Naval warfare has a long and illustrious history in India. From Rajendra Chola’s 10th century sea expedition to Southeast Asia and Admiral Maratha Kanhoji Angre’s 18th century naval wars against the British, Dutch and Portuguese, Indian ships have made their presence felt.
The Indian Navy played a pivotal role in at least four major military operations after 1947, continuing the country’s pedigree of major military exploits. The annals of the Indian Navy encompass multiple tales of why it deserved the game-changing honor. However, the most recognized and celebrated naval operation commemorated on December 4 of each year as Indian Navy Day is Operation Trident.
Let us come back to this naval operation which was a turning point in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan.
In the late 1960s, the clouds of war loomed on the horizon. The Indian Navy at that time acquired the Osa-I missile ships from the Soviet Union. Equipped with deadly ship-to-ship Styx missiles, these ships could bring down even the most powerful enemy cruisers on the high seas. The ships were also armed with remote homing radars, which could overtake any naval radar at the time. As a result, these fast missile boats could strike deeply.
However, a major downfall was their narrow reach, making them ideal only for coastal defense. The Indian Navy always went ahead and bought eight Osa-Is, formed a squadron for these missile boats, and sent them to Russia for eight months of training in the harsh Siberian winter.
These ships headed for India in early 1971. They were landed in Kolkata and towed along the coast of Mumbai as there were no heavy cranes in Mumbai at the time. This became the genesis of the idea of the Indian Naval Command which played a crucial role in Operation Trident. The Indian Navy realized that the eight Osa-Is missile boats could be towed to Karachi from Mumbai to overcome its short-range function.
On December 3, 1971, the enemy air force launched an attack on six Indian airfields. In retaliation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck Pakistani airfields. Soon after, the Indian army and the Pakistani army began ground battles in almost all areas. The 1971 Indo-Pakistani war had officially started. It was time for the Indian Navy’s Killer Squadron to join the war.
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That same night, a group of Osa-I missile boats left the port of Mumbai. Called INS Nipat, INS Nirghat and INS Veer, these ships were joined on December 4 by two Petya class frigates – INS Katchall and INS Kiltan – to form the Trident team. After sailing west and then north, the Osa-Is were successfully towed to Pakistan’s naval stronghold, the port of Karachi, at night. The boats sailed in arrowheads and regularly changed course to avoid detection of the enemy on the basis of radar signals from INS Kiltan.
Interestingly, the ship’s crews corresponded in Russian, which made it difficult for enemy naval commanders to intercept signals between invading warships!
PNS Khaiber, a Pakistani navy destroyer, was detected by Rangout radar on INS Nirghat at around 2243 hours. PNS Shah Jehan and the merchant vessel Venus Challenger, which was carrying ammunition for the Pakistani military, were also detected. The Osa-Is missile boats focused on their targets with pinpoint accuracy and quickly released their Styx missiles. The Pakistani navy was left in a state of utter shock. The stunned naval force assumed it was an Indian Air Force plane hit and unsuccessfully engaged the Styx missiles with their anti-boat guns.
In fact, before it broke and sank, PNS Khyber sent a distress signal indicating that it had been struck by an Indian Air Force plane. The Indian squadron was then headed for the oil storage facilities on the shore. The three small missile boats have reached their limits. They were hardly protected from air raids and dropped their last missiles (setting the entire Karachi port on fire) before turning around and rushing back to Bombay. Interestingly, as the Indian ships were on their way back to safe waters, the Pakistani Air Force ended up destroying one of its ships – PNS Zulfiqar – assuming it was from an Indian Navy ship!
The Indian Navy’s Killer Squadron received a heroic welcome three days later. Operation Trident, which lasted only 90 minutes, saw six missiles fired that sank three enemy frontline ships and destroyed oil storage facilities in the port of Karachi. No deaths from the Indian Navy have been reported.
The Indian Navy, however, did not rest on the laurels after the resounding success of Operation Trident. Four days later, he repeated the feat in Operation Python. Three other Pakistani Navy ships sank and oil reserves were set on fire for the second time. These overwhelming victories severely restricted Pakistan’s ability to engage Indian forces. The Indian Navy suffocated enemy forces by destroying its oil, ammunition supplies and resupply routes.
Veterans and historians have often said that this is a crucial turning point in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, which ended with the liberalization of Bangladesh. The world sat down and took note of the Indian Navy. So much so that Operation Trident was the first item in US President Richard Nixon’s morning briefing by the CIA the next day.
Lieutenant Cdr. BN Kavina, IJ Sharma and OP Mehta, commanders of the three Osa-Is missile boats, received the Vir Chakra Award for their exceptional bravery and precise execution of Operation Trident. Meanwhile, the man who led Commodore BB Yadav “Killer Squadron” was honored with the Maha Vir Chakra.
Since then, December 4 has been celebrated as Navy Day in India, a fitting tribute to those brave soldiers who achieved one of the greatest maritime successes in Indian Navy history.
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Last updated December 4, 2021 at 8:00 am IST