Chapter 11: Operational Needs and Requirements
Sea Transport Service
Sea Transport is known as the Fourth Arm, for the part it plays in the prosecution of war can hardly be exaggerated. Its duties mainly are the transport by sea of the naval, army and air forces with all their equipment and accessories. Without such a service, war, especially of world-wide magnitude, cannot be waged at all. Thus, during the Nuremberg War Criminals’ Trials, General Jodd, one-time Chief of German Army Operations, said that victory, almost within Germany’s grasp, finally eluded her because she had not the ships and organisation to launch an invasion successfully. In this respect, Britain was prepared to some extent, but, of course, expansion on a world-wide scale was necessary for her.
India from the beginning was in a position to handle sea transport work. The Royal Indian Marine, predecessors of the Royal Indian Navy, had always been 50% a trooping service, and as a matter of fact, approximately 70% of the sea transport service in India was drawn from Indian resources. The Royal Indian Navy, Royal Indian Naval Reserve, Royal Indian Naval Volunteer Reserve, Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS) also entered largely into the picture with their signals and secretariat work. The dockyard at Bombay always carried out the technical side of the work, and, during World War II, both before and after the calamity which occurred there in April 1944, it was doing all that was asked for in half the time.
At the helm of the Sea Transport Service (India) was the Flag Officer Commanding, Royal Indian Navy, who was designated the Principal Sea Transport Officer. Assisting him in his task were a Deputy PSTO(I) and an Assistant PSTO(I). In addition, the Director of Sea Transport, London, appointed a Deputy Director of Sea Transport for the operational period. The headquarters were in Delhi working side by side with the Naval Headquarters, General Headquarters, the Air Headquarters, with
Divisional Sea Transport Officers-in-Charge at Karachi, Cochin, Madras and Vizagapatam. In Bombay there was also a Senior Inspecting Officer (India) with a staff which was responsible for the special fitting of ships for all purposes; namely, carriage of troops of all nationalities, motor transport, petrol and conversion from peacetime to wartime requirements.
The work at the Headquarters was allocated between a number of departments, (a) The Operations and Planning Department was of the highest importance as it co-ordinated the work of the Chiefs of Staff of the Navy, Army and Air Force for all operations involving offensive action against the enemy. The department also dealt with the allocation of ships in conjunction with the Director of Sea Transport, London, to separate sections of Sea Transport Headquarters, (b) The Passage Department was responsible for the movement of all personnel including hospital cases of the three services as well as of civilian passengers ex-India to all war theatres and the United Kingdom, (c) The Freight Department provided tonnage for the transportation of military cargo, such as motor transport, tanks, artillery, aeroplanes, petrol, oil, food, engineering stores, naval equipment etc. At one time as many as 130 merchantmen were plying between India, Burma, Malaya and further east on this task. Scindia Steamship Navigation Company provided Jalayamuna and Jalakrishna for this purpose, (d) The Stores Department handled all sea transport stores which comprised such items as special loading and discharging gear, bedding for troop transports and fire-fighting apparatus. Its job was to get the goods delivered at the right spot at the right time, (e) The Accounts Department dealt with the financial side of transactions between the Indian Government and His Majesty’s Government as well as with commercial interests. (/) The SIO Department (Senior Inspecting Officer) carried out in Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta the work of specially fitting and adapting ships to transport efficiently their troops and war cargoes – a heavy responsibility.
Work at Docks
Ships had to be berthed, watered, bunkered, stored, loaded, discharged, fitted and turned-round in the shortest possible time owing to acute shortage of berths and the needs of war. Due to shortage of staff, sea transport officers had to work long hours under high pressure seven days a week. Vast quantities of food, inland transport, and building materials had to be shipped to the areas which had been ravaged and denuded of the necessities of life.
With the intention of working down the Malay Peninsula towards Singapore, Operation ZIPPER/TIDERACE was planned in Delhi, at the Supreme Headquarters in May 1945. The objective was to carry out a series of assaults on Penang, Port Swettenham and Port Dickson on the west coast of Malaya. The outline plan was that the initial assault wave would be sent in at Penang and be carried by ships flying the white ensign, and thereafter be backed up by the sea transport organisation, bringing in second-line troops, stores, equipment etc.
At three-day intervals, subsequent to the assault on Penang, the same procedure was to be adopted for the occupation of Port Swettenham and Port Dickson, respectively. During the whole period of TIDERACE operation the Sea Transport Officer provided shipping for a lift of 79,000 troops, both Indian and British, 7,400 motor vehicles, 65,000 tons of stores and 25,000 tons of petrol, together with large numbers of craft, N. L. Pontoons, etc., which required heavy lift ships.
