Indra Lal Roy, WWI Fighting Ace

indra lal roy.jpgA bit of military history trivia for the history buffs…

This afternoon I got an email from someone doing research on a World War I fighter pilot named Indra Lal Roy.

Unsurprisingly, I knew nothing about the subject, but through a little digging I did come across a couple of pages in a book called Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History by Rozina Visram that has a couple of pages on Indra Lal Roy. It turns out the interesting thing isn’t that he fought in the war — in fact, there were thousands of Indians on the western front — but that he managed to get into the elite Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was one of only four, and (at least on the internet) he is the only thing about which anything is concretely known:

In early 1917, anxious to ‘do his bit’ in the war, he applied for a temporary commission to the RFC. How difficult it had been for Roy to obtain a commission is hard to judge. A letter addressed to General Sefton Brancker from a Charles Roberts suggests it had not been easy. The ‘best way’ as an Indian, apparently, was to enlist as an air mechanic and then, if he proved worthy, become a ‘flight mechanic’. However, as in the case of 2nd Lt. S.C. Welinkar from Jesus College Cambridge, it was likely that it was Brancker’s personal recommendation that eventually secured Roy the Commission. He joined the RFC in July 1917 and on 30th October was posted to 56 Squadron.

Indra Lal Roy had nine or ten confirmed kills, depending on which websites you consult. He was shot down by the Germans in July of 1918, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Here is what the researcher is looking for:

My book is actually aimed at children, ages 9-12. When I was a kid I read a lot of books about military heroes and I thought Indra Lal Roy’s story needs telling. Are there books about Indian military heroes there for children?

I have found his service record and some other things about his background. The contradicting tale I found is this, on a couple of Indian web sites I have read a story that says Roy was injured in a crash, believed dead, sent to the morgue only to revive before the astonished attendants. I cannot seem to find any official documentation to support this, and I wonder if its true or just a bit of fiction conjured up by an admirer.

The story he is referring to is up at Bharat Rakshak [editorializing comment removed]. It looks pretty fanciful to me.

But the other question stands — are there books about Indian military history (for children or otherwise) that readers would recommend to this (American) researcher? I get the feeling he is just starting out on his project.

26 thoughts on “Indra Lal Roy, WWI Fighting Ace

  1. Oh Amardeep,

    I have been researching on the contribution of Indians in WWs off and on. There is a book: Forgotton Armies: The Fall of British Asia by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper about Asians in WW II. I bought it from Amazon.

    There is a serious academic Australian website that deals with colonials through World Wars. I’ll let you know. Due to Gallipoli, Australians take their quest for recognition very seriously.

    Start with Field Marshall Sam Manekeshaw aka Sam Bahudur who nearly died on Burma front. For Indian military history, maybe, another book could be Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier Dalvi on 1962 debacle.

  2. jogged the memory.

    Kush “Call me Mr Brain” Tandon had posted an interesting link on biracial (“anglo-indian”) representation in the IAF. That might interest your colleague Amardeep.

    I have a feeling Kush might have some more pointers on this subject as well, if he’s not too busy shooting cows in india (taking pikchurs yaar) – Paging Dr K.

  3. Indra Lal Roy was also the uncle of Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee – independent India’s first Chief of Air Staff.


  4. if he’s not too busy shooting cows in india (taking pikchurs yaar) - hairy_d, i had guessed that it was you left the comment on one of the gya (cow) pictures I have on flickr.

    Amardeep, start here, it will lead to many places (books) from British Raj to present. David Saul wrote a recent book on Sepoy Mutiny.

  5. I don’t have any contribution to anyone’s research enterprise. But, when I read this post one thing struck me immediately. This is yet another example of individuals from ostracized communities stepping up and serving their “country.” Having grown up in the U.S., there are obvious analogies to be drawn between Indra Lal Roy and the African-American and Native American experience in the states.

  6. Bharat Rakshak is not known for its objectivity, well thats what you think it is the one stop place for factual information on the indian armed forces.

