06 March 2010

Helpless at Sea – 1971 War

At the outbreak of the war, PAF’s maritime support capability of any consequence was limited to night bombing of a couple of Indian Navy’s coastal installations on the Saurashtra Coast and, daytime strafing and rocketing of not-too-distant surface vessels. Measures to locate these vessels were largely of passive nature and, rested on Pak Navy’s shore and sea-based signals intelligence gathering network. Unhappily, at the outbreak of hostilities, much of the communications and radar transmissions had gone discrete and, signals intelligence had all but dried up. Active measures included surface surveillance by a SUPARCO[1]-loaned radar located at Manora, which had been picking contacts as far as 100-nm on occasions, when the somewhat irregular phenomenon of ‘anomalous propagation’[2] was experienced. Ships at sea were good only for more localised flotilla surveillance and, at great risk of giving away their position while their radars transmitted.

Airborne maritime reconnaissance was the optimum and most reliable method, but with Pak Navy lacking any organic air capability, employing the services of PAF’s small transport fleet of six C-130s remained the next best alternative. However, with the planned commitment of the C-130s for unconventional bombing missions, these could not be spared, reportedly. Instead, the C-in-C directed the Managing Director PIA, Air Vice Marshal Zafar Chaudhry to make some assets available to Pak Navy. One Fokker F-27 along with its volunteer civilian crew was put at the disposal of the Navy before the war started. The weather radar of the F-27 aircraft could also provide rudimentary search capability over a calm sea and could, therefore, be utilised at night as well. The Indian Navy, of course, understood that in practical terms Pak Navy’s search capability was of little consequence and, it was surmised that the window of the night offered the maximum chances of sneaking in, unobserved.

According to Indian Navy’s appreciation, if it could take the battle to Pakistani waters at the outset, it would force Pak Navy to abort any offensive plans and, bottle up her surface fleet inside the harbour for the remaining period of war. The planners were also confident that such a move could wipe off Indian Navy’s craven image going back to the 1965 War, when the puny Pak Navy had carried out a daring and morale-shattering raid on Dwarka naval establishment, without being challenged.

Borrowing a leaf from the Dwarka annals – but planning more cerebrally – the Indian Navy decided to hit Pak Navy warships patrolling the outer and inner cordons of Karachi harbour. With the newly-acquired Soviet Osa missile boats, there was no need to get close and exchange broadsides in the old manner. By hugging the Saurashtra-Kutch coast at high speed, the task force would be able to avoid the Pakistani submarines prowling not too far. Arrival at nightfall was a clever safeguard against visual spotting from the air, as the flotilla broke off westwards to take up battle station south of Karachi. A night visual attack on the ships by PAF aircraft was, thus, also out of question.

By 2 December, the main body of the Indian Western Fleet, comprising 13 ships, had already set sail for an area 200-nm south of Karachi and beyond to interdict merchant shipping, but with a more immediate purpose of diverting attention from Operation ‘Trident’ that was to unfold shortly.

The Cordon is Pierced
On the night of 4 December, at 2010 hrs (all times PST), the duty officer at Manora radar picked up a surface contact at a distance of 75-nm on a bearing of 165° from Karachi. The contact was immediately reported to Maritime Headquarters (MHQ). Half an hour later, another contact was picked up at a distance of 100-nm south of Karachi and, duly reported. After an inexplicably long delay, a signal was issued by MHQ at 2200 hrs, warning ships at sea of two surface groups[3] heading towards Karachi. PNS Khaibar, a destroyer which was patrolling the outer cordon, was ordered to investigate. Apparently not responding due to radio silence measures on board, it headed south, as per orders.[4]

At 2245 hrs, watches on board Khaibar reported what appeared like a bright light heading towards them at high speed; everyone took it to be an attacking aircraft in afterburners. The Commanding Officer, Cdr M N Malik, who had rushed to the bridge, ordered the ship’s anti-aircraft guns to open fire. Just then, a deafening explosion was heard as the glowing object slammed into the aft galley, below deck, and blew up the boiler room. Flames leapt upwards as sailors rushed helter-skelter, some trying to jettison the torpedoes, others trying to put out the fires. A hasty message was transmitted to MHQ, informing that, “enemy aircraft attacked…, boiler hit, ship stopped.” A few minutes later, another eerie glow was observed heading towards the stricken ship and, in no time, it tore into the second boiler room with an intense explosion. Uncontrollable fires enveloped the ship and ammunition started to explode. As it started to list, some men jumped overboard from the sinking ship. PNS Khaibar finally went down, taking with her 222 ill-fated hands.

