Put the missile out to sea
Where the real estate is free
And it is far away from me.
Commander-in-Chief, West executed Operation Trident, the code name for the missile attack on Karachi. At the last moment Kadmat (Commander Tony Jain), who had been exercising with the ‘Killer Squadron’ was replaced by INS Kiltan (Commander Gopal Rao), ‘who had not worked up with the ‘Killers’ as she could only rendezvous with them at sea on 3 December 1971. The Squadron Commander (K-25), Babru Yadav, was embarked on Nipat (Lieutenant Commander Kavina). Nirghat (Lieutenant Commander I. J. Sharma) and Veer (Lieutenant Commander Mehta) were the two other missile boats. Hence, no pre-attack briefing was possible before the boats commenced their fast run to Karachi. The excellent photo reconnaissance pictures of Karachi which No. 106 Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of IAF brought back were an asset for planning the attack on the heavily defended port.
The Osas were in an arrowhead formation with Nipat leading and Nirghat to port and Veer to starboard. INS Kiltan was line astern. The formation speed was 24 knots as the missile boats hugged the Saurashtra coast on their historic attack on Karachi where sunset was at 1812 hours. It also may be noted that there is a difference of 30 minutes between Pakistan and Indian Standard Time.
The oiler, Poshak, with fuel for the Osas was positioned midway and her latitude and longitude was promulgated to the Trident force. Vidyut (Lieutenant Commander B. B. Singh) with four fully prepared missiles remained well astern to act as a deterrent in case there was a counter-attack by Pakistani destroyers. This was contrary to the appreciation at Naval Headquarters, who had advocated that maximum missiles should be fired in the first attack as surprise was the dominant factor for overall success. Two Osa boats, Vinash (Lieutenant Commander V. Jerath), and Vijeta (Commander B. B. Parti) were allotted to the Western Fleet. Nashak (Lieutenant Commander R. B. Suri) and Nirbhik (Lieutenant Commander S. Issac) were temporarily unserviceable.
The Pakistani official history which was published in Islamabad in 1991 states that destroyer Khaibar and minesweeper Muhafiz were sunk by surface-to-surface missiles Khaibar transmitted a signal at 2245 to Maritime Headquarters at Karachi stating that ‘enemy aircraft attacked ship’.
Kiltan continued to pick up contacts at longer ranges due to anomalous propagation although the radar of the smaller Osa boats was equally effective. However, until the radar of the missile boat fed the contact into the console, the missiles could not acquire the designated target. K-25 gives this first-hand account of the missile attack on the night of 4 December from the bridge of Nipat.
We were in an arrowhead formation with Nirgnat five miles on the port quarter and Veer lagging behind on the starboard quarter. We were about 40 miles from Karachi. Nirghat reported a firm contact at a distance of about 25 miles. I could see this blip on my radar and evaluated it as a warship coming towards me in view of the high rate of closing. I therefore ordered Nirghat to alter course and engage this target. Nirghat altered to port and soon after fired the first missile at a distance of about 20 miles. I ordered him to fire one more missile at the same target which was now about 17 miles. I also requested Kiltan to join Nirghat.
Nipat continued to steer North with Veer on my starboard quarter. Two firm contacts developed on my radar at about 25 miles. I fired a missile on each of these contacts. In hindsight, these could have been Shahjahan and Venus Challenger. By this time, the port of Karachi was about 32 miles and painting clearly on my radar. Veer who was 8 miles astern also reported a contact fine on her starboard bow. I ordered him to engage this target. The missile immediately locked on and the result was a direct hit which disintegrated the target. By this time the distance between the three boats had opened out. Time and distance precluded the two boats from rejoining Nipat. I, therefore, instructed them to act independently and rendezvous as planned with the tanker Poshak.
I continued towards Karachi and when about 14 miles from the harbour, I fired a missile in the direction of the entrance, with the intention of following it up with my fourth missile, which, however, misfired.
