For Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, one abiding memory of INS Vikrant is from almost a quarter century ago.
In 1989, Sinha, who recently took premature retirement as Flag Officer Commander in Chief (FOC-in-C) of India’s Western Naval Command, was the top gun in the 300 squadron that flew Sea Hawk aircraft from on-board INS Vikrant – India’s, indeed Asia’s, first aircraft carrier.
Around that time, INS Virat, India’s second aircraft carrier had also entered service, but the Indian navy was short of aircraft.
“We had two aircraft carriers but not enough aircraft so we used to transfer aircraft from INS Vikrant to Virat. Two outstanding officers used to command the two aircraft carriers that time. One of them, Madhvendra Singh, went on to become India’s navy chief. The other, Ravi Ganesh, is perhaps the only naval officer to have commanded a nuclear submarine and an aircraft carrier. That was a period of great transition. Soon after we started flying Sea Harriers from Virat,” Vice Admiral Sinha remembers.
As India’s first aircraft carrier turned into scrap on Friday, Sinha, perhaps the last of the naval aviators who had the distinction of flying both Sea Hawks and Sea Harriers, says Vikrant gave India the confidence to operate an aircraft carrier.
Vikrant joined the Indian Navy in 1961 but it had an older lineage. It was built in 1943 and joined the Royal British Navy in 1945 as HMS Hercules. A Majestic Class 20,000 tonnes displacement aircraft carrier, the refurbished Hercules, now known as Vikrant, was received at the Bombay harbour by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961.
Its finest moment was to come a decade later in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Although most military enthusiasts remember the Indian Navy’s daring attack on the Karachi port in 1971, INS Vikrant perhaps played the most crucial part in shortening the war since it cut off reinforcement sent from West Pakistan to what was then East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh, by policing the Bay of Bengal and bombing towns and cities like Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong, Khulna, Chalna, Mongla, Barisal, Do Hazari, Chiringa and Bakarganj.
Using 500 lb bombs, rockets and guns, the aircraft taking off from Vikrant struck airfields, harbours, ammunition dumps, gunboats, armed merchant ships and troop positions. For its stellar performance in the Bay of Bengal, INS Vikrant earned two Maha Vir Chakras and 11 Vir Chakras.
When it was brought to India in 1961, Radhakrishna Hariram Thaliani, then a young lieutenant, became the first Indian naval pilot to land the Sea Hawk onboard the Vikrant. RH Thaliani went on to command INS Vikrant and also become the Indian Navy Chief between 1984 and 1987.
Vikrant in fact outlasted the Admiral’s career in the navy. It was not until 1997 that it was finally decommissioned. It served as a maritime museum till 2004 but many proposals, including converting it into a permanent museum for future generations, failed to materialise due to financial constraints.
When Vikrant’s hull was torn open on Friday, a piece of India’s recent maritime history was destroyed forever. Interestingly, all ships of the majestic class built in British shipyards were to serve in navies other than that of Great Britain. Two ships each served the Canadian and the Australian navies. Those four ships were decommissioned long ago and subsequently and scrapped. The fifth, the Hercules, was bought by the Indian Navy and renamed the Vikrant. The construction of Leviathan, the sixth ship in this class was never completed. The incomplete ship was scrapped way back in 1968.
But Navy buffs may want to take solace at the fact that Vikrant’s name will not fade away from memory. India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, being built at the Cochin shipyard, is also named INS Vikrant. Launched in August 2013, INS Vikrant is expected to be commissioned into the Indian Navy in 2018.
So, four years from now, we may have another Vikrant joining the Indian Navy nearly 60 years after the original Vikrant became part of the then fledgling naval arm of India. That’s perhaps a small consolation on a day when Asia’s first aircraft carrier was taken down piece by piece.