“Each year he grows more restless, the salt flows through his veins/ But the depths are for the young, not the old with many pains.” - Soul of a Submariner by John Chaffey,
The above couplet sums up the self-immolating temerity of those silent prowlers who risk death and discomfort by moving intrepidly across the ocean currents in the stygian gloom of sea depths. Life under the sea is not for the fainthearted; it takes a special breed to come up to the verity of John Chaffey’s poetic tribute to the submariners. Life in a submarine is tough and risky. It conjures a scene from Titanic when the band plays, “Nearer my God to Thee” before sinking – a far cry indeed from the happy utopia depicted in a famous song sung by the Beatles, ‘Yellow submarine’.
For a country like Pakistan – which is faced with the threat of a much larger and aggressive Indian navy – submarines are the ultimate levellers. The fear of submarines can induce circumspection and a little humility in Indian military planners that set great store through a blue water navy bristling with arms to browbeat smaller regional navies in a quest for the dominance of the Indian Ocean.
The Tench-class fast-attack diesel electric submarine called Ghazi by the Pakistan Navy was leased to Pakistan in 1963 and was the only submarine that was held by any navy during the 1965 war. The result of Ghazi’s aggressive deployment was the bottling up of the Indian fleet that did not dare to sail out of its harbour, deciding to sit out the war due to fear. S N Kohli, the Indian deputy naval chief, writes in ‘We Dared’ about the infuriation and shame of the Indian sailors who felt belittled by the timidity of their high command.
The memory of such pusillanimity rankled with the Indian military planners who set about raising the stock of their navy during the inter-war years. The upshot of the 1965 humiliation was the comprehensive modernisation and development of the Indian navy that effectively tripled its size by 1971. The Indian naval build-up in the shape of four submarines and eight OSAs, a class missile boats, was not matched by Pakistan where a phasing out plan of the WWII vintage surface fleet was under progress.
The 1971 war that was mostly fought in the eastern half of the country saw a daring action by the Pakistan navy that was outmatched on the surface by the Indian navy. In order to keep the Indian fleet confined to its coast, the Pakistan navy deployed three submarines on nodal points along the Indian Western coast.
The Daphne-class submarine Hangor prowled the sea along the coast opposite Bombay. It came across a mouth-watering opportunity to sink the Indian fleet, which was moving out of Bombay on the night between December 2 and December 3. But it restrained itself due to the rules of engagement given by the Pakistan Naval Headquarters to not attack any warship unless it attacked first. However, in subsequent duels, when permission was granted, Hangor sunk an Indian anti-submarine frigate INS Khukri off the coast of Kathiawar on December 9. Hangor defied Indian attempts to destroy it through 150 depth charges and remained instrumental in bottling up the Indian fleet. Indians only managed two missile attacks on Karachi harbour, sinking PNS Khaibar and a small minesweeper.
Indian war historians, in an attempt to gloss over the gross under-utilisation of their scared navy, have resorted to hyperboles while describing Karachi harbour attacks. They have cleverly tried to mask the infamy of the cowardly attacks on two merchant ships – Gulfstar and Helmsman – in blatant disregard of international law. The Pakistan Navy – in order to hunt Vikrant and also relieve pressure on depleted naval resources in the eastern theatre – decided to send the only submarine with pluck and range to accomplish the arduous mission: the redoubtable veteran of 1965, ie the Ghazi.
In the eastern theatre, the Indians had a decisive superiority with a Task Force comprising aircraft-carrier Vikrant, two frigates, a destroyer, a submarine and a few patrol vessels. Pakistan just had four gunboats and few small riverine crafts. Some war historians also report that Indians had hidden the INS Vikrant, their much-vaunted aircraft carrier, in the backwaters of the Andaman Sea as they feared Pakistani submarines.
The Ghazi, with a 92-member crew under the command of Commander Zafar, embarked upon its daring and hazardous 3,000 miles trek from Karachi to the eastern theatre on November 14, 1971. Its last message was received on November 26 while rounding the coast of Sri Lanka. It bypassed Vishakapatnam, the Indian navy’s eastern base on the scent of the Vikrant like a bloodhound. As Vikrant had moved far ahead to hide in the Andaman Sea, the submarine failed to locate its intended prey. It turned back and came towards the Vishakapatnam Port for the second part of its mission to lay mines in the narrow approach to the harbour. The intention was to bottle up Indian heavy naval concentration in its strategic eastern port base. The submarine successfully laid mines during the day in a linear fashion and was forced to retreat to the deep sea due to the presence of Indian patrol vessels. The mines – which were laid 150 metres apart and at a depth of 30 metres – had later damaged an Indian vessel too.
When the Ghazi returned during the night to complete its remaining task, it committed the cardinal mistake of re-crossing its earlier path – most probably due to the obstreperous post-monsoon heavy tides. As the musical whir of the diesel engines and the sweet purr of electronic gadgets created an auditory sensation akin to a lullaby, the intrepid crew of the Ghazi prepared to lay the second string of mines.
The dangerously aggressive gambit tempted fate as the submarine accidentally struck one of its earlier laid mines. A deafening crescendo of sound heralded the martyrdom of 92 brave souls as the Ghazi went up in a blaze of glory, striking terror in the hearts of Indian sailors at Vishakapatnam. It was a classic act of self-immolation by a daring crew that had defied Indian surveillance and sea hazards on one of the most hazardous and daring war patrols in naval history.
The strategic result of the Ghazi’s destruction was the complete liberty of action available with the Indian eastern fleet that effectively blockaded the eastern theatre, disallowing any succour or naval evacuation of Pakistan forces. One of the lessons for Pakistan’s military planners was the need to design and develop a navy that could effectively thwart the Indian navy’s sea dominance quest – a lesson that is relevant even today.
The Indian revisionist historians and Bollywood filmmakers that have tried to credit the Indian navy with the Ghazi’s sinking have their lies drowned out by a soulful ditty composed by Robert King in honour of the martyred submariners, “No markers herald their watery graves/ Under wind swept seas and rolling waves/ Silent sailors on eternal patrol/ Scan endless skies for kindred soul.”
The Ghazi saga reminds us what a single daring submarine can achieve – a fact we can ignore at our own peril while according due diligence to our naval development.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.