Books | Sparks in the Tinderbox

How arrogance and indifference of the naval leadership led to the uprising. An extract

The HMIS Talwar in Bombay was a strategically important naval establishment for the British forces in India. It was the second largest signal school in all of the British Empire.

It became the platform for the launch of the naval mutiny of February 1946. There were close to 2,000 Indian naval ratings posted there, who had been subjected to the most degrading and inhuman service conditions. Their anger and frustration had reached boiling point, and it was further fuelled by stories of the nationalist movement and the heroic deeds of the INA.

The spark that lit the conflagration was supplied by the British themselves, namely, by Commander King. The British authorities made a cardinal mistake in appointing King as commander of HMIS Talwar in January 1946 — a time when emotions were running high in this important shore establishment.

In his book B.C Dutt described King as ‘a large built man with a very small brain. A racist, his hatred for ‘Bloody Indians’ was displayed openly. Not only was he a racist, he was also uncomfortable with educated ratings who could talk back to him. His dismal man-management skills led to him using bullying tactics to discipline the men under his command. The result was inevitable: he became the target for the ratings to vent their frustrations and growing anger at the mistreatment and blatant discrimination.

The ratings had deflated the tyres of his car and painted nationalist slogans like ‘Quit India’ on the vehicle, making King look foolish and incompetent. He became a laughing stock within the Bombay naval establishment and by February 1946, his hold on command was tenuous. He was getting anonymous threatening letters that put him under extreme psychological pressure until he snapped, leading to the point of no return.

Commander Arthur Frederick King, who incidentally was born on 2 October (the same as Mahatma Gandhi) 1917 will forever be remembered as the man who lit the ‘spark that kindled the fire’ of the rebellion.

King’s naval career started in 1934 when he applied for a cadetship in Royal Navy, but wasn’t selected because he failed in the written exams due to his poor proficiency in French. He had, however, passed the admiralty interview and was invited to join the Royal Indian Navy. He underwent the same training given to seamen of the Royal Navy. He was involved in a salvage operation in the mid-Atlantic in the very first week of his joining the navy and earned appreciation for this.

King’s first ship was the elderly sloop, HMIS Clive, which was operating in the Bay of Bengal searching for Japanese spies and for covert operations around the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. He and his fellow seamen had to be disguised as pearl-fishermen for this mission. During the expansion years of the RIN in 1938, King was appointed to the training ship, HMIS Dalhousie. His first group consisted of forty boys form the Punjab who had never seen the sea, let alone board a ship. He had to learn Urdu to be able to communicate with them and pass his command exams.

In 1939, King was sent to Delhi to help set up the new Navy office. The following year, in 1940, he returned to England to qualify as a gunnery specialist. In 1941, he was appointed to HMIS Jumna, a new ship being built in Dumbarton, on the north coast of the River Clyde in Scotland. King visited nearby Glasgow frequently and met his future wife Anne there. In 1942, King spent a difficult, frustrating and often exasperating year in Imperial Delhi, living in the Delhi Gymkhana Club. In 1943, he was transferred to England as first lieutenant because he despised the office work in Delhi. In 1944, while serving in HMIS Cauvery, then aged twenty-six, King was given the ship’s command due to her captain falling sick. As captain of Cauvery he escorted convoys in the Atlantic and later hunted Japanese submarines in the Indian Ocean. His excellent record soon brought him to the commanding officer (CO) level.

Commander King took charge as CO of the troubled HMIS Talwar on 21 January 1946. However, his task would be an uphill one. Taking charge as CO from Commander Cole was an onerous responsibility because Cole was hugely popular, particularly with the Indian ratings. This may have been a reason why Cole was seen as being too lenient and sympathetic towards Indians when the issue of writing anti-British slogans on the walls of HMIS Talwar became a concern.

The British wanted someone tough, and to them, King was a no-nonsense officer who would restore discipline to HMIS Talwar.

King wasted no time in enforcing his authority. On 8 February, a day after his car was painted with ‘Quit India’ slogans and its tyres deflated, he decided to make a surprise visit to the naval barracks early in the morning. The ratings ignored him and did not get up or salute him.

