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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

1971 – The Naval War

Before the 71 War, the Soviet Union had offered Ossa missile boats to Pakistan. These were rejected by the Pakistan Navy due to their limited range, which, according to the naval top brass, would have reduced Pakistan Navy to a coastal defence force.

The naval balance

Unlike the 1965 War, the Pakistan Navy knew very well that it was ill-prepared for the naval conflict with India in 1971. It was neither in a condition to fight an offensive war in deep sea against the Indian Navy, nor was it equipped to mount a serious defence against the Indian Navy’s likely offensive.

In his report submitted before the 1971 War, Captain Shariff (Later, Admiral Shariff, CNS Pakistan Navy), had recommended a gradual replacement cum extensive repair program for the navy’s all surface combatants. The recommendations could not be implemented because of a shortage of funds. When Shariff became CNS, the Navy, which had so far operated on a policy of Sea Control, opted to operate, for an interim period, on a policy of Sea Denial as Sea Control was beyond its capacity. Whereas India was getting the latest Soviet warships and submarines for a song, against payments in the form of footwear and such like items, Pakistan Navy was decommissioning its WW2 vintage surface combatants. China had provided a few coastal defence craft. PN was thus relegated to coastal defence, nay, a harbour defence force.

Read more: 1971 War – Washing Hands

 The Indian naval raid on Karachi port

Before the 71 War, the Soviet Union had offered Ossa missile boats to Pakistan. These were rejected by the Pakistan Navy due to their limited range, which, according to the naval top brass, would have reduced Pakistan Navy to a coastal defence force.

In the 71 War, the same missile boats were imaginatively employed by the Indian Navy for bombarding the Karachi port. They towed these missile boats behind frigates and when in the vicinity of Karachi, used them to sink PN destroyer Khyber and two other non-combatant ships, though sections of the Pakistan Navy still maintain that Khyber was sunk by a Soviet submarine.

Was PNS Khyber sunk by a Soviet submarine?

A naval task force under Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov had reportedly left Vladivostok on 3rd December 1971. It comprised a Kynda anti-ship missile cruiser, a diesel-electric submarine (possibly the Juliet class), an anti-aircraft missile destroyer, and a Foxtrot class (diesel-electric) attack submarine already in the Indian Ocean. After the war, Admiral Kruglyakov, in an interview, stated that he had orders to stop the U.S. fleet from interfering with the Indian Navy’s operations. (www.history.stackexchange.com).

The Foxtrot class Soviet submarine, which was already in the Indian Ocean (we do not know which group it belonged to before being regrouped with Kruglyakov’s flotilla), could have regrouped with the Indian Navy’s task force and taken part in Operation Trident. Foxtrot class submarines were armed with 10x torpedo tubes (6x bow, 4x stem) and carried 22 torpedoes.  The claim by a Pakistan Navy source is based on submarine signatures. Before the 71 War, the Indian Navy had no experience in employing missile boats. Was Operation Trident a joint Indo-Soviet Operation?

According to the Indian accounts, the IN missile boat crews, recently trained in the Soviet Union, were launched straight into the operation against Karachi port. On entering the Pakistani maritime boundary, the crew switched over to the Russian language in their radio transmissions. It was done, according to the Indians, to achieve a surprise. It is most likely an excuse to deny the direct Soviet involvement in the Raid on Karachi port.

Read more: 1971 War: A military or a political defeat?

The elusive Seventh Fleet

In his interview, Admiral Kruglyakov makes contradictory claims. He says that his task force had entered the Bay of Bengal three days after the arrival of the USS Enterprise which, given the distance from Vladivostok to the Bay of Bengal, seems true. On the other hand, he says that on arrival, he had ordered his submarines to surface and make their presence felt by the American task force. By that time Pakistani forces had already surrendered and fighting had ceased in the Eastern theatre. With the fighting, all the chances of the USS Enterprise helping in the evacuation of the Pakistani garrison had also ceased.

The US Task Force 74 was led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Performing its routine duties in the Gulf of Tonkin, the task force was ordered into the Indian Ocean on 14th December 1971, crossed Malacca Straits on the night of 14th -15th December, and entered the Bay of Bengal on the morning of 15th December. The surrender of Pakistani forces took place on 16th December. Going by Kruglyakov’s account the flotilla commanded by him reached the Bay of Bengal on the morning of 18th December.