Sea transport headquarters had, therefore, first to find the required ships within the time allowed and fit and prepare them in an efficient manner for the assault. As India was not able to handle all the work entailed, the Principal Sea Transport Officer, Middle East, undertook the fitting out of approximately a third of the motor transport ships. The bulk of the work thus fell upon Bombay whilst Karachi assisted to a small extent. The magnitude of the task did not allow one moment to be lost and it was of boundless credit to the Indian sea transport organisation that the preparations were completed in time, though the staff was inadequate and few in it had had previous experience of the work involved.
The mounting of this operation was distributed between the ports of Bombay, Cochin, Madras, Rangoon, and Calcutta, though Bombay was given the larger proportion of the work. Midway through the loading programme, the Japanese commenced their feelers for peace terms and that naturally altered the aspect of the contemplated operation. In fact, it became more the movement of an army of occupation than that of invasion. Nevertheless, the plan in practically its original aspect was to continue within the same “D” Day of 9 September, though certain ships were withdrawn and others added to conduct Operation TIDERACE which was intended to be a movement considerably in advance of ZIPPER and mounted from Rangoon. Due, however, to the protracted negotiations with the Japanese, the departure of the TIDERACE Force had to be
postponed, even when sea transport was able to prepare and position the ships according to plan.
Surrender of Japan
Additional problems, however, arose as a result of the Japanese capitulation, such as the preparation of hospital and troop ships for the evacuation of released Allied prisoners of war and civil internees. The altered circumstances left little time to embark the additional bedding, clothing, food, medical stores, comforts etc., but due to the excellent co-operation of the services concerned, practically all those ships which had not already sailed were sufficiently equipped to cater for essential needs. When peace was signed, sea transport handed back to ship-owners and agents as much of the tonnage as was compatible with outstanding commitments.
The Sea Transport Service in India performed a good job of work. It was part of the vast organisation which, based on London, provided lines of communication from the heart of the British Commonwealth to all theatres of war. It was responsible not only for shipping operations but also for loading and discharging at ports, arrangements for freight in commercially-operated ships, and the utilisation of country craft. The work expanded enormously when the theatre of war moved to the Far East.
The origin of Coastal Forces in the Eastern Theatre dated back to March 1942, when the first Fairmile “B” type motor launch built in India was commissioned in Calcutta. Early in 1942, the appointment was made of a Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre (CCFET). He set up his administrative headquarters at HMIS Cheetah in Bombay. Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre, was responsible for (a) all coastal craft operating in the Eastern Theatre; (b) operational training of the Coastal Forces; (c) the administration of Coastal Force craft and bases in the Eastern Theatre; (d) the drafting of RIN coastal Force personnel; and (e) the drafting of Royal Navy personnel for Coastal Forces whenever necessary.
In 1943, the Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre and his staff moved from HMIS Cheetah to Vizagapatam, in order to be in more immediate contact with the Royal Indian Navy Motor Launch Flotillas operating off the Arakan Coast. In January 1945, the Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre and his staff moved to
Colombo in order to co-operate more closely with the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station.
With the rapid development of Coastal Forces in the Eastern Theatre, it was found necessary to build specialised Coastal Force bases at Karachi, Bombay, Cochin, Mandapam, Madras and Vizagapatam. The work of these bases was started in 1942, and the foundations for Coastal Forces slipways and workshops were laid down. HMIS Cheetah at Trombay (in the upper reaches of Bombay harbour) was the biggest of these bases, and was originally designed as the administrative headquarters of Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre, and as a major reception and fitting-out base for Coastal Force flotillas arriving in India from South Africa and the United Kingdom. It was also to be the base for operational Coastal Forces Flotillas working off Bombay. For administrative reasons, the base was divided into two sections, HMIS Cheetah I and HMIS Cheetah II. The first one dealt with the administrative side of the base, consisting of the slipways and the barracks, and the second concentrated entirely on the engineering overhaul workshops and torpedo workshops at Mankard. The engineering workshops, designed for the overhaul of Packard and Hall-Scott engines, were completed in March 1944, but had gradually come into operation during the preceding months, as equipment and buildings became available.
Changes in Administration
On 15 September 1944, the administration of HMIS Cheetah was handed over to the Royal Navy, as the work carried out in the establishment was mainly on behalf of the Royal Navy and it was not possible for the Royal Indian Navy to meet the increasing demands for highly trained artisan ratings. On the same date the administration of the Coastal Forces base at Mandapam HMIS Hilsa was also handed over to the Royal Navy. All Royal Indian Navy personnel were not withdrawn from HMIS Hilsa. After consultation with the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station, it was decided to leave certain RIN Officers and men in HMIS Cheetah. The Coastal Force at Karachi, Cochin, Madras and Vizagapatam no longer came under the direct administrative authority of Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre, but was placed under Naval Officers-in-Charge of each port.
