An immaculate deception

The PNS Ghazi Sinking

In early April 1942, a little-known episode of World War II took place, stated by Sir Winston Churchill to be “the most dangerous moment of the war,” when the Japanese made their only major offensive westwards into the Indian Ocean. This was when the Axis flagged Japanese fleet led by six aircraft carriers, four battleships and 30 other ships sailed into the Bay of Bengal, under Admiral Nagumo, destination Ceylon.

Fast forward to 1971. A decision had been made to liberate East Pakistan as millions of refugees flooded India. Indira Gandhi had concluded that it was a better idea to liberate East Pakistan instead of bearing the brunt of these millions of refugees. Gandhi cabinet ordered the Chief of the Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw to "Go into East Pakistan”. According to Manekshaw's own personal account, he refused, citing the onset of monsoon season in East Pakistan and also the fact that the army tanks were in the process of being refitted and claimed that he offered to resign, which Indira Gandhi declined. By November 1971, the war was inevitable. On 23 November, President Yahya Khan declared a state of emergency in all of Pakistan and told his people to prepare for war. On the evening of 3 December, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched surprise pre-emptive strikes on eleven airfields in north-western India, including Agra, which was 300 miles from the border. This preemptive strike known as Operation Chengiz Khan. The Indian Air Force responded with initial air strikes that very night. In Nixon’s America, opinion was stilted heavily on Pakistan’s side as Nixon liked Yahiya, hated Bhutto. Their discussions and decision making process on this matter make poor reading. As Indian forces were getting ready for action in the East, and victories were being won across the western borders, the Americans in the dying days decided to step in with a show of support for Pakistan, using the 7th fleet or task force 74 supported by the British HMS Eagle.

A lot happened in the next 13 days as the waters in the Bay of Bengal churned and boiled with all the ships and air action. One man stood firm in the crosshairs as the global might bore down on his waters, as he was responsible for India’s defensive and offensive moves in these waters. He was none other than the Vice Admiral of the eastern Command, Nilakanta Krishnan and all he had was an ageing carrier, the INS Vikrant and a few other battleships. This god fearing, stocky, swashbuckling sailor’s man from Nagercoil, 8th son of Rao Bahadur Mahadeva Nilakantan, Superintending engineer of erstwhile Travancore, did not buckle and faced the music, head on.

We talked about the most dangerous moment of 1942. In 1971, a similar moment occurred, it was a day which could have turned the war. A critical event that turned the tide is in historical analysis ascribed to Krishnan’s clear line of thought and strategy which led to the lucky sinking of the PNS Ghazi. It was a classic ploy where the bait was swallowed by the Pakistani brass and the submarine, hook line and sinker. That is the story I will retell today.

But before that, let us see what happened in Ceylon in 1942 and what popularly became known as the Easter Sunday raid. With Japan's entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon became a front-line British base. It was obvious that a Japanese attack on Ceylon was imminent. As a staging post, it would allow Japan to raid the resources of India and vital oil fields of the Middle East. Churchill said - The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.

As the British eastern fleet was strengthened to face this eventuality, Somerville in command was in a bind, he had one choice: To concentrate his fleet outside the range of Japanese reconnaissance during daylight, and close in at night and one ace up his sleeve: That was Addu Atoll - a secret British base on the southernmost tip of the Maldive Islands, in place to allow a fleet to anchor and refuel away from the eyes of roving reconnaissance planes. Reconfirmation of the Japanese fleet’s progress was obtained from the radio transmission of a brave pilot, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, who in his Catalina flying boat spotted the Japanese warships massing some 350 miles from Ceylon and radioed the information before he was shot down. The Japanese high command had planned the bombing of Colombo much like the Pearl Harbor operation. Nagumo believed many Allied defenders would likely be attending church on Easter Sunday and was convinced he would find the Eastern Fleet as sitting ducks at Trincomalee.  Thanks to Somerville’s astute actions, most of the fleet had been moved to Addu Atoll, so when the Japanese attacked at Colombo there were only three ships there. The survival of the British Eastern Fleet (which included some Royal Netherlands Navy warships) prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon. The attacks and counterattacks which followed, the strategies, victories and failures, are all interesting. The big lesson learnt from it was the importance of deception, in this case, moving a large part of the eastern fleet stealthily to a remote island location.

That was the lesson Krishnan planned to follow, to save India’s albatross, INS Vikrant from a Pakistani submarine attack. Earlier in 1970, the white elephant (aka sick widow) INS Vikrant was stuck in Bombay’s docks due to cracks in its boilers and even if run, would have to operate at a very low speed. Many of the top brass felt that it would be a liability in any war and a ship that required considerable escort, but then again she was the flag ship of India’s navy. In 1971 major dry-dock repairs were being carried out on the Vikrant, but the prospect of an impending war with Pakistan meant she had to be patched up in a hurry.

