one of the last British Commanders-in-Chief of the Air Forces in India.) He returned to England for advanced flying training at Filton near Bristol, where he was selected for Scouts (as fighters were then called), and received his wings. He was then posted to the newly-formed 28 Squadron at Yatesbury, on Sopwith Camels, probably the most iconic British aircraft type of the War.

28 Squadron went to war in September 1917, initially to the famous St Omer airfield, and then to Droglandt, one of several airfields around the Belgian town of Poperinghe. Malik’s Flight Commander was the Canadian Captain William “Billy” Barker, who ended the War with a VC, two DSOs, and three MCs, as the most highly decorated serviceman in the British Commonwealth.

Malik UniformThere is vivid detail about one particular mission that Malik flew, in both Canadian writer Wayne Ralph’s biography, Barker, VC, as well as in Malik’s own autobiography, A Little Work, A Little Play. In the individualistic, aggressive fashion of the time, Barker planned a low-level attack on the home aerodrome of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and asked for volunteers to accompany him. Three pilots stepped forward, one of whom was Malik.

The October weather was appalling, but Barker saw it as adding to the surprise element and providing possible cover. But shortly after take-off, two pilots lost sight of Barker in the fog. Only Malik managed to keep formation; he "never once looked away from his leader's wingtip, and the ghost-like outline of his Camel.”

As it happened Barker and Malik were spotted and attacked by a large formation of German aircraft. They were soon separated, fighting for their lives.

Malik managed to drive one enemy aircraft down out of control. But at least four Germans continued to pursue him. Their shooting was accurate, and bullets holed his fuel tank under the seat and ripped through his leg. Malik fought on through his pain, blood pooling inside his flying boot, unable to out-distance his enemies, unable to manoeuvre because of damage to his fuel system, and burning up the little left in the gravity-feed tank in the upper wing. Hedge-hopping a few feet above the ground, Malik finally spotted a familiar landmark, Zillebeke Lake in the Ypres salient, and crash-landed by its shore. His pursuers broke off the attack, perhaps satisfied they had accomplished their kill, or just reluctant to linger on the Allied side of the lines. Malik passed out, was pulled from his wrecked Camel, and carried to hospital. He thought, and reported, that Barker was likely dead. Barker in fact survived 'through brilliant evasion." He found opportunities to shoot down two other German aircraft, before returning to Droglandt, where everyone was astonished to see him alive.

Malik Scout
HS Malik in the cockpit of a Bristol Scout D, almost certainly taken in May 1971 during his training . Photo Courtesy : Somnath Sapru / Cross & Cockade

Malik's own claim that day was disallowed. He himself described the episode as "a most foolhardy operation," but always remained proud of having fought alongside Barker, and retained two bullets from the fight in his leg all his life. He stayed convalescent until January 1918, when he returned for a brief period to 28 Squadron, by then in Italy, then transferred back to England where he flew Bristol Fighters on Home Defence duties from the famous Biggin Hill airfield. He returned to France in mid-1918 for a few months’ service with No 11 Squadron at Bapaume, before the Armistice. He was the only one of the four to beat the usual aircrew survival odds in World War One, and survive more than a few weeks’ intensive operations.

Malik went on to a long and distinguished career in the civil service of Independent India. In 1947, he became India’s first High Commissioner to Canada, and some years later returned to his old hunting grounds as India's Ambassador to France, retaining contact with numerous old British, Canadian and European comrades-in-arms along the way.

He was interviewed on Doordarshan in the 1970s, recounting the story of his raid with Capt Barker with understated elegance. One poor quality recording is available on-line, at
Video from British Pathe archives on Youtube show the presentation of a Sopwith Camel by the City of Manchester. Hardit Singh Malik can be seen in this video accepting the aircraft on behalf of India

WelinkarIn contrast to Malik, very little is known about Lieutenant Shrikrishna Chundra Welinkar’s background, except that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists his address as “Ridge Rd” in Bombay. He was a student at Cambridge, at the start of the War, enlisted in the infantry in February 1917, and was immediately posted to an RFC Cadet battalion, probably through the influence of Brigadier-General (later Air Vice-Marshal, and later still UK Director of Civil Aviation) Sir William Sefton Brancker, a senior RFC officer and early advocate of training Indian aircrew. British historian Andrew Thomas tells us that Welinkar received his ground training at Oxford in March 1917 and began flying training at the Central Flying School at Hendon. Further training followed at Nos. 19, 40, 35 and 65 Training Squadrons, the last of which he may have passed through at the same time as his compatriot, Second Lieutenant ESC Sen. He was injured in a training accident on 13th August 1917, but recovered to complete his training by early 1918. He was posted to 87 Squadron of the RFC on 31st January 1918 and flew Avro 504s (still a training type), and Sopwith Pups (which by 1918 was not considered a front-line type), while the squadron awaited re-equipment.

