I have not written a full-length essay on Indian Navy’s most revered officer: Admiral Ronald Lyndsale Pereira, Chief of the Naval Staff from 01 March 1979 to 28 Feb 1982. My training period included, I have had an acquaintance with him for less than nine years of his active service and thereafter even more occasionally until 14 Oct 1993 when he died at the age of 70. I have repeated an anecdote about his sterling leadership from Hugh Gantzer’s ‘The Golden Book of Delhi’ when he was the Captain of the cruiser INS Delhi (ex HMS and later HMNZS Achilles) in ‘Leadership In The Navy – Past, Present And Future’, one of the earliest essays on this blog. However, I would like to bring out that the persona of Ronnie Pereira transcended the dimension of Time and officers who joined the Navy, even after me, could and can feel his aura. When I posted this on my Facebook Group ‘Humour In And Out Of Uniform’, one of my friends, Rishi Raj Singh wrote: “In Dec 15, a fine colony of 26 flats as Part of Married Accommodation Project (MAP), was inaugurated at Port Blair, a Tri-Services Command which all of us are aware of. It was named ‘Pereira Enclave’. It shows the respect he had from all the three Services. I had the honour to be the first occupant of a ground floor house, overlooking the runway.” And, Rishi Raj Singh would have never served with Ronnie Pereira anywhere.
Similarly, respect for this great officer transcended the narrow confines of the service that he belonged to: Indian Navy. I am giving a link to a beautiful, humorous, adorable and exhaustive article about this ex Navy Chief by an IAF officer (Wing Cdr Unni Katha, VSM (Retd)) published in a tri-services magazine Salute: ‘Remembering Ronnie’ in Apr-May 2013.
The Lambretta scooter mentioned in the article that he drove after retiring as the Chief of Naval Staff found its way from his home ‘At Last’ in Bangalore to one in Coonoor when I was undergoing Staff Course in 1990 (I did it belatedly as a Commander, having been sent abroad and told to do my bit in DOT (Directorate of Tactics)).
My wife’s cousin Trevor Mendez used to run a car and two-wheeler mechanic’s garage next to the DSSC (Defence Services Staff College in Wellington (Coonoor) (I am sure many of you must have been to this kind-hearted, bearded soul, always to be found with a cap). Admiral Pereira used to bring his scooter there for repairs and later a car. Trevor told me that he had become hard of hearing from his left ear after having met with an accident in Bangalore. And this scooter and later his car had been purchased through loans.
What did he do with all the money that he should have saved (after all he retired as the CNS)? Here is an incident told to me by his Flag Lieutenant BR Sen (now Commodore Bhaskar Sen, Retd, and member of my Facebook group ‘Humour In And Out Of Uniform’ wherein I published this post), when he was the CNS, to give you a hint:
Admiral Pereira often used to come out of his office and pace in the corridor. One day he met a Master Chief Petty Officer who happened to be a ship-mate of his (Read Wg Cdr Unni Katha’s article and you would know that he never forgot faces and names). He saw that the sailor was looking a little worried and asked him for the reason. The Master Chief told him that his daughter was to be married and he had applied for a loan of Rupees Five Thousand from the INBA (Indian Naval Benevolent Association) and after days of running around he had still not got the money.
Admiral Pereira brought him to his office, took out his cheque book (of the bank whose branch was in the South Block), wrote out a cheque for Rupees Five Thousand, gave it to him, wished him the best and sent him a happier man.
After the sailor left, there was frantic call from the Admiral for Bhaskar Sen: “Flags, can you hop across to the bank and check if I have that much money in my account?” Fifteen minutes later, Sen came back and reported that the Admiral had a little more than that and hence the sailor won’t be disappointed.
Admiral Pereira loved his men much more than he loved any material gains for himself.
He visited us in Coimbatore when I was posted there as a young instructor in the Leadership School. He paid for everything that he asked for, his mess bill, his wine bill and presented me (his Liaison Officer) with a pair of cuff-links, which, knowing him, would have been paid for by him.
Trevor’s caution to me about his hearing handicap served me right whenever I interacted with him during my Staff Course. I met him on a few occasions at Trevor’s and then in the DSSC canteen where he came to buy liquor.
One day, after our appointments (transfers after the course) were out I met him outside the canteen. He was quick to see me looking a little sad. “Son”, he boomed, “What’s happened? You look down and out”. I told him about my transfer to Vizag where I didn’t want to go. “Oh, don’t be” he told me, “It can’t be such a bad place. Now, let me see when was I in Vizag?”
“You were the Fleet Commander there” I told him wryly.
