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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 12:17 GMT
'I knew England was having a rough time'
Squadron Leader MS Pujji (Royal Airforce Museum, Hendon)
War veteran: Squadron Leader MS Pujji DFC BA LB
Mahindra Singh Pujji left his native India in 1940 to answer the RAF's desperate call for pilots. He ended the war a highly-decorated squadron leader, but with just one other comrade from his flight class left alive.

I loved to fly. I was already a qualified pilot working for Shell when I saw the RAF ad in the newspaper inviting applications from volunteers.

A German bomber over the UK
"I knew England was having a rough time."
I knew England was having a rough time. I am by nature an adventurous person and accepted the challenge.

Of course, my parents were very much against my joining. They said I already had a good flying job and no reason to risk my life. I told them the risking of life was part of the adventure.

I must confess I wasn't terribly interested in the politics at that stage. I knew Hitler was not a good man and that my volunteering to fight would be good for India.

Joining the few

I was among the first batch of 24 Indians to be accepted. We were commissioned on 1 August 1940 and sent straight to England. I was 24.

Our ship stopped in South Africa. I was shocked to see the treatment of Indians and Africans there. I and my colleagues were very angry.

British officers and wives near the North West Frontier
"The British sometimes did not treat Indian people very cordially."
While the British army sometimes did not treat Indian people very cordially, my father was a very senior official in the government and I was always treated very well.

We were told the situation in South Africa was the fault of Prime Minister Smuts and not something the English were in favour of. That made us feel better.

Docking in England we could hear the German bombers coming. It was the height of the Blitz and London was being hit every night.

Blitz spirit

I was not scared. I didn't go to the shelters. I walked around to see what the fire engines were doing. I went to the cinema and not a single person left to take shelter. That gave me the impression the British were very brave.

Damaged buildings during the Blitz
"I was not scared. I didn't go to the shelters."
That respect increased when I became one of only eight Indians lucky enough to be posted to a fighter station.

All the pilots were at breakfast and the commander asked for volunteers. I was shocked that everyone raised their hands, eager to go into battle. I was proud be working with such men.

Friendly fire

My first action was a sweep across occupied France escorting our bombers. I was flying through what looked like flowers. I couldn't hear anything over the engine, all I could see was these beautiful things bursting around me.

I was curious rather than scared. I didn't realise this was anti-aircraft fire directed at us. Very soon a bomber was shot and then I realised.

RAF pilots
"It never happened that we all returned from a mission."
The first of our pilots to be shot down was my roommate. Waking up at night and being alone gave me a sad feeling. I soon got over that because everyday someone went missing.

On my first day there were 30 pilots at breakfast and we were never 30 again. Men were always being shot down or bailing out. It never happened that we all returned from a mission.

Of the eight Indians who went to my first fighter squadron with me, six were killed.

Scramble

I was never scared. I was always looking forward to the next sweep or the scramble to meet attacking enemy planes. I enjoyed every bit.

We were supposed to be able to take off in one minute. In my first week I almost broke the record - running from the place where we waited listening to music to my cockpit and the air in 20 seconds.

RAF pilots scramble
"I was in the air in 20 seconds."
The RAF officers appreciated that and I was very much respected. They treated me better than anyone else, but that's perhaps because I wore a turban and was a bit of a novelty.

I got VIP treatment. I never liked English food and hardly took any lunch or dinner. The authorities asked what I wanted, and the only thing I could think of was chocolate. It was rationed, but I was supplied with extra and was given two eggs for breakfast.

When I had done my quota of sorties I was due for a three-month rest, but I wanted to fly. They offered to send me to Russia, which Hitler had just invaded. I said: 'Yes, anywhere, but I must fly.'

Out maneovered

I ended up in North Africa where we were experiencing some setbacks. Rommel was advancing and things were very uncomfortable, but I was flying so didn't mind.

Field Marshal Rommel
"Rommel was advancing, but I was flying so didn't mind."
With the war in Burma hotting up I was sent back to Asia. That was a very busy time. I took over a squadron going up against Japanese Zero fighters.

Our Hurricanes had the machine guns, but they had the speed. We lost 35 pilots and I don't remember shooting down a single Zero.

I remember my dead friends all the time. I have the photographs with me where I marked crosses over the pilots we lost. It's something I can't forget.

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