INS Vikrant: The Little-Known Story of an Indian Braveheart

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In August this year, a phoenix will rise for the Indian Navy, when it commissions the country’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC - 1). The warship will be sailing in the wake of a much-loved braveheart, after whom it has been named – the INS Vikrant.

The new aircraft carrier is carrying forward a glorious legacy, as the Vikrant played a stellar role in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. What made her contribution so special is her participation against massive odds?

She was in very poor shape when the war loomed and the seaworthiness of the ageing ship was in question. But a handful of naval officers plumped for the Vikrant, believing she could help win the war against Pakistan. The aircraft carrier, India’s first, did her country proud and ended up as one of the most famous Indian warships of all time.

HMS Hercules
HMS Hercules

The INS Vikrant began her journey as the HMS Hercules, an aircraft carrier in the (British) Royal Navy in 1943, during the Second World War. But the war ended before she was completed and, in May 1946, work on the ship was suspended. Only 75 percent complete, she was docked in Scotland for the next 10 years.

After the war, the navies of nations like the United States and the United Kingdom wanted to sell the ships they no longer needed and the Indian government bought the HMS Hercules in 1957. The Hercules was towed to Belfast, Ireland, where her construction was completed and modifications made according to the requirements of the Indian Navy.

Harland and Wolff Builder's Plate on INS Vikrant
Harland and Wolff Builder's Plate on INS Vikrant

Incidentally, this was done at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, the same shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built in 1912! As part of her modifications, an angled deck, steam catapults and a new ‘island’ (the command centre for flight operations) were added to the ship.

From Hercules to Vikrant

The HMS Hercules became the INS Vikrant when it was commissioned into the Indian Navy on 4th March 1961 in Belfast, by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Indian High Commissioner to the UK. The name ‘Vikrant’ was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vikranta’, meaning ‘very powerful’ or ‘brave’. The ship formally joined the Indian Navy in the Bombay harbour on 3rd November 1961, and was received by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at Ballard Pier.

Vikrant was now more than 20 years old and unfit to take part in the India-Pakistan War of 1965. She was kept in dry dock in the Bombay harbour, while she was refitted.

Even though the ship was ageing, the Vikrant was India’s first-ever aircraft carrier and a matter of pride for the Indian Navy. So, when war was imminent again, this time between India and Pakistan over the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indian Navy was determined to make sure that the Vikrant played an active role in the fighting.

It was a tough call, for the warship was far from fit and she was docked at the Naval Dockyard in Bombay, yet again, in June 1970, for repairs. In his book Transition to Triumph: History of the Indian Navy - 1965-1975, Fleet Operations Officer Captain Gulab Mohanlal Hiranandani writes that the Vikrant had suffered many internal fatigue cracks and fissures in the water drums of her boilers and these couldn’t be repaired by welding.

Overcoming Challenges

The old warship was more than 25 years old by now and the only way to get around the challenges posed by her condition was to run the ship well below her designed capability, at 14 knots (26 kmph), half her designed maximum speed of 25 knots (45 kmph).

In spite of the doubts in the Naval Headquarters about the ship’s seaworthiness, there were those who were plumping for her. Captain Hiranandani would later recall telling the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda: “During the 1965 war, Vikrant was sitting in Bombay Harbour and did not go out to sea. If the same thing happened in 1971, Vikrant would be called a white elephant and naval aviation would be written off. Vikrant had to be seen being operational even if we didn’t fly any aircraft.” It was Admiral Nanda, Vice-Admiral N Krishnan and Captain Hiranandani who were instrumental in taking Vikrant to war.

But it was the Vikrant’s commanding officer, Vice-Admiral Swaraj Parkash who got the crew of the Vikrant and the pilots of the air squadrons up to full combat capability. It wasn’t easy. There were only six available aircraft (Sea Hawks) when the pilots began their training in July 1971.

As this number increased to 18, the pilots and crew of the ship underwent intense combat training. When the training was complete, the Vikrant became the nucleus of the Eastern Fleet.

With war clouds looming, the fleet sailed to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on 13th November. But there was danger closer than the Navy had imagined. The Pakistani Navy had deployed a submarine, the PNS Ghazi, with the sole mission of sinking the Vikrant. Thankfully, the submarine itself sank off the coast of Visakhapatnam, under mysterious circumstances, on the night of 3rd December 1971.

