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They were the magnificent five. They flew in their not-so-magnificent flying machines. They were the only Indians who flew with the Royal Flying Corps. One of them became the first Indian to win a DFC. Three of them laid down their lives in action. They brought credit to a captive nation. They were the pioneers in the true sense of the term. Indeed, IAF owes much to them. They were Lieutenant HS Malik, Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy, 2nd Lieutenant SG Welingkar, Lt ESC Sen and Lt Naoroji.

Lt. IL Roy

The Indian pilot who distinguished himself most in the First World War was the late Lt Indra Lal Roy. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was gazetted on 21st September, 1919. The citation said: "A very gallant and determined officer, who in 13 days accounted for nine enemy machines. In these several engagements he has displayed remarkable skill and daring, on more than one occasion accounting for two machines in one patrol."

This gallant and determined Officer was born on 2nd Dec. 1898. He entered St. Paul's School, Kensington, London in May 1911. As soon as he reached the military age, in Apr 1917, he left St. Paul's School and was granted a commission as 2nd Lt (General List) on 5th July, 1917.

Five days after receiving his commission, young Indra Lal Roy reported at Vendrome on July 10 for flying instructions. After three months, on Oct 23, 1917 he was posted to the Gunnery School at Turnberry, and a week later he was in France serving with No 56 Squadron. The next entry in his record of service shows him being posted to Farnborough on 14th January, 1918.

While at Farnborough in January 1918, Roy converted his passion of making drawings of fast sports cars to drawing aeroplanes of that time. These sketches include such well known British and German aeroplanes of the era as the SE 5 A, which Roy himself was flying, the Sopwith Camel, the SPAD, the V Strutter, the Fokker Biplane and others. Thanks to his passion for sketching, we have definite proof that one of the German aircraft that he shot down was at 5.45 am on the morning of 6 July, 1918. The inscription on the drawing says: 'July 6, 1918. 5.45 am NE of Arras, Hannoveraner, 2 seater shot down by: IL Roy'. By the 22nd July, this gallant young airman had notched up a score of 9 German aircraft shot down. His own end came on July 22nd. As reported in contemporary newspapers, Lt Roy's Commanding Officer wrote to Roy's mother giving the following details of his last encounter. "He went up on a patrol with three other fellows and they met four German aeroplanes. Two of these were seen to fall, and one of our own, which was the machine your son was flying." His CO further added, "From the time he came to the squadron his one aim in life was to shoot down Huns, and through his skill as a pilot and wonderful dash he succeeded in bringing down nine enemy planes. For the time he was here. he had a wonderfully fine record, I am sure; he was very happy here, he was admired by all the men and officers in the squadron, and was very popular in the mess. I am sure he will be rewarded for the brave deeds he had done." Lt. Roy was, indeed, decorated with DFC, the first Indian to be so honoured.


The person, however, who made it possible for Indians to join the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War was Harit Singh Malik, later our Ambassador to France. He was born on Nov. 23, 1894 and was studying at oxford when the war broke out in 1914. He obtained his degree in 1915, and seeing many of his friends going into the Service, wanted to do his share too. Being denied a commission by the British, the only way that he could at that time participate in the war was through driving an ambulance which Lady Cunard had presented to the French Red Cross. All the time, however, he wanted most to enter the armed services, specially the Air Force.

His Tutor, who knew General Henderson, the then head of the RFC, wrote to the General saying that it was scandalous that while the French had offered to take in an Indian into their Air Force, the RFC should not think him fit for a commission among their ranks. The result was that Hardit Singh Malik was offered a cadetship in the RFC. He reported for training at No 1 Armament School on April 5, 1917. After successful completion of training, he was posted to No. 62 Squadron on June 22, 1917, and then to 28 Sqn in France in Oct, 1917.

Hardit Singh Malik described his first big aerial fight thus: "I was in formation with Sopwith Camels led by Barker, who was ended up at the close of the war with a VC, DSO and three bars to MC and three bars to DFC etc., the most decorated pilot in the Royal Air Force. I was flying next to  Barker, very close to him and I saw him smile and point his thumb backwards. I looked but could see nothing. Within a few seconds, however, I saw what Barker has seen before any of the others... a German fighter plane diving on Barker and firing. Barker had anticipated this and like lightening he did a fast climbing turn, got on to the tail of the German and shot him down. Later during the same flight I got into a single combat with a German plane and after much maneuvering, each trying to get on the other's tail, I got him and had the satisfaction of seeing him go down in flames." The squadron flew a lot in those days. The losses were heavy. Hardit Singh, in his own words, was lucky to get away with a comparatively light wound: a couple of German bullets in his right leg.

Exciting Battle

After a short hospitalization, in October 1917, Hardit Singh rejoined his squadron in France. It was during this period that he took part in the most exciting battle, when Barker, his flight commander, decided to attack Baron Von Richtofen's air base on a rainy day. Flying through rain and clouds, Barker and Hardit Singh suddenly came upon a clear patch and were promptly set upon by about 50 German aircraft. A most vicious dog fight developed in which Hardit Singh's aircraft was repeatedly shot at. The fray ended by Malik being chased across the lines by four German aircraft. He ran short of petrol, and crash-landed just inside Allied territory. He was told later that his aircraft had 450 bullet holes in it.

Lone Survivor

When the Armistice came, Hardit Singh was at Normandy, the only survivor out of the four Indians who had served in the Air Force in the First World War. For the name of the third Indian in the RFC we have to rely on the Times Of India of October 9, 1918. This is unfortunately the only clue to the third of the magnificent five whose deeds and daring during the formative years of military aviation resulted eventually in an Indian Air Force being established. The fourth was young Lt Naoriji, grandson of the Grand Old Man of India. He also lost his life. The last was ESC Sen.

Hardit survived the war. After the war, he joined the ICS and rose to be our Ambassador to France. As long as he lived, he proudly carried the remnants of the bullet firmly embedded in his knee and preferred to walk with a pronounced limp rather than agree to an operation. Such was his attachment to the memories of war. Such was the spirit of those magnificent men who laid the foundation of flying by Indians.

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