To sharpen the fangs of the mighty fleet of warships and auxiliaries in hunting down submarines, Naval Command Headquarters had ordered Submarine Squadron Headquarters to deploy one submarine for conduct of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training to our naval ships which included the mighty aircraft carrier. Our submarine which was returning after a month-long mission was diverted at sea and rerouted to undertake this mission of ASW exercises which was to give training to the fleet so as to hone their skills of tracking and destroying submarines.
It was like a cat and mouse game quite akin to the Tom and Jerry cartoon, where Tom is forever trying to catch Jerry who is always up to mischievous tricks and ever elusive, giving Tom the slip most of the time. Such exercises between the fleet and submarines were routinely carried out between friendly forces so as to keep the skill of locating and destroying enemy submarines evergreen. In these exercises, normally the submarine would be simulating the adversary designated as ‘Red’ force and was expected to attack or evade as the case may be, the mighty force of friendly surface ships designated as the ‘Blue’ force comprising of the aircraft carrier and replenishment ships at the centre with its escorts of destroyers, frigates and corvettes protecting it from all sides in a circular formation. Mind you, this entire formation would be moving in the sea stretched over many nautical miles performing their other roles of land attack or surface warfare but with an additional threat of enemy submarines lurking in the area which also had to be neutralised.
Well, our exercise was not anything like the dirty politics seen on TV but the colours Red and Blue did bring back a rush of memories to me.
Strangely, in the recently held US elections for the 46th President, the drama which the world got to see in great detail on TV brought back these memories of the Red and Blue forces used by us in the Navy. We saw the Democrats camp with the colour Blue was contesting an election against Republican camp using the colour Red. Our drawing rooms with TV sets, our laptops and mobile phones were full of the various stories giving a blow by blow account of the tricks and tactics employed by them to get ahead of each other in order to win the election. Well, our exercise was not anything like the dirty politics seen on TV but the colours Red and Blue did bring back a rush of memories to me.
So going back to the scenario onboard my submarine at sea, in the Combat Information Centre, where, I was doing the duty of the Officer of the Watch at Periscope depth, on our return passage towards our home port after having undertaken a seemingly successful month long mission which was coming to an end. The entire crew now fully bearded as none had shaved in the past month as it was forbidden in order to conserve water was looking forward to entering harbour so that they could take a bath, groom themselves and see their loved ones once again. I could see the smiles on everybody’s faces as the odd sailor passing by would ask me if anything was in sight through the periscope and I would answer that only some merchant ships and maybe a few fishing boats were in our vicinity.
Just as I had my eyes plastered on the eyepiece of the periscope, I heard our Radio Chief behind me speak to me in a whisper that there was an important radio message from the Naval Command Headquarters for us. Being the duty officer, it was my duty to first read the message before allowing it to be seen by the Captain. My eyes went into a blur when I read that we were being rerouted and being redeployed for taking part in this major exercise, wherein, we would be the Red force and expected to block the Blue force from performing their mission. As soon as the Captain read the message, he called for a meeting of all officers around the periscope to discuss and get an update on the state of affairs onboard concerning the state of the machinery, men, availability of rations and water for this extension in sailing time. Being the Weapons Officer and at the periscope, I too participated in the meeting. The heads of each department gave their assessments about our mission to the Captain who seemed satisfied with the state of affairs and soon we changed course and headed towards our new rendezvous point. The following 5 days just evaporated in what appeared to be a fraction of a second as we took part in the ASW exercises both by day and night.
As our beards grew longer by another five days, a final radio message came along that night stating the Fleet Commander now wanted to embark our submarine and see for himself as to how we were able to evade and attack with such ease playing with his fleet ships at will.
