PAXsims is delighted to present some recent developments in the WATU story. If proof were ever needed that the Derby House Principles were well-named—over and above the queer Wrens, the RN officers unfit for duty at sea through illness and injury, and Wrens standing watch as Midshipmen on a Destroyer in the Med in 1943, whose diversity is what made WATU great—enter stage right, the Bombay Tactical Unit:
Pre-1944 RIN officers took their tactical training at Liverpool.
This is Pritam “Peter” Singh Mahindroo:
He joined the Merchant Navy at 16, and on the outbreak of war he tried to transfer to the Royal Indian Navy but was denied entry because, being Sikh, he refused to cut his hair. By 1940 he was in, with his turban on, and in 1942 he took the WATU course before escorting ships to the Atlantic Ocean as a Lt on INS Godvari.
A Victory parade was held in London on June 8,1946 in which representatives of the three Indian Armed Forces participated. The senior Indian Naval officer was Commander (later Rear Admiral) A. Chakravarti and the Naval Contingent was led by Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) P.S. Mahindroo. In keeping with the inter-service seniority in which the Navy was the senior service, the parade was led by the Naval Contingent.
Rear Admiral Mahindroo, who later commanded our first aircraft carrier Vikrant, reminisces on the occasion, “Needless to say, that as a turbaned officer leading the Naval Contingent, I was most prominent and I must have given hundreds of autographs amongst thousands of spectators who probably slept on the pavement for one or two nights to witness this historic parade.
Fearing imminent Japanese invasion in 1942, the Women’s Auxilliary Corps (India) formed to free every available shore-man for active duty. In January 1944 the WRINS formally stood up as its naval branch, as the focus of the war turned towards Asia.
43% of the officers and 77% of the WRINS were Indian, and among the junior officers 80% were Indian. The rest were Anglo-Indians (born in India of British descent; the white ruling class of Empire) and Brits—a combination of women stranded in the Empire by wartime travel restrictions, and women from Britain who signed up to the WRINS instead of the WRNS (applicants who didn’t quite make the cut for the RN were sometimes offered a more favourable position in the RIN, RCN, or other colonial navy…)
[Of course, Indians and Anglo-Indians were British Citizens; that’s how Empire worked. A fact conveniently forgotten by the hostile environment policy and Windrush scandal.]
The WRINS offered opportunities for “intelligent and well educated women and girls when they pass out of their schools and colleges … [for] cultured Indian girls and women … who have the interest and well-being of their country at heart.”
Chief Officer Cooper’s somewhat idyllic view of Empire certainly reflected attitudes of the time:
[Cooper’s spelling] Here Mohammedans, Hindoos, Parsees, Pathans, Anglo-Indians and British lived side by side in harmony, the only allowance made for difference in tase were the meals, two sets being provided.
For the Indian girls it was the experience of a life-time, broadening their outlook, and helping towards emancipation—so important for their future role in India.
During the three-day Mutiny in February 1946 it was significant that the WRINS in all the ports stood fast, and showed no signs of disaffection.
Cooper, Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service
Given that the chief grievance of the mutineers was poor treatment of Indian ratings by white officers, it suggests a white leadership (and of course, it was all white at the top) somewhat out of touch with the recipients of their colonial benificence.
Roshan Horabin, who was turned away from the WAC(I) because pre-1944 “they did not employ native girls,” talks about the class and race tensions at play:
I was educated at the Cathederal. And in those days there were only 10% Indians and we paid double fees. And although [an Indian] could be a prefect, you couldn’t be a head girl.
Roshan came from the upper-crust of Indian families, and socialised with Baronettes. Even so, she was once challenged by a police officer for using the “European” latrine instead of the “Indian” one.
He said, “These are the rules of the Empire and Indians do not go into British latrines.” People are shocked to hear this, and think Appartheit was only in South Africa. And I say no, in fact it was the whole of the Empire.
In 1942 she joined the Intelligence Division.
We had English people, Germans, French, and Mrs Smith who was a Colonel’s wife, in charge of my section. I think we had four Anglo-Indian ladies but they didn’t talk to Bina [the Honourable Bina Sina] and myself, they just spoke to the European lot. But the English lot talked to Bina and me.
