Sentinels of the Deep

Commodore DS Sodhi, NM (Retd)
” Of all the branches of men in the Forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the Submariner. Great deeds are done in the air and on the land ; nevertheless, nothing surpasses your exploits.” – Winston Churchill
Dolphin Badge
Insignia of the Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm is the National Emblem of India flanked by two dolphins. Dolphins or porpoises , the traditional attendants to Poseidon , Greek God of the Sea and patron deity of sailors , are symbolic to a calm sea and often called the “sailor’s friend”. These dolphins, once pinned on the chest , leave deep marks , right over the heart , long after the uniforms have been put away.
Submarines have always fascinated the human imagination and they would continue to do so in the near future too. Greek Philosopher and scientist Aristotle has recorded that the Greek Emperor Alexander the Great used diving bells to enable men to descend below the surface to destroy barriers to prevent movement of submerged vessels during the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE (Before Common Era). It is also believed that nearly a century before Alexander, Athenians had used divers to clear entrance to Syracuse Harbour during its siege from 415 to 413 BCE. The evolution of the submarines has been a long journey with the earliest known plans towards making a submarine made by British Mathematician William Bourne around 1578. Cornelius Van Drebbel, a Dutchman designed and built the first successful submarine that was driven by Oars in 1620. The first American military submarine with weapon delivery capability built by American Davis Bushnell sometime in 1776 was named Turtle and it could accommodate only one person. In 1795 Robert Fulton an American designed and built a three man human-powered submarine Nautilus. It also had a sail for use on the surface and so was the first known use of dual propulsion on a submarine. In the year 1864 Hunley became the first military submarine to sink the vessel Housatonic during the American Civil War. After almost two years in 1866, the Sub Marine Explorer designed by German American Julius H. Kroehl became the first submarine to successfully dive, cruise underwater and resurface under the control of her crew. This journey that started with a submersible driven by human power to Mechanical power to electric and diesel electric finally reached Nuclear Propulsion. Air Independent Propulsion system added to the endurance of conventional Diesel Electric submarines.
Indian Navy is a three dimensional Navy as it operates on surface, in air, as well as underwater. Induction of a foxtrot class diesel electric submarine INS Kalvari into Indian Navy on 8 Dec 1967 marked the beginning of an important era when India joined elite group of countries operating submarines. Since then India has been operating Russian, German and French Submarines. INS Shalki commissioned on 07 Feb 1992 was the first submarine built indigenously at MDL Mumbai in collaboration with HDW of Germany. Subsequently, MDL has also built and commissioned the first Scorpene submarine in collaboration with M/s DCNS (Now Naval Group ) France. With induction of the first Scorpene submarine, INS Kalvari was reborn in a new Avatar. It was heartening that the commissioning captain of first Kalvari Commander K S Subra-Manian was present during the commissioning ceremony of the reborn Kalvari. Indian Navy leased a nuclear propelled submarine INS Chakra from Russia on 5 Jan 1998 to train naval crew for operating such submarines . Another milestone was achieved when first Indigenous nuclear propelled submarine INS Arihant was dedicated to the nation in August 2016. INS Arihant has since completed her Deterrence operational patrol recently and with this India joined the league of select few Nations having a Nuclear Triad capability.
The harder and riskier a mission, greater is the bond and camaraderie between the personnel who are a part of the mission . Submariners operate in an environment where disaster is narrowly averted by the smallest of margins due to the professionalism of the sailors. Camaraderie is one of the most important aspects in submarine arm. The life onboard a submarine is very challenging and demanding. It takes a certain type of personality to become a Submariner. Medically, submariners are expected to be both mentally and physically stronger than the crew in surface navy. It is a voluntary service, however the submarine force screens out people who cannot deal with stress or tight quarters On volunteering, one has to go through the screening procedure and the medical examination which is very stringent. The basic submarine training including escape training is given at INS Satavahana ,Vishakapatnam. The trainees are made to escape through a torpedo tube as well as from the escape tower ( Also called Tower of Confidence). After successful completion of the basic training the trainees are sent on an operational submarine for practical training. The trainees are made to observe, understand and learn various orders that are used to prepare a submarine before proceeding to sea. This is an important evolution that confirms the operational readiness of the submarine, no short cuts are permitted. Calculation of weights for stability (Trim) is an important event that is required to be carried out prior to diving. At times men are required to move from forward to aft or aft to forward for adjusting the trim at sea. Once the submarine leaves harbour and reaches the diving area, preparations are made for diving. The terms Diving Now, Diving Now, Dive, Dive, Dive and Upper Lid Shut do make the trainees anxious in the beginning. Once the submarine stabilises at the ordered depth, the trainees are made to drink sea water as a ritual. On successful completion of sea training , trainees face another round of stringent examination and successful trainees get the coveted submarine Dolphin Badge and become an integral part of the submarine family. Others who are not able to withstand the psychological pressures or are not able to qualify get reverted back to the surface Navy.
