During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Indian shipyards had produced a series of wooden ships of the line that bore comparison with any out of European yards. However, by the mid-20th century, this heritage had been lost and India had no shipbuilding industry. Indeed, the Indian Navy itself was so weak that it was hardly visible. During the First World War it consisted primarily of troopships and dispatch vessels. India's main imperial contribution was its Army and it was there that attention and finance were focused.
By the mid-1930s, this started to change. It was obvious that India would have a much greater level of independence and that it needed a more rounded defense capability. Accordingly, a phased program of naval construction was conceived that would allow India to produce the ships it needed for local defense in its own yards while more powerful and complex ships would be built in the U.K. A problem with implementing this concept was that the requisite shipyards did not exist. These would have to be built as well. It was, therefore, necessary, to plan the construction sequence to fit with the growing capability of the new yards. These new yards would be built at Mazagon in Mumbai, Garden Reach in Calcutta, the Navy Yard in Karachi and Hindustan Shipyard in Vishakpatnam. Each was planned to have two slips, eventually capable of handling vessels of up to destroyer size.
By 1939, the building program had been decided as consisting of the construction of four Flower class corvettes and four Bangor class minesweepers. By the time these ships were completed, it was hoped that the new yards would have advanced enough to build the next classes of ship, rather ambitiously planned as being Hunt class escort destroyers and Tribal class fleet destroyers. This was the plan that was in place when, on June 19 1940, Lord Halifax staged his coup and the whole scheme fell into chaos.
The effect of the message from London ordering India to cease hostilities against Germany and abide by the terms of the Armistice were stunning. India's government was split down the middle, primarily by time of residence in India. Recent arrivals were happy to comply with Halifax's directive but those who had been in-country longer had been bitten by "the India Bug" and wanted nothing to do with the collapse. The latter faction, with its better grasp on the reins of power and its superior knowledge of how the Indian system operated quickly dominated the debate. One of the leaders on that group was a youngish civil servant who quickly came became the driving force behind the newly-forming government. Sir Martyn Sharpe would effectively rule India for the next 25 years
The first part of business was to sever the connections with Halifax's Britain. The Halifax Directive was returned with the reply "Contents Corrupt" and forgotten. From a naval point of view, this begged the question as to what India was to do now. If India was to carry on the war, it would need a Navy and the one planned in the 1930s was nowhere near sufficient. A temporary solution was present in Indian ports in the shape of the ships of the Royal Navy's Indian Ocean Station. These comprised the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, 2 County class cruisers, 1 Hawkins class cruiser, 4 C class cruisers and 12 V/W class destroyers. By the end of the year, these had been joined by the ships from China station whose base had become untenable. This added a second Hawkins Class cruiser, 2 Leander class cruisers (6" guns) and six ancient 6 R/S class destroyers to the fleet. This addition also did something else. Although the China station ships were no longer based there, they continued to make deployments to the area. Thus, right from its foundation, the core of India's fleet was familiar with the idea of long distance operations across the theater.
The first priority was to determine what the plans of the Royal Navy units were. This was quickly resolved, the command placed itself at the disposal of the Indian Government, basing its decision on its interpretation of the Daventry Address. The next question was how to support the ships camped out on its doorstep. Fortunately, India may have been short of building yards but it was not short of well-equipped naval bases. Trincomalee, Karachi, Chittgong, Mumbai, Cochin and Madras along with several others were all available, well-stocked and well-supplied. Looking at the fleet, the Indian Government made an amusing discovery. With one aircraft carrier, one battleship, four heavy cruisers, six light cruisers and 18 destroyers, they actually outgunned the German Navy at that point in time. By this time, contacts had been made with Australia and discussions started over coordinating their fleets. Australia's Navy had two heavy cruisers of its own, four light cruisers, five destroyers and four sloops to which the Pacific Station had added the fast minelayer HMS Adventure, and four more destroyers. Even more importantly, three powerful Tribal class destroyers were under construction. Rather to their surprise, India and Australia found that this accumulation of naval power made them world-class players in their own right.
The short-term requirement of establishing some sort of naval power was met. The next order of business was to make longer-term plans. Nobody was under any illusions about the danger represented by the German submarine fleet; the first priority was to build anti-submarine assets. Accordingly, the first project was to complete the four Flower class corvettes under construction. "First Project" became "Project One" and, somehow, the Flowers became the Project 1 class. The Bangor class fleet minesweepers became Project 2. A version of these ships was designed with depth charge rails and throwers in place of minesweeping gear and became Project 2A. Following the same line of logic, the plan to build Hunt class escort destroyers was dusted off as Project 3 but the impracticality of this quickly became apparent. No plans or components were available and that made construction impossible. In any case, the short-ranged Hunt class were not in keeping with the image the Indian administration had of its future path. Even at this early stage, India had visions of becoming a major regional power, exerting influence across the whole Pacific region. Accordingly, Project 3 was abandoned. The plan to build Tribal class destroyers was next. It was quickly examined as Project 4 and as quickly abandoned. Again, the expertise and facilities to build the ships did not, as yet, exist although the size and power of the Tribals was very much in keeping with the way India wanted her fleet to grow.
