This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Shadow Of The Shark: The Sinking of PNS Ghazi


The water lay black and still. In the distance the low hills behind Vishakhapatnam harbour were dark and showed not a glimmer of lights.

With a sudden swirl, a long thin shape broke the surface. It swung left, then right, like an elephant's trunk seeking air to breathe. It trailed a thin wake behind it as it went.

Ten metres below, something long and predatory slid through the water, black and smooth and lethal. It resembled nothing so much as a gigantic shark, complete with hydroplanes like pectoral fins and a huge conning tower like a flattened dorsal fin.

Inside the steel cylinder, a naval officer put his eyes to the rubber eyepieces of his periscope and tried to decipher some landmark with which to orient his vessel. Somewhere out there was the enemy he had to bottle up, or, if possible, destroy. It was midnight on the third of December, 1971.
The stage was set for one of the great tragedies of recent military history.

It's incredible how little use has been made of the submarine in the post Second World War era. As of this writing, just two ships have been sunk since that time by submarines, the Indian frigate INS Khukri by the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor  in 1971 and the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the British submarine HMS Conqueror during the war for the Islas Malvinas. But give the Pakistanis credit. They did try...

The PNS Ghazi was originally a Tench Class submarine, USS Diablo, first launched in 1944, during World War Two and then upgraded to the level of a fleet snorkel submarine. It was leased to the Pakistanis by the Americans in 1964 and became the first submarine operated by a South Asian navy. (At this time the Indian navy – as usual in those days – went crawling to the British for a sub from their scrap-heap: the latter refused on the grounds that Indian personnel were incompetent to operate submarines. The first Foxtrot Class sub only joined the Indian navy in 1967, when India finally realised that the Russians better bets as a source of weapons than the British and their American masters.)

In 1965 the Ghazi operated off Bombay harbour without success – the Indian Navy stayed almost entirely in harbour to prevent any potentially prestige-damaging sinkings. Ghazi did claim to have sunk the frigate INS Brahmaputra but this ship was displayed intact for the media at the conclusion of the war. It's said that an Indian anti-submarine Alize aircraft flew right over the Ghazi without noticing it.
In 1968 the Ghazi went for a refit in Turkey, acquiring there the ability to lay mines through its torpedo tubes. It returned to Pakistan in 1970.
In 1971, when war threatened, the by now 26-year-old but still long-range (17000km) sub was sent over to the Bay of Bengal, leaving Karachi harbour on Nov 14. It had a crew of 93 under Captain Zafar Muhammad Khan and its mission was to sink the Indian Navy’s carrier, Vikrant, stationed ostensibly in Visakhapatnam. Ghazi was the only one of Pakistan’s four submarines capable of getting this far – the others were just short-range French Daphne Class coastal submarines.

War broke out on Nov 22 1971 when India finally invaded East Pakistan (please, no more of the ridiculous lie that war started with the Pakistani air strikes of Dec 3). At this time, Vikrant shifted to a secure anchorage in the Andamans. Vice Admiral Krishnan, Commander of the Eastern Naval Command, was aware that Ghazi was in these waters and decided to distract attention by laying a false trail of spurious provision orders and radio messages that seemed to indicate that Vikrant was still in Visakhapatnam.

The Pakistani authorities, on Nov 26, accordingly ordered the sub to move to the approaches of Visakhapatnam harbour. At around the same time, the old Indian destroyer, INS Rajput was ordered to the Bay of Bengal to generate misleading radio traffic. The Rajput was ready for decommissioning and did not have even depth charges fitted. Ghazi arrived off Visakhapatnam on 27 Nov, carrying mines as well as torpedoes.

On the night of 3 Dec, the evening before Pakistan launched air strikes in response to the Indian invasion, Ghazi moved to the harbour approaches to lay mines. Visakhapatnam being a narrow mouthed harbour (I've posted a video I took of that harbour, here) a few mines, strategically laid, would likely have blocked it for days or weeks. 
So the old sub, in darkness, unable to orient itself owing to the lack of lights due to blackout, moved in for the kill, as it thought. And then...
Around midnight something exploded in the front section of the sub, so loudly that windows were rattled in Visakhapatnam and people thought an earthquake had come. It blew the bows right off the submarine and drowned everyone aboard. The next morning fishermen reported oil slicks and floating wreckage. This was the first indication, despite later claims, that the Indian Navy had of the sinking. Divers, finally, on the 5th December, found the wreck and identified it.
Initially the Navy was ready to acknowledge that it was an accident but political pressure from Delhi forced it to claim that depth charges from the Rajput had sunk the sub, which actually had no charges fitted at all.

What sank the Ghazi? It might have been the explosion of one of its own torpedoes or mines, a spontaneous explosion of built-up gases, or perhaps it (as the Pakistanis claim) struck one of the mines it had itself laid. The explosion was certainly internal - the hull is  blown outwards, but the burns characteristic of a gas explosion were absent on the bodies that were recovered. The only certain thing is, that it was not the Indian Navy that was responsible for this sinking. Both the Americans and the Russians have offered to raise the sub at their own expense and find out how it sank, but the Indian government refused to allow it. I guess it's afraid the "Indian Navy sank it" claim might finally meet a watery grave of its own.

Today the Ghazi lies on the seabed off Visakhapatnam, wrapped in fishing nets. One hopes its crew die
d quickly when the end came. One hopes they did not have time to close watertight doors and lie in their bunks waiting for the end, while the water slowly rose.
Slow drowning is not the best of fates for brave men sacrificed by a stupid and ignorant leadership.

(Feb 2007)

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