The first Indian officer of the Indian Air Force to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and the only one to be awarded a Bar to the DFC, Jumbo Majumdar proved that bravery does not depend on the country of one’s origin.In pre-Independence days, it was often taken for granted that courage and daring were quintessentially British qualities. However, Karun Krishna Majumdar begged to differ. The first Indian officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and the only one to be awarded a Bar to the DFC, he proved that bravery does not depend on the country of one’s origin.
Born on September 6, 1913, “Jumbo” Majumdar, as he was fondly known, belonged to the third batch of Indian pilots to be trained at RAF Cranwell—the course that commenced on February 1, 1932. The IAF was established on October 8, the same year. Jumbo was commissioned on January 9, 1934, and joined No 1 Squadron, then the lone IAF Squadron, as a Flying Officer. He flew a variety of aircraft like the Westland Wapiti and the Hawker Hart. His leadership potential was soon evident and he was made a Flight Commander rather early. And so it came to pass that No 1 Squadron with its three flights came together at Ambala in July 1938, the young Flight Commanders being Subroto Mukherjee, Aspy Engineer and Jumbo Majumdar. Mukherjee and Engineer went on to become the first two Chiefs of the IAF in independent India, and there’s good reason to believe that Majumdar would have followed suit had fate not intervened.
World War II was in full swing when Majumdar was promoted to Squadron Leader and took over command of No. 1 Squadron in June 1941. In response to the Japanese pre-emptive strikes on Pearl Harbour and Malaya, the squadron with 12 Westland Lysander aircraft was moved to Burma, reaching Toungoo airfield on February 1, 1942. The very next day, Majumdar had his baptism by fire because the Japanese Air Force attacked Toungoo, striking the airfield facilities and destroying several allied aircraft. No 1 Squadron’s aircraft survived, thanks mainly to their effective dispersal. The Lysander had been designed for close air support (CAS) missions in cooperation with the ground forces and that’s what the pilots were trained for. The plane did not even have a bombsight; hence retaliation seemed out of question. Besides, how could the lumbering Lysanders survive against the swift and deadly Japanese Zeros and Oscars? But Majumdar had other ideas. He immediately planned a reprisal raid against the Japanese airfield at Mae-Haungsan, from where the attacking aircraft were launched. He took off in a modified Lysander armed with just two 250 lb bombs, and escorted by two Buffalo fighters. The formation made their stealthy ingress at tree-top level and caught the Japanese napping. Jumbo dropped his bombs on a hangar, destroying the aircraft inside, and proving a point. But this was just the start.
The next day, he led the whole squadron on a bombing mission to the same airfield, destroying several buildings, wireless installations and aircraft on the ground. Under his tutelage, his pilots perfected the technique of dive bombing and were able to attack with pinpoint accuracy. Within days, the squadron was moved to Mingaladon airfield near Rangoon. More retaliatory raids were launched against the principal Japanese airbases at Mae-Haungsuan, Cheingmai and Chiangrai in Thailand. Most missions were flown unescorted—they evaded detection by flying at low level. The Japanese Air Force soon lost much of its sting; as a result, No 1 Squadron was also able to provide CAS missions to the Allied Army. Thereafter, for the next two months, they plagued the Japanese. Majumdar even organised and led one large scale raid by No 1 IAF Squadron and No 28 RAF Squadron. Later, General Wavell, the Commander In-Chief, personally congratulated him. However, the advance of the Japanese Army proved unstoppable and when Rangoon fell to the enemy in April, the allied evacuation of Burma was ordered.
Jumbo was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his leadership of the squadron during the Burma Campaign. Thus becoming the first Indian Officer to be so decorated during World War 2. After spending two years in India in various staff and flying assignments, Majumdar returned to the front. Now a Wing Commander, he volunteered for a posting to No.268 RAF Squadron flying Spitfires during the allied invasion of Europe. His role in reconnoitering the Falise-Gap sector and other areas earned him further laurels.
On his return from Europe, Majumdar was awarded a Bar to his DFC in January 1945, again the first and the only Indian to be so decorated. He then participated in the Indian Air Force Display Flight, and toured the country conducting aerobatic shows and displays to attract and bring to the public notice, the Indian Air Force’s exploits. The aerobatic sessions were much demanding on the pilots, which required plenty of practice flying and rehearsal sessions.
It was on 17 February 1945, Majumdar decided to do an aerobatic practice sortie in a Hawker Hurricane. The aircraft he chose had a previous history of snags and problems, and disregarding the advice of his friend and compatriot, Fg. Off. Harjinder Singh, (later AVM), Majumdar took to the skies in the Hurricane. In the midst of the aerobatic routines which involved a dive, one of the undercarriage legs, unlocked itself from the wheel well and deployed down, upsetting the aircraft’s stability. The Hurricane stalled and crashed headlong into the ground, killing Majumdar instantaneously. Majumdar died as he wanted to live, carefree, daring and at the controls doing what he wanted to, fly to his heart’s content.
By Group Captain (Retd) Joseph Noronha, Goa