November 20, 1971 was a holiday and so was 21 November – two whole days “free” during the difficult days of turmoil in East Pakistan. It was Eid-al-Azha, time for sacrificial offering of animals, of family get-togethers and of feasting and sharings of joys. However, 1971 was not to be a year for such celebrations for us. The Indians had decided that 1971 was their year of “the opportunity of the century” and they were not about to miss the opportunity.
I was at that time the Electrical Officer of PN submarine Hangar and therefore before going home for the two days Eid holidays had made sure, as is the practice that everything was ready in case the submarine was required to proceed to sea at short notice. Except for attending the congregational Eid prayers, I had decided to stay at home. There was no visiting the relatives or friends, only a quiet day at home, knowing that the Indians always preferred days or events of National or religious importance to launch their attacks.
Eid day passed off quietly, but on the evening of second day of Eid my front gate bell rang. Thinking it might be a visitor, I went to open the front gate, but on seeing a naval police patrolman standing there, realization at once dawned that the time of waiting and uncertainty was over and that time had finally come for the submarine Hangar to put to sea. This was confirmed by the patrolman. I therefore quickly changed into uniform, picked up the small handbag which was already kept packed for such an eventuality and with a quick goodbye to wife and children sped away at breakneck speed towards the Submarine Base – praying all the way to be granted enough time to enable our submarine to put to sea before hostilities commenced in the Western theatre of war also.
On reaching the Submarine Base, I found that those submariners who lived nearer or had been contacted earlier had already reported for duty, while others like me were just arriving. The fact that not a single officer or sailor wasted a single second in reporting for duty, and every single one of them reported promptly, showed that without being told, every submariner had the same thought in mind and had kept himself ready for this eventuality.
As each member of Hangar’s crew arrived on board, he knew exactly what had to be done in terms of final preparations, and set about doing it. Family, friends and festival were all forgotten – only the mission and the task at hand mattered. It was a good team, disciplined and well trained and needed no guidance.
After the sailing-orders had been received, all the submarines, with their identification numbers painted out slipped silently from their berths one by one, as their departure times came, to proceed separately to their respective patrol areas. Once the submarine reached the patrol area, all contacts if classified as warships or submarines, were to be considered hostile. From now on life would be a constant effort to stay one jump ahead of the enemy. Every emission and every noise, be it electro-magnetic, sonic or ultra-sonic would have to be checked, measured, plotted, analysed and evaluated. On this would depend whether you were the attacker or the attacked in this deadly game.
Hangar reached its patrol area without encountering any enemy units, though a lot of air activity was seen and frantic communication traffic intercepted. Until 2 December Hangar operated in various areas, as ordered by Naval Headquarters, sometimes encountering small vessels such as ferries and dhaws and some merchant ships. Indian warships generally remained out of the area, except for some close inshore patrolling by their small frigates and patrolling craft in shallow waters out of reach of the submarine.
Late in the afternoon of 2 December Hangar’s sensors picked up a number of radar emissions from the direction of Bombay harbour. These emissions were analysed and were correctly identified as transmissions of radars fitted on certain Indian warships. It was also correctly appreciated, taking various factors into account, that this presaged imminent sailing out of the Indian Western Fleet. A little later a sudden jump· in the strength of the radar emissions was again correctly appreciated to indicate that the Indian fleet had indeed sailed out of harbour. Hangar, thereafter, kept close watch on it, tracking it by the radar emissions as well as the propeller H.E. (Hydrophone Effect) of ships.
Hangor having estimated the enemy’s course and speed found itself ahead of the approaching enemy, and set course to intercept. Finally, with “action stations” closed up and with all torpedoes ready for launch, Hangar managed to penetrate the anti-submarine screen and ended up between the main-body and its protective screen, in an ideal position to attack both and could have played havoc with the Indian Fleet. All the crew’s preparations and training had been for this moment. Had the rules of engagement permitted, we could have fired torpedoes at the enemy units as fast as we could line up the sight on each target. But the enemy was just about to be granted a reprieve, for all submarines had sailed out with strict orders not to engage the enemy unless fired upon first or till these orders were cancelled by Naval Headquarters.
There had been no change in these orders, and therefore all that Hangar could do was to pass under the enemy ships and then break radio silence to make an enemy contact report to Naval Headquarters. It was one of the most frustrating experience that a submariner can go through. It was even more frustrating to learn later on that hostilities had commenced in the Western theatre on 3 December, within a few hours of the submarine’s encounter with the Indian fleet.
