Garhwalis at Sea-Reminiscences of OP Pawan

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  16 May 2021 7:30 AM GMT
Garhwalis at Sea-Reminiscences of OP Pawan

Garhwalis- the people of the hills and dales that reverberate the holy chants of the famous temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath are truly blessed. Most soldiers in the Garhwal Rifles hail from simple rural agrarian families and were not exposed to roads vehicles and trains till a few decades back. For them, South India was land as distant as Lanka and perhaps they would have heard of Kanyakumari as the southernmost tip of India.

And it is these very indomitable Highlanders who were transported by the very words contained in their oath to fight for India by land, sea and air'- on a journey cast in the dye of Julius Verne though this on the surface of the sea.

On 20th Jul 1989 in the late evening, I got a call from Military Operations Directorate, Army Headquarters, New Delhi. The Colonel speaking on the other end put my Battalion on operational alert for a move down South within 24 hours.

He further stated that I would be explained the preliminaries of the Special Mission Operation on my arrival at the Air Force Station, Bareilly, thereafter, at Garuda Naval Flying Station Cochin and further onboard INS VIRAAT - sailing in the Arabian Sea primed for Colombo. I was briefed on the scale of arms, ammunition, communications, logistics, necessary accouterments, etc, to be carried. I straightway rang up my Brigade Commander - only to be told by the Brigade Major later that he had already left for Army HQ & that he would be meeting me on board INS VIRAAT.

The atmosphere was secretive, the air hush-hush, the adrenalin coursing sedately as the Battalion was put on one hour notice and placed at Bareilly Air Field, awaiting an airlift in ILs-76 on 24 Jul 89. The Battalion was being given the distinct privilege of being tasked for a Special Mission Operation of a sensitive politico-military nature for the second time; the first being an airborne assault across the last frontiers for any Infantryman- Siachen, in February 1987

As the ILs softly growled into their finals, instructions were softly confirmed, pack straps given an odd final tug and filled magazines tested subconsciously for spring tension. The Highlanders were very much in their mettle.

An hour later, at 11,000 Meters above Mean Sea Level, nobody except aircrew had the foggiest of idea as to where we were lost in the thick monsoon clouds over Central India with clouds piled over 2,000 Meters thick! By and by, drenched to the bone in the Trivandrum monsoons, we headed in passenger buses of Kerala State Transport (KST) to Cochin as part of a stratagem.

Even the locals gaped at the sight of Bhullas cooped like chicken inside; the KST drivers precariously balanced –virtually atop camouflage nets-maneuvering gears amidst piled ammunition boxes and battle packs with the nonchalance of a tug pilot shouldering an'R' class destroyer into the inner breakwaters off 'Lion's Gate'. The vehicle's center of gravity-somewhere in Cloud 9!!

We entered INS GARUDA early morning 25 July and by 10 AM were awaiting the Charlies (C-42 Commando Helicopters). By midday, with the Naval Marcos supervising our embarkation/disembarkation, the Highlanders were helicopter-borne onto the home of the Sea Harriers-INS VIRAAT. Operation "JUPITER" (OP PAWAN) had begun. The two oldest professions-at arms were creating history; such precedent does not exist in the glorious annals of our defence services.

At first, the eight decks and innumerable companion bays were a labyrinthine maze, beyond the imagination of the Pongo ( Naval slang for Army guys) used to mother earth under his feet and a distinct horizon for his PADS to function and the Ship's Company gaped in wonder as Bullas (Younger Brother in Garhwali) dressed in combat disruptive lugged into their messes everything from weapons/ammunition to 'pakhals', kerosene oil, and bamboo sticks for tentage, with sailors acting Saint Bernard for the first few days. Seeds of bondage, bonhomie & camaraderie that today tie us like bands of steel were sown then.

