The Second Missile Attack

The second missile attack code named ‘Python’ was planned and executed under the direction of Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet from his flagship INS Mysore. The Western Fleet sailed out of Bombay on 2 December, just one day before the commencement of hostilities and was detected moving north towards Karachi by the submarine Hangor. Two missile boats had been taken in tow. The fleet manoeuvred to take up a position to launch a missi1e attack.

The first missile attack having been handled directly by the FOC-in-C West, the Fleet Commander was tasked to launch the second missile attack on the following day. But in a bid to shake off our submarines and reconnaissance aircraft the Indian Fleet moved so far south that the attack was no longer feasible on schedule. This shows the extent to which Indian plans were foiled by our submarines and meagre reconnaissance effort by a few requisitioned civil aircraft.

An attack planned for the night of 6 December was also aborted, when Indian Naval Headquarters cancelled it after assuming direct control over fleet operations. Weather conditions, which were unsuitable for missile boat operations, precluded an attack on the night of 7 December. During this period, when the missile attack was postponed several times, the Pakistan fleet was at sea. Deeply con­scious of the missile threat FOFPAK continued to manoeuvre his fleet, mostly in an anti-submarine formation, along the coast.

After much discussion and debate the decision to recall the surface ships back to harbour was taken sometime on 7 December and by the afternoon of 8 December all major surface units except Dacca had entered harbour. Dacca was at Manora anchorage and remained there as its entry into harbour was precluded by its deep draft and tidal conditions in harbour. The men on board watched the ships steam into harbour with a growing feeling of uneasiness.

Dacca had performed admirably its basic role of keeping the ships topped up with fuel, rations and other stores necessary for the sustenance of the fleet at sea during its operations. She had been out at sea since 10 November carrying out underway replenishment of ships at sea as and when required. When her services were not required, she lay at anchor. Having camouflaged herself as a merchant ship a day earlier, the ship happened to be at Manora anchorage on the fateful night of 8 December.

This missile attack was carried out by a single missile boat Vinash, supported by two frigates Trishul and Talwar of the 15th Frigate Squadron, under the command of F-15 on board Trishul. The Indian Fleet appears to have remained well to the south, while the missile attack unit was detached to sortie out towards Karachi from a south­-westerly direction.

On the way to Karachi, one of the escorting frigates INS Talwar engaged and sank a ship, which was believed to be a Pakistani patrol craft suspected of having reported the position of the approaching force. Since none of our patrol craft or for that matter any other warship, was engaged or sunk that night, it can be surmised that the victim of this attack must have been a civilian craft. It appears that the unfortunate vessel was mercilessly pounded with shells from the frigates guns until she caught fire and sank.

The missile boat Vinash closed Karachi to a range of 12 miles and fired tour missiles in succession at four different ships chosen at random by the Unit Commander from the cluster of about a dozen ships at Manora anchorage. Dacca was unfortunate enough to be one of them.

The first missile flew over, the ships at the anchorage, crossed Manora Island and crashed into an oil tank at the Keamari oil farm. There was a huge explosion and flames shot up so high that Qamar House, a multi-storey building in the city was clearly visible. The fire caused by the air attack on 4 December had been put out only a day earlier after three days of concerted efforts. Fires once again raged in the oil farm after a short lived respite of a day. A distressing sight no doubt for everyone, but particularly for those who had risked their lives in a tenacious battle against the oil farm fires earlier.

The other three missiles homed on to ships at Manora anchorage. The British-owned merchant vessel Harmattan, SS Gulf Star flying the Panama flag, and PNS Dacca were hit by a missile each. The Harmattan sank immediately, but Gulf Star survived. PNS Dacca’s miraculous survival after absorbing a missile hit in an oil tank can be attributed to the courage and vigilance of her Commanding Officer and crew. Timely operation of the steam smothering system by engine room personnel after the missile hit the ship certainly averted a major explosion that could have been fatal for the ship. A first band account of this missile attack is given from a special report submitted by PNS Dacca.

‘At about 2245 a pale light was seen travelling towards Manora parallel to Manora breakwater and when it was abreast of AA School it turned right and directly hit the oil tank which immediately burst into flames. A little later another light was seen travelling from the same direction and hit the ship anchored very close to the breakwater; the ship sank immediately. At that moment action stations was sounded and in no time the ship had manned her guns and was ready to engage the target. In the meantime a third light was seen travelling towards another ship at the southern corner of the anchorage, she caught fire immediately. A little later a bright light was seen coming up from behind the horizon gaining height on port bow (ship was lying 280-100 degrees). It appeared stationary for sometime, and then rushed steeply towards the ship. It was engaged by port guns. It hit on the port side piercing No. 7 port FFO tank just above the water-line. It ripped open the cargo and jungle decks. The motor boat and spare fuel hoses caught fire immediately. Abandon ship was piped immediately. A number of officers and men jumped overboard and only eight officers and 37 CPOs and sailors stayed.’

The Commanding Officer Captain SQ Raza (awarded Sitara-i­-Jurrat) stayed on board and with the help of those who had not abandoned ship brought the fire on the tipper deck under control. He has maintained that the hasty and controversial order to abandon ship, cancelled soon afterwards, was given without his approval. His presence of mind in a moment of crisis saved the ship, and deprived the Indian Navy of the satisfaction of having sunk a warship of the Pakistan Navy in the second missile attack. As matters stood their score was only one defenceless merchant ship sunk and another damaged.

It is surprising though that while the missile threat was uppermost in everyone’s mind, the missiles when first observed on board Dacca, were mistaken for aircraft flying with search lights switched on to locate their targets. The reaction of many others who saw the missiles in the air that night was no different.

