My submarine was in her patrol area waiting for her targets to approach. Nationally, the situation was very tense. Intelligence had indicated that the large force would be passing through the edge of our designated area. It was already more than two weeks that we had been seeking the arrival of these targets. Every single vessel that had crossed our area in this time had been investigated and then permitted to pass by us, although they were oblivious of our presence lurking underwater. We were deployed close to a busy shipping waterway to particularly intercept the force likely to be disguised as merchant ships.
The men had adrenalin pumping through them visibly. They had already been at their duty posts or stations since the last six hours.
It was a pitch-dark night, and I was on the periscope to take a look and also to operate our electronic warfare equipment which was chirping with activity of warship radars. It was quite evident that the force was quite far away and would take about six hours to come to our vicinity. The operator called, “Captain sir, targets are confirmed warships and seem to be operating shipborne helicopters”. I acknowledged, “Very good”. I decided to porpoise the boat meaning keep going down and coming up at irregular intervals to keep a track of the approaching force. This tactic was a total lesson learnt from the dolphin fish which often uses this technique to maintain contact with other fish in its school. After a few cycles of porpoising, the navigator also known as the Pilot reported that the force was moving slightly away and would require us to increase speed and come closer for an effective interception point so as to bring the targets within our weapon range. I gave that order and pondered about the situation onboard. The men had adrenalin pumping through them visibly. They had already been at their duty posts or stations since the last six hours. The two chefs and steward were going from crewman to crewman giving them coffee and sandwiches. I was sitting in the Captain’s chair and ruminating as to how the action would unfold soon.
Four hours had passed in this manner of coming closer to our point of interception. Mind you this was always a tricky calculation as both the objects floating in the water would meet at some future point in the sea which had to be precisely calculated and then approached at the quickest possible speed but exercising utmost stealth. Now the Sonar operator started reporting, “CIC this is Sonar, faint contact on bearing 330 degrees”. After the initial classification of the contact to be the likely targets, I ordered the submarine to immediately go in for a deep dive to ascertain the bathymetric conditions in that area as this was going to be my battle ground. The deep dive took some time and soon we were armed with the information of the existence of the shadow zones and the acoustically illuminated portions in that section of the sea. On completion of the dive, I came back to periscope depth to get the parameters from the electronic warfare equipment about the target’s radars and thereby was able to make an identification that this was what I was to interdict. Sonar confirmed with the report, “contact classified as a group of contacts, sir”.
The ships appeared to be carrying out some firing judged by the loud explosions that were being heard
I could hear multiple target sonars pinging ceaselessly trying to locate submarines in the area. These apparently were the escorts of the formation coming towards us forming the outer circle. Anti-submarine helicopters also appeared to be in the air lowering their retractable sonar and jumping ahead to detect lurking submarines. In fact, the ships appeared to be carrying out some firing judged by the loud explosions that were being heard. Just I had decided to go deep, the radio room quickly informed that there was an important message for us which had been received. I ordered that the message should be decoded when we had completed our dive and went down to a tracking depth as per the hydrological conditions prevailing in the area. The Executive Officer quickly took out the code books and assisted in decryption of the message. The submarine was now in a total quiet state, wherein, all our radiated noise would be kept to the barest minimum. In fact, noisy machinery like the air conditioning unit was also switched off. The crew were told to tread softly on the deck flaps and speak only in whispers. No communication was permitted on the loudspeakers and all reports were collected through whispered commands and reports.
Meanwhile, the group of targets though still far away were approaching steadily. Now the targets were being tracked properly on the weapon launch system and I could visualise their positions in the anti-submarine warfare screen of escort ships. The intensity of their Sonar transmissions had increased considerably as they appeared to be still searching at random for any lurking submarines. The weapons had been put in active state and torpedoes were ready for launch.
My face drained of all colour as I read and re-read the message once again
Amidst all this action, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I saw the Executive Officer with a very sombre face holding the decoded message for me to peruse. My face drained of all colour as I read and re-read the message once again. The message modified our mission a little. Such is the discipline ingrained in the submariner’s psyche that it had to be obeyed blindly and without any doubt. Moreover, I was already in my engagement having planned a strategy earlier. The message was not communicated to the crew but only to the Pilot and the Weapons Officer. Immediately, the active state of the weapons was brought down a notch lower with only the concerned sailors being kept in the picture.
By now, the crew was sweating as the internal temperature had risen inside the submarine due to stoppage of the air conditioning system in order to reduce noise radiated into the water. I ordered the submarine to go to its deepest capability so as to cross under the outer ring of escort ships which were being tracked continuously. By now their Sonar pings could be heard through the metallic hull of the submarine as the sound waves bounced off the sound absorbent coating on the skin of the submarine. One could see the sweat glistening on their faces, looking upwards at the submarine hull with the disconcertingly loud sounds heard directly into the submarine confines. My mission was to penetrate the screen and go in for attack on the main body which comprised of the two most valuable ships perhaps flying the target Fleet Commander’s flag.
I had chosen a gap between two weakest escort ships assessed by their weaker weapon loads under which I had manoeuvred the submarine to execute her penetration. The loud ping of their Sonars, our own discomfort with rise in internal temperature and the seriousness of the situation had made the crew really wary and tense, besides of course, they had been at their duty stations from the last 18 hours or so without moving an inch. The Executive Officer had forbidden the chefs to cook anything that day as it could distract the action going on, hence they took out the ready to eat pre-packed meals that submarines always carry and were ready to hand these out, if ordered. Coffee, the life line, of course, was available to all by the gallons at their duty posts during periods of lull.
