The Sense Of Duty : Service Before Self
Colonel Awadhesh Kumar, Veteran
Lt Allan Rodrigues, Indian Navy, joined NDA as the Divisional officer 15 Division, Echo Squadron in January 1977,around the same time when we of 52 NDA ECHO came back from winter vacation as SIXTH TERMERS.
The first encounter of the third kind took place the same night. Cadet Sergeant Major B S Dhanoa, the future IAF Chief, had already taken control of cadets up to 5th termers through a 2100h “fall in “ and was scratching his head as to how to find out the details of the 6th termers. After all he had to give the report to the Battalion Duty Officer ( BDO), who was none other than Lt Allan Rodrigues. On top of that, the sixth termers were in full JOSH and were creating total bedlam, not knowing that the BDO was about to enter the squadron shortly.
Then was made an announcement, a kind of a blasphemy as far as 6th termers were concerned …..all sixth terms to fall in front of the Squadron Cadet Captain’ s cabin in FSMO. It took good thirty minutes for Deepak Mehta the SCC and CSM Dhanoa, before all 6th termers were there in their civvies. Report was given to the BDO, he did not come out to “ greet us “ but conveyed a solid warning …..the war had been declared.
Then came the first Saturday night and again the sixth termers were creating ruckus on the first floor. The would be Armoured Corps types led by Sunil Saberwal were in the lead. They carried out a neat attack on the first floor tea room Flank ( not from the flanks ) and vanished. Infuriated, we from the flanks were about to launch our attack with buckets of water in hand, when suddenly appeared Allan Rodrigues from nowhere, ….he was not supposed to be there. A newly posted Flt Lt ( that too not ex NDA ) was the duty officer and as far as we knew would be coming only later late at night, after the lights out time.
The DivO ( divisional officer ) just whispered to me, all sixth termers in PT rig, all appointments in drill order, pronto.
Within minutes we were all standing in two rows in front of the Squadron office. Rodrigues came out and asked the first chap, it was M M kapoor, if I remember correctly, as to what was happening. He replied “ sir I was sleeping “. Instead of “ exploding”, Rodrigues just said …fall out and carry on. Next was me …..what could I say except that sir, we were having fun time. He then asked if any one else was sleeping. One or two more were excused. Then rest of us were asked to move out and lights were switched off. For the next two hours we were back in time as first termers. We did not mind a bit.
Then on Monday, we got a shock when after lunch a few of us were asked to report to the DivO office to sign a written warning. Now this was not “ fair “ and totally “ un NDA like behaviour “ and we began cursing him. Then while signing the warning, he asked us to read it also. As we read our eyes widened “…… in spite of knowing that a harsh punishment will follow, the cadet had the courage to accept his mistake …… etc etc.”,we got a bit confused, was it a warning or a citation !!
Soon the ice broke a few days later, when in response to some casual enquiry, we told him that after the punishment we had carried on with an impromptu party on top floor. He at once “admonished us “ for not inviting him, as he could have provided good music. Yes, he was a super guitar player and singer like most of the Goans and would entertain us many a times, when not “ chasing “ us for something or the other and trying his best in turning us into men from the boys we were. He was bent upon turning us into an Officer and a Gentlemen.
To cut the story short, the relationship between Lt Allan Rodrigues and 6th termers ended like the famous film of Sir Sidney Poitier, KBE ….. TO SIR WITH LOVE ( not to imply that we were rouges prior to his arrival ).
However one more story needs to be added, which took place after we passed out in Jun 1977. A course mate of ours a “ General” in Echo Squadron was to be relegated again for academics for the second time which would lead to expulsion. A cadet, if he gets relegated to a junior term is called a brigadier by other cadets, one can become a General and even a Field Marshal also if he so desires. However a consecutive relegation in the same term for same cause leads to expulsion. In NDA these “ranks “ have their own privileges.
Then Rodrigues the Maverick, so junior an officer, intervened and took up the matter straight with the Commandant Admiral M P Awati, Vr C, a maverick himself. When the cadet was marched up to him for expulsion the Commandant spoke in his thundering voice……Cadet, you want to stay or go out …….The “ General “ instead of shivering, as nearly most would, replied back in equally loud voice …..sir, I want to stay and pass out. So instead of retiring the General was promoted to Field Marshal and he eventually decided to move his HQ from Khadakvasla to Dehradun.
After passing out of NDA in 1977, I never met Lt Allan Rodrigues again. Then after joining my Parachute Regiment, I met a very fine officer Captain Sanjiv Wattal and had the privilege of meeting Mrs Amita Wattal his wife for the first time. She was the daughter of Late Captain A N Mulla, Mahavir Chakra, the commanding officer of INS KHUKRI in 1971. Much later in 1998, before becoming Principal of Sprindales School, New Delhi, she was Principal of Air Force School, Agra. My son Vishit was a very favorite students of her.
However only many years later in 2011or 2012 or so, from an article written by her or was it an interview that I realized the agony she had undergone while growing up as a child, missing her father all the time.
