GUNNERS TOO ARE HUMAN – PART II

A few decades back, we entered the Missile Age in Naval Warfare. The Gunners – or the Bang-Bang people – suddenly had to reckon with missile-firings and fire-balls approaching the ship. This demanded lightening speed responses. Fortunately, most of them were blessed with these, having honed these during their formative years. So, whilst an ordinary mortal would be thinking of what to do, a Gunner would have worked out what to do after the first what-to-do would have failed. One such Gunner was the first Gunnery Officer I had as my colleague after completing my specialisation in Communications and Electronic Warfare.

D ( I told you in ‘Gunners Too Are Human – Part I‘ that I shall not be giving any names due to my survival instincts) was convinced that Life and Missiles should be taken in one’s stride, just as they come. However, he never missed an opportunity to impress the Commanding Officer with his ‘hard work’. So, whilst enjoying a drink in the wardroom in the evenings, if he got the ‘news‘ that the CO had stepped on board with his guests, he would lose no time in getting this announced on the ship’s broadcast, “Gunner’s Yeoman required in Gunnery Officer’s cabin immediately.” This was to let the CO know that he, Gunnery Officer, was on board on a holiday doing Gunnery work. If that wasn’t enough, he would time his giving loud instructions to the Gunner’s Yeoman at the gangway just as CO would be leaving the ship.

I don’t know whether this strategy, carefully crafted by an ace Gunner, worked or not; but, I had noticed that the CO – a Navigator – was perpetually in awe of the Gunnery Officer. Weren’t we all?

A missile is an expensive arsenal to fire at sea during practice shoots. It is like the most expensive Diwali celebration. Hence, you don’t carry out missile firings at the frequency of, say, firing the 40/60 Bofors Anti-aircraft guns. Other than the expenses, one reason for not carrying out so frequent missile-firings is because missile-launchers and the connected fire-control systems are fully computerised together with a ‘seeker-head’ on the missile to search for and find (home-on) its own target. Therefore, to carry out these drills without actually firing missiles is adequate training. however, the 40/60 AA Guns, as on board the ship where D and I served, had the requirement to train the crew to successfully bring down an aircraft through aiming and firing of shells fitted with proximity fuze.

In the Gunnery School, these drills are performed endlessly by Gunnery sailors and all under-trainee officers of the Executive Branch. The crew of the 40/60 Gun comprises: #1: Captain of the Mounting; #2 Loading Number; #3 Communication Number; and #4 Spare Number. In the gunnery drills, no one takes any chances about ‘an interpretation’ of the orders as this could cause serious injury and even death. Hence, each hand of the crew perfects his drill, calling out aloud the actions that he is doing whilst following each order. A time comes, when after going over these drills hundreds of times, one would be able to perform these with closed eyes.

Bofors 40/60 Gun Mounting (Pic Courtesy: artilleryhistory.org)
Bofors 40/60 Gun Mounting (Pic Courtesy: artilleryhistory.org)

Normally, CRAA Firings (Close range Anti-Aircraft Firings) are done at evening twilight time. Ships are formed in a column, one behind the other, and then for a group of two to three ships, an illuminated target in the form of a star shell is fired either to the port side (left) or the starboard side (right). As soon as this star-shell comes within range and height, ships open up firing on their AA guns. The entire serial lasts only about 30 mins of say, two to three firings. However, since the aiming of the mountings can be visually seen – through tracer shells – ships receive signals from the Fleet Commander ranging from Bravo Zulu (Well Done) to Negat Bravo Zulu (Not Well Done).

During one of these CRAA Firing Serials, Gunnery Action Team was closed up and the Fleet Staff kept changing the timing of the firing due to various reasons; one of these being that the range was not clear of fishing boats. Therefore, for at least twice ‘Relax Gunnery Action Team’ order was passed on the ship’s broadcast. Finally, the serial commenced and a series of orders were given to make the AA mounting ready. Some of us held our breath whereas others prepared to close their ears to muffle the sound of firing.

The ship ahead of us fired a Star Shell to the port and the order, “Alarm Star Shell Port” was given. This order pre-supposes that the crew would fire when the Star Shell would be within range and height, without any further orders from the Bridge where the Captain, and the Officer of the Watch are closed up.

For a few agonising seconds nothing happened. Now, anybody familiar with Gunnery world would know that ‘nothing’ is not what the Gunners are trained for. The word ‘Action‘ is the hallmark of a Gunner; so much so that Action Stations on board in war or during exercises are controlled by the Gunnery department; you have a ‘Gunnery Action Team’ and certainly not a ‘Gunnery Nothing Team’.

We saw the slow descending of the Star Shell and the ship ahead of the Star Shell firing ship as well as the Star Shell firing ship had already started firing illuminating the night with tracer shells through their own AA guns. We, on the Bridge (I was the Officer of the Watch or OOW) thought perhaps the Mounting hadn’t heard the order ‘Alarm Star Shell Port’ and hence this order was repeated initially with increased decibel level and later with ferocity. Lo and behold, the mounting stuck to its earlier response of doing nothing. It was as if, they, like sages trying to reach God, had discovered that the easiest way to get to Him was by doing nothing and clearing mind and body of all thoughts and actions.

By this time, our Captain had started the advanced version of standing jog in the hope that our own firing would commence any time. It was my sad duty, as a War Reporter from the Front, to report to him that still there was ‘nothing‘.