On 10th April 1918, Lt Welinkar was posted to 23 Squadron RAF, initially at Bertangles, then at St Omer, flying the then new-in-service Sopwith Dolphins. On the first of that month, the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service had amalgamated, to form the Royal Air Force (RAF).

British historian Trevor Henshaw’s exhaustive casualty compilation,The Sky Their Battlefield, records that on 27th June 1918, Lt Welinkar took off at 9:45 am, flying Dolphin D3691. He was last seen at 11:15 am, in combat with a two-seater near Peronne, going east at 300-400 feet, but failed to return and was declared Missing in Action. It later became known that he survived his downing but succumbed to his wounds in a German field hospital at Rouvery on 30th June 1918. He was probably brought down by Ltn. Fritz Rumey of Jasta 5, who claimed a Dolphin near the Somme.

Lt Welinkar was the first of the four pioneers killed in action. He is buried at the Hangard Communal Cemetery Extension, less than 20 km from the city of Amiens, and close to the 1916 battlefields of the Somme.

ESC Sen POWSecond Lieutenant Errol Suva Chandra Sen joined the RFC through the Officers Training Corps (the British equivalent of the NCC) of the prominent Rossall School in Lancashire, where he was presumably a student, and began ground training at Reading in April 1917. His flying training began in May at 3 (Reserve) Squadron at Shoreham, Sussex. After preliminary training, he went to 65 (Training) Squadron in June, where, in August 1917, he was awarded his wings, commissioned, and posted to 70 Squadron of the RFC at Estree Blanche, flying Sopwith Camels. He made a few familiarisation flights before beginning patrols in early September. On 8th September 1917, the squadron moved to Poperinghe, at almost the same time that Lt Hardit Singh Malik and 28 Squadron moved to Droglandt in the same area.

Henshaw’s invaluable The Sky Their Battlefield, again, records that 2Lt Sen flew his final war mission on 14th September 1917 in Sopwith Camel B2333. It was not a good flying day; the communique for the day notes, “Strong wind, clouds and rain interfered with aerial work to a great extent.” Nevertheless, 2Lt Sen took off at 7 am for an offensive patrol over the lines. At 7:45 he was attacked by several enemy aircraft. His aircraft was hit and his petrol tank holed; he was seen trailing fuel. He was eventually forced down near Menin, the first Indian aviator to be lost in action. He survived, was captured by the Germans, and made PoW. The German pilot who shot him down was probably VzFw Schniewind of Jasta 17, who claimed a Sopwith 1½ Strutter at 7:50 over Menin that day.

2Lt Sen spent the rest of the war as a PoW. He was repatriated from Germany on 13th December 1918 and left the RAF in May 1919.

A single photograph exists, showing 2Lt Sen as one of a group of six Allied officers in Holzminden PoW camp.

Roy ILFlight Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy was commissioned three months after Malik. He is credited with five aircraft destroyed (including one shared), and five 'down out of control' victories (including another shared) in just over 170 hours’ flying time.

Roy must have been an incredibly gifted combat pilot, for he achieved all these victories in the space of literally two weeks, in July 1918. Three of them came in the space of four hours, one day.

The son of PL and Lolita Roy, Indra Lal was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where his father was Director of Public Prosecutions. However, his CWGC entry – which, incidentally, lists him as Indrulal Roy (idiosyncratic spelling of Indian names did not begin with the occasional howlers that English scoreboards perpetrate on visiting cricketers) lists a London address for his parents in a tony part of Westminster .

When the War broke out, Roy, like Sen, was still at school, studying at the prestigious St Paul’s , in Hammersmith (which is now a suburb of London, but at the time would probably have been considered out of the city) in England. Five months after turning 18, in April 1917 he joined the RFC, and was commissioned on 5 July 1917. His elder brother had previously secured a commission in the Artillery – also an arm to which the British had been reluctant to admit Indians.

Roy underwent training and gunnery practice at Vendôme and Turnberry, He was posted to No 56 Squadron RFC on 30 October 1917, just six months after it had become the first squadron to operate the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 , the other iconic First World War British fighter besides the Camel. Other First World War aces to have served with 56 Squadron include Captain Albert Ball and Major James McCudden (whom Roy may have overlapped with briefly). By the time Roy joined the squadron they were operating the improved SE5a. Roy’s Flight Commander was Captain Richard Maybery, MC, who had served earlier with a cavalry regiment in India, and was to achieve “ace” status and be killed in action while with the squadron.

Six weeks into his time with 56 Squadron, on 6 December 1917, Roy crashed his aircraft and was severely injured. In his partly-imagined book Sky Hawks, Somnath Sapru writes that Roy was knocked unconscious in the crash and taken for dead, and was actually laid out with other dead in a morgue at Etaples, France. When he came to, he started banging on the morgue’s locked door and shouting 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 immediately.