PNS Muhafiz, a minesweeper, sailed out to relieve the survey vessel PNS Zulfiqar, which was patrolling Karachi harbour’s inner cordon. Arriving on station at 2245 hrs, she was just in time to witness the fireworks in the outer patrol area. Altering her course and heading south to investigate the fiery glow on the horizon, Lt Cdr M S Usmani, the Commanding Officer of Muhafiz feared the worst. Suddenly, a speeding light was seen to be headed towards his own ship. Moments later, a swishing object smashed into the minesweeper and exploded with such force that it disintegrated the wooden vessel into pieces. Some of those who had been thrown overboard on impact managed to swim away, but 33 others went down in this second deadly attack, barely twenty minutes after the first one.

The Indian Navy task force had included two frigates for submarine screening and three missile boats for the actual attack. INS Nirghat was the first to engage and it fired two Styx missiles that hit PNS Khaibar. The next to fire two missiles was INS Nipat but its victim remained a mystery for some time till the sunken wreck of SS Venus Challenger, a Liberian merchant ship, was found by navy divers 26-nm south of Karachi, some days after the war ended. Nipat also fired a third missile at the harbour a little later, which hit some oil storage tanks at Keamari terminal. Last to fire was INS Veer whose single missile hit PNS Muhafiz.

Having resoundingly achieved its objective, the task force sped back under cover of darkness to rendezvous with a waiting tanker for refuelling. By dawn of next day, the task force had cleared the estimated strike range of PAF fighters and, was homeward bound. An IAF fighter patrol had been arranged to cover the task force just in case, but no PAF fighters were encountered.

Shocked and demoralised by the surprise attack, a hapless Pak Navy struggled to cope with the crisis that had literally exploded at her doorstep. The PAF, none too happy about its own plight in the south, could only sympathise with its sister service in this sombre situation.

In the aftermath of the attack, an urgent Air Priority Board meeting was asked for (on 5 December) and, Pak Navy was able to muster a motley fleet of aircraft[5] including some more from PIA and different government departments, for the purpose of enhancing maritime reconnaissance measures. Most of them were light aircraft and might have been suitable for daytime ‘coast guard’ duties, at best. Nonetheless, with the warships bottled up in the harbour or hidden away around Cape Monze and Gadani, additional aircraft for patrolling were considered a welcome help for the overworked PIA F-27. It was to be seen if the desperate measure meant anything.

Hitting Back

In the wake of the missile attack, Pak Navy felt – almost as an after-thought – that the home base of the missile boats at Okha needed to be taken out. In all likelihood, the tit-for-tat raid serving as a retribution of sorts would have been uppermost in the minds of the Naval Staff. In any case, the necessity of tackling the threat of missile boats also sank in at PAF’s COC and it was agreed to attack Okha harbour. Of course, it was not expected that the missile boats would still be berthed at the quay-side in Okha. As a matter of fact, these had already been dispersed to smaller locations along the Saurashtra Coast, even before the war had started. Nonetheless, it was the considered opinion of Pak Navy that a hit on the infrastructure could hamper missile boat operations to some extent.

On the evening of 5 December, Flt Lt Shabbir A Khan was standing out on the B-57 tarmac watching preparations for the night missions, when he was informed about being detailed for a strike on Okha harbour. He, along with his navigator, Sqn Ldr Ansar Ahmad, rushed off to the operations room to start planning the mission. Two hours after moonrise seemed like a good selection of the TOT, as the glimmering sea would clearly outline the edges of the darkened harbour.

Taking off at 2210 hrs, the B-57 got a fiery send-off as the AAA opened up in the nearby Karachi harbour, signalling an air raid. Continuing the take-off, Shabbir and Ansar settled down to watch – with unnerving anticipation – the moonbeams dazzling the creeks and estuaries of the Kutch Coast to their port side. Finally, turning to the attack heading, they picked up a sizeable flotilla on their radar, about 20-nm to their starboard. There was a temptation to go for the ships, but discipline prevailed and they continued for the designated target. Reaching the pull-up point, Shabbir pushed the throttles to 100% power, while Ansar started to guide him into the attack. Just when Shabbir pressed the bomb release button and there was no release, Ansar realised that he had forgotten to arm the release switch. In a fraction of a second he flipped the switch on and Shabbir pipped the button again, pulling out of the dive narrowly. After some 10-odd seconds, there was a tremendous flash of light and the aircraft shook up with the blast. A direct hit had been achieved as nine 500-lb bombs slammed into fuel tanks and other stores at the harbour. In the meantime AAA had started to fire and the sky seemed ablaze. Shabbir and Ansar saw the shells continuously exploding along the aircraft’s flight path but luckily, the bomber escaped unscathed.

