Kids Corner


Spitfire Singh:
A True Life of Relentless Adventure

A Book Review by RANA T. P. SINGH CHHINA




SPITFIRE SINGH: A TRUE LIFE OF RELENTLESS ADVENTURE, by Mike Edwards, Bloomsbury, 2015. English, pp 434. ISBN-10: 9384898678; ISBN-13: 978-9384898670

Some 80 years ago, a unique event took place in the history of the subcontinent that was to subtly, yet irrevocably, alter the dynamics of the centuries old colonial relationship and give rise to a spirit of dynamism and resolute self-confidence within the rapidly burgeoning educated youth of the country.

The event was the birth of the Indian Air Force (IAF) on October 8, 1932. Although unheralded by any fanfare, the gazette notification that carried the announcement was a moment of great import. It signified a break from the old colonial principle of keeping Indians away from access to new military technology.

Indeed, it was Sikh and Indian blood, shed freely in the defence of the British Empire on the killing fields of the Great War that had forced a change in policy. The Skeene Committee of 1926 cited the example of the small band of Sikh and Indian aviators who had served with the Royal Flying Corps in Europe as justification for the founding of an Indian Air Force.

The air force that then came into existence embodied the hopes and aspirations of an entire subjugated subcontinent that wished to prove that its youth were the equals, if not the betters, of their colonial masters.

In 1930, six young men were sent to England to train as pilots at RAF Cranwell, while 29 were recruited from railway workshops in India to train as apprentice aircraft hands. “Spitfire Singh” follows the trials and tribulations of these young men who formed the band of early pioneers of military aviation in India, through the life and career of one of the most remarkable amongst them: Hawai Sepoy (later Air Vice Marshal) Harjinder Singh, VSM (1), MBE.

As one of the very first airmen of the IAF, who rose through the ranks to retire as the first Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC-in-C) of IAF. Maintenance Command, Harjinder’s career spanned the ups and downs of the service from its humble beginnings as a fledgling single flight equipped with four antediluvian Westland Wapiti biplanes to its status as one of the major air forces in Asia at the time of his retirement in 1963.

It is a stirring tale of passion and commitment, told well by Mike Edwards, who has used extensive sources to document not just the life and times of the subject of his biography, but also the service that was so integral to his being.

The IAF was the first truly Indian service. Unlike the army or the navy, only Indians were granted commissions as officers in it, or enlisted as airmen within its ranks. The reader is transported to the heady days of a land in transition as the clouds of a global war loom overhead, threatening to block out, once and for all, the sun that had never set on the British Empire.

Edwards recounts his story as a gripping narrative as he follows the frustrations and triumphs of the band of educated young men led by Harjinder Singh who gave up a life of ease and comfort to lay the foundations of the new air force. From the halcyon days of the camaraderie experienced by a close-knit Service at Kohat where the IAF received its baptism of fire in time-honoured fashion in operations on the erstwhile North-West Frontier, to the First Burma Campaign in 1942, where Harjinder Singh worked tirelessly to transform the IAF into a first-rate modern fighting force, the story grips the reader.

The innovation of the airmen under Harjinder’s leadership that transformed the unarmed Lysander into a bomber capable of delivering a fitting reply to the Japanese is the stuff of legend and a notable achievement.

Even more fitting in the current context is the manner in which Harjinder Singh pioneered a movement more than five decades ago when he rolled out the first locally produced aircraft -- the Avro 748 -- from the Aircraft Manufacturing Depot at Kanpur in 1961.

The author also captures the complex relationships that existed between many of the key players in the decade leading up to the debacle of 1962 when India lost an ill-advised war against China. The accounts of the dealings of the disgraced Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon and his attempts to mould and bend professional military opinion to his will, make for very interesting reading.

In a departure from most narratives of the period the author provides readers with a gripping account of momentous times in India’s history, and the men who shaped them, from a very different perspective -- that of the birth and formative years of the new Air Force.

[The author is Squadron Leader (Retd), IAF, and Secretary and Editor, ‘Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research’.]

Courtesy: The Indian Express. Edited for]
August 24, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Balkar Kaur (Pune, India), August 24, 2016, 10:25 AM.

Is there any institution in 'modern' India which wasn't inspired and created by a Sikh? Such stories lie buried and out-of-sight from our history books, because they shame the majority which has its collective head stuck in the fog of pre-historic, Vedic fairy tales.

2: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), August 25, 2016, 1:20 PM.

Balkar Kaur ji, you hit the nail on the head. Should I say that it should be aimed at thick skulls rearing their head with a vengeance. Sikhs on the other hand need to make a conscious effort to make such resources available widely and easily to the wider public and particularly to the youth.

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