“युद्धस्य कथा रम्या”
(War stories are entertaining)
Date: December 3rd, 1971.
Time: 06:55 PM IST.
A secret squadron of Indian Naval Ships somewhere in the Arabian Sea received a message:
… and thus started a thriller of a naval operation, unparalleled in the history of the Indian navy, unheard of worldwide after World-War II.
The story starts with 1965 – the war India fought under Lal Bahadur Shatri of “Jai Jawaan, Jai Kisaan” fame. And as is the norm by now, the war started with a Pakistani adventure on the Indian border. Sardar Post in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat near Kanjarkot saw Pakistan’s 51st infantry Brigade crossing over the international border and attacking the local Indian CRPF party on 9th April, 1965. After a brief fight, the CRPF party (led by post commander Sardar Karnail Singh) beat a retreat. Pakistan had captured the Kanjarkot area for the moment, but the local conflict lasted for about 2-months, till it was broken by India being forced to accept ceasefire under the pressure of the UK government. On June 30, a ceasefire agreement was signed where Pakistan agreed to withdraw forces but India agreed to allow Pakistan to use a road it had constructed in Indian Territory.
So much for “Jai Jawaan”. If Pakistan’s idea was to test the response and resolve of Shastri’s India, it clearly worked; and what Pakistan thought of Indian government’s resolve became clear 3 months later – with a full-blown war starting with two Pakistani operations on Indian soil: “Operation Gibraltar” and “Operation Grand Slam” (both focused on Jammu and Kashmir).
If the Sardar Post adventure was Pakistani army’s way of provoking a pacifist enemy to see how he reacted, the same initiative was adopted by the Pakistan Navy, with its “Operation Dwarka”. As the war across Jammu-Kashmir and Punjab border became intense, Pakistan decided to relieve that pressure by opening up a naval war-front.
September 7, 1965. A day just like any other day in the quiet, small, holy town of Dwarka on the coast of Gujarat. Emergency had been declared a few days back, with the war getting started.
In the afternoon, a ship was spotted far in the sea, going from Bombay to Okha – upon inquiry it was found to be INS Talwar, patrolling the area. The day wore on, and at around 5:30 PM, the ship was spotted, sailing in the opposite direction. The ship sailed near the coast while keeping its lights on, adjusted itself back and forth, and finally settled down with turning all lights off. Was it INS Talwar again, patrolling the area and stopping for some maintenance? Nope, it wasn’t.
The ship had started firing its shells on the city, and the shelling continued for more than 20 minutes. A fleet of 7 Pakistani ships – PNS Babur, PNS Khaibar, PNS Badr, PNS Jahangir, PNS Alamgir, PNS Shah Jahan and PNS Tipu Sultan – had chosen Dwarka for attack, due to its historical relevance for Hindus and partly to destroy the radar station. Fortunately for Shri Krishna’s city, most of the shells landed on the soft soil but failed to explode, between the Dwarika-dheesh Temple on the banks of river Gomti and the Dwarka railway station few kilometers away. Human casualty was none. During this mayhem, INS Talwar was in Okha (a few miles north of Dwarka) for repairs – where she heard the explosions and transmissions of Pakistani warships – but could do nothing in response. Other Indian warships were serving the order of the Indian Navy of not getting involved in naval warfare with Pakistan – with Indian warships not even being allowed to either attack ships carrying supplies for Pakistani army or even go above the latitude of Porbandar for strategic operations. Pakistani fleet then headed back to Karachi, with no casualties to answer for.
The biggest act of humiliation was of Indian warships not being allowed to attack and engage Pakistani fleet, even after it was getting back from Dwarka. All supplies of oil and weapons for the Pakistani army and navy was meanwhile continuing unchecked in the Arabian Sea, prolonging the war – with Indian warships not allowed to intercept even enemy supply ships. Anger in the Indian navy was palpable with many discreet shouts of “Karachi Chalo! (Let’s go to Karachi)” – this anger was to take shape of an operation 6 years later, in 1971.