Formation of Fairmile “B” type Motor Launch Flotillas
The 55th and 56th Royal Indian Navy Motor Launch Flotillas were built and commissioned in India. By January 1943, the 55th
Royal Indian Navy Motor Launch Flotilla was formed. After working up in Bombay, it was sent to the Arakan Coast to give flank support to the 14th Indian Division, which was then fighting on the Mayu Peninsula. Diversionary raids were carried out on Japanese strongpoints situated down the Burma coast, and an effective blockade of all enemy coastal traffic was maintained. Owing to the monsoon conditions prevailing on this coast from April to September, the 55th Flotilla was withdrawn to bases in India at the end of March 1943.
By September 1943, the 56th Royal Indian Navy Motor Launch Flotilla was formed. During the winter season 1943/1944 both flotillas (55th and 56th) were operated by the Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre on the Burma Coast. The Coastal Forces operational requirements on the Arakan Coast were then dealt with more thoroughly than they had been the year before. An Advanced Operational base was set up in the Naaf river and a Coastal Force repair and depot ship, HMIS Barracuda was stationed at Chittagong.
The operational work of 55th and 56th Flotillas was carried out in close co-operation with the army and a senior officer, Arakan Coastal Forces, was appointed from the staff of Captain Coastal Forces, Eastern Theatre to correlate the work of both the Flotillas.
In December 1944 Royal Indian Navy’s most Advanced Base was set up on the Naaf river where India meets Burma. “This Base” wrote its Commanding Officer “had kept pace with the Naval pursuit of the Japs”. As landing followed landing it moved south and east well down the Burma Coast in the course of three months.
It worked at top pressure to keep the “little ships with a big punch” fighting fit. At one time only three miles separated it from the Japanese forward positions. “But the wild animals were a bigger menace than the Japs”, said the Commanding Officer, recalling the night when an uninvited elephant uprooted the bathroom of the senior officer, Arakan Coastal Forces.
Setting up a Naval Repair Base in the jungle was not easy. First the site had to be cleared, then workshops and living quarters prepared and jetties built, perhaps, under most difficult conditions on a soft, muddy shore. Many jobs which would normally fall to the army were carried out by RIN ratings, sometimes working day and night to get the work completed. With its sea and land transport, the base had to be ready to strike camp and move forward at short notice. It “set up shop” on Ramree Island within a week of the first assault.
The season was very successful. With both flotillas operating at the same time, the Japanese coastal defences were kept in a constant state of tension. An important side of Coastal Force work during that season was the almost continuous raids carried out down the coast. These undoubtedly played an important part in the military successes in the Arakan.
During the winter season of 1944-45, the 55th and 56th ML Flotillas were strengthened by the addition of the 49th ML Flotilla. The 49th Flotilla which was manned by South African Naval Forces personnel, was handed over to the RIN for manning and maintenance. The regular raids carried out by those three Flotillas on the Burma Coast during the last four months of 1944 were a vital factor in the successful landings which were carried out on Akyab, Myebon Peninsula, Ramree Island and Cheduba Island in 1945.
The Royal Indian Navy operated a total of 26 Fairmile “B” type Motor Launches. The 49th and 55th were both eight-boat Flotillas when ML 872, then under construction in Karachi, was completed. ML 420 was attached to HMIS Valsura for Torpedo training and ML 421 was used as an experimental and training boat.
Harbour Defence Motor Launches
Harbour Defence Motor Launches were primarily designed for Harbour Defence work but owing to the urgent need for Coastal Force craft for the Combined Operations on the Burma Coast, all RIN HDMLs with the exception of six boats of the 120th HDML Flotilla based on Bombay, were placed under the Command of Senior Officer, Arakan Coastal Forces. HDMLs played an important role in the Arakan campaign and acquitted themselves well. In October 1944, two HDMLs carried out a remarkable feat of air-sea rescue, when they picked up the entire crew of an American B 29 Superfortress, which crashed in the Irrawaddi delta while returning from a raid on the Japanese mainland.
In October 1944, an unfortunate incident occurred when HDMLs 1118 and 1119 were attacked by friendly aircraft in the Naaf river. 1119 was sunk and 1118 seriously damaged. Two officers and seven ratings were killed.
