Sunday, 24 July 2011

Army Communications 50 years ago: From the Mountain Artillery, India

An anecdote on a lighter note:
Today again, let me tell you of an incident from my old army days.

The period was early 1960s. In those days, like many other things, communication too was very rudimentary, nothing like what we have today. There were no mobile phones, internet or public telephone booths or kiosks. As a result, personal communication between places, particularly border areas were nonexistent.

The defence personnel posted in far flung forward areas were obviously the biggest sufferers since they were cut off from their family and friends for months on end. The only communication available then was through the Army Postal Service (APS).

The system was simple and efficient, although time consuming. All private mail was processed, censored and delivered to the addressees through the APS only. Our postal addresses were also kept secret and thus the family & friends had only to write one’s name with rank, the name of the unit, mark it “care of 56 APO or 99 APO” (Army Post Office) and drop the letter in the nearest letter box. The civilian postal service all over India would then simply send all such letters to the main APO at New Delhi, where these would be sorted and sent to the units concerned, at various operational areas in the country. The day to day official communication between the units and sub-units was carried out through wireless sets.

After the 1962 Indo-China war, our 22nd Mountain Artillery Regiment (also known as Victoria Regiment), had just returned to a peace station, in district Bareilly, where it was accommodated in the Cantonment area.  Soon some family accommodation was also allotted to the Regt. where married officers and few men stayed with their families.  The bachelors were given leave liberally and every one was in the process of gradually settling down for some well-deserved rest. Peacetime activities in the Regt had also commenced, dealing mainly with training, reorganisation, maintenance of animals and equipments etc. However, while this was going on, the Regt again got orders to pack and move to another operational area immediately.

With in a week’s time the move was completed and the Regt occupied its defences in a newly created operational Sector. Since most of the heavy, non-operational stuff of the Regt was left at the peace station, a small detachment was left at the rear to take care of all the administrative matters at the station. The few families too continued to stay there. The wireless communication between the Regiment and the Rear Detachment (Det) was quickly commissioned with laid down procedures and daily time schedules.

The day to day routine wireless communication between two operators went some thing like this:-

Regt. Hqs.  Signal Operator (call it main): Hello Alfa bravo Charlie, Report my signal over.

Operator of the Rear Detachment (Call it Rear): Alfa Bravo Charlie, You are strength 5 over.

Main: Alfa Bravo Charlie, have you sent all personal mails with last Courier over.
Suddenly the Operator of the Rear Detachment, on this particular day seemed frantic and nervous. His voice also became louder.

Rear: Alfa Bravo Charlie, fetch Tiger, repeat fetch Tiger urgently over.

Main: why Tiger? Repeat your message over.

Rear: I say, fetch Tiger, Fetch Tiger over.

The Main operator rushed to the bunker where the CO (Commanding Officer) of the Regiment was having a conference with rest of the regimental officers.  The Operator conveyed the message to the adjutant (a staff officer of the CO) in whispers.  And soon after, the conversation on the wireless resumed

Main: Hello Alfa Bravo Charlie, it is Lamb here, pass your message over.

Rear:  Alfa Bravo Charlie, Lamb not required; only Tiger repeat Tiger required .Please fetch Tiger urgently.

Main: (With some annoyance): Alfa Bravo Charlie. Tiger busy; can not come. It is Lamb here. Pass your message over.

Rear: Alfa Bravo Charlie, it is Tigress here. She wants only Tiger. Please fetch Tiger urgently.

Main (after few minutes’ silence): wait over.

Actually, in the operational area, most of the key officers are referred in the signal communication by certain code names. This is basically to hide their identity from the enemy. Thus a Commanding Officer is known as Tiger, second-in-Command as Lamb, Signal Officer as Sparrow and so on.

In this particular incident, the Co’s wife at the Rear location had to tell some thing urgently to her husband. Having no means of any personal communication channel, she rushed to the Rear Det Signal room and asked the operator to call the CO on the set. She did not realise that the wireless net was only for official purposes. The operator too, seeing the CO’s wife in the signal room, got nervous and frantically started calling for the CO. And since there obviously was no code for CO’s wife in the signal procedure, he had no alternative but to refer to her as Tigress.

All of us present at the conference, heard the episode and giggled. The CO too felt a bit embarrassed. In the evening there were drinks on the house on the COs behalf. After few drinks, he gave following advice to every one-

 “ We need to train our wives too about the security matters, particularly –The DOs & DON’TS in the services”.

The tag of the “Tigress “too stuck with CO’s wife for a long time, although of course, we also realised the drawbacks of the poor communication available then.

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