Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hardit Singh Malik, The Flying Hobgoblin

Approximately 1.3 million Indians served in the Great War, but only four of them - Hardit Singh Malik, Srikrishna Welingkar, Indra Lal "Laddie" Roy and Eroll Chunder Sen - would pilot his Majesty's aircraft. The first one of these distinguished pioneers was Hardit Singh Malik, who was born on November 23, 1894 in Rawalpindi, Punjab, just about 45 years after the British had conquered Punjab. He was the second son of three in the upper-class family, and he had the opportunity to travel to England at the age of 14, where he attended prep school. Malik then studied at Eastbourne College before being admitted to Balliol College in Oxford where he studied history. He graduated in 1915, and he also achieved an Oxford Blue in golf, which is awarded at Commonwealth universities for competition at the highest level. He also played 18 first-class cricket games throughout his life. According to Malik, being a good sportsman did open several doors early in his careers, and it also served him well later in life.

Following the outbreak of the Great War, Malik volunteered for service at the American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine during university vacations, and he also volunteered for service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) following graduation. He was, however, denied a commission, probably due to the racial and cultural biases of the time: "most of us were being looked at as potential revolutionaries not to be trusted in the Armed Services". It was instead suggested that he become an orderly in an Indian military hospital in Brighton.

Malik was still determined to serve, so he became an ambulance driver with the French Red Cross in 1916, serving in the Cognac district, and he eventually volunteered for the Aéronautique Militaire, the French Air Force. Considering this to be scandalous, Malik's former Oxford tutor and history don Francis "Sligger" Urquhart wrote a letter to the head of the Military Aeronautics Directrate of the War Office, General Henderson, Malik was finally made the first Indian RFC cadet after interviewing with the General. He commenced training at No. 1 Armament School in Aldershot on April 5, 1917: "The very first day I appeared on parade, the Sergeant Major spotted my turban. 'Why aren't you in uniform?' he roared." Malik replied that he was, and he didn't understand what he [the Sergeant Major] meant..."I tried to explain that as a Sikh I must wear a turban". Fortunately, the Adjutant of the unit intervened, and Malik could wear his turban.The physical aspects of his faith and culture would cause some bewilderment throughout his military career, as later on in 1917 when his new batman in No. 28 Squadron entered his tent with superfluous morning shaving water, only to be berated by Malik.

Hardit Singh Malik

After a month of basic training, Malik was transferred to a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) station in Vendome, west of Orleans, where pilots from both the RFC and the RNAS were given basic flight training. He was able to go solo in a Caudron GIII after two-and-a-half hours in the air before proceeding to fly Bristol Scouts as well as Avro 504s, BE.2Cs, Sopwith Pups and Nieuports. Malik completetd his training on June 22, 1917, and he was commissioned a Flight Lieutenant in No. 26 Squadron at Rendcombe in England. Being a Sikh, Malik wore a turban even while flying, although he wore a specially designed and fitted flying helmet that covered the turban, thus earning him the affectionate nickname the "Flying Hobgoblin", and somewhat later "The Flying Sikh of Biggin Hill".

The badge is supposed to be a springbok head, although it bears kudu horns. The motto is in Afrikaans and means A Watchman in the Air.

No. 26 Squadron was formed in Netheravon on October 8, 1915, mainly from personnel belonging to the South African Air Corps. The squadron served in East Africa between January and June 1916 before being transferred to the Western Front. In mid-1917 the unit was being re-equipped with Bristol Fighters. Hardit Singh Malik's time with No. 26 Squadron proved to be fairly uneventful, and he transferred to No. 28 Squadron, which was flying the Sopwith Camel. In October 1917 Malik joined this Squadron at its aerodrome in Droglandt in Flanders.

Malik became part of "C" Flight, which was commanded by Canadian future Major William "Billy" Barker, VC, DSO and Bar, MC and two Bars, who was to become the most decorated serviceman in Canadian history with 50 air victories. Barker was an aggressive combat leader and an excellent marksman, although not a particularly skilled pilot. He would lead Malik in several actions.