Enraged, he shouted, ‘Get up, you sons of coolies’, and ‘You sons of Indian bitches.’ Discontent had been simmering for some months and this abuse was the last straw. The ratings complained orally to higher authorities, but their complaint was passed back to Commander King, who ordered them to take back their complaints or face serious consequences. For a week, no action was taken.

Earlier, on 2 February, B.C. Butt had been arrested for writing seditious slogans on the walls of Talwar. That set off a chain reaction with ratings becoming more intransigent and King trying to impose his authority in a heavy-handed fashion.



King had received reports that the ratings had made cat-calls and whistled at women ratings WRINS (Women Royal Indian Navy). He felt his authority as CO was being undermined and he was determined to put these ‘bloody Indians’ in their place.

This was why he made a surprise visit to the barracks on 8 February. Here he met with a shocking display of insubordination.

The first parade for the Central Communications Office (CCO) was at 9.15 a.m. But lying on their cots, smoking, and using abusive language, the ratings ignored him. The CO’s standing had reached rock-bottom.

Enraged, King let loose a stream of foul, racially charged slur which would soon seal his fate. Storming out of the barracks, King summoned Lt Cdr Shaw, his second-in-command at the Talwar, and expressed his dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the ratings. King wanted action, and he wanted it without any delay.

Lt Cdr Shaw acted as directed. Calling each of the ratings in turn, he communicated King’s displeasure to them. But on making further inquiries he found that the anger amongst the men was largely because of King’s behaviour. Something had to be done and quickly. At 12.30, Shaw went to King’s office and told him about his inquiry and the mood of the ratings. Lt S.M. Nanda, who would later become Chief of the Naval Staff, was present in the office at the time.


The next day, the ratings made their feelings clear to Lt Cdr Shaw as he met with fourteen of them individually. Each one said he same things during their one-on-one interactions. They then made an unprecedented move-filing a formal written complaint to Shaw against their CO! King had united all the ratings on the Talwar against him.

The crisis now escalated. All fourteen ratings who Shaw had spoken to, made formal complaint against the CO. It was a high-risk gamble. A joint complaint against a superior officer was considered mutiny, and even filing individual complaints was serious enough.

Shaken, Shaw tried to make the ratings see reason, even threatening them by saying their careers would be ruined. But these brave, proud young men had had enough. They had been subject to persistent ‘humiliation and ill-treatment’ and they would not pull back now. To do so would invite more ridicule and discrimination.



It was a precarious situation for Lt Cdr Shaw. He could not pass an order against his own boss (Commander King) but neither could he ignore the serious charges. Shaw sent a personal and confidential letter to his CO pleading with him to deal with the matter delicately, swiftly, and tactfully. If he did not, Shaw pleaded they faced a crisis. A copy of this letter was sent to the Chief of Naval Staff in Bombay, Flag Officer Bombay (FOB), Rear-Admiral Arthur Rullion Rattray.

Shaw’s letter should have stirred any right-minded CO to take swift action to pacify the ratings. But the arrogant Commander King still believed he was in control and immune to any resistance. These ‘coolies’ he felt, would fall back in line soon enough. So he pocketed the letter and did nothing.

Thus, in a most indifferent and capricious manner, King refused to heed his brother officer’s advice. The matter would be decided through naval routine. This was called Request Men and Defaulter’s — a naval unit court held by the CO once a week on Saturdays to dispense justice and hear complaints.

That meant the matter would be dealt with on 16 February — seven days after the incident. King’s message was clear. This was not a serious issue. This was a further insult to the men who were already consumed by rage. Shaw’s report stating the matter was serious and pleading for immediate action had been dismissed by his CO.

By now Talwar was like volcano waiting to erupt. Furious ratings; an arrogant and uncaring CO; and the head-in-the-sand attitude of naval staff in Bombay praying the problem would go away. The inevitable eruption was right around the corner.

Shaw tried his best to avert disaster. He repeatedly pleaded with King to hear the men before 16 February, but to no avail. King was blind to the crisis looming before his eyes. The result — justified anger gave way to blind fury. The gathering storm that built up between 9 and 16 February turned into open rebellion. King would pay dearly for the way he had spoken.


Pramod Kapoor
Roli Books, Pg 339, Rs 695



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