NAVAL OPERATIONS DURING THE 1971 WAR
The Indo-Pak war of 1971 was a bloodshed event in the annals of Indian history several months prior to the commencement of hostilities, it was evident that a political solution to the problems of erstwhile East Pakistan was unlikely and that military confrontation was on the anvil. The political trends at the time acted as a catalyst that led to a high state of preparedness of the Indian Navy (IN) and eventually Pakistan’s pre-emptive offensive on 03 Dec 71 was a trigger for the Indo-Pak war. The IN conducted operations exceedingly well in both Eastern and Western fronts leaving Pakistan Navy (PN) operationally crippled for many years to come.
This paper aims to present the analysis of the naval operations based on the national archives on the history of Indo- Pak war of 1971.
NAVAL OPERATIONS IN THE WESTERN THEATRE
It was decided that in the event of armed conflict, victory on the Western front would have to be ensured by delivering quick and decisive blows at the very commencement of hostilities so as to achieve the desired effect of complete supremacy at sea.
Command and Control. Naval operations in the Arabian Sea were the responsibility of V Adm SNKohli, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western aval Command at Bombay (Mumbai) and R Adm VA Kamath, Flag OfficerCommanding, Southern Naval Area atCochin (Kochi). Pakistan Air Force carried out a pre-emptive attack on Indian airfields in the Western Sector on 03 Dec 71. Whilst, Indian Navy ships, were already racing to their deployment stations, “Seek and destroy all enemy warships” was the order received from the Chief of the Naval Staff, Adm SM Nanda, “The maritime link between the two wings of the enemy is o be sliced forthwith. Ensure that no repeat no supplies reach the Pakistani war machine from seawards”.
Comparison of Forces. Strengths of the Rival fleets in the West were fairly well matched, as shown in the table below:-
- Units IN– PN
- Submarines 2 3 Cruisers1 1 Destroyers/ 15 5 Frigates Auxiliaries/ small 28 34 vessels
- Total 46 43
From the comparison of forces allotted to the PN’s Western Wing and thosedeployed by Indian Western Naval Command, there was no decisive vantage o either side in terms of ‘materiel’. Victory would, therefore, go to the better side, ith higher morale, superior training, and the will to dare.
Pakistan Navy prepares for war The Pak forces were deployed extensively in the western theatre. Instances of Pak units regularly carrying out exercises at sea, asking of the pennant numbers of the minesweepers, patrol craft being camouflaged with yellow and grey paint were reported. By the time an emergency was declared in Pakistan on 23 Nov 71, the Pak Commander-in-Chief had assumed control of shipping and routing Pak merchant ships. On 24 Nov 71, the Pak authorities called up all reserved and all personnel on the verge of retirement were asked to continue service. All shipping was prohibited to approach or enter Karachi harbour after sunset and directed to remain 75 mm away till sunrise. On 25 Nov 71, all aircraft were prohibited from flying within nm of Karachi. These developments indicated that preparations were afoot for a full-scale naval operation by end Nov/early Dec 1971.
India Clears the Deck
The overall assessment of the PN strategy was to inflict as much damage as possible in a pre-emptive “coup de main” at the commencement of hostilities and then withdraw to Karachi where the PAF and the PN’s submarine arm would strike hard if Indian Navy units counter-attacked their maritime citadel. Based on this threat perception, the primary task assigned to Indian Navy units was the destruction of PN forces by taking offensive measures from the very outset. Blockade and contraband control were to be instituted when so ordered by higher authorities. All ports and harbours were to be made secure against pre-emptive underwater attacks and shore targets, especially Saurashtra.
The Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western NavalCommand, was to assume worldwide control of all Indian merchant shipping. In order to forestall a pre-emptive underwater attack on Bombay, Goa and Cochin, a pattern was evolved for the units of the Western Fleet to sail out whenever the situation deteriorated, thus depriving the midget submarines of their principal targets at these places. In order to forestall a sneak raid on targets on the Saurashtra Coast, missile boats designed by the Soviet Navy for the defensive role were improvised for conducting offensive role.
In order to pre-empt a possible attempt by the PN forces to execute asurprise attack t the commencement of hostilities, it was planned to launch aseries of strikes against Karachi and the Makran Coast until the PN units wereforced either to react and get destroyed at sea, or to retire into Karachi.