Later when the WRINS began accepting Indian applicants, the Intelligence Division wouldn’t let her go. You can hear the whole of her oral history interview here.
The WRINS were immensley proud of their Tactical Unit contribution. In WRINS and How They Served, a two-page spread is devoted to explaining the purpose and details of the Royal Indian Naval Tactical Unit, while the rest of the book has photographs and only brief captions at-best, glossing over the rest of the WRINS technical duties. (My particular favourite: Cypherettes at work. Because intelligence officers and backing vocalists are so very hard to tell apart…)
The Royal Indian Naval Tactical Unit in Bombay trained officers of the RIN in one of the most thrilling and vital phases of sea warfare—the “Killer Group” tactics that played so large a part in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. Modelled on the lines of the Royal Navy’s famous Western Approaches Tactical Unit, this well-equipped establishment had WRINS assisting in the training of future commanding officers of HMI escort vessels.
WRINS and How They Served
Founding the Bombay Tactical Unit.
This is Cdr Arthur King:
The Tactical Unit was established in Bombay in 1944 and was disbanded shortly after the capitulation of Japan. As I was in charge of this unit it is of some historical interest that my thoughts on it should be recorded.
At the outset I should say that I do not have any clear idea as to why I was given this job. Certainly I never asked for it. But I have, nevertheless, for as long as I can remember, had an interest in naval tactics. This started when at school I read of Nelson’s conduct of his fleet. The positioning of ships to gain maximum advantage over the enemy was only achieved by a clear understanding of what was needed and how to use the elements—sea, wind, sun and moon—to gain the upper hand. A total understanding between the ships’ Captains was essential. Nelson developed this to the full, calling his Captains his “band of brothers”, and fostered this espirit de corps to a fine degree of understanding by calling them all together at every possible moment he could create.
In 1942, standing by HMIS Jumna building on the Clyde, a notice was circulated to COs of all escort vessels that they and their executive officers should attend as convenient at the A/S Tactical School located in Derby House, Liverpool, headquarters of Admiral Sir Max Horton, C-in-C Western Approaches.
There I met Commander Duncan
And this is the true joy of King’s account for me as a woman: to see the karma of the Williams’ biography of Captain Roberts, which mis-spelled the names of every single WATU Wren, repaid in kind by King persistently mis-remembering Roberts’ name as “Duncan”, and confusing him with his then-XO Lt Cdr Walter Higham, ex-submariner and ranking survivor of HMS Audacity:
There I met Commander DuncanRoberts, a dug out submariner who had been invalided out of the service in 1939 and recalled to set up a school to aquaint the Captains of the many escort vessels—sloops, frigates, corvettes—with the ways of the enemy they were going to face when they got out into the Atlantic, and how to deal with him. Technical schools had already instrcuted people in the mechanics of Asdic and final attack procedure, but they did not then have any experience of the tactics the enemy would use to get into the best position to get at the convoy. DuncanRoberts had made a study of such matters and had the added benefit of his Chief’s submariner’s mind.
The week-long course consisted of very few short lectures. Most of the time was spent playing games and analysing them. The “play area” was a gridded linoleum (has anyone ever seen lino of the quality provided to the Navy?) floor, with the pupils behind screens out of sight of the main plot, positioned at desks and fed with data—some relivant, some irrelivant—of contacts, signals, D/F bearings, etc, from which each had to decided his actions—signals to others, course and speed of his own ship, whether to move towards the convoy or to go to help some other ship in trouble, etc etc. All this was then transfered to the plot on the floor and success or failure resulted. Understanding of how best to achieve the objective of getting the convoy safely through was undoubtedly improved as the week went on. One was better informed of what the Germans were about and how they operated their “Wolf Pack” tactics. Confidence in how to counter-attack was gained. It was Nelson’s band of brothers again.
Then, in 1944,
I was somewhat mystified to recieve instructions to set up a Tactical Unit in Bombay on the lines of the Unit in Derby House Liverpool. The intention was that, as the war in Europe was approaching finality, Churchill and the War Cabinet directed that more effort had to be made against the enemy in the East.
And so, in July 1944, in company with Lieutenant Ahsan, DSC, and four WRINS—2nd Officers E. Donoghue, E. Staveley, J. West and E.A. Twynham—we set off in a York to fly to Liverpool. DuncanRoberts was still there—actually he spent the whole of the war in this appointment—and for six weeks we understudied him and his team.
