An honourable and brave Admiral (1913-1995)
Vice-Admiral S. B. Soman was born in Belgaum on 30 March 1913, and was commissioned as sub-lieutenant in August 1934. During his training in UK, he had taken an international pilot’s license in his spare time. In World War II, he served as First Lieutenant, and later as Commanding Officer on HMIS Cornwallis in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. He took part in the attack on Port Berbera and capture of the Italian submarine Galileo off Aden.
In October 1949, he was appointed captain of the ship, INS Jumna. He was appointed Flag Officer commanding the Indian Fleet on 19 April 1961, and led the Fleet from INS Mysore in the Goa operations, and capture of Anjadip fortress. In a bold action, he fired 200 rounds on Portuguese ship Albuquerque, which ran aground. It was floated, towed to Mumbai and scrapped. The reported presence of a British submarine did not deter him. Lt. Bhupinder Singh ran up to the fort in Diu and hoisted the National Flag. On 5 June 1962, he took over as the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS).
Pakistan launched Operation Desert Hawk in 1965 to claim territory in Kutch where the boundary had not been demarcated. The suggestion of Air Marshal Asghar Khan of Pakistan not to participate in the Kutch battle was accepted by the Chief of Air Staff of India after approval by the Government. India was unfavourably placed for a war in that sector. The battle was left only to the Army.
The aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and other ships were under heavy maintenance in preparation of the annual exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Vikrant had disembarked her air squadrons and was on way to Mumbai for docking. She was ordered to sail back and embark the air squadrons when Pakistan intruded into Kutch. By the time she was ready, cease fire had been agreed to through the efforts of the Prime Minister (PM) of UK. Vikrant was then sent for docking. Due to the delay in docking, Vikrant was not available for subsequent operations.
The Indian Fleet sailed for the Bay of Bengal in June 1965. Pakistan had sent a large number of infiltrators into Kashmir, and the Pakistan Navy had carried out a number of exercises in the Arabian Sea in July-August. Yet, there was no alert by the Indian Intelligence Agencies. A major war erupted between India and Pakistan when Pakistan launched an attack in Akhnur sector on 1 September 1965. Keen to discharge his responsibility, Soman issued a signal on 6 September to all naval units to be ready to neutralise any misadventure by Pakistan Navy. He was asked to cancel the signal as no war had been declared. It caused him great embarrassment. A letter was received from the Ministry of Defence directing that the Navy was not to take any offensive action at sea and not to operate north of the latitude of Porbundar.
Soman met the Defence Minister and the PM to seek a revision of the orders, but to no avail. The PM told him plainly that he had no options. When Soman asked for permission to call on the Supreme Commander, he was told “No, you do not have to see him.” L.K. Jha, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister has clarified that “The feeling was strong that if we could contain the Pakistan force perhaps it would be wiser not to involve the navy.” The surprising point is that such a decision was taken without consultations with the navy chief. We can understand the demoralisation faced by the navy when Pakistan navy bombarded Dwarka and could not be punished due to the restraint on operating beyond Porbunder.
Not happy with dependence only on UK for equipment, he established contacts with Russia for procurement of ships, and encouraged indigenous ship building by Mazagon Docks and Calcutta Garden Reach Workshop. He took retirement on 3 March 1966 to enable Admiral A.K. Chatterji to succeed him. In 1966, he was conferred with the honorary rank of Admiral. He passed away on 8 February 1995.