Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Navy in War-I
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 01 Dec , 2011

In their heyday of empire building the British consolidated their possessions by the gun power of the Royal Navy. Being essentially a trading nation, they shipped raw materials from the colonies to industries located in the mother country and brought the finished goods back to the protected consumer markets of their overseas possessions. The navy protected the right of way of merchant shipping on the high seas and defended the colonial coastland and attendant naval bases from hostile seaward invasion. The prevalent slogan was “Britannia rules the waves.” This island power had created formidable naval strength before and in the Second World War.

The Japanese threat of invading India, including naval landings, loomed large in this war. To ward off this threat, the British raised the Indian Navy as an auxiliary force comprising small vessels mainly meant for patrolling Indian coastal waters and for close defence of major Indian seaports. Most officers as well as NCOs were drawn from the merchant navy, and ratings through open recruitment. Some Indian naval craft saw action in Burmese waters off the Arakan coast against the Japanese and had odd encounters in the Persian Gulf on escort duty with credit.

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Indian merchant shipping tonnage was kept low so as to protect British shipping from competition. Fishing craft were mainly confined to sailing vessels incapable of a hazardous journey on the high seas. India, whose commerce had once flourished in Southeast Asia and African countries, was made dependent for its overseas trade on British shipping. With the emergence of the Indian Navy as a separate service, the pace was now set for it to shoulder increasingly greater responsibility for defence along with New Zealand and Australia, especially in the Far East, in view of the costlier turnround of shipping from Britain itself. An increase in the manpower of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) was very much in the offing after the end of the Second World War.

To ward off this threat, the British raised the Indian Navy as an auxiliary force comprising small vessels mainly meant for patrolling Indian coastal waters and for close defence of major Indian seaports.

But the mutiny in the naval establishments in Bombay and Karachi in February 1947 gave the British second thoughts, and as a result drastic cuts in naval strength were ordered on one excuse or the other. This reduction would have proceeded at a much faster pace but for the timely intervention of the Interim National Government which had been installed by then.

The partition of the country in the wake of independence saw the division of RIN in the rough proportion of two to one between India and Pakistan. India’s share came to some 32 light vessels against approximately 16 for Pakistan, with some dock repair facilities in Bombay. The Indian flotilla was an odd collection comprising four sloops, two frigates, one corvette, 12 minesweepers, four trawlers, four motor launches and a survey ship, all manned by some 1,000 officers and 10,000 ratings. As the names and roles of these ships signify, they were only meant to support larger fighting ships in coastal waters, in mined stretches, and to perform other odd jobs as mere “maidservants” to a bigger master. But on its own it was an unbalanced force.

The National Government had many urgent problems arising out of partition on its hands and had no time for far-reaching decisions regarding the size and shape of the Indian Navy. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the first Governor-General of India and himself a sailor, had considerable influence with Nehru and was responsible for laying the keel for the growth of the Indian Navy. Since nobody at the decision-making level knew anything about sea power, he brought a Briton, Vice-Admiral WE Parry, to advise on and formulate a proper naval development program.

Indian_NavyThe naval planners projected the British Admiralty view, which visualized the Indian Navy only as a component of a wider Commonwealth naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Admiralty was more interested in developing base repair facilities in Bombay, and possibly Calcutta, and an assembly and supply establishment in Cochin to refit the Commonwealth navies and advised that the Indian vessels should be confined to a force of escorts and local flotillas of minesweepers to serve bigger ships as a constant dependent partner.But Nehru, with his superior vision, had different ideas. He did not want the Indian Navy to be only the “missing bits” of a larger naval scheme. He felt that India, by virtue of its location, potential wealth and vast population, should play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean region. In this regard, he visualized an independent naval power for India which could hold its own against Asian neighbors nearer home.

Indian merchant shipping tonnage was kept low so as to protect British shipping from competition.