In Bombay we set up shop. Our first location was above Mongini’s Restaurant in Hornby Road. This was all right for operation as it had the space and was properly fitted out, but it was hardly the place to keep confidential books. We were soon found a corner of the dockyard.
VE came and was celebrated. Then some months later Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were attacked by atomic bombs and the war was over.
In the weeks following, we in the Tactical Unit considered what we should do. There was obviously no enthusiasm for VR officers to spend time learning something they would never have to apply in practice. People all around us were just waiting for demoblilisation and getting bored. So we decided to set up demonstrations, using the facility of the large gridded linoleum floor as our stage. We read up on the confidential reports of the major Naval batles of the war and prepared our floor-show. “The Sinking of the Bismarck” and “The Battle of the River Plate” were presented by us in Bombay long before they were made into films! And we had large audiences, weighted from time to time by gold braid. Admirals Godfrey and Rattray both came along to see what we were up to, and made some complimentary remarks at the end of the shows.
Like this, I imagine, only with less YouTube and more pipe-smoking:
Was the Tactical Unit worthwhile? This is difficult to answer. Certinly if the war had developed into a long battle against the Japanese, who up to then had shown every sign of being difficult to move and fanatical in their resolve, then there would have been an enormous increase in military activity in this sphere with all important supplies coming by sea and therefore entirely dependent on Naval supremacy.
The Tactical Unit at Bombay would then have become, as was Liverpool to the Atlantic, the centre for updating intelligence of enemy tactics.
Show me the WRINS!
Oh, dear reader, I can do one better. Please be upstanding for 2nd Officer Staveley (now Puckridge), only the third first-hand account of WATU’s activities by a Wren (WRIN) in existance (Wren June Duncan’s memoire, and Lt Carol Hendry’s oral history being the other two).
Here are the founding WRINS of the Bombay Tactical Unit:
Pinch me. I am actually exchanging e-mails with a WATU Wren:
My father had just completed a 6-year Army posting to India when war broke out and we were unable to return to the UK because of the new travel restrictions. I enlisted in the WAC(I) in Bangalore in South India when the local women’s services commenced recruiting (had to back-date my date of birth by a year to qualify). After a few months in a Recruiting Office, I was asked if I would transfer to the Air Defence Unit, still in Bangalore. Later (sadly I did not keep a diary, so am imprecise about dates) I was asked to move to Cochin to work on Cyphers and from there was sent on an OTC and promoted to 2nd Officer, WR(I)NS. I was then sent to Liverpool Western Approaches Tactical Training Unit and, on completion of the course, was posted to Bombay to help with setting up a Tactical Unit there.
On arrival in Bombay from Liverpool I seem to recall working exclusively with the small group who attended the UK course, ie the four of us in the picture, the officer named King and another IAF officer [Lt Ahsan], and a lovely girl from India whose name I can’t recall.
When this was disbanded after VJ Day, I was posted as Personal Assistant to the Chief Staff Officer to the Flag Officer, Bombay, [Capt Nott] for a short while until I was demobbed in 1945.
2nd Officer Anne Puckridge (nee Staveley)
That lovely girl from India was 2nd Officer Kalyani Sen:
It was decided that four WRIN officers should be sent to the United Kingdom for a two months’ course at the Anti-Submarine Tactical Course at Liverpool. Those officers on completion of their training were appointed to act as “movers” at the Anti-Submarine Tactical School at Bombay. The Deputy Director WRINS, Chief Officer Cooper and two administrative officers also proceeded to the United Kingdom where they were attached to Women’s Royal Naval Service establishments and training centres for a period of two months to undergo a course of instruction in WRNS methods of administration and training.
The first Indian service woman who visited the United Kingdom was second officer Kalyani Sen, of the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service. With Chief Officer Margaret Cooper and second Officer Phyllis Cunningham she went there at the invitation of the Admiralty to make a comparative study of training and administration in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
There you have it. Women and minorities forging operational analysis. And casting gears for submarines, too (from Wrens in Camera by Lee Miller. Really stunning and unexpected photos of Wrens onboard ship and other non-clerical duties):
You can read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.