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End of an era: INS Vikrant's final farewell

The Indian navy bids adieu to its "Old Lady," the INS Vikrant, which is to decommissioned later this month

INS Vikrant, India's first aircraft carrier which wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the Indian navy in the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh and gave a new lease of life to the carrier concept which was under a cloud the world over, is to be finally decommissioned after 35 years of distinguished service on January 31, 1997.

The carrier, which was formally commissioned into the Indian navy in March 1961 at Belfast, Northern Ireland, by the then Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, formally joined the Indian fleet at Bombay on November 3, 1961, where it was received at Ballard Pier by independent India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other high-ranking dignitaries.

However, the Vikrant's finest hour came only 10 years later when it played a pivotal role in the 1971 Bangladesh war in spite of a crack in its boiler and was considered such a prized catch by the Pakistanis that they sent their submarine Ghazi all the way to the Bay of Bengal to drop mines outside Visakhapatnam harbour and sink the aircraft carrier off the harbour.

But now it is the end of an era. The Indian navy's "pride and joy", whose name is synonymous with naval aviation, will not go to sea any more. Belonging to the Majestic class of light fleet carriers and having a displacement of 20,000 tons, Vikrant today lies silently alongside a berth in the naval dockyard at Bombay.

After 35 years of distinguished service, during which she trained, nurtured, and serviced a whole generation of Indian navy's pilots and aviation personnel, the "Old Lady" has been put out to pasture. Today, her engine rooms are silent and the flight deck looks forlorn.

Just a few years ago, her flight deck was a beehive of activity. Aircraft were catapulted and roared away after take off. But today, she lies silently with the writing on the wall about her future crystal clear.

Vikrant is one of the six Majestic class light fleet carriers which the Royal navy decided to build for itself midway through the Second World War. The war ended even before the first of these carriers could be completed.

Ironically, not a single one of these six ships served in the Royal navy. Two each were bought by the Canadian and the Australian navies. All these have long been decommissioned and scrapped. The fifth, the Hercules, was bought by the Indian navy and renamed the Vikrant. The sixth, named the Leviathan, has also been scrapped.

Though the carrier was first launched as Hercules in 1945, her construction work was suspended almost immediately. The ship was then kept in a state of preservation by the British admiralty until she was acquired by India in early 1957.

The Vikrant was then moved to Belfast for her refit and modernisation, which was carried out at one of the reputed private shipyards. On completion of her refit, the ship was commissioned into the Indian navy in March 1961.

She had her initial trials in the waters around the United Kingdom. The trials were followed by a six-week work-up programme which was carried out in the Mediterranean Sea. The main aim of the work-up which, concluded in early October 1961, was to test the carrier's all-round efficiency as a fully operational unit.

The ship has a length of 700 feet, an extreme beam of 128 feet (width) and a draught of 24 feet. She is also armed with powerful anti-aircraft guns.

"Your navy will never amount to much without an aircraft carrier," Lord Mountbatten had told Jawaharlal Nehru.

And newly-independent India, despite foreign exchange constraints, was looking for a blue water navy to command the South Asian waters.

The Hercules, which was built by Vickers Armstrong, was purchased by India and underwent a four year refit at the Harland and Wolff Yard in Belfast, before being commissioned as Vikrant.

At Harland and Wolff, the carrier was fitted with an angled flight deck and a steam catapult, both post-war inventions and armed with two squadrons of aircraft, the British Seahawk and the French Alize.

Captain Pritam Singh was the first commanding officer of the carrier.

On May 18, 1961, the landing and arresting of the first jet aircraft on board took place. The honour of performing this feat went to Lieutenant (later Admiral) R H Tahiliani.

Till the Bangladesh war, the Vikrant had rarely fired a gun in anger. During the 1962 Indo-China conflict in 1962, there was talk of sending the Seahawks to the north to operate from airfields in Assam. A squadron was in fact developed for a few weeks.

During 1965, the Vikrant found itself under refit in the drydock, though the Pakistanis, in the heat of battle, claimed that they had sunk it. The carrier's aircraft were sent to Jamnagar and just as they were being primed for a night raid on Karachi, they were recalled for the defence of Bombay.

Vikrant's hour of glory finally arrived in 1971. This time the navy received sufficient notice of war and Vikrant was ready for her part. Although the ship was suffering from boiler trouble, this did not prevent her from taking full and active part in the war.

Taking into account the threats and the strategic requirements, the Vikrant was assigned to the eastern theater in the Bay of Bengal in 1971. She joined the newly created Eastern Fleet with Rear Admiral S H Sharma flying his flag on the ship.

The Indian navy did its part to fool the enemy, transmitting confusing radio signals. Though Vikrant was anchored in the Andamans, an Indian destroyer off Visakhaptnam sent signals that there was a ship in the area carrying 200 tonnes of meat, which only an aircraft carrier could store.

The Pakistani submarine Ghazi blew up on December 4, after a depth charge attack by INS Rajput off the harbour entrance. Then followed the Vikrant's finest hour. The then East Pakistan was cordoned off and every port -- Cox's Bazar, Chittagong, and Khulna -- was pounded by the carrier-based aircraft.

Such was the impact of the air attack from Vikrant-based aeroplanes, that the Pakistani naval commander in the then East Pakistan remarked: "Indian naval aircraft were hitting us day and night. We could not run."

On one occasion, with aircraft airborne and no wind conditions, the ship had to take a chance with her cracked boilers to land the returning flights. This was easily the carrier's best of the finest hour.

Such was the performance of the ship in the liberation of Bangladesh that it earned two Mahavir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras.

Everyone loves a hero. The ship received a tumultuous welcome when she returned to Madras. The civil administration led by then chief minister M G Ramachandran, organised a special meal for the entire crew of 1,100, served on banana leaves, on the jetty.

That the ship was the darling of Madras and was adopted by the city goes without saying.

When it came to showing the flag, there has been no ship like the Vikrant. Once, when the ship was berthed at Bandar Abbas, the shah of Iran flew the officers to Teheran for a special concert.

In West Asia, where the only aircraft carrier people had seen were from the United States, they were surprised to see that an Asian navy could also fight a three-dimensional war.

About four decades is long time for a carrier and the last years have not been trouble free for the Vikrant. The carrier was troubled by structural and mechanical problems.

Yet the ship had one more achievement, when she received the navy's first Harrier VSTOL jump jet on board. The ship was given a ski jump in the naval dockyard for operation of the Harriers, which meant the end of carrier flying for the Alizes.

Eventually, the glorious ship will most likely meet the same fate as many of her sister ships. One day soon, she may be auctioned and then silently, towed by tugs, will make her way to the breaker's yard.

A few men on the jetty will wave goodbye.



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