Sardar Hardit Singh Malik: The Flying Hobgoblin

Sardar Hardit Singh Malik was born on 23rd November 1894, the second son of Sardar Bahadur Mohan Singh, was born in Rawalpindi, Punjab, British India (now in Punjab, Pakistan). He grew with a huge house, carriages, horses, servants and money. Malik was the title vouchsafed to his grandfather Sardar Khazan Singh. He travelled to England at the age of 14, where he attended a pre-school.

He graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1915. He attained an Oxford blue in golf also represented Oxford University in golf and cricket for Sussex. When Malik returned to India following the end of the war, and in April 1919 he married Prakash Kaur (a lawyer by profession), had three children.

Malik during First World War

The First World War

Malik had tried to join the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, but the British viewed young Indians as potential revolutionaries, who can conspire against the British Raj. Hence, his request was turned down. The story is that he went to France and started working with the French forces anyway. He mentioned this to the tutors of Balliol college who arranged for him to get commissioned. 

In 1916 he was given an “honorary” commission as a 2nd Lieutenant flying Sopwith Camel. He had a special helmet made to fit over his turban, earning himself the nickname ‘The Flying Hobgoblin’. 

With the help of his college tutor, Francis Urquhart, Malik volunteered for service in the French Red Cross. He began by driving a motor ambulance donated by Lady Cunard to the French Army. Malik stayed with the French Army for a year, driving the ambulance to different hospitals all over the Western Front. He was one of two Indian pilots to survive the war, even with the wounds and crash landing behind enemy lines in 1917 when the aircraft was found to be hit 450 times. Malik sustained his combat training at the No.1 Armament School was then promoted to Flying officer posted to No.26 Squadron in July 1917. 

The Flying Hobgoblin

He was selected for fighters and went ‘solo’ in a Caudron after two-and-a-half hours instruction. He was posted to Filton, Near Bristol, flying the Avro 504, the BE 2C, the Sopwith Pup, the Nieuport and finally the Sopwith Camel, the advanced fighter at the time. 

The squadron was equipped with the Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane fighter. The camel was highly maneuverable and rather tricky to handle. The average life expectancy of an Allied combat pilot on the Western Front was just ten days. On October 18, 1917, he shot down his first German aircraft. Malik would have qualified to be called the first Indian fighter ace if his claims of six aerial victories had been accepted.

Nevertheless, against the minimum requirement of five, only two were recognized officially. In an all-out engagement between the two opposing squadrons on October 26, he secured the second confirmed kill. Though Malik survived, spent many months in the hospital recovering. Before he completely recovered, Malik was posted to fly Bristol F.2 Fighter with No.141 squadron based at Biggin Hill. The squadron was responsible to defend London against Zeppelin and bomber raids Malik renounced his RAF commission on 16th August 1919. 

The Diplomat

Afterwards, Malik decided to join the Indian Civil Service, joining the service in January 1922 as an assistant commissioner in Sheikhpur District, later promoted to deputy commissioner in April 1926. In the past due 1920s, whilst the Indian Sandhurst set up to select Indian officials in the proposed Indian Air Force, Malik changed into one of every of best surviving Indians who had a visible fight with the RAF at some stages in the First World War.

Hardit Singh Malik, with President Coty after receiving the French Legion of Honour in 1952

Appearing before the committee, he performed an extensive function in its choice to ship six Indian officer cadets to England for pilot training in 1930. Malik returned to London as a Deputy trade commissioner from 1930 to May 1934. Later, he served in New York, Washington, and Ottawa from 1938 until 1943.

In 1949, Malik joined the new Indian Foreign Service and was appointed as the first Indian High commissioner to Canada. He then served as the Indian Ambassador to France, when France decolonized its Indian possessions in French India, including Pondicherry. He had negotiated the release of the colonies, the only case where no military force had to be used to regain territory in India. 

In April 1956, he was decorated as a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour by the then President of France, Rene Coty. History buffs recognize him as the Flying Sikh, as he was the first Indian fighter pilot. He not only won battles for the British, more importantly, cemented the way for the Indian Air Force. It was a hard-won victory, as his first battle war to fight British prejudice.

Malik retired in 1957, later moved to Delhi. In January 1957, he was promoted to the honorary rank of Group Captain in the India Air Force. He led an enthusiastic life until the age of 88. After struggling with a long period of illness, Malik died in Delhi on 31 st August 1985.

Pranav Sharma is a Science Historian and the Curator of the project.