The Royal Indian Navy 1939–1945

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Chapter 1: India’s Maritime Heritage

UNLIKE the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Indian Ocean is indented by the land mass of India, which lies in its centre. India has a vast coast-line running to nearly 3,500 miles. On its west coast is the Arabian Sea which stretches up to the Red Sea and is joined to the Persian Gulf. On the eastern side, the Bay of Bengal is connected with the South China Sea through the Straits of Malacca. The Indian Ocean is a vast frontage facing India and is its natural highway. The centre of gravity of the Indian Ocean thus rests on the vast continental space of India. Geographically India occupies a strategic position in south-east Asia. However, the coast-line does not provide many harbours, and has only few good harbours. The chief of them before 1939 were Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, Madras and Vizagapatam.

Maritime Advance from the 3rd Century BC to the 12th Century AD

This geographical position of India necessarily involved the maintenance of a navy, the history of which goes back to ancient times. From the time of the Mauryas we have definite information on shipbuilding and construction of men-of-war. Megasthenes informs us that the shipbuilders of India were salaried public servants and that the ships were built in the royal shipyards. The development of national shipping led to the creation and organisation of a Board of Admiralty (Nav Parishad) as one of the six Boards which made up the War Office of Emperor Chandragupta. In the time of his grandson Asoka, India was brought into systematic connection with the Greek kingdoms of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus; and she became, through the efforts of the Emperor, the missionaries and the merchants, not only a spiritual centre but also a throbbing commercial spot of the Old World. Historian Smith observes: “When we remember Asoka’s relations with Ceylon and even more distant powers, we may credit him with a sea-going fleet as well as an army.”

In South India foreign trade and intercourse had developed under the Andhras with Rome between 200 BC to AD 250. R. Sewell, describes it thus: “The Andhra period seems to have been one of considerable prosperity. There was trade both overland and by sea; with Western Asia, Greece, Rome and Egypt as well as with

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China and the East. Embassies are said to have been sent from South India to Rome. Indian elephants were used for Syrian warfare. Pliny mentions the vast quantities of species that found its way every year from Rome to India and in this he is confirmed by the author of the ‘Periplus’. Roman coins have been found in profusion in the Peninsula and especially in the south. In AD 68 a number of Jews, fleeing from Roman persecution, seem to have taken refuge among the friendly coast-people of South India, and to have settled in Malabar.” South India also witnessed a spurt in naval activities again under the strong rule of the Cholas (985–1054 AD). These kings on the Coromandal Coast maintained a permanent naval fleet. The great Chola emperors Rajaraja I and his son Rajendra I pressed into service strong armadas for the extension of their power. The Chola power reached its apogee during the reign of Rajendra I. He invaded Ceylon and completed the conquest of the island begun by his father. He sent a large naval expedition against the kingdom of Sri Vijaya, a powerful maritime state which then held sway over the Malayan peninsula, Java, Sumatra and the neighbouring islands and controlled the sea routes from India to China. “Till the end of the tenth century, that is, for a period of nearly 500 years, the Sri Vijaya kings were the Lords of the Ocean. But in 1007 the Chola Emperor Rajendra fitted out a powerful navy and challenged the might of Sri Vijaya. He not only defeated the opposing navy, but captured Kedah and established the Chola power on the Malay Peninsula.”1

From 1498 to 1612

In later centuries, however, the naval superiority of Indian States seems to have declined, so that when the Portuguese appeared in the Indian Ocean, their progress could not be checked. Though from 1498 we have an unbroken record of naval and maritime history, the year marked the beginning of India’s eventual eclipse from the naval and maritime field. When Vasco da Gama succeeded in discovering the oceanic route to India, he took a series of measures to oust the Indian sea power and commerce. The Portuguese claimed the monopoly of maritime trade for the Portuguese Crown and attacked vessels plying without Portuguese permits. These piratical activities and the attendant atrocities on the coastal towns and commercial communities by the Portuguese were vigorously opposed by the rulers of the Malabar Coast. Three naval battles were fought against the Portuguese – the first off Cochin in 1503, the

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second off Chaul in 1508 and the third off Diu in 1509. None of these was decisive and the supremacy of the sea slowly passed on to the Portuguese.

