FROM THE BOOK WARRING NUCLEAR NAVIES
The Song of the Missile Boats, 1971 by Author.
“Now take courage my lads, ’tis to Karachi we steer
To add something more to this wonderful 1971 year,
’Tis to honour I call you, as free Indians, not slaves
For who are so free as the sons of Bharat’s waves.
Come, cheer up my lads, ’tis to Karachi we steer
The prize clearer than all, to the Indian’s dear,
To honour your country, and your Navy,
Be always ready sailorman, and stand steady.
Come load up my lads, ’tis to targets we steer
Missiles we’ll fire, build on the crest of none we fear,
Again and again let’s repair to Karachi my hands,
And yet retire to Mother India, our beloved land”.
Midnight 3rd Dec 1971 war was declared and CNS Nanda was expecrting the Fleet with one missile boat in tow to strike KARACHI. On 4th Dec morning a disappointed CNS Nanda appreciating the Western Fleet had turned away on sighting a civil plane towards Makran coasr with radio silence reviewed plans and ordered Op Trident to C-in-C Vadm SN Kohli.
The three high points of the 1971 ‘war’ was the Navy’s landmark missile attack on Karachi by the Osa class missile boats on the night of 4th December in Op Trident and 8th December in Op Python. On 4TH Dec morning 4 IAF Type 56-A Hunters of the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) under Wing Cdr Don Conquest from Jamnagar attacked the Kemari oil tanks in the ‘opening bell’ of the war.
The previous evening when war broke out, the Hunters’ OCU experienced pilots had no task, but Conquest aware the Navy wanted Karachi attacked, requested permission to set the Kemari oil tanks on fire. The four Hunters’ larger drop tanks allowed them 5 minutes on task flying a high-low-high mission. The luck and boldness that favoured Don Conquest that first fateful day, also ensured the Navy’s Killer Boats sank ships off Karachi on 4 and 8 December nights and on 8 again hit the Kemari oil tanks, just after fires were doused.
The low silhouette of the boats ensured radars were unable to locate them till quite close. This ensured Pakistan’s Drig Road and other American supplied radars at Badin did not detect them operating 30 miles from the Karachi coast, and for quite some time the Pakistan Navy with headquarters at Karachi under Admiral Muzaffar Hasan assumed it was an air attack as Karachi had witnessed on 4th morning. Hasan was retired on 22 December 1971.
“Pakistan initiated the 1971 war on 3 December. On the 4th morning, a chance IAF Hunter attack set Kemari oil tanks on fire, across the harbour from the Pakistan Naval Academy PNS Rahbar, where the Naval Band played on at the Passing Out Parade. The young officers were enthused to join the war and serve Pakistan, the ‘Land of the Pure’.” – From the book “25 Missile Boat Squadron”.
The Indian Navy’s stars of the 1971 war were the recently acquired Osa missile boats which offered minimum radar targets, had speeds over 30 knots with 4 SS-N-2 (P-15) Styx missiles with 40km range flying at 9 mach, fitted with ingenious towing necklaces. With months of arduous work-ups and practice missile firings in Vladivostok’s harsh climate, the crews exhibited professionalism and camaraderie to the Soviet Navy. Captains and ships’ companies from the 25th Missile Squadron and technical personnel prepared the volatile liquid fuel Styx oxidizer rocket engines meticulously to sink Pakistani targets off Karachi over 30 km away by November. The boats powerful I band Rangout radars in high power mode performed brilliantly to track targets for the kill in Op Trident on 4 and in Op Python on 8 December nights.
IAF Hunters’ Serependitious Attack on Karachi
By sheer happenstance and luck which favours the brave, four
IAF Hunter aircraft of the IAF’s Operational Conversion Unit (OCU)
carried out a daring mission early on 4 December 1971 by setting
Karachi’s Kemari oil tanks ablaze, though credit was inadvertently
claimed by the Indian Navy for many years.
At dusk on 3 December, the Pakistan Air Force struck seven IAF airfields. The IAF could respond only next morning, not having night fighting capabilities.
At midnight Mrs. Indira Gandhi broadcasted, “The war on Bangladesh has become war on India. We have no option but to put our country on war footing.”
During the planning, CNS Nanda had asked Air Chief Lal for a strike on Karachi, but Air HQ staff, unaware how crucial it was for the Navy fighting its first war, opined that Karachi was out of range for the Hunters, and only after the Badin (Pakistan had set up dummy radars too) and Drig Road American supplied radars were neutralized by the MiG-21s from Jamnagar, was a mission to Karachi feasible. The Navy got low priority.
Yet, in the late hours of 3 December, when the Jamnagar air base was pitch dark and wives re-located to the city, the OCU head, Wing Commander Don Conquest learnt they, the ‘Top Guns’, had no assigned role for the morning. Conquest approached his OC, the legendary Air Commodore Pete Wilson, and told him that his boys were now capable of a strike on Karachi, as they had
recently inducted Hunters Type 56A and 235 gallon drop tanks, “What will our wives and children who were shunted from the base’s Bhangi Barracks to Jamnagar town say? That we stayed on ground?”
