Defence 1971 INDO-PAK WAR
The Ghazi Mystery
With the release of pictures of the Ghazi, the submarine whose sinking tilted the 1971 war in favour of India, the debate on what caused the blast on board the Pakistani vessel is renewed
By Sandeep Unnithan
December 4, 1971: The first rays of dawn had just illuminated Vizag harbour when Lieutenant Sridhar More steered the INS Akshay out towards the open sea. War had broken out between India and Pakistan the previous day, but all was quiet on the eastern coast. At least until a few hours earlier when some fishermen had visited the Eastern Naval Command with pieces of wreckage and reported an oil slick. As the Akshay made its way to the spot, More saw an oil slick stretching out as far as the eye could see.
The first of the divers who went down to investigate surfaced after a few minutes and gasped. "Sir, it's a submarine." A second diver was sent in. He surfaced half an hour later, excited. "I've felt the length of the submarine and its fin. The mouth is blown open."
More punched out a signal to the Maritime Operations Room (MOR) in Vizag: "Have located bottomed submarine in position Dolphin light 110 4.1." Soon after the divers could make out the Urdu initials on the black shape, More flashed his second signal. "Confirmed submarine is Pakistani." Thumbing through his copy of Jane's Fighting Ships, More sized up Pakistan's fleet of four submarines. Three were the smaller French coastal submarines of the Daphne class, less than 200 ft long, and the fourth and largest one was the Ghazi. The divers estimated its length to be over 300 ft. More's third and last signal sent a ripple through the base: "It is the Ghazi.''
December 10, 2003:Exactly 32 years and a week later, Petty Officer Rajaram Dinkar Patil rappelled down a rope into the sea off Visakhapatnam. He was part of a team of 10 divers from the Eastern Naval Command, sent down for another look at an old enemy that had come so close and failed.
As Patil switched on his underwater camera, the crew onboard the Gemini crowded around the monitor to see what he was seeing. The Ghazi, in death, was teeming with life. Its hull was covered with thousands of fishing nets. Patil relayed what would be the first publicly released footage of the last submarine to sink in a war. Footage that experts from submarine museums in the US, USS Cod in Cleveland and USS Torsk in Baltimore, helped India Today understand.
Ghazi was still sitting on an even keel, but its thin outer hull had all but chipped away, exposing the steel skeleton which covered its internal pressure hull and its grid of pipes and fittings. The aft escape hatch was blown open and lay exposed to the sea. An 18-inch high bronze capstan, used for docking and torpedo loading, sat fastened to the deck, chalk white and coral-encrusted.
"The fishing nets made it look like a trapped marine beast," says Commander Ajay Chauhan, command diving and special operations officer. The Ghazi had indeed fallen into and died in a net, a wartime ruse that killed it.
November 14, 1971: Millions of refugees were fleeing into India from the Pakistan Army's rampage in the east. A full-scale war seemed only a matter of time. PNS Ghazi quietly cast its moorings and sailed out of Karachi harbour into the Arabian Sea with its crew of 93 men and crammed with food and ammunition. It had sailed out ostensibly for Chittagong in East Pakistan, but its real mission was known to only a few in the submarine directorate and probably just its captain, Zafar Muhammad Khan.
The Ghazi, formerly USS Diablo, was built during World War II. It was leased to Pakistan in 1964 and rechristened Ghazi or "holy warrior" and was South Asia's first submarine. The 26-year-old steel shark's sinews may have been ageing but it still had phenomenal Pacific reach-it could stay out at sea for 75 days at a stretch and travel over 11,000 nautical miles (17,000 km). The pride of the Pakistan Navy now sailed to India's eastern coast to seek the aircraft carrier Vikrant in a gladiatorial contest. By November 23, the Ghazi had travelled over 2,200 nautical miles from Karachi to reach a patrol area codenamed Zone Mike-Madras.
Vice-admiral Krishnan, the Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command, was a maverick whose colourful language could make a seasoned sailor blush. In November 1971, he looked out to sea and was a worried man. The Eastern Fleet's aircraft carrier Vikrant was tasked with blockading East Pakistan from the sea but the vessel had a crack in its boiler which reduced its speed to just 16 knots and made it vulnerable to submarines. That was not all. Signal intercepts of the Pakistan Navy indicated an imminent deployment of the Ghazi in the Bay.
FITTING IN THE PIECES
November 14, 1971: Pakistani submarine Ghazi leaves Karachi for Chittagong in East Pakistan. Its real mission is to target Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant. Fooled by an Indian ruse that Vikrant is in Vizag, Ghazi reaches the port town.
December 3, 1971: War breaks out between India and Pakistan. But a mysterious blast sinks Ghazi off Vizag harbour. Three days later, Vikrant launches airstrike against East Pakistan.
December 10, 2003: Indian Navy divers go down to examine the Ghazi in a bid to solve the decades-old puzzle. Underwater cameras take images of the vessel but the answer is still unclear.
