Saturday 4 December 2021

The Shadow Of The Shark: The Sinking Of PNS Ghazi

The water lay black and still. In the distance the low hills behind Visakhapatnam 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, exactly  fifty years ago.


In 1971, Pakistan was a nation divided against itself. To the west was the largely Punjabi, Sindhi and Pashto speaking West Pakistan. Across the immense stretch of India, in the east, was the Bengali speaking East Pakistan.  The two parts of the country, except for their creation as a "Muslim homeland" carved out of British colonised India, had nothing linguistically, ethnically, culturally, or economically in common with each other. 

By 1971, the differences between the two parts had come to a head. The Bengali speaking East outnumbered the West in population, and the Awami League party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the national elections held under the then military dictatorship and thus the right to form the government. The problem was that Rahman was a Bengali and the Awami League an East Pakistani party, and large sections of the West Pakistani military and civilian political structure didn't want to cede power to them. 

In response to unrest resulting from this, the Pakistani military launched a crackdown on East Pakistan in mid March 1971, leading to millions of refugees fleeing to India. India, in turn, began to openly host, arm, and train "Mukti Bahini" (Freedom Army) insurgents who wanted to break East Pakistan away from West Pakistan to create a new nation, Bangladesh. The Pakistani military in East Pakistan was isolated, surrounded by a hostile population,  and hard to supply and reinforce from West Pakistan,  but even so by autumn the Mukti Bahini had largely been defeated.

In response, India pushed in military regulars disguised as Mukti Bahini guerrillas under one Major General Shahbeg Singh (who 13 years later himself was to become a separatist rebel against India), and by early November had positioned  troops and armour all along the East Pakistani  borders. The only Indian aircraft carrier, the venerable INS Vikrant, was sent to Visakhapatnam harbour on the Indian East Coast. It was obvious that an Indian invasion was coming.

In response the government of Pakistan took certain steps. One of those was to send in PNS Ghazi.


PNS Ghazi was originally a US Navy 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. 

PNS Ghazi while still USS Diablo

(In response the Indian navy – as usual in those days – went crawling to the British pleading for a submarine, if necessary from their scrap-heap: the latter refused on the grounds that Indian personnel were incompetent to operate submarines. India then finally went to the USSR, asked for, and received, eight Foxtrot class subs, of a far later vintage and superior capability to the Ghazi. The first Foxtrot Class sub only joined the Indian navy in 1967, and it was years before all eight had been delivered. I will have a few words about these Foxtrot submarines later.)

Foxtrot class submarine INS Khanderi

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, which says something about Indian anti submarine capabilities in the 1960s.

In 1968 the Ghazi went for a refit in Turkey, travelling the whole way, round the Cape of Good Hope and through Gibraltar, underwater,  which it could do because of its enormous range of 17000 kilometres. In a Turkish  shipyard the Ghazi acquired the ability to lay mines through its torpedo tubes. It returned to Pakistan in 1970.

Now, in 1971, with war threatening, the 26-year-old submarine was the only one of four Pakistani  submarines that had the range to travel to the Bay of Bengal. It left Karachi harbour on November 14, carrying a crew of 93 under Captain Zafar Muhammad Khan. This was 12 personnel more than it had carried in American service, meaning that it was overcrowded as well as old. It was armed with mines as well as torpedoes, but the torpedoes were old and less than reliable American WWII models, and the sub's main mission was to use its mines anyway. 

At this time the Indian carrier Vikrant was supposed to be in Visakhapatnam harbour. I have been to this harbour. It has a narrow mouth, and any ship seeking to enter or exit has to pass through that mouth. The Ghazi, which had been initially positioned off Madras to the south, was ordered north to Visakhapatnam on 26 November. 

Meanwhile,  the war finally started when India invaded East Pakistan on 22 November 1971. This invasion was fully visible to journalists on the ground and openly reported on in international media, but the Indian government  denied it was happening. At this time, Vikrant shifted from Visakhapatnam to a secret anchorage, called X, in the Andaman Islands far to the east. (This was done to keep the carrier from being sunk. The Vikrant would have been of far greater use in the west, where India was about to launch air and sea attacks on the port of Karachi, but the danger of sinking was deemed far too great to be politically permissible.)

According to the Indian claim, 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. Why I do not necessarily believe the Indian claims will become obvious in a moment. These radio messages were, by the way, allegedly made by an old destroyer called INS Rajput which had been prepared for decommissioning and retirement,  but was sent out to sea one last time to steam up and down sending fake signals in Vikrant's name.

Whether on the basis of these diversionary messages or otherwise, the Pakistani authorities, as I said, on Nov 26,  ordered the sub to move to the approaches of Visakhapatnam harbour, and plant mines across the narrow mouth, something that could theoretically keep the harbour - the main Indian naval base in the east - closed for weeks.

On the night of 3 Dec, the evening before Pakistan finally launched air strikes in response to the Indian invasion, Ghazi moved to the harbour approaches to lay its mines. Visakhapatnam  city had been blacked out: the old submarine couldn't use the city lights through its periscope to orient itself. It had to navigate blind.

It was midnight, and Ghazi would never see dawn again.


