Published on Apr 5 2020



By Cmde Srikant B Kesnur

The nation lost an illustrious son and the Indian Navy an eminent veteran with the passing away of retired Vice Admiral Benoy Roy Chowdhury AVSM, VrC a few days ago, on 28 Feb 20, at the CMRI Hospital Kolkata. He was 90. Affectionately called Bilu (the moniker I will be using in this piece) or Biloo, the Flag Officer had a distinguished career in the Navy and was a hero of the 1971 war.

The bare details of his CV are impressive enough. Born on 22 Jul 1929, he was commissioned into the Indian Navy on 01 Sep 51 in the Engineering branch. Bilu was an apprentice at Railway Workshop at Jamalpur (Bihar) before he passed the Navy exam and subsequently went to UK for dagger course. (Note. Those days Bengalis largely went to engineering from Shivpur, Jadavpur etc. and normally landed up topping the engineering courses in UK. Dagger engineers’ courses were only for Royal Navy. But when they found Indians topping, they reluctantly allowed Indians to join those courses too.)

He moved up the professional ladder tenanting many appointments ending in the very senior rank of Vice Admiral. He was a recipient of the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) for distinguished service of exceptional order and the Vir Chakra (VrC) for gallantry in the 1971 war, becoming the first Engineering Officer to be honoured with a VrC. He also, subsequently, became the first engineer to attend the prestigious RCDS course in UK and this when the Navy used to get a vacancy only every alternate year for the said course. Remembered fondly as a ‘good person’, he was also an avid Golfer and Captained the Naval Team as well as that of RCGC, Kolkata. He took early retirement in mid 1980s and moved to ONGC as Member Technical.

His near contemporary (five years junior to him) and another eminent Engineer Officer, Vice Adm IC Rao (Retd) recollects that ‘He was an outstanding Naval Engineer who brought glory to the Indian Navy as Engineer Officer of INS Vikrant during the war for liberation of Bangladesh. He was a wonderful person and a greatpersonality. We will all miss him in the Naval fraternity’.

It is therefore fitting that his contribution as Cdr E of Vikrant is recounted, especially for many of my younger friends in the Navy and for those outside the Navy who may not be aware of it. But, before that, a small incident to describe the kind of man he was. In late 1970, a Greek merchant ship ‘Ampuria’ ran aground off Porbandar. Cdr Chowdhury with eight sailors was directed to board the ship to try and remove the oil (fuel) before the ship broke up in high seas. Due to sea state and bad condition of the ship, Ampuria’s Captain gave the order to ‘abandon ship’. Bilu told his men to leave if they wished but ‘he was staying behind’ to finish the task. Needless to say, his eight men stayed with him till they could do the needful. This was leadership and courage of high order. Bilu saved the country several crores of rupees and prevented oil pollution of thousands of tons by his derring-do in the salvage of the ship.

In 1971, in the months prior to the war, the Naval headquarters had decide to deploy the aircraft carrier Vikrant, in the Bay of Bengal, correctly estimating that the East would be the decisive theatre of war. As war clouds loomed, some worries enveloped the Naval planners. One of the boilers of Vikrant had become inoperative and the other three boilers were playing truant. Being of British make, normal repairs would have entailed getting expertise and replacements from Britain and elaborate time in harbour, a luxury the planners did not have. The ideal solution was new waterdrums for the boilers, something beyond indigenous capability at that time.

While the elaborate details of how this was addressed is contained in the Navy’s official history for the period 1965 to 1975, titled ‘Transition to Triumph’ authored by the late VAdm GM Hirananadani (incidentally the FOO, WF during the war) and some other books of that period, suffice it to say that Bilu and his team with some innovations ensured that the other three boilers were restored to near maximum efficiency. But with the A 1 boiler still down, the speed of Vikrant was limited to only 14 knots. At this speed she would not only be able to operate her aircraft but also be very vulnerable to submarine attack. (Note: For the completely uninitiated launching and recovery of aircraft on the Carrier requires certain amount of wind on deck – relative wind – which is a function of the true wind conditions and the ship’s speed. Axiomatically, therefore, a ship needs to steam at higher speeds, usually more than 20 knots, to generate the winds that enable flying in all conditions.) Also, with only three boilers there would have been no supply of steam to the catapult which enabled flying operations.

This speed restriction naturally worried everyone from the Navy Chief, Admiral SM (Charles) Nanda, to the FOCinC Eastern Command VAdm N Krishnan, the ship’s Captain Capt Swaraj Parkash and the Squadron Commanders of the Carrier borne aircraft Lt Cdr Gigi Gupta (Sea Hawk Squadron, also called the White Tigers) and Lt Cdr Ravi Dhir (Alize squadron, also called the Cobras). That’s when Bilu and his men showed their mettle. With some backing from the CNS, CinC and the Captain, they decided to make the boiler operational notwithstanding some risks associated with it. Cracks on the surface of the water drum of the boiler was one of their big worries – if they had burst, superheated steam would have engulfed the boiler room and other machinery spaces resulting in catastrophic consequences.

To digress a little here, having commanded two ships with steam turbine propulsion or steam ships as they are called in the Navy, I can confidently state, without disrespect to other branches, that the Engineering sailors who serve on them are a class apart. The engineering spaces on these ships offer just about the toughest working conditions and yet the spirit, camaraderie and the josh that these guys bring to the table is unbelievable. I remember an incident where a Brigadier fresh from Siachen, undergoing NDC, had embarked INS Vindhyagiri, the ship I commanded for a sea sortie. After a walk around of the Engine and Boiler rooms he declared “I will any day prefer to be in Siachen then here… hats off to your guys”. Indeed, Stokers (navy phrase for these blokes) are a class apart and can be said to be in frontlines of combat every day at work.