I could by this time see an explosion on the horizon. I thought this was a warship as fires leapt into the sky. I then reversed course to get outside the air attack range by first light with the intention of fuelling and returning to Bombay at high speed to re-arm for the next missile attack. I then broke radio silence to transmit ‘Angar’ the code for a successful missile attack which was received at MOR Bombay on 4th December amidst great jubilation. Thereafter, we maintained strict radio silence until we arrived at our rendezvous with Poshak. This possibly gave rise to the Pakistani claim of having sunk a missile boat.
Wing Commander K. K. Badhwar confirms Air Chief Marshal P. C. Lars raconteur in his autobiography that he led a four-Canberra raid on Masroor air base on the nights of 4, 5 and 6 December 1971 which came in 10-10 and then climbed up to 8000 feet to release their bombs. The Squadron Commander also confirmed that no attack was carried out by Canberras on Karachi port or Keamri oil tanks on any of the above three nights. He further confirmed that the oil tanks were not designated as targets in spite of his pleas that these tanks, which were not camouflaged and clearly visible in moonlight, should be put on the list of vital economic targets.
The missile immediately locked on and the result was a direct hit which disintegrated the target. By this time the distance between the three boats had opened out.
The Pakistani official history which was published in Islamabad in 1991 states that destroyer Khaibar and minesweeper Muhafiz were sunk by surface-to-surface missiles Khaibar transmitted a signal at 2245 to Maritime Headquarters at Karachi stating that ‘enemy aircraft attacked ship in position 020 FF 20. No.1 boiler hit. Ship stopped. ’1 Khaibar also described the second missile attack on her as from an aircraft and engaged it with Bofors AA guns. It is to be borne in mind that the Styx missile is not a skimmer like the Exocet or Harpoon. The Styx climbs into the sky before descending on the target and hence appears like a ‘ball of fire’ descending at subsonic speed. Hence, Muhafiz which witnessed this attack on Khaibar also described the missile that struck her as an air attack. The Pakistan Navy’s official history of the 1971 conflict also stated that on the night of 4 December, two tanks in the Keamari oil farm caught fire after the missile attack which was again described as a ball of fire descending from above. These fires which enveloped the two tanks were put out after three days of concentrated fire fighting. The misinterpretation of the ‘missile attack’ as being an ‘air attack’ was again repeated during the subsequent missile attack.
At this juncture, one of Nipat’s lubrication oil hose pipes gave way reducing the boat’s speed to 7 knots. After about two hours, repairs were effected and Nipat increased speed to 30 knots keeping well below the maximum speed of 45 knots in order to avoid recurrence of the hose pipe failure. Further, to avoid being in the attack range of Pakistani aircraft, Nipat altered course by 90 degrees towards Aden and only when well clear of the air route from Karachi to Bombay, altered back to rendezvous Poshak. This detour however consumed additional fuel and Nipat barely limped back by manually transferring unpumpable fuel from one tank to another. After replenishing from Poshak on 5 December, Nipat returned to Bombay.’
In the official story of the Pakistan Navy,2 it was stated that the first missile struck Khaibar on the starboard side just below the aft galley in the electricians’ mess deck at about 2245. The ship immediately lost propulsion and plunged into darkness. A huge flame shot up in number one boiler room and thick black smoke poured out of the funnel. In complete darkness, the WIT office passed the message to Karachi of being under ‘air attack’. Unfortunately the position transmitted on the emergency wireless set was incorrect which delayed the rescue of the survivors by almost a day.
A huge flame shot up in number one boiler room and thick black smoke poured out of the funnel. In complete darkness, the WIT office passed the message to Karachi of being under ‘air attack’.
The second missile was seen approaching the ship at about 2249 (11 p.m.) and was engaged by the ship’s close range weapons. The missile hit No.2 boiler room on the starboard side. The ship began to list to port and then to quote the official story of the Pakistan Navy.
