May 10, 2001


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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Does India remember its war heroes?

Indians are not much of history buffs. We have short memories and rarely remember the glorious deeds of the past by our countrymen. Two years ago most Indians danced in the streets after the much hyped victory in Kargil, but today all that is forgotten.

Indian jawans fought gallantly in both World Wars but not one young student today will be able to point out the location of El Alamein, Cassino or even Imphal and Kohima.

Indians won the second highest number of Victoria Crosses in the world. But an ungrateful nation just gave each winner an extra Rs 90 per month and called it "jangi inam."

It is therefore not entirely surprising that not many will remember that this year brings us the 60th, 40th and 30th anniversaries of some of the most important actions and battles of our times. By a coincidence all of them took place in December, a month when the cool climate may be expected to make people pursue peaceful pursuits.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. On December 7, 1941, a day termed by Roosevelt as 'a day of infamy,' in a matter of two hours the Japanese fleet air arm reduced most of the US Pacific fleet to rubble.

The pre-emptive attack was the brainchild of the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Yamamoto. Some years earlier, Yamamoto had been the Japanese naval attaché in Washington, where he had earned a reputation for his intelligence and also as a gifted poker player. During his visits to Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, the base of the powerful US Pacific Fleet, Yamamoto had made a deep study of the US defences, the dispositions of the battleships and carriers and the generally lax state of preparedness.

Later when he assumed command of the Japanese navy, Yamamoto had devised a plan to attack Pearl Harbour and destroy the US fleet. Despite the fact that the plan was frequently tested in war games at Japanese staff colleges, the US intelligence had little inkling of the attack. On a cold December morning, a Japanese Task Force consisting of six aircraft carriers, escorted by battleships, sailed from a remote Japanese naval base in the north and after stealthily taking a northern route arrived off Oahu, Hawaii, without detection.

The date and time for the attack was well chosen. It was 8 am on Sunday when most islanders were lazing in bed or were thinking of picnics and church. It is believed that some advance warning of the attack was available when a scouting plane detected the Japanese task force. There has also been speculation that Roosevelt indeed had advance warning but was lax in alerting the senior officers at Pearl Harbour as he wanted some excuse to get the United States into World War II.

Fortunately for the Americans, their carriers were out at sea and escaped the attack. It was extremely fortuitous as the same carriers later dealt blows to the Japanese in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. The Japanese were victorious everywhere after Pearl Harbour, but less than a year after, an American carrier group dealt a mortal blow to the Japanese fleet when it sank four of their aircraft carriers in a single day at the Battle of Midway, turning the tide of war.

India was not independent during World War II, but exactly 20 years after Pearl Harbour an Independent India asserted itself in a bold action in Goa. Goa was not particularly bold in the military sense. After all, the small garrisons in Goa and Diu were no match for the might of the Indian army. And yet it was the first time that the Indian government shed its Nehruvian romantic and peaceful image and entered Sardar Patel's world of realpolitik.

India had little choice. An intransigent Salazar, living in a world of his own, refused to see the writing on the wall and come to terms with reality. Both Britain and France had long given up their territories. A reluctant India decided to march into Goa and on December 13, 1961 Operation Vijay was launched. It was no contest and the whole thing finished in 48 hours.

And yet, the action was not bereft of some interesting incidents. The Indian Navy saw its first action after Independence. At Diu, the Indian Army found it hard going to cross the creek surrounding Diu island and were taking heavy casualties until the navy's ageing cruiser Delhi carried out point blank bombardment of Diu fort from a range of one-and-a-half miles forcing the garrison to surrender.

Off Goa the only resistance put up was by the pre-World War II Portuguese frigate Alfonso de Albuquerque which came out to give battle to the Indian Navy's latest frigate Betwa, commanded by Commander (later Vice-Admiral) Rusi Gandhy. Gallant Albuquerque was no match for Betwa's state-of-the-art gunnery and was soon driven on shore by the latter. Her crew were taken prisoner.

In a magnanimous gesture, Rusi Gandhy visited them and enquired after their welfare. The captain of Albuquerque presented Rusi with the Portuguese ensign as a gesture of goodwill which Rusi presented to the Navy's gunnery school which, true to tradition, promptly lost it!

Today the action in Goa has been forgotten and India and Portugal are the best of friends.

The only anniversary Indians are likely to remember is the 30th anniversary of the Indian Armed Forces greatest victory. Fortunately for us, a large number of soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought in the 1971 war with Pakistan are still with us. No doubt India had sufficient time to prepare for that war but even so the 1971 campaign was a copybook example of a perfect war. According to The New York Times correspondent who accompanied the Indian Army into East Pakistan, 'The Indian Army did not put one foot wrong.'

The war was also the first test of joint warfare and inter-service co-operation and the services came out of the test with flying colours. The Indian Navy gave, for the first time an excellent account of its capabilities by its attack on Karachi and by its actions in the Bay of Bengal.

Two of the three commanders of that war are still with us today. True to India's tradition of ungratefulness, the country treated them shabbily. Sam Maneckshaw was made a Field Marshal but thereafter was made persona no grata for some time because of a witty remark he made during an interview. The architect of the Indian Navy's victory, Admiral S L Nanda, also suffered in later years.

It is not given to many nations to help create a new nation. It was India's fate to assist in the birth of Bangladesh. Ironically, 30 years later many in this country would like to throttle the very same nation over an incident on the border.

It is unlikely that India will ever have to undertake another action like the 1971 war with Pakistan. All the more reason therefore that we must remember those days and celebrate its anniversary in a fitting manner.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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