Aarav Tulsyan

10/10/20220 min read

INS Delhi (C74), a Leander-class cruiser, was India's first "capital ship". Before her commissioning in July 1948, the Indian Navy had been a minor coastal flotilla, operating a small number of escort vessels, gunboats and minesweepers, with the cruiser being the first step in the Navy's transition into a blue-water maritime powerprojecting force. Delhi marked a very significant boost in the firepower and combat ability of the Indian Navy, and it can be argued that she was, at that time, the largest and most powerful ship in any Asiatic fleet.

(top) Commissioning ceremony of INS Delhi in Britain

Delhi had a very glorious past before joining Indian service, when she was called HMNZS Achilles. The cruiser had taken part in multiple convoy missions and battles during the Second World War, with the most famous being the Battle of the River Plate, where she alongside 2 other British warships defeated the German battleship Graf Spee.

While the British Colonial Government had envisaged a small "coast-guard" role for the newly independent India's Navy and went to great lengths to ensure that by keeping the manpower very low, specially in the officer corps and transferring only 6 small escort ships and smaller craft to the Navy, the largest of which was about 1000 tonnes. Fortunately, the visionary leadership in the Indian Navy prevented such a grim outcome. They in the 1947 Naval Plans decided the Indian Navy would be “a balanced Navy consisting of two Fleets, each to be built around a light aircraft carrier, cruisers, destroyers, auxiliary craft, submarine force and Air Arm”. While many in the British and Indian governments laughed at this idea, they did not realize that this ambition had sown the seeds for the maritime power which would unleash its might in 1971, and is the "grand fleet" we know today.

(top left) INS Kistna, one of the small escort ships transferred by the British, (top right) Adm. Ram Das Kattari, first Indian Chief of Naval Staff

INS Delhi was joined by three British R-class destroyers in 1949, and 3 more Hunt-class destroyers in 1952 providing much needed modern ships to complement the cruiser. This coincided with the disposal of the old obsolete minesweepers and coastal patrol craft. The year 1955 saw the induction of 7 modern, brand new frigates which were: Leopard-class for air defence and the Whitby-class and Blackwood-class for ASW warfare. INS Khukri, the first Indian warship to be sunk in action in 1971, belonged to this Blackwood-class.

(top left) INS Kistna, Hunt-class destroyer
(top right) INS Rajput, R-class destroyer
(bottom left) INS Betwa, Leopard-class frigate

As another cruiser, INS Mysore joined the growing flotilla, the Indian Navy began overhauling and expanding its operations in the Indian Ocean Region. Permanent garrisons and warship deployments were established at the Andamans and Lakshadweep, with foreing goodwill tours being carried out, led the by the two cruisers especially in the African countries, who were very mesmerized and inspired by a fellow former colony possessing and operating such sophisticated and powerful warships. The legendary status of these two cruisers however, would be overshadowed by a certain aircraft carrier which would be arriving in a few years.

(top) INS Mysore underway at sea

(right) INS Delhi and INS Mysore at anchor in Cochin Harbour

Now, let's talk about the ships themselves. As said previously, Delhi was a Leander-class light cruiser, displacing 10,000 tonnes and capable of traveling the far seas which the old escort vessels of the Navy at that time were incapable of. Her formidable firepower included eight 6-inch naval guns in four twin turrets, four secondary single 4-inch guns, eight torpedo tubes and a brilliant radar-controlled anti-aircraft suite consisting of several Vickers .50 Machine guns and 40mm "Pom Pom" autocannons. Remember, these were the days when the ship's guns were the mightiest weapons, and one can only imagine what such a huge increase in firepower would have felt like to the sailors in the nascent Indian Navy.

(left) Quad Vickers .50 Machine gun mount, (middle) forward 6-inch main turrets, (right) secondary 4-inch guns

INS Mysore, brought with it even more firepower and technology. She too was a WW2 vetern Crown-Colony class cruiser, and a 1000 tonnes heavier than Delhi. Her main battery consisted of nine 6-inch guns in triple turrets, with eight 4-inch guns forming the secondary armament. These guns were controlled and aimed with the help of several gun-laying radars and complex fire-control computers, the most modern systems in those days. The anti-air suite was much expansive than the Delhi, with 40mm "pom pom" and 20mm Oerlikon autocannons, numbering a dozen each, supplanted later by the eight batteries of the famous 40mm Bofors AA guns.

(left) fire control radar system, (middle) Mysore's forward 6-inch guns, (right) 40mm Bofors AA mount

It truly is no wonder, that when these mighty warships sailed around the oceans, showing our flag in friendly countries, that Delhi became known as the "Empress of the Indian Ocean" and Mysore as the "Queen of the Orient". The Navy, as we all know, would go on to the multi-dimensional force we know today, operating nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, modern missile destroyers, fulfilling the visions of the early Naval planners. With this I bring this small retelling of the initial days of the Indian Navy to a close.

A few points to note:

  • The sources consulted for this article were the excellent books "Blueprint to Bluewater" and "Transition to Triumph".

  • All photographs are the properties of their respective copyright holders.