The life onboard a submarine is very demanding since the role itself is so special and critical. The officers and the sailors eat the same food and share the same toilets. The toilets on a submarine are a lot different than anywhere else. Specific instructions and procedure has to be followed to use the toilets. In case the sanitary tank is over pressurised and the person in the toilet has ignored the warning, he may end up with the contents in the tank shoot him in the face. Generally personnel keep on queuing outside the toilet door and at times have to keep on reminding the person inside to show mercy on others waiting for their turn. Bathrooms are especially minimal onboard submarines, with sometimes only one bathroom for more than forty men. Since the space onboard the submarine is prime, trainees don’t mind sleeping in the racks with the torpedoes and missiles in company and at times hugging them. Hot bunking (same bunk shared by many) is also resorted to when the number of people are more. Sleeping in an environment were generally the foul and pungent smell is the aroma around does not trouble a tired sailor who goes off to sleep immediately. Another very interesting aspect is that the personnel onboard wear disposable clothing since bathing onboard is a luxury. The cook is the only person onboard who has the liberty to take bath but with due approval of the executive officer. When on a mission, the submarine is generally underwater except when she has to come to periscope depth to snort and charge the batteries. For smokers, snorting is a treat since that is the only time they can smoke. Snorting also gives an opportunity to personnel to look through the periscope which is a welcome change after having stayed deep for extended hours. Periscopes and Sonar are the eyes and years of a submarine . The Sonar operators are the ones who report presence of any ship or a submarine operating in the near vicinity of the own submarine. Other most sort after personnel onboard are the cooks who try to give you best of the food and at times work tirelessly to make special preparations. The cooks have to get up as early as 3.30 AM to ensure that breakfast is ready for the first watch. When dived, the cooks cant do any frying so they try to make best use of the time the submarine is snorting to cater for the Indian taste. Cooking and eating during snorting in rough seas is also an experience by itself sometimes the dishes keep moving here and there on the table with people trying to hold them. Officer’s wardroom which itself is cramped space shows magnanimity with the sign displaying ” There is room for one more” . Tall people generally keep hitting their head against the fittings and circular hatches. Whilst staying underwater for extended durations one knows the time by what type of food one is eating that moment. The artificial schedule, extended hours underwater and lack of natural light make it difficult to keep track of time.
Life onboard has its own challenges. Because of confined spaces one has to be very alert and regularly monitor hazardous gases like Hydrogen and Carbon dioxide. At times in case the submarine is not able to snort, and the CO2 levels exceed, regeneration cartridges are used to burn CO2. The submarine on an operational task has a Doctor and staff to attend to an emergency. Whilst the erstwhile INS Chakra was on her maiden passage to India, the worst fears of the Captain came true when one of the sailors was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. In view of strategic and operational reasons the submarine could not surface hence the commanding officer took the decision to operate the sailor underwater. A team led by then Surgeon Commander Prakash Bellubbi and his team saved the life of LME Biswal , a rare feat that had never been achieved before.
The submariners make use of whatever resources they have and grab any opportunity that comes at sea to have some recreation. While crossing the line an age old tradition is taken very seriously and an ode to Lord Varuna, the god of seas is paid on crossing Equator . On this occasion, even the captain of the submarine has to follow the dictate of the sailor acting as Lord Varuna. The submariners have not only excelled in their field but have also brought laurels to the Navy in adventure activities. Submarine arm created history when Commander S Dam along with his team scaled Mount Everest from the North Face on 18 May and 19 May 2004. The team had commenced the expedition from a depth of 40 metres from a dived submarine flagged by then Defence Minister Shri George Fernandes. With this feat Indian Navy created a world record of placing the first submariner on the summit of Everest. The submariners have also reached the south pole and have also participated in national and international events in yachting, Sky diving, Open sea swimming as well as other events. The submariners are a very happy and committed family. When the submarine sails out on a long mission, the family remains cut off from their dear ones since there is no communication. However, the fellow submariners and the Squadron staff take care of all requirements of the families.
The submariners believe in training and retraining and at sea regular exercises are carried out to ensure that the crew is prepared for any eventuality. The drills are sometimes planned and sometimes announced without any notice. A submariner never fails to execute a drill even in the middle of deep sleep. Submarines believe in the principle of stealth and undetectability and that makes them follow the rule “Run Deep Run Silent”. Active transmissions (Pings) from a surface ship are something that any submariner would ever like to hear. Getting detected in waters where a vessel is not supposed to be present as per the international norms could put the entire country in an awkward situation. Operating in Shallow waters , Diving deep, carrying out Covert operations and bottoming on the bed of sea are critical evolutions that a submarine keeps preparing for. Listening to the hull compression cracking noise during deep dive does at times make skip few heartbeats.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir too has contributed to this fine service and many personnel from the state have held important positions in the arm. Many of them have had the honour of being the commissioning crew of these submarines as well as recipients of many Honours and Awards. The state also takes pride in the Martyrdom of one of its sons of soil and a very fine sailor Kewal Singh LS UC who lost his life whilst carrying out an operational task on a submarine. Mr Niranjan Kaggere in an article ” Life inside a Submarine ” has aptly brought out that ” Any man with the Dolphin pin on his lapel deserves all the respect and some more, for they are submariners; men who volunteer to lock themselves up in a windowless, cramped, steel contraption of a vessel to work tirelessly for one and a half months at a time with 250 ft of sea above them. When they enter the submarine and the hatch closes above them they know fully well that there are no exit doors for them in the event of danger. Yet, they step down the ladder bravely with their heads held high.
” On the occasion of the Submarine day I extend my heartiest congratulations to the entire submarine family.
” Shano Varuna”
(The writer is a Son of the soil who served in the Submarine arm for almost 30 years )


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