By JSW Alum

Ramdas: Life in Baker Squadron

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas

Jack Gibson’s contribution as Principal of the Joint Services Wing (JSW) from 1949-50 was seminal. Jack was on loan to us from the Doon School and, with his past Naval background, was ideally cut out for the role of Principal. As head of the academic staff, Mr. Gibson’s main concern was to ensure that the cadets attained the educational standards needed to cope with future service requirements. Jack taught English and Geography but he made sure he visited most other classrooms to see for himself how things were going.

He also devised an ingenious weekly assessment system. Every instructor assessed the cadets for their weekly performance in their respective subjects under three headings: “A” for Application, “K” for Knowledge and “E for Efficiency on a five point scale. This way the progress or otherwise of the cadets was monitored regularly. Cadets were grouped into various classes depending on their existing academic capabilities which were assessed at the time we arrived by simple tests. This system enabled the staff to concentrate on those cadets who needed special help or greater attention.’

The life and the routine in the JSW was a little more high pressure than at any of the regular public schools. The day started bright and early with "Hands Call" or "Reveille" at 5.30 am and we were on the move almost continuously till "pipe down" or "lights out" at 10 pm. We did have about 30 minutes for breakfast and about the same time for lunch. Squeezed into this busy day would be Physical Training (P.T.), Drill, about eight periods of class room instruction, and, of course, games, clubs and hobbies, and lastly, private study. On some days there would be Equitation and on others, Field Craft and weapon training.

The total of two years that we spent at the JSW was made up of four terms. Each term had a mid-term break. Many outward bound schemes were available for cadets to choose from during these breaks. It was Jack who was a great organizer of these programmes; indeed, he was perhaps the pioneer of introducing outward-bound schemes in the armed forces. Basic mountaineering, trekking, rafting, map-reading and navigation, cross-country running, you name it, every single outdoor activity had Jack’s imprint on it. Not to mention his interest in fencing, boxing, or dramatics. From Shakespeare to Tagore, Jack was equally comfortable. He took a lot of personal interest in all these activities and insisted that all cadets take part in at least two such pursuits.

One event that was unscheduled but most welcome was a trek-cum-cross-country-run to Mussoorie in February 1949 to greet the snow. At very short notice all of us were told to get into our FSMO (Field Service Marching Order) which meant haversacks, water bottles, and rifles. Off we went to Mussoorie, climbing up the hill from Rajpura. On arrival at the top we met our colleagues from the Military Wing (the erstwhile IMA) who had also marched up to Mussoorie for the first snows. A lot of snow warfare was conducted between and within the Military Wing and the JSW. Quite prominent in all this was an Englishman with a pipe sticking out of his twisted mouth. That was Jack Gibson outdoors in full cry!

It all ended with a sumptuous meal on top of the hill at the end of which we were told that it would be a competitive run back to Clement Town. The squadron to have all its cadets back first would be the winner. It was a long run—about 8 miles—which seemed even longer in our FSMO kits with water bottles banging away at our sides and rifles heavy on our shoulders. I am happy to recall that Baker Squadron, to which I belonged, was declared the winner.

Such events were a novel way to baptize young cadets! They helped to foster an "esprit de corps" among us even as they encouraged a healthy spirit of competition and achievement. By forcing us to the limits of physical and mental endurance they prepared us well for our chosen careers. Jack Gibson believed that an officer must be not only academically proficient but also capable of facing dangers, even if that entailed exposing oneself to physical harm. Perhaps in part due to his naval background, Jack was one of the few civilian instructors who easily understood this requirement. It goes without saying that he was quite a hit with the service officers on the staff of the JSW and perhaps even the envy of a few!

I was lucky to be a member of a rafting expedition from Nahan to Haradwar that Jack led. Unlike modern rubberized rafts with small paddles, ours was a beautiful 60-foot long raft comprising of over 120 solid logs between 15 to 20 feet in length that were lashed together. We came down the river Ganges from Nathan to Haradwar in what I can only describe as an other-worldly experience, one filled with excitement and fearsome thrills. Snaking its way over the rapids in a sinusoidal wave, from forward to aft, the traditional raft was steered by a steering oar at the after end. The sheer speed and the unpredictable contortions of the raft would at times send shivers down our spines. One really needed good sea legs to avoid falling down. We were quite worried at times, fearing that the raft would disintegrate under those tremendous speeds when it glided over huge boulders at the rapids. Occasionally, the odd log would break off and drift apart but, aside from that, we didn’t really face any serious danger although we flirted with it all the way! At the time, however, it seemed as if we could be victims of some kind of disaster at any moment. Looking back, I think that we were rather foolish because many of us did not know how to swim—I, for one. The reason for this was that the JSW did not commission its swimming pool until late 1950, the year of our passing-out, and only those who had had the benefit of swimming earlier were able to use that pool. Some of us, like me, had to learn how to swim in Cochin before we went to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in U.K. During this expedition, Jack kept us all entertained and in good cheer throughout with his many anecdotes. Blessed with a good sense of humour, he managed to be at once amusing and understanding, strict yet humane.

Jack’s contribution, therefore, was not merely in the academic field: he was singularly responsible for inspiring young men and molding them to become leaders of tomorrow. In that context, it would be of interest to mention that three of us from the First Course, that is, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Chander Suri, and I, all had the good fortune to head our respective services. What’s more, we served together as members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from 1990 to 1993.

During our concurrent tenures as service chiefs, the three of us, accompanied by our wives, took the opportunity to visit Jack Gibson at Ajmer where he lived after retiring. It was wonderful to see the old man: just as he was visibly moved by our presence, so were we somewhat choked emotionally. It was altogether a wonderful few hours that we spent with him. He promised to visit us in Delhi but, sadly, his failing health and advancing age prevented him from doing so until, of course, the end arrived.

Remembering Jack Gibson, I would say that here was a man who, though born an Englishman, was an Indian at heart. Not that Jack could not have gone back to ‘Ye Old England’ but he opted to live out his life in India. He gave every bit of himself and his skills to the molding and shaping of leaders of modern India. His presence in the formative years of the JSW and his contribution towards establishing its fine traditions will long be remembered. Those of us who had the privilege of being with him and knowing him personally will always miss him.