Friday, December 31, 2010

Why did the "Khukri" have to sink??

INS Khukri, was a Type IV ASW Frigate belonging to the 14 Squadron of the Western Fleet of the Indian Navy during the 1971 War with Pakistan. She was the only Indian sea vessel that was destroyed by the enemy, and sank off the coast of Diu, on the night of December 9, 1971, taking down with her about 178 sailors and 18 officers including Khukri's Captain - Mahendra Nath Mullah.

The sinking of INS Khukri continues to haunt the minds of military strategists and planners even today. Because, this was the only instance where the otherwise highly effective planning and tactics of the Indian Navy like those used to sink the Ghazi and for the Karachi attacks, did not come into play.  

I have tried to put together, a few critical factors that led to this incident which was a huge irreparable loss:

1. Pakistan Navy's strength lay in her new "Daphne Class" submarines, three in number, acquired recently from France (and funded by the United States). The strength of the submarines was in her sensors and armament which was regarded as 'superior to anything in the Indian Navy's inventory'

Soon after the war started, certain Pakistani communication intercepted by the Indians established two facts - a)that these communications were submarine transmissions and b)that these were originating from an area around Diu, which was the main assembly areas for Indian warships to be deployed  for missile attacks. Naturally this caused a lot of concern to the Indian Navy.  

The 14th squadron, consisting of 'Khurki, Kirpan and 'Kuthar' has sailed along with the western fleet on December 2, 1971. Soon after the Kuthar encountered a boiler burst, and had to return to Bombay for repairs. She was towed back by the Kirpan, with Khukri acting as escort. During  this journey, the Khurki reported encountering a submarine, and attacking it. While this fact was never established, it further strengthened suspicion that Pakistani submarines were in the vicinity. Consequently, a "Hunter-Killer" operation was ordered the main objective being to seek and destroy and Pakistani vessels.

The first mistake - was deploying the 14 squadron for this operation. These old frigates were pitted against modern submarines which had a sonar range twice that of the Khurki and Kirpan. Additionally with the Kuthar damaged the squadron strength was sub-optimal.

Khukri and Kirpan sailed nevertheless, to take up the difficult task of a 'hunter -killer' operation in an area 50 miles by 55 miles off the coast of Diu.

PNS Hangor the submarine responsible for the sinking of the Khukri, lay patiently in wait, near Diu. Hangor picked up 2 contacts on her sonar at extreme range , in the early hours of the morning of December 9 when she was off the Kathiawar coast. When they were identified as warships from their sonar transmissions, the submarine began pursuit.  By the evening on December 9, she was able to make out the pattern of  movement of the two Indian ships, by tracking them with her advanced sensors and concluded that the ships were carrying out a rectangular anti-submarine search. By forecasting their movement, the submarine succeeded by 7 pm, in taking up a tactically advantageous position in the path of the patrolling frigates.

The second mistake - was the linear path followed by the frigates covering a rather small area instead of a 'zig zag' course. The range of the frigates that were moving at a speed of 12 knots was now closing and the Hangor prepared for the attack.  The Khukri was still not aware of the submarine's presence and continued doing slow speed on a steady course on a narrow weave which was a flagrant violation of the anti-submarine doctrine.

The third mistake - was that the Khukri continued to do 10-12 knots instead of the normal 15 knots required not only to seek and destroy the enemy but also for evasion.The reason for this was the attachment of a special device by the Khukri's electrical officer, Lt. V.K Jain, to the Type 14's 170/174 sonar to slightly increase it's detection range. This new device developed with assistance from BARC, was approved by Admiral Kohli to be embarked in the Khukri

The fourth mistake - the two frigates were being supported by 'Sea King' helicopters which were anti submarine weapon platforms with torpedoes and highly effective sonars. They were therefore powerful deterrents to the Pakistani submarines. As long as they were there in the vicinity of the Khukri and the Kirpan, PNS Hangor would never have dared to surface or to attack.

The Sea Kings had departed from the scene of action between 5 pm and 6 pm, because their reliefs failed to arrive, and they were running low of fuel. The helicopters left, and the frigates were assured that the relief choppers would arrive within an hour.

The relief helicopters failed to arrive, and this gave Hangor the opportunity she was looking for. 

Hangor fired a down-the-throat shot with a homing torpedo at the Northerly ship (Kirpan) at about 8 pm. The torpedo however misfired and Kirpan detected the torpedo going past her and fired her mortars, which after a few salvoes being fired, became non-operational. Without losing time, Hangor turned towards the Khukri. Hangor fired a second torpedo, which exploded under the Khukri's oil tanks. A few minutes later Kirpan returned for an attack in a course that brought her in line with the submarine. Hangor fired a third torpedo and immediately turned away and exited at maximum speed

According to the Pakistani version, the torpedo exploded near the stern of the Kirpan, badly damaging it and putting her out of action though in reality, Kirpan was not scratched and returned for rescue operations along with the vessel, INS Katchal. The Indian version maintains that both the torpedoes hit the Khukri.

Kirpan was faced with a dilemma -should she immediately lower her boats and rescue the survivors of the Khukri which would leave her vulnerable to the submarine or should she leave the area, repair her defective mortars and return with an additional ship to commence the rescue and hunting operations. Under the circumstances, Kirpan made the wise choice of doing the latter.

This action however generated some discussions on the ethics of such tactics for quite some time in Indian navy circles.

