Sunday, November 6, 2011

Remembering Admiral OS Dawson – In Lighter Vein

Some people journey through this Earth without creating a single wave or ripple – they come and go unnoticed. When Admiral Oscar Stanley Dawson joined the Indian Navy, he probably had no idea that he would leave such an indelible impression in the pages of Indian Naval history. During his naval service of 41 glorious years, he made a huge impact on the navy of the day, made his presence felt and put his own special and personal stamp of authority wherever he went. In some cases, reputation precedes the person ; in his case – his reputation for strictness, long hours of slogging, working by the rule book and his utter disregard for personal comfort (his and others), used to reach the ship much before he took command. 

In 1973 I became Flags to Rear Admiral Narpati Datta, the Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet. Captain OS Dawson (OSD) was then the Commanding Officer of INS Nilgiri. On one occasion the Flag embarked Nilgiri for a longish sea sortie to Bandar-Abbas, Iran. As the ship cast off, the FOCWEF realized there was no Captain’s Chair on the bridge. Later on with a mischievous smile OSD informed the Admiral that he himself had got the chair removed and said, “Sir, even the Captain has to be on his toes in my ship”. The Admiral, by now used to the comfort of INS Mysore and the Flag Bridge, decided to shift the Flag to INS Deepak, the spacious tanker.

There was always a hidden lighter side to his normally serious demeanor. In Bandar – Abbas I was informed by the Iranian Naval Liaison Officer that six IN officers could visit Tehran provided they could organize some place to stay. I informed OSD and the Fleet Staff Officers if they were interested in flying to Tehran. The FGO (Lt Cdr K. Pestonji) and FCO (Lt Cdr A. Tandon) were the first to volunteer for mission Tehran and the FGO also invented a Zoroastrian old aunt in Tehran with whom he would stay. When the Admiral asked the then Captain Dawson, “Stan, are you not going to Tehran?” he said, “of course I am going, in fact I am staying with Keki’s aunt”.

Once during an “At Home” on 4th Dec in the Navy House, I had forgotten to carry cigarettes and out of sheer desperation and misplaced courage, I went up to OSD and said “Sir, there is a ‘civilian gentleman’ who wants a cigarette badly, could you kindly give one?”. He put on a stern face that could have destroyed a thousand ships – and said to me “Take me to your civilian gentleman and let me have the pleasure of giving him a cigarette myself”. I did a very fast ‘Carl Lewis’ on him and vanished.

During an Anti Submarine exercise off Mumbai, Nilgiri was busy triangulating the enemy submarine position through ESM detections. At one point of time, FOCWEF on Mysore at anchorage signaled Nilgiri, asking OSD to come. Due to some reason, I was alone on the Quarter Deck to receive him. On embarking, an angry and protocol conscious OSD asked, “Why is FOCWEF not here to receive me?” and went back to his ship. Consequences be damned.

There was hardly any seniority difference between him and the FOCWEF, yet I have seen him treat the Admiral with utmost respect bordering on reverence.

Young Lt SV Gopalachari (late) then the Anti Submarine Warfare officer of Nilgiri was leaving the ship to go home after a hard day’s work. It was his wedding anniversary.OSD however had other ideas in store. He is reported to have told Chari, “measuring presence of CO2 in the compressor room is far more important than your wedding anniversary, which comes every year,” so goes the story and poor Chari had no option but to stay behind. As a result, he also got a measure of the temperature at home!

A little later in time, my wife and I happened to visit INS Amba. During the course of the evening OSD came to the wardroom to play the piano. A mutual acquaintance informed him that Jayanti sings well. Thereafter it was fun musical evening. He loved music and his piano more.

A few years later, he was appointed as the Chairman of Goa Shipyard and visited Mumbai to head a Court Martial. I was appointed his liaison officer. I picked him up in the airport and we drove straight to his residence somewhere in Marine Drive – I forget the exact location. He offered me a glass of rum and talked about old times. He also gave me a cigarette to smoke and added, “How is your civilian gentleman?”. He lived a very simple and frugal life, devoid of anything ostentatious. His house reflected his life style – ‘A bachelor married to the navy’.