While recuperating from this crash, Roy made numerous sketches of aircraft — many of which still exist, some on display in the IAF Museum at Palam. He returned to duty after recuperating, though there were said to have been concerns about his fitness. He was posted to No 40 Squadron RAF, commanded by Major AW Keene, MC, in June 1918. The RFC was now the RAF, and Roy is listed in some documents with an RAF rather than an RFC rank.

Roy’s Flight Commander was the Irish Captain George McElroy, MC and bar, who had just re-joined the squadron after a period with another unit and a spell of convalescence. McElroy and Roy clearly combined well in the air. Over the next two weeks, as mentioned, Roy achieved ten victories, of which two were shared with his Flight Commander.

Roy’s first victory was over a Hannover two-seater on 6 July 1918. This was followed by that brilliant spell of three victories in the space of four hours, on 8 July 1918 (two Hannover Cs and a Fokker DVII). He also achieved two on 13 July 1918 (a Hannover C and a Pfalz DIII); two on 15 July 1918 (two Fokker D.VIIs); and one on 18 July 1918 (a DFW CV). Roy's final victory came the following day when he shot down a Hannover C over Cagnicourt. During the same period, in what has been described as “one of the most triumphant months in the history of fighter aviation”, Capt McElroy achieved something approaching 17 victories.

Recommendations for the award of the DFC to both Capt McElroy and Lt Roy went off, but by the time they were gazetted both men were dead.

On 22nd July 1918 at 0830 Lt Roy took off with the dawn patrol in formation with two other SE5as. The patrol was attacked by four Fokker D VIIs. Two of the attackers were shot down, but Lt Roy was seen going down in flames over Carvin in German territory. He was still four months short of his twentieth birthday.

Roy was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in September 1918 for his actions during the period of 6–19 July 1918. He is buried at the Estevelles Communal Cemetery, in the Nord Pas de Calais area, not far from Dunkirk, and perhaps 100 km north of where his fellow Indian aviator Lt SC Welinkar lies buried. A picture of his grave is here, clearly well looked-after.

The Armistice which ended the First World War was declared on 11 November, three weeks before Roy would have turned 20.

Fourteen years after the end of the First World War, Roy’s nephew Subroto Mukerjee was one of the first six Indians to attend the RAF College, Cranwell. Mukerjee later became the first Indian Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, thereby establishing a link between those first four Indians over Flanders, and the thousands who have worn IAF uniform since Independence.

Author Notes:

Information gathered by serving IAF officer Polly Singh, writer Somnath Sapru (author of Sky Hawks), and Indian aviation enthusiasts Amit Javadekar , Jagan Pillarisetti and Mukund Murty, including material provided by British historians Michael Daley, Darryl Hackett, Trevor Henshaw, Clive Richards and Andrew Thomas

Editor's Note : They also served 

Atleast three other Indians held commissions in the Royal Air Force at the end of the First World War.  


2/Lt Jeejeebhoy Piroshaw Bomanjee Jeejeebhoy (born: 9 Nov 1891) held an FAI accredited "Aviator Certificate" while undergoing training with the RFC. He completed his flying training at Stinson School at San Antonio, Texas on 2nd May 1916 and held an American Aviator certificate #495.  While undergoing training, he was struck with illness and had to leave RFC Service on 29th May 1917. He was given a honorary commission of 2/Lt at the time of discharge. In 1920 he was given a honorary commission as Captain. He was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and may have served in the air ministry or the British government in the early 1920s. [Photograph of Jeejeebhoy - Courtesy of Paul Wood]

DL Patwardhan

Lt Dattatreya Laxman Patwardhan (born: 2 July 1894) saw service in the RAF as an aircraft fitter. He was de-mobilised as an airman on 15 March 1919, but was given a special commission as a Lt (As he was probably undergoing officer training at that time). His war time career can be read in detail in this 1919 article of the Indian Review. Patwardhan returned to India and was later known to have taken interest in the freedom movement. His rank was withdrawn due to a conviction in court in 1937. It is presumed that this may have been due to his involvement with the freedom movement. [Photograph of Patwardhan - Courtesy of Book Ganga]

The third was 2/Lt Harishchandra Shrikrishna Kirtikar (born: 18 March 1896). He   was a undergoing training with the Royal Air Force in 1918 when WW1 ended. Kirtikar was given a temporary 2/Lt commission  on 15 Feb 1919. He was discharged soon after.

 Recommended Links:

  1. Indra Lal Roy's page on the British National Archives Site including his Service Record and DFC Citation 
  2. Casualty Cards at the RAF Museum - Indra Lal Roy | S K C Welinkar | H S Malik (Injured) | E S C Sen (POW)
  3. "Sky Hawks" by Somnath Sapru
  4. Lt Harishchandra Shrikrishna Kirtikar
  5. 2/Lt J P B Jeejeebhoy
  6. Lt Dattatreya Laxman Patwardhan
  7. Service Record and Profile of 2/Lt Dattatreya Laxman Patwardhan