Written by RAdm AY Sardesai
The stellar role played by Indian Navy’s pioneering submariners during the Indo-Pak War of 1971 ensured India’s overwhelming victory over Pakistan in the Eastern and Western theatres. As we celebrate the 50th year of this resounding victory, we must take note of the bravery, valour and courage displayed by Indian Navy’s submariners under direct enemy action.
Through the determined efforts of naval planners, the Indian Navy’s submarine arm took birth on December 8, 1967, when the tricolour was unfurled onboard Kalvari at Riga, in erstwhile USSR. Thereafter, four Foxtrot class submarines (Kalvari, Khanderi, Kursuraand Karanj) arrived in India between July 1968 and May 1970 and were based at Visakhapatnam. The Navy also inducted submarine tender ship Amba in 1968 and Nistar, a submarine rescue vessel in 1971. This, in brief, was the strength of the Indian submarine force at the onset of the Indo-Pak War of 1971.
From early 1971, the security situation in the Subcontinent had been steadily deteriorating. Towards the end of the year, matters grew worse, and along with the rest of the Navy, the submarine arm was charged to prepare itself to meet any threat to India’s national security. The fledgling force, with barely three years of experience in an entirely new professional field, readied itself for battle, as war clouds rolled across the Subcontinent. When war ultimately broke out in early December 1971, Indian Navy’s submarines were already poised for combat at their stations in the North Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.
Kursura and Karanj were deployed in the North Arabian sea. Kursura was deployed well before outbreak of hostilities with orders to attack and sink all Pakistani Naval ships, merchant ships detected (when specifically ordered), patrol and surveillance. Kursura arrived at her station on November 18 and remained on patrol till November 30. She thereafter rendezvoused with Karanj on December 2 to pass on information and instructions and subsequently entered Mumbai. During her daring deployment, she had encountered a number of merchant ships, whilst in her station.
Karanj sailed on November 30 with similar orders as Kursura and reached her station on December 3. The same night, she received news that hostilities with Pakistan had broken out, but was ordered to maintain her station. On December 5, she was ordered to deploy to a new station. During her transit, she received news of the Indian Navy’s audacious missile attack on Karachi and sinking of two Pakistan Navy warships. From December 6-14, whilst deployed in her station, Karanj encountered intense enemy air and warship activity. On four distinct occasions during the patrol, she came close to launching torpedoes on suspected enemy merchant ships, but held back due to orders to positively identify before engaging any merchantmen. Karanj returned to Mumbai harbour on December 20. This audacious deployment has been recorded in the annals of history as the longest by any Indian Naval unit during the 1971 Indo-Pak War.
On the Eastern seaboard, Khanderi sailed from Visakhapatnam on November 28, 1971, to patrol in the Bay of Bengal. Her orders were to cut off the shipping lane from Ceylon to Chittagong, destroy Pakistan Navaland merchant ships and provide timely intelligence of Pakistan maritime forces. Like her sister submarines on the West Coast, Khanderi too had restrictive orders to positively identify merchantmen prior to engaging. She returned to Visakhapatnam harbour on December 14, after a successful patrol in the thick of war.
The story of the heroic deeds of Indian Navy’s submariners would not be complete without highlighting the daring and successful attacks led by Commander M N Samant in erstwhile East Pakistan, at Mongla and Khulna ports. As senior officer of a task force comprising small craft, he successfully manoeuvred the vessels through an extremely hazardous and unfamiliar route, which took the enemy in Mongla by complete surprise. After inflicting heavy losses on the Pakistani forces, he proceeded to Khulna, where a bitter fight ensued. The task force was subjected to incessant air attacks, and two craft were sunk; however, he refused to withdraw his Task Force to safer waters. This brave action cut off the possibility of escape by sea route for the Pakistani military stationed in East Pakistan, earning Commander M N Samant the first Mahavir Chakra of the submarine arm.
The mere presence of Indian submarines deprived the Pakistan Navy of its offensive power. Indian submarines did the Indian Navy proud and all patrols were successfully accomplished, resulting in the submarine arm finishing the 1971 war with a Mahavir Chakra, two Vir Chakras, a Nao Sena Medal, and several ‘Mention in Despatches’. On the other hand, the Pakistani submarine Ghazi, which was deployed off Visakhapatnam in a desperate attempt to attack aircraft carrier Vikrant, was attacked and sunk by Rajput, just after midnight on December 3-4, 1971.
After proving itself in the 1971 War, the submarine arm has seen relative expansion in terms of the number of submarines and their capability. Indian Navy’s submariners have, in every situation thereafter, demonstrated their ability to deliver the “knockout punch” and “emerge victorious always”.
RAdm AY Sardesai, a serving Indian Naval officer, is the Flag Officer Submarines, presently posted at Submarine Headquarters, Visakhapatnam. Views are personal.