Armed forces

How Air Force Marshal Arjan Singh Got the Scar on His Nose

The Indian Air Force, then less than 10 years old, was in the process of helping the British Royal Air Force in suppressing the Pashtuns…

Air Force Marshal Arjan Singh. Credit: Doordarshan/Twitter

Air Force Marshal Arjan Singh. Credit: Doordarshan/Twitter

Air Force Marshal Arjan Singh passed away on September 16, 2017 at the age of 98. Singh was the only officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to five-star rank, equal to a Field Marshal in the Army.

In Farthest Field, The Wire‘s editor-at-large Raghu Karnad shares an incident  from the Second World War when Singh was a flying officer. The Indian Air Force, then less than ten years old, was in the process of helping the British Royal Air Force in suppressing Pashtun tribes in Waziristan, near the Afghan border. The action mentioned left a small scar on Singh’s nose for the rest of his life.

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Raghu Karnad Farthest Field Harper Collins, 2015

Raghu Karnad
Farthest Field
Harper Collins, 2015

In October of 1941, a hundred badmashes attacked a picket at Asad Khel and were holding back a relief force across a rivulet called the Khaisora. The duty wing was scrambled to the fight, now flying Hawker Audaxes, better than Wapitis, though still canvas biplanes, towed out of their hangars like oxen. They were above Asad Khel in twenty minutes. The pilots and observers peered down as bright white runes formed against the barren ground. Below them, signallers rolled out strips of cloth that spelled ‘X–V–T’ followed by cloth discs indicating the distance to the enemy positions. The pilots lined up and dived, squeezing their triggers and tearing up the ground in front of them, while the observers swung their Lewis guns, firing into the blur. The Waziri fighters fired back from wedges in the rock. The formation arced back into the sky, and came back through again and again, giving the infantry a chance to rush forward each time.

After the third pass, one Audax of the IAF climbed out but then sank in a nauseating drop. It recovered, lurched again for height, and buzzed down heavily into the gap between the Army and Pashtun positions. What happened was described by the pilot, Flying Officer Arjan Singh, while he was having his nose stitched up back at the base. His Audax landed hard on the bed of the Khaisora, smashing his face against the instrument panel. His gunner, Ghulam Ali, was so thoroughly disoriented by the shock that he got to his feet and fled – but in the wrong direction. He leapt out of the gully and ran right at the tribesmen, whose bullets popped at the ground by his feet. Arjan Singh, hand over nose, sprinted out in pursuit and finally caught him, fifty yards further up, and turned him around. Both men lay low in a deep cut of the stream bed, listening to the bullets blow past overhead, until they were rescued by the jawans.