1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War (June 2021). Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo. Penguin eBury Press. Pages 304. Rs 356.
The Ghazi moved out of Karachi harbour on 14 November for its task to destroy the Vikrant at Chennai harbour. Details of the harbour had been carefully studied as well as photographs taken from the air of the Vikrant in Chennai harbour by the aircraft of the Western country working on behalf of Pakistan.
The Ghazi made a direct run to Sri Lanka, stopping at Trincomalee on 18 November to refuel and clean up. It was while she was preparing to head for Chennai from Trincomalee, on 20 November, that Commander Zafar Khan received a message from Karachi: the aircraft that had earlier spotted the Vikrant at Chennai had, on its last flight around the harbour, discovered that the Vikrant was no longer in Chennai and that its present location was not known.
Alarm bells started ringing! Where was the Vikrant? She had disappeared without a trace! Commander Zafar felt cheated. He was all set to sink the Vikrant in Chennai harbour and his prized target had suddenly disappeared!
A flurry of messages between Commander Zafar Khan and the Naval Headquarters in Karachi was intercepted. After forty-eight hours of uncertainty, Zafar asked the Naval Headquarters at Karachi as to his next task, now that the Vikrant had disappeared.
Karachi sent messages to Rear Admiral Mohammad Sharif, Pakistan’s Eastern Fleet commander in Dhaka, asking them if they had any information about the Vikrant — whether she was in the Bay of Bengal or had moved back to the Arabian Sea.
A naval maritime reconnaissance aircraft was sent by the Pakistan Navy to scour the area under its control, but the Vikrant had indeed disappeared into thin air!
These intercepted messages were duly deciphered and sent in code to Naval Headquarters, New Delhi, and the Western Naval Headquarters, Bombay.
If Bombay and Delhi knew where the Vikrant was, they were keeping quiet. However, 3D, who was intercepting these messages, was perplexed. Where was the Vikrant?
On 23 November 1971, the problem of the location of INS Vikrant was resolved as suddenly as it had occurred. If India was intercepting Pakistani signal traffic, Pakistan was also monitoring the air waves and intercepting Indian messages, and Commander Zafar Khan was informed by Pakistan’s Naval Intelligence that the Vikrant was in Visakhapatnam!
They had intercepted and deciphered messages from the Vikrant requesting for aircraft fuel, victuals for its crew of over a thousand officers and sailors, and fuel for the Vikrant itself.
They obtained a fix from these messages which revealed that the Vikrant was in Visakhapatnam and that it was waiting to be refuelled and resupplied.
Captain Zafar Khan realized that he had to move fast. He also wanted to know to which port the Vikrant would be heading towards. This information was needed in the event that the Vikrant moved out before he could get the Ghazi there.
The Pakistan Navy, however, did not know, because the intercepted messages did not indicate where the Vikrant would go next. But it was likely that she would head out to sea only after being refuelled and resupplied, and the intercepted messages indicated that this would take a few days.
The Pakistan Naval Headquarters as well as the Captain of the Ghazi, both realized that the best opportunity to destroy the Vikrant was to attack her while she was still in Visakhapatnam.
As and when the Vikrant left Visakhapatnam harbour, she would be escorted by destroyers, minesweepers and frigates, and then it would be more difficult to attack, sink her and get away.
Sinking the Vikrant within the Visakhapatnam harbour also posed fewer risks. 3D was very upset. It appeared to him that if the Pakistan Navy had given away its intentions through its messages, the Indian Navy was no better!
He reported his observations to Army Signal Intelligence with an advisory that the location of the Vikrant had been compromised and remedial action needed to be taken, because the Ghazi was in Trincomalee, refuelled and ready to take off to destroy the Vikrant in Visakhapatnam harbour.
3D, however, got no reply from Naval Headquarters to address his concerns. He wondered why? Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Naval Headquarters in Karachi sent out a clutch of signals directing the Captain of the Ghazi to sink the Vikrant at Visakhapatnam harbour, before she put out to sea.
War was soon to be declared, and the Pakistan Navy, as mentioned before, wanted the destruction of the Vikrant to be the opening blow of the war with India.
Visakhapatnam, 1–3 December 1971: The Ghazi, already resupplied and refuelled, moved out of Trincomalee harbour on the evening of 23 November 1971.
She was off Chennai from 25–27 November and then headed for Visakhapatnam. She approached Visakhapatnam harbour at 2200 hours on the night of 29 November and entered the navigational channel at 2345 hours on the night of 1 December.
Commander Zafar examined his options. Firstly, he could lay mines in the navigation channel of Visakhapatnam harbour and hope that the Vikrant would pass over these mines, detonate them and be destroyed.
However, it was a moot point as to whether the mines would destroy the Vikrant. And what if the mines did not detonate? The second option would be to lie in wait for the Vikrant to move out of the harbour and to torpedo her as she came out.
However, it was not known as to when the Vikrant would sail out of the harbour, and, therefore, there was no guarantee that the sinking of the Vikrant would follow close on the heels of the declaration of war.
Also, she would be closely protected by Indian naval destroyers and frigates. The third option was for the Ghazi to enter Visakhapatnam harbour, and to target and destroy the Vikrant with her torpedoes at the outset of the war.
This appeared to be the best option. The only problem was how long could the Ghazi remain undiscovered in a harbour where a lot of activity took place every day.
Also, the depth of the navigational channel did not allow her to go closer than 2.1 nautical miles from the south breakwater of the harbour. She could not go further into the harbour because the minimum submergible depth for a submarine was fifteen metres, and the margin was too small for a big submarine like the Ghazi.