Though the Portuguese had thus established a kind of supremacy in the Indian Ocean, it was not undisputed. For well over 90 years the Zamorin’s fleet under the family of Calicut Admirals known to history as Ali Marrakkars, with their headquarters and naval station at Ponnani, a naturally strong harbour to the south of Calicut, held its own in the home waters of Calicut. The most famous name in the house of Marrakkars is that of Kunjali Marrakkar II. He sank innumerable Portuguese ships (no less than 50 ships in one year) and his very name was a terror to them. But Mohommed Kunjali Marrakkar (Kunjali III) the hero of a thousand fights and the last of the Indian ‘sea-dogs’ rebelled against the Zamorin of Calicut. The Portuguese benefited from this quarrel and succeeded in exterminating the famous Marrakkars. The exploits of these gallant Indian sea-dogs not only restricted the Portuguese power but also put an end to their inroads on the sub-continent.

Akbar, the Great Mughal, organised the Navy on sound principles. His Admiralty had four functions – supply of ships and boats, drafting of efficient seamen, watching of rivers and lastly the imposition and collection of port duties. The Mughal fleet was stationed at Dacca and its duty was to protect the Bengal coast from the Magh and Feringi pirates.2

The Mughal Navy during the time of Aurangzeb was in a good standard of efficiency. According to Dr. Fryer, Aurangzeb had at Surat four great ships always in pay to carry pilgrims to Mecca free of cost. Some of the larger Indian ships at Surat like Fulteh Mahmood and Aurangzeb’s own ship Gunj Suwaie fell a prey to a notorious English pirate called Every.

Running apace with the naval activity of Aurangzeb was the coming into its own of the Maratha Navy under Shivaji who believed in the doctrine of ‘Jalamaiva Tasya, Balamaiva Tasya’ (whoever is powerful on sea is all powerful) and organised his Navy on sound lines. His genius was reflected in the creation of a navy, and the formation of a formidable fleet of 700 ships of various sizes. He was ably assisted in this task by Tukoji Angre and Daulat Khan. The whole

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of Konkan was brought under his sway with the help of his navy. The entire coast-line from Mandvi to Malabar was fortified and naval docks were built at several places. After the death of Shivaji and Tukoji, the latter’s son Kanhoji Angre assumed charge of the Maratha navy. He reorganised and modernised it by the construction of several 300-ton ships with 30 to 40 guns. He strengthened his navy to such an extent that it could meet the attacks of the Portuguese and the English. His sudden death in 1729 however led to the decline of the Maratha navy. In the subsequent period, no indigenous power had any navy worth the name and whatever was left was extinguished by the emergence of the English East India Company as the supreme political authority in the country. Henceforth the history of Indian navy is the story of the maritime enterprises of the East India Company and of the organisation of the Indian Marine as the local instrument of sea power.

Indian Navy from 1612–1939

Birth of the Modern Indian Navy

The English East India Company was founded in 1600 and the first squadron of ships, belonging to her arrived in India on 5 September 1612. Two months later the English forced the Portuguese to a battle off Surat and thereafter they set up their first factory at Surat. Captain Best of the John Company’s first squadron cruised the west coast for three months and sailed off to Sumatra. With his departure, the Indian Marine was formally established. The Company obtained permission to open new factories, and a fleet of small craft known as ‘grabs’ and ‘galivats’ was formed to protect their commerce from the Portuguese and the pirates of the West Coast.

The grabs were vessels of about 300 tons, of shallow draught mounting up six 9-to-12-pounder guns. The galivats were craft of about 70 tons and usually carried about half a dozen 2-to-4 pounders. These craft were officered by volunteers from the Company’s ships and their crews consisted mainly of Indian fishermen from the Konkan coast. From the early years of the East India Company, this force formed the nucleus of the Indian Marine, the larger ships coming out and returning to England as the Company deemed fit.

The East India Company had to fight battles with the Portuguese before getting a foothold on the country.3 In the second and third

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battles of Swally off Surat in 1614 and 1630 respectively, the Portuguese were overpowered by the English which enabled them to open more trading settlements in the country. After the acquisition of Bombay in 1668 by the Company and the transfer of their headquarters from Surat to Bombay in 1687, the Company’s trade and administration tended to increase. About this time Sir John Child, Governor of Bombay, took a hasty step in attacking the Mughal fleet (the Sidis) which resulted in the loss of the island of Bombay and the Bombay Castle (the present Indian Naval Barracks) which was later redeemed after the payment of a huge sum.