He then became the C-in-C Southern Naval Command. During the annual day celebrations at INS Dronacharya – amongst other entertainment items, we put up a very novel children’s fancy dress show – which won accolades from him. He hated depiction of poverty and ugliness on stage. He often said, “There is so much of suffering all around us – why show it on stage too – children should be shielded from the ugly part.”

One fine morning we received a signal stating that the C-in-C would be inspecting Dronacharya very shortly. The signal sent shock waves up every one’s spine – such was the reputation of OSD. Several strategy meetings were held and action plans were drawn - how to counter OSD and win the battle.OSD never followed a set pattern and in his case, predicting was futile. We had to prepare ourselves for the worst. Fear of the unexpected reigned supreme.

As a part of the establishment we kept a well stocked ‘Piggery’ and some of its inmates were as good as Lord Emsworth’s sow, the ‘Empress of Blandings’ (Blandings Castle by PG Wodehouse.However the piggery was a source of constant irritation to a neighbour across the road, who also happened to be OSD’s friend. It was a case of the Onida ad – ‘Neighbours envy, owner’s pride’. We did not want to leave any stone unturned and the Piggery Officer was told to give all his sounder of pigs a good bath and clean up the sty. “No stink should emanate from the sty during the course of the inspection!” was the battle cry. Such were the lengths to which we went.

As the inspection drew closer, the tempo in the establishment reached a feverish pitch. Zero Error Syndrome had set in. The First Lieutenant wanted all the plants near the saluting dais to look green and healthy. He hit upon an extremely novel and original scheme and ordered ‘goats’ droppings’ to be liberally dropped in all the VIP flower pots. The day before the inspection it rained heavily, causing all the droppings to dissolve and become one with the mud in the pot. By nightfall the area near the dais had started to smell worse than our piggery. The First Lieutenant not to be outdone – late at night under cover of darkness, embarked on yet another bizarre rescue mission and ordered ‘Naphthalene Balls’ to be generously used to counter the odour of the ‘goat balls’. By morning the White and Black Ball combo had created an unknown aroma, making normal breathing difficult.

On the day of the inspection as the Admiral ascended the saluting dais, one could see he was overcome with misery, unable to tolerate the stench. In this atmosphere, I marched up and reported, “Parade ready for your inspection, sir!’ – After looking me up and down for several seconds – during which time I had completely frozen in the hot Kochi weather – he asked, “What is the weight of your sword?” – I knew the length of P15 Missile, weight of a 4.5 inch shell, rate of fire of an SLR – I knew many things but unfortunately had no answer to his question. He went on to add, “How can you be the Chief Instructor without knowing the weight of the sword?” The effect of the White and Black Ball combo continued throughout the inspection.

On completion of the parade, he retired to the VIP room to change into working dress and commence the ‘Walk around the establishment’ – which was standard procedure. After absorbing the earlier shock, the visibly wilting Commanding Officer went up to him and reported readiness for his walk around. OSD did the unthinkable and unexpected. He said, “AM 38 Exocet missile attack on INS Dronacharya is imminent! Start defensive measures.” The commanding Officer stood in absolute shock, not knowing what to do next. Technically, Dronacharya was a training establishment with a battery of guns, radars and an operations room. The establishment had never been subjected to any ORI. (Operation Readiness Inspection, wherein the war fighting capability is tested by simulating enemy attacks) Unlike a ship, we did not have any PA system, alarms etc to announce ‘Action Stations’ to enable the radars and guns to be switched on and brought to bear on the enemy aircraft. All the men were closed up in their respective classrooms. The Ops Room was locked and the key with an officer who was, unfortunately short of hearing and unable to get the drift. As all hell broke loose - sailors running helter skeltor, officers shouting unintelligible orders – Dronacharya resembled Pearl harbour after the Japanese attack. The inspection had not even started – such was the impact of OSD!

