Tales of bravery abound in the armed forces, including the Air Force, where the thrill of flying adds to the lore, more so when pilots risk their lives in combat. But even by the high standards of bravery in the military, the tale of Arjan Singh, first Marshal of the IAF and India’s only five-star flying officer, is a lyrical one. He was the born leader of a fledgling Air Force who flew every possible aircraft, including in combat. Pilots put their lives on the line every time they entered the cockpit of early fighters, primitive ones guided visually rather than in the computerised machines of today. World War II’s fighter pilots were heroic combatants. Arjan Singh was among them, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the most reputed British wartime honour. He took on the Japanese in the Arakan campaign and gave air support to Indian troops in Rangoon.
Arjan Singh’s greatest deed was possibly in 1965, as IAF Chief, during the battle of Akhnoor when he led aerial missions to stop the Pakistani offensive, outmanoeuvring an enemy far better equipped in terms of aircraft, flying American fighters. Arjan was one of the prime forces behind the imaginative tactical planning for the battles in the sky that won the short war for India in just three weeks. For a fighting man, even civil assignments after retirement seemed to suit him as he joined the ranks of diplomats and administrators. He faded away at the ripe age of 98, as a clamour is growing for a Bharat Ratna for India’s pioneering air warrior.