With increasing industrialization, he expected the expansion of India’s overseas trade, and with that the size of its merchant shipping fleet. To ensure the freedom of the seas to Indian shipping in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, he wanted the planned growth of the Indian Navy to be developed and scheduled to achieve his aim. Such a strategic role necessitated all the ingredients of naval power-maritime reconnaissance, a strike force of aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, escort vessels, local flotillas to safeguard base areas and so on. India had neither the resources nor the immediate requirement to go in for such elaborate sea power status in one go, but plans could certainly have been formulated on a long range basis to create the necessary infrastructure to fulfill Nehru’s dream.

Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats set about achieving it the wrong way. Considering that the development of naval power was a long term process requiring the help and cooperation of an established navy, they hitched their wagon to Britain, a declining power, and thus reduced the Indian Navy to a junkyard of British discards for a decade and a half. Given a little courage and dare, India should have been able to secure some powerful warships from German and Japanese war reparations for a nominal price. It would have been preferable to mothball some vessels for lack of trained manpower rather than spend manifold sums later, which India eventually did.

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The Parry plan proposed a ten-year expansion program about the end of 1947. It envisaged complete Indianization as soon as practicable, which was consistent with the declared policy of the Government, and the eventual creation of a task force comprising two fleet aircraft carriers, three cruisers, eight to nine destroyers and the necessary support vessels. This force level was supposed to have an inbuilt capacity for expansion in the event of war. Although primarily designed for a defensive role, it could be called upon to carry out-offensive tasks in the Indian Ocean. The specific roles visualized for it in warfare were defined sometime in March 1949 as the protection of merchant convoys, assistance to the Army in amphibious operations, and offensive operations against enemy ports and installations.

Book_India_wars_sinceThen it was said vaguely that the Indian Navy would be developed with emphasis on anti-submarine warfare. Not much thought seems to have been devoted to the country’s immediate needs and these proposals were totally unrelated to India’s existing and growing capability, and they were certainly out of step with its economic and political growth. Let us examine the assigned role in depth. Indian merchant shipping tonnage at the time was so small that it would have been difficult to spot an Indian flag in the sea lanes. So what was there to protect? In fact, security should have been sought by mingling with the shipping of other nations if required. Assistance to the Army in amphibious operations was only a cliché carried over from World War II, as India, essentially a continental country with extensive frontiers and hostile neighbors, could not take into account an overseas invasion for the next decade.In the event, our Navy was not even able to support a battalion amphibious operation adequately in the Bangladesh operations. At the time the Parry naval plan was being finalized, the political scene in the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean was that of Western colonies trying to shake off centuries of subjugation on the Indian example. It would therefore have taken some time for any serious power equation to emerge in the region.

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China was still fighting the last stages of its civil war and was too geographically remote and preoccupied with its own problems to count as a significant sea threat. Under the circumstances, it would have been prudent to emphasize the establishment of the essential infrastructure in the way of bases, refueling and repair facilities, establishment of shipbuilding yards, installation of communication networks, suitably located to serve both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

French_Naval_Ship_in_IORIn addition, priorities should have been focused to establish training facilities for officers and ratings in modern, sophisticated weapons systems and marine engineering and electronics along with basic seamanship. The existing naval establishment could have been suitably refurbished to orient its equipment and training for the seaward defence of the coastline in general and our major ports in particular. Later, the capability could have been progressively enhanced to extend offensive operations against enemy ports and installations. A few modern and prestigious warships could be acquired fitting in with the program, to fly the Indian flag in neighboring waters if politically required. But that was not to be.Instead, the Parry program, sponsored by ignorant bureaucrats, got underway in 1948. One LST and six LCTs were retained for the day when we could prepare for landing operations needed in the future, a wasteful expense and effort for a farfetched task. A light cruiser and three R class destroyers were bought from Britain in 1948, the cruiser arriving by the end of the same year and the destroyers in January 1950 after refitting. Two oilers were also acquired along with them. Of the old fleet, four trawlers and six minesweepers had to be discarded because they were no longer seaworthy, thus keeping the overall strength of the Navy almost constant. The nucleus of the future fleet air arm was planned to be created to receive the first aircraft carrier, which was scheduled to arrive sometime in 1955.