The RIN operated 29 HDMLs in 1944. On completion of the 1945 programme the strength was brought up to 26. The allocation of flotillas is given below:–
120th Flotilla 8 HDMLs
121st Flotilla 4 HDMLs
122nd Flotilla 3 HDMLs (1119 was lost on active service in October 1944)
130th Flotilla 4 HDMLs.
136th Flotilla 4 HDMLs
137th Flotilla 4 HDMLs
Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs)
In June 1943 three flotillas of Vosper 72 ft. Motor Torpedo Boats were commissioned in Bombay and Calcutta. Later 22 boats of these flotillas formed into the 16th and 17th MTB Flotillas based at Madras and Vizagapatam. Both flotillas were manned entirely by Royal Navy ratings with RN and RIN officers. Owing to their limited operational range and absence of targets for their torpedoes, it was decided by the Admiralty that MTBs were of no practical value in the South-East Asia Command and therefore in July 1944 both flotillas were paid off and placed in care and maintenance.
When the new construction programme was reviewed in September 1945, it was decided that all new construction should cease. Four Coastal Force Motor Launches were employed on training duties – ML 420 on Torpedo Training, HDML 1084 on Anti-Submarine Training and HDMLs 1261 and 1262 on Reader Training. HMIS Barracuda, the Coastal Force Depot ship then still in service, was shortly to be returned to the owners. The two Coastal Force Auxiliary Tankers Lady Myrtle and Sabrai were in the process of paying off.
Landing Craft Wing
There were well over 50 types of landing craft, large and small, in the Royal Navy and well-nigh the same number of landing craft in the Royal Indian Navy during the war period. All were designed primarily for putting troops and their equipment, tanks, lorries and guns ashore on hostile beaches, in face of enemy opposition. Chief among the minor Landing Craft were LCM, the LCA, and the LCS There were other types like LCT, LCP(L) – Landing Craft Personnel (Large), etc.
The Royal Indian Navy Landing Craft Wing was first formed in November 1942. It was manned largely by officers and men transferred from the army. The formation of this wing was an excellent illustration of the manpower situation in 1943 when the needs of all three Services for men of intelligence and some
education could no longer be filled by direct recruitment. First, it was agreed that the navy should select volunteers from the army, but this method proved too slow. Eventually, it was decided to break down certain battalions of the Indian army and transfer them to the RIN These together with volunteers called from throughout the Indian army made up the requisite number.
A large proportion of officers was made up of RNVR and RINVR officers. The men were ‘hostilities only’ ratings. The landing craft wing was the youngest branch of the naval service. But the work they and their craft did was essential for the victory that followed.
The RIN landing craft wing was formed into the following flotillas:–
“I” LCT Squadron:–
60th LCT Flotilla: 1173, 1216, 1218, 1225, 1292, 1294, 1295, 1310, 1315, 1358, 1360, 1380.
61st LCT Flotilla: 525, 573, 585, 745, 1100, 1101, 1103, 1141, 1142, 1145, 1181, 1243, 1316, 1361.
62nd LCT Flotilla: 743, 744, 817, 908, 917, 1211, 1244, 1291, 1298, 1336, 1363.
Attached Craft: 386, 487, 531, LCT(E) 306.
A LCA Flotilla
B LCA Flotilla
F LCA Flotilla
3 LCA Flotilla (borne on Llanstephen Castle).
Naval Bombardment Group
Beach Signal Station
Beach Commandos “A”, “B” & “C”.1
Landing Craft Training Organisation
During the war, the Royal Indian Navy began training landing craft crews. In time, the landing craft wing developed into an organisation of considerable size, its training centre being then the largest naval establishment in India. It was called HMIS Hamla, located at Mandapam on the extreme southern promontory of India. In June 1943, the first batches of trainees (the Hamla product) formed into flotillas and moved to Bombay for their advanced training in the Royal Navy establishment HMS Salsette. At the end of 1943, the flotillas in Salsette (a group from land wing) were joined by their maintenance parties, trained in the landing craft base at Sassoon Dock, Bombay. This base was entirely manned and run by the Royal Indian Navy. In 1944 it was extended and improved. It was later taken over by the Royal Navy.
Early in 1944, the Royal Indian Navy Flotillas commenced combined training with the Army at the two combined training centres at Madh (Maud) and Cocanada. At this time the Headquarter Establishment and Depot HMIS Hamla moved to the Bombay area. On the move to Bombay in the spring of 1944, HMIS Hamla, the parent establishment, was located in buildings vacated by HMIS Khanjar, the old new-entry training establishment. These buildings, mainly old commandeered sanatoria, did not prove satisfactory. HMIS Hamla was then moved to new quarters in Wavell Lines, Malir Gamp, near Karachi.