Fast forward to March – 1970, with Admiral Sardarilal Mathuradas Nanda taking charge as the 8th Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy. Another India Pakistan war was approaching, with the genocide in East Pakistan reaching blood-curdling levels.
The new Admiral, along with chief of army staff General Sam Manekshaw was apparently thinking a lot differently – with his focus a lot more on attack rather than defense. The plan chalked out for the navy was:
(a) Surround the East Pakistan sea-coast and block all ports for enemy activity – which meant denying trapped Pakistani soldiers opportunities to flee and to stop the India hater duo Nixon and Kissinger from sending any military aid to Pakistani army through maritime routes.
(b) Karachi: The center of economic life-line and maritime interests of Pakistan (or should I say – the Mumbai of Pakistan). All the external trade and transfer through sea routes, including that of arms and ammunition concentrated on Karachi. The headquarters of Pakistani Navy as well as Oil storage tanks, Karachi was a city of Pakistan’s might and pride. If India had to win the war, it had to be dismantled. Admiral Nanda’s ambitious plan included the blockade of the port, destruction of the naval capability of Pakistan – which meant Pakistani navy not being allowed to indulge in warfare on Indian waters, nor would friends of Pakistan be allowed to help them by sending supply by ships. Time also was a crucial factor, as happened in 1965, there was bound to be pressure exerted on India by friends of Pakistan like USA – which meant that the target of freeing East Pakistan had to be achieved as quickly as possible – and the most crucial step required for this objective was India’s rule over the Arabian sea (and a virtual curfew for Pakistani warships). Also, there was the small matter of avenging Pakistan’s attack on Dwarka.
The usual preparation for Indian navy used to be centered on Bombay (Mumbai) since British times, and there was no significant change effected by India since then. The arrangement was for made in Britain vessels to be concentrated in Mumbai, while the Soviet vessels were to be concentrated in Vishakhapatnam (Vizag). Clearly this was not ideal as a naval fleet should be a good combination of all required warships, and Admiral Nanda set to change it after he took charge.
Admiral Nanda organized the navy in two independent fleets – Eastern and Western – on October 16, 1971. Considering the importance of manning the sea border of East Pakistan, the air-craft carrier Vikrant was transferred to the Eastern fleet; causing a lot of heartburn and anger among the Western fleet. The anger was clearly because of losing an absolutely irreplaceable component of a naval attack and blockade on an enemy port: an air-craft carrier. The Sea Hawk bomber planes and anti-submarine Alizé planes on Vikrant would have been an absolute necessity on an attack on Karachi. The anger reached serious levels and Nanda had to personally visit the leadership of the Western fleet to persuade them.
The plan on Nanda’s mind was different: Attack Karachi with Missile boats. Name of the operation: Trident (त्रिशूल).
(Note: Users unaware of warship types can check this as reference while reading this post).
India had recently acquired 8 Osa-I class Missile boats from the Soviet Union in 1969 (after witnessing and being impressed by an Egyptian Osa Missile boat sinking the Israeli Frigate Eilat in the six-day war – 1967). Upon reaching Calcutta (Kolkata), the vessels were quickly unloaded and sent off to Bombay by towing. The Missile boats were inducted into the Indian navy under names: Nipat, Nirghat, Veer, Naashak, Nirbhik, Vinaash and Vidyut and were categorized as Vidyut class Missile boats.
|Missile boat bio data|
|Weight (when fully loaded)||245 tons|
|Maximum speed||38 knots (Approximately 70 KMph)|
|Armament||4 SS-N-2 Styx missiles2 AK-230 30mm guns|
|Missile bio data|
|Maximum speed||1100 KMph|
|Engine||Liquid fuel rocket|
|Guidance system||Active Radar|
|Weight of explosive||5000 KG|
The boats were quickly polished, and tested near an unknown island off the coast of Bombay – monitored by Ilyushin Il-14 and Alizé aircrafts (to prevent any sightings by other aircrafts). Funnily enough, a Pakistani Naval officer had already booked a room in one of the hotels near the Mumbai harbor, and for some reasons, both the spy and the Indian navy did not know what the other was up to, almost till the war ended! After Pakistan declared a national emergency on November 23, 1971, three of the Missile boats were deployed at Okha to carry out patrols and gain experience. The entire Missile boat fleet was labelled as killer squadron – 25 (K-25) and was placed under Commander Babru Bhan Yadav (B. B. Yadav).