Our submarine which was noted for the craftiness of the Captain, whose reputation amongst his colleagues was akin to some ancient crafty submarine commander legends of yore and who was a great fan of the German Grand Admiral Karl Donitz of World War II fame. We relentlessly played the game of cat and mouse coming up to periscope depth and communicating on radio after each encounter to exchange information with the Flag ship in what was called a ‘Hot Washup’ in naval parlance. By the tone of the messages we were receiving after each interaction, it was evident that the Fleet Commander embarked on the aircraft carrier, a grumpy old ‘seadog’ with salt water running in his veins and having sailed his entire life on oceans around the world was pretty unhappy with the craftiness and uncertainty caused by our submarine in the minds of his battle group. Incidentally, the term ‘seadog’ in the Navy means a very experienced and capable navy man who has loads of experience having spent a considerable amount of time at sea and which one can safely say is totally opposite to that of a land lubber.
As our beards grew longer by another five days, a final radio message came along that night stating the Fleet Commander now wanted to embark our submarine and see for himself as to how we were able to evade and attack with such ease playing with his fleet ships at will. In the quick meeting with all officers by our Captain, it was decided that we would show a model submarine attack on his fleet during the time he was onboard. Also, since the Admiral would embark us on the following forenoon, we would serve him breakfast after his inspection and then send him on his way hopefully a satisfied man. The Captain mumbled, “Aspi, see that you organise a lavish breakfast for the Admiral and join me for breakfast with the Admiral in the Wardroom”. The wardroom is the officers mess room and the Captain must have thought that it would be a good gesture on his part to make a junior officer like me dine at his table, thereby, giving the impression to the Admiral that he was a people’s man and also for the Admiral to interact with a young officer from the Submarine Arm. Whatever was his thought process, he never really communicated any of that to me.
Since I was also the Weapons Officer and in-charge of the torpedo attacks, I got busy briefing my crew and checking that all our equipment was in functioning order. Being hyped about professionalism and to showcase our tactical prowess, I, in my mind’s eye really did not give much importance to our Captain’s word of giving our guest a breakfast befitting an Admiral. I remember casually calling our steward and telling him, “Plan and make a breakfast befitting an Admiral” to which he promptly replied “aye aye sir”, thereafter, I totally forgot about the breakfast.
Firstly, even though the Admiral was aware of our practice of not shaving to conserve water, he did remark that we looked like a scruffy bunch what with long beards and ungroomed.
The following morning, our submarine surfaced and the helicopter which was already hovering over us winched down the old seadog Admiral, Fleet Commander of his mighty fleet of ships. Since I was the Liaison Officer designated to be with the Admiral, I too was in the reception party on the Bridge comprising of the Captain, myself and one sailor lookout. We stood stiffly to attention looking upwards at the swaying Admiral unable to hear anything because of the loud whirring of the helicopter blades right above. On that particular cloudy day, it was breezier than usual and the Admiral dashed onto the side of the submarine fin a couple of times before being held by me and guided on to the Bridge grating. On touch down, it was evident that the Admiral was already hopping mad at the skills of his helicopter crew for not being able to lower him to the exact spot. But I must mention here that situations at sea are so dynamic and due to vagaries of nature, such incidents happen all the time despite the best of professionals being present.
As all three of us in the reception party were in our disposable clothes which have no officer insignia or rank badges and had long beards, I could see that he could only recognise the Captain having met him ashore a few times. The Captain promptly introduced me and we descended down the hatch into our Combat Information Centre. Without much ado, we dived the submarine and proceeded to commence our demo attack. Firstly, even though the Admiral was aware of our practice of not shaving to conserve water, he did remark that we looked like a scruffy bunch what with long beards and ungroomed. Our attack drill was so efficient that the Admiral was totally engrossed with me talking, pressing buttons on my weapons panel and also communicating with the other compartments whilst carrying out the designated torpedo attack. After our successful demo attack on the fleet ships, I could see that the Admiral was visibly impressed with our professionalism and he even smiled for the first time after he had stepped onboard. He appreciated the Captain loudly in the Combat Information Centre for heading such a well-oiled and efficient team. He said he would definitely go back and make his fleet staff understand our psyche.