A point to note is that the training of the Landing Craft and the Combined Operations during the war period, was more or less the same. No. 1 Combined Training Centre was situated on Madh Island, some 3 miles south of Marve. The naval camp to accommodate the crews of the Landing Craft engaged in naval training was established at Marve. This establishment, later commissioned as HMIS Hamlawar, originally consisted of three landing craft flotillas housed in tents and old huts, relics of the days when Marve was a sea-side resort. Hamlawar was eventually built up to an establishment of 120 officers and 1,200 men, housed in good buildings on a fine site. The camp was handed over to the Royal Marines in November 1944 when the Royal Indian Navy flotillas operating there were required for operations in the Arakan. It was decided that the RIN would provide crews for training to the No. 2 Combined Training Centre in so far as future operational requirements were concerned.
No. 2 Combined Training Centre had meanwhile been started at Cocanada on the east coast of India, some 80 miles south of
Vizagapatam. A naval camp was built at the mouth of the Cocanada canal to accommodate the crews of, and provide maintenance facilities for, the craft engaged in army training. This establishment commissioned as HMIS Jehangir, was originally intended to be manned by Royal Navy crews, but as these were not available, this commitment was also undertaken by the Royal Indian Navy in April 1944, with some three flotillas then uncommitted. During the first half of 1945, accommodation in HMIS Jehangir was increased in order that the crews from major landing craft under training might live ashore.
Signalmen for the Landing Craft Wing, the Beach Signal sections and Naval Bombardment troops were trained in HMIS Talwar and HMS Braganza III. During 1944 four RIN ratings who were attached to Braganza III qualified as paratroopers.
Besides these, training was also carried out in three other places in 1945. Squadron and Flotilla Executive and Engineer Officers and Squadron Staff Officers underwent courses in the United Kingdom at HMS Dinosaur. The engine room personnel and the maintenance parties for the squadron received technical instruction in Port Said. The remaining personnel underwent their preliminary training in the Bitter Lakes, Suez Canal, under the direction of HMS Saunders at Kabret. Before leaving India, officers underwent an intensive Navigation Course at HMIS Feroze in Bombay and at HMIS Himalaya in Karachi.
In the Operational Theatre
In the autumn of 1944 almost all the operational flotillas and units of the Landing Craft Wing moved to the Arakan, where they were employed in ferrying stores and working up with “Force 64” for the assault on Akyab. The composition of the Landing Craft Wing in the Arakan was: 5 squadrons comprising 16 flotillas of minor Landing Craft, 6 flotillas LCA, 8 flotillas LCM, one Beach Commando, two Landing Craft Recovery Units, one Naval Bombardment Troop, one Naval Beach Signal Section and advanced administrative and maintenance parties. During the landing at Akyab and subsequent operations at Myebon and Ramree, the flotillas and units of the Royal Indian Navy Landing Craft acquitted themselves with credit. In the words of the Force Commander “they have more than done their stuff.”
In May 1945, all Landing Craft Wing personnel were withdrawn from the Arakan and preparations were in progress to form a squadron of major Landing Craft to be manned by the Royal Indian
Navy. To man these craft five LCM flotillas, one LCP flotilla and a Beach Commando were spared for intensive training which started by June in HMIS Jehangir, HMS Dinosaur, and at HMS Saunders.
In general, the crews of the Landing Craft were composed of ex-army personnel and the technical and administrative personnel were ex-general service. The distribution in mid-February 1944 was approximately as follows:–
|Army training (HMIS Jehangir)||32||430|
|Naval training and Depot Administration (HMIS Hamla)||61||1,000|
|Landing Craft Base, Sassoon Docks||15||230|
|Inter-Services Exhibition Field Gun Crews||–||50|
The Landing Craft Wing as a whole was administered after April 1944 by the Senior Officer, Landing Craft Wing (SOLWING) with Headquarters in HMIS Hamla at Varsova near Bombay. When the greater part of the personnel moved to the Arakan, the Senior Officer, Landing Craft Wing established his advanced headquarters in Akyab while his rear headquarters remained in HMIS Hamla.
In April 1945, the title of Senior Officer, Landing Craft (SOLWING) lapsed and the RIN landing Craft Wing became merged into general service. A staff officer was appointed in Bombay with the title of Maintenance Commander RIN Landing Craft Personnel. The responsibility for the administration and training of establishments, flotillas and units was delegated to the Senior Royal Indian Naval Officer or Naval Officer-in-charge in whose area these personnel happened to be. The Maintenance Commander Landing Craft Personnel had a staff in Bombay which constituted a branch of Naval Headquarters (India).