Going in for the Kill

When hostilities broke out the next day, the Vikrant was deployed towards Chittagong. She was ordered to strike Chittagong and Cox's Bazar harbours. Due to other Indian fleet units being on a submarine search-and-attack mission and the fact that the Vikrant didn’t have any anti-submarine or anti-air protection, Vice-Admiral Parkash’s officers advised him against launching such a strike. But he wouldn’t have it. He argued: “Like bloody hell. I did not come to this point to turn back without attacking. Launch the strike!”

Rear Admiral Santosh Kumar Gupta (Retd) recalls that on 4th December, at around 3 pm, 6 Sea Hawks were launched from the Vikrant. They had to fly low, almost skimming the surface of the sea, to avoid being detected by enemy radar. They soon reached their target and attacked shipping in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar harbours, sinking or damaging most of the berthed ships, with their 500-pound bombs.

Among these were two gunboats and rivercraft, a warehouse and three merchant ships. The river ports of Khulna, Changla and Mongla were also severely damaged. These attacks were followed up by a strike on a large building in Chittagong city, which had been reported by intelligence to house several Pakistani military personnel who were attending a meeting.

Breguet Alize anti-submarine aircraft taking off from Vikrant
Breguet Alize anti-submarine aircraft taking off from Vikrant

The next target to be hit by airstrikes from the Vikrant was the cantonment area of Chittagong, on 14th December. Several Pakistani Army barracks were destroyed. Strikes conducted by Sea Hawks were accompanied by simultaneous attacks on Cox’s Bazar by Breguet Alize aircraft, also deployed by the Vikrant.

Rules to the Wind!

There was more drama to come. During an attack on the Chittagong airfield installation on 9th December, Lieutenant-Commander Santosh Kumar Gupta’s Sea Hawk was hit by ground fire while he was on a steep dive bombing run at 420 knots (770 kmph). He couldn’t release his 500-pound bomb on the target due to hydraulic failure, which also made his aircraft very difficult to manoeuvre. He had only one choice – eject from his aircraft over the sea, as landing on the warship with a bomb still attached to his aircraft would have violated safety rules.

However, taking a calculated risk, Captain Swaraj Parkash allowed him to land with an armed bomb. After completing the gruelling approach to the deck of the Vikrant, Gupta hit the deck safely, albeit in violation of all rules!

In just 10 days, over 300 strike sorties were flown by aircraft from the Vikrant. Around 8 Sea Hawks and Alizes were hit by ground fire but none was lost. The warship had exceeded expectations. She had proved instrumental in establishing total control in the Bay of Bengal, air superiority in East-Pakistani airspace, and also establishing a naval blockade to prevent supplies and trade coming in from West Pakistan.

The Pakistan armed forces in East-Pakistan were thus starved of war supplies and this contributed to their swift surrender on 16th December 1971, just 13 days after the war began.

Captain of the Vikrant, Vice-Admiral Swaraj Parkash and Lieutenant-Commander Santosh Kumar Gupta, (Commander of INAS 300), were both awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, while 12 crew members were awarded the Vir Chakra gallantry medal.

Despite numerous challenges that plagued the INS Vikrant, the warship played a vital role in winning the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan. She didn’t see much service after that, though. The ageing aircraft carrier remained in service for another 26 years, till she was decommissioned on 31st January 1997.

INS Vikrant as a Museum ship in Mumbai Harbour
INS Vikrant as a Museum ship in Mumbai Harbour

The Vikrant was then converted into a museum ship and she remained berthed in Bombay harbour, open to the public to marvel at her glorious past. The only battle she ever lost was a court case to prevent her from being scrapped completely. Due to rising maintenance costs and her poor condition, which made her unsafe for the public, the Vikrant was finally scrapped in November 2014.

Vikrant being scrapped at Mumbai
Vikrant being scrapped at Mumbai

Vikrant's glorious legacy is carried forward by its new namesake – the IAC – 1. The old warhorse is not only an enduring symbol of courage but also a reminder of the tenacity and determination of the officers, crew and pilots who took her to the brink and back.

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