Since we had been at sea for nearly thirty-five days now and most of our fresh rations had been expended, all the steward could manage was eggs, cheese and some frozen Goan sausages.
Now we moved on to the wardroom set for the ‘Battle of the Culinary Waterloo’ for breakfast with the Admiral. In our six by six feet wardroom there was only place for two in case of a ceremonial meal, but the steward on my orders had laid the table for three that day. Normally, six of us officers would be eating meals at sea on that small square of a table, sometimes holding our plates in our hands because of lack of space.
This day the Admiral was seated opposite me on our square table with the Captain six inches on my left occupying his designated chair at the head of the table. Only when I sat on the table, did I actually focus on the task in hand which was to provide a delicious spread for him. In my innocence, somehow I had picked up the notion during my early years of grooming in service that professionalism alone makes the man. A concept, I soon realised required some modification in my thinking later on in life. Since we had been at sea for nearly thirty-five days now and most of our fresh rations had been expended, all the steward could manage was eggs, cheese and some frozen Goan sausages. Bread was maybe 40 days old taken out from the freezer and toasted rock hard. The Admiral on being served eggs refused them for maybe health reasons and decided to start with the sausages. He started to saw away at one sausage on his plate making some polite conversation with the Captain. A little later, he fell silent as he concentrated on trying to cut the sausage which obstinately just did not happen. I had already broken out in a sweat and was visibly mopping my brow with the Captain looking at me accusingly. I gestured to the steward to bring another sharper knife, which he promptly did. Now the Admiral not conversing at all and with renewed vigour tried to cut the sausage again which appeared to be as hard as leather apparently. The Admiral then visibly upset but without saying a harsh word closed his plate and commented loudly with finality, “I have finished my breakfast”. These words echoed so loudly in that small space. Coffee was served, that too made with powder milk. Just for the record, coffee is our lifeline on the submarine and gets made by the gallons every hour. Fresh Milk being a scarce commodity finishes up the quickest at the beginning of the voyage, followed by our stock of condensed milk and then towards the end of our voyage we have only milk powder left.
I felt guilty that perhaps I had spoiled the impression of our submarine by not giving much thought to the Admiral’s breakfast, thereby, incurring his wrath.
The balance few minutes after this fiasco went superfast in presenting the Admiral with a memento and the submarine surfacing immediately to disembark him. Since we were in touch with his Flag ship, the aircraft carrier, his helicopter was already hovering over our surfacing position. After giving the final salute to him on the Bridge, I assisted him in putting on his harness and buckled him to the winch wire of the helicopter and signalled to the helicopter pilot to winch him up to safety. Our departing salute looking upwards was the final gesture, which for me, I thought would bring about a storm in my personal life expecting a bottling from the Captain as I felt that the breakfast episode had not gone well at all. But Captain, hats off to the man, with ice in his veins and a man having put in many years at sea on submarines, just told me these words with a skewed smile on his face, which I will never forget throughout my life, he said “Aspi, the torpedo attack was superb and impressive, but do remember that one should always taste the food before you serve it to a VIP”. He never spoke another word about the episode again nor waited for me to render an apology.
I felt guilty that perhaps I had spoiled the impression of our submarine by not giving much thought to the Admiral’s breakfast, thereby, incurring his wrath. But I couldn’t be more wrong, I learnt that on entry of the Flag ship and the rest of the fleet to harbour, the Admiral sang deep praises about our professionalism, the high spirits displayed by our crew, the shortage of water, our misleading ragged unshaven appearance and undying spirit despite remaining at sea for nearly 40 days and it seems he became a transformed man after the breakfast experience. In his viewpoint, he got to see and experience the real life hardships that we submariners face at sea, applauding our determination, dedication and camaraderie and later even became an ambassador in higher forums for the causes of submariners. Thus ended the saga of my innocent act which actually led to a boost to the reputation of our ilk.
After all, old seadogs, that too, grumpy Admirals having seen life, don’t just get swayed by a fancy Bill ‘o’ Fare.
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