The Indian Fleet had a close call and Hangar missed a golden opportunity but, after restrictions on engaging enemy units were lifted, its crew became even more determined to ensure that no enemy units in its patrol area escaped unscathed. However, the submarine’s tribulations were not yet over and one of the cooling pumps on board broke down. Without repairs to this pump it would not be possible to continue its war patrol. But repairs to this pump involved shutting down the main air conditioning plant of the submarine and lifting and removing its compressor motor to gain access to the defective pump.
Repairs to the pump itself were not much of a problem but removal of the air- conditioning plant compressor motor was a different matter entirely, posing many serious problems.
In a submarine, owing to lack of space, machinery is closely packed so that access to machines fitted close to the hull is only possible after removal of the intervening machinery in a specific sequence. Also, due to lack of space, certain heavier machines can only be lifted and moved after cutting the “soft” deck plates above the machine and then re-welding the plates back after the repairs are completed. The AC compressor motor was one such machine.
Even during peacetime in harbour with all dockyard facilities available, the task would have taken approximately a week to complete. We now had to choose either to return to harbour for repairs – which everyone on board realized would effectively put the submarine out of the war or attempt to effect repairs at sea in enemy waters with none of the dockyard facilities at hand. In case it was decided to effect repairs at sea, there was a further question of whether to carry out repairs with the submarine completely submerged or partly surfaced. Detection by enemy aircraft in the middle of repairs would necessitate crash dive by the submarine, with the possibility of the detached heavy compressor motor causing further damage to material and men. Also, the repairs had to be completed in hours rather than days or weeks.
Hangor’s crew was a determined lot. They did not want to sit out the war in the safety of Karachi harbour and had a tradition of accepting challenges. It was therefore decided to carry out the repairs at sea. Carrying out repairs at sea with the submarine completely submerged and the air conditioning plant shut down was not possible as not only the heat inside the submarine would be unbearable for the crew, but also the rise in humidity would lead to problems in the very important electronic equipment due to condensation of water vapour on sensitive circuits. It was, therefore, decided to take a risk and work with the submarine partially surfaced. A sharp lookout was to be maintained for enemy aircraft and surface units and at the first sign of the enemy, the submarine was to dive.
Once the decision was taken, work was commenced in right earnest and continued without break. The spirit of the crew had to be seen to be believed. Everybody from the commanding officer to the junior most sailor was involved in the work in one way or the other. If the requirement was to keep a look out for the enemy, the sharpest eyes and ears were constantly at it. If anything was required by the repair team, it was promptly provided if available, if not, it was improvised. Those who could not contribute by their technical knowledge contributed with their muscle power, and those who could not even contribute in this way, maintained a constant flow of nourishment in the form of tea and water to those working cramped in tight comers, soaked in the oily bilge water. There was no distinction by branch or senior- ity, everyone contributed in whatever way he could.
The impossible finally became possible and, even under the most hazardous conditions faced by Hangar, the repairs were completed in under 48 hours. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief when the submarine was able to submerge completely once again, with the repaired pump working satisfactorily and the air conditioning plant back in operation. Like a true shark, Hangar was back on the hunt once again, having effected repairs in the enemy’s own backyard.
Hangar’s crew had worked hard and made many sacrifices. While at sea none of them had any idea of what their near and dear ones faced back on shore. Everyone of them had responded to the call to duty without hesltatlon. Even the Eid holidays had been spent in the waiting. The cool pleasant days of November and December, when officers and men would normally be thinking of annual leave to go north, were spent in this deadly game of hide and seek. Surely it was an act of God that our sacrifices did not go unrewarded.
The reward came in the form of two distant contacts early on the morning of 9 December 1971. Analysis of the contacts had already established that they were two warships equipped with radars and sonars. But their speed and course were such that the much slower submarine could not catch up with them. They were, however, tracked and by the afternoon the analysis of their behavior indicated that they were doing a rectangular anti-submarine search. The two contacts were thus appreciated to be two antisubmarine frigates engaged in SAU (Search and Attack Unit) operations.
It was therefore decided to wait for the ships at a selected point on their search pattern, rather than chasing them all over the place. This strategy paid off as the two contacts started closing, late in the evening. Course and speed of the submarine was adjusted to ensure being in a position to attack at a time of our own choosing.