Our Navy was not even able to support a battalion amphibious operation adequately in the Bangladesh operations.

The Parry plan envisaged the acquisition of two aircraft carriers. Carriers usually provide air support on the seas when a fleet operates outside the range of shore based aircraft, particularly applicable to greater powers while operating in distant overseas theatres. In the context of Indian coastal defence, it would have been preferable to develop air bases at suitable locations along the coast from where our Air Force could provide the requisite support of the Navy operating off the coastline rather than acquire aircraft carriers for a role which could be easily carried 0ut by the land based IAF. This was a wasteful duplication of effort which could have been usefully utilized by meaningful enhancement of other naval capabilities. Instead, the first carrier was phased to arrive in 1955 and the second in 1957, by which time it was hoped that the fleet air arm would comprise 300 modern naval fighters, fighter-bombers and anti-submarine aircraft with a frontline operational capability of 54 aircraft in two carrier groups.

Luckily for India, lack of internal financial resources and the Korean War on the international horizon slowed the execution of the Parry plan. Britain could not release the required war-ships at the pace envisaged by the Indian naval program, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves were needed badly for the government’s development plans. As a result, wisdom dawned on the authorities to have a second look at the Parry plan and re-tailor it to suit immediate resources and needs.

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Parry himself announced at a press conference that the Indian Navy was now committed to develop a small carrier task force .of the hunter-killer (antisubmarine) type that would consist of one light fleet carrier, three light cruisers, eight to nine destroyers and the necessary support vessels. Its composition was oriented once again to destroying submarines on the high seas. It was a matter of conjecture which nation posed such a threat to India’s negligible shipping at that time.

The naval planners projected the British Admiralty view, which visualized the Indian Navy only as a component of a wider Commonwealth naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

In accordance with the revised program, India proceeded to purchase a fleet replenishment ship from Italy and to borrow three ex-escort destroyers of the Hunt class from Britain. A second light cruiser, later named INS Delhi, was purchased in 1954 and underwent extensive refitting before actually joining the fleet in 1957. Two inshore minesweepers also came from the Royal Navy.1 In 1955, a six-year building program for the Navy began in a big way in British shipyards. In this period the Navy expected 12 antisubmarine and antiaircraft frigates, eight coastal minesweepers and an unspecified number of inshore minesweepers.

The number which actually materialized was two coastal minesweepers, five antisubmarine frigates and three antiaircraft frigates. Perhaps it was a blessing in a way that the acquisition fell short of the planned target as the naval program bore no relation to India’s immediate needs. The acute shortage of foreign exchange, which involved a deficit of 8650 million in 1957-58 and threatened to derail the Second Five-Year Plan, forced the Government to cut short the naval building program in Britain. It however purchased the three R class destroyers on loan and in service with the Indian Navy. A decision was taken instead to create facilities to build our requirements in Indian shipyards.

The first naval air station-INS Garuda, a shore based training establishment-was commissioned in 1953 at Cochin. The same year, ten short-flight Sealand amphibious craft, and in 1955 the Fairey Fly craft, were acquired to get the Navy into the air. Later, the Hindusthan HT-2 and Vampire trainers ushered in the jet age in IAF. The Royal Navy’s Hercules, a light-fleet carrier, was purchased in 1957 and joined the fleet in 1961 after thorough refitting and modernization and was rechristened INS Vikrant.

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A few months later, a squadron of American Sea Hawk jet fighter-bombers and another squadron of French Alize turbo-propelled aircraft for reconnaissance and antisubmarine work, joined the Vikrant. Although the initial naval program envisaged the establishment of a submarine arm, this was given lower priority. Financial constraints prevented the acquisition of submarines and forced the Navy rely on periodic visits by British submarines for training in antisubmarine operations. The first Indian Naval Chief, Vice Admiral RD Katari, stated in May 1962 that the Navy was dissatisfied role and publicly pleaded for early establishment of its own submarine fleet.

