Seventy years after the Second World War began there are hundreds of books, films and plays documenting the experiences of British soldiers but the sacrifices made by millions of Black Commonwealth soldiers has been ignored, say veterans.
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji is one of the two-and-a-half million servicemen who came from the Indian subcontinent, the largest volunteer army in history. At 91 years of age, Pujji is the last remaining Indian fighter pilot from World War Two. He, like many veterans, believes the contribution of Indian soldiers has been largely ignored. There were no invitations for him to the dozens of events that have taken place across Britain to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two this year, or any other year, he says. ‘As far as I think, no one in authority remembers that we are here and we were a part of World War Two.’
Pujji remembers the start of the war vividly. Just a year after it had begun, at the height of the Battle of Britain, he decided to join the RAF. He was 22 years old and in search of adventure. ‘I saw London being bombed, I saw what people were suffering and I knew what they were going through and how cruel the enemy was because they were throwing bombs on civilians. They were not fighting soldier to soldier and hundreds of people were being made homeless so that changed my perspective, then I was very keen to fight for the country, for this country where I had come to seek adventure really.’
Two or three pilots would be lost everyday and Pujji almost became a casualty himself several times. ‘From day one in every letter to my parents I said don’t expect me back.’ On one occasion Pujji’s plane nearly crashed into the English Channel after coming under enemy fire. He managed to land but was badly injured. ‘I saw the white cliffs of Dover and thought, the first strip I see I’ll go and land there. I crashed and the next thing I could hear was “He’s still alive”, “He’s still alive” and they pulled me out. I could hear but I had my eyes closed because of the fire and when they pulled me out I put my hands on my turban, because the turban was always there with me, and my hands were full of blood.’ Remarkably, seven days later he was back in the air.
‘During the first year of my operations we lost twelve pilots and I’m the only fighter pilot who’s still alive today to give you an idea of the sort of life we had to go through.’ Pujji was then posted to the Middle East where he flew B51s and Hurricanes. ‘It was there they realised I wasn’t eating anything. You see, in the desert all we had to eat was bully beef. Now bully beef was something I could not eat as a Sikh so I was left with biscuits. When the British officers realised I wasn’t eating anything they were alarmed and told me if I wouldn’t eat I would be sent back to India.’
Pujji did return to India but was then posted to Afghanistan where he was made flight commander. Then it was on to Burma where he undertook his most ‘difficult and dangerous’ missions, which led to him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. As one of a handful of Indian pilots during the Second World War Pujji was treated with respect. As a Sikh he refused to remove his turban in order to wear his flight headgear. ‘I made a request to the commanding officer. They were so nice and everybody wanted to help us in one way or another and it was arranged for me to wear earphones over my turban. I was probably the only person in the world who flew throughout the war with a turban. Of course I did that because I thought it was part of my religion. I’ve changed my mind now.’
After the war he continued to fly, this time for an airline company. When he retired, he moved to Gravesend in Kent. Despite now being in his nineties he remains busy and gets up at 6am every day. He continues to raise awareness of the role Commonwealth soldiers played in the war and is chairman of the Indian ex-Services Association.
‘It’s evident millions of people volunteered. They fought like anything, I mean they fought with their hearts. It’s not just because they were employed, so many were killed and their bravery was accepted, soldiers got Victoria crosses, the highest honour in the world. But it was not mentioned after the war, I mean after the war people seemed to have completely ignored India. The war in Burma could not have been won without Indians.’
It is a view echoed by the majority of historians. Christopher Somerville, author of Our War, says, ‘The war could not have been won without them. Five million of them volunteered as against six million Brits so that was 11 million people coming together under the same flag to fight this desperate evil of Nazism and fascism which had stained the world and if they hadn’t volunteered and come, the war would have been lost.’
The lack of public recognition for this contribution means Pujji is part of a forgotten generation of servicemen who came from across India, Africa and the West Indies to fight for a country many of them had never even set foot in. His voice is now often a lone one but without it the wider sacrifice of the thousands who died and the millions who served might be lost forever.