The Squadron was commanded by a Major Glansville, a regular who had served in the West Indies. Glansville was apparently regularly ignored by the dramatic and emotional Barker who took or at least interpreted  instructions he thought necessary from Wing Headquarters, and Barker ended up planning all flight operations while Glansville ran the administration of the Squadron.

No. 28 Squadron was completing its training for combat duty after arriving in France on October 8, and the Squadron history records that "The first operations were carried out on the 18th [of October] when Line Patrols and Aerial Sentry Duty took the place of formation and fighting practice throughout the greater part of the day. With singular luck all but four of those who crossed the lines on this first occasion saw enemy aircraft. In several cases, engagements at long range followed, but in no case with decisive results. The first, which occurred between 10 and 11 am, involved Captain W G Barker MC, Officer Commanding "C" Flight. Captain G A R Spain and P C Campbell, of "A" and "B" Flights respectively, likewise encountered hostile machines on this day, but were unable to close with them. Lieutenants H S Malik, who accompanied Barker, and J Mitchell, accompanying Lieutenant D Shanks, also opened fire in the course of their first day's operations over the lines".

Malik himself recalled the first patrol as follows: "I was in a formation of Sopwith Camels led by Barker... 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 he had seen before any of the others - a German scout diving on him and firing! Barker had anticipated this, and like the lightning he did a fast climbing turn, got on the tail of the Hun and shot him down. It was all over in a few seconds. Later during that same flight I got into single combat with a German aeroplane and after much manoeuvering, each trying to get in the other's tail, I got him and had the satisfaction of seeing him go down in flames". However, there seems to be no claims for this particular patrol, but as usual the intensity and pace of air combat makes it difficult to confirm claims, especially if combat occurred over enemy lines.

On October 26, 1917, Barker led his unit in an attack in the direction of Poelcapelle after several days of comparative quiet. The weather was poor, with heavy rains having started the following night and lasting throughout the day leading to low visibility. Barker had apparently heard that units of Manfred von Richthofen's Jagdgeschwader 1 (The Flying Circus) were located Marckebeeke, and he was attempting a surprise raid.

Malik later said that "it was most foolhardy operation... and [it] was planned over the CO's head. He [the CO] actually forbade it! Barker got the OK for it from Wing HQ". According to Barker, this sortie would have the element of surprise, as no one would dare to take off and oppose them in such conditions. There was a call for volunteers, and out of several willing hands, Lieutenants Malik in Camel B5406, J. B. Fenton and N. C. Jones were chosen to accompany Barker in Camel B6313. The four aircraft took off in soft drizzle from their muddy airfield at 1045, climbing through the overcast and crossing the front lines.

At approximately the same time, four Albatros scouts took off from the aerodrome of Jasta 18 - actually not a member of Jagdgeschwader 1 - at Harlebeke in what was described as "showery strong southwest wind". The German pilots were all seasoned veterans: Paul Strähle in Albatros D.V 4594/17 (blue and red and with a wide battleaxe adorning its side), Otto Schober, Arthur Rahn and Johannes Klein. Rahn was new to the Staffel, having arrived only six days earlier, but he was a veteran from Jasta 19 with three confirmed victories.

The inclement weather led to the RFC flight splitting up, with both Jones and Fenton being separated from Barker, who pressed on with Malik remaining at his side despite the bad visibility. The Albatros scouts and the Camels met by pure chance west of Roulers, probably with with Strähle and his fellow pilots having the advantage in height. Strähle recalled that "at about 1,200 meters we fired at two enemy single-seaters. One [Malik] dived to fire at targets on the ground at targets on the ground and I went after him. The other [Barker] was engaged by Klein and Schober. Rahn stayed with me. In a tough dogfight lasting more than a quarter of an hour, sometimes only a few feet over the ground, I fought the enemy as far as Ichtegem, where unfortunately I had to break off because my guns had jammed. For me this fight was the hottest and most exciting that I had in my whole fighting career. Apart from the good pilot, his machine was faster and more manoeuverable than mine, to which must be added the low altitude, showers and rain. But for this I might have got him. Once I thought he would have to land, as he had a long trail of smoke, but it was not to be. I landed on the aerodrome at Ichtegem, where it was raining heavily. For the whole of the fight I had used full throttle (airspeed 200 km per hour), 1,600 rpm. Three times we were down to ground level! His machine had a "5" next to the cockade on the left upper wing". 

