Taking the War to the Sea

The dawn of 6 September 1965, a full fifty years ago this day, was like any other dawn. As the sun rose over the horizon, however, it ushered in, along with the ever-brightening rays of the sun, the steeds of war. Parents, unaware of the events unfolding at the border, had packed their children off to school but had to hastily rush to retrieve them when they heard the emotionally- charged somber announcement on radio about the outbreak of hostilities. Why radio, why not TV, one may ask? Well, TV had only recently made its appearance in the country and the only channel at the time, the state-owned PTV, did not commence its transmissions till 5:30 in the evening. The composed voice of President Ayub Khan, reassuring and determined, kept roaring over the available audio-visual spectrum, vowing defiance and demanding sacrifices. People responded to his call with gusto, donating whatever they could to the war effort.

Gathered together in the living room of their houses amidst the deepening gloom, talking in hushed tones, a solitary lamp dimly glowing, windows blacked out, families could be forgiven for thinking that it was some act from a surreal play. Tales of valour kept their spirits up, faces aglow with pride. The thud thud of the artillery in the distance, the sight and sounds of jets winging overhead, the restrictions imposed on travel, the black-outs and curfews enforced at night, served as the only constant reminder of the humdrum of war and as a sort of reality check.

The Navy is known as a silent service and perhaps rightfully so. It operates in a medium far beyond the confines of the visible. A submarine, once it dives to its maximum operating depth of 300 metres, just cannot be seen, even if one is on top of it, on the surface of the sea. War, in most people’s minds, is all about territory. War at sea is thus difficult to comprehend: there are no territorial gains to be made and neither are there any landmarks to serve as a guide in the open sea. So while the media kept regaling the populace with individual tales of valour on land and in the air, the collective exploits of a motley crew on board a warship(or a group of warships for that matter) remained a long way away from the public imagination of the time.

On that fateful day of 6 September, all operational Pakistani warships, a cruiser, five destroyers, a frigate and a tanker, were already preparing to sail out for scheduled exercises at sea when the ominous news about the outbreak of hostilities was received at around 6:30 in the morning. Their departure was consequently hastened somewhat. Ever since the skirmish in the desolate plains of the Rann of Kutch the previous month, the ships were in an heightened state of readiness, remaining topped up with rations and ammunition. Regular tactical exercises had fine-tuned their state of preparedness.

The next day ie 7  Sep, while engaged in defensive patrol for seaward defence of the coast, the ships received an urgent message from Naval Headquarters directing them to proceed due south at maximum available speed so as to be in position around 120 miles west of Dwarka by six in the evening. The ships topped up their stock of fuel while en route at sea and then as per the instructions received, headed towards Dwarka, where its Radar Station had been assigned as their primary target for bombardment. The Officer in Tactical Command onboard PNS Babur quickly prepared the firing instructions and got them distributed to the other ships through heaving line transfer while underway.

The group of seven PN warships reached their firing position by midnight as scheduled. They had between them twenty seven guns: the solitary cruiser Babur had 5.25″ turrets, the two Battle class destroyers, PNS Khaibar and Badr, had 4.5″ turrets, the three Chukker class destroyers had 4.5″ mountings and the lone frigate Tippu Sultan had a 4″ mounting. It was a pitch dark night, made more so by the complete blackout being observed by the hapless city of Dwarka. The firing had therefore to be conducted by radar. The ship’s altered course  to North West to enable all the guns to be simultaneously fired. Once the executive order to fire was given, the ship’s expended their allotted quota of 50 rounds each within a matter of minutes.

Talwar, an Indian Naval frigate, undergoing minor repairs to its condensers in nearby Okha, was later castigated by many senior Indian naval officers for not going after the retreating ships. The ship was however tasked the next day to proceed to Dwarka for damage assessment, which was found to be significant: the naval radar facility was gutted, killing two officers and thirteen sailors, the naval air station’s runway was rendered ineffective and a cement factory also hit. Losses aside, a naval strike so early in the war managed to catch the Indian Navy by surprise and at the end of the day, left it feeling humiliated. Though the entire operation was pulled off rather effortlessly, it certainly wasn’t without its share of risks. The PN ships couldn’t have known that out of the 23 major IN warships, 10 were under refit in Bombay, including a cruiser, Delhi, and an aircraft carrier Vikrant, whose docking had been delayed because of the Rann of Kutch crisis. Most of the operational units had been sent to the Bay of Bengal and couldn’t reach back to Bombay before 9 Sep, after being recalled.

The official Indian version is that its MoD wanted the response to a Pakistani land incursion to remain localised in and around Kashmir and only allowed the international border  at Lahore to be crossed as an only concession to its military commanders. War at sea was something they wanted to avoid at all costs so as not to internationalise the conflict. They had accordingly forbid their warships from going north of Porbander and also disallowed any retaliation to the Dwarka raid. Whatever the reason, it played right into the Pakistan Navy’s eager hands.

The major edge the Pakistan Navy possessed came in the shape of a U.S.-origin conventional submarine, PNS Ghazi, which happened to be the only subsurface platform being operated by any of the regional navies and as such was an unknown entity. In order to be better prepared to counter this threat, the Indian Navy had sought the services of a British submarine for live exercises in the Bay of Bengal. Both governments having disallowed the use of commerce warfare, the Pakistan Navy had tasked PNS Ghazi to go in for large naval vessels like an Aircraft Carrier, cruisers and an oil tanker. PNS Ghazi had to unfortunately come back to Karachi for three days till 14 Sep for effecting repairs and somehow couldn’t cross paths with the sort of targets it was looking for. On 22 Sep, just before the ceasefire was due to take effect, the submarine managed to score two torpedo hits on an IN frigate it believed was the INS Brahmaputra. From an Indian naval perspective, the submarine could have been lurking anywhere off its west coast and thus injected a fear factor into the equation.

The 1965 conflagration will continue to be remembered for a number of things: the self-restraint imposed by both sides by not deliberately targeting civilians, the bravery on display by the Pakistani military in the defence of its motherland, spirited backing extended by the civilian populace and the unwavering support given by our regional friends. President Sukarno of Indonesia in particular not only tied down the Indian Navy by staking his country’s claim on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain, but also ordered the immediate despatch of two submarines and two missile boats, which, though arriving after the ceasefire took effect, still signified the spirit behind this solid gesture of support. At sea, the Pakistan Navy seized the initiative by bombarding Dwarka early on in the war and by bottling up the Indian naval fleet through an element of uncertainty introduced by the ever-present and ever so real subsurface threat.

Note: This article was published in the 6 September 2015 issue of the daily newspaper ‘The Nation’ and the August 2015 edition of the ‘Navy News’.

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