Due to their obvious weaknesses e.g. shorter radar range and a less than sufficient anti-aircraft system, a squadron made up exclusively of Missile boats was not enough to attack Karachi. Two anti-submarine Arnala class (Originally Soviet, “Petya” class) Corvettes (Frigates with a smaller size) – INS Kadmat and INS Katchal – were added to the squadron; as the Corvettes had better radar, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense systems, they were to provide cover to the Missile boats from an air or a submarine attack. The Corvettes were also intended to provide communication, control and identification of enemy targets (due to better radar systems). Due to unexplained reasons, INS Kadmat was replaced by INS Kiltan at the last minute.
|Corvette bio data|
|Weight (when fully loaded)||1140 tons|
|Maximum speed||30 knots (56 KMph)|
|Armament||4 76mm anti-aircraft guns4 RBU 6000 anti-submarine rocket launchers3533mm torpedo tubesDepth charges, mines|
Now that the squadron was decided, another worry was the lower range of Missile boats due to a smaller fuel tank (as well as a different fuel type than that of the Corvettes). The problem was solved by establishing special fuel depots at Okha and Diu (on Gujarat coast). And just to be safe, a fleet tanker ship INS Poshak (“पोषक”) was added to the squadron to be positioned halfway to Karachi, to refuel the Missile boats both before the final lap of the attack and after it.
|Individual command of vessels|
|INS Nipat||Lieutenant Commander Bahadur Nariman Kavina|
|INS Nirghat||Lieutenant Commander Inderjit Sharma|
|INS Veer||Lieutenant Commander Om Prakash Mehta|
|INS Kiltan||Commander K.P. Gopal Rao|
The entire squadron was placed under the command of Rear Admiral E C Kuruvilla – who was to be present on INS Kiltan to coordinate the operation along with Commander B. B. Yadav who was on INS Nipat. All details finalized, the squadron reached Okha to launch the operation – with INS Nirghat and INS Veer reaching on their own and INS Nipat towed by another warship INS Teer. The date (शुभ दिवस्) chosen for the attack: December 4th, 1971.
Any successful military attack on enemy soil has to involve neutralizing the air-attack capability of the enemy. In this case it was even more important, due to Missile boats not having adequate air defense systems. There were two airbases which would have served as springboards for Pakistani air attack – Masroor (مسرور, Karachi) and Badin. The request to bombard these two was promptly raised by Admiral Nanda, and agreed upon by General Sam Manekshaw who told a hesitant Air Marshal P. C. Lal: “असीं जंग करने जा रहे हैं … मोहब्बत नहीं! (We are going there for a war, not for making love!)”.
The proposal was executed swiftly. December 4th morning marked start of day long air strikes by Hunter planes taking off from Jamnagar airbase on Masroor and Badin, with the Badin radar station and warehouse getting destroyed. Pakistani navy, drunk with complacency (possibly due to the absence of INS Vikrant – the lone aircraft carrier – in the western fleet), thought these to be just another regular enemy airstrikes … but the plan on the Indian side was just heating up.
