Laurence Rees: Mahinder Singh Pujji was born in 1918, the son of a high Indian official in the British government of India. He learnt to fly in his teens – the lessons paid for by his father – before getting a job working with Shell Oil in India.
Words of Mahinder Singh Pujji: So when at the end of '39 war broke out I saw an ad in the newspapers – ‘RAF needs pilots’. That was something wonderful. So then I approached my employer, Shell Oil Company, I said, 'Would you be willing to release me if I joined the Royal Air Force?' They said they’ll be delighted - for the war effort, you see - and they said, 'Not only that, if you come back alive we’ll give you the job back.' So that was wonderful news for me. And I applied for the job and I was selected. Now, along with me, 23 other pilots from all over parts of India were also selected for the Royal Air Force, so we were in total 24 pilots absolutely ready.
Laurence Rees: A few months later, Mahinder Singh Pujji arrived in England and was posted to an operational RAF squadron. He experienced his first major problem just a few months later, when on a night flight he lost contact with base.
Words of Mahinder Singh Pujji: Once during night operation my radio didn’t work, and I didn’t hear any acknowledgement from the control. I told the control, 'I’ve finished with my operation, the Germans have gone and I’m coming back,' but there was no acknowledgement. I said, 'Please tell me the bearing,' because I didn’t know where I was, we were all guided by the control. So again there was no answer. Then I knew that I was lost and probably very far away from the control, they couldn’t hear. So my immediate thought was to climb up high and jump out, because if I hit the ground I’ll be killed straight away, there was no question about it. So I climbed up to about 20, 25,000 feet high and decided to jump out. I got ready to get out, I threw my canopy out. So then I got up, put one foot on the seat, and when I was able to put my second foot, the radio wire came in my feet, so I said, 'Oh, I forgot to disconnect it.’ So I had to sit back again while flying, imagine that, I had to sit back again and then as I tried to do this I said I might as well tell the control. I can’t hear them but they may be able to hear me, let me tell them where I am. So I gave a running commentary, not knowing if anybody is hearing. I said, ‘I’m now 25,000 feet high and about to jump out, and I thought I’d call you again for you to know whereabouts I am.’ I said, 'When my body’s found it need not be sent back to India,' because I wanted to be cremated here in this country. 'My parents may be told that I was a very happy person here and I enjoyed my stay, I’ve no regrets.' And I said, 'Now I’m disconnecting my air and jumping out.'
Then the voice came back, 'Don’t jump, don’t jump, don’t jump, you’re not very far from where we are.' It was something wonderful, you know, a voice from God. So I said, 'What do you propose?' He said, 'What we’re going to do is guide you to the nearest airport.' I said, 'But what is the point?' I looked at my petrol gauge and found that it was zero. I said, 'I’ve finished my fuel, I just can’t go anywhere now, there’s no question, I have to jump out.' Then they said, 'You’re 20,000 feet high now, you glide into a zone of lights which we are going to put on.' They said, 'We are going to put about 15, 20 searchlights into a zone together. You head for that, glide into it and you will be near our airport.' So after a second I saw. In a blackout - imagine - which was so dangerous because of the Germans. So many lights came up. So I glided into that zone. Once I reached there the lights switched off and there was an airport below me.
I’m not afraid of anything, it’s my nature. I’m not afraid of anything, doesn’t matter what it is. If the mob comes to kill me I’m not afraid. If there’s a lion or a tiger coming I’m not scared. When I was in danger of losing my life I was not scared.
Laurence Rees: Later in the war Mahinder Singh Pujji found himself commanding a reconnaissance squadron in Burma.
Words of Mahinder Singh Pujji: I have fought the war in the UK, London and during the Battle of Britain, I’ve fought the war in Europe, I’ve fought the war in the Middle East, I’ve fought the war in Afghanistan and also I’ve fought the war in Burma. I can authoritatively say that the war in Burma was the most dangerous.
I had a squadron under me and the important thing which I want you to know is that while we were doing this, the Japanese airforce would come and would try to kill us, because they could see where we were. They had superior aircraft than ours - ours were old aircraft in Burma. So they would come and they would definitely shoot one or two Indian pilots every time. So it reached a stage when I lost 35 pilots during that one year. And my instructions to my boys were if you see a zero fighter run home, don’t engage that fighter. I used to go twice or thrice a day, look round and if I saw any Japanese about I would shoot them. I killed many, many Japanese… I killed many. There was one column, so as soon as they saw me they took shelter, but I knew their shelter would be somewhere near. So I went up high and waited and with my 12 machine guns I sprayed the whole lot, everyone was killed.
At that time, at that time it’s a question of winning a war. Killing is a part of it. But I do regret now that I killed so many people. Not regret - remorse. I mean, well, I killed many people, it’s a bad thing anyway. But, see, in Europe you shoot an aircraft down, you don’t even see the pilot, you don’t know who it is. Whereas in Burma it was people walking around and then I’ll shoot them. That is very different.
Laurence Rees: Mahinder Singh Pujji was just one of more than two million Indians who served on the British side during the Second World War. So why does he think so many of his fellow countrymen agreed to fight for the British?
Words of Mahinder Singh Pujji: They joined the army for economic reasons and when the war broke out hundreds of them were sent to the Middle East - they happily went. They happily went in hundreds and thousands, they fought very well, very bravely because that was in their nature. They are brave people, Indians, but they lost many people. And that is what I, along with others, regret - that it was not recognised that we were brave people and we sacrificed our life in a war. I mean, we sacrificed for Britain - in the sense that we were under the British and that was the only country we knew. We didn’t know anything about Germany or Japan.
After the independence the attitude of the Indian government was very nasty. I mean, they were very unhelpful. They did not give us any benefit… For many years it remained like that, for as long as 15 to 20 years. I feel that they’re very stupid. I mean, we were under the British but we were in India. We fought for India. I mean, if India had been conquered we would be in trouble. So it was not a British war only, it was a war of the whole democracy. I think it was bloody-minded thinking of the Indian government… A few years ago, the Indian airforce honoured me and gave me a trophy. So their mind is changing now.