Book_India_wars_sinceAlong with the expansion of naval strength, the Navy strove to develop its own training establishments to replace those retained by Pakistan on partition. Until 1952, all naval officers were sent to Britain for training , but by 1955 India has created adequate training facilities to meet most of the Navy’s basic needs. The number of men sent to Britain gradually declined. Concurrently, Indianization had also gone well ahead, and by April 1962 the Indian Navy became entirely national in character. Not a single foreigner was borne on its strength in any capacity.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol 1, No 51, “Navy’s Progress,” p. 579.

With the commissioning of the Vikrant in August 1961,1 the naval requirement and expansion program was completed. According to Vice Admiral BS Soman, then Chief Staff, the Navy comprised 50 warships of all types manned by 1,450 officers and 14,550 ratings. The fleet was based in Bombay and Cochin on the west coast, and according to one official spokesman constituted the most effective naval force of any country in the Indian Ocean region.

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Its ships were entirely of British origin with the exception of the fleet replenishment ship. The Savitri class seaward defence boats were a mixed lot, Italian,. Yugoslav and Dutch. A Portuguese frigate, captured in the Goa operations in 1961,2 also sailed under the Indian flag. Apart from these, there were a few smaller craft built in Indian shipyards. The force was greatly dependent for spares, repairs, training and other facilities on the Royal Navy, but this was understandable in view of the leading British role in its development. Aircraft for the naval air arm were selected purely on performance and cost effectiveness.

French_Navy_Ship_in_IORIndia’s maritime trade was still conducted in foreign ships, mostly belonging to the Western bloc, as an understanding on trade and commerce had not yet developed between Indian and the Communist countries. As a result New Delhi looked upon the security of the Indian Ocean sealanes as the overall responsibility of the Western nations and the nonaligned regional states of the Commonwealth. Everything had so far worked out well for Nehru’s nonalignment policies.

The threat from China, although developing fast on the land frontier, had not much potential in the Indian Ocean. The Indonesian Navy was fast expanding in numbers and quality with Russian help, and this had emboldened President Sukarno to claim the Nicobar Islands. But this did not constitute a threat of any significance and was treated as part of Sukarno’s empty “bellicosity.” Under the circumstances, Indian naval power was reduced to an adjunct of Commonwealth-United States defence of the Indian Ocean region. Although politically not contributing to any East-West confrontations, India allowed its Navy to participate in annual exercises with other Commonwealth navies in the ocean. In this period, contingency planning was to meet only the threat from Pakistan. Pakistan’s naval capability was extremely limited at the time, with the operational responsibility of guarding the coastline of two wings of the country separated by about 3,000 miles of sea.

He (Nehru) felt that India, by virtue of its location, potential wealth and vast population, should play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean region.

It was appreciated that the Pakistan Navy could manage no more than one bold foray from the Karachi fleet against Indian coastal shipping, and perhaps a short bombardment of some west coast city. But afterwards, pursued by superior Indian naval strength, it would be bottled up in Karachi under constant attack from Indian carrier-borne and land based air attacks until the outcome of the land battle. The security of India’s merchant shipping presented no serious problem, as the small number of Indian registered vessels would so mingle with the flag carriers of other nations in the busy sea lanes that it would be difficult to pick them out singly without incurring the hostility of other nations. And in any event the bulk of our foreign trade and oil imports from the Persian Gulf was carried in foreign bottoms.

Oversimplification of the contingency task against a weak Pakistan Navy had however generated a complacent attitude regarding priorities for the Indian Navy so far as allocation of fiscal resources was concerned. Most Indian naval vessels were of World War II vintage and needed a well-planned and continuous refitting program, which if delayed would seriously affect the war worthiness of the Indian fleet. Inadequate docking and repair facilities, aside from Bombay and Cochin, seriously curtailed the fleet’s capability to sustain naval operations in the Bay of Bengal.