INS Khukri sank soon after.

Whether the 'mistakes' listed above were indeed mistakes - only military strategists can comment on. They certainly explain the circumstances and conditions that led to the sinking of INS Khukri - the only Indian ship to be destroyed during the war.

Inputs from
1. 'The Sinking of INS Khukri - Survivors' Stories' by Maj Gen Ian Cardozo

2. 'Loss of INS Khukri' by B. Harry (Bharat

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Courage Under Fire - II

Captain Mullah was commanding a sea vessel of the Indian Navy - a frigate "INS Khukri" during the war. His ship was part of a squadron that was tasked to seek and destroy Pakistani ships and submarines.

On the night of December 9, 1971, INS Khukri was hit by torpedoes fired from a Pakistani submarine, and started sinking. Realizing this, Captain Mullah ordered to crew - some 300 officers and sailors - to abandon ship. He also realized that many men were trapped in the sinking vessel below the deck.

Unmindful of this personal safety, and choosing to stay with the ship when he could have opted to save himself, he took it upon himself to personally supervise the rescue of the trapped men.

As Genl Cardozo related the story - "being the man that he was, he knew that it was not right for him to save himself while his sailors went to a watery grave".

In those final moments when the ship sank, Captain Mullah helped as many as he could, staying on the bridge of the ship till the end.

The INS Khukri sank some 45 nautical miles off the coast of Diu. Captain Mullah went down with the vessel he commanded, and laid down his life. In the words of Commandeer Manu Sharma, a batchmate of Captain Mullah, and one of the crew of that ill fated ship that night, had been forced to jump off the ship, by Captain Mullah, and was swimming to safety when he caught the last glimpse of the "Khukri" In Sharma's words - "`The bow of the ship was pointing upwards at an angle of eight degrees and sinking slowly. I got a glimpse of Captain Mulla sitting on his chair and hanging on to the railing. He was still smoking a cigarette."

Captain Mullah's last action and behavior were seen as an act of gallantry and courage in keeping with the highest traditions of the Indian Millitary forces. A grateful Natione awarded him the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously.

Why did Captain Mullah choose to go down with his sinking ship and meet his watery grave? Was it some silly, centuries old Naval custom?

Many have attempted to explain why Captain Mullah gave up his life by choice when he could have save himself easily.

Major General Ian Cardozo who authored the book "The Sinking of INS Khukri -Survivors' Stories" described Captain Mahendra Nath Mullah's action -

"Captain Mullah's story brings into focus the outstanding character qualities of a man that sets him part from other mortals. The manner in which he died upholds the highest the traditions of the armed forces and exemplifies the upper limits of cold courage. He believed in the old Army motto - that the nation comes first, that the men he commands come next, and his safety comes last. This naval officer made this come true and made it an example for all of us to follow. In this brave and heroic action, Captain Mulla teaches us not only how to live, but how to die"

Ameeta Mullah Wattal - Captain Mullah's elder daughter, who was but a teenager when she lost her father says this - "I have often wondered what made my father decide to go down with his ship after it was torpedoed during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Did he do it because he wanted his name enshrined in history books as a man of valour? Did he do it because it was part of an old archaic naval tradition, or did he accompany his ship into the sea because he felt it was the right thing to do?"

Ameeta was perhaps right. For Captain Mullah - this was the only right thing to do..

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Courage Under Fire - I

It was the 14th of December 1971, a little over 39 years ago. Many of my generation cannot forget that year however. A war was on.

At 8 am on that fateful day, the outlying OPs (observation posts) just outside the Srinagar airfield flashed a warning about an incoming air raid by Pakistani F-85 Sabre jets. A young Sikh Officer Nirmaljit, and his fellow fighter pilot Ghumman -both Gnat pilots,  were scrambled to intercept the incoming strike. Ten precious seconds were lost in getting ATC clearance which never came. Both pilots took off - four minutes after the first OP warning, and just when the first of the incoming Sabres was commencing its dive over the airfield.

Ghumman was the first to become airborne followed by Nirmaljit, who almost immediately was out of visual contact of the ATC, obscured by the dust and smoke thrown up by the exploding Pakistani bombs.

By now, Nirmaljit was overcome totally with raw courage. There were six sabres and he decided to take them on, while still alone. Ghumman tried in vain to assist him, but could not be vectored onto Nirmal's position due to bad visibility.

All along Nirmal kept the ATC abreast with the action. He got behing two Sabres, and before long let out a gunburst, shooting down one of the enemy aircraft.

Next he engaged two more aircraft starting a chase in a wide circle. Howeve, five Sabres were too much for a lone Gnat. For not one moment though, did Nirmal let that thought cross his mind, that he was completely overcome by sheer numbers.

The ATC heard a Gnat gun burst, followed by a short gun busrt from the Sabre, and again a very long Sabre gun burst.

'I think I've been hit' was Nirmal's last radio transmission from his Gnat.

His plane crashed soon after. Flying Offier Nirmaljit Singh lost his life valiantly fighting against overwhelming odds.

For his supreme valour in the face of the enemy, Flg Officer Sekhon was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the only awarded ever, to an Air Force Officer.

Nimaljit Singh Sekhon was only 26 years old when he laid down his life for his Country. When he died, he and his wife Manjit Kaur had been married for only a few months.

On the 38th anniversary of the 1971 Bangladesh War, let us salute this brave young officer, and promise ourselves, never to forget the likes of him.