  7. Amardeep – What led you to the [biased] conclusion that Bharat Rakshak is not objective?

  8. The researcher should check out Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. The book is both fiction and nonfiction: it tells the tale of a pigeon named Gay Neck, who was raised in India and carried messages to and from the Bengal Regiment in France during World War I, but is also based on Mukerji’s observations of his own pet pigeon.

    As you may know, Mukerji is often considered the first successful Indian-American writer of childrenÂ’s literature in the United States. Gay Neck was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1928 and Mukerji is the only South Asian-American to have ever received the award. (The Newbery Medal is a given each year by the American Library Association to the author of the most outstanding American book for children and considered one of the most prestigious awards for children’s literature in the United States.)

  9. Guys, let’s not get into this. If you like Bharat-Rakshak, fine with me. Let’s stick to the point: Do you think the story about Indra Lal Roy they posted is accurate, or not? Let’s start there.

    Kush, thanks for all the suggestions. I’m relaying them to the researcher.

  10. The forum on Bharat Rakshak has its fair share of non-objective folks (but which forum doesnt) but the articles are excellent. Specially on Air Force related topics the work Jagan, Samir etc put into their articles is superlative.

  11. Start with Field Marshall Sam Manekeshaw aka Sam Bahudur who nearly died on Burma front.

    When I was in 4th grade/standard on a school trip to the South, Sam Manekshaw was courteous enough to entertain us kids for a quick tour of his awsome home in Ooty and a few stories. His German Shepherd dog was pretty neat, too. He told about his brush with death on the Burmese Front and being pinned with a Military Cross on the battlefield itself.

    Cool post Amardeep.

  12. Off the tangent, about Americans in CBI (China-Burma-India) theater in World War II.

    One can write 10-20 posts on a site like Sepia Mutiny (Americans of South Asian origin) from this link. Do read. They are some very personal stories of Americans on the CBI front.

    British Indian Army in 1940s was the largest volunteer army ever formed – 2.5 million strong.

  13. Amardeep,

    What part of the story on Indra Lal Roy (posted at BR) do you find non-factual or objective, and why? Just waving a hand at and calling it names won’t do. Theres a reason people “like” Bharat-Rakshak – because the history, especially on the IAF site, is impeccably researched. PAF pilots write to the webmasters praising them for their objectivity (especially with respect to India-Pakistan wars) and you have problems? What a laadsaab! Get off your damn high-horse.

  14. BTW, that story about the morgue is from a RFC source, researched by the author, who, if you really want to know, is an serving IAF officer, and one of the foremost authorities on IAF history around.

    Amardeep, learn something about the subject, before you dismiss hard research done by people, with an airy wave of your hand. You don’t know squat about military history, and so, calling out a website, which is internationally acknowledged as an authority on the subject, for a supposed lack of objectivity simply does one thing: it shows your lack of objectivity and most damagingly, your ignorance.

    Check out this review of the IAF webmaster’s books:

    On the page linked, Sajad Haider is the PAF pilot who carried out the Pathankot raid in the 1965 war

    Or this:

    Walter Boyne is one of the most respected aviation historians in the US.

  15. Axeman, this is the part I find implausible:

    However, on 06 Nov he crash landed whilst flying SE5 (Scout Experimental 5) B567. Lying unconscious, he was taken for dead and laid out with other dead in a morgue at Etaples, France. After coming to, he kept banging on the closed morgue door but the frightened attendant did not open the door until well after he had stopped shouting in his school boy French. After recuperating and a further stint of training in England he joined 40 sqn at Bryas in France under Major AW Keene MC.

    I don’t see any indication of a citation on the site. What RFC source? What is the name of the person who witnessed or corroborated this story? One could, I suppose, email Polly Singh to request a confirmation of where he (she?) got that anecdote.

    As a scholar, if I don’t see a footnote and I don’t find confirmation from any other source (in this post at least I cited a published book), my first inclination is to doubt. It it’s proved to be true I’ll happily acknowledge it.

    Remember, this is a post admiring Indra Lal Roy.