Barker had an equally vicious fight with Otto Schober, and his combat report stated that "I sighted 15 [sic] enemy aircraft west of Roulers. I attacked one with a red nose [Schober], fought for 15 minutes and at 1,000 ft got a burst of 30 rounds at 20 yards range, and the enemy aircraft went down in flames and crashed. A second enemy aircraft [Klein] attacked me We fought for about ten minutes at heights between 50 ft and 500 ft over the wood midway between Roulers and Thielt. While turning to the right, I got a burst of 40 rounds into the enemy aircraft, which sideslipped, crashed and burst into flames on the ground". Barker was credited with two enemy aircraft shot down, while Malik was credited with one victory. Following the dogfight, Barker lost his orientation, and he landed at Arras before returning to Droglandt later that day.

The various reports of the action clearly illustrate the difficulties of reconstructing air-to-air combat, even with the events in fresh memory, as Klein survived unscathed. According to Strähle "Schober was attcked almost vertically from below and shot down by the other Englishman who had spun away before. Schober himself was hit by several bullets and dived straight into the ground. I had again lost a good friend and comrade who was generally liked by the whole Staffel." Schober crashed in the area of Sleyhage.

Strähle did not receive conformation for a shot down aircraft, although Malik's Camel was damaged and he himself wounded. Malik was later told that his aircraft had been riddled by some 400 bullets, two of which pierced his right leg and at least one that went through the fuel tank, filling the cockpit with gasoline vapors: "There was a sharp smell of petrol and a sharp pain in my leg". The semi-conscious Malik managed to crash-land his Camel on the Allied side of the front lines, having suffered significant blood loss and a broken nose, the latter presumably from the landing. Paul Strähle survived the war with 15 victories to his name.

Meanwhile. Lieutenant Fenton attacked a column of trucks on the Staden-Roulers road with 100 rounds of machine gun fire. He claimed to have destroyed two trucks, although he was wounded by anti-aircraft fire but managed to return safely. Lieutenant Jones also managed to return to the aerodrome without incident.

Malik was hospitalized, and while recuperating he submitted a report concerning the action of October 26 in which he claimed that Barker could not have survived. Coincidentally, Barker's after-action report conversely stated that Malik in all likelihood didn't survive the encounter with Jasta 18.

Following hospitalization, Malik rejoined No. 28 Squadron in Northern Italy, since the Squadron was re-deployed to support the Italians on November 7. Malik's turban was considered to be quite exotic in Italy, not least with Italian women. The squadron took part in the air battles above the Piave river and at Vittorio Veneto, but Malik developed a severe allergic reaction to the castor oil used in the Camel's rotary engine, and he was hospitalized once more. 

In 1918, a recuperated Malik returned to service in the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF), flying ferry and home defense missions with Bristol Fighters to St. Omer with No. 141 Squadron at Biggin Hill.

Malik with a Bristol Fighter.

Malik was re-deployed to France and Nivelles with No. 11 Squadron after the armistice before returning to India in April 1919

It has been claimed that Malik shot down six or even eight enemy scouts, but he has been credited with two enemy aircraft shot down. Indra Lal "Laddie" Roy was to become the first Indian ace while flying an a SE.5A with No. 40 Squadron. Roy's official claims were five shot down, with one shared victory, and another five "down out of control" in a mere thirteen days before he was shot down and killed on July 22, 1918.

Hardit Singh Malik enjoyed a long, very successful and quite distinguished career as a civil servant in both colonial and independent India before retiring in 1957. He passed away in 1985, and his autobiography, A Little Work, A Little Play was published in 2011.  


John Guttman and Peter Bull. Sopwith Camel. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012

Ranjot Singh, OBE. Sikh Achievers. New Delhi: Hemkunt Publishers, 2008

Greg VanWyngarden. Jasta 18. The Red Noses. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011