Wireless Telegraphy and Harbour. Signal Stations in India and elsewhere
With the considerable technical improvement and, in many cases, with the complete rebuilding and re-organisation of the Indian
Naval Wireless Stations from 1942 onwards, the Indian ports and Delhi formed, within two years, an efficient integral part of the naval world-wide wireless organisation. Bombay Fort continued to play its part as an important link with Whitehall, South Africa and the South-West Pacific. Calcutta, in particular, with its up-to-date remote reception and transmission and acres of Rhombic aerial arrays, developed into a very fine radio station necessary for the operational role it played during the war. From three lines manned in 1943, fifteen lines were in operation the next year.
The naval wireless stations at Aden, Bahrein in Khor Kuwai were manned by the Royal Indian Navy personnel.
Visual signalling arrangements were reviewed at all ports in India, resulting in new harbour signal stations being built in Calcutta, Bombay, Vizagapatam, Chittagong, Cochin and Cocanada.
Calcutta wireless station stood the strain of a rush of traffic during the Arakan operations culminating in the capture of Rangoon. Shortly after Rangoon was re-taken a direct wireless service, previously planned, was opened successfully between Calcutta and Rangoon. High powered transmitters were installed to increase the range of the operational broadcast.
Bombay Fort wireless station which kept up its high tradition of being the finest station in the Far East took a very active part in the post-war merchant ship communications.
W/T Maintenance at Ports
The Base wireless workshops in Calcutta and Bombay were fitted with up-to-date lathes and coil winding machines, greatly facilitating the repair and overhaul of wireless equipment of ships. Special test equipment provided included circuit analysers, oscillators and valve test boards. Base workshops at Chittagong, Vizagapatam, Madras, Cochin and Karachi were also provided with * this equipment. Special test equipment to service the latest types of transmitters and receivers was provided for Bombay and Calcutta.
In 1942 a great increase took place in the number of signals handled both for RN and RIN authorities. To cope with this communication, offices were rebuilt at almost every port and up-to-date systems were incorporated. Late in 1944, all east coast ports, and Delhi and Bombay were connected to the defence teleprinters network, each port having up to six machines working.
The formation of the WRINS and a Coder Branch went a long way towards making up deficiencies of staffs. As a temporary measure, RINVR executive officers were trained in cypher work until the Coders and the WRINS were up to strength. A number of experienced WRNS officers were loaned by the Admiralty for cypher duties in HMIS Talwar and at various central communication offices in India, and rendered valuable service.
On account of the navy’s very large and increasing communicational commitments, a Signals Directorate was formed in Naval Headquarters in February 1944. This Directorate was represented on Inter-Services Committees and was in close touch with the Communications Staff of the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station.
Operational Communications – Arakan Coast
A great improvement was made in 1944 compared with the previous campaigning seasons. Chittagong wireless was completed in 1943 and 8 lines were manned in 1944. More than 100 communication ratings were employed. A considerable volume of traffic was ably borne by both Chittagong and Calcutta during the Combined Operations in early 1945. With the cessation of hostilities wireless station at Chittagong closed down.
Bay of Bengal
An operational broadcast service to ships in the North Bay was commenced in 1944 to provide a new improved link between shore authorities and convoy escorts in the North Bay area. A shore to shore broadcast was commenced in the middle of 1944 to link ports of the east coast to Delhi and Colombo. This was controlled by Calcutta and was in use for operational traffic only. A common shore to shore calling organisation was introduced for all ports in India with Calcutta and Colombo listening in.
During the war period, the Admiralty made great efforts to improve the efficiency of Fleet Mails in the Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy. British General Post Office personnel were selected as Regional Fleet Mail-Officers, Fleet Mail Officers and Writers (postal). Women’s Royal Naval Service officers and ratings were
also trained in Fleet Mail duties. In India, one Fleet Mail Office was in operation at the beginning of 1943, in the Central Fleet Mail Distributing Office, Bombay. This organisation was unwieldy and ineffective owing to the large variety of mail that it handled – Top Secret down to private mail – and the inexperience of its staff Naval mails at other ports were handled by the secretary to the Naval Officer-in-charge and merchant navy mail by the Sea Transport Officer. As the great preponderance of mail handled in those days was that of merchant navy, ‘the bulk of the responsibility for naval mails rested with the Principal Sea Transport Officer (India). A Mail Officer was appointed in Naval Headquarters in July 1943.
