Cmde Srikant Kesnur & Lt Cdr Divyajot
The Indo-Pak war of 1971 for the liberation of Bangladesh was Indian Navy’s finest hour. The Navy fought in two separate theatres and established total control in both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Its ships and aircraft sunk enemy ships, destroyed shore infrastructure and completely dominated the Pakistan Navy (PN). Many units and personnel of Indian Navy (IN) covered themselves with glory. However, arguably, the events that most captured public imagination were the devastating attacks on Karachi on December 4 and 8. A recap of the same, five decades later, attempts to highlight the salient aspects.
But, first, a brief background. In the 1965 war, the Indian Navy was assigned a defensive role and directed not to operate north of Porbandar. This was to result, among other things, in a furtive raid on Dwarka by the Pakistan Navy. While it was completely inconsequential and resulted in no damage, it led to some uninformed criticism of the Indian Navy. It also caused a lot of disquiet in the rank and file about being deprived of action and Navy’s inherent flexibility not being utilised. The Navy’s senior officers were determined that should another opportunity arise, the Service must not be ‘found wanting’ and this presented itself six years later. In the intervening period, the Navy’s leadership had also rapidly increased its manpower and augmented its hardware by acquiring submarines, Petya class corvettes and the Osa class missile boats, all of which played an important role in the war.
As soon as hostilities commenced with Pakistan declaring a full-fledged war on December 3, the orders for Op Trident were dispatched to the fleet at Mumbai and Dwarka, where INS Nirghat and Vidyut had already been strategically positioned. Op Trident comprised three missile boats (IN Ships Nirghat, Nipat and Veer) and two Petya class ships (Katchall and Kiltan), which were to accompany the missile boats, unleash them at dark close to Karachi at full speed and carry out missile attacks. They would also maintain lookout with their superior sensor capabilities. This daring raid resulted in the sinking of PNS Khaiber, PNS Muhafiz, MV Venus Challenger and setting to fire of the Kemari oil refinery.
The Navy sustained the momentum by following up with Op Python on December 8, which caused further destruction of Pakistani assets. In this operation, involving missile attacks by INS Vinash supported by INS Trishul and INS Talwar, PNS Dacca and MV Harmattan were severely damaged, MV Gulf Star destroyed and Kemari oil field was set ablaze again. The magnitude of devastation was so large and unexpected that PN withdrew ships inside the harbour and ordered de-ammunition. Thus, the maritime war on the western front was effectively over within five days of commencement of the hostilities.
The success of Op Trident is celebrated as Navy Day each year. It was acknowledged as a great military feat by many, including Admiral Gorshkov of the Soviet Navy as the Russians themselves had never envisaged this role for the missile boats.
Meticulous planning at various echelons, months of exercises and trials to hone skills, as well as spirited execution by the missile boat squadron went a long way in ensuring success of the operation. It is also necessary to acknowledge the strong political backing which this audacious plan received.
Many aspects of the attacks were novel — the use of missiles in this region for the first time, resorting to towing by bigger ships to overcome the problem of endurance, radio silence and ingenious methods of communication to remain undetected and using vessels meant for coastal defence in an offensive role.
The celebration of the Killers’ feat would be incomplete if it does not include the role of the men involved in naval planning and acquisition, especially Admiral AK Chatterji (after whose initials the vessels are named) and his staff who were prescient in acquiring these small missile boats from the Soviet Union. However, above all, the ‘bombing of Karachi’ owes itself to one man who combined conviction, offensive spirit and risk-taking ability — Admiral SM (Charles) Nanda, the Navy Chief during the war. It was his strategy of destroying the war-fighting capability of the enemy that played an important role in determining the outcome of the war.
The exploits of the Indian Navy and the 25th Missile Boat Squadron, more popularly known as the Killer Squadron, are ingrained in collective memory. Op Trident and Op Python carried the attack into the very citadel of the enemy. With these attacks, the young Indian Navy had earned its spurs and come of age.
The writers are associated with the Naval History Project. Views expressed are personal