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Poppy Appeal 2008

PUBLISHED: 15:42 05 November 2008 | UPDATED: 10:14 23 August 2010

LONDON – AUGUST 15: Former spitfire fighterpilot, Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji DFC, BA, LLB, is seen in front of a spitfire at the Press Launch for the new museum exhibition “Inside The Spitfire” at The Science Museum on August 15, 2005 in London, England. Subtitled “Personal Stories Of Britain's Most Famous Plane”, the show deconstructs the famous wartime aircraft and commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Battle Of Britain. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

LONDON – AUGUST 15: Former spitfire fighterpilot, Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji DFC, BA, LLB, is seen in front of a spitfire at the Press Launch for the new museum exhibition “Inside The Spitfire” at The Science Museum on August 15, 2005 in London, England. Subtitled “Personal Stories Of Britain's Most Famous Plane”, the show deconstructs the famous wartime aircraft and commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Battle Of Britain. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

2005 Getty Images

EVERY morning we would sit down to breakfast and there would be maybe 100 pilots. We all knew that not everyone would come back and as sure as day follows night when we sat down for diner there would be two or three less. The next day the fallen woul

During the Battle of Britain

EVERY morning we would sit down to breakfast and there would be maybe 100 pilots.

"We all knew that not everyone would come back and as sure as day follows night when we sat down for diner there would be two or three less.

"The next day the fallen would be replaced and these servicemen just kept coming back to breakfast, knowing one day they may never return."

Squadron leader Mahinder Singh Pujji, of The Grove, Gravesend turned 90-years-old in August. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross flying Hurricanes and Spitfires in the Second World War and infamous Battle of Britain and is considered one of the RAF's most elite pilots.

He knows his 'days are numbered' - his words, not mine.

But today he urges the British people to remember those who lost their lives in both world wars.

And supporting this year's Poppy Appeal, which seeks to place emphasis on the importance of those currently serving, he also says we should not forget the thousands of British and allied troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Pujji is one of the 2.5 million Indians who left their homes to fight for a country they regarded as the motherland.

He was among 24 Indian pilots immediately accepted after answering an advertisement: "Pilots needed for Royal Air Force" and was even invited to meet the royal family at Windsor Castle.

"They were so grateful as I was offering my life to fight for the country, a fight for freedom and liberty," he said.

"It was an honour but it is all those servicemen who died, whether pilots or in other armed services, who we must remember.

"It is with me everyday so Remembrance parades are for everyone to pay homage to those who died. Those men I sat and had breakfast with who never returned deserve our respect. I hold so much admiration for them.

"Many paid the ultimate sacrifice, others were hideously wounded and the nation owes them a debt of gratitude for the freedom we have today."

Mr Pujji has lost count of the hundreds of dogfights he took part in during his time in the RAF from 1940 to 1945.

He was just 22-years-old when he arrived in this country and became the only Sikh pilot who insisted on wearing his turban and had specially adapted headphones made for that reason.

Known as the 'ace' he is the sole survivor of the elite Indian fighter pilots who fought valiantly for this country.

His brilliance in the air was unrivalled, his courage and skill unflappable. During his last flying mission he located and saved 300 lost American troops in the Burmese jungle.

He talks vividly of the royalty he mixed with during and after his RAF days. The famous faces he took for 'joyrides' in his planes include Lady Mountbatten and her daughter Pamela in Delhi in 1958, President Eisenhower and even the glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy.

And at 90-years-old Mr Pujji is well-spoken, articulate and is firm in his fears of future atrocities in the UK.

He added: "The government have been weak on our own soil. America has been very successful and stringent in toughening up since 9/11 but in Britain we are complacent." You've got an opposition to plans to increase the number of days we can hold terror suspects. How can this happen? If there is enough evidence they should be held to give the police and security services time to investigate, however long."

Mr Pujji hopes to attend the Cenotaph, London for the main Remembrance Sunday service. He also hopes to attend the service at Memorial Gate, Buckingham Palace tomorrow.

On November 10 he plans to travel to India for a month to visit his two daughters but fears he may not be well enough to travel.

What is clear, that on a day or weekend when Britain remembers their war dead we cannot imagine the horrors that men like Mr Pujji faced. We can only stand for two minutes in awe of the amazing sacrifice thousands gave for our freedom.

l On Sunday at 11am a ceremony will take place at Gravesend War Memorial, Windmill Hill Gardens, Gravesend. A Service of Remembrance will follow at 3pm at Meopham War Memorial, Meopham Green.

michael.adkins@archant.co.uk

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