An Ode To A Forgotten Hero

I have just finished reading 'Spitfire Singh', by Mike Edwards, MBE, published by Bloomsbury. I read 400 pages of fine print of this racy book in 4 sittings over 3 days, often tempted to skip sleep and turn the pages. Therefore, I venture to use the jingoism that it is a highly readable, condensed, ‘un-put-down-able’, well written biography of late Harjinder Singh, a maverick who started as 'Hawai Sepoy' in Jan 1931 and retried as an Air Vice Marshal in Aug 1963, who played a larger than life significant role in the formative and youthful years of the Indian Air Force.


I have purposely used the word ‘condensed’, because in real life it would take both Ramyan and Mahabharata, with Gita sandwiched in between, to tell the life story, adventures of Harjinder, from day one to his day last. Harjinder did indeed rise to stamp the sky with glory because of his sheer technical brilliance, extraordinary grit and tenacity. All this despite the blatant racism practiced by his British superiors; and  successfully surviving the depredations of war in Waziristan and in Burma in RIAF days.

This non parochial, no holds barred adulatory biography of Harjinder is commendable, since it is written by an Englishman, who doesn't try to hide the colonial starch, crease and warts on the British uniform and upper lip. Edwards has great empathy and respect for patriotism and professionalism of Indians. He hammers these points home, every few pages lest you didn’t make a note of it in earlier pages.

He also doesn’t hesitate to take pot shots and point out to us the warts and character blights of those whom we were raised to believe as the perfect founding fathers of IAF with no character flaws.  For those who wish to know the antecedents and birth pangs of IAF, the youngest Indian military service, and the people in it flesh and blood with their warts, this book is a must read.

It is my educated guess that 99% of current IAF would not know or remember Harjinder, and may ask ‘Who the bloody he?’ Even his picture in Air HQ lobby is a recent addition. Those who purposefully scamper past the Air HQ lobby, to the antiquated elevators,  barely pause to ponder about IAF history; they scamper upwards to make history, like I did 27 years ago posted on 4th floor as DD ASR.

I never stopped to wonder whether Wing Commander KK ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar, who ought to have been the father of IAF, whether he died in an accident, was murdered or did he commit suicide? Such reasoning is perhaps unpalatable to Indians.

It is an irony that Harjinder, who made name and fame for himself resurrecting all crashed aircraft with his magic wand during the ‘Wapiti’ prelude to WW-II in Waziristan, should himself be resurrected by Mike Edwards, a repair and resurrection man, the Englishman hired by IAF to resurrect the vintage flight, a legacy bequeathed to IAF by Harjinder.

While Jumbo, Subroto Mukherjee, Aspy Merwan Engineer and Arjan Singh are lionised as institutions, with Moolie and PC Lal in tow, it is not strange that the memory of Harjinder, their colleague in war and peace, has been erased like the memory of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, because she and Harjinder were followers of the sun god (VK Krishna Menon in Harjinder’s case). It is high time to resurrect Harjinder and give him his rightful place as an equal partner in the quadrology of Jumbo, Subroto, Aspy and Arjan, in the history of IAF.


Edward says that Harjinder was born Harjinder Singh Bains, a proper Sikh with a turban and luxurious open beard in Gurdaspur, a fully qualified mechanical engineer, when he joined the AF as Hawai Sepoy, shunning a Rs 250 ‘Khushi Khushi’ job as Railway Yard Maintenance Supervisor instead of the Rs 30 that was offered as a football to be kicked around Hawai Sepoy. Though I have heard about such men even in my family, I am confused about their kind of attitude, which Edward interprets as patriotism – I think it was colossal stupidity. I became an Expert Test Pilot with a voluntary death clause because I could get a few Rupees more. And to top it all, HS Bains was dragged through the boondocks and finally, even after cutting off his long hair and shaving off his beard, dropping Bains, emerging as ‘simply Harjinder’, an English speaking,  coat/suit/tie/solar topie wearing ‘Bada Sahib’, he was still kicked around.

However, he had a Midas touch. In a world where accidents were reported only after a few days, if the aircraft could not be brought back on the flight line, Harjinder became extremely popular and a dear confidant of Jumbo Majumdar whose Sqn had 100% serviceability after 100% crashes, because Harjinder was a wizard at repairing aircraft over night. To give him due credit, Harjinder also had exceptional leadership skills, incorruptible honesty, brutal frankness and loyalty, all of which accelerated his progress from Hawai Sepoy to an AVM, the head of maintenance command at his fiefdom in Kanpur. He learnt to fly aircraft too and arrived at his wing award ceremony in Ambala flying his own Spitfire solo!!

Though offered many lucrative jobs, including chairman of HAL during VKKM’s rule, Harjinder refused to move out of Kanpur, his kingdom. He designed and built several prototypes (Kanpur 1 & 2, which later became Pushpak & Krishak) and built the first two Avros (HS-748) too. When something had to be done, repaired or built, ‘as of tomorrow morning’, Harjinder was the man called upon to do it. After the 62 debacle, though Aspy tried to send Harjinder to HAL as its MD, he wouldn’t go and chose to retire and go into oblivion. He died on his feet, in Nov 71, while giving a motivational talk to students of DAV College at Chandigarh.

Spitfire Singh

Author: Mike Edwards, MBE

Published By: Bloomsbury

ISBN 978-93-85936-14-2

Price: Rs 374/-

 May venerable AVM Harjinder RIP. I wish we had many more Harjinders in this country.

(The reviewer is a retired Wing Commander, IAF)


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