“Oh, yes, I was”, his eyes gleamed when he continued, “Wonderful place, Vizag; all happy memories, except one….there was this C-in-C there….”
“Admiral Kulkarni” I blurted out.
“Yes, that’s right, Admiral Kulkarni. He used to be always treading on my toes: ‘do this’ ‘don’t do this’…. one day, I marched into his office and told him: ‘C-in-C Sir, you mind the Command and I shall mind the Fleet’. Believe you me, son; after that we never had any problems……wonderful place, Vizag; you will enjoy….now cheer up….that’s better, that’s my boy”.
Most of us keep thinking of problems and these keep becoming bigger and bigger. Admiral Pereira solved these quickly by meeting them head-on.
How many of us, would?
When I was posted in Naval Headquarters in the years 1987 to 1990, after 5 to 8 years of his having been the Navy Chief, tales of Admiral Pereira were still fresh when we used to meet in INS India Wardroom or Kotah House Ante Room. Before that, I remember having attended his farewell in Western Naval Command Mess when he was being posted out as C-in-C of the Command to take over as Vice Chief of the Naval Staff at Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. Even though he was the C-in-C, there wasn’t any separate farewell for him; I am sure he would have ruled it out as wasteful expenditure of time and money. It was also Rear Admiral Kirpal Singh’s farewell from the Navy that night and one more officer’s farewell. Ronnie Pereira’s farewell speech was short and humorous. He said, “As a Commander, I told my girl (Mrs. Phyllis Pereira, married to him since 1952): ‘that’s probably my highest rank (because of my straight-talk). And then surprisingly I was promoted to become Captain….and so on, and now I am going to take over as Vice Chief. The lesson, therefore, is never be afraid to say your bit. If you have it in you to become senior, no one can stop you.”
I do remember that after he took over as the Chief of the Naval Staff (after his short tenure as VCNS), he wrote a personal letter to all commanding officers in which he bemoaned the ‘Zero Error Syndrome’ that was creeping into the Navy. He brought out that he wanted officers to be encouraged to come up with innovative ideas without overly worrying about failures. Three and half decades later, how I wish they had listened to him.
These days, we routinely bemoan how the politicians and the bureaucrats (the netas and the babus) have gradually and relentlessly downgraded the status of the armed forces personnel. From the tales that heard in Naval Headquarters, I would like to believe that one person who withstood this onslaught was Admiral Ronnie Pereira. Even though he left five years before I joined, some of his tales in NHQ had become legends (if anyone knows better, please correct me in the comments of this blog since for me these are second or even third hand accounts):
#1. I believe, on the eve of the Commanders Conference, a protocol guy from the PMO’s office came to NHQ to see for himself last-minute arrangements particularly seating plan. There was no seat, he observed, for Sanjay Gandhi. Adm Pereira told him that none was necessary. This guy left in a huff but was back in half an hour with: “The PM desires that there should be a seat for Shri Sanjay Gandhi”. “Alright” said Admiral Pereira, “Tell her to choose between him and me for the conference.”
#2. We were at that time deciding on the integral helicopters on ships of Godavari class. The final choice was to be Aerospatiale Super Puma (French) or Sea King (British). Some of you would recall how the ministry favoured one over the other; it was in the media. When the file was routed to the Financial Advisor, he had made a detailed note on the tactical advantages of one over the other. Admiral Pereira had thumped him by a note whose import was: ‘When the file is routed to you, it is for ensuring the financial canons are adhered to. Leave the tactics to the experts.”
Here is another endearing quality of his that wasn’t emulated sadly. As soon as he hung up his boots, he never interfered in the working of the Navy in any manner; no succession plan wranglings, no controversial utterances, nothing.
When we were in the DSSC, one of my seniors’ Syndicate was given an MRP (Minor Research Project) on Maritime Strategy. They thought it would be a great idea to obtain Admiral’s views on various subjects as also on the distasteful jockeying to become the Chief that was in the news all the time.
The Syndicate fixed an appointment with him at his residence in the evening. He offered them a drink and they started chatting. More and more drinks flowed and everyone warmed up to talking to the great man. Finally, they returned almost totally sozzled close to midnight. I asked my senior SP Singh sir about Admiral’s views about Maritime Strategy and other matters. He said after some time no one remembered what had they gone to him for. His aura, the easy camaraderie, the warmth of his hospitality and personalised treatment were more of a treat than any officious talk.
After he died on 14 Oct 1993, Mrs. Phyllis Pereira received hundreds of letters from officers and men of the three services. She disclosed that many of them hadn’t ever been his contemporaries.
People like Ronnie Pereira achieve a certain timelessness and hence become unforgettable.
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