The sinking of the Pakistan submarine Ghazi just before the 1971 War has remained an enigma for 45 years. As The Ghazi Attack releases nationwide on February 17, Vipin Vijayan dives deep into the naval mystery.
The S-130 submarine was the crown jewel of the Pakistan navy.
Having spent nearly two decades scanning the depths for the US navy, the USS Diablo had been falling off the radar with technologically superior machines outpacing it. But it wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
It would, in the course of time, script a most intriguing chapter in naval history.
By the time the Diablo (Spanish for devil) parked itself at Pearl Harbour, the curtain had almost been pulled over World War II. It embarked on its first ever war patrol to Saipan, which Japan considered its last line of defence at the time in August 1945, but was diverted on course to the American naval base of Guam.
By the early 1960s, the Diablo had been relegated to the level of a research submarine though it retained its combat potential.
Then the Kennedy administration gave it a new lease of life by upgrading its sonar, replacing the old diesel auxiliary with an electrical plant, installing a new air-conditioning unit. The boat though lost its deck guns in the process.
Around this time, the Pakistan navy had been lobbying hard with the US to bolster its arsenal against India.
The Diablo was to join the Pakistan navy — cleared for transfer on lease for four years with the options of a renewal or purchase — thus making it the first submarine to be operated by a South Asian navy.
Its Mark-14 torpedoes on board were a threat to any warship in the region.
New Delhi had every reason to worry.
The PNS Ghazi sailed into Karachi on September 4, 1964, with Commander Karamat Rahman Niazi as its commanding officer.
Prior to the hand over, Pakistan naval officers underwent training in submarine operations on board the USS Angler.
The seven officers and 69 men on board the Ghazi kept shadowing Indian warships in the Arabian Sea over the course of next few months.
And then, in September 1965, India and Pakistan went to war.
Through the duration of the war, the Ghazi silently moved in the depths unchallenged.
Its target was India’s aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.
But with the Vikrant undergoing refits at the naval dockyard in Bombay, the Ghazi had to contend with monitoring other Indian warships.
Yet the orders to unleash its firepower would not come through… not until the fag end of the war.
Indian fighter jets had been buzzing over Karachi at will, guided by the radar station at Dwarka in Jamnagar district, Gujarat.
The Pakistani war-room devised a plan that could signify a turning point in the war.
The plan was dual pronged — one involving sending Pakistan naval ships to bombard Dwarka, the other involving the Ghazi to take out Indian warships that would sail out of Bombay to respond to the attack.
A fleet of seven ships — the PNS Babur, PNS Khaibar, PNS Badr, PNS Jahangir, PNS Alamgir, PNS Shah Jahan and the PNS Tipu Sultan — bombarded Dwarka as the Ghazi kept watch for Indian naval activity.
According to Pakistani records, the Ghazi sighted two Indian warships at periscope depth in the third week of September.
Commander Niazi identified one of the targets as the INS Brahmaputra and ordered torpedoes to be fired at the vessel. The Pakistanis claimed that three torpedoes slammed into the Brahmaputra and caused extensive damage to it.
But Indian Navy records say the attack on the Brahmaputra did not happen.
The Ghazi returned home, claiming success; its commanding officer and crew were bestowed with battle honours — for an attack it never executed.
Following the 1965 war, US-imposed sanctions prevented the Ghazi from securing the American spares it needed for repairs and refit.
Desperate for spares, Islamabad signed a pact with Turkey — with the blessings of the Americans nonetheless — to refit and upgrade the boat’s onboard equipment at a cost of $1.5 million (the cost in 1967) at the Gulchuk shipyard.
After repairs, the Ghazi returned to Karachi in April 1970.
India and Pakistan were at loggerheads in 1971 after millions of refugees fled East Pakistan for India to escape the Pakistan army’s genocidal rampage in East Pakistan.
War was inevitable.
Naval planners relocated the Vikrant carrier group to the Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam.
Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan, who served as the general officer commanding, East Pakistan during the 1965 war and later as the first commandant of the Pakistan military academy, in his book Story of the Pakistan Army wrote, ‘The navy ordered the submarines to slip out of harbour quietly on various dates between November 14 and 22. They were allocated patrol areas covering the west coast of India, while the Ghazi was despatched to the Bay of Bengal with the primary objective of locating the Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which was reported to be operating in the area.’
‘Ghazi‘s deployment to the Bay of Bengal must be regarded as a measure taken to rectify a strategic posture that was getting increasingly out of step with military realities.’
‘Our response to Indian military deployments around East Pakistan was a series of ad hoc measures, taken from time to time, as a reaction to the Indian build-up,’ the late major general wrote.
‘Despatch of the Ghazi to India’s eastern seaboard, not part of the original plans, was one such step taken on the insistence of our military high command to reinforce the Eastern Command. There was pressure on the Pakistan navy to extend the sphere of its operations into the Bay of Bengal increased with the growth of Indian and Indian-inspired naval activities in and/around East Pakistan.’
The Ghazi, under commander Zafar Muhammed Khan, set sail on November 14, 1971.
Indian intelligence had anticipated the move.
It had tapped a submarine signal off the Sri Lankan coast around November 19.
With no other submarine in the Pakistani navy arsenal capable of undertaking a voyage that long, it was abundantly clear that the Ghazi was out on the prowl.
The confirmation of the Ghazi threat came when a warship intercepted a signal addressed to the naval authorities in Chittagong, East Pakistan, requesting lubrication oil only used by submarines and minesweepers.
Vice Admiral Nilakanta Krishnan, then the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command during the 1971 war, decided that the Ghazi threat had to be dealt with once and for all.