The most important aspect of trade warfare was the capture of enemy merchant ships and denial of the use of sea lanes to the enemy. It was assessed that the Pak authorities would re-route their east-bound traffic along the Makran coast and seek the cover of the international shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf to Sri Lanka, while their west-bound traffic would hug the African and Arabian coasts. It was also appreciated that soon after the commencement of hostilities; Pakistan would divert its ships to neutral ports for the duration of the war. It was, therefore, decided to capture Pak merchantmen and ships carrying contraband initially, while the ports were being targeted.
Two other aspects of the operations had to be played off the cuff. The first one was the presence of a fairly large number of US, British and Iranian warships, including two aircraft carriers, in the north Arabian Sea for CENTO exercises being held from the last week of Nov 1971 till the first week of Dec 1971. The second aspect was the possibility of hitting innocent neutral merchant ships during missile attacks.
The War Begins
On 02 Dec 71, the Western Fleet sailed to n area 200 to 300 nm off Karachi, so that if and when hostilities commenced, it would be well placed to start offensive operations and intercept enemy merchant ships as also to avoid preemptive attacks by midget submarines close to the Indian coast. Indian Navy ships Katchall, Vidyut and Nirghat, were at Okha to forestall any hit-and-run raids on the Saurashtra coast. IN ships Kiltan, Nipat and Veerwere sailed to conjoin Saurashtra Force. INS Cauvery was at Goa. The two submarines, Karanj and Kursura were on operational patrol in their designated areas. The cruiser, Mysore, the tanker Deepak, and two ships towing the two missile boats formed the six-ship main body, while the remaining ships provided the anti-submarine screen.
IAF was to provide maritime reconnaissance for the Fleet when required. Seeking and Alouette helicopters were to augment anti-submarine patrol off Bombay for which shore-based antisubmarine Alize aircraft were also available.
As regards the submarine threat, it was known that the only submarine capable of operating in the Bay of Bengal was the Tench class, Ghazi. The three Daphne class submarines, with their limitations in endurance and logistic facilities, would, therefore, be confined to the Arabian Sea and were known to have been deployed in the Western Fleet’s area of operations. Despite the Daphnes, being among the most modern conventional submarines in the world at that time and posing a serious threat, Indian Navy decided that the risk was well worth taking. The missile would be its main surface weapon as it would enable the task force to rout the enemy in the high seas or off his harbour with little risk of damage to its bigger ships. Guns, which had been the main armament of warships so far, would only play a supporting role in this war.
Operation Trident – First Attack on Karachi
Op Trident, the missile attack on Karachi on the night of 04/ 05 Dec71, was an exploit to be recorded in the annals of Indian Navy history in letters of gold. The missile boats boldly attacked a heavily defended enemy naval base after a long passage through submarine-infested waters covered by enemy’s aerial reconnaissance and strike capability. The very novelty of the concept took the PN authorities by complete surprise, which resulted in losing morale leading them to abort launching offensive naval operations. The PN fleet was bottled up inside Karachi harbour throughout the period of the war.
Since the danger from the PAF was much more serious in daylight than during the dark hours, the attacking IN units were planned to remain outside the airstrike range of Karachi up to dusk during the approach and, after the attack, the force was to withdraw at high speed so as to be again outside the strike range by dawn. The PAF’s freedom of action was curtailed with IAF striking Karachi airfields both at dusk and dawn while the Indian Navy Fleet conducted suitable manoeuvres to disrupt effective planning.
The Op Trident task group comprised two Petya class frigates, Kiltan and Katchall, and three missile boats, Indian Navy ships Veer, Nirghat and Nipat. This task remained outside the PAF air strike range of 150 nm until nightfall on 03 Dec 71. The measures adopted by them proved completely successful, and at sunset of 04 Dec 71, enemy reconnaissance aircraft had still not detected the force.