For the Commanding Officer's first operational briefing of Officers/Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), an announcement to rendezvous at 3 PM on the " Quarter Deck" took the form of a veritable treasure hunt with the JCOs searching high & low for the naval equivalent of the Quarter Guard! The Commanding Officer took the report to the whistles of sundown! However, the "all secure" announcement coupled with our keen olfactory senses had us all at the bar faster than the FlyBoys. Landing in nonstop 76 Halo Sorties on the deck of our Mother Ship in a record 4 hours was indeed a sure credit for all onboard INS VIRAAT for earning a BRAVO ZULU.

The Sailors accepted this intrusion into their midst quite gracefully and intensive rehearsals for Air Borne Beach Head Operations began, culminating in EX SHIV SHAKTI- a three-dimensional exercise chalked out by both the Commanding Officers-the combined efforts of the Garhwalis, the Viraatis, NAVAL MARCOS and Fleet Air Arm. Interspersed in these goal-oriented efforts were competitions of lighter nature that helped the Garhwalis and Viraatis identify with each other.

It was indeed gratifying to see the Highlanders-residents of remote mountain tops on the Indo-Tibet Border take to the sea so easily with hardly any complaints of seasickness during monsoons in the Arabian Sea in Sea State X-5 - thanks to pills supplied by the Fleet Medical Officer and the stabilizers on VIRAAT!

It was during a cocktail hosted by the ship in our honor that VIRAAT's Commanding Officer Captain Madhvendra Singh mentioned the feasibility of special bonds between INS VIRAAT and the GARHWAL RIFLES. Colonel Mohan Bhandari the Commanding Officer of 7 Garhwal Rifles during his thanksgiving speech assured the Captain that very soon the Regiment will take her in her fold. And, this wistful wish did come true.

The relationship developed further & grew stronger when Captain Madhvendra Singh came all the way from Mumbai to join the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the SEVENTH at Pithoragarh during October 1989. It was 'Land Ahoy' for 25 personnel of INS VIRAAT who undertook an adventurous expedition into the Himalayas with the SEVENTH as their Administrative Base.

It is not often that such close interaction between the Army and Navy has taken place and been maintained subsequently. It is a matter of great pride and singular privilege for both, the Carrier Class of the Navy led by INS VIRAAT and one of the most illustrious and finest regiments of the Indian Army-The GARHWAL RIFLES whose maximum battalions have operated in all Operations since independence-in particular the SEVENTH to be so linked for all times in the future.

It would not be out of context to state that the erstwhile Royal Garhwal Rifles has 31 Battle Honors to its credit since its raising in May 1887 and has in common with the erstwhile HERMES ( Old name of INS VIRAAT), a British Legacy, which created history in Falkland War. The Replica of the Regimental War Memorial in the Captain's Office and a bold Maltese Cross in the Ward Room are the premiers of their adorning ship.

On 02 & 03 February 1990, the Illustrious Garhwal Rifles adopted the Indian Navy's biggest Ship-INS VIRAAT- is the Flag Ship of the Western Fleet in a glittering ceremony spread over two days. The adoption of INS VIRAAT by the GARHWALIS was a matter of immense pride and honor-indeed an important landmark in the Indian Army. It also a matter of singular honor & pride for the illustrious GARHWAL RIFLES to go down the history as THE ONLY REGIMENT OF THE INDIAN ARMY to have two inter-service 'combat ' affiliations- one with INS VIRAAT & the second one with 14 SQUADRON IAF (BULLS) Jaguars, that gave close air support to Garhwali Battalions during Kargil War 1999.

Postscript: INS Viraat the Aircraft Carrier and Flagship of the Indian Navy (before INS Vikramaditya was commissioned in 2013) was earlier known as the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes famous for Falkland War. It was sold to India in 1987. It was commissioned into the Indian Navy on 12 May 1987 and served for almost 30 years being the oldest aircraft carrier in service in the world. INS Viraat was formally decommissioned on 6 March 2017. After the failure of plans to convert her into a hotel /museum, she was sold for scrap.

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