‘JUMBO’ MAJUMDAR CENTRE
In September 2013, Sailen Majumdar, a well to do Indian Chartered Accountant settled in the UK, was approached by an unknown Punjabi-speaking gentleman, who apparently had Sailen’s father’s World War II medals and wanted to sell them. Sailen acquired them next year in a surreptitious deal made without meeting or speaking with the Punjabi gentleman. Sailen had a sister, Anjali Noel Lobo, in Pune, India. He rang her up mid 2014 to tell her how he had acquired their father’s medals. She felt very happy that the medals had been found as they would enhance the already strong undercurrent of recognition of her late father’s exploits. She asked him why he didn’t meet or speak with the Punjabi gentleman, to get an odd reply that he didn't understand Punjabi, but the medals were safe and with him.
He called her up again in October 2014 to tell her that he didn’t want their children and grandchildren to squabble over this issue, so he had decided to sell the medals. In fact, he had already put them up for auction through a Central London Auction House specialising in the sale of collectors' coins of all periods and historical medals. He had set a reserve price of £20,000. He went on to say that he believed that their father would have been very happy and proud that he was doing so. Anjali was furious and heatedly replied, 'I am sorry, I don’t think our father would have been happy or proud that you are selling his medals. He died for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and for the country.” That was the last conversation she had with her brother.
When contacted telephonically by the media, Sailen had his own side of the story. He insisted that he had been completely honest with his sister and when told about the medals, she didn’t express any particular interest in them. She had nonchalantly quipped that were she in his place, she wouldn’t bother. Everybody knew their father had a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC, UK) and Bar. She was now conveniently saying that she didn't remember any of their conversations.
Her riposte to the media was on expected lines. "I feel really sad about it. What else can I say? My father died for the IAF. He would be very sad at this impasse. These are my father's medals and it is shocking that they have become an object of commerce. The auction was called off because bidding did not reach the cutoff price of £20,000. After media pressure, the IAF bought the medals for £30,000. I am glad that they have reached the IAF. It is what my father would have wanted but I don’t think it was very nice that the Air Force had to pay to acquire them.”
So what was the bond that connected Anjali Lobo, Sailen Majumdar and WW II gallantry medals? The two were siblings, both the offspring of Wing Commander Karun Krishna Majumdar DFC & Bar, the first Indian Officer to reach the rank of Wing Commander and also to be twice decorated for valour. In fact, he was awarded the first DFC on the Burma front in 1942 and next, deep in Europe in 1945. He also baled out once on each front, escaping through raw guts and derring do and setting an example in Leadership.
Wing Commander Karun Krishna Majumdar DFC & Bar, a six foot two inch tall lad, with equally commanding personality, courage and forthrightness, had been given the nickname ‘Jumbo’ by his friends in the Indian Air Force (IAF). He was born on September 6, 1913 at Calcutta to an illustrious family of ardent nationalists. His cousins Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri and Hem Chaudhuri also joined the Forces; the former joined the Army and ultimately became the Chief of Army Staff, while the latter followed Majumdar into the Air Force and rose to a high rank. A bright child, he was honest, fiercely independent and not afraid of going his own way, even in the face of criticism.These traits were abundantly manifest in his role as one of the prominent pioneers of the Indian Air Force.
From early childhood, he had only one passion, one purpose for living – to ‘Fly’. He took the entrance exam to join The Royal Flying College, Cranwell, UK and stood second in the order of merit. On commissioning, he joined the newly raised and prestigious first Squadron of the IAF, No. 1 Squadron, as a Flying Officer in the mid 1930s. Flying the Wapiti and later, the Hawker Hart aircraft, he was soon identified as an outstanding flier with tremendous potential for leadership. On June 27, 1941, Jumbo was promoted to Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) and took over command of No. 1 Squadron in anticipation of action during the ongoing WW II. The IAF in those days was a minuscule force and clearly under the influence of long-standing British tradition. Majumdar, however, was all for ‘Indianising’ the Air Force environment, famously stating, “The IAF must be an Indian Banyan tree and not an English Oak”.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Plans were hurriedly made to contain the Japanese and Jumbo’s No. 1 Squadron, now equipped with the Lysander aircraft, was moved to Taungoo Airfield in Burma. One morning, the Japanese attacked the airfield and damaged several aircraft. Only the IAF’s Lysanders remained untouched. Majumdar planned a retaliatory attack and flew out in a Lysander with two 250lb bombs. Flying at treetop level, he entered the Japanese base and dropped the bombs with precision, destroying the hangar and the aircraft in it. The very next day, he led his Sqn, the Tigers, to lay siege to and demolish the Japanese base.
