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December 23 , 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Rewriting history

It is history revision time. We have recently seen revised versions of the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. An "official" history of 1971 has recently been published. A large number of files and papers gathering dust in archives have now become available and a whole army of historians, researchers, investigative reporters and iconoclasts are out there pouring over every battle, legend and tradition. Man's perpetual search for truth has led to newer and sometimes less flattering versions of some events. Myths are being shattered.

Of course, official history need not necessarily be true history. Indeed, there is no such thing as "true" history. There are only different versions of the same event. Thus the Russian historians writing the history of the "Glorious Patriotic War" (Second World War) rarely mention the enormous amount of military aid received through the heroic Arctic convoys. Western historians downplay the part played by the Red Army in subjugating Hitler's invincible panzers.

Military history is even more confusing than political history. Very few have any recollection of what exactly happened in the heat of battle. During debriefs people tend to exaggerate their own part and contribution. Thus varied interpretations of events get written.

Shivaji's encounter with Afzal Khan is viewed as a great act of courage and shrewdness by historians from Maharashtra; as an act of treachery in some parts of North India.

Sometimes the rush to pass judgement attracts speedy denouement, leaving all concerned with egg on their face. An intrusion into the naval chief's house turned out to be nothing more than a wonky guard trying to commit a half-hearted suicide and then letting loose some rounds at an imaginary intruder, causing considerable embarrassment to naval spokesmen.

Just 50 years ago George Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn and the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava were firmly entrenched in the halls of fame as gallant actions in the face of overwhelming odds. Subsequent investigations and writings have established both the actions as avoidable and the results of arrogant, stupid and rigid leadership.

Recently the BBC aired the strange story of the aircraft carrier Glorious which was sunk by two German battleships in 1940. Up to now, the sinking of the Glorious and her two attendant destroyers was touted as a heroic action by an inferior force in the face of a superior and powerful German fleet. The carrier according to the earlier story went down with colours flying in the best traditions of the service. Not so, says the BBC. In fact the board of inquiry into the loss found such monumental blunders all round that the British government ordered the inquiry papers to be kept a secret for 100 years!

To start with, the commanding officer of the Glorious was a submariner and a bit of a martinet who had his own ideas about how to use air power. He had violent disagreements with the head of the ship's air department, to such an extent that he took the unprecedented step of landing the Commander (Air) ashore before the ship sailed for the crucial Norwegian operations. During its return from Norway, the Glorious set off ahead of the main force, ostensibly because she was short of fuel, but actually because the Captain was in a hurry to court-martial the commander.

During return, he disregarded the advice of his subordinates to carry out air reconnaissance which might have revealed the presence of two German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at sea. Instead he had all the ship's aircraft secured in the hangar below. The Germans accidentally came upon the carrier and their third salvo landed on the carrier's flight deck making any air operations impossible. The carrier and the two destroyers were sitting ducks to the might of the German guns and all were sunk. The carrier's urgent report about the two battleships was transmitted and received correctly by the cruiser Devonshire which was in the vicinity. But the cruiser was engaged in an important assignment, bringing King Haakon of Norway and the royal family to Britain. It had strict orders from Churchill not to divert. The captain disregarded the cry for help and did not go to the rescue of the carrier. More than 900 seamen perished in the disaster in what has been termed as a "Glorious cockup."

Victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan, said John F Kennedy. Sometimes the exercise to rewrite history is undertaken to claim belated credit in a action. Forty or fifty years after the event is a safe time to pronounce judgements without fear of contradiction.

The Indian Navy celebrated its Navy Day, on December 4, the day on which a force of missile boats attacked Karachi harbour. The encounter resulted in the sinking of one Pakistani destroyer and one mine sweeper. In addition a destroyer and a fleet tanker were badly damaged. Subsequently the missile boats let lose their remaining missiles on Karachi which managed to set fire to the oil installations at Kiamari.

More than a few people were surprised recently when, according to the official history, the India Air Force claimed most of the credit for the navy's attack on Karachi. In this version, the attack was only successful because the Indian Air Force destroyed the Pakistan Air Force and allowed the naval ships to carry out their attack without fear of a strike by the PAF. In addition, they supplied a Combat Air Patrol over the boats to protect them. Moreover, the oil tanks at Kiamari were destroyed by air attacks and not by the navy.

This was, of course, news to the navy. The naval plan was bold and audacious and its success depended on surprise and a modicum of luck. Fortunately for the navy, both the strategic and tactical surprise was complete. The missile boats had come to India in early 1971. Such type of boats and their missiles had sunk the Israeli destroyer Eilath nearly 8 years ago. Yet the Pakistani intelligence appeared oblivious to the deadly power of such missiles against gun ships. They were also unaware of the masterstroke conceived by Admiral Nanda, the Indian Navy chief, in using missile boats in the offensive role.

The missile hits on Kiamari were also sheer luck. The P-15 missiles used in the action are meant for attack against surface ships. A surface ship at sea will result in a small echo in the missile's radar and the missile is designed to home on to that echo. The missile was not designed to attack shore targets. Approaching the shore, the radar will get saturated by echoes and thereafter there is no knowing what the missile will home on. Naval observers who saw the missiles home on to the oil tanks believe that it was due to the strong echoes which the metallic tanks returned.

The navy's second stroke of luck had to do with the state of the Higher Defence Organisation in Pakistan. In 1971, Pakistan's naval headquarters was situated in Karachi. The other two chiefs sat in Islamabad. There was little cooperation between the services. There was a dedicated maritime strike squadron but the air chief, who commanded all aircraft, committed them to the land battle elsewhere. The desperate calls by the Pakistan Navy for a strike on the missile boats were ignored by the PAF. The missile boats returned without loss to Bombay.

Rewriting history in their own image is of course not peculiar to India. Towards the fag end of the 1971 war President Nixon decided to send the 7th fleet to the Bay of Bengal. By the time the fleet arrived anywhere near the scene, Pakistani forces in East Bengal had surrendered. Having achieved their limited objective in the East and seeing no particular reason to prolong the war in the west, India declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities. Yet it did not stop Nixon and Kissinger to claim that the cease-fire was due to American pressure and the presence of the 7th Fleet.

Newer versions of past events will no doubt get written. They may well serve to correct our present perceptions, if not to make villains out of heroes and vice versa.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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