There was an air strike at Karachi by IAF just about the time the Indian Navy launched the missile attack; but there is no positive evidence of damage to the harbour due to the air strike, which was in all probability directed at PAF air bases in Karachi. There were reports of bombs having been dropped in Bihar and Agra Taj colonies near Mauripur. The chance attack by IAF at about the same time as the missile attack has led to a controversy between the IAF and the Indian Navy for claiming credit for the damage to oil tanks at Keamari. In all probability this missile had strayed away from its target and locked on to the strong echo of the oil tank.

The approaching missile was sighted by lookouts on Manora Island and reported to COMKAR who passed the information on to Air Defence Sector Operation Centre, Korangi. Not a single shot was fired as the missile whizzed past over harbour defenses and plunged into the oil tank. Perceived, by those who saw it, to be an aircraft, it was not engaged because of the gun restrictions in force. It was nearly six minutes after the missile hit the tank that a tremendous barrage of fire was let loose by anti-aircraft guns in harbour at 2248, when air raid warning red was promulgated and gun restrictions lifted. No aircraft were actually sighted over the harbour. There were more blasts as other tanks exploded in the spreading fires. Starshells, which looked liked missiles, fired by PNS Himalaya at this time further confused the picture. The harbour reverberated with the sound of guns and blasts as innumerable shells were pumped into the air.

On the evening of 8 December at about 1800 a radar-fitted Cessna on patrol reported sighting Osa boats just leaving Jamnagar and heading towards Karachi. The C-in-C, PAF was contacted on the direct telephone and asked to strike the Osas from the air. The C-in-C PN also had a word with him to emphasise the urgency. The Air Marshal regretted his inability as according to him “No air effort was available.”

The circumstances surrounding the sudden disappearance of the merchant vessel Venus Challenger from the high seas have remained somewhat of a mystery. It is certain though that the ship was sunk in one of the two missile attacks at Karachi. The ship loaded with a cargo of rice had sailed for East Pakistan from the United States on 10 September. Arriving off Chittagong in late November she was diverted to Karachi where she was expected in the first week of December. Thereafter, the ship could not be traced until the identification of her wreck by a team of naval divers 26 miles to the south of Karachi a few days after the war.

If the objective of the attack, as claimed by the Indian Navy, was to destroy the Pakistan Navy, not much contribution was made by the second missile attack towards that goal. True, PNS Dacca was damaged by a chance hit, but she was repaired in less than a month and continued to serve the Navy till December 1994 when she was decommissioned. On the other band if the objective was to scare away merchant ships, the unscrupulous method adopted for this purpose is without precedence.

The provisions of international law and conventions that forbid attack on merchant ships without warning were blatantly violated. No effort at maintaining even a semblance of legal propriety was made by declaration of a blockade or a war zone before embarking on a callous slaughter of merchantmen and their crew by those who claim to have taken up arms to champion the cause of the oppressed. For it was well known to the Indians that missiles hurled blindly at ships at Manora anchorage were bound to take a toll of neutral merchant ships.

Munsif which was anchored in the vicinity of Dacca at Manora anchorage proceeded to assist Dacca and picked up some of her survivors. Other personnel of Dacca and those of merchant ships were recovered by auxiliary craft promptly despatched to the scene by COMKAR. Madadgar was sent to assist Dacca but by the time she arrived there past midnight the fire had been put out and the situation was under control. By the evening of 9 December Dacca’s power had been restored and she moved to a position close inshore off Buleji point, anchored and remained there until she was towed back to harbour on 19 December.

There followed in the wake of the second missile attack yet another controversial decision: orders were issued at 1400 on 9 December to ships at Karachi to reduce their ammunition outfit.

After the return of the ships to harbour on 8 December their vulnerability in the port remained a topic of continuing debate. In the early hours of 9 December, only a few hours after the missile attack, dockyard workshops and buildings were severely damaged in a low level attack – facilitated, no doubt, by the light emitted by the huge flames of the fire at the oil farm – by an IAF bomber. Under these circumstances anxiety about the catastrophic consequences of an explosion in a ship fully loaded with ammunition was only natural.

The decision to reduce the ammunition outfit, notwithstanding the logic behind it, continues to be questioned by many. The adverse effect on morale of men, who were inclined to see it as a step to limit the surface ships operational role, was immediate. Not accepted by most as a necessary rational step, the decision remained a controversional issue.

It was perhaps in consideration of the morale factor and to avoid the impression that the fleet was immobilised that a strategy of high speed probes was introduced. This required random sorties of short duration to be carried out at high speed by designated ships. Destroy­ers and frigates were employed in this manner until the end of the war.

This speaks much for the mettle of officers and men who readily undertook these operations with enthusiasm, in spite of the knowledge that the ships had no viable defence against the surface missiles.

While evaluating the performance of the surface fleet, it must be noted that in spite of the tremendous advantage, particularly in weapon range, which the Indian Navy enjoyed, our actual physical losses amounted to only one destroyer and a minesweeper sunk. This cannot be construed as the destruction of our fleet which was the Indian objective. The Indian Navy did succeed in gaining initial advantage through surprise but failed to fully press home its gains. The second missile attack cannot be called an unqualified success when evaluated against the strategic objective of destruction of the Pakistan Navy Fleet. The shock effect created by the missile attacks was more significant and it was aggravated by the thought that we would not have air support.

As far as the Pakistan Fleet is concerned, the psychological impact was far greater than that warranted by physical losses. Though the surface force managed to survive, it failed to retain its threat and deterrent value as a Fleet-in-Being. The obsolescence of its weapons apart, lack of adequate air support inhibited the success of its opera­tions. It must also be admitted that our surveillance capability and command and control facilities were far from satisfactory. The neglect of the Navy over several decades came through clearly in the 1971 war.