Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, who was Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force from 1964 to 1969, is the epitome of a military leader and it is in the great fitness of things,and truly a grand morale booster to the officers and men of the Indian Air Force that he was honoured with the rank of Marshal of the Indian Air Force (equivalent to the Army’s Field Marshal), on the Republic Day of 2002. This is appropriate and timely even as the world’s fourth largest Air force prepares for a major upgradation of its capabilities in the new millennium.

Military Career

Born on 15 April 1919 in Lyallpur and educated first in Montgomery (now Sahiwal in Pakistan) and then at the Government College in Lahore, Arjan Singh joined the infant Indian Air Force in 1938.

Arjan Singh Pre-Independence in Burma
Arjan Singh Pre-Independence in Burma


He was commissioned from the RAF College Cranwell on 23 December 1939, and as a Pilot Officer with ‘A’ Flight at Drigh Road, Karachi first saw operations on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Arjan Singh With Pakistan's Air Force Commander Noor Khan
Arjan Singh With Pakistan’s Air Force Commander Noor Khan

Arjan Singh’s two operational tenures on the Burma Front during World War II�the first as a Pilot Officer with No.1 Squadron (“Tigers”) and subsequently in 1944, as Commander of the same Squadron, are outstanding landmarks of his enviable flying career. In the first, he assiduously learnt the techniques of air warfare in the thick of battle, during ceaseless sorties that he flew day in and day out. During the second, as a consummate Squadron Commander, he displayed masterly leadership to the maximum advantage of the IAF during the seige of Imphal. In recognition of his leadership and gallantry in the air, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on the spot, the first Indian pilot to be so honoured by the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia. The citation read:

Squndron Leader Arja11 Singh is a fearless and exceptional Pilot, with a profound knowledge of his specialised branch of tactical reconnaissance and he has imbued those under him with the same spirit. The success of No. 1 Squadron Indian Air Force reflects the greatest credit on him.

When India became a Republic in 1950, Arjan Singh was commanding the Operational Group, then responsible for all air operations from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari. Arjan Singh held the Command of this Group, the only fighting arm of the IAF, till December 1952 and again from December 1955 to April 1959, initially in the rank of Air Commodore and then in the rank of Air Vice Marshal for over 6 years, longer than any other officer of the IAF.

Post Independence

After India became independent, Arjan Singh was detailed to undergo a number of prestigious courses in the United Kingdom:

RAF Staff College, Brackwell
Joint Services Staff College, UK
Imperial Defence College, London
His long tenure of the all-embracing Operational Group well groomed and equipped Arjan Singh for higher Command. In between, from December 1952 to December 1955 he was Air Officer-in-Charge Personnel Organisation and Air Officer-in-Charge Administration from May 1961 till December 1962, which provided him with necessary administrative experience so essential for an Air Chief in the making.

On 1 August 1964, Air Marshal Arjan Singh took over as the IAF’s third Indian Chief of Air Staff.

With the well-recognised qualities of leadership, experience and inborn confidence, Arjan Singh consummately directed the air campaign during the war of September 1965, but for the timely and effective action by the Indian Air Force in the Chhamb sector on 1st September, history could well have had been different. In the subsequent weeks, the IAF consolidated its air superiority by deep penetration attacks against enemy targets, including the farthest Pak airfields like Peshawar and Mauripur before the conflict came to an end.

Arjan Singh Shows Defence Minister Pak's Shot Down Sabre
Arjan Singh Shows Defence Minister Pak’s Shot Down Sabre

Arjan Singh, who on 1 August 1964 had become Chief of Air Staff in the rank of Air Marshal at the young age of 45, was the first officer of the Indian Air Force to don the tapes of Air Chief Marshal, on January 15th 1966.

Post Retirement

By the time he was 50 he had completed his tenure and retired, after having held the exalted office of Chief of Air Staff for 5 l/2 years, the longest of any Chief of the three Services. The career graph of Arjan Singh is an inspiration, and he remains an icon for subsequent generations of the Indian Air Force.