Experience proved (a) that something more than close co-operation with the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department was needed to ensure efficiency of work connected with the Fleet Mails; (b) the standard of education of Royal Indian Navy ratings and Indian civilian clerks was not adequate to ensure speed and accuracy in mail sorting and efficiency in the higher grades of Fleet Mail work like handling of register, serving at the public counter, redirecting undeliverable mail, maintaining records, and statistics etc.; (c) commissioned officers without previous experience of mails were unable to cope with the full duties of a mail officer.
It was therefore decided in 1944 (a) to fall into line with Royal Navy Fleet Mail procedure, placing local responsibility for Fleet Mails on the Naval Officer-in-Charge, and adopting the same despatch and receipt system; (b) to request the Admiralty to loan trained Royal Naval Fleet Mail staff for duties with the Royal Indian Navy, as 90% of the mail passing through naval channels in India belonged to the Royal and the Merchant navies; (c) to build up an improvised Fleet Mail organisation from local resources until trained Royal Navy staff became available, and to prepare the ground for their arrival by obtaining Fleet Mail accommodation, transport, stores, furniture, fittings etc., in all the Indian ports.
In the Royal Indian Navy, only two officers were (in 1944) known to have general post office experience. These officers were brought into Fleet Mails, and certain new entry officers were given one month’s training in the Fleet Mail Office, Bombay. The new officers who had completed their training in Bombay were appointed one at each port. WAC(I) Auxiliaries were sanctioned as staffs. Owing to the shortage of the latter, lower grade clerks had to be employed instead, which continued throughout the war period. Fleet Mail offices were opened in Calcutta, Vizagapatam,
Chittagong, Delhi, Madras, Cochin, and Karachi during the period January to August 1944.
The delivery of “Safe Hand” mails was speeded up by the commencement, in a manner similar to Fleet Mails, of a daily inter-post despatch by hand of pilot through the Royal Air Force. On 1 August 1944, the irregular courier service, operated from Bombay for the purpose of delivering to Indian ports large quantities of Top Secret and Secret Mail which had arrived from the United Kingdom. It was reorganised into the Naval Officer Counter Service, operating between all Indian ports and Ceylon on a regular weekly schedule, with the RIN commissioned officers as couriers. In June 1944 the Admiralty agreed to send trained Fleet Mail officers for duties with the Royal Indian Navy. These officers were appointed to Delhi and the ports. Consequently, an Empire-wide effort was made to effect (a) a speed-up in mail deliveries; (b) an increase in postal concessions to the forces.
Fleet Mails improved greatly during the war. Though complaints did not diminish, they referred to shorter delays than previously. On the other hand, there was a greater appreciation that Fleet Mail work required skill and experience above that possessed by the amateur. There was also a greater reliance on the “Authorised Channels” for getting mail to its destination in moderate time than on dubious, unofficial means which usually divulged the movements of ships. Though many lessons were learned concerning the handling of naval mails after the outbreak of war, the establishment of an efficient Fleet Mail service required many more trained personnel than were available till then. Certain changes in the organisation as such could not be put into effect due to war conditions. Even so, every endeavour was made to improve the Fleet Mail system in the navy during the war with limited resources.
Until the fall of Akyab, particular attention was paid to mails for the Eastern Operational Theatre, F.M.Os, Bombay, Colombo, Vizagapatam, Calcutta, Chittagong and Akyab being extremely busy. Due to lack of trained mail staff and insufficiency of advance information concerning the movements of ships and naval parties, naval mails were riot as efficient as they otherwise would have been. Nevertheless, mainly due to hard work in Fleet Mail offices, mails came and went with fair regularity, and the chaos that was evident during former operations was much reduced. One coastal forces authority stated that mail arrangements for his flotillas were very efficient.
After the fall of Akyab, mails for operational areas controlled by the Flag Officer Commanding, Royal Indian Navy, diminished, and pressure passed to Vizagapatam, Madras and Cochin. Calcutta, however, being the focal point for United Kingdom – Burma air mails remained very busy. The Fleet Mail officer at Akyab was withdrawn when the Fleet Mail Office there closed down.
HMIS Bengal’s Epic Battle
One of the ships built by Australia during the war for the RIN was HMIS Bengal (733 Tons), a Bathurst Class Minesweeper. A draft of officers and men (75 in number) left India for Sydney in the middle of 1942, to take her over. The ship was launched by Mrs Curtin, wife of the Australian Prime Minister, and under the command of Lt. Cdr. W. J. Wilson, RINR, she started on her maiden voyage to India. In the short time available her ship’s company were just settling down and becoming proficient with her equipment. In view of this, their conduct in action that ensued during her maiden voyage must be considered highly commendable.
