Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, DFC
Amongst the excellent programmes that have surrounded Remembrance Sunday recently, I watched a short but really interesting documentary on BBC Four about the contribution made by the Indian Army and in particular the Sikh armed forces in the two world wars.
Not only had India distinguished themselves in the first World War, they also volunteered in great numbers in WWII, despite their treatment by the British in the intervening years. Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji was one of the two-and-a-half million servicemen who came from Punjab and the subcontinent in WWII, the largest volunteer army in history.
During the summer of 1940, eighteen Indian pilots took part in the Battle of Britain spread out among the squadrons in Fighter, Coastal and Bomber Commands. Eight of the twenty-four were subsequently killed on operations.
I was really touched by how Singh Pujji spoke of how he found wartime life in Britain, “When I went to the cinema I used to get in the queue with everyone else, but people would insist that I got to the front of the queue. I would get to the front of the queue and try to pay for my ticket, but was let in free. Similar things happened at restaurants in the village; often the owners would not take payment for a meal. I felt very welcome indeed, I never felt different or an outsider and … I was made to feel very much at home by everyone I met.”
He served in five theatres of war – Europe, North Africa, The Middle East, Palestine and Asia. He was was shot down three times during the war and lost a lung flying at high altitude. However, he was one of the lucky few to survive. After the war, Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji returned to India, becoming an air racer and endurance glider pilot but later returned to the United Kingdom and settled in Gravesend, Kent. He was the last remaining Sikh and Indian fighter pilot from the Second World War.
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, DFC, died in Kent aged 92 on 18 September 2010, following a stroke, Yet another story of unimaginable bravery that always levels me at this time of year. However, the most powerful part of his story is his unshakable commitment to a country that he loved and he felt, all his life had treated him well.