"I led 11 strikes since I was commanding the fighter squadron." : Part I
“I led 11 strikes since I was commanding the fighter squadron. I had eight aircraft with me, sometimes 10, sometimes 12 aircraft. We attacked differently each time; in some of these, many of us got hit"
Rear Admiral Santosh Gupta, MVC, NM was invited to the National Defence Academy to inaugurate an ante room, built-in his honour. The facility was inaugurated by the Admiral in the presence of Air Marshal Sanjeev Kapoor, AVSM, VM, Commandant National Defence Academy, and officers and cadets of the academy. The Admiral has been interviewed on the sidelines of his busy itinerary while he was at National Defence Academy.
TDA: What has been the experience of having a major building at your alma mater named after you and then having the opportunity to inaugurate it in person?
Adm G: Let me begin by saying that it was totally unexpected. I got an inkling of this happening sometime in December or January when in passing, the Deputy Commandant from NDA rang me up. After that, somebody came to visit me and the reminders kept coming until they decided on the date. Something very new has happened to us because for the last 15 years, everything was very quiet and then suddenly, there were continuous reminders of the War. People were very generous. They were very kind all along. Suddenly publicity became a big thing. Now, when they were naming the building, I was wondering why me? There are so many with numerous gallantry awards.
I think it was due to a lack of Naval representation. Knowing that NDA is a tri-service academy, I suppose it has to be a little balanced and therefore, the Navy was mooted. I don't know how it all started and who started it. All I can say is that the building is absolutely out of this world. It's a huge building. It started only a few months ago, it's completed on time and beautifully done inside. We’ve had the opportunity of inaugurating it. I’ve never inaugurated a building like this. There’s so much attention being given by the media and a lot of kind words being bandied about. So, it was a bit touching and of course exhilarating. I felt extremely honoured and indeed, privileged.
TDA: Now tell us something about your formative years. Did you always wish to join the Indian Navy?
ADM G: Those days, in my time, you either became a doctor or a lawyer or joined the armed forces. I can't think of anything else. Belonging to Dehradun, I saw a lot of the military and during the war, I would see the men marching up and down Rajpur Road. We would see the Gorkhas marching up and down so frequently and I used to love the noise of the boots! This must have been when I was probably 10 years old. So, the seed had been sown in the way I saw the marching, I heard the marching, how disciplined they were, and how smart they looked.
When I was at The Doon School, I had a General’s son as my roommate, and in those days, there were hardly any Generals. I was about 14 when the upper school was addressed by a Naval officer who happened to be the Deputy Commandant of the Joint Services Wing. I can still picture the gentleman. So impressive, extremely handsome with all his blue patrols and gold, shining all over and the ribbons and the metal. I still haven’t forgotten that lecture. It created such an impression that my friend, the general's son, and I decided, at that moment, that we’ll join the Indian Navy. So, this is the seed being watered.
The next thing that happened was, we were at Mussoorie during the break-in between terms at school. My father wanted to meet his two sons and so, he called for them. When we reached, we were looking very sheepish. I got a chance to think about something wise when my elder brother, who was just a year older, was being questioned about what he would like to do when he grows up. He promptly replied, agriculture. When my father asked me, I said, “I want to join the Navy”. He didn't understand what I said because nobody in my family ever joined government service. We've been zamindars, bankers and our family history go back to Aurangzeb’s time in Dehradun, in the 1700s. When he asked me to repeat, I said, I want to join the Navy! So he said, okay, all right. I don’t know if he understood what I said or maybe, he didn’t want to make me feel underconfident about anything. So, it was not that I was forced to live up to that word, but it helped me make a decision easily. After that, everything I saw in uniform appealed to me.
Before doing the senior Cambridge, I opted for joining the Navy through the academy. Those days, the academy was in Dehradun, the Joint Services Wing and the other wing was the military wing of the NDA. There was a common Commandant. Three or four of us applied to the JSW. That was for the eight-course. I went for the selection board, got selected but when it came to the medical, I got rejected. I was underweight, under height, and I had trachoma in the eyes. After six months of cooling my heels, I came back to NDA again for the 10th course.
Now, I joined the 10th course but my friend had already joined the 8th course. My friend was one year senior to me and one year is a lot of seniority! When I met him after a few months, I said, “I hear you’re an Army cadet?” He said, “Yes, my father expired and my mother didn’t allow me to join the navy saying, how can a general’s son join the Navy?” I thought, my God, my best friend has gone and joined the Army. I made one effort to change my service in my third term. In the third term, I came back very seasick on board. I told my divisional officer, who was a Naval officer, that I wanted to change to the Army as I joined the Navy by mistake and I was seasick. I was just looking for an excuse! He denied it saying nobody ever changed their service from the Navy to the Army.