Thus, Bilu and his Engineering team (ably led by his Senior Engineer, Lt Cdr B Bhushan, who also rose to be VAdm later) carried out several innovations and repairs at sea and away from base port without falling back to the original manufacturers – the Brits, to keep the other boilers going at full load (which would have enabled aircraft operations under marginal conditions) and to repair the A1 boiler. This included putting a steel strops (bands) around the boiler, adjusting the safety valves, leaving the boiler room unmanned (or sparsely manned) but monitored at all times, adjusting the oil flow to the boilers from a control valve near upper deck and numerous other technical measures. These not only required supreme technical skill and competence, but also leadership, ability to convince your men and in turn faith in their ability to do the job without flinching and the gumption to take calculated risks anchored in self-belief.

Bilu was the perfect man for the job. He had immense experience having done two stints earlier on Vikrant - as the Senior Engineer and the Flight Deck Engineer Officer - and knew exactly what was entailed As Swaraj Parkash, his Captain, recollected later “With his past experience and professional competence, Bilu’s contribution to decision-making at this crucial juncture was important”. Vice Adm Krishnan, put it succinctly, when he remarked “My worry about the condition of machinery was mitigated by the fact that the Engineer Officer of the ship was Bilu Chowdhury.….I had seen him close at work…. and was aware of his professional competence….whereas so many technical officers were against it, Bilu exuded confidence and never baulked at the idea of steaming Vikrant’. In the words of the Naval Chief Nanda, ‘Bilu went about his job in his customary, professional, enthusiastic and thorough manner’. In fact, it is Charles Nanda’s description of Bilu as ‘an Engineer par excellence’ that provides the title for this obit.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Seahawks and Alizes embarked in August ’71 and from then on carried out extensive work up. All the boilers were flashed up and Vikrant was able to steam at more than 20 knots. They were kept under the eagle’s eye of the Engineering department and issues and situations attended to promptly. Vikrant turned out to the decisive factor in the war and the lynchpin of the maritime operations of the Eastern Front which resulted, through air strikes, in heavy bombardment of East Pakistan cities and ports of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar, Khulna, Chalna, Mongla, destruction of their airfields, power house, wireless stations, fuel tanks, port and other infrastructure, interdiction of their Navy and merchant marine ships including smaller gun boats and tugs, control of contraband and virtual throttling of the then East Pakistan from sea. This, in turn, led to the eventual dénouement of surrender and more than 90000 prisoners of war as there was no escape from the sea for them. As Hiranandani states ‘In retrospect Vikrant's contribution to naval operations were beyond anyone's expectations. Vikrant stretched everything and everybody to the limit to launch and recover aircraft In addition to the achievements of the air strikes, Vikrant's assistance in contraband control was invaluable. Without Vikrant, the limited number of ships that constituted the Eastern Fleet could not have coped with the task.”

In fact, even as the war raged and the Vikrant was leading the assault, Bilu was handling machinery problems such as what frequently obtain on board ships. One of the more prominent ones which again caused some worry was the flooding of the forward machinery space which occurred when one of the condensers of the turbo-generator needed repairs. In peacetime, this would only have been attempted in harbour after shutting down machinery. This repair was attempted at sea despite the inlet and outlet valves being 20 feet below the waterline and operated by rod gearing. The danger of water gushing past the loosened plate of the turbo generator suction filter was real if some of the valves malfunctioned and this is what happened. Again, the situation was resolved by some deft leadership allied with excellent technical skills and smart use of 1000 ton pump in the machinery space to pump out water and carry out repairs.

Vikrant's Air Operations would not happened but for Bilu and his brave men. Often, in the heat of war and the dust of the aftermath we forget the contribution of the silent many – the ones who operate behind the scenes. In the Navy, the nature of our job is such that we all fight together from the ship; hence the saying that we swim or sink together. Bilu illustrated this wonderfully well and the Vir Chakra that he was awarded and the encomiums showered on him was richly deserved.

VAdm Benoy Roy Chowdhury is survived by his wife Mrs Meena Chowdhury and nephew Mr Pradipta Bose. In fact Meena and Bilu eloped to get married. His mortal remains were consigned to the flames on 29 Feb 20. However, the memory of his heroic exploits will remain forever. His spirit will hover as a guardian angel at Kochi where the new Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC 1) to be called Vikrant is slowly taking shape. Unlike the earlier incarnation, this Vikrant will be a proud “Made in India’ product showcasing our indigenous prowess and our mettle in shipbuilding, assiduously built over the years. However, the traditions that this ship will imbibe will be from its predecessor and her gallant crew – people like Swaraj Parkash, Gigi Gupta (both MVC) and Ravi Dhir and Bilu Chowdhury (both VrC) and several other magnificent men who flew from its deck or toiled below decks to show the world and our countrymen the difference that the Aircraft Carrier makes to the outcome of war.

RIP Bilu Sir. And Salute.

PS. The author wishes to acknowledge some inputs and information given by Navy Foundation Mumbai Chapter (NFMC) and, more importantly, Shri Probir Roy who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of matters Navy. In fact, the book written by his father and another illustrious Navy officer late Vice Admiral MK Roy “War in the Indian Ocean’ brings out that Bilu Chowdhury while being in the senior echelons of Marine Engineering at Naval Headquarters in the early eighties had accompanied Dr Raja Ramanna and VAdm Roy to the erstwhile Soviet Union twice for discussions on leasing nuclear submarine from that nation. That possibly is the subject for some more research.

PS 2. All quotations and much information has been taken from the official History book of the Navy referred in the article as well as the autobiographies of Adm SM Nanda and Vice Adm N Krishnan.