Behind first made-in-India planes: ‘Spitfire’ Singh

Behind First Made-In-India Planes: ‘Spitfire’ Singh

A British pilot tells the story of ingenious IAF engineer Harjinder Singh who used jugaad to beat the Japanese, and went on to build a bomber fleet by refurbishing destroyed planes

By Manimugdha S Sharma/ TNN

Calcutta, 1941. The Indian Air Force was being deployed in World War II to fight the Japanese in Burma. Warrant officer Harjinder Singh wondered out aloud: “Why should we fight this war for the British?” Being heavily influenced by the Congress-led Freedom Struggle, he wasn’t convinced that Indians should fight for the British.

His Indian commanding officer, Squadron Leader Karun Krishna “Jumbo” Majumdar, reasoned with him: “Harjinder, if we do not fight in this war for the damned British, we shall be nothing better than a flying club when the war ends. We must fight, and we must aim to expand the IAF while the going is good. After the war is won, India will be a Dominion, and we shall have to run our own Air Force.”

A little later, on 1st February 1942, Harjinder and Jumbo parked themselves with the whole 1st squadron of IAF at the Royal Air Force base in Toungoo, Burma. The next day, the base was hit by a Japanese bombing raid. The RAF was putting up a dispirited fight with talk about withdrawing from Burma further bringing down morale. But the IAF ignored all the defeatist talk. In fact, its unorthodox CO had the most audacious idea — bombing the Japanese air base with obsolete reconnaissance aircraft.

So, seven decades before India started talking about ‘Make in India’, this first engineer officer of IAF converted a whole squadron of 12 Lysander planes

So, seven decades before India started talking about ‘Make in India’, this first engineer officer of IAF converted a whole squadron of 12 Lysander planes into bombers. The Indians bombed the hell out of the Japanese. Again and again. For his pioneering effort, Singh was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). It was a sweet revenge of sorts for him — as a lowly Hawai Sepoy in 1934, he had got the most disappointing welcome message from Air Marshal Sir John Steele, the first chief of the IAF. “Indians will not be able to fly or maintain military aeroplanes. That’s a man’s job,” Steele had said to the 200 Indians of the fledgling IAF.

From being a Hawai Sepoy to retiring as an air vice marshal, Harjinder’s (or Harry to some) fascinating life story is the stuff of film scripts. A man who could put back any damaged or destroyed aircraft to the air, who commandeered and then drove a whole train in Burma to take his boys and birds out of harm’s way, who gave Independent India an entire bomber fleet by cannibalising and restoring destroyed British and American planes, and a man who could well have been be the poster boy of the government’s ‘Make In India’ programme.

His exploits were largely unknown till former RAF officer and British Airways pilot Mike Edwards wrote out the epic tale, using personal diaries, letters and other memorabilia kept safe by J R Nanda whose uncle Air Commodore Amrit Saigal was Harjinder’s staff officer.

At the launch of his delightfully written book, Spitfire Singh, at the British High Commissioner’s residence recently, Edwards told TOI: “I learnt about his story in 2012. It took me so many years to write it out. I can only hope that I did justice to this unsung hero of India and the IAF. But it was perhaps destiny that a gora had to write the story of an IAF legend,” said Edwards, who was also involved in the resurrection of the IAF’s vintage flight and flies the refurbished Tiger Moth and Harvard of the IAF.

Just like Jumbo had predicted, India became a Dominion in 1947 though he didn’t survive to see it himself. But Harjinder did and also experienced the horrors of Partition. Worse, soon after that, he found himself in a war against his former comrades when the Kashmir War broke out.

Overruling his British commanders, Pandit Nehru deployed the RIAF (the prefix Royal was added in 1945 and dropped in 1950) in the war. And soon, Dakotas were flying in troops to the Valley while the fighter force of Spitfires and Tempests was bombing and strafing Pakistani positions. Harjinder realised he didn’t have enough spares to keep his aircraft flying. But he was a man who thought on his feet.

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The next thing Harjinder did was fly to Lahore in a Dakota where he was cordially received by Pakistan Air Force officers. They let him take half of everything they had. Once back, Singh readied his planes to take on the same Pakistanis. The age of chivalry was still alive between the two rival militaries back then.

Harjinder, by this time, had spotted the wreck of a Spitfire in Kanpur. True to his style, he completely restored the plane with some help from Rolls Royce and started flying it. But he was still not a military pilot. In the 1950s, the IAF allowed him to proceed for pilot training. In his own Spitfire. And even at that age, Harjinder successfully got his wings. His Spitfire is now being restored to join the Vintage Flight.