Our Captain (God rest his soul) was known in the Navy for his mild nature and extreme gentlemanliness. However, when the Fleet Commander passed the expected ‘Negat Bravo Zulu’ to us, he was suddenly rid of his m.n. and e.g. and wanted to eat the Gunnery Officer alive. “Announce for the Gunnery Officer” he boomed. In my lighter moments (that I used to have with him several times on the Bridge), I would have told him that no announcement was necessary since at the volume with which he gave his command, even the next ship would have heard him directly. However, one look at his stern countenance convinced me that this was not the moment for frivolity. I announced, “Gunnery Officer requested Bridge” and eagerly awaited D being converted into mince-meat by the Captain. Several moments later, I found that the acquired virtue of the AA Mounting had been adopted by the Gunnery Officer too. You have guessed it: nothing happened. So, even before the Captain would tell me, being conscious of my own survival instincts, I re-announced with urgency: “Gunnery Officer requested Bridge – Captain” signifying that this announcement was made for him to report to Captain.

Full marks to the Gunnery Action Team and the Gunnery Officer for their consistency that evening: they stuck to their earlier response of ‘nothing‘ like an unshakeable witness in the court despite all the questioning by a relentless prosecutor. To my horror I found that the Captain wasn’t jumping in the air anymore; he had quickly mastered levitation (he must have broken the world record amongst learners of levitation) and had started flying. He picked up the mike of the broadcast himself and through rage and froth managed to make a coherent announcement all by himself: “Gunnery Officer Bridge (no point in a polite ‘requesting‘) immediately.”

Several uncomfortable moments passed; like on a drama stage awaiting the denouement and the possibility of Gunnery Action Team and Gunnery Officer strangely vanishing from the ship by an Indian version of the Bermuda Triangle crossed my mind. However, suddenly, there was a flurry of activity in the lobby leading to the Bridge and then we had the Gunnery Officer ascending to the Bridge leading a procession of Weapon Maintenance Officer (WMO) and a few sailors carrying large charts. Without any ado and with a sense of purpose last displayed by Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, the Gunnery Officer led the procession to the Chart Table on the Bridge and started spreading various charts of Firing System of the AA Mounting.

He had a pointer in his hand and he explained to the Captain, “Sir, let me just explain to you how a 40/60 fires. As soon as the order ‘Alarm Star Shell is given by the Bridge’, the order to engage is given by the TS. before that the shell is rammed in the barrel by the loading number, this breach block closes automatically. The moment the Captain of the Mounting trains the gun and aims at the target, he presses this here trigger. This energizes Capacitor C13 and Resistor R2 in the firing circuit and balh-blah-blah….”

And he continued, “We carried out a complete technical investigation through WMO and my team and we conclude that Capacitor C13 has gone faulty. Though these kind of repairs are normally carried out by the Dockyard in harbour, we opened up the mounting and have just finished doing the repair. The mounting is now ready for action.”

You should have seen my Captain’s face. He was already under awe of the Gunnery Officer. Anon, he silently cursed himself for having doubted a most efficient Gunnery Officer who, knowing that non-firing had caused his CO untold mortification, had in the shortest possible time, not only zeroed on the defect beyond his control (since technical failures can take place any time) but had completed the rectification too. I could not believe my ears when I heard the Captain tell him, “Well Done, Guns; I knew I could rely on you”. He now turned to me, “SCO, make a signal to the Fleet Commander in response to his ‘Negat Bravo Zulu’ and explain the situation to him.”

I made the signal and shortly thereafter I finished my watch and went to the wardroom to have my dinner. Gunnery Officer was already there and I joined him. Suddenly I turned to him and asked, “Guns, Sir, what happened?”

He smiled that lovely smile of his, which only an ace Gunner can give and said, “The bloody Loading Number had gone for dinner.”

They also serve who only stand and wait.

© 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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8 Comments

  1. hi , i have a few equally interesting experiences as an active gunner till say cdr rank, wish i could express them in a humorous manner. keep us entertained. how do you get the time to think and write, even though you have not retired yet, i have become busier after retirement while continue to do nothing, and that my friend is an art, which is in DNA, can not be learnt. thanks

  2. Thank you, Sir.

    I retired in Feb 2010 as Director CNW and then joined Reliance as a Senior VP. Now, I get even less time than I used to get in the Navy since I work six-day-weeks. However, whatever little I do find, I devote to this blog, and my various groups and pages on facebook.

    I must have been very fortunate in the Navy that I gathered so many gems!

  3. Realities of Naval life is so very exhilarating and full of fun that one looks forward to more and more. I remember the good old days when as a young Lt. I used to enjoy myself in the company of great Officer’s like Cdr. Rowe (in the old Kotah House Mess) who used to enthrall us with such wonderful true stories of our great Navy. I can never stop missing naval life. Thank You Sir for keeping the navy alive within us.

  4. Thank you. I am glad I have been able to do my bit in keeping alive the nostalgia about the Navy life; which, emotionally and objectively, I term as the best life anyone can ever ask for. I shall continue posting these and hopefully not disappoint you.

  5. A wonderful series Sir. I dont think explaination of not firing would have lessened Fleet Commander’ fury then , but I am sure if he reads this write up now ,he will definitely utter bravo for the Gunnery Officer . He deserve it for the way he handled the crisis.