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Indian Navy - Rank and Ratings

Naval insignia follow the convention of sleeve stripes for officers and fouled anchor badges for enlisted personnel. The word 'officer' originally signified an official, or one who performed an assigned duty, and was in fact used to describe an agent or subordinate of an official in the fifteenth century. At that time there were no standing armies in Europe. Such armies as existed were dependent upon mercenaries. It was only in the sixteenth century that armies comprising professional soldiers in the King's pay were created, and the word 'officer' acquired a military significance; denoting a person holding a military or naval command as a representative of the State. The word now encompasses all personnel belonging to the officer cadre, a status which entitles them to command men and singles them out as the most trusted representatives of the State. It is, however, traditional that only sea going officers from the Executive Branch are privileged to command ships and head the Service. This tradition has since been codified in the Regulations for the Indian Navy.


It is on board the Cadet Training Ship that life really begins for a naval officer. Whether from the National Defence Academy or the Naval Academy, on joining the ship all become equal in their status as "the lowest form of marine life." Unlike the other Services, basic training brings naval cadets shoulder to shoulder with the men they will eventually command, and they are actually counted against the ship's company. They live in dormitories called chest flats with just a small locker for their belongings and a bunk to sleep on. The intention, clearly, is to bring up officers and gentlemen who should be able seamen, adept at managing a ship or a battle at sea, possess discretion and courage, and equate easily with the men they lead. Cadets thus learn to live just as their men do, so that they become familiar with every aspect of their life. At the end of a six-month training period, successful Cadets are promoted to Midshipman. This is an occasion for great celebration, for the young man has earned the proud privilege of wearing epaulettes on his shoulders and starts getting paid for his services. The best all round Cadet is awarded a pair of binoculars. The prize was once a telescope which is the traditional mark of office of the 'Officer of the Day', but has now been changed to binoculars in keeping with the times.


Midshipmen were originally men or boys stationed amidships in the days of sail to carry messages, bring up ammunition, or relay messages from the poop to the gun decks. Their age varied widely, from a recorded three years and four months in the case of Samuel Barron of the United States Navy, to any age at which a man could be expected to go to sea. There are unconfirmed reports of Midshipmen being enrolled at the age of one in the Royal Navy, where the Captain collected their pay and allowances together with five pounds of bounty money due to him for enrolling an officer into Service.

This was because all Admirals and Captains were permitted a certain number of followers who were rated as Midshipmen, tailors, barbers, fiddlers, footmen and stewards. A Midshipman could be disrated at any time by the Captain, and thus served entirely at his pleasure. One of the best known officers who served thus was Midshipman Horatio Nelson, who enrolled at the age of twelve-and a-half years on board HMS Raisonnable in 1771.

It was only in 1815 that Midshipman became a rank in the British Navy. Even then, since Midshipmen were neither officers nor crew members, their duties were varied. A Vice Admiral in the United States Navy recalls that as a Midshipman, he was ordered to heave the lead from the chains of his ship despite being in full dress uniform. In another incident, because of a mix up in salutes between a British Captain and an American Rear Admiral, the senior ordered his Midshipman to go aboard the British ship and "make the British Captain feel sorry for his mistake." Small wonder that it took courage, quick wit, and above all a youthful spirit to perform the duties of a Midshipman creditably. In fact, it has now become a common belief that the most thrilling and amusing events in an officer's career occur during his days as Midshipman.

Midshipmen were expected to be under the special care of their Captain. This provision was capable of wide interpretation, and it was not uncommon for a Midshipman to be flogged or disrated. A common punishment was "kissing the gunner's daughter." This involved being bent over the breech of a gun (sometimes with bared bottoms) and whipped with a cat-o'-nine tails; or caned by a Penang Lawyer, which was a strip of rattan used particularly on the East Indies station. Another punishment had the victim being lashed to a grating (leading to gratings being constructed with their typical slotted, checkered surface, so that lashings could be passed through) and flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails. It is only in this century that corporal punishment has been abolished, and the emphasis is now on more benign methods of enforcing discipline.

Midshipmen are also known as Snotties. The name comes from the days when young boys of eight or nine years of age were sent to sea in this rank, and often had running noses due to their crying because of homesickness. As a result, they were forever wiping their noses and wet eyes on their coat. This was considered to be so detrimental to their appearance that it reportedly led to buttons being sewn on the sleeves of this garment. Appropriately, the officer in charge of Midshipmen came to be known as the Snotties' Nurse.

The life of a Midshipman in the Indian Navy is very different from the days of old. The Snotty is now well on his way to becoming a full-fledged officer. It is customary for a Midshipman to develop his professional knowledge during this period, while exercising his wit and ingenuity whenever opportunity arises. Very little of his learning comes from classroom instructions. He is expected to observe and study for himself; and is given the opportunity to see every evolution and exercise in considerable detail. He has the liberty to make mistakes without having to pay for them.

The Indian Navy has experimented with various methods of bringing up Midshipmen. If they are all put together on a training ship, they live in the Midshipmen's Flat and mess in the gunroom. On the other hand, if they embark fleet ships, they mess in the wardroom with other officers, and live in what was traditionally called the 'cowshed': a cramped dormitory where they were expected to make place for themselves. With the improved living conditions on modern warships, the cowshed has now acquired the more prosaic name of JOM, an acronym for Junior Officers' Mess. At the end of their training, Midshipmen are examined by a board which clears successful 'Mids' for promotion to commissioned rank. The Midshipman deemed to possess the best Officer-Like-Qualities is awarded the Sword of Honour- the traditional symbol of an officer.