The sluggish flow of spare parts in the pipeline, which was constantly interfered with or cut off by lack of funds or diplomatic reasons, had seriously affected the fleet’s serviceability. The cruiser Delhi, although refitted in 1955, had very little operational life and rarely left harbor even in its training capacity. The three R class destroyers and three H class frigates were obsolete as their detection systems were not capable of tracking modern submarines, much less nuclear-powered ones. The cruiser Mysore was outclassed by similar ships in service in the region with the Indonesian and Iranian navies.

Indian_Navy_2But the Indian fleet was however still capable of holding its own against Pakistan, a fact which was over publicized for the consumption of the Indian layman. The Chinese invasion of India in 1962 consisted mainly of local army actions in NEFA and Ladakh and did not encompass the Air Force and the Navy. Although these operations were very limited in nature, they brought into focus the glaring voids in India’s defences. Shedding the garb of neutrality, the Government thereupon launched a defence buildup with the help of the Western powers, notably the US and Britain.Since the potential Chinese threat was mainly on the Himalayan frontier, the accent and priority of this program were on organizing and equipping land armies to hold the mountain passes, with some offensive capability, and to organize air defence on a proper footing. The US advisory group on military aid did not give much thought to revamping the Indian Navy as the Chinese naval threat was marginal. The Chinese were concentrating their efforts on increasing the submarine strength of their navy.

Until 1952, all naval officers were sent to Britain for training , but by 1955 India has created adequate training facilities to meet most of the Navys basic needs.

In the event of future conflict, there was a possibility of Chinese submarines carrying out forays from bases provided in erstwhile East Pakistan, but this too was marginal and distant. As a result of this assessment by India’s decision-makers in defence matters, the Navy was passed over to attend to other pressing priorities. The obsolescent fleet of World War II vintage continued to keep its keels intact in Indian waters, but otherwise its war potential was known to be a diminishing asset.

It is an amazing fact that between the Chinese invasion of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1965, the naval chiefs and admirals went to sleep, accepting the finality of higher decisions without protest. A little leak of shortcomings to a public whose anger had been roused would have redressed matters, but the admirals preferred the path of acquiescence and the country suffered as a consequence in the next conflict. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1965, our warships had just returned from the east coast and were re-servicing. The Vikrant, the mainstay of the naval strike element, was undergoing repairs in dry dock and in no position to take to the sea at short notice.

In his book Twenty Two Fateful Days, DR Mankekar commented that “the Indian Navy was caught napping by this unexpected attack.” The attack was however by no means unexpected. The conflict started with the Pakistani incursions in the Rann of Kutch on 9 April 1965, followed by large-scale Pakistani-sponsored infiltration by raiders into Jammu and’ Kashmir in early August. The struggle to block the infiltration routes across the ceasefire line started soon after and mounted to brigade-sized but isolated operations. On 1 September, Pakistan launched a divisional attack in the Chhamb sector, which India countered by invading West Pakistan on 6 September.

Book_India_wars_sinceIt is inconceivable how the shadows of the gathering storm eluded the notice of the Chief of the Indian Naval Staff and his admirals, and how the inbuilt systems of the Indian higher direction of war allowed such a calamitous lapse to occur. The Defence Ministry, the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the top naval brass must bear the blame for such callous neglect of the Navy’s preparedness for the oncoming conflict.


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol II, “Aircraft Carrier Vikrant Commissioned,” p. 3865.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 37, p. 4152.

Fazal Muqeem remarked in Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership, that the Indian Navy was taken completely by surprise, and was not prepared to seek an engagement at sea with a much weaker opponent.” Little did he know that the Indian Navy, thanks to its admirals, was not in a position to take to the sea, let alone seek an engagement. As a result, a Pakistani naval flotilla approached Dwarka, a small fishing port on the Saurashtra coast, and standing off at a distance took a pot shot at an abandoned World War II radar installation and damaged a country fishing boat.

