The Battle in the Bay and Creation of Bangladesh: A Sailor Remembers
My comrades at arms have enriched this narrative
A week from today, my wife and I will be in Visakhapatnam or Vizag, one of our favourite cities – popularly known as the City of Destiny.
After two years of lockdown and confinement – albeit in the pleasant and conducive surroundings of our Wadi, Lara-Ramu Farm, in the village of Bhaimala, on the Konkan coast, this is a visit to which we are looking forward with anticipation and not a little nostalgia.
Three of my most important professional assignments have been in the East. These were: command of INS Beas during 1971, Fleet Commander 1983-85, and FOC-in-C, Eastern Naval Command 1989-1990.
Vizag is home to the Eastern Naval Command and also the home port for the
Eastern Fleet. The occasion for our visit is the commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of the formation of the Eastern Fleet in November 1971 – shortly before war was declared. This also marked the creation of a two fleet Navy in India, with Vice-Admiral Sri Harilal Sarma being the first Fleet Commander. Incidentally he has just celebrated his 99th Birthday.
In the lead up to the culmination of the Swarnim Vijay Varsh to celebrate an important and historic occasion – namely the creation of a new, independent Nation of Bangladesh, many commemorative events have been held across the country as also in neighbouring Bangladesh. There have been Memorial Parades, lectures, and the cross country journey of the Mashaal or victory flame, to honour the heroes of 1971. We have also seen an outpouring of memorabilia and writings discussing and analysing the 1971 operations and its strategic relevance. Many analysts have also pointed out that it was the astute military and political interface, and close tactical tri-service coordination, that made this victory possible in such a short, swift manner.
I am drawing on my memory to provide a pen picture of what was undoubtedly a defining experience for any professional mariner.
Why this War – a Brief Background
We were well aware of the worsening situation in Pakistan. One direct impact of this was the movement of almost 12 million Bengali refugees from East Pakistan into West Bengal. In turn, this created immense economic and social pressures and despite requests made to the USA, UK and other Western powers, all failed to react. This also led to India deepening its relationship with the then Soviet Union through the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation in August 1971.
So when the Western Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Kuruvilla, addressed commanding officers of the ships of the Western Fleet around April 1971, with these words: “ Nothing short of war will solve the refugee crisis created by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan”, it was clear where the nation was headed. It was this that led to the strategic move of INS Vikrant, together with Brahmaputra and Beas to augment the Naval presence in the Bay of Bengal – where the 31st Patrol Vessel Squadron was holding the fort.
On December 3rd 1971 we received orders to commence hostilities after our airfields were struck by Pakistan in the western theatre.
No doubt the audacious exploits of the Naval Missile boats in the attack on Karachi and rendering ineffective their defence is a spectacular achievement.
In fact their exploits on December 4 1971, led to the date being commemorated as Navy Day. However it is also true that it was the operations in the East, which decisively turned the tide of events. These included the invaluable assistance from the Mukti Bahini, the covert operations on land and sea, the close coordination between the three armed forces units and the Bangladeshis, not to mention a near ‘close encounter’ with the USS Enterprise and units of the US Seventh Fleet.
Here are some brief highlights from a worm’s eye view of operations in the Bay which might be of interest to readers, who might not know what this entailed.
Playing Hide and Seek – Confusing the Enemy!
Our lives as servicemen are spent exercising in Peacetime so as to be ready for War. In the months leading up to the actual outbreak of hostilities, Vikrant and we, her escorts in the Bay of Bengal, were constantly on the move between Vishakhapatnam, Paradip, Andamans and Madras. The ships stayed at the ports for short periods just to refuel, replenish and do necessary repairs. The movements were kept secret and we did not know where we would be going next. This was necessary to keep the enemy confused and avoid submarine attack.
On one such sortie, the main armament 4.5” guns in BEAS became nonoperational due to the failure of the sensor in the GRU (Gyro Roll Unit) system. All efforts to get a spare sensor were unsuccessful. Gloom prevailed at the thought that we might have to sit out the war. A war ship without fire power is like a sitting duck!
Chief EAR S.N. Singh and the LO - Lt Cdr RV Singh hit upon the idea of rolling up a piece of silver paper from the famous ‘Gold Flake’ cigarette packet as a sensor. Hey Presto, the Deshi Jugaad worked! and to every one’s joy we were soon back in business. Not only did it work like a dream throughout the war but even thereafter!
Some Actions at Sea – December 4 to 16, 1971
An action packed 12 days saw us avoiding a torpedo attack, bombardment and amphibious landings at Cox’s Bazaar, boarding Anwar Baksh - a Pakistani merchant ship fleeing with army personnel, negotiating the minefield at the entrance to Chittagong harbour, and the tour de force – a near encounter with the USS Enterprise of the US Seventh Fleet!