Some months earlier, owing to a reshuffle, Vice Admiral N Krishnan, former vice chief of naval staff was asked to take over the eastern command much to his disgust and give his Bombay post to SN Kohli who had completed his NDC posting. It was also clear that there would be a race between these two for the position of chief of naval staff which would open out in 1973.

The Pakistani submarine force had one ageing long distance American submarine (USS Diablo)
reamed Ghazi, and three French made Daphne short range submarines. Leaving the Vikrant in the Western seas would not be a good idea and as Krishnan (Krishnan incidentally had once been the commander of the Vikrant) moved to Vizag in 1971, he asked for Vikrant to be sent to the Eastern command and its relative safety. Moreover her low speed and limited power projection capability could be better utilized in the East Pakistan environment where the Pakistani air force was not very strong. SN Kohli protested vehemently, but was fortunately overruled. The engineering team worked overtime to get the catapults serviceable and give the seahawk squadron the ability to operate on the carrier.

Krishnan stated - If Vikrant were to be sunk, it would represent a victory of the first magnitude to the enemy, just as it would represent a national disaster to us. VIKRANT was the core round which our Fleet was built and her loss would be something too terrible to contemplate.

As Kohli cribbed on various operational issues on the western front and was chastised by Admiral Nanda, Krishnan confirmed that he could push Vikrant to the limits if wind and space were available to his flagship. There was only one risk and that was the threat posed by the long range Ghazi armed with multiple torpedoes. Thus it was paramount for the movements of the Ghazi to be tracked.

Meanwhile Krishnan was pondering his moves and the newly constituted eastern fleet (Nov 71).  All he had was the Vikrant, and old and virtually condemned destroyer Rajput, Brahmaputra, Beas, Kamrota and Kavratti, plus the submarine Khanderi. Krishnan quickly took the decision to move Vikrant out of Vizag and to Port Cornwallis in the seclusion of the Andaman Islands, as its position would otherwise be compromised as and when aircraft took off. His first plans was to protect the Vikrant from Ghazi. Then to get to the offensive stage which was to strangle the Pakistan Army's supply line from West Pakistan to the East Pakistan ports of Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and the Chalna-Khulna-Mongla river port complex. This was to be achieved by attacking these ports from seaward, apprehension/destruction of Pakistan merchant ships and amphibious landings if required. Any movements out of East Bengal by sea would be prevented by his naval blockade.

The Vikrant was to be secreted away at a remote anchorage, with no means of communication with the outside world, where ships could complete their readiness. Concurrently, deception messages started being originated to give everybody the impression that Vikrant was still operating between Madras and Visakhapatnam. Further disinformation was spread as Krishnan ordered large amounts of meat and food supplies befitting the requirements of the large carrier Vikrant. He ordered Rajput and the other ships to step up their radio transmissions to give the enemy the feeling that the large carrier Vikrant was in port and ramping up for the upcoming action.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, a decision had been taken early in November to deploy the PNS Ghazi to track down and sink the INS Vikrant. The Indian SIGINT team constantly interfered with the PN submarine communications systems and forced them to break HF radio silence often, leading to detection of Ghazi’s plans such as their demand for lubricants at Chittagong. The news was thus out, Ghazi was on the prowl and destined to the Bay of Bengal, to mine the sea-lanes amongst other planned actions.

In fact the Ghazi had slipped out of Karachi on Nov 14th or thereabouts with a plan to reach Vizag by the 26th Nov with a primary aim of finding and destroying the INS Vikrant. Ghazi had just been refitted and reconditioned by the Turks at Golcuk and provided armaments (torpedoes and mines) by them as part of a special deal. Now as she sailed out, Pakistan’s high hopes rested on the shoulders of Cdr Zafar Mohammed Khan and his 90 submariners.

As Pakistan started with hostilities on Dec 3rd, with a plan to defend the East by attacking in the west, India capitulated with strong air and land counterattacks in the Western border. By 5th India achieved air superiority and Pakistan was left praying for American and Chinese support. The latter was not forthcoming, and the American 7th fleet’s TF 74 was slowly on its way upon Nixon’s orders to support Pakistan and coerce India into withdrawal. Meanwhile, the land attacks in E Pakistan were going India’s way.

The Pakistani’s heard about the Ghazi’s fate only on the 9th Dec when a cryptic announcement from India declared the sinking of the Ghazi close to Vizag, dated the night of the 3rd. They were aghast and initially believed that the sinking occurred earlier, before the war started and the announcement was deliberately made after hostilities had erupted, to coincide with the sinking of INS Khukri on 9th by Pakistani submarines. What actually happened?