Hence there was no requirement for a show of force by Admiral Kruglyakov’s task force. So, if the Soviet task force had started from Vladivostok on 3rd December, it could not possibly sink PNS Khyber on 4th December (when the Indian Navy launched Operation Trident against Karachi harbour).

PAF bombs Okha port

PAF responded to the attack by bombing Okha, from where the Indian naval task force had commenced operations against Karachi, the next night. However, the Indians had already withdrawn their naval assets to Bombay. PN’s response to the Indian raid on Karachi was the sinking of the Indian frigate Khukri by submarine Hanger, the first sinking of a surface ship by a submarine since WW2. IN claims it had a plan to bomb Gwadar.

If the Indian Navy had any such plan, it shelved it after the sinking of Khukri. In 1971, Gwadar, anyway,  was a sleepy fishing port. We also heard about Indian plans to land a brigade minus at or near Gwadar. Without any logistical support, how long would such a task force survive?

Read more: The Afghan cross-border terrorism against Pakistan

PNS Ghazi gives chase to the Indian aircraft carrier

Talking of Vikrant, it remained elusive during the 71 War also, till submarine Ghazi was sunk, accidentally, or by the Indian Navy, as claimed by them. Fearing Ghazi, Vikrant was moved from Bombay to Vishakapatnam, and thence to the Andamans. Only when it was confirmed that Ghazi had been sunk was Vikrant moved to the Bay of Bengal. Never before was an aircraft carrier relegated to the role of attacking enemy gunboats, merchant navy ships, and cargo ships.

In the absence of PAF and PN, Vikrant threw a naval blockade of East Pakistan, and its Sea Hawk aircraft destroyed about a dozen Pakistani improvised gunboats and civilian ships. However, PNS Rajshahi, the only proper Pakistani gunboat in the Bay of Bengal, slipped through the blockade and reached West Pakistan sometime after the war. According to the Indians, the Sea-Hawks emerged unscathed, achieving the highest kill ratio for any aircraft in the entire war”. They had to. As for the Ghazi, India refused the US and Soviet offers to salvage the wreck of Ghazi. Perhaps salvaging it would have confirmed if Ghazi were sunk by a depth charge fired by INS Rajput, as the Indians claimed, or as a result of hitting one of the mines, it had laid in Vishakapatnam’s navigation channel.

Indian Navy destroyed the record of the sinking of submarine Ghazi 

The sinking of Pakistani submarine Ghazi in the 1971 Indo-Pak war may have been one of the high points of India’s first-ever emphatic military victory but there are no records available with naval authorities on how the much-celebrated feat was pulled off. A report appearing in the Times of India claimed that the naval authorities destroyed records of the sinking of Ghazi.

On June 22, 1998, Rear Admiral K Mohanrao, then chief of staff of Visakhapatnam-based Eastern Naval Command, told Vice Admiral G M Hiranandani, who was writing the official history of the Navy, “All-out efforts were made to locate historical artefacts of Ghazi from various offices and organizations of this headquarters. However, regretfully, I was unable to lay my hands on many of the documents that I saw during my previous tenure.”

Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi, regarded as a major threat to India’s plans to use its naval superiority, sank around midnight of December 3, 1971, off Visakhapatnam, killing all 92 on board in the initial days of the war between India and Pakistan. Indian Navy claims the submarine was destroyed by depth charges fired by its ship INS Rajput. Pakistani authorities say the submarine sank because of either an internal explosion or an accidental blast of mines that the submarine itself was laying around Vizag harbour.

Read more: How India is an obstacle in Kashmiri freedom movement

A retired Navy officer who saw action in 1971 said the destruction of the Ghazi papers and those of the Army in Kolkata are all fitting into a larger trend, many of them suspected about Indian war history, of deliberate falsification in many instances. It is high time the real history of those past actions was revealed. “We have enough heroes,” he said. “In the fog of war, many myths and false heroes may have been created and many honest ones left unsung,” he admitted.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.