Recalling the details of various actions after fifty long years is not easy – and so I have drawn on the sharper memories of two of my younger colleagues on board: Commander RV Singh, my worthy LO or Electrical Officer, retired in Delhi, and my faithful steward M Ali, who rarely left my side on the bridge of Beas and who is retired in Mumbra, near Mumbai. Both comrades at arms have enriched this narrative.
This is also a good moment for me to say a few words about the extraordinary team aboard the good ship Beas, without whom, none of the gutsy and daring actions at sea would have been possible. Our men came from different corners of the country representing our linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversities, not to mention their varied dietary preferences! Our little ship Beas reflected the reality of the Service.
The Submarine periscope sighting, firing and avoiding action after seeing the torpedo tracks was thanks to my alert gunnery officer, Lt John De Silva – who later rose to the rank of Vice Admiral and who sadly passed away recently.
Lt George Martis, diver and his team of ‘boys in lungis’ who helped the Mukti Bahini, recounted how Beas’s accurate bombardment effectively destroyed the ATC Tower in Cox’s Bazaar – thank you to ‘Gold Flake’s silver saviour’!
D Lal was the alert member of the boarding party who spotted and disarmed an enemy crew member aboard the merchant ship Anwar Bakhsh, and was henceforth known as “Danger” Lal.
USS ENTERPRISE IN THE BAY!
Intelligence reports indicated that the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise and units of the US Seventh Fleet were likely to enter the Bay of Bengal. This could have been an attempt to assist evacuation of Pakistani troops.
In view of this development, Beas was despatched by our Fleet Commander to slow down the advancing units of the Seventh Fleet. I guessed that we were most likely selected for this special mission because we were the junior most ship of the fleet! We immediately proceeded on our Mission by setting course southwards towards the likely reported position of the USS Enterprise.
Were we scared at the prospect of having to face this huge armada? The mood and morale of my ships company can best be summed up in the words of one of our senior sailors, a hearty, burly Sikh, who loudly proclaimed : “Sir, we have seen their Patton tanks and Sabre jets in 1965, ab iss Enterprise ko bhi dekh hi lenge”…
The High spirits of all aboard were captured well in these four lines composed by our versatile RV Singh – a parody of a famous ghazal by Majaz
“Ye Mera Beas hai mera Beas, Main apne Beas ka sailor hun,
Navy ki Ankh ka Tara hun aur desh ki shaan ka symbol hun,
Dushman ka samna karne ko sau baar chali thi top yahan,
Khus ankh se hamne dekhi this, dushman ki shikast o maat yahan!”
In the event, the surfacing of Soviet nuclear submarines in the Bay, and our surprise paradrop and capture of the capital of East Pakistan, ended the war abruptly. Enterprise changed course and Beas was asked to return and rejoin the Fleet. Soon thereafter came news of the Ceasefire.
The only other event to note was that I stupidly accepted my Gunnery Officer’s offer of a cigarette to celebrate our victory and by the time I reached home a month later I was back to my forty to fifty cigarettes per day – after having kicked the habit for nearly a year!
Post Script: 50 Years Later
The years between 1971 and 1993 were spent in the service – from postings in different jobs and locations – each one filled with challenges and opportunities – each one deserving a separate narrative perhaps. I write this from my home in my village, it is to share some other thoughts.
One incident has haunted me ever since that December day when I landed in Chittagong after the war. Four young men in their teens accosted me outside the Naval base. In halting English, they asked me to send a particular Pakistani Major out for a few minutes. He was notorious for his violence against local residents in general and sexual abuse against many local women. They were clearly agitated and I knew that they would never have let him return alive. I explained to them that this was impossible as he was a POW and we had to follow the Geneva Convention. I could see from their expressions that they were angry and felt let down. After the passage of nearly fifty years, those ‘boys’ must now be men in their mid sixties.
Dealing with contradictions. I have often wondered what they must feel today. One cannot but reflect on the many many ‘angry’ young men and women we have created by our actions as military forces?
It is clear to me today that war is by no means the sustainable solution to intractable problems between neighbours in any geographic region.
The nearly three decades spent in a village, farming and working with local communities has taught us many valuable lessons about the realities of life in rural India and how peoples basic needs should shape our priorities. During this period my wife and I have also been engaged, primarily as Citizens, on how best to serve the interests of the people of our country and region, by working on dialogue and people to people contact, especially between India and Pakistan, and searching for an enduring peace in the neighbourhood. And today more than ever, we are working to ensure that the Holy Book on which I swore allegiance – namely the Constitution – indeed continues to be the guiding light of our Democracy.
The words of our national poet, Rabindranath Tagore who is deeply revered in Bangladesh too, and has been the author of both our National anthems, ring loudly today as we try to keep his vision in focus: to build an India
“Where the Mind is without fear and the Head is held High;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action..
Into that heaven of Freedom, my Father, let my country awake”
Like Tagore I also believe that “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water”…………
Ramu Ramdas – Bhaimala – December 4, 2021