So Commander Zafar decided to let the Ghazi stay where she was and to destroy the Vikrant from her present position. All the issues that factored into making the right decision had devolved on to the shoulders of the Captain of the Ghazi — i.e., the timing of the attack, the method to be used and the location from where she would destroy the Vikrant.
Commander Zafar Khan decided to exercise the third option. He called his officers to work out the details of the plan that he had envisaged. The meeting was held in the wardroom, and it was a tight fit.
The assembled officers included only those who would be required to carry out the task. The radar officer confirmed that the large blip on the radar was the Vikrant; the torpedo and gunnery officer confirmed that all drills had been rehearsed, the torpedoes were ready for firing and all that he needed was the orders to fire; but the medical officer declared that obnoxious fumes had polluted the air in the submarine to dangerous levels, posing a threat not only to the health of the crew but also to the submarine.
The hydrogen content was far above accepted levels due to the batteries being old and decrepit. He recommended that the Ghazi surface at night to take in fresh air.
This would also be an opportunity to charge the batteries. Commander Khan was in a quandary. He realized that it was essential for the Ghazi to surface not only for the health of his crew but also for the health of the submarine.
If the hydrogen content of the submarine reached levels above the laid-down safety level, then there was imminent danger of the Ghazi self-destructing.
It was now the morning of 3 December 1971. The Pakistani advisories to mercantile shipping and civil air traffic, which had been made two days earlier, made it clear that Pakistan was on the cusp of going to war and that evening, at 5.45 p.m., the Pakistan Air Force would attack Indian airfields.
The moment to sink the Vikrant had, therefore, arrived, but Zafar did not know this! Otherwise, all was quiet. The Indian Army was training and getting ready for future operations.
Admiral Nanda, the Indian Naval Chief, aware of the plans of the Pakistan Navy, had been to Bombay to give orders to FOC-in-C West to move the Western Fleet out of Bombay harbour.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta attending a political meeting. The Defence Minister, Babu Jagjivan Ram, was also away from the capital. Meanwhile, Zafar realized that notwithstanding the issue of the polluted air within the Ghazi, there was no question of the Ghazi surfacing in broad daylight.
Visibility at sea extended over many miles, and the Ghazi was a big submarine and therefore could be easily spotted even from the shore. The earliest that the Ghazi could surface was after dark, when hopefully there would be no fishermen around.
He decided to wait until dark. At 1700 hours, the executive officer and the medical officer reported to Captain Zafar that the air within the submarine in the engine room had got really bad and had crossed danger level, and that one of the sailors had been knocked unconscious.
He suggested that the Ghazi surface as early as possible and to not wait till darkness set in. Zafar thought about it and decided that he would surface around dusk.
In fading light, there would be fewer chances of the Ghazi being spotted. In the meanwhile, tensions within the crew of the Ghazi were on the rise. The air was getting fetid.
Many were coughing, and their eyes were getting affected. At around 1800 hours, Captain Zafar Khan gave orders for the Ghazi to surface to periscope* level and decided to survey the area around before contemplating any further action.
The Ghazi was brought up from the deep to 27 feet below the surface of the sea for an assessment of the scene.
Zafar had planned to charge the batteries and bring in fresh air nine metres below the surface, with the snorkel pipe raised to suck in air to run the diesel engines, charge the batteries and rejuvenate the air inside the boat.
Orders were given by the Officer of the Watch for water to be pumped out of the ballast tanks. As the water got pumped out, the boat† would become lighter and would gradually make its way to the surface.
The tanks on both sides of the Ghazi — port and starboard — had to empty simultaneously so that the Ghazi could surface on an even keel. The Ghazi was 15 fathoms‡ beneath the sea, and the Officer of the Watch was giving the countdown as the Ghazi gradually moved to the surface: ‘Fifteen fathoms, fourteen fathoms, thirteen fathoms, twelve fathoms, eleven fathoms!’
The Officer of the Watch stopped when the periscope broke through the surface of the sea nine metres below the surface, at 1.5 fathoms. Zafar was looking through the eyepiece of the periscope — what he saw gave him a start!
Hardly a kilometre away was a large Indian naval patrol vessel heading in their direction. The V-shaped white plume from the bows of the craft spreading high on both sides indicated that she was moving fast.
There was no time to lose. He immediately gave orders for the Ghazi to dive. ‘Dive the boat!’ Zafar shouted to the Officer of the Watch, and the latter immediately repeated the order.
The Ghazi closed up at ‘Action Stations’* in less than a minute. The Control Room watchkeeper shouted over the PA system, ‘Dive! Dive! Dive!’ The pumps of the ballast tanks began to take in water urgently, and the boat began to descend.
The klaxon sounded the alarm to inform all that there was an emergency situation on hand. All ballast tanks got flooded in less than 30 seconds, and the Ghazi went down underwater within one minute and thirty seconds from Zafar’s order to dive the boat.
The Ghazi descended slowly — too slowly for Commander Khan, but she managed to get below just in the nick of time. Minutes later, the patrol vessel passed over the Ghazi, and the wash† from its passage rocked the Ghazi, indicating that it was a biggish vessel and that it was moving at a very fast speed.
Zafar had heard that the Indian Navy had gone in for missile boats from Russia, which were designed for the defence of ports, and also Petya boats, which were patrol boats but much larger.
It could have been either of those.
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