Afternoon, December 4th, 1971: Operation Trident kicked off. The squadron (4 Missile boats – INS Vidyut was added to patrol a few kilometers away from Karachi as a fully armed backup, 2 Corvettes, 1 Fleet Tanker) started its 500 kilometer long journey to Karachi from Okha. Due to shorter travel ranges, Missile boats were being towed till a certain distance to Karachi harbor. Complete radio silence was to be kept till the squadron reached the doorstep of Karachi naval base, as the success of the entire operation was dependent on the element of surprise. All internal communications of the Indian squadron might have been off, but all ears (inside the squadron as well as the western naval command) were constantly pressed on wireless to monitor Pakistani frequencies – with bated breath, just to keep up to date on whether Pakistanis had got a wind of what was coming to them. The squadron had formed an arrow-head formation, with INS Nipat leading the way, INS Nirghat 5 miles to its port (left side) and INS Veer on starboard (right side). Another advantage to the Indian squadron was the fluency of its crew in Russian – which was to be proven useful while communicating.
08:00 PM: The squadron was slowly sneaking up to Karachi at a speed of 24 Knots (approximately 44.5 KMph). Dusk had fallen by now and it was getting darker. There was a stroke of misfortune as well as a stroke of fortune for the squadron. The misfortune part had to do with the fact that it was a night of an almost full moon, making it frighteningly easy for the squadron to be spotted as six white stripes on the pristine blue Arabian sea by a Pakistani aircraft (as matter of fact a Pakistani patrol aircraft did indeed notice ‘unidentified ships traveling north-west’, but again, complacency got better of the Pakistani naval command).
09:00 PM: Few faraway targets had started appearing on radars of Corvettes (due to anomalous propagation – periodic but unique atmospheric conditions of Arabian sea between Gujarat coast and Karachi which allows electromagnetic waves to travel longer distances in a recognizable form), but were not attacked as they were not considered worthy of wasting missiles from a limited amount. The squadron simply changed course briefly to avoid them without getting noticed … and went ahead.
09:45 PM: Distance to Karachi was now 80 kilometers away. Everyone in the crew was tense and exited. The stroke fortune for the squadron had started to play its part. Pakistani navy had commanded all non-navy ships to stay out of the Karachi harbor at a range of minimum 112 kilometers between Dusk and Dawn. So any beacon identified on radars of the killer squadron could be safely predicted to be a Pakistani warship. Final checks on equipment in all vessels were performed – it had to work perfectly, or it had to be abandoned. The radars were constantly being monitored on all ships (INS Poshak stayed behind in Mangrol and INS Vidyut had stayed behind outside the Karachi harbor to act as a mobile refueling depot and as an armed backup respectively).
Loud, continuous roars reverberated on INS Nipat and other Missile boats and continued for some time: “हर हर महादेव!!! (Har Har Mahadev!!!)”.
10:00 PM: Radar in INS Nipat started beeping, showing two enemy targets. The moment had arrived. First target was 45 miles away to the north-west, and the second one was 42 miles away towards north-east. An excited commander B. B. Yadav quickly broke the radio silence and informed Rear Admiral Kuruvilla of what was about to happen. Operation Trident had now reached its most crucial lag. It was now or never…
Karachi harbor was now 35 kilometers away.
First target beeping on radar was now almost 27 kilometers away and had started moving towards the Missile boats, meaning it had noticed the Indian squadron. It was Pakistani destroyer PNS Khaibar – originally HMS Cadiz of the UK royal navy, acquired by Pakistan navy in 1956. It was the big fish, weighing 3290 tons when fully loaded, 345 feet long with breadth of 40 feet, and armed with 2-anti ship guns, 14-anti-aircraft bofors guns, 10-torpedo tubes and 1-mortar. INS Nirghat was instructed to take care of it with the help of INS Kiltan.
10:45 PM (PST): INS Nirghat moved swiftly, locking the target and launching its first Styx missile. Huge sound seared through the quiet night. The missile took off towards the sky in the shape of a bright light, and then zoomed down towards PNS Khaibar. Khaibar mistook the missile to be an aircraft diving in and started firing its Bofors anti-aircraft guns. Meanwhile crew in the Indian squadron listened to the sound intently, waiting for the blow – which came soon. The missile struck Khaibar on the starboard side below water level. The entire ship instantly lost propulsion, plunged into darkness and huge flames shot up due to explosion in the boiler room. Khaibar had started slumping towards the side of the explosion and sent an SOS to the naval headquarter: “Enemy aircraft attacked in position 020 FF 20.No 1 Boiler hit. Ship stopped.”
