Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh: A Legend in Blue
Today, we celebrate the Indian Air Force day with pride. The Indian Air Force is the premier military institution that has been at the helm of guarding, navigating, and protecting India’s skies from anything that could hamper her safety and well-being. As we celebrate IAF day, let us also revisit the story of one such individual who was instrumental in molding the Indian Air Force into what it is today; Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC. He had a major contribution in converting the Indian Air Force into the fourth-largest and one of the most formidable Aerial Forces in the world.
Arjan Singh was born on 15th April, 1919. His family already boasted of soldiers and were living in Lyallpur, Punjab (in Pakistan now). He underwent his education at Montgomery. Even while he was in college, at the age of 19, he was selected for the Empire Pilot Training Course at RAF Cranwell. He aced the course among all the Indian Cadets who were in his batch. During his training at Royal Air Force College Cranwell, he was the vice-captain of his athletics, hockey, and swimming teams. In Dec 1939, he was commissioned as a pilot in the Royal Indian Air Force. From a very young age, Air Marshal Arjan Singh had found his place amongst the clouds.
Beginning of his Air Force Career
His first posting was in the No.1 RIAF Squadron in the North Western Frontier Province where he was to fly Westland Wapiti Biplanes.
Image source : Bharat Rakshak, IAF
After being with the No.2 RIAF Squadron for a brief operation, which also involved flying against the tribal forces, he moved back to the Squadron he was originally commissioned as a Flying Officer and flew the Hawker Hurricane.
In 1944, he was promoted to the position of Squadron Leader. As a part of the British Indian forces, he was involved in fighting against the Japanese Army in World War II during the Arakan Campaign. He led a squadron and flew close support missions displaying great skill, courage, and outstanding leadership. Later, he assisted the Allied Forces in advancing to Yangoon (Myanmar). For this outstanding feat, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) by the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia in 1944 and was the first Indian pilot to receive the honour.
On 15th August 1947, when India attained independence, Arjan Singh led a flypast of more than a hundred aircrafts over the Red Fort at Delhi. This was hailed as one of the most magnificent and marvelous events Independent India witnessed as it stepped into freedom. He later took over command of the Air Force Station, Ambala. Subsequently, in 1949, after being promoted as an Air Commodore, he took over the role of Air Officer Commanding of Operational Command, later known as Western Command. He held this role from 1949-52 and also from 1957-61, resulting in a record for leading a Command for the longest period.
He was appointed the Deputy Chief of Air Staff in 1962, towards the end of the Indo-China war. Subsequently, he rose to the post of Vice Chief of Air Staff in 1963. The joint training exercise ‘Shiksha’ of Indian Air Force, Royal Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force, was held under his distinguished command. This joint training exercise resulted in also laying the foundation for acquiring new RADAR systems in India and for training our Air Force officers in the USA for an advanced course in gunnery.
In August 1964, at the age of 45, Arjan Singh became the third Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, in the rank of Air Marshal. The Indian Air Force saw some major action in September 1965 when Operation Grand Slam was launched by Pakistan. Akhnur was targeted by Pakistani forces and they aimed to annex Kashmir. Upon this attack, the then Defence Minister Y B Chavan summoned Arjan Singh. When he was asked as to how quickly the IAF would be ready with their support, he very nonchalantly replied ‘In an hour’.
True to his word, in an hour, the IAF was in action. The Indian Air Force with their old Gnats and Vampires had overshadowed and overpowered the Pakistani Air Force, despite the presence of top-of-the-line US jets in the Pakistani Air Force. The Pakistani Air Force also possessed air-to-air missiles and the odds were against India's favour. Yet, the Indian Air Force was able to foil Pakistan’s plan of taking over Jammu and Kashmir. They penetrated deep into the enemy lines, attacked enemy targets, and also destroyed the armored vehicles and tanks of the Pakistani Army, thereby giving the Indian Army the upper hand. The Indian Air Force was able to achieve this, under the exemplary leadership of Arjan Singh even despite the constraints on full-scale use of the Air Force. It is believed that Arjan Singh had advised the then Prime Minister Mr. Lal Bahadur Shastri against accepting a ceasefire as India was in a dominating position. However, for reasons not clearly known, the war did end with a ceasefire.
For his leadership and valuable contributions in the 1965 war, Arjan Singh was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. Subsequently, recognizing the contribution of the Air Force in this war, the rank of Air Chief was elevated to that of Air Chief Marshal and Arjan Singh became the First Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force. Arjan Singh was influential in not only the planning but also in setting up of the Armament Training Wing at Jamnagar and the Air Force Academy in 1967.
Arjan Singh is known to have flown more than 60 types of aircraft, from biplanes of Pre-World War II era to the MiG 21. Till the end of his tenure in the Indian Air Force, he kept flying and would often visit forward squadrons and units and also fly with them. He retired on 16 July 1969.
Post Retirement Days
After retirement, in 1971, Arjan Singh took up the role of India’s Ambassador to Switzerland. Subsequently, he became India’s High Commissioner to Kenya. He had a stint in the Minorities Commission as a member and was later appointed as the Chairman of the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. In 1989, he took up the role of Lt. Governor of Delhi. In 2002, an honorary rank of Marshal of Air Force was conferred upon him. He remains the only officer of the Indian Air Force with the ‘Five Star’ rank.
The Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh was known to be a man of few words. The then Defence Minister Y B Chavan had described him as a jewel of a person, quietly efficient and firm; unexcitable, but a very able leader.
Even today, when anyone recollects stories of the Air Marshal, they remember some of his sound words that have served as a tremendous inspiration to generations that followed. Here are some of them:
“You should be thorough in your profession of everyone”.
“Complete the job at hand to the satisfaction of everyone”
“You must have implicit faith in your subordinates”
“Your efforts should always be honest and sincere”
Even after retirement, he was actively involved and supported the many causes involving Air Force Veterans. He also set up a trust in 2004, by making a personal contribution of twenty million rupees. At a time when India was freshly Independent, she required able leadership both on the political and military fronts to launch her into the path of development and prosperity. The presence of leaders like Air Marshal Arjan Singh is a strong reminder of the mettle and persistence found in the Indian Armed Forces. Even today, he is a soldier who is greatly missed by many, within and outside India.