With great difficulty we all closed up at the GDP (from where the guns are controlled) and started taking charge of the situation. As we were about to settle down the Kerala State Electricity Board decided to make its own contribution to the disaster by cutting the power supply and blanketing Dronacharya in total darkness. The Chief Engineer from MES was summoned and informed that he would have to answer to the whole nation as to why we were unable to shoot down the missile. One thing unique about OSD is his impartiality – he treated us and his staff alike. In all this confusion, the Command Gunnery Officer decided to make his presence felt by appearing wearing his helmet back to front, prompting OSD to inform our CO, “ My CGO will join the next Sub Lieutenant’s Gunnery Course and learn how to wear a helmet properly’.

Beaten and totally battered, we followed as he finally started the ‘walk around’. On the way he saw a garage and wanted to know what was inside; when no answer was forthcoming, he ordered his Flag Lieutenant to open the garage door. The Flags (ADC) went to the garage and started pushing the door. On seeing this, Admiral remarked, “Look at this fellow, it is boldly marked ‘PULL’ and he is pushing it – how do you expect me to run a command with such staff officers?” One did not know where, when and whom he would target next!

We reached an abandoned building with several bills proclaiming ‘cleared for demolition’. OSD wanted to know as to why this could not be used as “Emergency Accommodation’ to tide over the shortage. The prompt reply from us was that there was no water and electricity in the building. He ordered someone to switch on the light and lo and behold! – All the lights came on and similarly the water from the taps gushed out like there was no tomorrow! Know your ship inside out was the lesson.

Our last stop was at the Second World War gunnery observation tower. It stood perched some 6o feet tall with almost vertical stairs leading up to its three observation platforms. At his age climbing the tower was indeed a very difficult and arduous task. On reaching the top he found his generously proportioned Command Medical Officer still at the bottom, wildly gesticulating, laughing and holding audience with a small group of officers. The CMO was immediately summoned up. The CMO took his life threatening journey to the top, one step at a time – he arrived first followed by his stomach. On reaching, OSD wanted to know, “In case Mumbai suffers a nuclear attack, have you made any contingency plan to accommodate the wounded? How many beds do we have? Have you interacted with other civil hospitals in Kochi? What about Coimbatore, etc”. I heard that the CMO lost a lot of weight thereafter, but never recovered from this incident.

Finally, after some three hours of the grueling walk around, we reached the galley – the last stop. He sat next to a pedestal fan and carried out ‘food tasting’. The Supply officer served him a spoon of hot rice, sambar, chicken curry, papad and dahi raita. After a very tiring day in the hot sun, he relished the fare and left.

Hours later we received a signal which – if my memory serves me right, said “Inspection of Dronacharya satisfactory, arboriculture needs improvement etc – an extremely well run galley. All ships and establishments are to send their cooks for training to Dronacharya”.

So ended our inspection – single handedly he had put us and his staff through a very rigorous inspection. Right or wrong, not many are capable of achieving this task – he set very high standards for himself and went about achieving them. Along the way he expected all naval personnel around him to do the same.

Years later, I interacted with him when he was the ‘Chief’ – went on many sorties with him to the Fleet and Command. After retirement, I had the opportunity to “Elbow Bend” with him on many occasions in the Naval Officer’s Mess, Bangalore. Through it all, I found him extremely devoted to the Indian Navy.

All good things come to an end – so they say. He was 87 years old. Former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral (Retd) Oscar Stanley Dawson PVSM, AVSM, ADC passed way at 9.50 am at the Command Hospital. When I saw him for the last time at the funeral service in St John’s Church in Cleveland Town, Bangalore on 26th Oct 2011, he looked extremely calm and composed and appeared to be saying ‘I have done my duty’. May his soul rest in peace.

Figure 1 - The Final Journey

1 comment:

  1. Excellent stories; thanks so much for posting!

    Personalities like Admiral Dawson only appear in white ensign navies.