At 2300 it was decided to abandon ship when the list to port became dangerous and the ship had become enveloped in uncontrollable fires. By 2315, it had been abandoned by all those who could leave the ship. More explosions due to the bursting of ammunition continued to rock the ship as men jumped overboard from the sinking destroyer. Khaibar went down at 2320, stern first with a heavy list to port.
The minesweeper Muhafiz which arrived at her station on the inner patrol area at about 2245 was just in time to witness the missile attack on Khaibar. The Commanding Officer also thought that the wavering ball of light descending on Khaibar was a ‘Star Shell’ and evaluated it as an ‘air attack’. She altered onto course 210 degrees heading towards the burning glow which was the wreckage of Khaibar. Suddenly, a ball of light came hurtling towards the minesweeper and Muhafiz suffered a direct hit on her port side, abaft the wooden hull and disintegrated without even being able to send out a distress message. The ship’s structure continued to bum while the few survivors floated around the burning debris. Although the Pakistan Navy has categorically stated that only Khaibar and Muhafiz were sunk and there was no damage to Shahjahan as reported by Keesing’s Archives in January 1972, it was not clear until later that the missile had homed on to the oil tanks at Keamari. The supporting Petyas had intercepted MHQ Karachi’s message to Shahjahan to assist Khaibar and hence concluded that Shahjahan had been also hit by missiles.
Maritime Headquarters, Karachi directed the gunboat Sadaqat to look for Khaibar’s survivors. It was nearly midnight of 4 December when Sadaqat steered towards a glow of light over the horizon and came upon the survivors of Muhafiz and thus learnt of its sinking. They returned back to harbour in the early hours of 5 December without locating the survivors of Khaibar. Immediately another search was ordered with Zulfiqar, Shahjahan, Madadgar combing the reported area but with no results. At 1000, Sadaqat was again ordered to locate Khaibar’s survivors which she did successfully at 1600 and returned back to harbour. In the meantime, Zulfiqar, Madadgar and Munsif were instructed to commence an expanding search which was abandoned at 1913 when a false alarm of another missile attack was received.
On the morning of 5 December, the Air Priority Board of Karachi provided an assorted bunch of aircraft including Cessnas, Aero Club Austers, Dakotas, Fokkers, Twin Otters with radar and even a light plant protection aircraft. This assorted Fleet Air Arm flown by civilian pilots with naval liaison officers, were lined up at Karachi civil airport. From the afternoon of 5 December, three to four aircraft were airborne searching an arc of 200 miles from Karachi.
The ships structure continued to bum while the few survivors floated around the burning debris. Although the Pakistan Navy has categorically stated that only Khaibar and Muhafiz were sunk and there was no damage to Shahjahan.
On the morning of 6 December, a naval liaison officer in a Fokker aircraft reported missile boat activity in the area West of Cape Monza. PAF aircraft were launched and they strafed the Pakistan survey vessel Zulfiqar which is reported to have escaped with minor damage and a loss of few lives.
The stable doors had been locked after the proverbial mares had fled!
The Western fleet with two missile boats in tow was to deliver another missile attack on 5 December. The Western fleet which had sailed on 2 December were being shadowed by PAF reconnaissance aircraft. The Fleet Commander was conscious of the air and submarine threats and hence split his forces under cover of darkness to shake off the snoopers and then regroup for the attack on Karachi on the night of 6/7 December.
However in order to substitute another missile boat for Vijeta which had a material problem, Naval Headquarters ordered the fleet to rendezvous Tir off Saurashtra to pick up INS Vidyut. This further postponed the missile attack on Karachi which was to coincide with a simultaneous bombardment of the Makran Coast by the Surface Action Group (SAG) consisting of Mysore, Betlla and Ranjit. Naval Headquarters appreciated that to add to the confusion at Karachi, it was necessary for another missile strike to break the will of the Pakistani forces.