“Well old boy, this happens in war. I am sorry your ships have been sunk”
– C-in-C (PAF) to C-in-C (PN)
The glorious feats of the Indian Navy’s Missile boats are well known and widely published. This article is a compilation of the Indian onslaught and some not very well-known aspects of Operations Trident, Grand Slam and Python.
On 23 November 1971, an IN task force consisting of three Osa-I class missile boats was assigned to attack Karachi harbour, one to remain on patrol off Dwarka to provide cover for the task force in the withdrawal phase and two Petyas to provide communication and control and give indication of suitable targets with their superior radar as well as possible ASW cover. Indian airfields were attacked on the evening of 03 December 1971. The missile boats retaliated on the night of 04 December 1971 coordinated with simultaneous aerial bombardment from the IAF.
The Missile Boats proceeded from Okha in an arrowhead formation on a northerly course at 28 knots. When about 70 miles South of Karachi, Pakistani destroyer Khaibar was detected 45 nm North-west of the formation and was engaged by Nirghat with two P15 Surface to Surface missiles (SSM). Khaibar observed a ‘bright light’ approaching her from her starboard beam and sounded action stations and engaged the target with her Bofors guns, mistaking it to be an aircraft. The missiles struck Khaibar on the starboard side and exploded below the aft galley in the Electrician’s mess and No.2 boiler room between 2245 and 2249 hr, Pakistan time. Khaibar sent out an emergency transmission which read “Enemy aircraft attacked in position 020 FF 20. No 1 Boiler hit. Ship stopped.” which meant that the Pakistan Navy did not even know what hit them. On the bridge of the Nipat, K-25 watched in anticipation as the radar contact on his screen slowly diminished and suddenly disappeared.
Nipat then engaged two more contacts, Merchant vessel Venus Challenger and the destroyer PNS Shahjahan with a missile each at about 2300 hrs (IST). The former broke into two and sank in less than 8 minutes, about 26 miles South of Karachi. The second missile struck the Pakistani destroyer Shahjahan crippling it beyond repair.
The supporting Petyas were able to intercept a message ordering the Shahjahan to assist Khaibar but the Shahjahan replied that she could not do so due to some problems!
The Killers were about 32 miles away and Karachi port was clearly painting on Radar. Veer fired a P15 Surface to Surface Missile (SSM) at Muhafiz at 2305 (Pakistan Time) which instantaneously disintegrated the vessel. At this stage, several anti aircraft tracer shells fired by Karachi’s port defences gave an appearance of aircraft in air. While the other missile boats were directed to R/V Poshak for refueling, Nipat continued towards Karachi and at 14 miles from the harbour fired two missiles. The first missile scored a direct hit on one of the giant Keamari oil tanks, one minute before midnight, spreading massive lethal flames in all directions, which spread to the other tanks. A huge explosion shot up over the horizon. The second missile misfired and ditched. The IAF had also been attacking Karachi since 0800 hr in spaced intervals. At around 2200 hr, IAF Canberras commenced bombing Drigh Road near Karachi as well as fuel installations and oil tanks.
It later emerged that the attention of the authorities ashore at Karachi was distracted by the threat of an aerial attack so much so that all warnings given by the tracker radar installed at PNS Qasim near Manora, were largely ignored. Maritime Headquarters at Karachi directed the gunboat Sadaqat to look for Khaibar’s survivors. It was nearly midnight of 04 December 1971 when Sadaqat steered towards the glow over the horizon and came upon the survivors of Muhafiz and only then was it established that the Muhafiz had been destroyed. They returned to the harbour on 05 December 1791 without locating Khaibar’s survivors. Finally a life raft containing some survivors was finally located at 1555 hr and enroute to the harbour, four more survivors were picked up.
When the Pakistan Navy sought PAF assistance to neutralize retreating Indian Ships, no air strike was made available. It is learned that the C-in-C of the Pakistani Navy rang up the C-in-C PAF at 0400 hr and woke him up. After all sorts of begging and pleading, the answer he obtained was “Well old boy, this happens in war. I am sorry your ships have been sunk. We shall try to do something in the future ! ” On the morning of 05 December 1971, an assorted bunch of aircraft including Cessnas, Aero club Austers, Dakotas, Fokkers, Twin Otters with radar and even a light plant protection aircraft were flown by civilian pilots with naval liaison officers. Following a false alarm of missile boat activity West of Cape Monze a PAF sortie straffed PNS Zulfiqar. After this disastrous ‘friendly’ attack, it was decided to move the balance of the ships of the Pakistani fleet further inshore into the protected harbour.
The Second Attack – Op Python
The first successful attack resulted in intense surveillance to detect Indian naval ships. Not to be deterred by this stepped up surveillance, the FOC-in-C West ordered FOCWF to execute “Operation Python”, the second missile attack on Karachi on the night of 7/8 December from West-South-West, if feasible.
The missile boat Vinash escorted by Talwar and Trishul set course for Karachi at high speed. Trishul’s Electronic Surveillance Equipment reported that the Karachi Radar had locked on to the group. At 2315 hr IST, around 12 miles off Karachi, Vinash was ordered by FOCWF to fire all her four missiles on opportune targets. Vinash fired her missiles, three on ships and the fourth on the coastal target off Keamari oil fields. Nearly six minutes after the first missile blew up a Keamari oil tank, a tremendous barrage of gun fire was let loose by Karachi’s Anti-aircraft guns. This gunfire sank an unfortunate Greek ship – Zoë. An IAF attack on Drigh road and Masroor airbase had stranded Pakistani bombers from taking off with a culvert leading to the runway destroyed.
Despite the Pakistan Fleet recall to harbour, Fleet Tanker, PNS Dacca was at Manora anchorage due to tidal conditions. Despite employing its antiair guns she succumbed to Vinash’s onslaught. Two other casualties were the British vessel – Harmattan and the Panamanian vessel -Gulfstar. PNS Dacca also had witnessed the landward missile attack first hand but once again, mistook it for an air attack and search lights were switched on to locate the aircraft.