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Air Marshal Arjan Singh:
April 15, 1919 - September 16, 2017





Back in 1940, the Air Force of the British Raj, in its seventh year, was operating out of Miranshah Fort in what is today North Waziristan Agency of FATA, Pakistan. It only had some obsolete Westland Wapiti and Hawker Audax biplanes.

Its role there was to support army operations against Pashtun tribesmen. For a century, the British Empire had been at war with "unruly tribals" in those areas. The subcontinent’s Air Force pilots had also been cutting their teeth at combat by bombing and strafing the "war-like desperados" in that part.

A young pilot officer named Arjan Singh, all of 21, was also sent out for his baptism by fire.

Arjan Singh was from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan) in undivided Punjab. It was deja vu of sorts for the young flyboy in Waziristan: his great grandfather had died fighting Afghans in the Second Anglo-Afghan War as part of the Corps of Guides, and his grandfather too had served in the same areas as part of the same regiment.

So yes, the tradition of fighting was pretty much there in his family.

But nobody could have possibly guessed that he would one day rise to become the only five-star General of the Air Force in India’s history.

One day, while flying from Miranshah to Razmak, Arjan Singh's Hawker Audax was hit by rifle fire from the ground. The plane had to be force-landed in a nullah, and Arjan hurt his nose as his head bumped on the control panel.

What happened after that is told differently by different people. Some say his gunner Ghulam Ali leapt out and ran, not realising that he was running straight towards the enemy, and was brought back by the pilot with great difficulty; others say that the pilot remained with his gunner, who was more badly wounded, until a Gurkha detachment came for their rescue.

Whatever the version, a legend was born that day of a Sikh airman with nerves of steel. And the battle scar stayed with him till the very end.

Four years later, Arjan Singh was a Squadron Leader and Commanding Officer of No. 1 Squadron that was posted to the Imphal sector in February 1944. It was here that he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (’DFC‘).

The Times of India had in its edition dated June 2, 1944, broken the news of Arjan Singh winning a DFC and carried a profile of him. The report also quoted from the award citation:

"Squadron Leader Arjan Singh is a fearless and exceptional pilot with a profound knowledge of his specialised branch of tactical reconnaissance, and he has imbued those under him with the same spirit."

The DFC was presented to Arjan in the field by Lord Mountbatten, then the Supreme Commander of South East Asia Command (’SEAC‘).

Arjan Singh was 25 then and one of the first from the subcontinent to win the prestigious medal. When India was created in 1947 upon Independence, Arjan Singh was chosen to lead free India's first flypast over the Red Fort, which was jointly put together by the Royal Indian Air Force and Britain’s Royal Air Force.

That was a historic moment and a rare honour for the future Marshal of the IAF -- he was literally leading his country from Raj to Swaraj.

At 45, he became the youngest Chief of Air Staff, leading IAF in the 1965 War. His role there is legendary.

Thereafter, he was named Air Marshall, and remains the only one holding such a rank to date in the country’s history.

Arjan Singh passed away on September 16, 2017, and was cremated with full honours yesterday after a 17-gun salute and a fly past by the air force.

[Courtesy: Times of India. Edited for]
September 18, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), September 18, 2017, 3:56 PM.

He was the last of the pioneering Sikh combat pilots who were trained and flew for the RAF in WWII. Only a handful of pilots from the subcontinent were ever allowed to fly for the British, that's how good Arjan Singh was. May he rest in peace.

2: H. Singh (USA), September 19, 2017, 12:09 AM.

I read interviews with American fighter pilots who had conducted combat exercises with the Indian Air Force. It was their opinion that the IAF is the best air force in Asia, especially in regards to tactics, training and combat experience. Much of this is due to Arjan Singh's restructuring and reorganization of the air force during the 1960's. He transformed the IAF from a defensively oriented force to an offensive one with devastating strike capabilities. In fact, it's the IAF, not the Indian Army, which has checked Chinese and Pakistani offensive plans since the days of Arjan Singh.

3: Ravinder Singh Taneja (United States), September 20, 2017, 5:52 AM.

I have shared the story of my chance meeting with him when I was 13 yrs old. He was the Air Chief and standing outside Air Force headquarters, just off Rashtrapati Bhavan. A friend and I were walking back from the President's house where we had gone to wish Dr. Radhakrishnan on his birthday - like many other school kids. We spotted Arjan Singh and our jaws dropped. He saw us gaping at him and waived us towards him. Our thrill knew no bounds. I still remember his presence and his handshake. He chatted with us like he was an old buddy. He must have spent a few minutes with us but it felt like eternity. One of my cherished memories.

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April 15, 1919 - September 16, 2017"

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