Hardit Singh Malik, Balliol College, 1913

Hardit Singh Malik was born in Rawalpindi, India, on 23 November 1894. He was educated in England and went up to Balliol College in 1912. The young Sikh was an outstanding sportsman and played golf and cricket for his university. When war broke out in 1914, Malik volunteered to join the army, but was rejected twice. Undeterred, he joined the French Red Cross and later applied to join the French Air Service. Hearing of this, Francis ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, his tutor at Balliol wrote to his friend Major-General David Henderson, commanding the Royal Flying Corps. As a result, Malik was commissioned into the RFC on 5 April 1917. He was the first Indian to join the British Air Services.

Malik and his tutor Francis ‘Sligger’ Urquhart in 1916. It was only through Urquhart’s personal efforts that Malik was able to join the Royal Flying Corps

After training at No 1 School of Aeronautics (Reading), the RNAS school at Vendome and No 55 Training Squadron (Gosport), Second Lieutenant Malik was posted in October to the Western Front where he joined No 28 Squadron, flying the Sopwith Camel. His flight commander was Captain William Barker; a Canadian Ace, who was later to be awarded the Victoria Cross, ending the war with 50 aerial victories. As an observant Sikh, Singh wore a specially designed flying helmet that fitted over his turban and was thereafter affectionately known as the ‘Flying Hobgoblin’. On 26 October 1917 Malik accompanied Barker in an attack on an enemy airfield in poor weather but German fighters surprised them first. Malik shot one down before being wounded in the knee. He safely crash-landed his aircraft in Allied Lines, having been hit by at least 450 bullets.

Second Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik proudly wears his RFC ‘wings’ awarded on completion of his flying training – photographed in front of Balliol College, 1917

Malik at Manchester in 1918 when he accepted on behalf of the people of India the gift of a Sopwith Camel from the city of Manchester

After a period in hospital, Malik returned the squadron and travelled with them to Italy in November 1917, as part of a British expeditionary force sent to help stabilise the front after the Austro-Hungarian victory at Carporetto. However, Malik soon had to return to England having developed an allergy to castor oil – used to lubricate the Camel’s rotary engine. He joined No 141 Squadron at Biggin Hill in February 1918, flying the two-seat Bristol F2 Fighter on Home Defence duties, before returning to France with No 11 Squadron in the summer of 1918. He retired from the Royal Air Force in January 1919.

In March 1918 Second-Lieutenant Singh was the guest of honour at Manchester where he was presented with a Sopwith Camel, purchased by the Chamber of Commerce.

After the war, Hardit Malik Singh enjoyed a distinguished career as a civil servant and diplomat (serving as the first Indian High Commissioner to Canada and later as Indian Ambassador to France). The ‘Flying Sikh’ died on 30 October 1985.

His autobiography, ‘A Little Work, A Little Play’ was published in 2010