Sunday April 21, 2024

Hangor heroics

By Raashid Wali Janjua
December 09, 2021

Pakistan Navy Submarine (PNS/M) Hangor sank Indian frigate Khukri on an obstreperous stretch of the sea off the coast of Gujarat, India on December 9, 1971. It was a monumental feat, being the first and only successful kill by an intrepid submarine after World War II.

Eighteen officers and 176 sailors aboard the ill-fated frigate INS Khukri perished in the attack while the sister Indian ship ‘Kirpan’ bolted out of the scene, leaving the sailors on their own. Years later, Gill, a surviving sailor of Khukri, filed a petition in the court and demanded that commander of INS Kirpan Rishi Raj Sood, who according to him had displayed cowardice and dereliction of duty when he turned back and bolted from the scene of the attack, be court-martialled. It is important to mention here that Raj Sood was awarded the gallantry award ‘Vir Chakra’.

The award bears an eerie resemblance to the Vir Chakra recently awarded to Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan who in his MiG21 bison had crossed over the Line of Control (LoC) and was shot down by an F16. Khukri’s sinking had an important impact on the strategic direction of the Indian Navy’s war effort. The Indian Navy had conducted two operations – Trident and Python – against Pakistan in Karachi, with varying success levels. The third attack would have proven to be quite devastating due to the overstretched coast and air defence capabilities of Pakistan. The attack plan, however, had to be abandoned as the daring foray of Hangor in Indian territorial waters and the sinking of Khukri forced the Indian Navy to engage its vital assets on anti-submarine warfare for a few crucial days, leaving their attack capability extremely weakened.

It was a classic case of asymmetric response by a small yet effective navy that used its assets intelligently, taking calculated risks to dislocate the strategic balance of a vastly superior Indian Navy. A superior technology combined with adroit tactics enabled the 53-men crew under its indomitable commander Ahmed Tasneem to create a strategic paralysis in the Indian Navy’s western fleet.

The denouement of the Dec 9 sea drama was a consequence of the 17-day-long sub-surface journey of PNS/M Hangor, a Daphne-class submarine, that set out on its mission on November 22, 1971, for a patrol off the Saurashtra coast. On December 1, it was told to move towards Bombay Harbour to relieve PNS Mangro, another Daphne-class submarine. On December 2, it sighted the Indian western fleet off the Kathiawar coast and acquired contacts of two Indian ships on passive sonar. PNS/M Hangor came up to the snorkeling level to gain speed to get close to the ships but failed to elicit any reaction from the frigates.

Probably to cover up their embarrassment of having missed the Pakistani submarine on its underwater prowl, India maintains that it hit a submarine on December 5. The Indian frigates reached Bombay on December 6 while PNS/M Hangor lurked in the shallow coastal waters, vulnerable to detection.

When it ultimately got detected in these shallow coastal waters, the Indian frigates were ordered by a panicking flag officer in chief western command, vice admiral Kohli, to hunt and kill the submarine. The two frigates embarked on the mission using the rectangular sweep technique. Admiral Kohli was severely criticised for having ordered the two frigates on a submarine hunt mission without equipping them with the right sonar equipment to detect the vessel.

The sonar detection equipment in PNS/M Hangor had a range of 25,000 metres while the Indian frigates – INS Kirpan and INS Khukri – had a sonar range of only 2,500 metres. Due to the trial equipment, the speed of the Khukri was just 12 knots which made it vulnerable to the Hangor. In anti-submarine warfare, the ships have to be agile and fast compared to the slow-moving submarines lurking below.

On the fateful night of December 9, nearly 16 nautical miles from the Gujarat coast as the Pakistani submarine positioned itself tactically to pounce upon the charging Indian frigates, it detected two ships, eight nautical miles apart. The captain took the submarine to 55 metres depth to make sonar approach for the final attack. After that Pakistan’s feral Moby Dick dived down to attack.

At 7:57 pm, on December 9, PNS/M Hangor found INS Kirpan coming straight towards its path and hence fired a down-the-throat shot with a homing torpedo. In naval parlance, down-the-throat fire is an attack from a difficult zero-degree bow angle against an approaching target. The risk, therefore, demands a high degree of skill and cool nerves. Commander Ahmed Tasneem held his nerve and launched a torpedo against INS Kirpan.

The lethal torpedo however glissaded below the oncoming Kirpan and failed to detonate beneath the ship. Commander Raj Sood got so unnerved by the torpedo attack that he turned tail and sped away to the safety of the shore. Seeing the sister ship under attack INS Khukri charged in to take on PNS/M Hangor. Commander Ahmed Tasneem, despite the failed first attempt, did not break contact to run for safety and held his ground in a spirit of self-immolation to fire the second down-the-throat torpedo shot on INS Khukri. This time, the torpedo exploded just below the keel of the ship, setting its oil tanks and ammunition on fire. The ill-fated frigate split in two parts, sinking within two minutes.

The subsequent Indian anti-submarine effort expended 36 salvoes with over 150 underwater projectiles along with air attacks for four days and nights on the brave Pakistani submarine that, under its courageous commander, stayed firm to fend off the attacks before breaking contact to sail back to safety.

Four Sitara-e-Jurat, six Tamgha-e-Jurat and 16 Imtiazi Sanad were conferred on the gallant submariners whose daring action dissuaded the Indian Navy to attempt another attack on Karachi. Never in the history of Pakistan’s sea warfare have so many people owed to so few.

The writer is a security analyst and a PhD scholar. He can be reached at: