Today is Navy Day, celebrated every December 4 to commemorate Operation Trident during the 1971 War. On December 4, the Indian Navy sank three vessels near the Pakistani port city of Karachi. The stars of Operation Trident were the then recently acquired Soviet Osa missile boats, fitted with 4 SS-N-2 (P-15) Styx missiles. INS Kiltan, Katchall, Nipat, Nighat and Veer which sank PNS Khaibar killing 222 Pakistani sailors, and PNS Muhafiz killing 33 Pakistani sailors – and a merchant ship, MV Venus Challenger.
On December 5, the Navy’s Western C-in-C, Vice Admiral SN Kohli received the code word “Angaar” which meant success in Operation Trident. Meanwhile, BBC reported that the oil tanks at Kemari in Karachi were also under fire. Kohli briefed the press and claimed the strike on the oil tanks, presuming that one last Styx missile was fired by the Osa boats towards the shore. The Navy continued to claim the hit on Kemari oil tanks for several years.
As it happened, the last missile never reached the target, and was ditched on the beach, as recorded by OTC of Operation Trident, Captain Gopal Rao in Triumph to Transition. The Kemari oil tanks had actually been strafed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on the same day in an independent operation which it did not claim, for rather unusual reasons.
The IAF’s Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Jamnagar Air Base, with its Hunter aircraft, had no assigned role for the morning. Wing Commander Don Conquest asked his commander Air Commodore Pete Wilson whether the new Hunters Type 56A and 235 gallon drop tanks, could be used on Karachi? Wilson was busy planning to hit Badin and Drig Road with Mig-21s at first light on December 4, and allowed Conquest to go ahead with his plans.
Four OCU Hunters took off on the morning of December and made two runs over “the large oil tanks looming out of the skyline, their silver paint shining in the rising sun”. In Conquest’s words, “after the first [run], 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.”
Before Conquest could file his reports about Karachi on landing, his squadron was ordered to fly to Jaisalmer to help out the army’s tanks under siege at Longewala by Pakistani Patton tanks. The battle has been dramatized in the movie, Border and Conquest, who later moved to Australia, got a Vir Chakra for his action at Longewala.
With Air Headquarters unaware of any action by OCU at Karachi, the hits were recorded in the Navy’s count until it was clarified a few years later and credit duly accorded. This doesn’t take anything away from the stellar performance of Indian Navy but only validates Clausewitz, who said that, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult”.