Then in 2017 while in Melbourne, I came across this letter ( below) written by Captain Allan Rodrigues to Mrs Ameeta Wattal. A letter worth reading :
“Dear Ameeta Mulla Wattal,
I am an ex- Indian naval officer who left the service honourably in 1994. I live in New Zealand, and work in Australia and New Zealand these days.
This email refers to an article you wrote some five years ago very poignantly, on your father the Late Captain Mulla, pondering why he chose to go down with his ship.
The article obviously struck a chord with many of your readers, and in the way of the internet, travelled the world before it entered my mail box a few days ago, via a social network maintained by the 42nd NDA and 51st IMA course.
I did not know your father personally, but I feel I have always known him and for what he stood for, all of my adult life. I missed the fighting in 1971 as I was cadet in the NDA at the time, and only passed out and joined a warship at sea in June 1972, six months after the war ended. In the event I became an Anti Submarine specialist and along the way, I ended up commanding three warships including INS Himgiri (also an anti submarine frigate, although a more modernised version of the original Khukri). I retired after 20 years, joined industry, and eventually moved across the Pacific and the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.
I only say this because it has some context to the comments I make below, on the decision by your father to go down with his ship. In doing so I hope to capture the circumstances (and perhaps the greater purpose) of why captains of warships in extreme circumstances, take such drastic actions that seem to lack purpose or reason (particularly to the public at large). I’m sure many naval officers of senior rank and certainly more qualified than me, may well have commented at length after reading your article. I just felt I might throw some light on a take that has largely been neglected. I know the pain never goes away and I apologise for any anguish I might give you in the process, but I do believe that Captain Mulla did something for the service that night, that has not been either understood or recognised, by both the navy, and the public at large. The Indian Navy of 1971 was a different beast from the one we have today. Little was known about Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) at the time. We commissioned our first submarine in 1968 in the then Soviet Union, and had barely begun operating a fledgling submarine arm by 1970. Pakistan by contrast, had been operating submarines since the early sixties. Ships like the Khukri and Kirpan supposedly specialised in ASW, formed the vanguard against the fight against Pakistani submarines. They had little in the way of operational experience against submarines, and even less knowledge about the ocean environment.
The physics of detection can be explained in simple non technical terms. The Khukri had sonar called the “Sonar 170” which was the best we had at the time. It had a maximum range (in laboratory conditions) of only 1500 yards. We knew little about the harsh nature of the environment underwater.
The seas in the tropical waters off India’s coastline are heated up in the morning and afternoons, raising surface temperatures to ambient levels. The worst effect is in the afternoons. The laws of physics then apply. They literally bend the sonar waves downwards, severely limiting detection range. Since deeper waters are ice cold, there is meeting point of the warm waters on the top and the cold waters below. This meeting point is called the “layer” where the sonar beam bounces off and is almost totally reflected upwards. There is very little penetration below the layer. These layers lie between 30 and 60 metres depth in tropical waters, and are exploited by expert submariners who are able to hide under it.
It took us another 15 years after the war, all which I was professionally involved with in one way or then other, to fully understand the nature of anti-submarine warfare, and to learn how to work with the physical limitations imposed by a hostile ocean underwater environment.
Submarines on the other hand are not as handicapped, as they do not need to transmit on their sonars to detect a ship. Their engines are silent. They can consequently listen out for a warship and even identify a type of ship and its signature from the sound of its engines. Skilled submariners hide beneath the layer and approach with stealth. They only transmit at the last possible moment when they need a final range to fire their torpedoes.
Warships at sea in 1971 (and Captain Mulla in particular) would have been more than aware of these limitations. They would have known two simple facts
(a) That a submarine at sea would have already detected a surface ship long before the ship had even reached any kind of detection range;
(b) That even if the warship did detect the submarine, it would be at the penultimate moment, when the submarine had already fired, (or was on the verge of firing) its torpedoes, giving the warship a few minutes at best, to take avoiding action, let alone counterattack.
The Pak submarine that sank the Khukri used its environment to maximum advantage. In hind sight and over the years, we developed better sonars and better tactics. We employed dedicated ASW aircraft with sonobuoys and magnetic detectors, helicopter with dunking sonars, and yes we spent a lot of time learning the harsh facts of the ocean environment we were forced to operate in.
This is the context in which ships put to sea in 1971, against an adversary who was well versed in using submarines to maximum advantage. Our own ASW ships had little in the way of riposte or as much experience we would have liked to have had before the war of fighting submarines.
In the event every sailor at sea recognises a moment of truth, when all of his training and skills are put to the ultimate test. It is the moment when the ship beats to quarters and goes into action against an enemy in sight, or an enemy that has been detected.
Khukri and Kirpan were operating in submarine infested waters. The ship would have gone to “action stations” against a submarine many times over, in the days and nights preceding the sinking of the Khukri, sometimes for genuine reasons, sometimes for false alarms. All of this would have exhausted the crew and formed the “fog of war” that hindsight experts, armchair generals/ admirals and the public at large never quite get.