By 1900 Hangar was waiting on the estimated track of the targets. Everyone on board already knew what was happening and there was an air of expectancy everywhere. The targets were still behaving as anticipated and range was steadily closing with both frigates still operating their sonars. “Action Stations” was therefore sounded at 1915. The “shark” had bared it’s teeth, and it’s moment of truth had come. Next few minutes would permanently seal the fate of one of the two frigates.
Though the enemy was operating sonar, Hangar had not been detected and therefore still enjoyed the advantage of surprise. She knew too well that failure to hit the enemy at first attempt would shift the balance of advantage completely in favour of the two anti-submarine frigates. Hangar had to hit the enemy first, and hit hard at the first attempt.
Outside, it was dark, the sunset already having taken place. It was, therefore, decided to go deep and to carry out a blind (Sonar only) approach and attack. The attack team now concentrated on tracking the two targets as they gradually came within firing range. After having obtained a perfect solution Hangar commenced the attack at 1957 by firing one homing torpedo, “down the throat”, at the more northerly target, which was INS Kirpan. The torpedo ran true and it was tracked on sonar all the way as it acquired “lock on” to the target and passed under it (as it was supposed to do). However, the newly acquired torpedoes, whose test facilities had not yet been set up, failed to explode and kept going. Until the time that the torpedo was fired neither of the two frigates had any inkling of being under attack. However, the moment the torpedo passed under INS Kirpan, she suddenly woke up, realized she was under attack and turned away at maximum speed. Hangar had struck first, but had failed to hit hard. The new torpedo had let it down.
As Kirpan turned away and ran, Khukri, which was to its south, now knowing the direction from which the torpedo had come, increased speed and came straight for an attack on Hangar. It was now Hangar’s turn to keep it’s cool and this, the submarine did well. As Khukri came in for the attack, Hangar’s attack team calmly shifted target to Khukri, obtained a quick solution and fired the second torpedo at it. This quick shot was mostly meant to spoil the attack by Khukri, however loss of nerve by Khukri’s Commanding Officer on hearing the oncoming torpedo, made him try to turn away from it. This greatly helped to “pull” the torpedo towards the frigate. As soon as the torpedo acquired “lock on” it went straight for the target, passed under it and when it was directly under the keel it exploded, breaking the keel of INS Khukri which sank in a matter of two minutes, with all hands on board. There were no survivors. There was simply no time for the myth of the “CO nonchalantly lighting a cigarette as the ship sank under him” to be enacted.
Hangor, the shark, had struck first, it had struck hard in the second attempt, and in the third attempt the surviving enemy frigate had been left worrying about the “torpedo locked on to its tail “.
What followed this action was a massive anti-submarine effort by the Indian Navy, in the form of Operation Falcon to hunt down and kill just one submarine, PNS/M Hangor. The operation was launched shortly after the sinking of the Khukri, on the night of 9 December and continued for four days till the night of 13 December.
During these four days, the Indian Navy utilized all available anti-submarine ships, Alize (specialized anti-submarine naval aircraft), shore-based surveillance aircraft and Sea King anti-submarine helicopters in HUK Groups (Hunter-Killer Groups) and combed an area extending from the point southwest of Diu Head, where Khukri was sunk, right upto a point just short of PAF’s air-strike range from Karachi. Details of Operation Falcon are given in the book War in The Indian Ocean written by Vice Admiral (Retd) Roy, IN.
In fact, indirectly Hangor was responsible for another loss to the Indian Navy, for according to Admiral Roy, during Operation Falcon, the Indian Navy also lost an Alize anti-submarine aircraft at sea with all three of its crew.
Throughout these four days Hangor remained completely aware of the huge effort underway (though the details of Operation falcon as such were known only after the war) and it is a measure of Hangor’s efficiency that in spite of leaving the action area with a highly depleted battery, and with such a massive hunt for her in progress, she managed not only to recharge her batteries but was able to successfully lay, false trail for the HUK groups to follow. By now, the submarine had been at sea for over 21 days and, though the body odours of the crew were getting stronger and the unshaven hair on their chins longer, their morale was sky high. They had just been through the ultimate lest as submariners, both collectively as well as individually. They all knew in their own hearts how they had stood the test, and they were satisfied.