From the time submarines have been inducted in the Indian Navy, since 08 Dec 1967, there are some traditions that have been adopted over a period of time. Navies are very strong on tradition and many of these are followed even today.
For submariners, the opportunity of getting a hot meal cooked with fresh ingredients was always a novelty and yearned for by the crew
One such tradition is that of submarines being provided a hot meal at sea by friendly surface ships. Every time submarines operate with fleet ships for a prolonged duration, on the last day, just before parting ways, as a gesture of camaraderie, a hot meal transfer always takes place. This means that the ship would cook a meal sufficient for the entire crew of the submarine and send it across by helicopter. As per tradition, on that particular day there would be no food cooked onboard. For submariners, the opportunity of getting a hot meal cooked with fresh ingredients was always a novelty and yearned for by the crew.
To receive this meal, the submarine would have to surface and carryout vertical replenishment with a helicopter which would winch down a package containing freshly cooked food for the entire ship’s company. Normally, this meal would be a wholesome one like biryani or fried rice and would be served onboard the submarine immediately for lunch and eaten with great relish. As a return gift, the standard bottle of wine would be placed in the bag lowered by the hovering helicopter to be presented to the Captain of the ship which sent the hot meal.
As submarines grew more modern and the galley (kitchen) equipment improved and deep freezers became larger, this hot meal was not really required anymore as our capacity to cook and store food improved but this practice continues till this day and remains a tradition as a symbol of bonhomie between surface and submarine forces.
Now on this particular sea sortie, we were going to operate with surface forces which included exercising with the big fleet of ships with their integral helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flying from the mighty aircraft carrier. Prior to going off on a long patrol, we had time to hone our warfare skills as well as those of the fleet. This being my first command and that too of the most modern submarine in the Indian Navy’s arsenal which I had the honour and pleasure to command at a very young age of 32 years, I got an opportunity to partake in the evolution of hot meal transfer once again but now with a difference, of being at the helm.
Now that I was in command of the most modern submarine, a plan was germinating in my mind.
All along as a junior officer having served in numerous submarines, I had always wondered about our standard return gift of a bottle of wine as being too small and symbolic and perhaps likely to be enjoyed only by a few elite officers. I always felt that the ship’s crew which sent the food and the chefs who must have toiled that much extra to cook for the submarine crew never really got an opportunity to experience our hospitality. But in those days of yore, submarines really did not have the capability to do anything else. Now that I was in command of the most modern submarine, a plan was germinating in my mind.
After a weeklong game of cat and mouse to train crews on both sides on the art of attack and evasion, on the final day, the traditional hot meal transfer was planned as a parting gesture of goodwill to us. A couple of days before the event whilst at sea, I had floated the idea onboard that we should give a return gift that the sailors of the receiving ship would enjoy and relish. My Executive Officer (second in command) Girish came up with the idea that we could make gulab jamuns (an Indian sweet dish) for the crew of the destroyer that supplied us our lunch. I was quite taken aback with the idea but did some quick mental maths, even if we catered for two gulab jamuns each we would have to make a minimum of 700 gulab jamuns to gift for a destroyer crew of 350 men. I felt that our small galley with only two chefs would be overburdened with this additional work load and probably it was going to be an overreach.
To my surprise, this idea floated by Girish quickly spread across our mess decks amongst the ship’s company and my head sailor also known as the Coxswain came and told me that all off-watch sailors were willing to volunteer to help our chefs to make the gulab jamuns. They were agreeable to sacrifice their precious time given for resting after performing their strenuous duties and would willingly do this to show their brothers-in-arms on the destroyer, a taste of submarine hospitality.
Such was the spirit displayed by all that even officers pitched in during their off hours to help the chefs. So a day prior to this hot meal transfer, Operation Gulab Jamuns was initiated. Rations were no problem as there was loads of milk powder, refined flour, sugar and oil. But there was one challenge and that was these gulab jamuns would have to be fried and that could only be done during the snorkelling of the submarine. Normally, preparation of food involving frying that emanates fumes is kept to the basic minimum and carried out only during the evolution of snorkelling when the submarine comes to periscope depth to charge her batteries and recirculation of air inside by running her diesel engines. Naturally, I would not have permitted a special snorkelling schedule, therefore, in the middle of the night the previous day during the scheduled battery charging, the frying of nearly 800 gulab jamuns was undertaken.
Now, the next problem was how to send such a large amount of gulab jamuns with their syrup. For this our Coxswain had the brilliant idea that why not we send them in biscuit tins that we had by the dozens onboard. Oil and also mainly glucose biscuits used to be supplied in these 17 litre square tins in those days. I think, this container has become extinct nowadays.
After unhooking the package of their standard biryani, we told the pilot to cater for a heavy return gift
On the final morning, gulab jamuns had already been made ready, cooled and packed the previous night itself. The usual exercises for the day finished just before lunch and our submarine was ordered to surface to perform vertical replenishment with the helicopter for the hot meal transfer. After unhooking the package of their standard biryani, we told the pilot to cater for a heavy return gift and cautioned him that he would have to cater to this extra load while he was hovering. We hooked on this load of three 17 litre biscuit tins, I guess it must have weighed much more than a man’s weight with 800 gulab jamuns in sugar syrup and which was accompanied by a letter written by our Coxswain to his counterpart on the destroyer called the Bosun’s Mate. After the load was winched up by the helicopter, we quickly dived and proceeded as previously directed for our main mission which was to go on a patrol for nearly a month long deployment.
When we entered our base port about five weeks later, we got to know that our gulab jamuns were the talk of the fleet of ships. Our gesture to reach out to the sailors of the destroyer by ensuring that they got at least two gulab jamuns per head and some more was very well received in the fleet. For the first time in my then sea experience of eleven years in submarines such a thing had been done.
The old adage, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ couldn’t be more true in this case. Times were changing. Fleet ships got the message that we submariners could hold our own as far as food was concerned. Our sailors were a happy lot as they met their friends in their barracks and walked with a swagger now. Mutual respect levels between sailors across all specialisations increased.
But this tradition of hot meal transfer at sea continues to this day to maintain camaraderie and bonhomie between the surface forces and submarines and also to keep the art of vertical replenishment alive.
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