Each time the crew of the Khukri beat to quarters and battened down for action, a clarion call would have been broadcast on its tannoy “Hands to action stations _ assume first degree anti-submarine readiness – assume damage control state one condition Zulu”. The crew of the Khukri would have known fully level, that they were going against a committed enemy, and that the dice were loaded against them. Each of them would have been wondering whether they were going to come out of the action alive or dead. This is an age old fear that men have, and then learn to conquer, when they go to sea and to war. It is the nature of the beast. The army and the air force face similar issues, which they deal with in their own inimitable way. The people most at risk on board the Khukri that night would have been its technical departments; engineering and electrical officers and sailors, closed up at action stations in the bowels of the ship three and four decks below the waterline, keeping the engines and the machinery running, so that their captain could fight. Each of them knew if a torpedo were to hit, it would do so well above where they were located, and that the chances of them surviving would be a lot less than those sailors who were fortunate to be located on the upper decks, and above the waterline. It takes a special kind of motivation to get these men to go down into the bowels of a fighting ship whilst in action against a submarine. They do so each time out of a sense of duty that the ship cannot fight without them and mostly because they recognise that one single unspoken truth… That their captain will not forsake them; that their captain will not leave them behind. That is the crux of the why, and the reason why captains at sea honour this unspoken agreement. Captain Mulla would have known that many of his boys were trapped (but yet alive) in the bowels of his ship when it went down, in the few minutes after the torpedoes hit. He tried to help as many as he could, but I suspect he could not bring himself to save himself, whilst his boys were dying down below. That he chose to go down is a personal decision, perhaps even a moral decision; but it was a decision that set a standard that will save lives in future actions. It forced all of us who came after him, and who were privileged to command men in peace and war, to recognise that undeniable and unspoken bond between fighting men … that you fight your ship against an enemy (or the ocean in a storm), with what you have, and to the best of your ability, and that come what may, you never forsake your troops or leave a man under your command, behind you. What Captain Mulla did that fateful day has had an enormous and positive impact on the service he loved and on the men who continue to serve it to this day. It reminds every one of us chosen to command of the qualities of leadership needed under duress, and of the ultimate responsibility we have to the families of the men we command; “You never forsake your men – You never leave a man behind”.
I know that this hardly helps when trying to explain all of this to the family of a captain who makes the ultimate sacrifice. Nor does it assuage the grief of a young girl trying to understand why her father chose to voluntarily die, rather than save himself. For a fledgling service post independent India trying to forge its own traditions independent of the Royal Indian Navy of yore, the impact was enormous. It was one of the many actions in the 1971 war that made us equal partners with the Army and Air force in the defence of independent India.
I am reminded of the last few stanzas of Ronald Hopwood’s classic poem “Our Fathers” that I quote below:
“When we’ve raced the seagulls,
run submerged across the Bay,
When we’ve tapped a conversation
fifteen hundred miles away,
When the gyros spin superbly,
when we’ve done away with coals,
And the tanks are full of fuel,
and the targets full of holes,
When the margin’s full of safety,
when the weakest in the fleet
Is a Hyper-Super-Dreadnought,
when the squadrons are complete,
Let us pause awhile and ponder,
in the light of days gone by,
With their strange old ships and weapons,
what our Fathers did, and why.
Then if still we dare to argue that
we’re just as good as they,
We can seek the God of Battles
on our knees, and humbly pray
That the work we leave behind us,
when our earthly race is run,
May be half as well completed
as our Fathers’ work was done”.
My wife Sharon and I wish you and your family a great Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year 2011. If you or your family do visit New Zealand do look us up.
Then it so happened that a few days later , I came across an article on the Harbour Construction Company in New Zealand whose Director was Captain Allan . I was able to get a telephone number of his in New Zealand and rang him up . I was speaking to my DivO after nearly 40 years !! We spoke for good 15 minutes , travelling on the Time Machine all the while .
Alas, in 2018 when I visited Auckland ,New Zealand , he was out of town . Hopefully I should be meeting him after the start of the Millennia AC (after Corona).
And how round the world is has just been completed by a phone call received from Sunil Saberwal, after he read this article on the net . A few years after passing out from NDA , Sunil had gone to meet his Co brother , a naval Captain Commanding his ship . He was taken for a visit to the warship also . Guess who was the XO to receive to receive him …..Allan Rodrigues .
Then Saberwal landed for the DSSC course and there he once again meets Commander Allan Rodrigues also attending the Course (the naval and IAF officers attending the Course are invariably senior to Army chaps). During the Course, it so happened that Saberwal was made the Brigade Commander for the “Amphibious Battle“ and Rodrigues as the Brigade Major prepared the Operational Orders . Then the Directing Staff asked the” Brigade Commander “ for his comments on the Operational Orders. With mischievous smile, Saby said that Brigade Major being ‘ inexperienced ‘needs some more practice and so must re write his Orders !
Two or three years after staff college, Sunil Saberwal was posted to College of Military Engineering , Pune to raise the faculty of Nuclear Biological Warfare . Sometime later Captain Allan Rodrigues came to attend the first NBC Course for Senior Staff Officers and found Lt Col Sunil Saberwal as the Course Directing Staff !!