Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Newham, Sqn Ldr Pujji was an Indian pilot who flew Hawker Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain, he also flew combat missions in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East during the war. He survived several crashes and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for services in Burma.
Mahindra Singh Pujji was born in Simla, in 1918. His father was an officer in the Department of Health and Education - a very senior and respectable "establishment" position for an Indian in those years. He received a law degree from Bombay University, and went to work for Shell. In 1937 he qualified as a pilot. In 1940, aged 22, he volunteered to serve with the Royal Air Force in Britain. Of the first 24 Indians who volunteered for the RAF - only seven were selected as fighter pilots. He insisted on wearing his turban at all times and is probably the only Sikh fighter pilot to have done so.
He was sent to England for training was posted to No. 253 Squadron RAF, flying Hurricane fighters from RAF Kenley, near Croydon with pilots also from Poland, America, Canada and Australia. The Hurricanes equipped with twelve machine guns, were flown day and night, to intercept German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. His first action was over France. He was later attached to No.43 Squadron, flying Hurricanes and then Spitfires from RAF Martlesham and was promoted to Flight Commander. His duties included: fighter sweeps over occupied Europe; low-level attacks on enemy targets; fighter escort to RAF bombers.
In 1941 during the air war over the Western Desert in North Africa he flew Tomahawks. In Burma serving as a Flight Commander of No 6 Squadron, and then No 4 Squadron he flew Hurricanes very low over the jungle to locate army positions - his unit soon became known as "the eyes of the 14th army". Whilst there, he helped to locate 300 West African troops who were lost in the jungle. For his services in Burma, Mahindra Singh Pujji was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The citation from the London Gazette 37036 dated 17 April 1945 reads:
Distinguished Flying Cross Flt Lt Mahindra Singh Pujji Unit : 4 Squadron
Details : This officer has flown on many reconnaissance sorties over Japanese occupied territory, often in adverse monsoon weather. he has obtained much valuable information of enemy troop movements and dispositions, which enabled an air offensive to be maintained against the Japanese troops throughout the monsoon. Flight Lieutenant Pujji has shown himself to be a skilful and determined pilot who has always displayed outstanding leadership and courage
Squadron Leader Pujji returned to India after the war to work in civil aviation, flying Boeing 707s for Air India. He moved to England in 1974 where he became an Air Traffic Controller. He moved to East Ham after his retirement and became an active member of many voluntary groups in Newham. In 2000, he was made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Newham. Pujji spent the last years of his life in Gravesend where he lived with his son. In 2010 he published a book about his wartimes experiences entitled, For King and Another Country. The 92 year old Battle of Britain hero died on 18 September, 2010.
"Pilots always knew when they took off there was a chance they would not return," said Pujji. "At dinner time there would always be one or two of the squad missing, but I was not afraid."