Krishnan provides most the details in his accounts explaining that his first action was to movmajority of the fleet to the Andamans on the 13th Nov. 

He adds - 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 Vikrant, now off Visakhapatnam, would be arriving at Madras and would require an alongside berth, provisions and other logistic needs. Captain Duckworth thought I had gone stark raving mad that I should discuss so many operational matters over the telephone. I told him to alert contractors for rations, to speak to the Port Trust that we wanted a berth alongside for Vikrant at Madras, etc.

In Visakhapatnam, we ordered much more rations, especially meat and fresh vegetables, from our contractors to whom it must have been obvious that this meant the presence of the Fleet at or off Visakhapatnam. I was banking on bazaar rumours being picked up by spies and relayed to Pakistan. I had no doubt that such spies did exist and I hoped that they would do their duty.

The next step was to create a bait and the decoy thus chosen was the INS Rajput. It was also required to create an illusion that the Vikrant was in the Vizag harbor. This was how it was done - We decided to use INS Rajput as a decoy to try and deceive the Pakistanis into believing that Vikrant was in or around Visakhapatnam. Rajput was sailed to proceed about 160 miles off Visakhapatnam. She was given a large number of signals with instructions that she should clear the same from sea. Heavy wireless traffic is one means for the enemy to suspect the whereabouts of a big ship. We intentionally breached security by making an unclassified signal in the form of a private telegram, allegedly from one of Vikrant’s sailors, asking about the welfare of his mother "seriously ill.

The Rajput was asked to sail out of the harbor on the 3rd night.  Krishnan explains - I had already ordered all navigational aids to be switched off, so greatest care in navigation was necessary. Once clear of the harbour, he must assume that an enemy submarine was in the vicinity. If our deception plan had worked, the enemy would be prowling about looking for Vikrant. Before clearing the outer harbour, he could drop a few charges at random.

What happened was anticlimactic. As the Rajput sailed out before midnight of 3/4 December carefully proceeding along the narrow channel, the Commanding Officer saw what he thought was a severe disturbance in the water, about half a mile ahead. He quickly concluded that this could be a submarine diving and dropped two depth charges. After this was done, the Rajput sailed away. A little later, a very loud explosion was heard onshore rattling windows and the time of this explosion was stated to be 0015 hours. A clock recovered from the GHAZI showed that it had stopped functioning at the same time. Several 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. Some fishermen reported oil patches and some flotsam.

Divers were sent to investigate and they quickly established that there was an object at a depth of 150 feet of water and that it was perhaps a submarine. All flotsam had American markings. Adm Nanda wanted visual proof, and this meant waiting for proper diving ships. By Sunday 5 December it was more or less clear that it was the Ghazi though it was still not possible to get into the wreck as yet. The next day a diver opened the Conning Tower hatch and a dead body was recovered. The Hydrographic correction book of PNS Ghazi and one sheet of paper with the official seal of the Commanding Officer of PNS Ghazi were also recovered. The aircraft standing by finally took off for Delhi the next morning with the evidence. The proof was sent to Delhi so that a formal announcement could be made.

Krishnan explained the sequence of events thus - From a recovered chart, it is clearly revealed that the Ghazi sailed from Karachi on 14 November, on her marauding mission. She was 400 miles off Bombay on 16 November, off Ceylon on 19 November and entered the Bay of Bengal on 20 November. She was looking for Vikrant off Madras on 23 November.

The analysis stated thus - From the position of the rudder of the Ghazi, the extent of damage she has suffered, and the notations on charts recovered, the situation has been assessed by naval experts as follows: The Ghazi had evidently come up to periscope/or surface depth to establish her navigational position, an operation which was made extremely difficult by the blackout and the switching off of all navigational lights. At this point of time, she probably saw or heard a destroyer approaching her, almost on a reciprocal course. This is a frightening sight at the best of times and she obviously dived in a tremendous hurry and at the same time put her rudder hard over in order to get away to seaward. It is possible that in her desperate crash dive, her nose must have hit the shallow ground hard when she bottomed. It seems likely that a fire broke out on board for'd where, in all probability, there were mines, in addition to the torpedoes, fully armed.

The analysis of the cause of the Ghazi sinking is still inconclusive. Many experts poring over the evidence and the sequence of events conclude that the explosion in the Ghazi which sunk it was either due to an explosion of the torpedoes or mines in the torpedo tubes as it dove down, a sympathetic explosion as the Rajput dropped depth charges, or due to a massive Hydrogen explosion due to unvented battery gases. Each theory has supporting and dissenting factions and pointers, so it is best to conclude it by concurring with Krishnan that it was an act of god. Only one aspect draws attention, that a mine or a torpedo had already been fired by the Ghazi before the explosion inside the sub. What happened to it and what did it hit? Is there something more to this story? Time may or may not tell. The Ghazi still remains where it sunk, hiding many mysteries beneath its shattered hull..