Sub Lieutenant

Sub Lieutenants, as the name implies, are subordinate or assistants to Lieutenants, and are expected to carry out all the duties of a Lieutenant. Naval officers start their commissioned service as Acting Sub Lieutenant, a rank in which they receive a commission from the President by virtue of which they are recognised as Class I gazetted officers. At this stage, Executive Sub Lieutenants undergo technical courses to get a grounding in the various subjects and disciplines which they are expected to be familiar with. On completion of these courses, they are sent to sea for award of their Watch-keeping Certificate, which certifies their ability to keep an independent watch at sea or in harbour.

It is generally after completing the watch-keeping period that an officer receives his first appointment letter. This letter directs the officer to report on board his new ship on a certain date or during a certain period. Thus, if an officer is directed to report in early-May, it implies that the officer reports between the first and tenth of the month; mid-May would indicate that the officer is expected to report between the tenth and twentieth of the month; while end-May means that he should report between the twentieth and the end of the month. An officer may also be asked to report on a specific date, which does not give him any leeway, or in ' May DTBR ', which indicates that he may report on board at any time during the month. The Date on which the officer has reported is to be intimated to Naval Headquarters and the previous unit.

It is a service custom that an officer joins his ship in uniform before Both Watches on the morning of the date of his appointment, whereas a sailor is expected to join before noon. In case any difficulty is foreseen in reporting on time, it is preferable to join the ship the previous day, keeping the Executive Officer informed so that arrangements can be made for accommodation and messing on board. It is customary that an officer joining a ship meets his new Commanding Officer at the earliest in ceremonial dress, accompanied by the concerned Head of Department. This provides the officer an opportunity to be introduced to his Captain and at the same time to get to know what is expected of him.


The word Lieutenant is of French origin, and means holding in lieu of, or one who replaces. This rank was introduced in the British Navy in 1580 to provide the Captain with an assistant or qualified relief if necessary. The senior Lieutenant on board became the second-in-command, and was known as the First Lieutenant. Even now, on smaller ships, the Executive Officer, who is the second-in-command is given the title of First Lieutenant, and is traditionally called 'Number One' Lieutenants are the lowest rung of the command structure aboard most ships. Their duties are numerous, and as specialist officers they are responsible for advising the Commanding Officer in various situations. They are expected to be at the peak of their professional knowledge and must know everything about their particular specialisation to be able to carry out assigned duties effectively. A Lieutenant is also appointed on the staff of certain Flag Officers as the Flag Lieutenant. This name has its origins in the days when all messages between ships were exchanged using flags. Since the eyesight of an Admiral would invariably have deteriorated due to age, he was provided with a Lieutenant who could read signals passed between the ships, and hence became known as the Flag Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Commander

Lieutenants given command of their own ships were known as Lieutenants and Commanders or Lieutenants Commanding. In time the title was shortened to Lieutenant Commander. This became a rank in the United States Navy only in 1862, and in the Royal Navy almost 30 years later. Promotion upto the rank of Lieutenant Commander is based on a time scale. For further promotions, however, an officer has to undergo a selection process at each stage. The first step up the selection ladder is thus the rank of Commander


Till the early nineteenth century, the lower grades of Captains who were not yet eligible for promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral were called Master and Commander, and they commanded small warships. This title was abridged to Commander in 1794, and it was only in 1827 when the British appointed officers of this rank as second-in-command of large ships that the rank was changed to Commander. It is in recognition of this fact that even though there may now be more than one officer of the rank of Commander on board, only the Executive Officer, if of this rank, is known as the 'Commander' and addressed as such. All other officers, except the Captain, are addressed by their rank and name, or by appointment.


Captains, as the name implies, are the leaders of all aboard their ships. Any officer in command is entitled to this address, regardless of his actual rank. In 1747, the rank of Captain was clearly defined in the British Navy, and equated to that of a Colonel in the Army. Interestingly, till 1862, Captain was the highest commissioned rank in the United States Navy. The duties and responsibilities of a Captain are multifarious. On board, his authority is supreme and unquestioned. As long as he is in command, he is entrusted with the safety of the ship and all the men on board. He is called 'the Old Man' by the crew, but always with respect and affection and never within his hearing. The fact that the Captain must always be conscious of the immense responsibility he bears has led to the custom of the Captain being the last to abandon ship


After having served as Captain for five years (or as stipulated in current orders), an officer in the Indian Navy is constituted a Commodore. This is not really a rank, since all Captains with four years service become Commodores as long as they are ashore. If they take command of a ship, however, they revert to Captain. Thus, all Commodores are borne in the rank of Captain. The title Commodore originates from Holland. In the Dutch wars of 1652, there was a shortage of Admirals and the Dutch wished to create a group of officers who could perform the duties of this rank without being given the pay. Thus the Commodore was born. This is why Commodores afloat are entitled to fly a pendant, which differs from the flag flown by Admirals. The rank was brought to England by William III, along with the broad pendant (or burgee) used by the Dutch at that time. It was officially recognised by the British in 1806, and became accepted in the United States Navy in 1862.


After many years of distinguished service, the naval officer approaches the pinnacle of his career when he is promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and given his 'Double Brass'. This title can be traced back to the Arabic Amir-al-bahr, or ruler of the sea. The Bahr was dropped by the Romans, who called their naval leaders Sarraccenorum Admirati. The term was introduced in Europe during the crusades, and the first English Admiral was appointed in 1297.


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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:37:27 ZULU