by Admiral VS Shekhawat (Retd)
When the Indo-Pak war broke out on December 3, 1971, the submarine arm of the Indian Navy had been in existence for four years and comprised four submarines of the Soviet ‘F’ class (NATO designation). About 20 officers and some sailors had undergone a short course and sea experience with the British Royal Navy in the early 1960s. They, together with fresh volunteers, underwent a comprehensive 15-month course with the Soviet navy, then commissioned and sailed the 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, Kalvari, arrived, support facilities were non-existent; there was no naval dry dock, and a shortage of spare parts, trained personnel, technical knowhow, expertise, and documentation.
The submarines were somehow kept operational. But there were the inevitable deleterious effects of the long ocean passages in rough weather, wear and tear of machinery, and especially the consumption of battery life. Heavy corrosion in warm tropical waters posed a serious safety and maintenance problem.
When war broke out, Kalvari was under prolonged refit for want of spares, while Khanderi had exhausted her battery life and was operating with very restricted dived endurance. Karanj had been extensively damaged in a collision during exercises in 1970, had consumed 80 per cent of her battery life and had other serious defects due to inexpert repairs by the commercial Hindustan Shipyard. Only Kursura, the latest, was in reasonable operational shape.
I assumed command of Karanj in December 1970 and oversaw her post-collision repairs in Bombay and Visakhapatnam; various safety checks were cleared before being deployed to the west coast in early 1971.
The months before December 1971 were of hectic activity, and anticipation. Newspapers were full of reports of Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan, the flood of refugees into India, the cynical support of western powers and China to Pakistan, and the looming prospect of war, in which India stood alone. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship came as a surprise to powers inimical to India and provided some comfort to the anxious public.
The Naval Dockyard, Bombay, had no experience of maintaining submarines, and in any case had its hands full trying to get the Western Fleet ships operational. The Fleet, too, raised its operational tempo substantially, and many training sorties required submarine participation. Ships’ crews had little experience of exercising with submarines, as the Indian Navy had none until this time.
In November, headquarters decided to send submarines to patrol in the Arabian Sea, starting with Kursura, with a view to monitor shipping activity and familiarisation with likely operational areas. Karanj sailed on November 30 to relieve Kursura at a designated rendezvous. I had sealed Operational Orders to be opened when ordered, and sensed that war may break out during the patrol, as indeed it did. We carried out a check dive to maximum operating depth and assured that all systems were functioning satisfactorily, proceeded at full speed on the surface to the designated patrol area off the Makran coast (Baluchistan), submerging at a prudent distance. We remained submerged thereafter for the duration of the war, except for some discreet surfacing and periscope depth operations for battery charging and astronomical sights to establish position.
One afternoon, dived deep close to a prominent feature on the Makran coast, the Officer of the Watch (OOW) reported that the submarine was rapidly coming up. I reached the Control Room within seconds, by which time Karanj was fully on the surface. All attempts to take her down failed, including additional seawater, altering course radically, and so on. I wondered if we were on top of a mud volcano, a feature of that coast.
The OOW and I were quickly on the Bridge, under a clear blue sky, a cool wind blowing over a calm sea, and excellent visibility. A promontory stood high in the near distance, a few Pakistani fishing boats a mile or two away. An ocean phenomenon known as upwelling had probably brought us to the surface in a higher density seawater mass rising from the seafloor as the strong, cold current hit the steep incline of the Makran continental slope. We steered at full speed away from the anomalous water patch, forced to remain on the surface for nearly an hour before we could submerge again, in a perfectly normal way.
Our orders permitted only vessels positively identified as Pakistani to be attacked. For submarines, locating targets is difficult enough, classifying them as positively enemy is well-nigh impossible. Several contacts were tracked over long distances, as the sonar conditions for the most part were very good. I even read the name of a ship, “Glory”, through the periscope, and wondered whether it was a sign to me! She was riding high in the water, her single propellor churning foam, an empty freighter, displaying no flag, sailing frantically away to escape the blockade declared by the Indian Navy. Had she been heading towards Karachi, I might have acted differently. She was given the benefit of the doubt and let go.
On another occasion, we tracked a single screw vessel, deduced to be a nuclear submarine, heading north-west at high speed, which passed a short distance north of us. Just before the war broke out, there had been Exercise Midlink of the CENTO powers, comprising allies USA, UK, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Newspapers later reported that the USS Skate (others named USS Sargo) had taken part. She could well have been the same submarine, still in the area after the exercise ended.
We knew a little about the land and air battle raging on the eastern and western borders from the occasional news broadcasts we were able to pick up whilst submerged, mostly Pakistani, which extolled their supposed successes, and BBC, which too could not be relied upon. 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 electronics warfare equipment. Other reports suggested Pakistani fleet withdrawing inside Karachi harbour and the cruiser, PNS Babar, sheltering in Sonmiani Bay.
Pakistan radio also broadcast having sunk an Indian submarine, which caused some concern. Vice Admiral N Krishnan, FOC-in-C (East), rang up my surprised wife, who had no idea where Karanj was, to tell her that the reports were false. It did more to disturb than reassure her!
One evening, as we surfaced soon after sunset, carrying out the usual safety procedure and not picking up any contacts, I was surprised to see in the twilight haze two small white-painted ships fairly close to each other, steering westwards, distant about 2 miles. They resembled the small coastal passenger ships which were then common on our west coast, and I took them to be the same type of vessel. Due to a surface layer and the haze, we had neither heard them nor seen them through the periscope.
We dived immediately, but sonar again did not detect them, nor could they be seen in the dark through the periscope. They could not be identified and did not appear eligible targets within the meaning of our orders. Many years later, I learnt from a senior Pakistani officer, who had commanded a destroyer in the area, that they were minesweepers in the approaches to Karachi (and thus would have been legitimate targets). He added that a submarine surfaced so close to his destroyer that he could have “thrown a spanner at it”. I suggested that the submarine might have been a US nuclear submarine testing the destroyer’s reaction, or had accidentally broken surface for the same reason that Karanj did.
I also learnt that on November 30, when our Western Fleet sailed, PN submarine Hangor, which sank the Khukri, was already in position off Bombay, but did not attack, as war had not as yet been declared.
The material state of Karanj was poor to start with, but worsened when the main exhaust blower, a massive deck head fitting, failed. Repairing it was normally dockyard-level work, but given the circumstances, Lieutenant Vinod Chaudhry and his team did a magnificent job of dismantling, repairing, and reinstalling it over the course of 24 hours. Without it, continuing the patrol would have been impossible.
The battery state had been precarious, with high hydrogen evolution posing a serious risk of explosion. Battery charging had to be carefully managed, requiring the submarine to snort at shallow depth from time to time during the night, withdrawing to areas relatively safe from enemy air patrols. Despite serious constraints, Karanj was able to pass considerable intelligence about surface and air activity in her area of operations.
In the Bay of Bengal, Khanderi, despite her bad material state, carried out her deterrent patrol effectively. The Pakistan navy was non-existent at sea, and a confrontation with the US 7th Fleet did not occur as the war ended before any intervention on behalf of Pakistan could take place.
Following the surrender of Pakistani forces in Dhaka on December 16, Karanj was ordered to withdraw to a waiting area. We exited submerged for another two days, then surfaced and set an evasive course for Bombay, picking up tracking signals from a surveillance satellite, presumably American, as it passed over the area. Despite severe handicaps, Indian submarines fulfilled all tasks assigned and succeeded in confining the Pakistani fleet to harbour by their sheer presence in the operational areas.