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February 15, 2001
The Rediff Special/ Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)
Beginning today, the Indian fleet will be on parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the Indian Navy, which has indeed come a long way. I'm sure many of you must be wondering what the Navy was like in those days...
When I signed up 50 years ago, it was a gentle and friendly Navy. There were less than 2,000 officers and the Navy List was just a pamphlet with only about 20 pages between the captains and the cadets. Everyone knew everyone else, his background, his wife and, possibly, even his mistress. There were only two Admirals, one in New Delhi and the other in the fleet. The seniormost officer ashore in Bombay was a commodore, who was the only one with a staff car. Everyone else either went by bus or walked.
It was still only a few years since Independence; the influence of the Royal Navy was still strong. While going ashore, it was mandatory to wear a long-sleeved shirt with a felt hat, which one doffed before stepping on the gangway to acknowledge the quartermaster's salute. Meals in the wardroom were still in the Western style, with rice and curry served only on Saturdays. Nowadays, I understand, they serve rice everyday -- both at noon and night -- and Crumb Chop could well be mistaken for a karate move.
Most officers in the nascent Indian Navy were reserves who had joined during wartime and had been given a permanent commission after it ended. There were a handful of blue-blooded cadet entry officers, but the Navy was mainly run by reserve-turned-permanent officers.
Since most of them were civilians, they were not particularly hot professionally. They did not have the benefit of a Dartmouth training or the sub-lieutenants' professional courses. They were the '90 day wonders,' who had been trained within three months during the war.
But they made up for what they lacked in their professional background with their other qualities. Most of them were great man-managers and some of them were outstanding ship handlers. This was important, since ship handling was a great art as well as a pastime. Commanding officers made or damaged their reputations by the way they handled their ships. Admirals went to the jetty to watch ships coming alongside and made rude signals when anybody made a mess of things.
In 1952, when the Indian fleet visited Britain for the Coronation Review, Adhar Chatterji (he went on to become Chief of Naval Staff) who was in command of the INS Delhi and Charles Nanda (again, a future Chief of Naval Staff) in the INS Ranjit impressed even the seasoned veterans of the Royal Navy with their ship handling feats. Adhar was only 39 at the time, with just about 18 years of service behind him.
In those days, taking the help of a tug to come alongside was considered a disgrace. In any case, the only pushers one could get were the old Nancy, Elsie and Marie. One was actually better off without them. Nobody told anyone else, "You know, the ship has cost Rs 200 crore, you better be careful." If someone had told Adhar Chatterji that, he would have been kicked off the bridge.
Everyone seemed to have a pet name and was called by that name by even the juniormost officer (not to his face, of course!). So there was Peter, Chackers, Chandy, Ronnie, Bambi, Rusi, Stan and Pashi. Among the aviators, there were Tally Ho and Andy and Tiger and Chops.
The Indian Navy was a simple Navy. Its exercises merely consisted of replenishment and gunnery firing. Guns, in those days, were not very accurate and practice firings were carried out at 10,000 yards on parallel courses. The tug Hathi would tow the Battle Practice Target and, on many occasions, the shells would land ahead of her.
The apex of all exercises was the Night Encounters. Ships were divided into two groups and, when the exercise started, they went for each other. And there was generally a melee as everyone flashed projectors covered with red buntings at each other -- these were supposed to represent gunfire. Then, when they were given the signal, the ships switched on navigation lights and separated as they tried to make a formation.
Sometimes, though, humorous results ensued.
I remember once -- when I was on the INS Ganga -- the three Gs -- the INS Ganga, the INS Godavari and the INS Gomati -- were pitted against the INS Rajput and the INS Ranjit. INS Ganga was behind INS Godavari and INS Gomati at the start. After the exercise, when the ships separated and the lights were switched on, INS Ganga found herself in line behind the INS Rajput and the INS Ranjit.
Even in those days, we were a seagoing Navy. Every year, the fleet sailed out of Bombay during the first week of January and, after touching various ports on the west and east coasts, returned to base in the first week of April. Then, until May, it was the leave and refit period, before the ships sailed once again in the first week of June for the Summer Exercises.
This was when the ships participated in the Joint Exercises at Trincomalee, when ships from the navies of Britain, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka would assemble for an intensive, three week workout. Once this was over, the Indian ships invariably went on a foreign cruise.
After that, there was the regatta at Cochin and the inevitable Staff College cruise from Cochin to Bombay, with a halt for booze at Karwar. As a result, most of the ships would stagger and zigzag their way out of there.
Each year, the ships returned in the last week of September to a warm welcome by the wives of the sailors at the Gateway of India. The early morning grand entry of the fleet into the harbour, after they had been away for nearly four months, was a thrilling sight each year.
Above all, the Indian Navy was a happy Navy. It was expanding rapidly and practically everyone got promoted when his time came, and some even before that happened. Even when the odd person did not make it to the next rank, he did not rave and rant. Representations were unheard of and no one ever went to court. Court martials were few and far in between. Senior officers took the juniors under their wing and looked after their training and welfare. In return, the juniors looked at seniors with affection and respect. There was little bitching.
We did, of course, have our share of eccentric characters. And, in the wardrooms, we'd regale each other with stories about these lovable but loony people. On one occasion, a small ship that was trying to manoeuvre found itself trapped in a strong tide at Ernakulam harbour. As a result, it drifted broadside on to the Ernakulam Bridge. In a panic, the commanding officer stepped ashore from the ship's bridge onto the Ernakulam Bridge.
At the subsequent court martial, he was grilled by the prosecution. "Where were you after the accident happened?"
"I was on the bridge," replied the accused.
"Are you quite sure you were on the bridge all the time?"
"Yes, I was on the bridge the whole time."
He was acquitted. No one had asked him which bridge he was on.
The 1971 war was the last occasion in which the officers who had nurtured the Navy after Independence were in the top positions. They made sure that the Navy emerged victorious and then handed over the charge to the next generation.
After that, the Navy became highly professional, matter-of-fact and competitive. It also became highly efficient as modern ships, sophisticated equipment and weapons were added to the fleet. It held seminars and discussed strategy. It became a fine professional force, but it no longer remained a simple Navy.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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