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The American-gifted submarine Ghazi prowled in and around Bombay harbor without indulging in any warlike activities. As the conflict progressed, some antisubmarine frigates were able to chase the Ghazi back to its lair in Karachi harbor. In fact, one may ask why the Pakistan navy did not make better use of the opportunities offered by the absence of challenge in Indian waters. The Pakistan Navy claimed to have sunk an Indian frigate on 22 September 1965 somewhere off the Baluchistan coast. The target later turned out to be two frigates of the Iranian Navy.

INS-KalapaniAlthough no official inquiry was held to assess the performance of the armed forces and highlighting the shortcomings in the conduct of the 1965 war, it appeared that some lessons had gone home. The Indian Navy received immediate attention in the way of allocation of funds and the replacement of its obsolescent fleet. After the Tashkent Agreement the Soviet Union emerged as a major source of war supplies. A concerted effort was therefore made to revamp the Indian Navy with Russian aid.By 1971 the Navy had acquired a fleet of new anti-submarines, a few minesweepers and some Ossa missile boats along with a large number of patrol boat Apart from modernizing its fleet, the Indian Navy set about rationalizing its command and control and establishing the necessary infrastructure to improve its administrative and communication base so as to enhance its operational capability. Three operational naval commands were established: Western Naval Command at Bombay to look after the northern portion of the Arabian Sea; Southern Naval Command at Cochin, apart from looking after the training establishments there, was responsible for the southern half of the Arabian Sea up to the southern tip of the Indian landmass; and Eastern Naval Command at Vishakhapatnam was primarily responsible for operations in the Bay of Bengal.

The threat from China, although developing fast on the land frontier, had not much potential in the Indian Ocean.

Task forces, composed of a mixture of warships, depending upon the operational requirements of the time, were to be allotted to the naval commands to carry out the tasks allotted to them in their respective areas of responsibility. In addition, extensive facilities were created at other seaports along the Kathiawar coast and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which would provide advance bases for the naval task forces, as also to act as dispersal areas against air and submarine attacks. A maritime air command was also established close to Western Naval Command to coordinate the operations of maritime reconnaissance and other close offensive air efforts in support of naval operations.

Three Constellations of Air India, fitted with surveillance radar and other detection equipment, were allotted for reconnaissance tasks. Although these aircraft had the requisite range, they were not armed to take an offensive action once a surface or under-surface craft was sighted. The only action possible for them was to relay siting information.

In any case, these aircraft, essentially meant for civilian use, were a poor substitute for modern types of long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Close air support was to be provided, apart from the fleet air arm, by IAF from airfields located along the coast to provide deep cover over our waters. The air effort was to be made available in quantity and quality, depending upon operational requirements. A few months before the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1971, a dozen-odd Seaking helicopters were bought from Britain to further enhance the Navy’s anti-submarine capability. Admiral SM Nanda, Chief of Naval Staff, possessed a bulky body and the typical look of a seadog.

Oversimplification of the contingency task against a weak Pakistan Navy had however generated a complacent attitude regarding priorities for the Indian Navy so far as allocation of fiscal resources was concerned.

His bulk moved from one service’s operational room to another looking for tasks in performing which the Navy could show its mettle. He felt aggrieved that from independence onward the Navy had never got a chance to do so, and he was bent upon redeeming its honor after the left-out-of-battle impressions of the previous conflicts. He was essentially an operational man and had an offensive outlook. He felt that the best defensive roles could be carried out only by going on the offensive at the very outset of battle.

When the overall strategy for liberating East Pakistan was being formulated Nanda offered to blockade the major seaports of Khulna-Chalna and Chittagong. The offer was gratefully accepted as attempts to capture these ports by land operations were leading to time-consuming schedules. The Army allowed a portion of the trapped Pakistani to escape by sea. In fact, our military planners wanted the ports blocked at the very outset of hostilities so as to create a sense of isolation and insecurity of home return among the troops operating in East Pakistan.

