At the Cold War’s height, this Russian admiral helped India create a fleet capable of countering the US and its allies
India celebrates Navy Day each December 4 in memory of Operation Trident, launched against Karachi Harbour during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. As the 2023 grand ceremony takes place at Sindhudurg Fort off the coast of Maharashtra, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending in person, navy veterans also remember the role Russians played in making India a vibrant maritime power.
Supply and demand
Four months after India’s decisive victory over neighbor and arch-rival Pakistan in the 1971 war, Sergey Gorshkov, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, visited India. This was one of many such visits by Gorshkov to the country since 1964, as he spearheaded a move to make the Soviet navy a force to be reckoned with. He wanted close maritime cooperation with friendly foreign countries, including India. At the height of the Cold War with the United States of America, the admiral had opened the doors to India for Soviet military hardware and platforms.
But his 1972 visit was more than a routine buying and selling of arms and ammunition. Post-World War II, Soviet weapons were untested (effectively) by any country in a major war. Admiral Gorshkov wanted to know the effectiveness and the tactical usages of his country’s weapons, which were being generally criticized by the West as ‘bulky and clunky.’
After its 1962 debacle with China and not-so-decisive victory over Pakistan in 1965, India was on a spree to buy warships and submarines. During the second India-Pakistan war, the Indian Navy didn’t retaliate against the Pakistan Navy’s daring attack on Dwarka, a religious coastal town associated with Lord Krishna. The political leadership in New Delhi possibly did not have confidence in its navy’s prowess, or it lacked the maritime capability then vis-a-vis the Pakistan Navy.
During this turbulent period, the United Kingdom also turned down India’s military demands for the latest submarines. New Delhi thus inked a deal with Moscow to procure four submarines, five patrol frigates, four patrol boats, four landing ships, and five missile boats at affordable prices. This was all thanks to Admiral Gorshkov and is how he earned the moniker ‘Santa Claus’ from the Indian maritime fraternity.
Tensions had simmered between India and Pakistan since early 1971 over the large-scale atrocities by Pakistan’s military regime in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the large influx of Bengali immigrants into India’s West Bengal and the Northeastern States.
The Indian Navy had received eight Osa-class missile boats from Moscow in October 1971. The Soviets had built these for coastal defense and the security of harbors. But the Indian navy, surprisingly for the whole world, including the USSR, deployed them to attack an enemy harbor about 1,000 nautical miles away from the Indian Navy’s Mumbai naval base.
On the night of December 4, 24 hours after Pakistan had attacked many major air bases in North India, three Osa-class missile boats, named INS (Indian Naval Ship) Veer, Nirghat, and Nipat, attacked Karachi port.
They sank Pakistan’s destroyer, the PNS Khaibar; its coastal minesweeper, the Muhafiz; and a Liberian-registered ship, the MV Venus Challenger, believed to be carrying US arms and ammunition for Pakistan. The missile boats during the attack were escorted by Soviet Petya class frigates Kiltan and Katchall.
But how were Pakistan’s navy and intelligence agencies unaware of India’s attack plan? Indian missile boats managed to reach Karachi harbor undetected because the Indian crew communicated in Russian. These Osa missile boats had come only two months back, and the crew had visited the USSR for naval training. Thus, they could communicate in Russian and went unnoticed.
Indian ingenuity on Russian weapons
This was not the only attack these missile boats carried out. On the night of December 8, the Indian Navy again raided Karachi Harbour, using the missile boat INS Vinash escorted by the frigate INS Trishul. During the attack, the Panamanian vessel Gulf Star was sunk, while the Pakistani oil tanker Dacca and British ship SS Harmattan were damaged. Indian Sea Warriors set Pakistan’s Keamari oil tank farm ablaze. Air Force pilots who bombed Karachi air base the following day reported seeing the “biggest bloody bonfire in Asia.” Karachi Harbour remained ablaze for the following week, and the city couldn’t see rays of light for three days.
“But how did you attack Karachi harbor with missile boats that the Soviet Union had built for coastal defense?” Admiral Gorshkov supposedly asked the Indian Navy’s then Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda during his April 1972 visit.
Admiral Nanda, who was in retirement by 2004, in his autobiography, ‘The Man Who Bombed Karachi,’ said: “After the war, Admiral S Gorshkov held long discussions with me on the successful missile boat attacks on Karachi. This was because the role in which [the] Indian Navy had deployed the missile boats had not been envisaged by the Soviets…the concept of attacking a defended port like Karachi had never occurred to them”.
“Admiral Gorshkov was pleasantly surprised by our original strategies and tactics…and paid a lot of compliments” because the Indian Navy had towed the missile boats to the area of operation off Karachi, which, according to Admiral Nanda, was “an original piece of thinking.” The Soviet missile boats didn’t have the required endurance and capacity to go to Karachi and back under their own power.
The Indian Navy, powered by Soviet subs and warships, was able to block the vital lines of sea communication between West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The naval blockade handicapped Pakistan by preventing the reinforcement of additional soldiers, weapons, and other necessary war-stores in East Pakistan. The result was that 93,000 Pakistani soldiers under the command of Lt Gen AAK Niazi surrendered on December 16, which ended the 13-day war and resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh.
Cold War Spirit
Supplying Osa-class missile boats for an attack on Karachi was not the only assistance Moscow provided India with. At the height of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, as it is now called, the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, comprising the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, entered the Bay of Bengal, where a maritime battle was ongoing between India and Pakistan. The US then was a close ally of Pakistan and didn’t want to lose the war against India, considered close to the USSR, let alone leave Pakistan to be divided into two countries.
The US officially communicated to India about the entry of the USS Enterprise group into the Malacca Straits, the doorway to the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia. The Seventh Fleet, according to Admiral Nanda, was not coming for war with the Indian Navy but to “pressurize” India to stop its battle with Pakistan. This task force was sent by then-US President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor (NSA), Henry Kissinger, both of whom considered then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as their ‘bete noire.’ Kissinger died last week at the age of 100.
India remained firm in the face of US pressure tactics. Meanwhile, a Soviet destroyer and a minesweeper also entered the war zone through the Malacca Straits. Additional attachments also came from Moscow’s Pacific Fleet.
It is unclear whether India sought the Soviets’ help or if Moscow (or Admiral Gorshkov) sent the flotilla to counter the US in the Bay of Bengal. Whatever the reason, the Soviet naval force ‘shadowed’ the US Naval Task Force till the latter left in January 1972.
Every December 4, then, is Navy Day in India, after its 1971 win. India still remembers the Russian’ Santa Claus’ Admiral Gorshkov, who breathed his last in 1988. But his naval legacy still continues in India.
One of the Indian Navy’s two aircraft carriers, the INS Vikramaditya, is a Kiev-class aircraft-carrying cruiser that was purchased by India in 2009. The other, the INS Vikrant, is an indigenously built one. The ship had been named in 1990 after Admiral Gorshkov and was then specially modified by Russia as an aircraft carrier before being delivered to the Indian Navy in 2013.