That’s how I ended up in the 10th course and I never looked back after that. I joined aviation. We spent a year and a half in Dehradun and another year and a half at Pune, where we were the senior-most course, practically. Then, I joined the Navy as a trainee cadet. Those days we had to serve three and a half years as cadets. Then, another year as a non-commissioned officer. That totaled four and a half years of training for the Navy, whereas the army did for four years and the Air Force for two years. Two years plus one year in the respective academies, so three years. So, the 12th course became contemporaries.
They asked for volunteers for flying because I think our first prime minister had been sold the idea of an aircraft carrier by none other than the Viceroy turned Governor-General, Admiral of the Fleet, Mountbatten. Mountbatten came to review us during the third term. The prime minister came for our passing out parade in the fourth term.
The influences were all heading for the Navy! Every year something was happening, shuffling me into the Navy. It came naturally. I first joined the Navy and there was no looking back. It was too exciting, too good. That's the long and the short of it!
TDA: Share with us your experiences of JSW/ NDA as it was during your time. How do you think it has changed over the years?
ADM G: This is an interesting question but rather difficult to answer. I look back on the training we had and now, I've seen the new cadets coming to the Navy. I’ve seen my own grandchildren growing, at the same time. I’ve observed a complete change of attitude and discipline. I wouldn't say negatively, but certainly youngsters today don't want to obey blindly. They want reasons for everything and you can convince them but well, that is also very difficult. Today, there are a variety of professions that one can follow. So everything really has changed. It’s become topsy-turvy. There's nothing that anybody can influence, except by personal example
I’d say, the difference is so great that we accepted training as it was and we accepted what the seniors told you, for your own good. The parents those days did not interfere either. They didn't even bother what you were doing! The training is similar in certain ways but the attitude of the youngsters is very different. In NDA, they're very disciplined from the angle of what you see outside. A lot of youngsters aspire to join the NDA, even today. But I think, that is the glamour and a belief that people will look up to them and depend on them. I think that's bringing them in.
TDA: Tell us something about the operations undertaken by your squadron onboard INS Vikrant during the 1971 war and the mission for which you were awarded a Mahavir Chakra!
ADM G: That was in 1970. I was in command of the fighter squadron on Vikrant, which continued for another year and a half because of the ‘71 war. The Vikrant and the squadrons, together, played a very important part and they felt a sense of belonging to each other. Nobody could break that bond. The ship was laid up unfit for war in Bombay for a year and she sailed out purely to save her skin. Otherwise, it was an easy target for Pakistan to attack Vikrant in Bombay. She sailed out and came along the coast up to Madras. Now, what did the aircraft carrier do? They have to have the aircraft repaired.
So, I was directed to bring six Seahawks to Madras. At the time, I had no idea there was going to be a war. Aircraft were running out of spares. The aircraft manufacturer in the UK had stopped more than 10 years ago. Vikrant was having a problem with boilers and speed and generally was at a very, very poor standard. Therefore, she was not fit for war. Neither was a squadron. My experienced pilots had been transferred out and I had only two experienced pilots. But, you cannot afford to lay back in any war and say that your main job is really to protect the sea lanes so that the trade continues, you're not starved of fuel and defence of your harbours. That’s the traditional role. But the Chief of Naval staff in his typical manner knew one thing, that he had learned as he was growing up in the service, is that the Navy had to change this role.
Thus, the then Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nanda decided that we were going to break that tradition and we were going to attack the Pakistani ports themselves. He'd made up his mind but nobody would take him seriously till it became a direct order. Then he started moving heaven and earth, through the prime minister, to get what he wanted in preparation for this war. This was at the end of July.
Finally, I made sure that the Navy gives me all the experienced pilots that existed in the Navy. We had 15 experienced pilots and 20 aircraft, operational with full spares available, all bought from the UK. That only happened by the end of October, early November. From July till October, we were nowhere near and the war had come up. Before that, we would have not been able to play our part. Thus, we were ready for war in early November and that's when the Eastern fleet was formed. The local admiral who took charge of the fleet while CO Vikrant, who is otherwise the senior-most, now could devote full attention to the ground. This happened all very logically, very slowly at first because the will was there, both from the aviation side and the ship side and the fleet Admiral. Most of all, the qualities of leadership of the CO, the captain of Vikrant, were absolutely iconic!
