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R 11 Vikrant

INS Vikrant, the first aircraft carrier of Indian Navy, was decommissioned on January 31, 1997. The ship which played a key role during 1971 Indo-Pak war has now been converted into a maritime museum and anchored off the Gateway of India in Mumbai.

The word Vikrant means valiant or powerful, and the crest of the carrier showed a combination of bows and arrows portraying the fighter planes taking off the carrier to strike the enemy. The motto Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprdhah was taken from Rig Veda which means 'I completely defeat those who dare to fight with me'.

Vikrant was originally known as HMS Hercules -- was to be one of the six Majestic-class light fleet aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy. Her keel was laid down November 12, 1943 by Vickers-Armstrong, of Tyne, England, and she was launched September 22, 1945. Construction was suspended after World War II and she was laid up for possible future use.

Even though the need for a naval air arm and an aircraft carrier had been accepted in principle before, and again, after Independence in 1947, negotiations for the acquisition of the first carrier from Britain concluded only in 1957. Apart from the lack of resources for so large a project, this ten year delay was also caused by the outbreak of the Korean War, which prevented the British Navy from releasing to India a British aircraft carrier with British fighter aircraft. This delay was fortuitous for it enabled the acquisition from Britain of a surface fleet and the creation ashore of Training Schools to remedy the dislo­cation caused by the partition of the Navy in 1947.

Until 1955, the British Navy had not been able to spare a light fleet carrier. Nor could the naval budget have been able to afford one. In 1955, Admiral Mountbatten succeeded in convincing Prime Minister Nehru that the Navy should have a carrier. Formal approval was accorded soon thereafter.

By 1957, the Navy was able to finalise the acquisition of the aircraft carrier VIKRANT along with two aircraft squadrons. In April 1957, VIKRANT commenced an extensive refit cum moderni­sation in Britain, scheduled for completion in 1961. Almost all the electronic and electrical equipment was to be replaced. The ship was to be fitted with an angled deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing sight. Essential spaces were to be air condi­tioned. Additional accomodation and facilities were to be provid­ed to enable VIKRANT to function as the Fleet Commander's flag­ship.

Ever since India acquired the carrier, she had come in for severe criticism and much controversy, invariably to her detriment. In 1957, the Russian Defence Minister, Marshal Zhukov, visited India. In Cochin, Rear Admiral RD Katari, the Fleet Commander, invited him to a banquet on board the flagship. In his memoirs, "A Sailor Remembers" he recalls: (Page 83). "From the moment Marshal Zhukov, stepped on board, he virtually impaled me against the centre-line capstan and demanded to know why we were acquiring an aircraft-carrier. Resisting the temptation to tell him that it was none of his business, I tried to explain to him the reasons which induced us to do so, but he could not, or would not, accept them. The discussion was obviously reaching a point of exasperation to both sides but the climax came when Zhukov made the provocative observation that we were buying the carrier at the behest of the British and to please them."

In January 1957, she was sold to India, and construction was completed at Harland and Wolff with an extensively modernized design, including an angled deck with steam catapults, a modified island, and many other improvements. A group of about 150 officers and senior technical sailors were flown to the UK in batches in April/May 1957 for supervising the refit of Vikrant at Harland and Wolf Shipyard at Belfast. Towards the end of 1960, the official commissioning date of the ship was fixed as March 4, 1961. Reconstruction and moderanisation of Vikrant took about four years.

India became an aircraft carrier nation with the commissioning of INS Vikrant. It was brought to Bombay on November 3, 1961 and later formed part of the Indian Fleet as a fully operational carrier. It was a light fleet carrier.

On 16 February 1961 the commissioning warrant was read by Capt P S Mahindroo, the Commanding Officer designate of Vikrant at a gathering of Indian officers and sailors and officials of Harland and Wolf. Her initial airwing consisted of British Hawker Seahawk fighter-bombers and a French Alize anti-submarine aircraft. On May 18, 1961, the first jet landed on board, piloted by Lieutenant (later Admiral) R H Tahiliani.