  16. Oooh. “As a scholar”? OK, then. As a scholar, send Polly an email to find out where he got that story from. I’m not doing your research for you. I’ve done mine. Now you do yours. Thats what scholars do. When they find something problematic, they track it down. You got a partial corroboration from me. Now go chase down the rest of the story. Let me know how it went.

  17. Answer from Polly: “its from an article published in 1973 in airforce magazine i think”

    That answer doesn’t do much to make the story seem more plausible. To me it just sounds like a little masala thrown in (perhaps in the original article in 1973) to make the guy sound more heroic. We don’t need it — he’s plenty heroic as it is.

  18. Amardeep, Axeman’s suggestion still holds. Elbow grease would help. BR has been around for nearly a decade now thanks entirely to committed volunteers. Now if you think BR is publishing that cannot be verified etc it would help BR if you brought it to the notice of its webmasters. The book on the history of the IAF operations in the 1965 Indo-Pak war written by PVS Jagan and Samir Chopra arguably the best on the subject, was dissed by ignoramuses in widely ‘reputed’ newspapers such as The Telegraph who arrogantly chose not to publish a rejoinder from the authors. India Today would not deign to review the book. Despite this deliberate and almost malicious dissing, the book has been something of a commercial success and has now become an authoritative source of information; all thanks to the web. In the case of Indra Lal Roy the most believable thing may well be his escape from the morgue. Medical services on the battlefield during WW1 on the Allied side were primitive.

  19. Oh, now I get it, Amardeep. You don’t want to believe the story. Thats different. Notice, if you cite a book, no matter how untrustworthy the author might be, it’ll be a “source”. When Polly, whose historical research is impeccable, cites a source it isn’t good enough. Tell you what, Amardeep, lets play a game. Cite a source, go ahead. Watch me pick holes in it. Its easy. Have you heard of something called “distinguishing between good and bad sources”? You’re a ‘scholar’, right? Do you know that source-finding ends somewhere? Do you have some exclusive tap into the fountain of truth that ensures the objective quality of your knowledge claims. No, like all of us, you rely on testimony, published sources, and the like. Go ahead, cite a source. Watch me take it apart.

    Tell you what we don’t need, Amardeep. We don’t need a silly version of the skeptical argument. “How do you know that?” “Well, I read it here” “well, how do you know thats true?”. “Well, so-and-so cited XYZ”. “Well, how do you know XYZ is true?” And so on. You think you sound objective? No, you sound silly.

    Incidentally, Shiva, the Indian Express carried a two-page spread on that book. It was written by Shiv Aroor, who is one of the better defense journalists in India.

  20. Axeman, you are really over-reacting, and you are throwing around all sorts of irrelevant statements and accusations.

    My dis on BR was pretty slight — just a throwaway comment, not a comprehensive critique. If you like, I can take out the offending clause (“not known for its objectivity on questions of Indian military valor”) — I really don’t care that much about this, and it doesn’t affect the point of my post.

  21. –just a throwaway comment, not a comprehensive critique.

    Amardeep the webmasters of BR would welcome a critique even if it is not comprehensive; just serious. Better still, why not join a BR meet the next time it happens in your area and share your comments?

  22. A few great books I’ve found to be both easy reads and enlightening:

    The Forgotten Army by Stephen Ward Fay – This book covers the events leading up to the formation of the Indian National Army. It’s actually written by an American, a professor at Cal Tech I think.

    The Gurkhas by Byron Farwell – more anecdotal than anything, this book tells some amazing first-hand accounts about the legendary Gurkhas. One of my favs: As the British are closing in on the Gurkhas, one of the Gurkhas comments ‘you guys are very nearly equal to us.’

    Let me know if you check out either of these books.


  23. Hello, My name is Alain Szabo, I live in France in Estevelles ( Pas-de-Calais) near Carvin where was fall Indra Lal Roy on July 22nd, 1918.

    He is buried in the municipal cemetery, every year the municipality pays him tribute by decorating with flowers its grave during the remembrance of the armistice of November 11th as well as to the other fighters buried in our village. It is our way of greeting the memory of everything those who died bravely to defend our freedom.

    Very cordially, Estevelles, on January 15th, 2010 Alain Szabo