After setting ablaze many targets off Karachi harbour, the Force Commander signalled the units to withdraw southwards at high speed. Although a counter strike on the task group by the PAF was feasible, PAF made no attempt fearing a threat from the IAF which was providing air cover to the task force. The Task Force returned home without sustaining any loss or damage. It was ascertained later that the ships sunk by the missile attack were the destroyer, Khaibar, a coastal minesweeper and a Liberian merchant ship, SS Venus Challenger.
On the night of 05/ 06 Dec 71, PN ships conducting rescue operations, detected some Indian missile boats and opened fire and again asked for emergency air support. On the morning of 06 Dec, the PAF launched an F-86 Sabre to investigate reports of ships at sea. This aircraft mistook a PN patrol craft outside Karachi harbour to be an Indian missile boat and sank it.
The Main Fleet – Second Attack on Karachi
On 05 Dec, the Fleet of eight ships had regrouped, refuelled and was proceeding towards Karachi, with the remaining missile boats as the spearhead. The Fleet was then split into three forces and deployed for simultaneous strikes on Karachi and the Makran Coast and interception of merchant ships, to be carried out on the night of 06/07 Dec. The Karachi strike force comprised two frigates, Trishul and Talwar, one Petya class frigate, Kadmatt, and one missile boat, Vinash. These were all fast ships capable of sustained speeds of 25 to 30 km and had an effective anti-aircraft defence. The tanker, Deepak, and two escorts were deployed 300 nm off Karachi for the interception of merchant shipping and the cruiser, Mysore, was to
carry out a strike on the Makran Coast as a diversionary measure.
It was then appreciated that the Pak strike force of six aircraft were heading towards the Saurashtra group of ships. The compromise in position ensured heavy surveillance over Saurashtra coast. It was appreciated that as Op Trident having already taken place on 04 Dec, further attacks on Karachi from the south or southeast were not likely to achieve any surprise. It was therefore decided to launch the next attack from the extreme south-west and the Fleet was moved to wait for an opportune moment to carry out the attack. However, as the morale of PN fleet was shattered during Op Trident, the Indian Navy fleet encountered only a few merchant ships anchored off the Hawkes Bay. Further, mechanised dhows were employed as early warning scouts to report the detection of Indian Navy fleet units proceeding to launch an attack on Karachi harbour. These dhows were then targeted and destroyed. By zero hour, the attack on Karachi went off as per plan. When the Indian Navy ships retired from the area, the flames were visual even up to a distance of 60 nautical miles. The IAF further bombed and strafed Karachi harbour installations on the following morning and reported that the conflagration was the Kiamari oil installation.
The destruction of the Kiamari oil installations considerably reduced Pakistan’s fuel reserves and its capacity to continue the war on land, sea or in the air. It was later learnt that, while the fourth missile destroyed the Kiamari oil installations, the first two hit merchant’s hips and the third hit the PN tanker Dacca, which had been anchored close to the merchant ships. PNSDacca was later dry-docked for a considerable period for the repair of the damage suffered. In another instance, the akran group unexpectedly encountered a Pakistani merchant ship Madhumati; south of Jiwani masquerading as a Philippine vessel. The ship was captured, taken as a prize and later brought to Bombay. Another dhow named Daikeneti was carrying contraband in the form of gold heading for Karachi that was not entered in the manifest. Soon after the war, the Government of India returned the gold to the ruler of Dubai as a gesture of goodwill, thus bringing to a grand finale the ‘golden’ episode of the Western Fleet operations.
A unique phenomenon was witnessed after the second missile attack on Karachi In the night of 08/09 Dec 71. Neutral ships in Karachi started seeking the permission of the Government of India in Delhi for “grace and favour” to leave Karachi. By 10 Dec 71, all Pakistani merchant ships had put into the nearest neutral harbours. All neutral ships gave Karachi a very wide berth. The Freedom of the seas was guaranteed to Indian shipping that went about their business without fear and when the war ended India had not lost one single merchant ship.
The Western Fleet of the Indian Navy dominated the whole of the Arabian Sea. What was achieved by the Western Fleet with the limited resources at its command was a true projection of Admiral Mahan’s concept of sea power.
Operation Falcon against Pak Submarines
An analysis of signal intercepts from the sea area North West of Bombay before and immediately following the commencement of hostilities confirmed the deployment of Pak submarines flanking the Indian Navy’ s approaches to the Saurashtra coast. Anti-submarine frigates Khukri and Kirpan were deployed to hunt down and destroy the Pak submarines and provide flank anti-submarine support to the drawing Trident force.
Maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Seakinganti- submarine helicopters deployed in support of these ships were too few to provide continuous air cover. On the night of 09/10 Dec 71, INS Khukri has torpedoed 35 nm South West of Diu Head. Three torpedoes hit the ship in quick succession, and the ship sank within minutes, taking down with her 18 officers and 176 men, including the Commanding Officer, Capt Mahendra Nath Mullah. Kirpan, which was in the company, fired anti-submarine mortars as torpedo countermeasure, and thus avoided being struck by them.
On receiving a flash message on the sinking of the Khukri, the Western Naval Command embarked Op Falcon to seek and destroy the Pak submarine. All available ships were sailed to rescue the survivors and hunt for the Pak submarine.
Katch all and Kuthar conjoined Kirpanwhile Alize aircraft and Seeking helicopters were deployed off Saurashtra Coast. The search for the submarine was unsuccessful. However, 67 survivors that included 06 officers and 61 sailors were
rescued. The search for the Pak submarine was later abandoned on 13 Dec 71. Meanwhile, on 10 Dec 71, an Alize aircraft which was on a tactical mission off Jakhau on the West Coast, was lost. This was the only aircraft lost by the Indian Navy’s air
arm during the entire course of the war.
Naval Control of Shipping
In exercising naval control of shipping, the Western Naval Command was charged with the task of controlling about 250 Indian merchant ships and numerous sailing vessels in order to ensure their safety during the operations. Immediately before the commencement of hostilities, naval control of shipping was enforced and traffic to the Gujarat ports and the Persian Gulf was suspended. When hostilities commenced, there were 38 Indian merchant ships in the Arabian Sea, six ships in Gujarat ports and 92 ships in other Indian ports on the West Coast.
Indian ships on the passage of the Indian and Sri Lanka coasts were instructed to proceed to the nearest Indian major port. Ships proceeding to foreign ports were permitted to continue their voyage. Homeward bound ships were given routing instructions to avoid threatened areas. Ships of all countries were prohibited from approaching within 40 nm of all Indian major ports during the hours of darkness. The control of ships outside the area of influence of the Command was to be exercised through Indian missions and trade representatives abroad.
NAVAL OPERATIONS IN THE EASTERN THEATRE
The Theatre. Prior to the eruption of the crisis in East Pakistan, Indian Navy strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan saw the Arabian Sea as the main theatre of operations. However, the momentous events of spring and summer of 1971 decisively shifted the geopolitical focus to the east. The consequent build-up and sustenance of the Pak
Army in East Pakistan, the cutting edge and chief instrument of policy, had to a
large extent, been carried out by the sea. Hence the sea lanes between the two wings of the country constituted its jugular, both for the provision of logistics support and for the evacuation of troops in the event of defeat
Comparison of Forces
The Eastern Fleet was commanded by R Adm SH Sarma and operated under the overall command of V Adm N Krishnan, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command. Over all, the aircraft carrier remained central to the naval operations planned along with other naval assets.
Comparison of Forces. Strengths of the rival fleets in the East were as shown in the table below:-
- Units IN / PN
- Carrier 1 / Nil
- Submarines 1/ 1
- Cruisers 1 /Nil
- Destroyers/ 4/Nil
- small vessels
- Total 14 19
The Eastern fleet deployed a blue water force while the Pak fleet was heavily eliant on the offensive role of submarines for seeking and destroying Indian ships and sabotaging Indian ports and harbours. PN surface ships had little sea going capabilities and were limited to defensive role safeguarding East Pakistan’s ports and harbours.
Sinking of Ghazi.
The night of 03/04 Dec 71, PNS Ghazi, the only Pak submarine operating in the Bay of Bengal, with the mission of sinking INS Vikrant and other shipping near the approaches to Visakhapatnam, was sent to her doom, thus virtually eliminating the underwater threat. Ghazi had sailed from Karachi on 14 Nov 71 to arrive off Visakhapatnam and lay in wait for INS Vikrant and other ships to come out of the harbour. However, the deception tactically employed by the Indian Navy worked after having trapped PN to believe that Vikrant was operating off Visakhapatnam while actually it was deployed hundreds of miles away. This was done by other ships masquerading as the carrier and making signals to various authorities and requisitioning berths for the carrier and indenting stores and other supplies at Madras (Chennai) and Vishakhapatnam.