In 1963, India's ambassador in Moscow asked the Russian Defence Minister, Marshal Malinovsky, what sort of defence preparedness India needed against the Chinese threat. He replied that what India needed was a strong, mobile, Army, Navy and Air Force, well equipped with the latest weapons. Instead of a prestigious, overhauled, old British aircraft carrier (which he called the fifth leg of a dog and an easy target), India should go in for a submarine fleet to guard her long coastline.

The first active operation in which Vikrant took part was for the liberation of Goa in December 1961. The first warlike operation of Vikrant was the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In 1965 Pakistan claimed that they had sunk her. At the time, however, Vikrant was in the dry dock undergoing her periodical refit.

In June 1970 VIKRANT was immobilised in Bombay due to serious cracks and leaks that had developed in the water drum of A1 boiler. Subsequent radiographic examination revealed that the water drums of the remaining three boilers also had a large number of internal fatigue cracks and fissures at each of the circumferential rivetted joints that were beyond repair by welding. It was clear that long term repairs to VIKRANT's boilers were not feasible indigenously. The boilers were first flashed up on 01 Mar 1971 and the ship proceeded to Sea Trials. As a result of these sea trials, it was considered feasible to operate the boilers at low pressure, restricting the ships speed to 14 knots.

There were many in the service, some of them very senior officers, who considered VIKRANT a liability in any war with Pakistan. They argued that deployment of the VIKRANT involved certain inherent risks, especially from underwater threats, so considerable escort effort would be required. Many doubted her exact role in a war with Pakistan. Some even went to the extent of suggesting that the VIKRANT should take no part in the war but should be tucked away inside Cochin. VIKRANT was the core round which the Fleet was built and her loss would be something too terrible to contemplate.

Vikrant's real opportunity to show her prowess came in the 1971 war. The flagship of the Navy, INS Vikrant was undergoing major dry-dock work in Bombay during 1971. Her one boiler was non-operational for weak boiler tubes unfit for flashing up. The tubes were under replacement along with other repair jobs and the ship was not expected to be operational for another year or so. This was the time when refugees were flooding in, owing to suppression and atrocities leashed out by General Yahya Khan on the people of East Pakistan. Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibhur Rehman was arrested and was not allowed to take over the government as an elected majority leader.

INS Vikrant was patched up in a hurry, but her speed was curtailed. This would mean she would be an easy target to Pakistan's submarines. It was then the brilliant tactician, Vice Admiral Krishnan, C-in-C Eastern, Naval Command requested NHQ to utilize her on the eastern sea-front. At the speed of 12 knots, INS Vikrant was capable of operating only the erstwhile Bregeut Alize aircraft from her Deck. Later the engine room department got the Catapult ready for operations.

As soon as the engineering department managed to flash up the unserviceable second boiler the carrier could give sustained speed of 18 knots for the Hawk squadron also to embark and so they too started flying from the carrier. The grit, devotion and the spirit to achieve the impossible gave one and all total confidence to take on all and sundry. The Carrier with its aircraft was itching to go into action. It was then middle of November 1971. Our 'Iron Lady', Prime Minister Madam Indira Gandhi gave the indication to our Chiefs that India may have to go to war with Pakistan. In the mean time Vikrant was quietly moved to Port Blair in Andaman Islands and finally positioned in Port Cornwallis Lagoon. On third December evening Pakistan's Air Force struck many Indian airfields. Vikrant received orders to sail and strike enemy airfields in East Pakistan at the earliest.

In the 1971 war, the Navy's achievements in the Bay of Bengal sprung from Admiral Nanda's insistence that VIKRANT be sent out at sea and Captain Parkash's courage in letting his eager pilots push to the extreme, the safety limits for launching and recovering aircraft in the low wind conditions in the northern part of the Bay of Bengal.

