The First Indian Pilot of the First World War

Hardit Singh Malik was eager to fight his war in the skies – but was turned down because he was Indian. The student from Rawalpindi served as an ambulance driver with the French Red Cross before the authorities relented. Hardit, known as The Flying Sikh of Biggin Hill, was the first Indian pilot of the war and would go on to become a distinguished diplomat. But he first had to survive the German air aces over Passchendaele.

Hardit was always a high flier. Born into a noble family in the Punjab in November 1894, he grew up with “a lavish house, good food, horses and carriages, servants galore, private tutors and money”. He was sent to England aged 14, went to school at Eastbourne College and studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, where he won a blue at golf and played cricket for Sussex.

Hardit Singh Malik
Hardit Singh Malik had a special helmet made to fit over his turban. Credit: ©IWM (HU 63209) 

Amid their nation’s battle for independence, Indian students in Britain were feared as “potential revolutionaries”. Although more than 1.2 million Indians fought and 70,000 died in the war, Indian pilots were unheard of.

Hardit’s Oxford tutor was outraged when, in 1916, his pupil revealed he was about to join the French air force. The professor wrote to the commander of the Royal Flying Corps and Hardit was given an “honorary” commission as a 2nd lieutenant flying Sopwith Camels.

A devout Sikh, he had a special helmet made to fit over his turban, earning himself the affectionate nickname ‘The Flying Hobgoblin’.

Hardit joined 28 Squadron under Major Billy Barker, a Canadian who won the Victoria Cross and had 33 enemy “kills”, the highest of any First World War pilot.

Barker was obsessed with shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen and on 26 October 1916, he, Hardit and two other volunteers were hunting the Red Baron over Passchendaele.

Emerging from thick cloud, they were surrounded by enemy planes. Hardit was hit in the leg before shooting down the pilot who shot him. Bullets riddled his petrol tank but miraculously it did not explode.

Chased by three German aircraft and taking fire from the ground, he flew 40 miles at low altitude before landing, bleeding and exhausted. His plane had been hit by more than 400 bullets. In an interview more than 65 years later he said:

“It was the greatest luck. They shot all they had at me but not a single one hit me or any vital part of the plane. I definitely thought I was going to be killed. My mechanic said it was quite amazing how I ever got down. It was like a miracle. My pursuers just did not have the bullet with my name on it.”

Two bullets remained in Hardit’s leg for the rest of his life. After recovering, he rejoined 28 Squadron in Italy before spells in two-seat Bristol F.2 fighters with 141 Squadron at Biggin Hill, Kent, and again in France with 11 Squadron.

He was officially credited with two kills, although he claimed six. Hardit was one of only four Indians to fly with the Royal Flying Corps; Indra Lal Roy, a barrister’s son from Calcutta, got 10 kills before he was shot down in July 1918.

Hardit, who married a lawyer and had three children, joined the Indian civil service after the war. From 1938 he was trade commissioner to Canada and the U.S. before becoming Prime Minister in the Punjabi city of Patiala in 1944.

After independence in 1947 he was the first Indian High Commissioner to Canada and later ambassador to France. He died aged 90 in 1985. 

Passchendaele 100

A hundred years on from the Battle of Passchendaele, experience the realities of the battle through 360 videos using first hand accounts and archive film.

Watch 360 videos

Related Stories