Indra Lal Roy: Dueller in the Sky

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    They were the superstars of the sky, daredevils who courted death as they shot down enemy aircraft during World War I. Fighter pilots who wanted more vied with each other for the tag of ‘flying ace’, the Holy Grail for these flamboyant mavericks. This meant notching up five or more ‘kills’, or shooting down a minimum of five enemy aircraft.

    And India had one of them. Indra Lal Roy was India’s first flying ace and the only Indian to achieve this distinction during World War I. He earned this coveted tag while he was part of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the air arm of the British Army, before it became the Royal Air Force. His achievement: an astounding nine aerial victories in 170 hours of flying time, in just 13 days.

    The ‘flying ace’ was a concept that emerged during the Great War. It was a propaganda term meant to build a ‘cult of the hero’ during a war that was wearing everyone down.

    The people needed larger-than-life heroes to shore up their morale, and who better to do this than a rock star who rained victory from the skies?

    Who Was ‘Laddie’?

    Indra Lal Roy, or ‘Laddie’, was born in Calcutta on 2nd December 1898 and raised in London. He came from privilege, which helped him get where he wanted at a time when racial bias in colonial times was holding Indians back.

    Roy was not only born into an influential family of zamindars but a family of trail-blazers. Based in Barisal district in East Bengal, present-day Bangladesh, Roy’s father was a barrister and Director of Public Prosecutions.

    Roy’s older brother, Paresh Lal Roy, also served in the British military and later returned to India as a boxer who worked hard to popularise the sport. Roy’s grandfather, Dr Soorjo Coomar Chuckerbutty, was one of the first Indian doctors to be trained in Western medicine, and Roy’s nephew, Subroto Mukerjee, was a fighter pilot in World War II and, later, the first Indian Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force (1954-60). Roy is also the grand-uncle of two noted Indian personalities - Booker Prize-Winning author Arundhati Roy and veteran broadcast news journalist and founder of NDTV, a pioneer of independent news broadcasting in India, Prannoy Roy.

    Acing It As A Pilot

    Laddie was just 15 when World War I broke out in 1914 and he nursed a burning desire to become a fighter pilot. The teenager was so determined to live the dream that when he was rejected by the RFC on grounds of poor eyesight, he is said to have paid for a second opinion from a prominent eye specialist and was accepted by the RFC! In April 1917, at the age of 18, Roy became ‘Second Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy’.

    In June, Roy was assigned to the elite 56 Squadron but did not have a successful run. In December, he crash-landed his plane in France. Taken for dead, the unconscious young fighter pilot was placed in the morgue, and when he came to, he had to yell his way out! After several months of recuperation and further training in England, he resumed flight duties, once again in France, in June 1918.

    The next month, Roy blazed a trail in the sky, shooting down nine enemy aircraft in just 13 days. He made three of these ‘kills’ in a single day, in a span of just four hours.

    But Roy’s spectacular run with the RFC was all too brief. On 22nd July 1918, three days after his ninth kill, India’s only flying ace went down in flames after being shot down in a dog fight – aerial combat at close quarters, where pilots ‘duelled with each other’ with pistols and rifles in the sky – with a German Fokker D.VII aircraft. He was only 19.

    Roy was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, England’s third-highest military honour. His gravestone, at the Estevelles Communal Cemetery in Pas-de-Calais, France, reads, ‘He died for the ideals he loved’.

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