Sundeep Bhutoria

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Monday, September 27, 2010

24 Indian pilots and the Summer of 1940

From St James Hotel, London: It is 2 AM in London 6:30 am in India. I went to Kent, a small town on the outskirts of London. The last time I visited Kent was in 1994 . Kent county is one of the greenest in whole of England.
I met Alan Marsh who is a Cabinet member for Public Health and Innovation. While talking over dinner about India-Britain relations, he shared with me a very interesting piece of history linking Kent and India.
Kent's India link goes back to the summer of 1940 when Britain was in the thick of WWII and the skies above Kent reverberated with the deathly rumblings of German bombers. That was a time when most of the European states had fallen and only Britain stood alone against Germany in war.
In the summer and autumn of 1940, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) had launched an aerial campaign against Britain and the Royal Air Force(RAF) to gain air superiority. In 1940, 24 Indian pilots came to England as part of the Commonwealth team to assist Britain in the war. Within a year, twelve of these young Indian men who took to the skies were killed in the decisive battle that was fought in the skies above Kent.
The Battle of Britain carries a very special significance for the people of Kent who have been observing the Battle of Britain each year in September. Last week Kent observed the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. A lone Spitfire MK9 aircraft, called theSpirit of Kent that was in action in WWII, flew over all the old Battle of Britainairfield watched by the families of the new generations and others.
In the same week when Kent was preparing for the 70th Anniversary, Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Puji, DFC, died at the age of 92 in Kent. He was the last of the 24 Indian pilots who came to fight 70 years ago. Very few pilots who took part in the action in 1940 are alive today.
Mahinder flew sorties throughout the war not only in Europe but also in all the other war zones, including Burma. He was awarded the DFC for saving the lives of many West African troops under the command of the US against the Japanese attack. Earlier this year he had published his story called For King and Another Country. After the war, Mahinder went back to India and once even took Prime Minister Nehru for a flight on a glider.
Till today, the people of Kent are grateful and proud of the pilots, including the 24 Indian pilots, and especially Mahinder who survived the war and came back to settle in Kent in 1974. Mahinder had a special permission to wear his RAF wings on his turban. Many tributes have been paid to Mahinder. His contribution is recognized in the RAF Museum at Cosford.
While driving back to my Hotel from the historical war town of Kent amid heavy showers, I kept thinking about the 24 Indian pilots whose sacrifice the people of Kent have kept alive in their memories. They are all a part of a history that some experts consider to be the turning point of the War.
ess bee

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