Indian RAF war hero to publish life story
9:00am Sunday 21st February 2010
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji joined the RAF in 1940 looking for an adventure. Now aged 91, he tells DAVID MILLS how he became the eyes of the army.
WHEN 22-year-old Mahinder Singh Pujji spotted an Indian newspaper advert calling on pilots to join the RAF in 1940, he eagerly volunteered.
But the Shell Oil refuelling superintendent had not heard much about Hitler, nor did he know much about the war.
Sqn Ldr Pujji always wanted to fly and his dream was realised when he got his pilot licence in 1937 after serving an apprenticeship with Himalayan Airlines.
His employers gladly released him to join the RAF, stating he could have his job back, if he returned alive.
Sqn Ldr Pujji went on to fly 25 different types of aircraft, including Spitfires, Hurricanes and Tomahawks.
He had more than one dice with death and his military achievements led him to meet world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Gandhi, King Farouk of Egypt, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.
Sqn Ldr Pujji, who lives in sheltered housing in The Grove, Gravesend, has written a book about his experiences during the war called For King and Another Country, due to be published later this year.
His father, one of the few Indian senior officers in government during the Raj, did not agree with his son’s choice to join the RAF.
He said: “My father said there's no sense in what you have done.
“Why have you decided to leave your comfortable, good, well-paid job and take unnecessary risk?
“My father wasn't interested in the war effort. We had hardly heard of Hitler. I joined because I wanted an adventure in flying.”
After arriving in Britain as one of 24 Indian pilots, he undertook military training and soon discovered a cause to fight for.
Sqn Ldr Pujji said: “What happened between 1940-41 converted me. London was being bombed day and night.
“The Germans created havoc all over the UK. That's why I felt I was fighting a just cause. I knew why the war broke out and who Hitler was.
“Why did Britain go to war? It went to war to save Europe and I went to war for Britain. I saw the people here and had admiration for them.”
Sqn Ldr Pujji was the only fighter pilot in the world allowed to keep his turban on while he flew.
He had RAF wings attached to it especially, and believes it saved his life when his plane encountered difficulties flying over the English Channel and crashed into the white cliffs of Dover.
He said: “Every day was a question of life and death. Every flight we made we weren’t sure we were going to come back.
“It's a job which can't easily be described, escorting convoys over the English Channel, going over occupied countries looking out for enemies, escorting bombers and making interceptions, which was the most important and dangerous.
“In one minute we would have to be strapped in and up in the air ready to meet enemy fighters. This was three to four times a day, throughout six months.”
Sqn Ldr Pujji had another lucky escape when he was shot down by Rommel’s army in the Western Desert in north Africa.
He said: “I didn't know what to do. I wasn't on fire, I didn't get hurt. I knew if I carried on north I would get to the Mediterranean, but any other direction I knew nothing.
“I gave up and sat on top of my plane and after a while I saw a cloud of dust, I did not mind who it was picking me up, Germany or Britain.
“I started waving my shirt and luckily it was the British.”
But his most incredible achievement was in Burma, where he rescued 300 American soldiers surrounded by Japanese troops in the jungle, which won him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Father-of-three Sqn Ldr Pujji said: “There was panic, the American air force tried for two days but couldn’t find them. They knew they were running short of rations and ammunition.
“The RAF tried but couldn't find them. I was approached, they said: ‘Pujji, we hear you're the eyes of the army, there are 300 troops without adequate safeguard, can you and your boys try and locate them?’ “I won't tell you how I did it. It's in the book.”
ETHNIC MINORITIES AT WAR
The contribution of ethnic minorities to Britain’s efforts during the Second World War is often understated.
From a population of more than 380 million, two-and-a-half million soldiers came from India, with more than 200,000 from east Africa and around 150,000 from west Africa.
As well as a fighting a major campaign in Burma, Indians saw combat in north Africa, Eritrea, Abyssinia, the Middle East, the Far East and Italy.
Some joined the Royal Indian Air Force or the Royal Indian Navy while thousands of women signed up to the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service or the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.
India suffered huge casualties from the war, with around 36,000 volunteers either killed or reported missing; more than 64,000 were wounded, and almost 80,000 were captured as prisoners of war.
Thirty Victorian Crosses, the highest military decoration, were awarded to members of the Indian Army in the Second World War.