At this point the official Indian account and that of Pakistan  diverge so sharply as to be impossible to reconcile, so I shall take them one by one:

First, the known facts:

Around midnight there was an explosion off Visakhapatnam, so loud that windows were rattled in the city and people thought an earthquake had taken place. The next morning fishermen reported oil slicks and floating wreckage,  and salvaged a life jacket. This was the first indication, despite later claims, that the Indian Navy had of the sinking. Divers, finally, on the 5th December, two days after the sinking, went down, found the wreck and identified it as a submarine with its bows blown out. It was not an Indian Foxtrot submarine; Urdu markings on the wreckage indicated it was Pakistani. From the size - all of 95 metres long - it was not one of the three small French-made Daphne Class coastal submarines that comprised the rest of Pakistan's submarine strength. Therefore, it had to be the Ghazi. Six bodies retrieved from the wreck confirmed it, one of whom even had a letter he'd written to his fiancee in his pocket.

The Indian account:

The Rajput - the old destroyer waiting for decommissioning- was headed out of Visakhapatnam Harbour when the captain suddenly realised, possibly by extra sensory perception,  that a Pakistani sub could be out there. He had a harbour pilot on board, whom he therefore dropped off, when all of a sudden his lookouts noted a swirl in the water. He immediately  dropped two depth charges, following which there was the loud explosion.

There are two major problems with this story. First, the Rajput had already been prepared for scrapping. Its weapon systems, including the depth charges, had been removed. It had no depth charges, so it could not drop any.

Apart from this, an Egyptian submarine was in Visakhapatnam on this date,  and the captain described hearing the explosion. He was categorical that no Indian naval ship had been going to sea at that time. 

Then,  the local Indian naval authorities had already  prepared a statement that the submarine had sunk in an operational accident. It had actually been released to the media before urgent orders had arrived from naval headquarters in Delhi demanding that the Rajput be credited with the kill. Its crew were decorated to boot.

At the conclusion of the war,  both the Americans and the Russians offered to raise the sub at their own expense and find out how it sank, but the Indian government refused to allow it. As for why not, your guess is as good as mine.

Years later, in the early 2000s, the Indian navy finally again sent divers down to the wreck. It was badly deteriorated by then, with the outer hull corroded and overgrown by marine plants and animals, but both the divers' accounts and the photos they took clearly show that a massive *internal* explosion  had blown the bows away. A depth charge is not an internal explosion. It cracks the submarine hull from the outside. Whatever the explosion was caused by, it was inside the submarine.

When in the early 2010s Admiral G Hiranandani set out to write a history of the Indian navy in the 1971 war, he discovered to his astonishment that the navy had destroyed all its documents pertaining to the Ghazi in 2010. Why it would do this, about what it insists is a victory by one of its own ships (indeed, the only submarine sunk in wartime since WWII) is again something for which your guess is as good as mine.

The Pakistani version:

The Pakistanis have advanced three different  hypotheses for the sinking:

1. The Ghazi may have, in the darkness,  struck one of its own mines. 

The problem with this is the same as with the depth charge story; the explosion was internal. 

2. One of the Ghazi's mines,  or more likely one of its ancient WWII era torpedoes, blew up by accident. (Another torpedo explosion would sink the Russian submarine Kursk many years later, so this is *very* likely.) A torpedo explosion in one of the forward torpedo tubes would blow away the bow very efficiently.

3. There is also a third possibility. The Ghazi was a diesel electric submarine,  that is, it had electric motors for running underwater. These electric motors were charged by running the sub's main diesel engine on the surface or at shallow depths under water when the snorkel mast could be raised. The submarine was old, the batteries were old, and it is possible that the charging  process created large amounts of hydrogen gas that could not be vented and resulted in a catastrophic explosion. The bodies brought up by the divers didn't have any burns that might be expected from such an explosion,  but they might not have had any if they had been caught in a different portion of the sub when the hydrogen blew.

Click to enlarge. Graphic from India Today magazine. 


So what do we know,  really?

1. At midnight, 3 Dec 1971, *something* exploded inside  the Ghazi, so powerfully that it blew the bows off.

2. The Indian Navy was certainly not responsible for this explosion. 

One hopes, at this distance in time, that the crew all died instantly. Unfortunately that's only likely for the crew in the front section, who would have been killed by the blast or drowned immediately by the rushing water. As in the Kursk, crew members in the rear part of the hull may have spent hours trapped in the wreck, suffocating slowly as the air ran out. One of them, when brought out, still had a wrench clenched tightly in his hand. 


A few years ago, Bollywood  made a film on the Ghazi sinking. It was a bit of a surprise, because it made not the slightest attempt to adhere to the tale of the Rajput sinking the Ghazi with depth charges. Instead, it invented an underwater duel between the Ghazi and an Indian Foxtrot submarine, the latter (in real life incomparably superior, the last example serving as late as 2010) being presented as an obsolete but valiant underdog, which finally triumphed owing to the ingenuity of its crew. I suppose not even Bollywood could swallow the Rajput story.


Today the Ghazi lies on the seabed off Visakhapatnam, wrapped in fishing nets, its crew, as they say, on eternal patrol.

It is time they were given their due.