Admiral SH Sarma: A Hero of the Sea


Vice-Admiral SH Sarma, PVSM, died on January 3 in his hometown of Bhubaneswar. He was 99 years old.

We all know the big names associated with the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War such as the Prime Minister and the three department heads. However, apart from a few, the courageous deeds of the heroes on the ground, or should I say, at sea level or in the air, remain unknown outside of their service. I would like to stress the important role that Admiral Sarma played in the war.

The Eastern Fleet was formed just a month before the start of the war, and Admiral Sarma was appointed the Officer Commanding the Eastern Fleet (FOCEF). I was appointed Fleet Communications Officer (FCO) within the FOCEF operational staff and we were embarked on the aircraft carrier Vikrant, which served as the flagship throughout the war.

Normally, a fleet commander has time to prepare his fleet of ships with peacetime exercises so that the admiral, his staff and the commanders (COs) of the ships can come together to function as a team. In this case, the fleet was pushed into the war from the start. It is to the admiral’s immense credit that he was able, in the short period of time at his disposal, to muster the fleet into a cohesive unit and deliver everything that was asked of it and more. Admiral Sarma was specially chosen for this job because Admiral SM Nanda, then Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), was convinced that the former would be able to deliver on his promises. Months before the event, the CNS had told Admiral Sarma that as the fleet formed he would take command. The latter did not let down the CNS and accomplished the destruction of enemy ships and bases, the blockade and the control of contraband. Airstrikes caused significant damage to the Pakistan Air Force and port facilities, and the fleet maintained strict control over the Bay of Bengal so that no enemy ships could enter or leave the ports of East Pakistan. then and that we can take 93,000 prisoners of war.

The admiral was more than willing to take the risks necessary to accomplish his duties. For example, given the Vikrant’s limited speed due to the fact that one of its boilers was not operational, the Navy Headquarters advised the aircraft carrier to operate more than 100 miles from the coast to be out of range of Pak Saber jets. The admiral thought it was too far and, in consultation with Captain Parkash, Commander Vikrant, decided to operate from a distance of 55 to 60 miles. This allowed Vikrant to perform up to 90 highly effective air attacks.

Then there was the unique demining effort to clear the entrance channel to the port of Chittagong. This was not planned earlier and was not really a job for the fleet, which did not have minesweepers. A “jugaad” sweeping method was devised by hiring local fishing vessels trawling a length of line.

A few lighter moments come to mind. The fleet was anchored off the northernmost Andaman Island, Port Cornwallis, awaiting further instructions from HQ. Signals were to be made to Visakhapatnam for urgent supplies. Not wanting to break the radio silence so as not to compromise our location, I discovered that there was a wireless police station on the island. I told the admiral that I would go ashore and get the messages across from there. As there was not much activity at the time, the admiral said he would accompany me. On landing we met a local man who informed us that the police station was miles across the island. At that moment, a jeep passed by and I asked the driver to take us to the police station. He categorically refused, whereupon the admiral thundered: “By the emergency powers vested in me by the President of India, I requisition this vehicle and order you to take us to the police station.” I don’t know if the driver understood what was said but it was enough for him to take us to the station and back!

A deeply rooted memory is the classic response the Admiral gave to the message from the captain of one of our ships, the Beas, asking what action to take if we encountered ships from the U.S. 7th Fleet. Without batting an eyelid, the admiral replied: “Swap identities and wish them the time of day.”

Under normal circumstances, news of the death of a 99-year-old man would have been routine – after all, how many people live to reach that age? What was shocking was that I had just met Admiral Sarma in Delhi about a fortnight ago, after 43 years. He had come from Bhubaneshwar, his hometown, to attend ceremonies celebrating the Golden Jubilee of India’s victory in the 1971 war, having the distinction of being the oldest surviving warrior of the war. We met at a lunch hosted by the current CNS, Admiral R Hari Kumar. I saw Admiral Sarma and walked over to introduce myself but before I could speak he said that you are Sharma and that you were my FCO aboard the Vikrant. He then said a few other things about me that showed he had continued to follow my career long after my tenure at FCO. Remarkable for a man of this age, whom I met after 1978.

I told the admiral that it was an honor and a privilege to see him after such a long time and that it was admirable that he had taken the trouble to come all the way for this occasion. His response: “Well, the CNS insisted, so here I am.” He then proudly proclaimed, “You know, I entered my 100th year on December 1st. To me, witnessing his mental form and courage for making the long journey, it seemed like the Admiral would have many more years to go. I consider myself lucky to have served under him. I will cherish the two gifts he gave me that day, his autobiography, My Years at Sea, and a series of illustrated postcards depicting the highlights of his naval career.

The writer is a retired Indian Navy officer