Admiral VS Shekhawat (retired)
When the Indo-Pakistani War broke out on December 3, 1971, the submarine branch of the Indian Navy had existed for four years and included four Soviet “F” class submarines (NATO designation). About 20 officers and a few sailors had taken a brief course and experience at sea with the British Royal Navy in the early 1960s. With new volunteers, they completed a full 15-month course with the Soviet Navy, then moved on to commanded and sailed submarines from the Baltic Sea, around the Cape of Good Hope to Visakhapatnam, a passage of nearly 16,000 nautical miles.
In July 1968, when the first submarine, the Kalvari, arrived, support facilities were non-existent; there was no naval dry dock and a shortage of spare parts, qualified personnel, technical know-how, expertise and documentation.
The submarines were sort of kept operational. But there were the inevitable deleterious effects of long ocean passages in bad weather, wear and tear on machinery, and especially battery consumption. Heavy corrosion in warm tropical waters posed a serious safety and maintenance problem.
When war broke out, the Kalvari was under prolonged refit for lack of spare parts, while the Khanderi had exhausted its battery and was operating with very limited diving endurance. Karanj had been extensively damaged in a crash during exercises in 1970, had consumed 80% of its battery life and had other serious defects due to inexpert repairs carried out by the Hindustan Commercial Shipyard. Only Kursura, the latest, was in reasonable operational condition.
I took command of Karanj in December 1970 and oversaw his post-collision repairs in Bombay and Visakhapatnam; various security checks were authorized before being deployed to the West Coast in early 1971.
The months before December 1971 were hectic and anticipatory. The newspapers were full of articles on the Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan, the influx of refugees into India, the cynical support of the Western powers and China in Pakistan, and the looming prospect of war, in which India was single. The Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty surprised the powers hostile to India and comforted the anxious public.
The Bombay Shipyard had no experience in servicing submarines and, anyway, had their hands full trying to get the ships of the Western Fleet operational. The Fleet, too, significantly increased its operational tempo, and many training sorties required the participation of submarines. The crews of the ships had little experience of exercising with submarines, as the Indian Navy had none until then.
In November, the staff decided to send submarines to patrol the Arabian Sea, starting with Kursura, to monitor maritime activity and familiarize themselves with likely operational areas.
Karanj sailed on November 30 to relieve Kursura at a designated rendezvous. I had sealed Operational Orders to be opened on order, and felt that war could break out while on patrol, as it does. We conducted a check dive to the maximum operating depth and made sure that all systems were functioning satisfactorily. We remained submerged thereafter for the duration of the war, with the exception of a few discreet surfacing and periscope depth operations for battery charging and astronomical views to establish position.
One afternoon, diving deep near an important part of the Makran coast, the officer of the watch (OQ) reported that the submarine was arriving quickly. I reached the control room within seconds, after which Karanj was completely on the surface. All attempts to bring it down have failed, including adding seawater, drastic change of course, etc. I wondered if we were at the top of a mud volcano, characteristic of this coast.
The OOW and I were quickly on deck, under a clear blue sky, a cool wind blowing over calm seas, and excellent visibility. A headland loomed in the distance, a few Pakistani fishing boats a mile or two away. An oceanic phenomenon known as upwelling had likely brought us to the surface in a body of higher density seawater rising from the seabed as the strong, cold current hit the steep slope of the continental slope of the Makran. We sailed at full speed away from the abnormal sheet of water, forced to stay on the surface for almost an hour before being able to submerge again, in a completely normal way.
Our orders only allowed attacking ships clearly identified as Pakistani. For submarines, locating targets is hard enough, classifying them as positive enemies is almost impossible. Several contacts were followed over long distances, as sonar conditions were mostly very good. I even read a ship’s name, “Glory”, through the periscope, and wondered if that was a sign for me! She rode high in the water, her only propeller bubbling with foam, an empty, flagless freighter, frantically moving away to escape the blockade declared by the Indian Navy. If she had headed for Karachi, I might have acted differently. She got the benefit of the doubt and let go.
On another occasion, we followed a single propeller ship, considered a nuclear submarine, heading northwest at high speed, which passed a short distance north of us. Just before war broke out, there had been the CENTO Powers’ Midlink Exercise, comprising allies of the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Newspapers later reported that the USS Skate (others named USS Sargo) participated. It could well be the same submarine, still in the area after the end of the exercise.
We knew a bit more about the land and air battle raging on the eastern and western borders thanks to the occasional news reports we could pick up as we were overwhelmed, mostly Pakistanis, who praised their alleged successes, and the BBC, which could not be trusted either. . Direct naval broadcasts to Karanj were limited to specific time slots for tactical reasons. But we monitored our missile boat attacks on Karachi on December 4 and 8 on our electronic warfare equipment. Other reports suggest that the Pakistani fleet is withdrawing inside the port of Karachi and that the cruiser PNS Babar is taking shelter in Sonmiani Bay.
Pakistani radio also broadcast of the sinking of an Indian submarine, which raised some concerns. Vice Admiral N Krishnan, FOC-in-C (East), called my surprised wife, who had no idea Karanj’s whereabouts, to tell her the reports were false. It did more to disturb her than to reassure her!
One evening, as we surfaced shortly after sunset, going through the usual safety procedure and making no contact, I was surprised to see in the twilight mist two small white painted ships quite close to one another. the other, heading west, about 2 miles apart. They looked like the small coastal liners that were common on our west coast then, and I mistook them for the same type of ship. Due to a shallow layer and haze, we had neither heard nor seen them through the periscope.
We dived immediately, but the sonar didn’t pick them up either, and they couldn’t be seen in the dark through the periscope. They could not be identified and did not appear as eligible targets within the meaning of our orders. Many years later, I learned from a senior Pakistani officer, who had commanded a destroyer in the area, that they were minesweepers on the approach to Karachi (and therefore would have been legitimate targets). He added that a submarine had surfaced so close to his destroyer that he could have “thrown a key” at him. I suggested that the submarine could have been an American nuclear submarine testing the destroyer’s reaction, or had accidentally shattered the surface for the same reason as Karanj.
I also learned that on November 30, when our fleet departed from the West, the PN Hangor submarine, which sank the Khukri, was already in position off Bombay, but did not attack. ‘not yet declared.
Karanj’s material condition was initially poor, but worsened when the main exhaust fan, a huge ceiling fitting, failed. Its repair was normally a job at the shipyard level, but given the circumstances, Lt. Vinod Chaudhry and his team did a magnificent job of dismantling, repairing and reinstalling in 24 hours. Without this, continuing the patrol would have been impossible.
The condition of the battery was precarious, with a strong evolution of hydrogen posing a serious risk of explosion. The battery charge had to be carefully managed, forcing the submarine to sniff at shallow depths every now and then overnight, retreating to areas relatively safe from enemy air patrols. Despite serious constraints, Karanj was able to transmit considerable intelligence on surface and air activity in his area of operations.
In the Bay of Bengal, Khanderi, despite his poor physical condition, carried out his deterrent patrol. The Pakistani Navy was non-existent at sea and a confrontation with the US 7th Fleet did not take place as the war ended before any intervention on behalf of Pakistan could take place.
After Pakistani forces surrendered in Dhaka on December 16, Karanj was ordered to withdraw to a holding zone. We emerged submerged for another two days, then surfaced and took an evasive route towards Bombay, picking up tracking signals from a surveillance satellite, presumably American, as it flew over the area. Despite serious handicaps, Indian submarines fulfilled all assigned tasks and succeeded in confining the Pakistani fleet to port by their mere presence in operational areas.