Pete Wilson, busy readying MiG-21s to hit Badin and Drig Road
at first light, let Conquest plan his mission. Air HQ Ops Room cleared it with, “ Do what you want. We are too busy here”. Early on the 4th morning, four OCU “Top Guns” took off for “target Karachi” with road maps in a formation take off. The Hunters could not carry rockets. Two 235 gallon drop tanks were slung on the pods, to enable a high-low-high sortie with five minutes over
target, with 20mm cannons. Strike leader Conquest (now in Australia), Sqn Ldr (later Gp Capt) S.N. Medhekar his winger in Pune, Flt Lt. (later AVM) P.K. Mukherjee in Kolkata and Flt Lt. (later Wing Cdr) S.K. Gupta recall that mission.
Don Conquest recounts, “As per SOP (standard operating procedure) we dipped our noses off Karachi and fired a few rounds into the sea to test our guns. Mukherjee’s guns had jammed, so three pressed on at 500 ft along the coast. As we neared the city, the large oil tanks loomed out of the skyline, their silver paint shining in the rising sun. We made two runs without difficulty and after the first, there were huge balls of fire and volumes of smoke coming out of the storage. The smoke haze made flying dangerous; we
aborted the other runs and flew back. Some ships opened ack ack fire.” Before Conquest could file reports, he was ordered to fly his OCU to Jaisalmer. Indian Army tanks were under siege.
Air HQ was not made aware of the damage caused at Karachi till much
Later as IAF declares KILL after analyzing the films.. This is common in the “fog of war”, so well described by Churchill in his Nobel Prize Volumes on the Second World War. The sight of balls of fire seen from the Naval Academy Karachi close by is still etched in the memory of the Pakistani, UAE and Saudi officers who took part in a parade on that fateful morning.
RADM Khalid Wasay recalls, “I was a lieutenant at the Navac. On 4 December, we were to hold a Passing out Parade and at about 0830 (PST) three aircraft appeared overhead and the next thing we heard was explosions. Later smoke billowed from the oil tanks.
Four days later, when we had doused the fires the tanks were hit
again.” Baluch Engineer Cdr (late) Iftikar Ahmed [known to the
author], recalled how the IAF planes flew over the Naval Dockyard
at Karachi. He knelt and thanked ‘Allah’ that they did not attack the
Daphne submarine he was supervising to send to sea.
Rear Admiral K.M. Alam, Captain of the Pakistan Naval Academy, in Rear Admiral Zahir Shah’s book, says: “When the war with India spread to West Pakistan on 4 December, an air attack on Karachi was expected. But that was the very morning the Passing out Parade was scheduled in PNS Rahbar. Commander Riaz, my XO and I, both had our fingers crossed. The sirens started wailing and an air raid followed. The ack ack guns opened up,
including those around the Academy. During the attack one of the oil tanks in nearby Kemari was hit and burst into flames with a big whoosh! The Academy shook, some windowpanes were smashed.
Everyone wondered how there could be a parade. Rear Admiral Rashid Ahmad, called to say he would take the salute. I assembled the cadets and ordered that even if Manora came under attack, they were to carry out the drill. There were Saudi and Gulf naval cadets. Avoiding the conflagration at Kemari — and the ceremonial boat ride — Admiral Rashid took the circuitous road to Manora. The air raid warning was on, when he arrived. With a look at the empty sky, and prayers in our hearts, the parade began. The country
was in the midst of a war; oil tanks across the harbour were burning fiercely, but the band played on.”
Why did the IAF not make much of this amazing achievement right then? The simple answer is that by 5 December Navy’s C-in-C at Mumbai, Vice Admiral S.N. Kohli received the code word “Angar,” signifying success of the killer boats in Op Trident, and BBC radio reported oil tanks at Karachi were on fire, nothing more. BBC on 4th afternoon reported Kemari tanks on fire but India heard it only on 5th morning !
Kohli announced to the media that the “Osa Killers” had sunk three ships later identified as the PNS Khaibar, PNS Muhafiz and MV Venus Challenger (which disappeared for 2 days). The strike on the oil tanks, was claimed as one last missile was fired towards the shore. Commodore Vijay Jerath’s book ‘25 Missile Squadron’, clarifies that the last missile fired landwards by Nipat did not have a clear line of sight and run towards the tanks and would have had
to fly over the city. The Styx missile radar gate opens and locks on and dives on to the first strong radar echo, and a land echo is strong. [Newer missiles in the Indian Navy like the Klub and
BrahMos are more discerning, with better radars and GPS homing
and finger-printing for land targets].
Describing the fate of the land bound missile, the Officer in
Tactical Command (OTC) of Op Trident, Captain Gopal Rao in
INS Kiltan, saw it ditching into the beach. He wrote so in USNIPs
and is quoted in Triumph to Transition. When the Hunter attack
came to the notice of late Air Chief P.C. Lal by P.K. Mukherjee, Lal
magnanimously said, “Let the Navy take the credit. War is on.”
