Last of the second world war Sikh RAF fighter pilots
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji was the last surviving fighter pilot from a group of 24 Indians who arrived in Britain in 1940; he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. An Indian pilot who flew Hawker Hurricanes during World War II has died, it has been announced. Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, 92, who lived in Gravedend, Kent, UK died at at Darent Valley Hospital in Kent on Saturday following a stroke.
Sq Ldr Pujji, who learned to fly as a hobby in India, sailed to England after reading an advert in a newspaper. He warned his family he might never return. He began training in the autumn of 1940 and early the next year began flying Hurricanes protecting coastal convoys and intercepting bombers and fighters when Hitler ordered the bombing of London in the Blitz.
He survived several crashes and flew combat missions throughout the war in Britain, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Burma and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he became a champion air race pilot in India, and set endurance records in gliders. He even flew the first Indian prime minster Jawaharlal Nehru in his glider.
Earlier this year he published a book about his wartimes experiences entitled, "For King and Another Country". Following the war Sqn Ldr Pujji became a champion air race pilot in India setting endurance records in gliders. He later settled in Gravesend in Kent.
The group were invited to tea by the Royal family at Windsor Castle as a thank you for their willingness to risk their lives. Within a year, 12 of the Indian pilots had been killed.
The Forgotten Brave
RAF wartime exhibition celebrates the forgotten fewest of the Few The Guardian, 15 January 2009
His daring exploits were typical of fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain: he shot down Messerschmitts, was forced down twice and lost a lung flying at altitude. But how many other RAF squadron leaders used to keep a spare turban in their cockpits?
Mohinder Singh Pujji was one of 18 qualified Indian pilots to join the RAF in 1940. Now 90 he is the only one left to tell the tale and is still disgusted at the lack of recognition given to the role of black and Asian airmen and women during the war.
Treated as a hero in wartime
Pujji was treated as a hero in wartime Britain. He was ushered to the front of cinema queues and often treated to free meals in restaurants. But after the war films such as The Dam Busters presented a white-only view of the RAF - a fact that appalled him.
"The British people are foolish. They don't even know we Indians were there," he said.
In an attempt to put the record straight a new permanent exhibition was opened yesterday at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford in Shropshire, called Diversity in the Royal Air Force. The launch comes in a week when Prince Harry's comments have reignited the debate about racism in the armed forces and the RAF is hoping that the exhibition will help to challenge negative perceptions by celebrating the racial diversity of its history.
It features men such as Indra Lal Roy, who fought in biplanes over first world war trenches or Princess Noor Inayat Khan, who served in the WAAF before being parachuted behind enemy lines to become the first woman wireless operator to infiltrate occupied France.
The exhibition, in Cosford's fighting planes hangar, tells the story of the role of ethnic minorities in the RAF, using their own words and displays of their papers and medals.
It includes a personal combat report by Vincent Bunting, from Panama, after he shot down a Focke-Wulf. "I last saw the aircraft still spinning at 3,000 feet as it entered a cloud."
Al McLean, the museum's curator, said: "Too many of our visitors are white, over 50 and middle class. I want to appeal to more than just those people. This exhibition explains a side of our story that isn't recognised - that the RAF is not just a white public schoolboy occupation."
He added: "There is a comical stereotype of the RAF as full of tally-ho chaps. During the second world war there were lots of university students going into combat with 21 hours, but there were also lads from factories, and men from all over the Commonwealth who made up aircrews."
Pujji was the guest of honour at the launch of the exhibition, and tales of his wartime exploits stole the show.
"I loved flying and I wanted adventure," he said. "I didn't mind when I was shot at. It didn't frighten me at all."
Many "lucky" escapes
He related that once his dashboard was shattered over France in a dogfight with a Messerschmitt by a bullet that had passed through four layers of his uniform. And in 1941 he was forced to land in the North African desert and was picked up by British troops. Awais Younis, 14, a pupil from Alexander High School in nearby Tipton, asked what plane Pujji had liked flying best.
Speaking within touching distance of the world's oldest Spitfire, he replied: "As a fighter pilot I liked Hurricanes best. Most people like Spitfires, but Hurricanes were easier to manoeuvre."
He later recounted how his turban had filled with blood when he was forced to land over France. After that he always carried a spare one. But he stopped wearing a turban in the 1960s. "Times changed," he said.
Pujji's son, Satinder, said his father's insistence on wearing a turban in combat had cost him a lung. It meant that he could not wear an oxygen mask and so one of his lungs was irreparably damaged at high altitude.
The exhibition acknowledges that many of the thousands of black and Asian members of the air force faced racial discrimination.
Asked if he had faced prejudice, Pujji said: "Only prejudice in my favour. In the restaurants people wouldn't charge me; in the picture houses they would let me go to the front of the queue." He added: "Everyone loved me and l fell in love with England. That was the mistake I made, I didn't realise it has changed now."
Pujji retired to England after a career as a commercial pilot in India and now lives in Gravesend. The row about Prince Harry's comments he dismissed as "nonsense". "I've been called Paki hundreds of times, I didn't use to take offence. We used to call whites 'you limeys'. It's all nonsense."
What he is offended by is the way Indian airmen during the war have been forgotten. "Officially I don't receive any invitation to Remembrance Day services. They don't know I'm here."