‘The problem of the Vikrant‘s security was a serious one and brought forth several headaches.
‘By very careful appreciation of the submarine threat, by analyzing data such as endurance, distance factors, base facilities, etc we had come to the definite conclusion that the enemy was bound to deploy the submarine Ghazi against us in the Bay of Bengal with the sole aim of destroying our aircraft carrier.’
‘The threat from the Ghazi was a considerable one. Apart from the lethal advantage at the pre-emptive stage, the Vikrant‘s approximate position would become known once she commenced operating aircraft in the vicinity of the East Bengal coast.’
‘We decided that in preparing our plan, we would rely much more on deception and other measures against the Ghazi. We had to find some place to crouch in, to spring into action at the shortest notice.’
‘After embarking the remaining aircraft of Seahawks, Alizes and Alouettes, the fleet left Madras on Saturday, November 13 for an unknown destination which I shall call ‘Port X-Ray’, for reasons of security.’
‘Port X-Ray was a totally uninhabited place with no means of communication with the outside world and it was well protected and in the form of a lagoon. Having sailed the fleet away to safety, the major task was to deceive the enemy into thinking that the Vikrant was where she was not and lure the Ghazi to where we could attack her.’
‘I spoke to the naval officer-in-charge, Madras on the telephone and told him that the Vikrant, now off Visakhapatnam, would be arriving at Madras and would require an alongside berth, provisions and other logistic needs.’
The headquarters at Madras was bewildered that Vice Admiral Krishnan would discuss such sensitive military matters on a civilian telephone line but nonetheless carried out his orders.
Vice Admiral Krishnan was hoping that the Pakistanis had found a way to intercept the call and presume that Vikrant was still anchored at Vizag.
The next move was to lay the trap.
The destroyer INS Rajput, commanded by Captain Inder Singh, was selected as the decoy ship.
Vice Admiral Krishnan had briefed him about the mission and directed him to leave Vizag harbour after refuelling with all navigational aids switched off.
The destroyer then began broadcasting a massive volume of encrypted radio traffic like an aircraft carrier would.
The trick worked.
On November 25, naval intelligence intercepted a Pakistani navy message from a submarine commodore in Karachi stating that the aircraft carrier was very much in Visakhapatnam.
The next day, the Ghazi was to give its mission report to its naval HQ. But the radio never buzzed.
A week had passed, yet the Pakistani establishment received no news from the Ghazi.
On December 3, 1971, Pakistan launched operation Chengiz Khan — a large preemptive airstrike from West Pakistan against targets in northwestern India.
The attack was thwarted by the alert Indian Air Force who had been preparing for a sudden strike.
The war had begun, but the Ghazi had totally gone off the radar.
The news came on the intervening night of December 3-4.
In his book, Vice Admiral Krishnan wrote, ‘The Rajput sailed before midnight of 3/4 December and, on clearing harbour, proceeded along the narrow channel.’
‘Having got clear, the commanding officer saw what he thought was a severe disturbance in the water, about half a mile ahead. He rightly assumed that this might be a submarine diving. He closed the spot at speed and dropped at the position two charges.’
‘It has been subsequently established that the position where the charges were dropped was so close to the position of the wreck of the Ghazi that some damage to the latter is a very high probability.’
‘The Rajput, on completion of her mission, proceeded on her course in order to carry out her main mission.’
‘A little later, a very loud explosion was heard by the coast battery who reported the same to the maritime operations room.’
‘The time of this explosion was 0015 hours. The clock recovered from the Ghazi showed that it had stopped functioning at the same time.’
‘Several thousand people waiting to hear the prime minister’s broadcast to the nation also heard the explosion and many came out thinking that it was an earthquake.’
‘As per our arrangement with them, some fishermen reported oil patches and some flotsam.’
‘The command diving team were rushed to the spot and commenced detailed investigations.’
‘The divers established that there was a definite submerged object some distance out seawards, at a depth of 150 feet of water and that it was a probable submarine.’
‘Even though there were a number of floating objects picked up, there was nothing to indicate the identity of the submarine.’
‘Everything had American markings. I told the Chief of the Naval Staff that personally I was convinced that we had bagged the Ghazi.’
‘By Sunday, December 5, we were able to establish from the silhouette and other characteristics that the submarine was in fact the Ghazi.’
But there was no means of ingress into the submarine as all entry hatches from the conning tower aft were tightly screwed down from the inside.
The Indian Navy released an official confirmation on December 9 that the Ghazi had been destroyed.
The Pakistanis intercepted Captain Singh’s relay message on December 4 to Vice Admiral Krishnan stating that he had sunk a Pakistani submarine.
It, however, refused to believe that the pride of its navy had been sunk.
To this day, Pakistan believes the Ghazi strayed into a minefield it had itself laid two days ago.
According to the Pakistani sequence of events, the Ghazi commenced laying a small minefield east of Vizag harbour on December 2-3, 1971.
Then at daybreak on December 3, it headed out to deeper water to search for the Vikrant.
Not finding it, the Ghazi returned to the Visakhapatnam harbour mouth area at sunset to resume laying the minefield.
As the lights ashore were blacked out, the Ghazi may have misjudged her position and doubled back into her own minefield around midnight; about 10 to 15 minutes before the INS Rajput‘s depth charging.
To date, what really happened to the Ghazi remains a mystery.
Today, the submarine lies embedded in the Vizag seabed about 1.5 nautical miles from the breakwaters.
Vice Admiral G M Hiranandani (retd), in his book Transition to Triumph, summarises: ‘The truth about the Ghazi, which remains on what the submarine community calls the ‘eternal parole’, lies somewhere between the Indian and Pakistani versions of the sinking but no one knows exactly where.’