This task was assigned to the Navy, and to carry it out Nanda chose a carrier task force comprising the Vikrant supported by the destroyer Rajput, two frigates, Brahmaputra and Beas, two antisubmarine patrol boats, and two to three LSTs. The aircraft carrier had one defective boiler and as a result its cruising speed was considerably slowed down, and the destroyer was very old. The fleet was therefore put to sea in early November and slowly taken to bases in the Andamans to await the outbreak of hostilities.

The composition of the eastern fleet was based on the appreciation that Pakistan’s naval strength consisted of no more than 24 boats functioned inland in riverine warfare under Admiral Sharif, the Flag Officer Commanding East Pakistan. In March 1971, the Pakistani naval units in East Pakistan consisted of a destroyer, the fleet oiler and four patrol crafts, but it was known that the destroyer had been withdrawn earlier to West Pakistan for refitting and repairs. The strength and punch of our fleet air arm, although mostly outdated, was heavily loaded in our favor.

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It became known later that the Ghazi had been assigned the task of trapping the Vikrant in Vishakhapatnam waters. Captured documents revealed that the Ghazi left Karachi for the Bay of Bengal on 14 November, was asked to arm all weapons on 24 November and was lurking in the area from 26 November, but by that time the eastern fleet had left Vishakhapatnam. On the night of 3 December, a loud underwater explosion was heard which shook windowpanes in Vishakhapatnam town. Two days later, local fishermen brought the naval authorities a torn life jacket with US markings. Navy divers and frogmen later discovered Ghazi, its rudder in a hard-to-port position, “indicating fast manoeuvres in a state of distress.”

Book_India_wars_sinceThere was an indication of an explosion, but its cause could not be discerned. The vessel’s logbook indicated its movements but not its mission. There was no doubt that its target was the Vikrant, and according to Fazal Muqeem it was in the process of mine-laying that the submarine met its end. Whatever it was, this augured well for India, as any damage to the aircraft carrier at that stage would have seriously weakened the punch of the eastern fleet. About the same time that the Ghazi was destroyed, the Vikrant was on its way to East Pakistan from the Andamans.On the morning of 4 December its aircraft raided the airfield and harbor facilities at Cox’s Bazaar.1 In the afternoon of the same day, Chittagong was raided, damaging both its harbor and airfield, and by evening the blockade of both Chittagong and Khulna ports was complete. The eastern fleet dominated the sea lanes to East Pakistan and captured two 8,000-ton Pakistani merchant ships, Anwar Baksh and Baqir, two tugs and half a dozen other vessels trying to get away under false names and colours. In addition, it seized eight ships under charter to Pakistan.

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The swift action by carrier-borne Seahawk aircraft was helped by the earlier IAF mastery of the East Pakistan skies, without which the operation of these slow moving aircraft within the operational radius of Pakistani land-based jetcraft would have been inconceivable. In fact, the entire fleet, with its slow moving carrier and escort vessels, would have been sitting ducks for hostile air action, and their staying away from the radius of action would not have given the Seahawks the desired range to hit Chittagong and Khulna. Riverine gunboats were destroyed by IAF in inland waters, while out of four Pakistani seagoing patrol boats one was sunk by air action, two were scuttled in Chittagong harbor at the time of surrender, and the fourth sneaked its way through the heavily patrolled coastal waters into the neutral waters of Burma.

It is an amazing fact that between the Chinese invasion of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1965, the naval chiefs and admirals went to sleep, accepting the finality of higher decisions without protest.

The eastern fleet was called upon to support an amphibious assault on Cox’s Bazaar, an afterthought of the Field Marshal. A battalion group was lifted in a merchant ship and met the fleet off the coast of Cox’s Bazaar. Transfer of troops and equipment on the high seas from the merchant ship to LSTs for later landing onshore in uncharted waters proved disastrous. It was just luck that the beaches were not held, and in any event by the time landing was attempted the enemy forces in East Pakistan had capitulated. Internationally, there was the alarming news on 10 December of President Nixon’s decision to send a naval task force from the US Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal from the Indochina theatre.2 The reported composition of the task force was the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise (capable of launching phantoms armed with nuclear warheads), commando carriers, (the amphibious attack ship Tripoli with a sizable marine contingent), a guided missile frigate, a number of destroyers, and dock landing and supply ships.