As we were passing under the first line of escort destroyers and frigates, our submarine could feel the vibrations directly through the hull, but I was not worried at all as no one would be able to detect us because the submarine was in a total shadow zone at the deepest depth taking advantage of nature’s gift of acoustic opacity in the sea.
The Sonar pings of the first line of escorts started receding in the background and their intensity reduced. This was a clear indication that we had penetrated the first line successfully as there was no change in course of the formation. For if anything had been detected by the force, they would have immediately altered course to save the high value main body ships which would have been still further beyond.
Now the requirement was to ascertain if a second line of closer escort ships in the form of missile and anti-submarine corvettes was present as that would have been an essential requirement to form a total fire power umbrella around the high value main body ships. The intention of guarding the main body is to prevent any incoming weapon either a missile or torpedo from entering into its air space bubble around it for self-protection.
I now brought the submarine a little shallower into the acoustically illuminated area of the sea to gauge if there was another inner ring around the main targets. Sonar was soon reporting acoustic signatures of smaller ships which couldn’t have been the expected big ships of the main body, and so, again the submarine similarly penetrated the second ring with ease as the number of escorts was much lesser and the gaps larger.
And so, with my periscope just two inches above the water level and with me lying prostrated on the deck viewing through the eyepiece, I could very faintly see the ships of the main body in the early morning light.
After listening to sonar pings of the second ring of escorts fade into the background behind us, I decided to come up to periscope depth to execute my modified main mission now of recording all the parameters of the main body. I ordered the submarine to come up very carefully ensuring that the small wake called feather created by my periscope as it broke the water surface would be to the minimum. And so, with my periscope just two inches above the water level and with me lying prostrated on the deck viewing through the eyepiece, I could very faintly see the ships of the main body in the early morning light. Now, I continued to porpoise between safe and periscope depths homing on to my target and going in for the kill. Had my mission been to sink the target, I would not have to do all this and once identified, I would have fired my weapons from deeper depths and tried to evade detection during the melee that would have ensued.
But such were my new orders that I had to photograph and record the parameters of these ships. Since these two ships were moving in line abreast, meaning side by side, I now had to try to go in between them so that I could get good photographs of both of them. I manoeuvred the submarine accordingly with cameras whirring all the time at periscope depth. Though I was at periscope depth, but I had all my masts down intermittently and the moment we were close enough to the targets and as they passed abaft my beam, I raised the periscope gingerly just enough to clear the glass window outside the water and clicked away taking photos and videos from all angles once again. My best shots were of the senior officer’s clear photo of sitting on the Bridge wing. In fact, I could read the inscription on his seacap with my magnified view.
The targets finally passed behind after nearly 22 hours of continuous engagement. The submarine now dived deep and maintained vigil to see if any of the ships returned to our area. After about six hours, it was clear that the force had crossed over. We remained on patrol for another week and returned back to our mother base as scheduled. I had my report in hand on arrival which I handed over to the representative of the Commander-in-Chief.
I was still onboard holding meetings with the officers and doing some paperwork when, I was told that the Commander-in-Chief wanted to see me urgently. Unshaven and in slightly crumpled combat uniform, I sat in the vehicle that had come to get me escorted by the Flag Lieutenant to the Admiral.
I felt very self-conscious in my untidy and slightly dirty uniform as I entered the Commander-in-Chief’s office. I saw that there was a string of other Admirals there in immaculate whites waiting to hear what I had to say. After the initial courtesies, I briefed the gathering about my encounter and flashed the close-up photographs of the main body ships whose clarity was superb. I ended saying that if I could get such photographs, the Navy could count on me to perform my duties of sinking ships.
I told him that I had taken the decision to undertake this dangerous manoeuvre so that it would send a message to all within and outside the submarine that we really meant business
There was a brief pause after my presentation as the assembled Admirals started asking numerous questions. But I was getting uncomfortable with one of them trying to grill me a bit more. He was trying to say that if I had received the message modifying my mission in time, why did I risk my submarine to go so close just to take photographs. I told him that I had taken the decision to undertake this dangerous manoeuvre so that it would send a message to all within and outside the submarine that we really meant business. His repeated insistence on this subject made me breakout into a sweat, as I felt he was implying to me and the others present that perhaps I had endangered my submarine unnecessarily.
But hats off to the Commander-in-Chief who interjected and asked that Admiral as to how many years back he himself had gone to sea and what was his experience in such close encounters with an adversary. There was some mumbling by many others as I mopped my brow waiting to be castigated. But the words of the Commander-in-Chief still ring with respect in my ears today. He said to the Admiral pointedly, “If young men like this do not do, what they have to do, how will this country win wars? Talking and finger pointing in hindsight will get us nowhere, we must have faith in the man on the spot there”. Looking at me he further added, “It was my idea to give you this mission and modify it at the last minute to see how you would react. Bringing back the photos of my counterpart, is the best gift you have given me”. Looking at me directly, he said, “Continue your good work, Aspi, do what has to be done, for you are the man on the spot at sea. The Navy has full faith in your training and discipline”.
For the first time that morning, I felt taller than all the others present in that gathering and the untidy uniform of mine which was bothering me made me feel really proud for adorning it as it stood out as a symbol of real professionalism.
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