But the maverick admiral was also a master of ruses. In 1946, as the captain of the Royal Indian Navy frigate RINS Shamsher, Krishnan had fabricated an alarm for a downed aircraft off Mumbai, sailed out to hunt for this "aircraft" and ensured his men didn't join the naval mutiny raging in the city. Now, 25 years later, he had to pull off his best one yet.
Krishnan did everything to let the enemy believe that the Vikrant was still in Vizag. He summoned Lt-Commander Inder Singh, the captain of INS Rajput, an ageing destroyer which was being sent to Vizag to be decommissioned. The wily Krishnan gave it and Inder Singh one last mission-the Rajput was to pretend to be the Vikrant, sail 160 miles out of Vizag harbour and generate heavy wireless traffic-which would lead the enemy to believe there was a large ship in the vicinity. He then falsely informed naval authorities in Madras that the carrier would be arriving there shortly. In Vizag, he began ordering huge quantities of rations-meat and vegetables-which indicated that the fleet was in harbour. He hoped that spies in the city would pick up and transmit this intelligence.
The bait was snapped up. On November 26, 1971, the Ghazi's wireless room crackled with a terse message from the commodore, submarines: "Occupy Zone Victor with all despatch. Intelligence indicates carrier in port." Khan altered course and sped his submarine north. Zone Victor was Vizag. Reaching Vizag on November 27, the mechanical predator prowled perilously close to the Indian coast, looking for its quarry.
December 3, 1971: Shortly after midnight on December 3, an explosion tore through the forward section of the Ghazi where torpedoes and mines were stored. The shockwave blew open the knife-shaped bow, crumpling the hull and cracking open watertight compartments. Seawater rushed in, snuffing out all the lights and drowning the crew. The submarine careened out of control and crashed to the seabed.
GHAZI'S DOOMED MISSION
How the Pakistani submarine came so close to the Indian coast but failed
NOVEMBER 14, 1971: Ghazi leaves Karachi with a crew of 93. It sails for Chittagong but her real target is India's Eastern Fleet.
NOVEMBER 23, 1971: Ghazi travels over 2,200 nautical miles to reach a patrol area codenamed Zone Mike-Madras.
NOVEMBER 26, 1971: Emergency declared in Pakistan. Ghazi commander gets signal to arm all torpedoes of the submarine.
NOVEMBER 27, 1971: Ghazi reaches Vizag and prowls around unseen in the narrow channel looking for an opportunity to strike.
DECEMBER 3, 1971: A massive explosion in the forward section of the Ghazi blows open its hull. Unable to escape, all 93 crew perish inside.
DECEMBER 4, 1971: Indian Navy discovers wreckage after fishermen report oil slick off the Vizag port. Divers confirm identity of wreck.
"At a depth of 30 m, a hole as small as 0.5 mm would let in 30 tonnes of water per hour, impossible to pump out,'' explains marine medicine specialist Surgeon Commander Sangram Singh Pundir. "The lucky crewmen would have died in the first few seconds, the unlucky ones in the aft section hours later when the air supply ran out.''
A few days later, divers blasted their way into the stricken submarine and brought to the surface six bloated bodies of Pakistani crewmen. One of the dead sailors, a Petty Officer Mechanical Engineer, had a wheel spanner tightly grasped in his fist. Another sailor had in his pocket a poignant letter written in Urdu to his fiancee. "I don't know if you will ever read this, but we are here separated by thousands of miles of sea...
Where was the Vikrant? Days before the Ghazi arrived off Madras, the carrier and her escorts had already sailed into "X Ray" a secret palm-fronded anchorage in the Andaman Islands nearly 1,000 miles away. Here, far from prying eyes, the fleet awaited the signal to strike at East Pakistan and enforce a complete sea blockade. On December 6 morning, three days after the sinking of the Ghazi, the Vikrant launched its first airstrike.
How exactly did the Ghazi die? Official accounts of the Pakistan Navy say that it triggered off one of its own mines, but divers who studied the wreckage say the submarine must have suffered an internal explosion which blew up its mines and torpedoes. Another theory suggests an explosion of gases built up inside the submarine while its batteries were being charged. This too has been disputed since the bodies recovered were not charred.
In the past three decades, the Indian Navy has made a series of attempts to unravel the puzzle but failed. The latest expedition was another bid to solve the enigma. "We would like to know what exactly happened to the Ghazi," says Vice-admiral (retd) Vinod Pasricha who converted the submarine Kursura and the Vikrant into maritime museums. "It would be of great historical value in the long term and would solve one of the last great mysteries of the 1971 war."
Vice-admiral (retd) G.M. Hiranandani, whose book Transition to Triumph gives an exhaustive account of the sinking of the Ghazi, says the submarine almost certainly suffered an internal explosion but its causes are debatable. "The Pakistani account exonerates the poor condition of the submarine by saying it set off one of its mines, while the chauvinistic Indian version says the Rajput dropped depth charges sinking it." The truth about the Ghazi, which remains what the submarine community calls "on eternal patrol", lies somewhere in between.