Despite these long-term dreams, India had to come to terms with the fact that in the short term, the country could build nothing except the Project 1 and Project 2A ships. Here, the Government made a courageous decision to forgo further naval construction and instead invest the available funds in completing the shipyards and upgrading them to accommodate larger ships. Instead, Australia was approached. The Indian Government had heard through South East Asian sources (reputedly Thailand but never confirmed) that Australia might be prepared to sell some of its new construction. The first product of these approaches was the purchase of a single River class sloop, designated Project 5 in the new Indian designation system. The really significant purchase was a full dozen Bathhurst class corvette-minesweepers that were designated Project 6 (ASW) and Project 6A (minesweepers) that provided the basis of India's local patrol fleet. Four more Bathhursts were built locally to Project 6B standard, these having 12 pounders in place of their four inch guns. Later, two Australian Town class sloops were purchased as Project 7.
The war hadn't halted while India and Australia got themselves sorted out. America had joined in and seized the Azores from Portugal. This seemed like a good idea so India followed suite seizing Goa and thus acquiring a ready-made and quite capable shipyard. Later, of course, it turned out that the USA had actually bought the Azores from Portugal which made the seizure of Goa a little iffy to put it mildly. By then it was too late. More importantly, the Royal Navy had undertaken The Great Escape and brought with it orders from the Admiralty. For those familiar with British civil servicease the meaning of these orders was quite clear. The Commonwealth was required to keep fighting until it or Germany were dead. That made things a lot clearer.
For the first year or so after The Great Escape, the Royal Navy was tied down fighting the U-boats in the Atlantic. After that battle had been won, it was positioned around the world to provide insurance against any other nations getting untoward ideas. Primarily this meant the Far East. Trincomalee became the base for Force H, the Royal Navy Strategic Reserve for the Far East. This consisted of the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, the three battlecruisers Hood, Repulse and Renown, four additional County class heavy cruisers, four Southampton class light cruisers and the nine surviving Tribal class destroyers. The transfer in saw a small loss though, the two Leander class light cruisers were transferred to Australia. Here, an interesting thing was noted; many of the crews had been bitten by the India Bug and wanted to stay in India. This was eventually agreed and they were transferred to Indian Navy ships.
This was the situation until the war's end. Postwar, India received the three battlecruisers and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal as part of its Imperial Gift These were supported by six County class cruisers and 18 K, L and M class destroyers. Hood became Project 8, Repulse and Renown Project 9 and 9A respectively, the County class cruisers Project 10, the L class destroyers Project 11 and the M class destroyers Project 12. The submarine division took a little longer to work out but eventually the Indian Navy received four V class and four T class submarines, these being Project 14 and Project 15 respectively. Project 13 was not used for superstitious reasons.
At this point the Indian Navy made an alarming discovery. The battle cruisers had been renovated during the latter years of the war and were in reasonably good condition. The County class were also in fairly good repair although their build quality was notably worse than that of even the war-built battlecruisers. The destroyers though were in very bad condition. They had been shoddily-built to start with, had seen five years hard service and were almost worn out. They were hard to keep operational and expensive to run. Fortunately, a solution was at hand. The US Navy had built a class of destroyer escorts with diesel-electric powertrains. Rated at only 20 knots, these were hopelessly obsolete by Atlantic standards being too slow to combat submarines like the German Type XXI. As a result, they were available at literally scrap metal prices. India bought no less than 30 of these ships. Six were armed with three 3 inch guns and became Project 16A, fourteen had two five inch guns and became Project 16B and ten were converted to fast transports (APDs) and entered Indian service as Project 16C. These ships were high on crew requirements but were cheap to operate, durable, seaworthy and had a lethal line-of-sight armament. They replaced most of the older patrol ships and remained on the Indian fleet list well into the 1980s. Not least of their value was that they were excellent training ships and most of the new generation of Indian seamen saw their first taste of salt water in a Project 16
Nevertheless, the Indian Navy still faced a crisis. The easy options had gone and the navy was now going to have to stand on its own feet. The Imperial Gift could keep the fleet running for a little time but replacement ships would have to be built. A study showed that the battlecruisers and heavy cruisers had a life of about 15 years but the destroyers fewer than five. Replacing them was the first priority. There was a quick evaluation of the possibility of building the M class in India (this was designated Project 17) but the design was already obsolete. Something much better was needed. A conceptual decision was taken; the Indian Navy would consist of two parts, a mass fleet built around the DEs and later patrol ships that would undertake routine duties and patrol work and a "Silver Bullet fleet" that would be the most modern and advanced ships available, small in number but high in capability. The Indian Navy would concentrate its resources on building ships for its Silver Bullet fleet that were second to none in the world. The rest of the Navy would get by, picking up what it could from where it could.