Walking into the Vikram Vilas Durbar Hall, a 1935 addition to the 16th-century Junagarh Fort and Museum in Bikaner, you encounter an unexpected sight: a DH-9 (de Havilland) World War I bomber plane. Compared to the rest of the fort museum, with its seven palaces, courtyards, pavilions and balconies featuring traditional Rajput architecture and artwork, this space is distinct.
Junagarh Fort was built between 1589 and 1593 by Raja Rai Singh, Bikaner’s then ruler. Since then, each successive maharaja has made additions during their respective reigns. In 1902, the royal family moved to Lalgarh Palace, and Junagarh became a heritage site.
In 2000, a section was converted into the Prachina Museum, which showcases objects and furniture that reflect the family’s everyday life. In comparison, the exhibits in the Vikram Vilas Durbar Hall, therefore, refer to a lesser-known part of Rajput history – one of fighting on behalf of the British, and the role of the camel cavalry in the world wars.
While one would imagine the impressive bomber to represent mechanised warfare, it is, in fact, intimately connected to a more unique, regional and traditional Rajput military culture of many centuries. Known as the Ganga Risala (cavalry), the camel regiment in connection was founded by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the late nineteenth century and has many international battles to its name. For instance, the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, and then in Somalia in 1902-’04.
Camel Cavalry in the World Wars
So, how is this camel regiment connected to the bomber in the durbar? In 1914, Maharaja Ganga Singh offered the British a 500-strong camel corps. According to historian Vinay Nalwa, the maharaja “was the first among the Indian kings to be conferred the rank of General by British Emperor”, and was also the only non-white participant in the Imperial War Cabinet.
The camel regiment was deployed in Egypt in 1919. It defended the Suez Canal from Turkish advances so successfully that further camel-mounted regiments were formed from Commonwealth troops for guerrilla campaigns in arid places such as the Palestine and Sinai. The Ganga Risala was deployed again in World War II in the Middle East.
A flighty present
According to the museum signage, “In recognition of the services rendered by Bikaner state forces…the British government presented…several souvenirs amongst which were the shot down parts of two DH-9 de Havilland warplanes”.
Transported by ship with surviving troops and their camels, the pieces of these planes – the de Havilland single-engine biplane, built in Hertfordshire, England, and deployed for strategic day bombing of German cities in 1918 – found their way to Junagarh Fort in 1920. It is said that Maharaja Karni Singh, Ganga Singh’s son, and local craftspeople pieced one of the planes together and it was put on display in the Vikram Vilas Durbar Hall.
Incidentally, there was a broom handle for the engine, a carved plank made into a propeller, and some wheelbarrow wheels in place of proper landing gear – using jugaad to good effect where they did not have original pieces. The extremely rare Siddeley Puma 240 engine had been repurposed to power water pumps for a canal project in 1920, part of Maharaja Ganga Singh’s efforts to irrigate Bikaner’s dry lands.
In 1920, 60 DH-9 planes were given to India by Britain under the “Imperial Gift Scheme” – post-war surplus given to colonies and Commonwealth countries to create their own air forces, also partly to pay back wartime contributions. Due to a lack of pilots, guns and training manuals, the planes were never used for an Indian Air Force but distributed amongst various states, firms and private individuals.
It is unclear how many DH-9s came to Bikaner, and if the plane on display was actually part of this larger scheme. Nevertheless, in 1999, a British backpacker circulated a photo of their crumbling remains hidden behind the Junagarh Fort, which reached Guy Black, who runs Aero Vintage, a specialist aeroplane restoration company in Sussex.
Three years later, Black visited and discovered, “among piles of elephant saddles, the airframe of the DH-9, engineless, its timbers partly eaten by termites and much of its fabric covering missing”.
From elephant stables to the Imperial War Museum
The DH-9, while popular during World War I, had become increasingly rare and was entirely absent from the United Kingdom.
After negotiations with the royal family, Black bought and transported parts of two planes to the UK. He restored both, selling one to the Imperial War Museum for nearly 1 million pounds, now hanging in Duxford Aircraft Hangar in Cambridge, England.
The other is owned by Historic Aircraft Collection Limited and was flown at Duxford in 2019, a century after taking flight from the same airfield for World War 1 bombing raids. This plane is currently the only World War I plane and specifically DH-9 flying today.
Perhaps ironically, a plane given away as surplus is now treasured by museums across the world.
The cross-continental journeys of these de Havilland bombers in the aftermath of World War I highlights the value of the oft-forgotten Indian wartime contribution.
At the Junagarh Fort Museum, the plane represents the success of the camel regiment, designed for desert conditions for which British forces were unprepared.
Such stories and geographies have been rarely covered in war films that focus on mechanical weaponry. As for the camel regiment, although dismounted in 1974, it continues to patrol the harsh Thar Desert as part of India’s Border Security Force, a traditional form of transport and cavalry still useful into the modern age.