INS Vikrant an Aircraft Carrier that Put India on the Naval Map
A Ship that played a significant part in Indian Naval History.
The aircraft carrier is an imposing ship. Ever since Douhet propounded his theory of airpower as the decisive force in warfare, the aircraft carrier is recognized as the most authentic exponent of Douhet’s principle of air war fare. After 1947 when India became free, the Indian navy decided that India must have an aircraft carrier as a projection of Indian sea power. Much credit for this must go to Krishna Menon the Indian defense minister during the time when Nehru was the prime minister. He was able to prevail on Nehru to accept the Indian Naval staff requirement for an aircraft carrier for the navy. Not many aircraft carriers were available for sale and the Russians on whom Menon relied a lot because of his leftist leanings never had one to sell.
The Indian search narrowed down to the HMS Hercules alight aircraft carrier that had never been commissioned. This ships’ construction had commenced in 1943 during the height of the war. The ship was ready by 1946, but by then the war was over and given the constraints of the British budget it was decided by the British admiralty that they did not need this carrier. The ship was thus not commissioned, but stored in mothballs for some subsequent use at a later date. The British in need of hard cash offered this carrier to the Indian navy. After an inspection, the HMS Hercules was bought by the Indian Government for the navy. This was in 1957 and the ship was got ready for extensive refit, as per the requirement of the Indian navy. The Russians when they came to know of this deal were not happy and offered submarines and cruisers. The Indian navy was firm on this deal and the ship was got ready for the Indian navy. The refit took 4 years and the aircraft carrier was rechristened as the INS Vikrant. It sailed from London in 1961 to join the Indian western fleet and towards the end of 1961 became part of the Indian Western Naval command,
Vikrant is the Sanskrit word for victorious and it was to prove exactly that for the Indian navy. The Vikrant could carry 8 Sea Hawk fighter bombers and an equal complement of Alize anti- submarine aircraft. The aircraft was in dry dock for repairs during the 1965 war with Pakistan and thus missed action. In late 1969 with war clouds hovering East Pakistan the ship was transferred to the Eastern Naval command and located close to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. At that time one of the boilers of the ship packed up and a new boiler was flatly refused by the British and the USA in favor of Pakistan. The Indian engineers however worked on their own and were able to run the ship only on the other boiler, though its speed was reduced from 25 knots to 15 knots per hour.
In December the operation order was issued by Naval Headquarters to the Vikrant to seek and destroy Pakistan naval establishments and ships in the Bay of Bengal and East Pakistan. In December 1971 the Vikrant and its assault and escort ships mounted an assault on the East Pakistan ports and shipping including their main base at Chittagong. In a 10 day campaign the Vikrant and aircraft from the carrier completely neutralized the Pakistan Navy in the East. Reports now point out that Chittagong port burned for days after the attack.
An alarmed Richard Nixon decided to intervene on the side of Pakistan and ordered the US carrier task force to sail to the Bay of Bengal and establish a bridgehead. Indira Gandhi invoked the Indo-Soviet security treaty and Leonid Brezhnev ordered the soviet nuclear submarine fleet to tack on to the US flotilla. It was all the ingredients for a world war and in a coded message the Eastern Naval fleet was ordered to be ready to face the US Fleet. But the Pakistan were defeated and demoralized and surrendered by mid December 1971 and over 100,000 Pakistan soldiers became POW’s. The war ended but the role of the Vikrant was crucial to the success of the operation.
The Vikrant continued in service till 1997 and was then decommissioned. Because of its long association with the Indian navy, the Government of India converted it into a museum and it is now anchored off the Mumbai port.