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Pakistan consisted of a destroyer, the fleet oiler and four patrol crafts, but it was known that the destroyer had been withdrawn earlier to West Pakistan for refitting and repairs. The strength and punch of our fleet air arm, although mostly outdated, was heavily loaded in our favor.
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.”
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.
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.
At 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…
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 1, p. 10539.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 3, “US Seventh Fleet Ordered off Bay of Bengal,” p. 10573.