Forty years ago, the Indian Navy’s missile boats made a daring attack on Pakistan’s major seaport; Karachi burned for seven days.
The sight of billowing flames and the sound of explosions in Karachi harbour is undoubtedly demoralising for the Pakistani military and the public at large. But this isn’t the first time Pakistan’s main port has been hit; nearly 40 years ago, the Indian Navy made a bigger bonfire of it.
On December 3, 1971, Pakistan launched a foolhardy attack on India’s forward airbases. India was anticipating such an attack and its counterattacks were immediate and deadly. But it was the daring night attack by Indian missile boats on Karachi harbour that was the most spectacular.
Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda, India’s navy chief, had been smarting under the step motherly treatment shown towards the navy by New Delhi. It was as if the navy didn’t even exist. During joint services chiefs meetings with the Prime Minister, the navy chief was barely acknowledged. Strategic planning was left to the army and air force.
Nanda was determined to change that. He sought a private audience with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and said: “I’m going to attack Karachi. I want political clearance from you. I’m going to prepare the navy for it and I don’t want to be told later that I cannot do it.”
The Prime Minister thought a bit, and then said, “Well Admiral, if there's a war, there's war.”
That was the signal Nanda needed. He called his directors of naval operations and naval intelligence, and said he had obtained clearance to plan an attack on Karachi.
In his autobiography, The Man Who Bombed Karachi, Nanda writes: “Everybody looked at me and said Karachi is a very heavily defended port. They've got six inch guns, while our guns are only four inch. We will be well within their range before they come into our range. So I said we have these Russian-made Osa Class missile boats with Styx missiles.”
The naval brass wasn’t very keen. They said the boats did not have the range to reach Karachi and return. Secondly, though the Styx was highly accurate, they were anti-ship missiles and not designed to attack shore targets. Incredibly, some of the naval officers objected on the grounds that if Indian missiles hit Karachi, then there would be an international uproar over civilian casualties.
Nanda threw all such objections into the sea. To ensure secrecy, only those directly taking part in the planned raid were kept in the loop. Even Naval HQ wasn’t told about it, until the ships set sail. (It was just as well, for two decades later a KGB general revealed in his memoirs that New Delhi’s political and defence establishment leaked like a colander.)
Nanda wanted the Osa boats to attack Karachi with their deadly Russian missiles. To overcome their short range, he towed the boats from their base in Mumbai to Diu in Gujarat, which was a short distance from the target.
Vice Admiral G.M. Hiranandani writes in Transition to Triumph, which forms part of the Indian Navy’s official history: “The Karachi strike group consisted of two Petya (class frigates) and four missile boats armed with four missiles each. One of the four boats was to remain on patrol off Dwarka in order to provide cover for the force on its way back. The Petyas were intended to provide communication and control and, with their better radar, give indication of suitable targets. In the event of an emergency, they could take a boat in tow and, if necessary give fuel.
“After arriving at a certain point south of Karachi, the Task Group Commander in the Petya was to release the missile boats to proceed at maximum speed towards Karachi; the Squadron Commander embarked in one of the boats would allocate targets and the boats thereafter would act independently keeping in touch with the Squadron Commander. The Petyas would follow at a slower speed, but stay not too far away from the rendezvous. Naval Headquarters and Headquarters Western Naval Command were to listen in on Pakistani wireless circuits and pass the relevant intelligence to the force.”
On the night of December 4, 1971, the missile boats carried out their first attack on Karachi. Not only were the missiles successfully launched on Karachi but in the process the boats sank two Pakistani warships and crippled a third. The Indian Navy landed a huge bonus when it destroyed a Pakistani merchant vessel bringing ammunition from an American depot in Saigon.
Radio intercepts revealed that shore defences were in a state of utter panic. The Pakistanis thought it was an IAF raid and riddled the sky with tracer bullets. Their much vaunted destroyer, Khaibar, was sunk by two direct hits from the Indian missile boat Nirghat. As the Nirghat’s first Styx flew towards the Khaibar in total darkness, the commander of the Khaibar saw its flash and thought it was a flare coming down – until it hit with deadly force.
The Indian Navy launched a second attack on Karachi on the night of December 8. This time, it lost one ship but the rest rained hell on Karachi, setting fire to the tanker farms and lighting up the entire night sky.
Here’s the Pakistani Navy’s account: “The first missile flew over the ships at the anchorage, crossed Manora Island and crashed into an oil tank at the Keamari oil farm. There was a huge explosion and flames shot up so high that Qamar House—a multi-story building in the city—was clearly visible. The fire caused by the (IAF) attack on 4 December had been put out only a day earlier after three days of concerted efforts. Fires once again raged in the oil farm after a short lived respite of a day. A distressing sight no doubt for everyone, but particularly for those who had risked their lives in a tenacious battle against the oil farm fires earlier.”
In November 1971 press conference Nanda had said, “And if war comes again, I assure you that we shall carry it right into the enemy's biggest ports, like Karachi. And you have my word; the Indian Navy will make the world's biggest bonfire of it.”
The admiral made good on his promise. Karachi burned for seven days.
(About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer at New Zealand’s leading media house. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.)
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