India lost its icon of military history, Air Force Marshal Arjan Singh, on Saturday evening at the age of 98 at New Delhi’s Army Hospital Research and Referral. The only officer of the IAF to be promoted to five-star rank, equal to a Field Marshal in the Army, was admitted to the hospital this morning after he suffered a cardiac arrest, the defence ministry said.
Singh became the Air Chief at the age of 44. He led the IAF during the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict. As Pakistan launched its Operation Grand Slam targeted at the town of Akhnoor in Jammu and Kashmir, he led the IAF through the war with courage, determination and professional skill.
Born on April 15, 1919, in Lyalpur (now Faislabad, Pakistan) and educated at Montgomery, British India (now in Pakistan), he joined the RAF College, Cranwell in 1938 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in December the following year. Singh had led an IAF squadron into combat during the 1944 Arakan Campaign and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) that year. He was the IAF chief from August one, 1964 until July 15, 1969.
In 1944, the Marshal had led a squadron against the Japanese during the Arakan Campaign, flying close air support missions during the crucial Imphal Campaign and later assisted the advance of the Allied Forces to Yangoon. In recognition of his feat, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on the spot by the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, the first Indian pilot to receive it. Singh was selected for the Empire Pilot training course at Royal Air Force (RAF) Cranwell in 1938 when he was 19 years old.
He retired from service in 1969. After his retirement from the Air Force, Singh was appointed as India’s Ambassador to Switzerland in 1971 and concurrently served as the Ambassador to the Vatican. He was also the High Commissioner to Kenya in 1974. Singh served as a member of the National Commission for Minorities and was also the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. He was made Marshal of the Air Force in January 2002.
The fighter aircraft base at Panagarh in West Bengal was named in his honour on his birthday last year. The fighter pilot, who inspired the IAF despite constraints on the full-scale use of air combat power, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour, in 1965.
Air Marshal Randhir Singh (retd), Vir Chakra, the seniormost IAF officer of the vintage of Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, recalled about Arjan Singh while speaking to the Indian Express.
“I was really hoping he would cross a century. He was a fantastic man. I first met him in 1943 when both of us were posted in Kohat (now in Pakistan) in the North West Frontier Province. He was then a Flight Lieutenant in No.1 Squadron while I was a Pilot Officer in No. 3 Squadron. I used to call him by his first name in Kohat as there was no ‘sirring’ after working hours. I was about to move to Burma to take part in operations against the Japanese and he too would follow suit soon and earn a Distinguished Flying Cross. I remember pilots of No. 6 Squadron, who had de-inducted from Burma, telling us about the tactics of Japanese Zero fighters and all us pilots in the station discussing these over beer,” he said.
“Many years when I met Arjan in in New Delhi, while he was posted in Air Headquarters, he had become a teetoteller, drinking only ‘nimbu pani’. But he would still offer us drinks when we used to go and call on him at his house. He had been going up and up in career and people of his seniority remained in acting rank for two promotions because there was a gap on top due to Independence in 1947. Normally for Air Rank it takes four years to get substantive rank. But he was made acting Air Commodore, acting Air Vice Marshal,” he added.
(With inputs from PTI)