The Ghazi was out of the equation, the Vikrant sailed in and started action against the Pakistani targets effectively blockading the East Pakistani ports, while Indian troops realized their other ground and air objectives. The crippled Pakistanis pleaded with Nixon and the Chinese. Nixon sent the 7th fleet as a symbolic show of strength, but by then India had completed its mission and forced a surrender from the Pakistanis on the 16th Dec. Nixon’s plan was to throttle India with gunboat diplomacy while support for India came from the Russians with their ships in the region and a nuclear sub sailing in from Vladivostok to encircle the American fleet. The Russian submarine surfaced near the USS Enterprise to make its threat overt. The British ship fled to Madagascar, as the Americans held firm. China abstained from getting involved fearing an attack on their Northern borders by the Russians.  It is said that the American’s and the Russians negotiated and made India agree that it will not overwhelm West Pakistan.

The surrender was complete - Krishnan in white uniform can be seen standing to the left of the group behind the table.

So what was the most dangerous movement? Was it when the Rajput sailed out as a suicidal bait knowing that the Ghazi would torpedo it? Or was it the instant the second torpedo fire command was given by the Ghazi commander? Or was it when the Russian atomic submarine surfaced and targeted the USS enterprise? Any one of these could have changed the course of the war, but the instant the Rajput sailed out according to Krishnan’s orders preempted everything else. That was the stroke of midnight of the 3rd / 4th Dec 1971.

Whatever happened to all the players? Krishnan was awarded a Padma Bhushan while SN Kohli took over from Adm Nanda as Chief of naval staff, much to the disappointment of Krishnan. He retired to the Kerala backwaters, and took over as the CMD of the new Cochin Shipyard in 1973. He was reconsidered for the chief’s post again in 1975, but Sanjay Gandhi decided that Krishnan had too strong a personality and the post went to Jal Cursetji, instead!!

N Krishnan passed away in 1982, leaving behind two fine books which I happily perused. After I was done reading them, the one remaining thought was that I wished I could meet the man.

The Vikrant or R 11 no longer exists and has since then been scrapped. But you can relive these memories if you buy or ride certain Bajaj V motorbikes made from Vikrant’s steel. A new carrier Vikrant has been built by at the Cochin shipyard which Krishnan managed and is now undergoing trials. How fitting!

A sailors Story – N Krishnan
No way but Surrender — An Account of the Indo-Pakistani War in the Bay of Bengal – N Krishnan
No easy Answers –James Goldrick
Transition to Triumph –GM Hiranandani

An Aside (Courtesy – A sailors story Ch 20)  

To get a feel for this naval commander who was once the commander of Vikrant, you must read his account from 1963

After a week of intense flying exercises off Cochin, we anchored near the fairway buoy, for rest and maintenance and I acceded to the engineer officer’s request to shut down steam.Early next morning I was doing my Puja, as was my wont, when the carrier's signal communication officer rushed into my cabin and rather agitatedly said, 'Sir, our radar has picked up a largish echo which is moving too fast for a merchant ship and is heading towards us.' I asked, 'What is the range?', to which he replied, Twenty miles, and closing in fast'

I knew that there were none of our warships in the area at that time. Always at the back of my mind was the thought of a pre-emptive attack by Pakistan and I was not going to take any chance. I told the officer, ring the alarm for action stations and I will be up in a jiffy. By the time I got up, a silhouette of the approaching ship was partially visible and I could make out that it was the Pakistani cruiser Babar. Without steam even to raise the anchor we were a sitting duck and I had no intention that it should be so. I ordered steam to be raised with the utmost despatch and had the cable party standing by to slip the anchor; I sent for Tally-Ho (nickname for Lieutenant Commander, later Admiral, R.H. Tahiliani), the senior flier, and asked him, 'How are you for a free takeoff?'

He replied, there is a decent breeze, we are already into the wind and the Alize (Vikrant's antisubmarine aircraft) can just about do it. Have to use rockets and not bombs'. 'Go to it, I said, 'get two Alizes ready!' The cruiser was within the visual signalling distance. I suddenly remembered who the Captain was - Captain Syed Mohammad Ahsan, who was with me in England in the mid-1940s when he was awarded the DSC with me (Captain Ahsan later rose to the rank of Admiral as the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Navy and served as the Governor of East Pakistan after his retirement). I signalled a message to him which read, 'Syed, don't come closer. We are ready for you. Krish'.

The reply came, 'Krish, have Ayub (Khan) on board, bound for Colombo. Thought will have a dekko at my old country. Cordial greetings Syed.' and he turned away.

Alas! All that camaraderie is lost in today’s world which is full of jingoistic propaganda and jihadist war cries.