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Monday, January 24, 2022

Admiral S H Sarma: A hero of the sea

He played an essential role in India’s victory in the 1971 war

Written by RAVI SHARMA |
Updated: January 10, 2022 9:25:35 am
File photo of Vice Admiral S H Sarma.

Vice Admiral S H Sarma, PVSM, passed away on January 3 in his hometown of Bhubaneswar. He was 99.

We are all familiar with the big names associated with the 1971 Indo-Pak war such as the prime minister and the three service chiefs. However, barring a few, the brave deeds of heroes at the ground, or shall I say, sea or air level, remain unknown outside their service. I would like to highlight the important role that Admiral Sarma played in the war.

The Eastern Fleet was formed just a month before the onset of war and Admiral Sarma was appointed as the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet (FOCEF). I was appointed as the Fleet Communications Officer (FCO) on the operational staff of FOCEF and we were embarked on the aircraft carrier, Vikrant, which operated as our flagship throughout the war.

Normally, a fleet commander gets time to work up his fleet of ships with peacetime exercises so that the admiral, his staff and the commanding officers (CO) of the ships can gel together to function as a team. In this case, the fleet was thrust into the war from the word go. It is to the enormous credit of the admiral that in the short time available to him, he was able to knit the fleet into a cohesive unit and deliver all that was asked of it and more. Admiral Sarma was specially chosen for this job as Admiral S M Nanda, the then Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), had faith that the former would be able to deliver. Months before the event, the CNS had told Admiral Sarma that as and when the fleet was formed, he would be given its command. The latter did not let the CNS down and accomplished the destruction of enemy ships and bases, blockade and contraband control. Extensive damage was caused to the Pakistan Air Force and port facilities by airstrikes and the fleet effected tight control over the Bay of Bengal so that no enemy ship could enter or leave the then East Pakistan ports and we could take 93,000 prisoners of war.

The admiral was more than willing to take necessary risks to accomplish his tasks. For example, considering Vikrant’s limited speed due to one of its boilers being non-operational, Naval Headquarters had advised that the carrier should operate more than 100 miles from the coast to be out of range of Pak Sabre jets. The admiral thought this was too far and in consultation with Captain Parkash, CO Vikrant, decided to operate from a 55-60 mile range. This enabled Vikrant to carry out as many as 90 highly effective air attacks.

Then there was the unique minesweeping effort to clear the entrance channel to Chittagong harbour. This was not envisaged earlier and was not really a job for the fleet, which had no minesweepers. A “jugaad” way of sweeping was devised by renting local fishing boats trawling a length of wire.

A couple of lighter moments come to mind. The fleet was anchored off the northernmost Andaman Island, Port Cornwallis, awaiting further instructions from NHQ. Signals needed to be made to Visakhapatnam for some urgent supplies. Not wanting to break radio silence in order not to compromise our location, I found out that there was a police wireless station on the island. I told the admiral that I would go ashore and get the messages cleared from there. As there was not much activity going on at that time, the admiral said he would accompany me. On landing, we met a local man who informed us that the police station was miles away at the other end of the island. Just then, a jeep came by and I requested the driver to take us to the police station. He flatly refused upon which the admiral thundered, “By the emergency powers invested in me by the President of India, I commandeer this vehicle and order you to take us to the police station.” I do not know whether the driver understood what was said but that was enough for him to take us to the station and back!

A deeply-ingrained memory is of the classic reply the admiral gave to the message from the CO of one of our ships, Beas, inquiring what action to take if we came across ships of the US 7th Fleet. Without batting an eyelid, the admiral replied, “Exchange identities and wish them the time of day”.

In normal circumstances, the news of a 99-year-old man passing away would have been routine — after all, how many people live to reach that age? What made it shocking was that I had just met Admiral Sarma in Delhi about a fortnight ago, after 43 years. He had come from Bhubaneshwar, his hometown, to attend functions celebrating the golden jubilee of India’s victory in the 1971 war, holding the distinction of being the senior-most surviving warrior of the war. We met at a lunch hosted by the present CNS, Admiral R Hari Kumar. I sighted Admiral Sarma and went up to him to introduce myself but before I could speak, he said you are Sharma and you were my FCO on board Vikrant. He then went on to say a few more things about me which showed that he had continued to follow my career long after my FCO tenure. Remarkable for a man of that age, who I was meeting after 1978.

I told the admiral that it was an honour and a privilege to see him after such a long time and that it was admirable that he had taken the trouble to come all the way for this occasion. His reply, “Well, the CNS insisted, so here I am.” He went on to proudly proclaim, “You know, I have entered my 100th year on December 1.” To me, witnessing his mental fitness and fortitude to have made the long journey, it seemed that the admiral would have many more years to go. I consider myself fortunate to have served under him. I shall cherish the two presents he gave me on that day, his autobiography, My Years At Sea, and a set of picture postcards depicting the highlights of his naval career.

The writer is a retired officer of the Indian Navy

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