Saturday, March 29, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Remembering the air fighter who knew no fear
P. S. Chanana

Mehar SinghVERY few people in Patiala know about Mehar Singh after whom are named the sprawling Mehar Singh Colony towards the north of the city and Mehar Singh di Kothi on the Patiala-Sirhind road. The colony and the house are on the land allotted to the late Trilok Singh, father of Air Commodore Mehar Singh, in lieu of the agricultural land left by him in Pakistan. This kothi, which enshrines the ashes of the Air Commodore, at one time the hero of the Royal Indian Air Force, is at present in a state of neglect.

The life story of Air Commodore Mehar Singh DSO, MVC, speaks of human valour and complete devotion to duty. Here was an air fighter who knew no fear, who saw no peril in the performance of his duty even when dangers stared him in the face. Courage and sincerity personified, Mehar Singh was the hope and inspiration of the Royal Indian Air Force in the 1940s.


Born in a well-to-do family of Lyallpur district (now known as Faisalabad in Pakistan) on March 20, 1915, Mehar Singh was selected for the RIAF in 1933 while he was in the final year of B.Sc. During his nearly three years of training at the prestigious RAF College in England, he impressed the college authorities by his single-mindedness, discipline and spirit of comradeship. His Commandant Air Vice Marshall H.M. Grave wrote about him: "Keen, cheerful, hardworking and popular. His work compares favourably with that of English cadets. A creditable effort! And exceptionally good pilot, keen on games and has represented the college at hockey of which he is an excellent player."

A picture of neglect: The house of the late Air Commodore Mehar Singh in Patiala
A picture of neglect: The house of the late Air Commodore Mehar Singh in Patiala

During the next 12 years that Mehar Singh was in the RIAF/ IAF, he gave an excellent account of himself. One can imagine how hard were the times and how demanding and trying the situations in the country during World War II and after it when he was called upon to play his role. Mehar Baba, affectionately called so by his colleagues and friends, came out with flying colours. This brave, yet unassuming and modest air officer, won the admiration and affection of his seniors as also of the men under him. Asghar Khan, an officer under him who later became Chief of the Air Staff of Pakistan, said about him, "With the solitary exception of Sq Ldr Mehar Singh, a pilot of outstanding ability, no one was able to inspire confidence among us."

After his training in England, Mehar Singh joined No 1 Squadron. In the operations in the wild and mountainous North West Frontier Province, he flew in one month as many as hundred hours. Mehar Singh, being fully adept at piloting fighters, bombers and multi-engine transport planes, was asked to rescue women and children from a beleaguered Air Force station of Habbaniyah in May, 1948. He did the job so commendably that the next year he was called upon to evacuate refugees from Burma (Myanmar). A similar duty was entrusted to him during the Partition when non-Muslims were being forced to leave Pakistan.

In 1942, the Commander-in-Chief presented Mehar Singh a Commendation Certificate in recognition of his operational flying in Sind during the Hur disturbances in that province. A few months later, Mehar Singh accomplished a feat which, as per Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, "any air man of any air force in the world would be proud to accomplish." Mehar Singh also took over the command of the Arakan area of Burma. There, too, he displayed his unique qualities of leadership and daring.

Under the leadership of Mehar Singh, Squadron No 6 with its Hurricanes came to be known as the Eyes of the 14th Army, commanded by Gen William Slim. After the war, Field Marshall Slim recorded, "I was particularly impressed with the conduct of the Squadron led by a young Sikh Squadron Leader (Mehar Singh). They were a happy and efficient unit." Remembering Mehar Singh, Lt.Gen Harwant Singh (Retd) observed, "Mehar Singh was one of the most celebrated fighter pilots of the Second World War. A pilot par excellence and a dare-devil, and once in the cockpit, he became a part of the machinery."

For his work in Arakan which he accomplished with great skill and success, Mehar Singh was awarded DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in March, 1944. In fact, he was the first and the only officer of the IAF to have won this award.

Soon after the war, Mehar Singh was called upon to assist in the task of reorganising and strengthening of the RIAF and the training of personnel. In 1947, as a Wing Commander, he was appointed a member of the Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee and Deputy President of No. 7 GHQ Officers’ Selection Board, Dehra Dun. Promoted as Air Commodore in November, 1947, he took over Command No 1 Operational Group in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mehar Singh was deeply attached to the Air Force, which he said taught him to fly aeroplanes, made him an engineer, enabled him to gain experience in administration, offered him opportunities to fly and fight with the fellow members of the air crew in good and bad days and understand their difficulties and problems, and above all made him humane. He wished to leave it with honour but unfortunately that did not happen.

In the interests of the Service which he wanted to grow from strength to strength, he came to differ with some of his seniors on matters as purchase of equipment, standard of discipline, programme for effectiveness, appointments, postings, and certain practices and trends in the administration. Instead of getting involved in any controversy or confrontation that might have affected discipline in the Service, he chose to resign. He wished to be considered as one of those several hundreds of airmen who had joined and served the RIAF and had been written off. At the same time, this patriotic air fighter did not forget his obligation to his motherland. In the event of any emergency, he said, he would like to be the first to offer his services.

Thus went away from the Indian Air Force a legendary hero on September 27, 1948. When the gallantry awards were instituted, MVC (Maha Vir Chakra) was conferred upon Mehar Singh. An honour well deserved, indeed! But unfortunate as it may seem, it is, nevertheless, a fact that this nation soon forgets her sons who play heroic roles. Should not courage and integrity, professional competence and commitment to duty, love of the country and supreme sacrifices to uphold its honour ever remain worthy of grateful recognition and remembrance? What do we really do in this regard is a question to be pondered upon.

After his retirement, Mehar Singh was personal adviser of Maharaja Yadvindra Singh (of Patiala), the Rajparmukh of PEPSU. At times he would fly the Rajparmukh to New Delhi and other places for important conferences and meetings. He flew the Rajparmukh to New Delhi for the conference of Governers and Rajparmukhs for the last time on March 11, 1952. He was to take the Maharaja back to Patiala on March 17. An aircraft of the Escorts Ltd. that he was flying from Jammu to New Delhi on the night of March 16 was caught in a storm, killing Mehar Singh. A worthy life was thus cut short abruptly!