New Delhi : India’s oldest serving soldier Marshal Arjan Singh, who died in hospital after a massive heart attack on Saturday, was hardly 44 when he took over as the chief of a young Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1964, a year before leading the fledgling Indian air power in the 1965 war with Pakistan.
That was the pinnacle of the career of a pilot, who grew up in the annals of the Air Force as the first Indian chief to lead the force into a war.
In recognition of his services, he was conferred the rank of the Marshal of the Air Force in January 2002, thus becoming the first and the only “Five Star” rank officer with the Indian Air Force.
In his many firsts, one was leading the fly-past over the Red Fort on August 15, 1947 – on the morning of the day India got independence.
Interestingly, the man, who rose to be the first Marshal of the air force, almost got himself court-martialled in 1945 during World War II, reports IANS.
According to an account by a retired IAF officer, Arjan Singh flew very low over the houses that were said to be that of the corporal and his relatives. The low sortie brought almost the entire village out of their homes. While the British administration took serious note of it, he escaped as there was a shortage of trained pilots at a time when the war was going on.
Born in Lyallpur (now Pakistan’s Faislabad) on April 15, 1919, Arjan Singh hailed from a family where three generations before him had served the Army.
He was selected to the Empire Pilot training course at RAF Cranwell when he was 19. His first assignment on being commissioned was to fly Westland Wapiti biplanes in the North-Western Frontier Province as a member of the No.1 Royal Indian Air Force Squadron.
He was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1944 and led the squadron against the Japanese during the Arakan Campaign – flying close air support missions during the crucial Imphal Campaign and later assisting the advance of the Allied Forces to Rangoon.
For his role in successfully leading the squadron in combat, Arjan Singh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1944.
After his promotion to the rank of a Wing Commander, he attended the Royal Staff College in Britain.
Immediately after Independence, he commanded Ambala Air Force Station in the rank of Group Captain.
In 1949, he was promoted to Air Commodore and took over as Air Officer Commanding of an operational command that later came to be known as Western Air Command.
Arjan Singh had the distinction of having the longest tenure as the AOC of an Operational base, initially from 1949-1952 and then again from 1957-1961.
After his promotion to Air Vice Marshal, he was appointed as the AOC-in-C of an Operational Command. Towards the end of the 1962 war, he was appointed as the Deputy Chief of Air Staff and became the Vice Chief in 1963.
On August 1, 1964, in the rank of Air Marshal, he took the reins of the IAF at a time when the force was still rebuilding itself and was gearing up to meet new challenges.
Arjan Singh was the first Air Chief to keep his flying currency till his Chief of the Air Staff rank.
Having flown over 60 different types of aircraft from pre-WW-II era biplanes to the more contemporary Gnats and Vampires, he also flew in transport aircraft like the Super Constellation.
In 1965, when Pakistan launched Operation Grand Slam with an armoured thrust targeted at the vital town of Akhnoor in Jammu and Kashmir, he led the Indian Air Force through the war, despite the constraints imposed on the full-scale use of the air combat power.
He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan for his astute leadership of the Air Force during the war.
Subsequently in recognition of the Air Force’s contribution during the war, the rank of the CAS was upgraded and Arjan Singh became the first Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force.
He remained a flyer to the end of his tenure in the IAF, visiting forward bases and units and flying with the squadrons.
He retired in August 1969, thereupon accepting ambassadorship to Switzerland. He was Lt Governor of New Delhi from December 1989 to December 1990.
Having been a source of inspiration to all personnel of the Armed Forces through the years, the government conferred the rank of the Marshal of the Air Force upon him. With his growing age, the Marshal made fewer public appearances but still remained active and continued to meet a number of people, including young and old Air Force officers.
In 2015, at the age of 96, the nation watched as the Marshal of the IAF reached the Palam Airport on July 28 where the body of former President and India’s missile man A.P.J.Abdul Kalam was brought. The wheelchair-bound Arjan Singh, to everyone’s awe, stood up to salute the man who gave Indian defence a defined edge.