But he is happy to be finally getting more recognition and to be back among the planes he fought in.
"Flying is my first love. It's always a pleasure to see the planes I was flying in."
Open skies: Ethnic minorities in RAF
Indian nationals were commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps for the first time during WWI.
"Colour bar" removed in 1939
The "colour bar" or nationality disqualification was removed in the RAF in 1939; prior to this, signing up was limited to "British subjects of pure European descent".
An air ministry confidential order to commanding officers in June 1944 stated: "Any instance of discrimination on grounds of colour should be immediately and severely checked."
In 1999, Group Captain André Dezonie OBE became the first black officer ever to command an RAF base when he took control of RAF Wittering.
Currently 865 RAF personnel come from an ethnic minority background - 2.2% of the total, the MoD says.
- Royal Air Force Museum Cosford: rafmuseum.org
- This article was amended on Sunday 18 January 2009. The exhibition Diversity in the Royal Air Force has opened at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, not RAF Cosford as we originally had it. This has been corrected.
Forgotten Heroes of The Second World War
Seventy years after the Second World War began there are hundreds of books, films and plays documenting the experiences of British soldiers but the sacrifices made by millions of Black [and other non-white] Commonwealth soldiers has been ignored, say veterans.
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji is one of the two-and-a-half million servicemen who came from Punjab and the subcontinent, the largest volunteer army in history.
At 91 years of age, Mahinder Singh is the last remaining Sikh and Indian fighter pilot from World War Two. He, like many veterans, believes the contribution of Sikh soldiers has been largely ignored. There were no invitations for him to the dozens of events that have taken place across Britain to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two this year, or any other year, he says.
'As far as I think, no one in authority remembers that we are here and we were a part of World War Two.'
Joins Royal Air Force
Mohinder Singh remembers the start of the war vividly. Just a year after it had begun, at the height of the Battle of Britain, he decided to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). He was 22 years old and in search of adventure. 'I saw London being bombed, I saw what people were suffering and I knew what they were going through and how cruel the enemy was because they were throwing bombs on civilians. They were not fighting soldier to soldier and hundreds of people were being made homeless so that changed my perspective, then I was very keen to fight for the country, for this country where I had come to seek adventure really.'
Two or three pilots would be lost everyday and Mohinder almost became a casualty himself several times. 'From day one in every letter to my parents I said don't expect me back.'
On one occasion his plane nearly crashed into the English Channel after coming under enemy fire. He managed to land but was badly injured. 'I saw the white cliffs of Dover and thought, the first strip I see I'll go and land there. I crashed and the next thing I could hear was "He's still alive", "He's still alive" and they pulled me out. I could hear but I had my eyes closed because of the fire and when they pulled me out I put my hands on my turban, because the turban was always there with me, and my hands were full of blood.'
Back in the air after 7 days!
Remarkably, seven days later he was back in the air. 'During the first year of my operations we lost twelve pilots and I'm the only fighter pilot who's still alive today to give you an idea of the sort of life we had to go through.'
Mohinder Singh was then posted to the Middle East where he flew B51s and Hurricanes. 'It was there they realized I wasn't eating anything. You see, in the desert all we had to eat was bully beef. Now bully beef was something I could not eat, so I was left with biscuits. When the British officers realized I wasn't eating anything they were alarmed and told me if I wouldn't eat I would be sent back to India.'
Mohinder Singh did return to India but was then posted to Afghanistan where he was made Flight Commander. Then it was on to Burma where he undertook his most 'difficult and dangerous' missions, which led to him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He keeps his turban when flying
As one of a handful of Sikh and Indian pilots during the Second World War, Mohinder was treated with respect. As a Sikh he refused to remove his turban in order to wear his flight headgear. 'I made a request to the commanding officer. They were so nice and everybody wanted to help us in one way or another and it was arranged for me to wear earphones over my turban. I was probably the only person in the world who flew throughout the war with a turban."
[Editor: There were actually several other turbaned Sikh airmen in both World War I and II.]
After the war, he continued to fly, this time for an airline company. When he retired, he moved to Gravesend in Kent. Despite now being in his nineties he remains busy and gets up at 6 am every day. He continues to raise awareness of the role Commonwealth soldiers played in the war and is chairman of the Indian ex-Services Association.
'It's evident millions of people volunteered. They fought like anything, I mean they fought with their hearts. It's not just because they were employed, so many were killed and their bravery was accepted, soldiers got Victoria crosses, the highest honour in the world. But it was not mentioned after the war, I mean after the war people seemed to have completely ignored India. The war in Burma could not have been won without Indians.'
"War couldn't have been won without them"
It is a view echoed by the majority of historians. Christopher Somerville, author of Our War, says, 'The war could not have been won without them. Five million of them volunteered as against six million Brits so that was 11 million people coming together under the same flag to fight this desperate evil of Nazism and fascism which had stained the world and if they hadn't volunteered and come, the war would have been lost.'
The lack of public recognition for this contribution means Mohinder Singh is part of a forgotten generation of servicemen who came from across India, Africa and the West Indies to fight for a country many of them had never even set foot in. His voice is now often a lone one but without it the wider sacrifice of the thousands who died and the millions who served might be lost forever.
[Courtesy: Institute of Race Relations] January 15, 2010
- WWII Indian flying ace Squadron Leader Pujji, 92, dies 22 September 2010