Jumbo and his squadron of Lysanders flew offensive missions that inflicted extensive damage to enemy airfields and installations. For his leadership of the Squadron and daring performance in the Burma Campaign, Squadron Leader Majumdar was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), thus becoming the first Indian Officer in World War II to be so decorated. Promoted to Wing Commander (Acting) in 1942, the first Indian to reach this rank, he voluntarily returned to the war front in England in March 1944, demitting his Acting rank and reverting to Sqn Ldr.
He flew the Mustang and Typhoon aircraft during the Allied invasion of Europe in numerous reconnaissance and ground attack missions deep into occupied France and Belgium, totally unmindful of personal safety. For his gallant role in these operations, Majumdar was awarded a Bar to his DFC in January 1945, again the first and only Indian to be so decorated. The London Gazette praised him for his operational skills and LIFE magazine listed him as one of the 12 best pilots in the allied air forces for his work in Burma and Europe.
On his return from Europe, this avid flier commanded the Air Force Display Flight. He toured the country extensively, conducting aerobatic shows and displays. He was scheduled to carry out a display near Lahore on February 17, 1945 on a Hawker Hurricane aircraft.The aircraft had a history of snags and he was advised by the Flight's Engg Officer Flt Lt Harjinder Singh to be extra cautious and carry out only safe manoeuvres at a reasonably high altitude. In the aerobatic display flight, his aircraft developed a serious snag, became unstable and crashed, tragically killing him. Jumbo Majumdar died as he had always wanted to, with his flying boots on in the cockpit of an aircraft, flying to his heart’s content.
Mid 2015, the Indian Air Force (IAF) used its internal discretionary funds to acquire the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and the war medals of the World War II veteran Wing Commander Jumbo Majumdar from the auction house. This was because the apathetic Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to sanction 30,000 pounds (approximately Rs. 28 lakh), the price fixed by the auction house which had acquired the medals from Jumbo Majumdar's son Sailen Majumdar. MoD said that the decision was that of the Ministry of Culture-typical stalling tactics- and that they had sent the file to the Culture (agriculture?) Ministry to take a call on whether the medals should be acquired in the first place. After waiting several months, the auction house Morton and Eden set a May 26 deadline after the IAF had entered into a binding contract with the auction house but failed to reach a settlement. Keen to avoid defaulting on an agreement, the IAF went ahead with the purchase on its own through its Air Attache in London.
Despite the government's rejection, the Indian Air Force has been clear that the memory of the man they consider the father of the modern IAF must be honoured. Yet, in a strange order to avoid controversy, where they should have raised the roof, the IAF decided not to celebrate the return of the medals to India and made no press release on the acquisition of the World War Two treasures. The medals, now in India, were showcased prominently at the Air Force Museum, Air Force Station, Palam, in a formal function on 16 July 2019.
In a statement to NDTV, the AOC-in-C Western Air Command, Air Marshal R Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VM&Bar, had said, "Jumbo's contribution during the Second World War both in Burma and in the Normandy Campaigns has been acknowledged in professional circles. He was the first and the only IAF pilot to be awarded DFC and Bar. Having understood the importance of Air Power at a very early age, he worked relentlessly to build a strong Air Force for India. Jumbo led from the front by personal example and worked relentlessly to lay the foundation of the IAF. His spirit shall live as long as there are young men to take up the challenge of his legacy, and the trail of glory shall be remembered and cherished by the IAF for all time to come."
The auction documents states, "Jumbo Majumdar's seeming disregard for his own safety on solo bombing raids and leading others against what appeared to be insurmountable odds made him a legendary figure both in the Royal Air Force and among his own countrymen. It is generally agreed that had he lived, his example and vision for Indian air power would have seen him rise to the highest level in the post-Independence Indian Air Force."
Sailen Majumdar revealed that he also has somewhere the crucifix that his paternal grandmother Jonaki Agnes Penelope Majumdar (nee Bonnerjee) had made from the metal of the ill-fated Hurricane that his father crashed in. In addition, a note book where he made very personal and philosophical comments about his role in World War 2 (sic). He had to decide what to do with numerous letters between his parents during World War 2. Personal, but such a long time ago, that perhaps they should now be in the public domain for anyone who is interested, rather than them being binned or left in a drawer forever!