The attack had been a tremendous success and, news that the home base of the missile boats was in flames turned out to be thoroughly cathartic for all and sundry in the Pak Navy and PAF. A pair of F-104s which visited Okha for another attack four days later, reported that the harbour was still smouldering and the smoke could be seen from as far as 60-nm. The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War notes that, “two air attacks were also carried out on Okha and some fuel tanks were set ablaze, thereby denying the missile boats any further use of this port as a forward base.”[6]

Harbour in Flames

Seeing the success of Operation ‘Trident’ which had resulted in huddling up of Pak Navy ships in the harbour, Indian Navy decided that the main force of the Western Fleet would carry out a similar attack from the unexpected south-westerly direction, the very next night. However, breakdown of two vessels forced the withdrawal of a group of five,[7] which sailed back home and consequently, the attack had to be postponed. Subsequent snags, and then bad weather, delayed the operation further.

On the night of 8/9 December, at around 2245 hrs, lookouts at Manora suddenly picked up the infamous glow hurtling towards them, then crossing overhead and slamming into the nearby oil tank farms at Keamari.[8] A tremendous fire engulfed the terminal and the whole harbour lit up, visible from miles. Distressingly, fires lit by an earlier air attack on the morning of 4 December had been laboriously put out just a day earlier.

A few minutes after the first attack, another missile hit the anchored British-owned merchant ship Harmatton, causing it to sink in no time. This was immediately followed by a third missile which hit the SS Gulf Star, also anchored, flying the Panamanian flag. It survived the attack with serious damage.[9]

A fourth missile hit PNS Dacca, the Navy’s supply ship which was idling in the harbour for maintenance, having been out at sea for 25 days at a stretch. A portion of the ship caught fire but, due to the courage and presence of mind of its Officer Commanding, Cdr S Q Raza, the steam smothering system was operated and a major explosion averted; the fires were put out by midnight. By next evening, power had been restored and the ship was moved further inshore, where she remained till the end of the war.

The attacking force had consisted of three frigates escorting the missile boat INS Vinash. All four missiles were fired by this boat from a distance of 12 miles from the harbour. After the attack, the group was able to make a getaway without any hitch and, rendezvoused with the Western Fleet flagship INS Mysore for a return to Bombay.

The operation had again been thoroughly successful and rendered Pak Navy’s surface fleet incapable of any operation during the war. However, it must be said that if international conventions on declaring and enforcing a blockade had been heeded to by the Indian Navy, at least the loss of lives on-board foreign merchant shipping could have been avoided.

Whither PAF?

With ‘do-it-yourself’ maritime reconnaissance in the hands of PIA and Pak Navy, PAF was expected to only carry out anti-surface vessel attacks during daytime. It is alleged that PAF was called out many times but the usual refrain was that ‘effort was not available’. What is known is that PAF flew 22 day missions (F-86E and F-104) and 10 night missions (B-57 and T-33) searching for enemy missile boats and other ships, none of which were successful. Regrettably, the reports of sighting of enemy ships were either bogus or, the ships were incorrectly located. On one occasion, for instance, PNS Zulfiqar was strafed west of Cape Monze by a pair of F-86s, after the target was repeatedly confirmed by a frantic MHQ as being hostile.

It is evident that the fundamental problem of maritime support lay in the inadequacy of airborne maritime reconnaissance, as the platforms were under-equipped and crew untrained. With Pak Navy officers on-board the F-27 aircraft having no prior experience in this role and their PIA pilots literally finding themselves at sea, the outcome could not have been any better. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the PIA Fokker F-27 (AP-ALX) crashed on the night of 12/13 December off the Makran Coast while on a recce mission, killing its crew of four.[10] In all probability, the fatigued pilots were disoriented in a pitch dark night, as the aircraft descended uncontrollably into the coastal Ras Malan Hills. The wreckage of the F-27 was found after the war.

On at least three occasions at night, Indian Navy task groups were reportedly located by the recce aircraft,[11] but these reports could not be followed up with actual strikes as PAF aircraft were not equipped with any aids for sighting and attacking ships at night. In all three cases, the ships had taken evasive measures and had broken off from the area by daybreak and, were not traceable. It is open to question if the attacking aircraft would have been able to successfully penetrate the formidable AAA screen of the task groups for a close-in dive attack, even at daytime. Not the least, lacking any practical training in the anti-shipping role whatsoever, PAF pilots were not expected to blast away bridges and boiler rooms during their first lessons at sea.

It may also be opportune to clarify that of the 127 visual reconnaissance sorties that were ‘made available’, as the Story of the Pakistan Air Force – Saga of Courage and Honour states,[12] PIA flew 59 sorties while other civilian aircraft flew 68 sorties, all with their own crew. Even though the effort did not yield any concrete results, the dedication of the volunteer pilots is, indeed, commendable.