On 5 November 1942 she sailed from Fremantle as escort to M. V. Ondina, a Dutch tanker on passage to Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean. By 1130 on 11 November she was about 1,000 miles south-west of Java 23° S 93° E. At 1145, she sighted a vessel, about eight miles off, coming straight towards her. The new comer could not be identified but in any case to adopt the safer course, the Bengal sounded her action alarm and the ship’s company closed up at “Action Stations”. The Bengal altered course to starboard and instructed the tanker to take station on her starboard beam. At this time another ship appeared over the horizon coming up to the Bengal’s port bow. Both ships Were larger than the Bengal whose armament comprised one twelve-pounder gun and a few close-range anti-aircraft guns. By this time it had been established that both the identified ships were Japanese. The Ondina was therefore instructed to act independently and to rendezvous at a certain position the following day.
The Bengal then increased to full speed and turned to engage the first raider. She hoped in this way to allow the tanker time enough to get away but the Master of the Ondina would not leave her to face the two raiders alone. Instead, with his four-inch gun mounted aft, he returned the fire. The action that then followed is best described in the words of the Commanding Officer, Lt. Cmdr. W. J. Wilson, RINR:–
“The raider came up very fast and the Bengal steamed straight ahead at her. The raider also increased speed and opened fire at about 3,500 yards with her forward guns. We retaliated and hit first. At 3,000 yards we must have hit the raider in the magazine because a great sheet of flame shot up astern almost mast high. We then closed the range and fought the action at about 2,500 yards. The second Japanese raider never came closer than 8,000 yards. Both fired at us continuously. The first ship we engaged carried on firing, until, in a great sheet of flame, she blew up and sank. I estimate she fired over 200 rounds at us. At 1245 our ammunition was running short. We had very few rounds left and our vessel was damaged fore and aft. The ship that we sank was a large edition of the Kunikawa Maru class and was of approximately 10,000 tons. The second raider was slightly smaller, her tonnage being 8,000. They were both firing 4 gun broadsides, and these appeared to be from 5·5 inch guns. We drew the enemy’s fire and acted as a screen as long as possible to allow the tanker to escape”.
The encounter lasted for over two hours but really the first three minutes decided the issue. While shells were bursting all round them, the crew of the Bengal kept on firing one salvo after another. The sixth salvo made a direct hit on the first raider for, following a terrific explosion, flames leapt high in the air from her. This greatly enthused the RIN crew who kept on firing steadily. By that time, the second raider had come within range and opened fire. Within a quarter of an hour of action being joined a fire broke out in the Bengal’s officers’ baggage room. She had also been damaged fore and aft, and had only five rounds of high explosives D.A. remaining. The Commanding Officer accordingly decided to break off the engagement and started to make smoke, but not before the first raider had gone down by the stern and sunk.
The Ondina had then opened the range to about seven miles, but the second raider began to chase her and fire repeatedly. The tanker’s ammunition was soon expended and her Master, William Horseman was killed. She was then abandoned; whereupon the raider torpedoed her twice. The raider also machine-gunned the boat killing the Chief Engineer and some of the Chinese crew. When the raider left the scene, volunteers boarded the vessel and with some difficulty got her under way. She eventually reached Fremantle where she had been given up for lost.
It was a matter of surprise even to the ship’s company that the Bengal emerged from this action without serious damage. They had never been in action before but when ‘Action Stations’ were sounded, everyone was perfectly calm, firm and disciplined and all
hands were, in fact, anxious to have a shot at the raider. The Captain’s example was highly inspiring and the tribute He paid to his men was fully deserved. He said, “No praise is great enough for their magnificent conduct in face of the greatest danger”. The Flag Officer Commanding, Royal Indian Navy spoke much in the same strain when in his message he said, “We are all proud of you”.2
When the Bengal reached Colombo, every ship in harbour gave her an official and spontaneous reception. A band played on the jetty and as the Ships Company descended the gangway of their ship they were greeted with loud cheers. The acme of their joy was however reached when they steamed into Bombay. While still outside the harbour RIN ships who happened to be in the vicinity saluted them. Her 75 officers and men received a public reception and were honoured at a lunch in the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall.
The Captain of the Ship, Lieut. Commander W. J. Wilson, was decorated with the DSO. Leading Seaman Ismail Mohammed O. No. 4646, one of the 12-pounder gun’s crew was awarded the IDSM for gallantry and devotion to duty during the action. Petty Officer Mohammed Ibrahim, captain of 12-pounder gun, was awarded the IOM 2nd class for setting an excellent example of steadiness and resolution and using his weapon to the very best advantage even after the Bengal had been hit by enemy gun fire.