The Battle Commences.
Vikrant, accompanied by Kamorta, Brahmaputra and Beas sailed from Port Cornwallis on 2 Dec 71. The fleet was informed of Pak’s pre-emptive strike on some Indian airfields and the consequent declaration of hostilities. The Fleet was ordered to carry out a strike on Cox’s Bazar on 04 Dec 71 and thereafter take up patrol positions to intercept Pak merchant ships. The operational mission was to ensure that the naval bases in East Pakistan were placed out of action and that no materiel help reached the enemy from the sea and nothing left the enemy ports. To achieve the task, the Fleet had to destroy Pak gunboats and warships, conducted boarding and search of all merchant ships for contraband, and preventing movement of troop convoys along the coast. The aircraft carrier, two anti-aircraft frigates and one anti-submarine vessel were involved in patrolling a frontage of about 150 nm.
Eight Seahawks, armed with guns and rockets, were launched from INS Vikrant operating 85 nm from the target on 04 Dec 71 for carrying out an attack on the Cox’s Bazar airfield. Several airfield installations, air traffic control tower, powerhouse transformers, communication installations and oil dumps were set on fire, damaged or destroyed and a number of vehicles on the runway strafed. On completion of the attack, the carrier proceeded towards Chittagong for mounting a strike on the heavily fortified airfield, which had already been attacked by IAF aircraft earlier in the day. Despite facing stiff resistance from medium and heavy anti-aircraft guns, the White Tigers destroyed or damaged a number of targets such as the air traffic control tower, hangars, airfield installations and damaged merchant ship. Two gunboats were attacked with rockets, set on fire and presumably sunk, and six merchant ships at anchor or underway were strafed and immobilised.
On sighting a submarine periscope Enroute, INS Beas and an Alize aircraft attacked the submarine. It was claimed that the submarine surfaced to transmit a Distress signal and dived thereafter. A large oil patch was later found in this area but no further sonar or visual contact was obtained despite an intensive search.
By 07 Dec 71, the Eastern Fleet was augmented with Indian Navy ships Kavaratti, Gharial, uldar, Desh Deep, Magar, and Rajput. A strike by ten Seahawks and two Alizes was carried out on the Pussur river entrance, Mongla, Chalna and Khulna on 06 Dec 71 that neutralised the merchant ship Ondarda entering the Pussur River. During a second airstrike later in the day, three Seahawks proceeded to Dohazari and Hathazari and attacked all opportune targets. Subsequent strike by Seahawks ensured the destruction of army barracks and workshops around the Chittagong naval dockyard, silenced Patanga coast battery and damaged merchant ships, Mini Labor and Mini Tide. The night operations by Alize aircraft caused considerable damage to a number of runways and airfield installations in East Pakistan. During the day, intelligence from the Eastern Naval Command indicated that the Pakistani forces in Mongla, Chalna and Khulna had realised that these ports had become untenable and they were being evacuated to Barisal.
On 08 Dec 71, the Indian Fleet was directed to concentrate on Barisal as intelligence indicated that a large concentration of vessels was taking place between Narayanganj and Barisal and that the enemy was preparing to make a desperate bid to break out to sea, most likely through the Meghna river. Messages from Mukti Bahini commandos in the Chittagong Sector indicated that Pak merchant ships at Chalna were changing their names, funnel markings and flags to foreign ones in preparation for escaping into the Bay of Bengal. INS Ships Rajput, Brahmaputra, Guldar and Gharial were directed to intercept and seize all craft, using force if necessary. Aerial Reconnaissance was carried out by Seahawks and Alize aircraft during the day over Barisal, Bakharganj andPatuakhali. While no craft or army concentration was sighted at the first two places, three barges and an army camp were destroyed at Patuakhali. The Alize aircraft attacked two tankers off Hatia
Island at 1400 h. while one gunboat sighted in Meghna river escaped under cover f gunfire.
