Stephen Barker, The Flying Sikh (Pen & Sword, 2022)
Hardit Singh Malik was one of 1.3 million Indians that served in WWI. But he was a trailblazer, the first Indian fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and a commissioned officer, despite facing resistance from within the British establishment and among his fellow pilots. He was arguably the most famous Indian combatant of the war and went on to become a distinguished diplomat after it. In this truncated biography, Stephen Barker examines Hardit’s formative years and his role in the Great War.
Barker narrates Hardit’s upbringing from his birth in Rawalpindi in 1894 through his early years that shaped his identity and values. He completed his schooling in England then attended Oxford University from 1912. Barker notes the emergence of Hardit’s physical and character attributes, both found in his ability as a cricket player – he played for Sussex. But war loomed and the storm broke in August 1914. Barker highlights the ambiguity many Indians felt at supporting the Imperial war effort, but Hardit had no doubts and tried to gain a commission almost immediately on the outbreak, though he failed and opted for Law School. He then accepted an offer to serve with the Croix-Rouge française in the summer of 1915 and embarked for France as an ambulance driver in June 1916. It was here that he took an interest in flying.
After some bureaucratic wangling to allow a Sikh to serve in the RFC, Hardit began his formal training in March 1917. Barker follows him from cadet through to receiving his wings in July then onto more training with specific aircraft. In September, his squadron received Sopwith Camels, one of which Hardit flew to France to begin his combat career. That took place over the muddy battlefield of Passchendaele and his first ‘kill’ came almost immediately on 20 October, though he crashed on return to his aerodrome. He also was not credited with his victory. Barker narrates in some detail an intense dogfight a few days later in which Hardit made his first official kill but was wounded and spent two months in hospital. He returned to his squadron in Italy, but three weeks later, he left for England because of an allergy to Castor Oil! He still flew but remained behind the lines until October 1918, now a commissioned officer. When peace came, Hardit travelled back to Rawalpindi to a celebrity’s welcome. Barker follows Hardit into the immediate post-war amid the turbulence of Indian politics. Hardit left the RAF in August 1919, by now a married man, and entered the Indian Civil service. He would go on to have a stellar diplomatic career. Barker’s conclusion examines Hardit in the context of post-war Anglo-British relations and how he succeeded throughout his life with the British where so many had failed.
In Stephen Barker, Hardit Singh Malik has found a biographer worthy of his distinguished life. Barker does an excellent job of setting Hardit into his personal, familial, and political contexts. In particular, Barker highlights the prejudices ranged against Hardit and how he overcame them. He deploys Hardit’s autobiography as the backbone for his narrative but builds on a solid academic base of books and articles to establish the context and the veracity of Hardit’s memories. Barker also concentrates on Hardit’s early life and career as a pilot, which some biographers might have diluted in taking a longer view. Military historians will enjoy this biography as will readers of modern Indian history.