During that time when one’s race was one of the biggest deciding factors when judging one’s loyalty (or the lack thereof) to a person, Hardit Singh Malik rose to break such barriers and judgment by becoming the first Indian to serve in Brittain’s Royal Flying Corps, proving that not all Indians studying in Britain were “potential revolutionaries” as they were perceived. Moreover, he would also become the first Indian High Commissioner to Canada and the Indian Ambassador to France. Here’s his story.

Not a Potential Revolutionary

Hardit Singh Malik was the second son of Sardar Bhadur Mohan Singh and Sardarni Lajvanti. He was born in Punjab, British India (now part of Pakistan). When he was 14, he traveled to England, where he attended a prep school, then Eastbourne College, and finally at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1915.

Malik wanted to enter the military when World War I broke out, so he attempted to join the Royal Flying Corps, along with his university friends, right after graduating. His attempt was denied as Indians studying in Britain during the early 1900s were seen as potential revolutionaries, so they were not admitted into the army. Because of this, he instead served as an ambulance driver in the French Red Cross. Soon, he offered his services to the French air force. When his Oxford tutor “Sligger” Urquhart heard about it, he wrote a letter of commendation addressed to General David Henderson, commander of the Royal Flying Corps. This letter secured Malik a cadetship, and by April 6, 1917, he was given the honorary temporary commission as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to fly Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane fighter aircraft.

RAF Sopwith Camel. (unknown RAF photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Malik was a devout Sikh, so he was provided with a helmet specifically made to accommodate his turban. Thus he earned the nickname “The Flying Hobgoblin.”

Hardit Malik. (balliolarchivist.wordpress.com via indiatimes.com)

The Flying Hobgoblin’s Journey

Malik was assigned in the 28 Squadron under Major Billy Barker, whose obsession was shooting down the Red Baron. Barker also earned the Victoria Cross and is credited with the most number of enemy kills among the WWI pilots.

Hardit Malik 2019 stamp of India. (India Post, Government of IndiaGODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons)

On October 26, 1916, Hardit Malik and two others chased the Red Baron over Passchendaele, where they were surrounded by enemy fighter planes. Malik was unfortunately shot in the leg, but he was still lucky that his fuel tank did not explode after it was hit. In his state, he managed to shoot down his attacker and then flew 40 miles, all while three German pilots were tailing and showering him with fire from the ground. Four hundred of these enemy bullets would hit Malik’s plane. Other than the bullet in his leg. He managed to land it behind Allied lines but was knocked unconscious and badly wounded.

Later on, he would be part of the 141 Squadron at Biggin Hill, Kent. There, he flew the Bristol F2 fighter plane and was deployed to France. In May of 1918, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and by the summer, he was stationed at Bapaume, then Nivelles. He was at Aulnoye-Aymeries when the war ended.

End of War

Malik was credited with two kills by the end of the war. His claim, however, was that he had six victories. This would have made him a flying ace and the one of only two in World War I. The other one was Indra Lal Roy. He was also one of the two Indians who flew with the RFC and RAF to survive the war. The next Indian to enter RAF as a pilot would not be for another decade.