Arjan Singh has flown no less than 65 different types of aircraft and continued his passion for flying till the last day of retirement. Arjan Singh’s zest for flying percolated right down the line, which enthused the flyers for combat flying training and who then gave ample proof of their readiness in the 1965 war. Arjan Singh’s leadership from the cockpit won him not onlv the confidence of the flyers, but earned him their complete reverence too.

In 1967, Arjan Singh had the unique honour of being invited to take the salute at the passing out parade of the Royal Air Force Flying College, Cranwell, where he had first learnt flying 28 years earlier, and presented the ‘Sword of Honour’ to the best Cadet.

Arjan Singh is an amiable, softspoken man of few words, and bv nature averse to confrontation. He does not believe in throwing his weight about, nor likes to tread on others. However, despite his discreetly maintained soft exterior, he is a man of firm action. He did not hesitate in discarding three senior officers (“directed to resign”), on account of their inept performance during the 1965 War.

Arjan Singh With Senior Army Commanders in Kashmir 1965
Arjan Singh With Senior Army Commanders in Kashmir 1965

During Arjan Singh’s tenure as Chief of Air Staff, the IAF was equipped With new generation supersonic fighters, strategic reconnaissance aircraft, tactical transport aircraft and assault helicopters, still in service today. The long overdue establishment of the Air Force Academy at Hyderabad was started. Work on modern radar and communication network also commenced.

Measured by any standard, Arjan Singh has had some fine innings. Even after retirement he continued to serve the country. In 1971, he was accredited as India’s Ambassador to Switzerland. From there, in 1974 he went to Kenya, as the Indian High Commissioner, and returned to India in 1976, after having had a Six year long ambassadorial stint, longer than any other officer from the Armed Forces. Some years on, he became the Lt. Governor ot Delhi.

Honored With National Award

For his meritorious services in the conduct of the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Arjan Singh was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.

During Republic Day Celebrations

An excerpt from the forthcoming biography of Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh, DFC

In May 1943, a detachment of the famous No. 1 Squadron (the Tlgers) went to Miranshah farr bombing trials and then moved to Kohat where command was assumed by Sqn. Ldr. Arjan Singh on 3 September 1943. During the next few months, No. 1 Squadron detachments carried out army co-operation exercises at Adampur, in the Punjab.

In early December 1943, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck visited the RAF Station at Kohat and inspected No. I Squadron. Sqn. Ldr. Arjan Singh advocated the intense desire of his Squadron to go back into battle. This was supported by the RAF Station Commander. Within a week of this request, No. 1 Squadron (now with Hurricane IIBs) was ordered to move immediately to Imphal on the Manipur front where massive buildups were taking place on both sides of the Assam-Burma border. The next year was to be breathless with action and epoch marking in the alreadv chequered history of the Tiger Squadron.

No. 1 Squadron reached Imphal (Main) on 3 February 1944 and were to remain in action thereafter for a record period of 14 months, taking vital part in the fateful seige of [mphal followed by the trans-Chindwin and translrrawaddy offenses Once again, No. 1 Squadron IAF shared the base with their old colleagues-in-arms No. 28 Squadron RAF, both being Tactical Reconnaissance Units (Tac R), cooperating closely with the Army.

The Tigers under Sqn. Ldr. Arjan Singh commenced operational flying immediately, with sector reconnaissances flown on 5 February, carrying out offensive, tactical and photographic reconnaissance to observe Japanese movements on the Chindwin, beyond Tiddim, and as far east as the Mytkyina-Mandalay railway, much valuable information being obtained by the Squadron.