There is no doubt that many of the strikes by Vikrant's aircraft not only hit many vital targets on shore, damaged and sank many ships and crafts, it instilled fear in the enemy. She was considered important enough by the Pakistanis that they sent the submarine Ghazi all the way to the Bay of Bengal to mine the Visakhapatnam harbor in an attempt to sink the aircraft carrier when she put to sea. Vikrant and her aircraft made sure that no supply could reach the enemy by sea. The escape route of Pakistani land forces from East Pakistan by sea was completely cut off. These factors undoubtedly helped substantially to hasten the surrender of Pakistani troops.

Vikrant earned two Mahavir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras.

VIKRANT underwent three modernisation refits. Vikrant was given an extensive refit, including new engines and modernization between 1979 and 03 January 1982. This was the first phase of her modernisation, her boilers were renewed, new radars were fitted, facilities were installed to operate the Sea Harriers, new anti air­craft guns were fitted, the communication systems were modernised, the air conditioning was extended, and the cata-pult and arrestor gear were overhauled since Alizes would continue to operate.

Between December 1982 and February 1983 she was refitted again to permit her to operate Sea Harriers.

After the retirement of the Alize propeller-driven anti-submarine planes from carrier service in 1989, she received a ski jump for more efficient use of her Harriers. In this second phase of modernisation the catapault and arrestor gear were removed, a ski jump was fitted in the bows to assist the Sea Harriers to take off, facilities were installed to operate the newer technologi­cally advanced Seaking helicopters and their new missiles and torpedoes.

A pilot who ditches is expected to allow his aircraft to sink sufficiently before he operates his ejection seat and separates himself from the aircraft and his parachute. Keeping a cool head in such circumstances requires discipline of the highest order. When the engine room receives the order "full astern" from "half ahead", it is an emergency manoeuvre where risk to the machinery is acceptable. The watchkeepers throw open the stern manoeuvering valves admitting steam to the stern turbines, even while the ahead valves are still being closed. Under these conditions the propellers can be stopped and reversed in a little over 20 seconds. The stern of a 700-foot ship takes longer than this to reach the area of ditching even at 20 knots. With the propellers going astern, the propeller wash is forward, although the ship continues to have considerable way on her. This prevents any suction into the propeller zone and anything floating in the vicinity gets pushed forward and outward.

Vikrant was India's only carrier for over 20 years, but by the early 1990s she was effectively out of service because of her poor condition. Even following major overhauls she rarely put to sea. She was formally decommissioned 31 January 1997.

The ex-aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy, INS Vikrant is converted into a floating museum and rechristened Indian Museum Ship (IMS) Vikrant. But as of 2003 funds for the maintenance or its resurrection as a tourist attraction had still to materialise. She was initially anchored opposite to Middle Ground near Gateway of India in Mumbai. It is precisely a five minute ride from Gateway of India. The Navy extensively refurbished Vikrant and opened it to the visitors during Navy Week in December. During the period of a fortnight, over one lakh people visited the ship.

Pending formal conversion into maritime museum by the Government of Maharashtra and considering the overwhelming response from the visitors, the Navy has now thrown open Vikrant to the public from 12 January 2002 on a trial basis. This was with a view to meet the enormous demand of the public to see the ship and also assess the economic viability of sustaining her. A corpus of about Rs 12 crore was needed to generate funds for the ship's annual upkeep. Corporate sponsorships and contributions are welcome.

To state that Mumbai's Naval Dockyard is a gold mine for heritage partisans is old hat, with the floating museum that is the INS Vikrant.

The preliminary focus of the museum was to highlight the role of the ship as the cradle of naval aviation in the country. Subsequently, it was decided to expand this to include all facets of naval activities so that the general public could get to see and understand the Navy in all its hues. Specialised naval areas like diving, naval operations, armament, missiles, naval uniforms and seamanship aspects were therefore included in the gamut of artifacts, exhibits and displays. The museum is now a microcosm of the entire Navy.

The museum will be further expanded to cover naval operations in greater depth, depicting the glory of naval victory in 1971 and the role of Vikrant in achieving this victory. Also, other compartments of the ship that can be converted will be made operational/functional as and when more funds become available.




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