IN LIGHTER VEIN-RAMALINGAM SWAMY

I was posted on old INS Androth as Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Officer when Operation Brass Tacks was announced in the latter half of 1986. I remember my Commanding Officer rushing back to the ship from Fleet Office and briefing us about the mother of all exercises with the Army and Air Force. He also told me “Pings, you have been nominated by Fleet Office to liaise with Naval Science & Technological Laboratory (NSTL) to clear the field tests for their NST torpedoes, which we will embark in addition to our live torpedoes before we set out for Operation Brass Tacks.”

In those days, NSTL scientists were trying to indigenise a torpedo, without much success and I was beginning to wonder how on God’s green earth would they be able to complete it in just three months. So I went across to NSTL to meet Mr Ramalingam who was the Project Officer for the torpedo. He looked like an ugly little troll with hair sticking out from his ears that appeared like wings on his head and a squeaky voice and had the ability to speak in alpha, beta and gamma when answering a simple question, for which you needed the decoding powers of a Radio Telegraphist sailor with the Ship Cypher Code book by his side.

Ramalingam then handed over the torpedo manual to me, a thick docket of a thousand pages; an ideal gift for someone he probably disliked. Then he tottered off to the torpedo tank and pointed to a two-ton cigar behemoth, proving to me that no part of the 20th Century had caught up with the work he was doing.

“This is the second best torpedo in the world!” he said, grabbing his heart and blinking away to prevent himself crying with pride. “Don’t forget to open the ‘stop cocks’ before firing,” he crooned, poking me in the chest and roaring with laughter. I thought to myself, this guy can be boring, pedantic, jovial and methodical but only till the point where I wanted to keelhaul him. But I guess we needed people like him who could prove torpedoes could work on the blackboard, in the same way as we needed people like me, who could …er…, well, …hold on to that thought, I’ll get back to you on that.

In their enthusiasm to sell their torpedo to the Navy, NSTL had even paid for a torpedo firing boat named Astravahini and gifted it to the Navy. Ordinarily, NSTL would recover the last fired torpedo for laboratory checks and having corrected the mechanisms that drive the torpedo in the right direction, they would programme the next firing exercise on a static decoy. But since there wasn’t much time at hand, Ramalingam convinced me that it would be okay to fire the torpedo from Astravahini with a ship as a target, keeping a safety depth margin, because real ships produced real noise which the torpedo could detect and lock onto. And in turn, I convinced my Commanding Officer to programme a torpedo firing exercise with our ship as the target.

On the day of the firing, both ships sailed out and we positioned ourselves about five miles apart. Androth began the dummy run on a perpendicular path with a Controlled Noise Maker (CNM) towed target streaming behind her about a mile away. At the designated time Astravahini fired the torpedo. I was in the sonar room three decks below tracking the torpedo on our passive sonar and plotting its path.

Suddenly for unknown reasons the torpedo diverted its course from the CNM and headed straight for the ship. If you can imagine a two ton object hitting even a glancing blow to the ship’s fragile keel, you can imagine that there is no need for an explosive head to break the ship in two.

There was absolute panic on the Bridge. The CO ordered anti-torpedo measures with evasive steering manoeuvres and everybody on board began clutching their lifebelts. With the sudden surge in ship’s speed and heavy listing and yawing caused by rapid turning of the ship, Ramalingam was hunching over the wash basin vomiting his own spleen through his nose, while the rest of us were running around like our trousers were on fire. You know the last few moments in the Titanic when the ship went down? This was nothing like that. It was worse. Luckily, the hydrostatic control of the torpedo was working well and the torpedo went under the keel without damaging anything.

In the meeting that followed, Ramalingam was ecstatic and brought out that this was exactly what torpedoes were programmed to do — bypass the decoy and go for the target. Eventually, he managed to get the Commanding Officer to agree whole heartedly to let him have a second shot at us. I remember sitting on my chair with my body language suggesting that I had inadvertently spilled sulphuric acid on my lap.

For the second round, we programmed our own ship to fire the torpedo and let Astravahini deal with the dance of the decoy ship, since eventually, the Fleet ships would have to fire these torpedoes. This time round, when the torpedo was fired, it ran for two miles and not finding a target, reversed course and homed onto our own ship. All hell broke loose on the ship, as we scurried to escape the clutches of the very torpedo that we had fired. The rogue torpedo then began doing a deadly snake dance with the ship, before it finally popped up like an injured dolphin a few hundred yards away.

In the meeting that followed, Ramalingam had a new theory to boast. He said, “Your anti-torpedo measures were superbly carried out. You must document what you did to so effectively evade the torpedo.” There was dead silence in the Bridge because nobody remembered what had happened. The CO had ordered hard-a-port and the QM had steered hard-a-starboard, and so on. But we had evaded the torpedo and that’s what mattered.

There came a time when nothing filled my heart with so much dread as a meeting with Ramalingam. I used to avoid meeting him with the same fervent determination as I avoided close encounters with rabid dogs. But the Fleet Office was making Churchillian noises about going to war with the Pakis, so I didn’t have a choice. I was hoping that the NSTL scientists would get back to their tender lovemaking with drawing board formulae and leave us alone.

During the subsequent meetings with Ramalingam I used to eat the inside of my face to stop myself from laughing, because, while the Army was devising ‘Shoot and Scoot’ tactics with their new Bofors gun, we were shooting and scooting from our own torpedoes. Skills that had never been developed hitherto.

For the third and final time, the torpedo was prepared with much fanfare, including panditji, puja, coconut, etc, but when the time came to fire it, the stop valve couldn’t be opened with the recommended spanner. While the whole Fleet was waiting in anticipation for a great boom to sound, the torpedo refused to budge. On the Bridge, the CO was inventing new words, new combinations of words and new throat sounds. After the chopper designated to film the event was called off, and the Fleet dispersed, Mr Ramalingam announced that he had successfully opened the stop valve, much to the consternation of all the officers on board.

It didn’t take the Board of officers long to determine that the NST torpedo couldn’t be fitted on our ships in the same manner as one could never put a wooden model ship into a glass bottle with a hammer. The Board then wrote out a long Finding and consigned the NST to the dustbin of Indian Naval history. That night I laughed and cried, got naked and performed cartwheels for free for my repulsed neighbours in the front lawns of our house in Naval Park, Visakhapatnam.

—Captain Anil Gonsalves, IN, (Retd) joined NDA in 1975 and passed out in 1978. He commanded Coast Guard ship Rajshree and INS Mahish in the Navy among his varied appointments. He took premature retirement in 2005 and presently is working in the Offshore Division of the Shipping Corporation of India as Master in their Platform Support Vessels.

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