Preparing for the war itself was very simple. The spirit of Vikrant was such that you wanted a hundred percent available the next day. Your technicians did the job unfailingly and they did phenomenal jobs. For example, the crew of the Sea Hawk aircraft would sleep under the wings at night. They would just go down for food and come back. This was the spirit that worked.
We’d exercise what we’re going to do. We knew the maps, the target areas, etc. We practiced carrying out airstrikes during daylight and daylight hours and that’s exactly what we did. We attacked Cox’s Bazaar on the first day. On the same day, we also attacked Chittagong harbour and wreaked havoc there. We destroyed any opposition that came which included anti-aircraft guns, gunboats, and anti-aircraft guns. We took them all on. We attacked the airfield in Chittagong, as well as the riverine craft. We destroyed all the waterways so no ship could go out or come in. They were all destroyed, the airfield was half destroyed. The refinery was on fire and ports like Khulna, Chalna, and Mongla were all attacked. We had all these Naval targets. The Air Force was attacking them. So the time came when we completely sealed off the approaches and the exits to East Pakistan. They were pushed against the sea by the Army and the Air Force who did their work.
Finally, they had no choice but to escape. If they had not surrendered and chosen to fight, they would have been massacred. So 93,000 people were taken as prisoners of war. That had never happened before. Only during the Second World War, something like this had happened, during the end the war. All of this within a span of 13 days. Can you imagine a war lasting, a decisive war, against the enemy that can’t tolerate us for 13 days?! We made them surrender, a new nation was born, helped them restore everything and then, we withdrew. Never in the history of the world has an invading army ever left an occupied country.
Regarding my Mahavir Chakra, I led 11 strikes since I was commanding the fighter squadron. I had eight aircraft with me, sometimes 10, sometimes 12 aircraft. We attacked with bombs, rockets, guns, depending on the target's vulnerability. In some of these, many of us got hit. The aircraft was hit by gunfire. In fact, there were eight aircraft hit on different days, but they were all repaired overnight.
The citation mentioned Khulna but I think my aircraft was really hit in Chittagong. When we were bombing from 7,000 feet coming down, the aircraft was hit and I lost control of the aircraft. Due to the high speed, you have to bring down your speed, control the aircraft, and all of this, in an enemy area. The enemy is firing at you and then, bringing your buddies back is also your responsibility.
There were so many instances, you know. There were instances when I could not land or my bomb was stuck. Now, with that explosive bomb, a 500-pound bomb, you cannot land on the ship. It can explode and an explosion means damage to the ship. So you have no option but to eject and then you're picked up.
Another time the aircraft lift was stuck in an open position. When you land on the ship, you land on the aft lift which brings the aircraft up or down. At the same time, it’s kept up physically by keeps, hydraulically, and then over them are the other four wires in which you engage. Now, if you have the wire but you don't have a landing place, you can't land. So, four aircraft almost had to be abandoned near the ship and they would be picked up. There was the order given! But everything worked in our favour. At the last minute, the lift came up but then it wouldn’t go down again. But it didn't matter, we recovered the aircraft.
The third thing that happened was that the aircraft carrier lost its radar for one day. We couldn't fight a war, in the sense that if you're coming back, we wouldn't know where the ship is. So they had to bring us back but there was no way they could bring us back. Fortunately, the commanding officer Vikrant was a good leader. He knew the limitations and decided to remain around that area. He knew what time he was coming back and thus, we found the ship easily. So, there were serious incidents. Actually, you get a gallantry award for a specific thing. My citation says good leadership, led 11 strikes, his aircraft was hit and he brought the squadron back. The smaller things that aggravate those situations are not mentioned. Actually, in a war like this, one incident is normally not enough because you do nothing different from what others are doing. They are all doing the same thing.
So, the Mahavir Chakra was for a series of incidents?
Yes, but they had to be specific! It was the 9th of December; there was an attack on Khulna Harbor and despite having been hit, we managed to bring the whole squadron back, especially along with the damaged aircraft. There were two pilots whose windscreens were smashed by bullets so they couldn't see in front. They had to be shepherded back and then made to go down on the glide path of the Vikrant and then land, at the last minute. These are all very, very, very intricate things. Training is required. Confidence is required by both, the ship and the pilot as well as the personnel bringing you in. There were a series of things on INS Vikrant. I like to think that it was just a series of things that happened to culminate in one Mahavir Chakra and four Vir Chakras. There were four mentioned dispatchers and 2 Nau Sena Medals for bravery. That's all from my squadron alone! There were 15 of us and all of us played our part.
This was just the first part of Admiral Gupta’s fabulous experiences in the Forces. Keep an eye out for the second and the concluding part of his interview with The Defence Archive. Stay tuned.