On one occasion on 10 December, while on an unusual maritime recce mission in a F-104 searching for Osa boats, Wg Cdr Arif Iqbal chanced upon an Indian Navy Alizé maritime patrol aircraft off Jakhau on the Saurashtran Coast. The hapless aircraft jinked and thrashed about very low over the water as Arif settled behind it with some difficulty. The Alizé was seen to tumble into the sea eventually; whether it was the result of gunfire or, was due to a wingtip grazing the swells, remains moot.[13] The patrolling Alizé was part of a massive hunt for Pak Navy submarine PNS Hangor in the eastern Arabian Sea, after she had sunk an Indian Navy frigate INS Khukri the previous morning and escaped successfully.

The sum total of all the help that PAF could provide to Pak Navy was only one successful strike against the enemy missile boat facility at Okha harbour. Planners at both services headquarters must have rued their vacillation in striking a couple of harbours on Saurashtra Coast as an opening gambit of the war. An audacious and imaginative plan might have included a staged-through attack on Bombay harbour too, à la Agra strike.[14] Arguably, the Styx missile attacks of 4/5 December may have been preventable after all, if the later raid on Okha was anything to go by.


[1] Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Committee.
[2] Long ranges are possible under conditions of anomalous propagation of radio waves that is particularly prevalent in winter months in the Arabian Sea.
[3] The one nearer to Karachi was the group of three missile boats and the further one was the pair of frigates.
[4] Contrary to some writings that PNS Khaibar was caught unawares, the Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War confirms that the first target that INS Nirghat engaged had been “zigzagging, revealing hostile intentions,” before heading towards the task force. “This ship continued coming towards the task force and was quickly reducing distance.” (Chapter-XI, ‘Naval Operations in the Arabian Sea,’ page 472.)
[5] These additional aircraft included: 1xF-27 & 2xTwin Otters (PIA), 1xCessna 310 (Governor Punjab), 1xBeaver DHC-2 (Plant Protection Dept), 2xCessna 150 (Karachi Aero Club) and 1xAero Commander (PAF).
[6] Chapter-XI, ‘Naval Operations in the Arabian Sea,’ page 474.
[7] This was the group of vessels picked up by Flt Lt Shabbir A Khan and Sqn Ldr Ansar Ahmad on the B-57 radar while proceeding to attack Okha.
[8] Only one tank containing crude oil caught fire during the attack on the night of 8/9 Dec. This was stated by Mr M Niaz, who was the Sales Development Engineer of ESSO in 1971 and, led the team that put out the fire.
[9] The New York Times correspondent Henry Kamm reported in his 11 December despatch that the wife and child of the Greek captain of Gulf Star were killed in the attack. He also reported that seven seamen were killed in the attack on Harmatton.
[10] The PIA crew included Captain Mubashir Hameed, First Officer Syed Khalid Javaid and Navigator B D Cheema. The PN observer on board was Lt Cdr A I Nagi. The loss of the F-27 has been recorded by CAA and PIA as 'missing on flight from Karachi to Zahedan, Iran.'
[11] The Indian Official History of 1971 Indo-Pak War confirms these three occasions: 1) "From evening of 3 Dec till 0200 hrs on 4 Dec, the Main Fleet was shadowed by three maritime aircraft." 2) "On 6 Dec, several enemy aircraft were shadowing additional vessels (Saurashtra Group) that were to join the Main Fleet south west of Karachi; as a consequence, the group had to turn back without joining the Main Fleet." 3) "At 2040 hrs on 8 Dec, two slow flying aircraft shadowed the Makran Group (INS Mysore, flagship of the Western Fleet)." The number of aircraft reported to be shadowing the ships far exceeds their availability with Pak Navy and, the author is inclined to believe that some of these aircraft may have belonged to foreign forces (likely USA), which may have entered the fray for keeping a tab on what was going on.
[12] 'A War Against Secession,' page 466.
[13] The aircraft belonged to Bombay-based No 310 Squadron of Indian Navy. The crew included the pilot Lt Cdr Ashok Roy and observers Lt H S Sirohi and Aircraftman Vijayan, none of whom survived.
[14] A two-ship B-57 strike on Bombay harbour, staged through Talhar, was planned but cancelled at the last moment, later during the war, according to Wg Cdr Akhtar Bukhari, the B-57 detachment commander at Masroor who was to fly the mission alongwith the Base Commander, Air Cdre Nazir Latif. Some B-57s had been modified to carry four F-86 drop tanks under the wings to be able to fly a lo-lo-lo profile. Two similar long-range strikes had been flown earlier by Mianwali-based B-57s when they staged-through Rafiqui (Shorkot) to attack distant Agra.

Acknowledgements are due to Air Marshal Zafar Choudhry (Retd), Vice Admiral Asif Humayun (Retd), Rear Admiral M A K Lodhi (Retd), Air Vice Marshal M Akhtar Bukhari (Retd) and Captain 'Johnny' Sadiq (PIA), for providing useful information for this article.


This article was published in Defence Journal, April 2010 issue.