Heroic Sikh Aviator who flew for Britain in Second World War –II.
The life story of Mahinder Singh Punji is that of a man who consciously courted death in war and lived to tell his tale of heroism that galvanised British Army in decisive Battle of Britain. Punji was born in Shimla in 1918 and was selected by British in 1939 to fly for RAF.RAF regulations forbid religious symbols like turban but Punji stood his ground saying either he keeps the turban or doesn’t fly at all, forcing British to change guidelines and the same turban saved his life in battlefield. In an aerial combat over France his plane was seriously damaged after he drowned two deadly Messerschmits, deadly dive bombers that were pride of Goering’s Luftwaffe, and near English Channel it caught fire at about 7000 feets. His plane saw him over Channel in sight of Dover. The moment he opened his landing gear –the plane burst into flames. Punji was dragged out of burning wreckage of plane after he managed to forceland. He survived because his turban cushioned his head, as a helmet would have been fatal. However the serious head injury eventually forced him to abandon his beloved turban.
Punji next fought Japanese and Axis armies in Burma, where metallic sheets were used as runways. He also earned glory for flying a record number of low-level dangerous sorties in Burma to locate and evacuate hundreds of British troops trapped in enemy territory. This resulted in his squadron, nicknamed Suicide Squadron, getting the sobriquet-The Army’s eyes. Impressed authorities posted him to RAF Kenely, Surrey and as part of 258 Squadron he fought in North Africa, Afghanistan and Europe, emerged victorious after fighting Germans during Blitzkrieg – heavy aerial bombardment by Hitler’s forces, flew 25 types of aircrafts including Hurricanes and Spitfires, provided air cover to convoys and went on sorties over France to detect enemy movement.
There was a romantic side to the young daredevil. He had his Finance’s –Amrit - name painted on the side of his favorite plane -Hurricane, which acquired a name for itself in Battle of Britain. Greatful British Empire promoted Punji to squadron leader in 1944 and awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), the highest bravery award for British pilots.
After India’s independence he came back to motherland and worked for Air-India as a commercial pilot and when his health disallowed him from flying, he took to gliding. Punji holds the world record for longest glide across mountains –a 300-mile flight over Himalayas. Toady at 87, and living in Kent in England, he represents a bygone era when heroes were not made they were born.