Two Indian Warships Head To Bangladesh’s Mongla Port, Where Navy Launched A Daring Covert Operation Against Pakistan In 1971 War
How the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini attacked East Pakistan’s second busiest port during the 1971 war, where two Indian warships will make a port call today.
Sometime today, as part of the Swarnim Vijay Varsh celebrations, two Indian warships, corvette INS Kulish and patrol vessel INS Sumedha, will make their first-ever port call at Bangladesh’s Mongla, which was attacked by the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini in a daring operation 50 years ago, in 1971.
The Mongla port, located on the Pasur River and surrounded by Sundarbans mangrove forest, was the second busiest port in East Pakistan after Chittagong.
An attack of this “maritime jugular” would choke the Pakistan Army, and that is what the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini did with operation ‘Hot Pants’.
The plan was to target merchant ships bringing arms and supplies for the Pakistani forces cracking down and preparing for war in East Pakistan.
In September 1971, two utility crafts operated by the Calcutta Port Trust — Palash and Padma — were taken from the West Bengal government to make a unit that would carry out this covert operation against Pakistan.
“The boats were not modified for open sea sailing; in fact, they were not even permitted to ply beyond harbour limits. They were bereft of communication sets, sextants, radar and gyro compasses...,” MNR Samant, who was in-charge of a covert naval operations in the 1971 war and participated in operation ‘Hot Pants’, and India Today executive editor Sandeep Unnithan write in the book Operation X: The Untold Story of India's Covert Naval War in East Pakistan.
The crafts were modified at the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) shipyard in Kolkata, fitted with 40 mm L-60 guns, painted battle grey to hide the colours of the Port Trust, and prefixed with MV for Motor Vessel.
MV Palash and MV Padma were manned by Mukti Bahini crew, made up of naval personnel from East Pakistan who had deserted the Pakistan Navy.
“And thus, in early October, the Bangladesh Navy was born on the pierside of GRSE,” Samant and Unnithan write in the book.
Operation ‘Hot Pants’ was under way on 8 November 1971, just days after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in the White House.
“The Palash and the Padma, their engines thrumming, fore and aft Bofors hooded in canvas, cast off,” the authors write in their account of the ‘Hot Pants’ operation, adding, “...the coded phrase for the mission — ‘Turtles to lay their eggs in the approaches to Anwar’ — was not about marine Biology”.
The vessels, being escorted by Petya-class corvette INS Kavaratti, were carrying British-made A-Mk VII influence mines, each weighing 175 kilograms.
The MK VIIs were the deadliest kind of mines.
“The giant magnetic field of a ship passing overhead would trigger off nearly 100 kgs of high explosives, the expanding gas bubble smashing into the hull of the vessel sailing above,” the authors say in their account.
The mission did not come to a halt even when an engine of the Padma broke down. It was repaired by engineers onboard INS Kavaratti in a five-hour-long operation.
The next day, the task force crossed the longitude of 090 degree east, which marked the start of East Pakistan’s territorial waters.
“As the boats crossed into enemy waters, there was a thrill of excitement. The gun boat crew brought out the Bangladeshi flag — a red disk in the centre of a green field, with the map of their beloved country in the centre, in orange. They ripped the tarpaulins of the guns...,” the authors write.
The gunboats reached close to the Anwar Fairway buoy and set about their task while INS Kavaratti stood nearby, watching from a distance.
“At about 9:30 pm, the two ships reached the fairway buoy lights marking the beginning of the maritime highway that guided merchant ships...,” the account says, adding, “Two nautical miles away, the Kavaratti winked her red yardarm light twice for a split second. It was a signal for the turtles to lay their eggs”.
Travelling in total darkness and without radar, the vessels managed to reach close to East Pakistan’s second largest port, and laid a diagonal double line of explosives at its mouth, while INS Kavaratti stayed in Indian waters.
But close to midnight, INS Kavaratti picked up a radar contact, a British merchant ship named MV City of St. Albans, around 15 nautical miles away from the task force. Fifteen minutes later, when it was closer, the task force fired at the ship with four L-40 guns, forcing the ship to change its course.
This was the first engagement of the Mukti Bahini’s naval wing, which had just finished laying mines at the mouth of the second largest port in East Pakistan.
A few hours later, “the Khulna channel resounded with a thunderous roar. A column of water grew out of the water and fell back with a splash”.
“The first turtle egg had hatched,” Samant and Unnithan write.
The Padma and the Palash lowered their Bangladesh flag, covered their guns with tarpaulin and headed back to the Bay of Bengal.
The first phase of operation ‘Hot Pants’ was over.
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