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Ruling the waves

1971 war hero Admiral S.M Nanda was a scrappy fighter and master strategist

Written by Mihir Roy |
May 14, 2009 10:33:16 pm

India has been kept sea blind for centuries,as the earlier invasions were from the Himalayan passes,which paradoxically led to the Mughals keeping the seacoast undefended. This enabled the European maritime powers to conquer the rich subcontinent of India from the sea.

The sea blindness continued with India having to pay 400,000 pound sterling to Admiralty for the maritime defence of India till the beginning of the Second World War with the Royal Indian Navy continuing to be commanded by British officers. Even after Partition,the Indian Navy continued to be Cinderella of the services. Admiral Nanda played a dominant part in developing the resources of the Navy. He went to the Soviet Union for submarines and ships when the US and UK would not sell submarines to India though Pakistan was gifted US submarines.

Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda,whose parents were from Gujranwala in Punjab,grew up in Manora Island off Karachi,where his father served in the Port Trust.

Nanda was,in a way,‘ocean born’; with salt in his Punjabi blood,well-acquainted with the wind and waves,which enabled him to stand first in the Navy’s entrance examination in 1941. That,he admitted with a twinkle in his eye,was because the majority of the candidates were from Punjab and they had not yet seen the seas!

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He was the Chief of Naval Staff when Pakistan attacked India in 1971. This gave him the opportunity to implement his promise,which was published in the tabloid Blitz,after the Navy’s masterly inaction in the 1965 conflict when bombarded Dwarka. He was,therefore,provoked to write that he was determined ‘to take the war into Karachi and make the world’s biggest bonfire of it’. He was confident of success and when a Commander in Chief demurred at the rashness of his plans,he responded that in that case,it would be unfair to ask the C-in-C to implement his offensive plan. The C-in-C immediately withdrew his opposition! Admiral Nanda’s philosophy was ‘to aim high’. If you aim low consistently,nothing much happens.

Charles Nanda formed a crack team of five officers and I was one of them,who worked closely with him to finalise the operational plans for a total blockade of Pakistan by sea. The ports of Chittagong,Khulna,Chalna and Mongla in East Pakistan were neutralised by Mukti Bahini frogmen with limpet mines which sank or damaged one lakh tones of shipping,according to Lloyds Casualty Return. This also prevented the escape of 92,000 Pakistani troops by sea,which resulted in the Pakistani Admiral being taken prisoner.

Karachi was missiled on December 4,1971 and he kept his promise of having the biggest bonfire of Keamiri oil tanks. The Soviets,who sold the Osa class missile boats primarily for the defence of Bombay,were amazed at their being used for offensive operations against the highly defended port of Karachi.

The sinking of submarine Ghazi off Vishakhapatnam,the amphibious landings in East Pakistan and the Pakistan fleet hiding behind merchant ships in harbour were all due to Admiral Nanda’s vision and his aggressive five-man team whom he fully supported.

Looking back,a tall young man from the island of Manora joining the Navy in 1941,and in three decades becoming a household name and living legend,turned the mindset of the hitherto defence-oriented Navy. His informal communication style,without fuss of fanfare,earned him the friendship of a galaxy of world leaders — Lord Mountbatten,Field Marshals Malinovsky and Grechko,Admiral Gorshkov and Marshal Tito. Sukarno of Indonesia,Ho chi Minh of Vietnam,Admiral Zumwalt,Robert McNamara and a host of others who admired the part played by Admiral Nanda in using the Navy for both national development and national security.

Vice-Admiral (retd.) Roy was Director of Intelligence in the Navy during the 1971 war. He is currently the Director of Strategic Studies at the Society of Indian Ocean Studies (SIOS).

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