Clearly the Pakistanis had no clue of what hit them. All anti-aircraft guns located on Karachi harbor and Masroor airbase now started firing, in search of supposed Indian aircrafts.
10:49 PM (PST): INS Nipat launched its first missile, which struck Khaibar on the starboard side and proved to be a deathblow. The entire ship exploded, sending shockwaves across Karachi city. The sky was lit up in yellow and orange flames due to explosion of ammunition while Khaibar took its final journey towards depths of the Arabian Sea.
11:00 PM (PST): Meanwhile, after receiving the SOS, minesweeper PNS Muhafiz had changed directions to save whatever remained of Khaibar’s crew. Now it was the turn of INS Veer to fire its first missile, which struck Muhafiz squarely. The minesweeper exploded and disintegrated so quickly that it did not even get time to send an SOS. Almost all of its crew lost their lives; remains of Muhafiz took no more than 10-minutes to sink completely.
11:20 PM (PST): INS Nipat now engaging two contacts. An MV (Merchant Vessel) Venus Challenger and Destroyer PNS Shah Jahan – originally HMS Charity of the UK Royal Navy, acquired by Pakistan navy in 1958. MV Venus Challenger was completely darkened, due to it being a supply ship present inside the harbor. The ship was carrying US supplied ammunition from Saigon for the Pakistani army and air force. PNS Shah Jahan was another warship with almost the size of PNS Khaibar: Weight 2520 tons when fully loaded, length 363 feet with breadth of 35.75 feet and heavily armed with 6-anti-ship, 6-anti-aircraft guns, 2-torpedo tubes and 4-throwers of depth charges. Sadly, none of it was going to save the ship or any other warships. The second missile from INS Nipat struck MV Venus Challenger, blew up the ammunition and the ship sunk in less than 8-minutes, about 26 miles south of Karachi harbor. Most of the Pakistani crew on board was killed and the rest jumped into water to save their lives.
Third missile from INS Nipat struck PNS Shah Jahan, crippling it beyond repairs after INS Nirghat had struck it with its second missile. PNS Shah Jahan still did not sink due to partitioned structure in its underwater base – which prevented the base from filling up with water completely, but was rendered ineffective for the rest of the battle. INS Veer fired its second and third missiles to two separate targets: PNS Tipu Sultan and PNS Tughril, sinking both of them.
Watching its own predicament, Pakistani naval headquarters sent a message for help to Masroor airbase in Karachi, and got no reply. Reason: Indian air force was attacking the airbase, in coordination with the naval attack.
There were no more contacts left to engage away from the harbor. Threat of a retaliatory Pakistani air attack was looming large and anxiety had started to set in. The squadron was now ordered to assume anti-aircraft readiness, and all vessels were ordered to act individually and turn back to the pre-decided rendezvous point near INS Poshak for refueling and return journey. Two vessels did not return immediately. One of them was INS Kiltan, who got the message late due to a brief fade-out in communications.
The second vessel was Commander B. B. Yadav’s INS Nipat. Pakistani mischief at Dwarka still had to be avenged with interest, and Commander Yadav decided that it was time to make Pakistan aware of the reach of India’s long hands. Nipat continued in full steam towards the Karachi harbor, caring neither of the lack of surprise nor a possible air attack. It was time for a complete ‘Sarvanaash (सर्वनाश)’ of Karachi harbor, and Pakistan’s naval might. INS Nipat was now just 15 kilometers away from the Karachi harbor, and figures of crucial oil tanks and refineries started showing up on its radar. Nipat took aim, and launched two Styx missiles (missiles had inbuilt metal detectors, mistaking metal tanks with ships – a good misunderstanding though), second of which misfired. But the first missile struck the oil depot and refinery with a booming sound. A loud blast echoed across Karachi, along with flames as long as hundreds of feet – even visible to Pakistani citizens living near the Clifton beach. The ‘shah rag’ of Pakistani navy had indeed been broken, with an irreparable damage.