When the growing Maratha Navy under Admiral Kanhoji Angre spread its tentacles throughout the West Coast, the East India Company built corvettes to convoy their ships. In 1717 a strong English fleet under the command of Commodore Burlew attacked the Maratha garrison at Gheria but had to withdraw with severe losses. The task of suppressing the Marathas became easier only after the death of Kanhoji in 1729.

The English and the French

In 1740, a new power, capable of challenging British sea power entered the Indian Ocean. From their base in Mauritius, the French sent a strong fleet to intercept the British merchantmen. La Bourdonnais commanding the French fleet scored a few good victories over the British but these were short-lived. The French were finally defeated and the English had undisputed control of the sea.


Great progress was recorded in shipbuilding during the Company’s time. Four pinnaces and other larger vessels including the Queen were built in 1635. Bombay was a safer harbour and the present naval dockyard was selected as shipbuilding site by Nusserwanji Wadia, ancestor of a long line of famous Indian shipbuilders. In a little over 100 years, no less than 115 war vessels and 144 merchant ships were built in this dockyard including 84-gun ships of a total tonnage of 2,000 for the Royal Navy.

Nineteenth century saw the defeat of the Joasmis,4 the capture of Aden, Rangoon and Bushire and the Company’s ships changing

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over to steam from sail. The first ship to be fitted with a steam engine was the Hugh Lindsay of 411 tons. She sailed from Bombay and reached Suez in 21 days. A Marine Survey Department was also started during this century. It was manned completely by Navy officers. In 1863 the Navy was reorganised on a non-combatant basis and renamed ‘Bombay Marine’. In 1892, the Service was renamed the ‘Royal Indian Marine’.

First World War

During the first World War (1914–18) the Royal Indian Marine ships carried troops and other war materials to Egypt, Iraq and East Africa. The Royal Indian Marine ship the Hardinge on patrol in the Suez Canal fought a gallant action when the Turks attempted to block the canal. She was badly damaged and one of her funnels was shot away but she prevented the blocking of the Channel. The RIM also played a leading role in landing troops in Mesopotamia and their small river craft did very useful work on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The Morthbrook, Minto and Dufferin were in the Red Sea on patrolling duty. The Minto called at Jeddah and brought the Haj pilgrims safely back to India.


At the end of the First World War, the Royal Indian Marine reverted to its peace-time non-combatant role. After the war, when Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe was on a visit to India, the Government asked him to draw up a scheme for the reorganisation of the Marine. He made proposals which were considered too costly to be implemented. The Esher Committee which reported on the Indian Army strongly recommended the reorganisation of the Royal Indian Marine as a combatant service. In 1920, the Government of India obtained Rear Admiral Mawby from the Admiralty, to draw up, as Director of the Royal Indian Marine, suitable plans for reorganisation, but his scope was limited and his scheme was finally rejected. Following the report of the Inchcape Committee, the drive towards retrenchment converted the service into a Yacht Squadron for high officials, with hydrographic, buoyage and lighting duties paid for by the local governments. The Indian Government did not like to spend money even upon these duties if the work could be done more cheaply by private contract. The Inchcape Committee recommended the scrapping of troopships, the carrying of troops by contract, and the virtual reduction of the Marine to a Survey Department and a Dockyard. In the final result, the Marine was left with the Clive for lighting and buoying duties on the Burma coast,

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where she also carried out political duties; the Lawrence carrying out similar functions in the Persian Gulf; the Minto acting as the Station Ship for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; the Cornwallis lying in the dockyard unconverted, and two small ships, the Pathan and the Baluchi, for local training at Bombay. The Elphinstone, an old sloop of the Royal Navy was used as a relief ship until her loss in 1926. In this way, lack of appreciation by the Government of the necessity of building up a body of experienced officers and men by constant peacetime training and operations, was responsible for practically throwing away the sound body of experienced seamen ready at India’s hand at the close of the last war, upon which a sound and flexible system capable of rapid expansion in an emergency might have been built. This was an index of official indifference to the development of an Indian navy and may be explained only by their complete dependence on the Royal Navy to guard the oceanic highway and the coast-line of India. The Royal Navy continued to guard the coast-line of India for which a sum of £100,000 was paid annually. It was not anticipated that the Royal Navy might some day be left alone to contend with the German and Italian fleets and to guard the seas of the world at the same time. It was also not foreseen that a war would threaten India from the east.

