Remembering Indra Lal Roy, India's 'Ace' Over Flanders

The sole Indian World War I flying ace was a gifted combat pilot who served in the Royal Flying Corps and claimed 10 aerial victories – all in a span of two weeks in July 1918.

July 22 is the 99th anniversary of Lt I.L. Roy’s death

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, Lord Northcliffe, a controversial but influential British newspaper tycoon who had just been appointed minister for information, changed long-standing British policy of not identifying individual soldiers by name in the media. His purpose was clearly to create heroes, and distract from the grinding attrition that World War One had turned into. In the process, “aces” – the small number of wartime pilots carrying that unofficial (and often misused) tag – became celebrities in London and Paris, on a scale that a Bollywood or IPL star might enjoy in Mumbai today.

Among those first aces was a teenager named Indra Lal Roy, the first Indian to be labelled so. Sadly, he never had the opportunity to enjoy that status, and India never celebrated it.

For the official record, Roy is credited with ten air combat victories on the Western Front. Clearly an incredibly gifted combat pilot, he achieved his victories in the space of literally two weeks, in July 1918. Three of them came in the space of four hours in one day.

“Laddie” Roy was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where his father was director of public prosecutions. His family also lived in London for some time, at a prestigious Westminster address. When World War One broke out, he was still in school, at the 400-year-old St. Paul’s outside London, of which other alumni include military historian Basil Liddel Hart, and Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Montgomery.

Shortly after turning 18, Roy joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), then still a corps of the British army – the Royal Air Force (RAF) had not yet been formed. He was commissioned on July 5, 1917, almost exactly a hundred years ago.

Less than four months later, still quite raw as most new pilots of the time were, he was posted to No. 56 Squadron RFC. It was the first to operate the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 (and later the improved SE5a), an iconic British “scout” type, as fighters were called at the time. Many prominent aces served with the squadron, including Captain Albert Ball and Major James McCudden, whom Roy may have overlapped with briefly. Roy’s flight commander was Captain Richard Maybery, a former Indian army cavalry officer who would achieve “ace” status and fall in action while with the squadron.

An SE5a, the aircraft in which Roy did most of his combat flying, in the colours of 40 Squadron with which he served. Credit: Wing Palette

An SE5a, the aircraft in which Roy did most of his combat flying, in the colours of 40 Squadron with which he served. Credit: Wing Palette

On December 6, 1917, Roy suffered a crash in France. He was knocked unconscious, taken for dead and actually laid out with other dead in a morgue. When he came to, he banged on the morgue’s locked door and shouted for help in schoolboy French. The morgue attendant was so frightened by this apparent resurrection from the dead that he did not open the door till he had back-up.

While recuperating from this crash, Roy made numerous sketches of aircraft — some now on display at the Indian Air Force (IAF) Museum in Delhi. On returning to duty in June 1918, he was posted to No 40 Squadron, now of the RAF. The RAF had been formed two months earlier, by the merger of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service. Roy is listed in some documents hereon with the RAF rank of flight lieutenant, but that may be a mistaken transcription of his RFC rank of lieutenant. Flight lieutenants in those days commanded flights (sub-units of three to six aircraft), and it is not clear from the records that Roy actually held such a command.

 One of Roy's drawings, made when he was recuperating from his crash. Credit: Indian Air Force Museum

One of Roy’s drawings, made when he was recuperating from his crash. Credit: Indian Air Force Museum

Roy’s own flight commander at 40 Squadron was the Irish Captain George McElroy, a seemingly maverick former infantryman who had refused to fire on fellow Irishmen during the 1916 Easter Rising. Many Irish, like many Indians, were sometimes ambivalent about participation in war for the British Empire, as shown in the Yeats poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death‘.

Nevertheless, McElroy and Roy clearly combined well in the air. Over the next two weeks, as mentioned, Roy achieved ten victories, of which two were shared with McElroy. One imagines jokes within the squadron, about a Paddy and an Indian walking into the bar.

Captain George McElroy, Roy's flight commander and frequent partner in combat.

Captain George McElroy, Roy’s flight commander and frequent partner in combat.

Roy’s first victory was over a Hannover two-seater on July 6, 1918. This was followed by that brilliant spell of three victories in four hours, on July 8, 1918, one of which was over a Fokker DVII, considered one of the best German combat aircraft of the war (so much so it was specifically mentioned in the Armistice Agreement, as to be compulsorily handed over to the allies). He also achieved two victories on July 13, 1918; two on July 15, 1918, both Fokker DVIIs and one on July 18, 1918. Roy’s final victory came the following day when he shot down another Hannover over Cagnicourt.

On July 22, 1918, Roy took off for dawn patrol in formation with two other SE5as. The patrol was attacked by four Fokker DVIIs. Two of the attackers were shot down, but Roy was seen going down in flames over Carvin. He was still four months short of his 20th birthday.

Roy was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1918. He is buried at the Estevelles Communal Cemetery, perhaps 100 km north of where another Indian World War One aviator, Lieutenant S.C. Welingkar, lies. Both graves are marked and well looked-after.

The armistice ended World War One on November 11, 1918, three weeks before Roy would have turned 20.

Fourteen years after the end of World War One, Roy’s nephew Subroto Mukerjee became one of the first Indians to attend the RAF College at Cranwell. Mukerjee later became the first Indian chief of air staff of the post-independence IAF, a living link between those first Indians over Flanders, and the thousands who have worn IAF uniform since.

Sadly, we know very little about Roy’s personal life, and those of most other Indians who volunteered for this new dimension of warfare. The dry facts in British records suggest that most of them were from well-off families (one indeed, seemingly, from a princely family). Most went to prestigious boarding schools or universities in the UK. They probably spoke English with impeccably English accents – this would have been an almost mandatory requirement to clear the first recruiting hurdle, usually a suspicious British recruiting sergeant. They lived in British boarding houses and messes, and probably ate English meals.

But none of this makes them any less Indian. In none of the units they served with would Roy and his compatriots have been identified as anything but “the Indian.”

A Fokker DVII, three of which Roy shot down, and one of which probably shot him down. Credit: Wings Palette

A Fokker DVII, three of which Roy shot down, and one of which probably shot him down. Credit: Wings Palette

Roy, in particular, is in some ways the aviation equivalent of Ranjitsinhji in cricket. Like the Jam Saheb, Roy distinguished himself on British platforms, at a pursuit the British admire, before India had developed its own institutions.

This year marks a century since Roy and a handful of other spirited young men put themselves forward, for service in the Flying Corps. Aces from other British Dominions such as Australia and Canada were honoured by their own countries after the war, with posthumous decorations and honours, reinforcing British recognition and their countries’ claims to dominion status. Should India have made more of Roy’s record? And would there have been a tiny nudge to India’s dominion prospects, and road to independence, if we had? It makes for interesting speculation.

K. S. Nair is a life-long student of Indian aviation and military history, and the author of several articles on the Indian Air Force.  His book Ganesha’s Flyboys tells the story of the IAF in the Congo in the 1960s.