All missiles fired, a coded message was transmitted to the Indian naval headquarters at Mumbai: “Angaar”. Jubiliation and celebration swept through the Mumbai naval headquarters at the success of a truly audacious attack.
There was still some suspense left. The squadron had to now turn back, with a longer return journey towards Mangrol (not Okha, as Pakistani air force might be anticipating it to be the return destination) and later Mumbai. INS Nipat and INS Kiltan turned around sharply and were immediately followed by Pakistan’s Jaguar patrol boats. Radio silence was again had to be followed, strictly. Due to a sharp turn and late arrival, INS Kiltan was initially mistaken by INS Veer (already at a reduced speed due to machinery issues), who even got ready to fire the missile; before things were cleared via urgent communication. Veer, Nirghat, Vidyut, Kiltan and Katchal had now started to move back towards Mangrol, as fast as possible – even with a journey at such a speed they were going to take around 10-hours.
INS Nipat was left behind, and then experienced a back-breaking problem. One of the oil pipes had broken off and oil was getting dumped inside the engine room. One of the two running engines now had to be turned off, and this severely reduced the speed of the vessel to less than half of its original speed. Engineers in INS Nipat quickly got down to manually transferring spilled oil to the other fuel tank whose fuel pipe was still in good condition. The problem was, with such a reduced speed, it was impossible to reach Mangrol in time with the rest of the fleet – forget Mumbai.
Commander B. B. Yadav then did something wild and imaginative. He ordered INS Nipat to turn 90 degree eastwards, towards the Gulf of Aden! Logic behind this move was quite sound though; as Pakistani navy and air force would never have suspected searching for an Indian missile boat towards Aden or the Coast of Makran (Balochistan). INS Nipat turned, disappeared and lost communication with the group…
Rest of the squadron reached Mangrol to refuel for the last leg of their journey towards Mumbai. The much anxiety inducing air retaliation from Pakistan never came, as attacks by Indian air force had damaged it enough for it to take a whole day to be repaired and recovered. Everyone was looking around for INS Nipat, which was nowhere to be seen. After Pakistan’s announcement of its planes sinking one Indian ship, the misunderstanding spread to the Mumbai naval headquarters as well, with everyone assuming Nipat having been destroyed and Commander B. B. Yadav and his crew becoming martyrs. The misunderstanding even prompted the defense ministry to announce posthumous gallantry award for Commander Yadav.
To everyone’s relief, INS Nipat appeared on the horizon of Mangrol at around afternoon (from where it had to be dragged by INS Katchal towards Mumbai as its second engine too failed to start again), promoting shouts of wild cheers and joy among the fleet. News of Pakistan radio turned out to be hilariously misplaced as it turned out to be a Pakistani vessel which was mistakenly bombarded and sunk by the Pakistani aircraft – prompting derision among Indian naval fleet in Mumbai.
And thus, one of the most audacious naval operations undertaken after World War II came to an end, resulting in a never seen before attack on an enemy port by a fleet consisting entirely of Missile boats.
- Operation Trident firmly established India’s dominance of the Arabian sea during 1971 war, and was followed by Operation Python – another fierce attack on Karachi harbor 4-days later.
- Commander B. B. Yadav received Maha Vir Chakra, while lieutenant commanders of all vessels were awarded Vir Chakra.
- Admiral Sardarilal Nanda was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 1972 for his services to the Indian Navy. After retirement he took up an executive role for an arms trading firm headed by his son. Unfortunately, his later life got clouded by the involvement of his family in several high profile controversies. He died on May 11, 2009, and his funeral was given full military honors.
Yuddh ’71 – Harshal Publications,
Safari magazine issue-19 – Harshal Publications