The Japanese offensive against Imphal started on 8 March, attempting to cut off the 17th Indian Division as it retreated. No. 1 Squadron’s task was to locate the position of the retreating troops day to day and to keep the tracks leading from the Tiddim road under observation for Japanese movements. Fighting in the thick jungle-hills was confused. On 29 March, during – late evening reconnaissance by Arjan Singh, Japanese troops were seen clambering down the hills. Landing back at Imphal Main to refuel, the entire Squadron was led back into the area by him before sunset and the Hurricanes hammered the enemy with machine guns and bombs, decimating the Japanese advance battalion, with 14 officers and 217 men killed and wounded.

During March, the Squadron had flown 366 sorties but April 1944 was to be a crucial month when the seige of Imphal tightened and the Japanese came so close that the Imphal airfields were within range of enemy artillery fire. Maximum air effort was put in by No. 1 Squadron, flying 412 sorties in April, tactical reconnaissance mostly over the Tiddim road, Palel-Tamu-Sittaung road, Imphal Kohima road and Ukhrul road. The Tigers strafed bashas, mechanical transport, gun positions and troops. In turn, Japanese Kawasaki Ki-48 and Mitsubishi Ki-21 bombers raided Imphal on 15 April, damaging two of No. 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes.

During May 1944, the weather deteriorated with early monsoon rains which curtailed flying yet No. 1 Squadron flew 372 sorties, including 32 by night, that month, which also had the loss of a long range reconnaissance Hurricane to prowling Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 (Oskar) fighters. No. 1 Squadron’s aircraft ranged over almost the entire battlefield, carrying out continuous tactical reconnaissance as in the area north-east of Imphal the Japanese were being gradually pushed back.

June 1944 was an even more trying month, the runways waterlogged and rain storms which made flying hazardous. No. 28 Squadron RAF has been pulled out of Imphal, leaving No. 1 Squadron TAF solely responsible for tactical reconnaissance in the area, flying 327 sorties that month. The Tiger’s Hurricane IIBs (with machine guns) were replaced by Hurricane IICs (with cannon) for greater effect in ground attack missions. The seige of Imphal was broken by the month-end and the Squadron was tasked to keep harrassing the retreating Japanese, mainly in the Ukhrul area and south of Imphal. Reconnaissance was carried out over the roads and tracks from Palel to Sittaung on the Chindwin, from Tamu to Kamjong, from Htinzin to Yazagyo, the Chindwin river and so on, a total of 307 sorties being flown in July.

Arjan Singh receiving distinguished flying cross from Mountbatten
During the ensuing battle for Central Burma, the British Indian forces mounted relentless pressure on the retreating Japanese beyond the Chindwin and No. 1 Squadron, as part of the 221 Group, operated from forward bases covering a front of some 200 miles to the limits of their endurance and range. In August, No. 1 Squadron flew 354 sorties, with targets of opportunity being attacked, but deteriorating weather in September reduced sorties, to 292, but these were longer in duration, the Hurricanes fitted with extra fuel tanks. On 17 September, the Tigers attacked bunkers on a hill feature in the Yazagvo area and Taukkyan airfield south-west of Kalemyo. And so into October, with the Squadron flying a record 439 operational missions totalling 780 hours, the Tigers operating to as far as the Mandalav Myitkyina railway. The value of No. 1 Squadron’s tactical reconnaissance was gratefullv acknowledged by XXXIII Corps, the Squadron commended “for the skill and speed with which aerial photographs have been produced and dropped on forward troops”.

The Japanese continued to fall back and in November, No. 1 Squadron were discovering their lines of retreat. With an average strength of 17 pilots, the Tigers flew 524 operational sorties, totaling just over 1000 flying hours, a most fantastic effort !

On the night of 3 November, Sqn.Ldr.Arjan Singh had carried out a vital low level tac-recce of the bridge at Hpaungzeik, enabling the allies to move across and No.1 Squadron received a notable appreciation of its efforts from GOC 20th Indian Division who presented them with a Japanese sword of honour captured in the battle of Imphal in recognition of “assistance readily and courageouslv given by its pilots and crews”.

Source: Sikh History

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