Rawlinson Committee

Following the rejection of his scheme of reorganisation, Rear-Admiral Mawby resigned his appointment as Director of the Royal Indian Marine and returned to the United Kingdom, where he registered a strong protest. Subsequent to this, in 1925, a Departmental Committee was appointed by the Government of India with Lord Rawlinson, the Minister of Defence and Member of Council in charge of the Defence portfolio, as its chairman, with the purpose of submitting a scheme for the reorganisation of the Service as a combatant force. The scheme put forward by the Committee was for (i) reorganisation of the Service as a purely combatant force with the title of the Royal Indian Navy, (ii) an initial strength of four armed sloops or escort vessels, two patrol vessels, four mine-sweeping trawlers, two surveying ships and a depot ship and (iii) the whole to be commanded at first by a Rear-Admiral of the Royal Navy on the active list. This was accepted by the Indian and the British Governments and an Act was passed through both Houses of Parliament to permit India to have a navy.


The Royal Indian Marine was restored to combatant standing in 1928, but the full recommendations of the Rawlinson Committee

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could not be complete without the enactment of a new Indian Naval Discipline Act. Even then, the financial administration of the Royal Indian Marine left much to be desired. Proposals were required to be submitted to the Secretary of the Defence Department in the Government of India for inclusion of figures in the general Defence Estimates. These were submitted to a Committee consisting of the Commander-in-Chief in India and his Principal Staff Officers, but there was no Naval personnel among these or any representative of the Royal Indian Marine. The sum at the disposal of the Defence Department, moreover, was barely sufficient for the defence requirements, with the result that any proposals from the Royal Indian Marine had to be considered not merely from the point of naval defence but in the light of the money available for the total defence of India in which the army played a major role at the time.

Recruitment to the Royal Indian Marine at this stage was open both to the Indians and the British but, in practice, very few Indian officers joined the service. The first Indian officer to enter the Naval service was Engineer Sub-Lieutenant D. N. Mukerji, RIN on 6 January 1923.

The new Indian Naval Discipline Act was introduced as a Bill in February 1928, but failed by one vote to pass the Assembly. In February 1934, the Bill was introduced again with a few minor amendments, and was finally passed in August 1934 both by the Assembly and the Council of State.

On 2 October 1934 at Bombay, the Royal Indian Marine ceased to exist and the Royal Indian Navy was inaugurated. It was during this stage that the Service began to assume a form with Naval Headquarters at Bombay, under Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy (FOCRIN) and on paper the Royal Indian Naval Reserve (RINR), the Royal Indian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RINVR), the Royal Indian Fleet Reserve (RIFR), Special Service and ‘Hostilities Only’ ratings and establishments at the outports. As will be seen in this narrative, progress in respect of various plans was painfully slow, and the outbreak of war found the Royal Indian Navy inadequate to meet the situation.

Steady Growth of the RIN between 1934–1939

During the five years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Indian Navy was built up into a small but efficient combatant naval force. By 1939, it comprised five sloops, a survey vessel, a patrol ship, a depot ship and numerous small craft. The Chatfield Committee in February 1939 made far-reaching

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recommendations for taking over increased responsibility for the naval defence of India by the Royal Indian Navy and for her modernisation.

Shortly before the outbreak of war, the navy began to establish reserves. The Royal Indian Naval Reserve was made up of serving officers of the Indian Mercantile Marine. The Royal Indian Naval Volunteer Reserve originally had two branches – Executive and Accountant. An Engineering Branch was added on the outbreak of war. RINVR officers were recruited from the general public and were given intensive training for six months at Bombay.

In addition to the ordinary continuous service ratings, the Royal Indian Navy recruited Special Service ratings who served for 5 years and were then transferred to the RIN Fleet Reserve for 10 years. In addition, ‘Hostilities Only’ ratings were recruited from the personnel of the Merchant Marine.