Don Conquest is content that he was awarded the Vir Chakra for
his bravery in the Battle of Longewala. The battle was dramatised
in a controversial film, Border by J.P. Datta, with the Hunters given
a reduced role.
Op Trident 4 December and Op Python 8 December
On 4th evening INS Kiltan (OTC Cdr Gopal Rao) and INS Katchall (Cdr K.N. Zadu) were ordered to R/V with INS Nipat (CO Lt. Cdr B.N. Kavina Cdr Babru Yadav, K-25 embarked), INS Nirghat (Lt. Cdr I.J. Sharma), and INS Veer (Lt. Cdr O.P. Mehta). They fueled at Porbunder from Poshak to execute Op Trident,
under shore control. The Fleet, to Nanda’s disappointment, had
failed to hit Karachi with INS Vinash. Electrical officer Lt. Promod
Bhasin (later Vice Admiral as Chief of Material and builder of India’s
first nuclear submarine INS Arihant) USSR trained, prepared the
missiles, which performed superbly. He was the youngest officer
to be awarded a VSM.
Pakistani officers in the control room did not realize it was a seaborne attack. Assuming it was an air attack, like that fateful morning, the confused Pak defences were utterly in disarray to arrange seaward defence. Searchlights got turned on, and star shells fired. The missile boats attacked without retaliation, and retired with 5 of 12 missiles still intact. CNS Muzaffar Hassan at NHQ in
Karachi asked Air HQ at Rawalpindi for a strike on the retiring boats. The answer: “Cannot spare a sortie!”
Commander B.B. Yadav, who commanded Operation Trident was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. Lieutenant Commander B.N.Kavina (Nipat), Petty Officer M.O. Thomachan, Petty Officer R.N.Sharma and L.K. Chakravarty and Lieutenant Commanders Inderjit Sharma (Nirghat) and O P Mehta (Veer) received the Vir Chakra for their roles in Operation Trident. Lieutenant Commander Vijai Jerath, was awarded the Vir Chakra for Operation Python.
It was luck, and the ingenuity of the young naval constructors’ creativity. The Nylon necklace was the starting point to plan the missile attack on Karachi in 1971. Since then naval architects and young officers have made many innovations to modernise a rising Navy.
Commanders were decorated for their heroic foray, with 2 MVCs
(Rao and Yadav) and 3 VrCs.
Keesing’s Archives says: “In the biggest naval battle since the
Second World War, an Indian Task Force sank the Pakistani
destroyers PNS Khaibar (formerly HMS Cadiz) and Shah Jahan
(formerly HMS Charity) and two mine sweepers off Karachi in the
early hours of 5 December and subsequently shelled naval
installations in the port”. In fact, PNS Khaibar D-163 under Capt
Nasseem Mallik/ Lt Cdr Fazal Ahmed sank with 8 officers and 213
sailors and minesweeper PNS Muhafiz M-163 sank under Lt Arshad
Aleem with 32 sailors at 2235, and MV Venus Challenger
floundered in minutes. The credit of rescue work goes to German
built patrol boat PNS Sadaquat, gifted by Saudi Arabian Navy.
The Times of India of 6 December wrote, “An Indian Naval
Task Force inflicted a crippling blow on the Pakistani Navy, sinking
two destroyers and damaging another in a surprise attack on Karachi.
Units of the task force then went as close as 25 kilometers off
Karachi harbour and shelled several strategic installations”. The
‘fog of war’ was evident. What was unreported: Veer suffered an
engine problem and limped back when Cdr BB Yadav K25 asked
the missile boats to retire. INS Kiltan did not receive the message
and pelted on to Karachi. Veer nearly fired a missile on her seeing
her so close to Karachi. Engineer officer Lt. Puri on Veer, heroically
put boothas (cloth pieces) on a hot leaking oil pipe to stop the leak
with bare hands, allowing Veer to get away from Karachi.
On 8 December at 2230, Lt. Cdr Vijay Jerath [a shipmate of the
author on training ship Tir], known as ‘Jerry’ was let loose off
Karachi in INS Vinash in Op Python by Capt Curly Nair( F15) on
INS Trishul (Nair having taken over a worked up ship from Capt
Ram Tahiliani) with INS Talwar ( Cdr SS Kumar was our XO on
Tir). Jerath executed a magnificent attack and fired all four missiles
in succession at four different targets at Manora anchorage.
In the words of the Pakistan Navy, “The first missile flew over
the ships at anchorage, crossed Manora island and crashed into
the Kemari oil farm… The missile was reported to COMKAR who
passed it on to Air Defence Korangi. There was a huge explosion
and flames shot up high. The fire caused by the air attack on 4
December had been put out only a day earlier after concerted
efforts… The British owned MV Harmattan sank immediately and
SS Gulf Star flying a Panama flag and tanker PNS Dacca (Capt
SQ Raza Sitarra-I Jurrat) were damaged, as they took one missile
each around 2245”.