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Vice-Admiral Krishnan was one of the Indian navy’s most decorated officers, and a man who had the curious distinction of almost becoming naval chief on two separate occasions, but was passed over both times. His memoirs are a pleasure for the military history buff, because he served in World War II, right from the time the famous naval signal flashed out to the Royal Navy fleet in 1939, saying ‘Winston’s back’.
As a young midshipman, Krishnan took part in the historic attack on Stavanger in 1940 (in Norway), after which his fleet was relentlessly bombarded by the Luftwaffe, but miraculously got away. That battle was a turning point in history: possibly the last time naval ships managed to survive a concerted aerial attack. The next time such an encounter took place, in December 1941, Japanese aircraft would swiftly sink two of Britain’s most powerful warships and conclusively announce the era of air power in naval warfare.
Krishnan had a front-row seat on some of the most famous naval battles of World War II, and later personally captured an enemy gunboat, an act of gallantry for which he won the Distinguished Service Cross—one of only two Indian naval officers to do so. After Independence he went on to lead the liberation of Diu, and become the first commander of the INS Vikrant, and chief of naval aviation. All this he recounts engagingly—with riffs on fascinating personalities he encountered en route, including Sardar Patel, Krishna Menon and Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the last prime minister of Travancore (who apparently offered him the post of naval chief in the independent Travancore he was planning to create in 1947).
But most fascinating is the chapter on the 1971 war, and the sinking of the Pakistani submarine, Ghazi. Krishnan describes how the navy laid an elaborate trap for the vaunted Pakistani submarine, luring it to Vizag in the belief that the INS Vikrant was located there, then sinking it—while the Vikrant was actually “in the Bay of Bengal, some thousand miles away”. What is strange, however, is the conflicting version of this episode told by Krishnan’s army counterpart, General J.F.R. Jacob, author of Surrender at Dacca.
According to the famously outspoken Jacob, just before the war began, he got a call from Krishnan to say that fishermen had spotted wreckage outside Vizag harbour, and it might be the Ghazi, which had apparently blown up in “an act of God”. But a week later the navy announced that the Ghazi had been sunk in action by the INS Rajput, the heroes were decorated, and the date of Navy Day was changed to celebrate this famous victory. General Jacob tells us the navy subsequently destroyed the documents relating to the Ghazi’s sinking, commenting darkly, “Truth is the first casualty in war”.
So what’s going on here? Is it India’s notorious inter-services politics playing up once again? Or is it something else? Perhaps it would be best to write off the episode to what Clausewitz called ‘the fog of war’. For, as Clausewitz noted, “War is an area of uncertainty, and three quarters of all war-time actions lie in a confusing fog of uncertainty, to a greater or lesser extent”. And so, let sunken submarines lie.