The declared object of this gunboat diplomacy was to facilitate the evacuation of US citizens still in East Pakistan, numbering no more than a handful of missionaries who had elected to remain in the country of their own accord. It was more likely that Nixon intended to hail out Yahya Khan by helping him to evacuate Niazi and his beleaguered troops, and in the process provide an inducement for the much-expected Chinese intervention. The pattern of such operations by naval task forces was familiar.

By breaking the blockade, the US task force would have attempted to create a number of beachheads along the coast where Yahya Khan’s land armies could fight their way back to the haven of the American ships. The might have helped the Chittagong garrison and to a limited extent the troops falling back on Khulna, but the remainder of Niazi’s formations and units were in isolated bands in the hinterland. For their evacuation, it would have been necessary to establish a number of airheads against Indian opposition both on land and in the air and lift the beleaguered garrisons by helicopter to the American force.

The obsolescent fleet of World War II vintage continued to keep its keels intact in Indian waters, but otherwise its war potential was known to be a diminishing asset.

The eastern fleet did not have the potential to resist a bid to break the blockade and the consequent establishment of beachheads. It decided to concentrate on disruptive attacks on- the port installations in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar and on their airfields so as to deny these facilities to the US task force. The campaign on land was being concluded as rapidly as possible to forestall US intervention and save embarrassment to all concerned. This plan worked, for before the task force came into play the liberation campaign was over.

The concept of the continental type of strategy to obtain a decision in wars between Pakistan and India had affected the growth of the Pakistan Navy. The argument was put forward that in the context of short clashes of the type envisaged between the two countries war could be waged on stockpiles of arms and ammunition collected in the preparatory phases, and as such there was no need for an uninterrupted flow in the sea pipeline for its execution. Choking the sea lanes or blockading the adversary’s seaports lost its meaning in the context of such wars except perhaps for wresting a psychological advantage.

The decision-makers in Pakistan felt that the main battles for survival would be fought in the plains of Punjab, and therefore resources, and the priorities for there allocation, were devoted to enhancing land and air capability and naval requirements receded into the background. The Pakistani authorities did not fully realize the peculiarity of the geopolitics of the two wings of their country, separated by some 3,000 miles of sea, and the need to maintain licks between them in the event of war. The events of the 1965 conflict perhaps strengthened the idea that “the defence of the east lies in the west,” but this was carried too far, even to the extent that the regional requirements for riverine warfare were ignored.

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As in other spheres, the growth of the Pakistan Navy was geared to match that of the Indian Navy. After partition, when India acquired three destroyers from Britain, Pakistan followed suit. The destroyers supplied to both countries were obsolescent World War II types. The only gainer in this deal was the Royal Navy, which dumped its discards at a price. Later, when US aid came to Pakistan from 1955 onwards, there were some-additions to its naval strength, but from the same old source, Britain, one secondhand cruiser, five old destroyers and a fleet oiler were acquired in the period 1954-65, and an American submarine Diablo, later rechristened Ghazi, was gifted by the US, ostensibly on loan.

Book_India_wars_sinceAt this stage, according to Fazal Muqeem, there were professional differences over the pace of modernizing and expanding the Pakistan Navy between Admiral H.M.S. Chaudhary, the naval chief, and the President, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, which led to the Admiral’s resignation. But there was no significant change in the pace of buildup of their naval strength as a result. The foray carried out by the Pakistani Navy against the undefended Kathiawar coast resulted in shelling the fishing port of Dwarka, but except for getting a psychological edge over the Indian Navy the Pakistani Navy made no contribution towards reaching a decision in the 1965 conflict.

To be continued…


  1. Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 1, p. 10539.
  2. Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 3, “US Seventh Fleet Ordered off Bay of Bengal,” p. 10573.
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