The Eastern Fleet had to concentrate on preventing the escape of a mysterious Pak convoy known as RK 623, and foiling the suspected mission of the US Seventh Fleet, which appeared on the scene simultaneously. This required neutralising of Chittagong harbour and airfields, besides detecting and stopping the convoy RK 623.
On 12 Dec 71, the air operations mounted by INS Vikrant resulted in a virtual blitzkrieg on Chittagong and on all the possible escape routes of the enemy. A total of 28 sorties by Seahawks armed with 500-lb bombs and rocket projectiles were mounted during the day. Indian Navy ships Brahmaputra and Beas were tasked to carry out surface bombardment of Cox’s Bazar and destroy the runway, control tower and hangars at its airfield. At the end of the day’s operations, Chittagong airfield and harbour were in shambles. The bombardment also had a great psychological impact and boosted the orale of the local Mukti Bahini personnel.
On completion of the assigned tasks and having crippled PN forces, the ships were detached to enter harbours and conduct replenishment of stores for further deployment. Even though there were no air operations upon detaching INS Vikrant, the tempo of operations continued until the surrender by the Pak forces on 16 Dec 71.
Operation Force Alfa – Naval Commando Operations
A special commando operation was teamed comprising Panvel and three other merchant vessels, Chitrangada, Padma and Palash. The operation was jointly undertaken by personnel of the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini. Padma and Palash had been fitted with two 40 mm anti-aircraft guns each. Two ships, identified as Pak merchantmen Anwar Baksh and Baqir, were captured by Padma and Palashon 08 Dec 71. Later, Panvel, Padroa and Palash proceeded to Khulna while MV Chitrangada stayed at Mongla for salvage operations. Headquarters Eastern Command had informed the air force authorities that the recognition signal displayed by the vessels of the task force would be a large yellow flag draped across the top of the bridge. The task force reached Mongla and found that its mission of destroying ships in harbour and shore installations had already been accomplished by the IAF and the Mukti Bahini. The team, therefore, decided to proceed to Khulna, and informed Headquarters Eastern Command accordingly. The information, however, did not reach the IAF in time, resulting in the vessels at Khulna being taken for PN units and attacked despite the display of the yellow flag.
Contraband Control and Blockade.
On 04 Dec 71, a blockade of the coast of ast Pakistan was declared and a Contraband control was instituted immediately. The
Contraband controlled to the seizure of 13 ships between 04 to 07 Dec 71 before the blockade was lifted by the Naval Headquarters.
The amphibious landing operations off Cox’s Bazar was planned to cut off the possible escape routes of Pak personnel to Burma on 14/15 Dec 71. The planning included transporting the troops along with arms, ammunition, stores, vehicles, etc., to the designated area on board a merchant ship from Calcutta (Kolkata), transfer them to landing ships and craft of the Indian Navy, and then land them at a suitable site. Indian Navy ships Brahmaputra, Beas and Rajput formed the support force while Magar was used for transporting fuel and stores.
Indian Navy ships Gharial and Guldar were the landing ships while Vishva Vijay; the merchant ship was requisitioned for carrying one Army brigade and one company of the Naval Garrison from Calcutta,
to be landed at Raju Creek of Cox’s Bazar. After many unsuccessful beaching attempts by Gharial and Guldar due to non-conducive beach conditions, heavy swell, a decision was taken to land troops in boats. By late evening on the same day, the platoons reached Cox’s Bazar and observed that Mukti Bahini forces had assumed command. The landing operation was confined to daylight hours only and at appropriate states of tide. Insufficient data on the landing sites and unexpected sea conditions in the area had rendered landing troops and handling boats extremely difficult and hazardous. About 1200 troops with store, arms, ammunition and other equipment were landed ashore. As all planning had been done off the map, actual survey of the beach was carried out on arrival. The episode illustrated the overriding necessity for integrated training and planning. Amphibious operation in modern warfare is too complicated a business to be left to hasty improvisations.
Al photographs Courtesy: PRO Navy. Capt Varghese Mathew is a serving naval Officer, presently serving in Delhi. An alumnus of National Defence Academy, hadakwasla, his areas of study include developments in IOR and West Asia.