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OP-ED: Operation X, 1971

  • Published at 09:15 pm August 16th, 2021
The INS Vikrant

50 years ago this week, a group of Bangladeshis successfully carried out the largest underwater demolition operation since World War Two. This is the story of how they did it.

The Alouette III hovered over the farm, then gently descended, its turbines whining as it came to rest on the banks of the Bhagirathi River. Admiral Sardarilal Matharadas “Charles” Nanda, Chief of the Indian Navy, stepped out to survey his creation. 

Chapter One: Camp 2: Plassey

This was where Bengalis and their French allies had fallen to Clive, in 1757. Palashi, or Plassey, as the history books called it. Some two centuries later, their descendants were again preparing for battle, at the very same place. 

The Indian Navy called it Camp 2 Plassey. One hundred acres of sugar cane fields, now cleared and flattened, on the banks of the river. The current here flowed at just the right speed. Not too fast, not too slow. Secluded, yet close to Fort William, headquarters of Eastern Command, the nerve centre for India’s military operations in Bangladesh. A good choice for a training camp for naval commandos and saboteurs. 

Nanda cast his eye over the young Bengali men lined up for inspection. Only a short while ago, they were starving refugees, just trying to survive in the squalid camps proliferating on the Indian side of the border. The first batch of recruits had turned up in early May, scrawny and befuddled, cheeks as sunken and hollow as their empty stomachs. They could hardly lift a gun, let alone fight a war.  

The task of finding them belonged to Lt Samir Das, chief instructor at the Indian Navy diving school in Cochin, and Lt Kapil, from the Fleet Diving Team at Western Naval Command in Bombay. Kapil was slightly the older of the two, so he was acting camp commander. Hierarchies mattered in the armed forces. 

The two naval officers ploughed the roads from one camp to another in their army-issue Jeep. Then they trudged on foot, from hut to hut, looking for young Bengali males who had the intelligence or education to learn specialized combat skills, who were trainable, and who might have the nerve to sabotage ships, behind enemy lines. 

Their stomachs were straighter now. Their limbs had grown sinewy. Three proper meals a day and endless hours of swimming did that. The camp commanders supplied food, training, and a bed. The recruits provided the desire for revenge. This was their chance to pay back the helmeted invaders who had killed their family members, burned down their homes.

These refugees had a new goal: Infiltrate ports and harbours in enemy-held territory, swim undetected to the ships and barges that delivered weapons and supplies to the Pakistan army, and destroy them. 

Nanda nodded in approval. This was a proper military operation. Perhaps the most ambitious commando operation ever attempted on the Indian sub-continent. 

Since the Partition, the wars had been fought on land, in the highlands of Kashmir and Ladakh. And it was the Indian infantry that had done the fighting. The Navy had always been a stepchild, an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. The Admiralty had pleaded with the civilian leadership to expand the 1965 War onto the seas, to no avail. 

Now, six years later, Nanda had his chance. These were not the foothills of the Himalayas; these were was the floodplains. Water covered 11% of East Bengal. Rivers and waterways fed by the world’s mightiest mountains flowed into the largest delta in the world. Nanda had patrolled these waters as a young naval lieutenant in WWII. He knew well that the ships, boats, barges, and ferries that plied these waterways were the lifeblood of the province’s economy. 

Nanda completed his inspection. This time, the Navy would not be sitting it out. 

Chapter two: King Cobra

Captain Mihir Kumar “Micky” Roy, the scion of zamindars from Barisal, also knew the province well. Roy had received his commission from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, and then joined the Indian Navy’s aviation wing, hunting enemy submarines in his French-built Alize turboprop. 

On the deck of the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, the Alize looked like a coiled cobra. Roy’s aunt designed a suitably cobra-like badge for her nephew’s squadron, and soon Roy had a new moniker: “King Cobra.”

Roy’s talent as a pilot made up for his pranks (although releasing a swarm of beetles into a meeting of the navy top brass had been a close call), and he had risen quickly through the ranks. The spring of 1971 found the Cobra in New Delhi, at the Directorate of Naval Intelligence, DNI.

The DNI was something of a running joke within the government. The Directorate of Navy “Invitations,” they called it. Did they actually do anything? I want to make changes around here, Nanda had explained to Roy. DNI will get its opportunity, and I need the right person in charge, when it does, he continued. The Cobra had accepted the offer.  

Ensconced in his office in Naval HQ, Roy looked at the map. The entire Pakistan military garrison in Bangladesh, from Dhaka, to the industrial centre in Khulna, to the port of Chittagong, was sustained by the waterways.

Everything that the Pakistani military occupation needed, from soldiers to bullets to fuel to food, was shipped to the deep water port at Chittagong, and then ferried to destinations throughout the province by water. Could they disrupt this system?

There was one complication: India was not officially at war with Pakistan. Until it was, neither Roy, nor anyone else in India, could lead or take part in any activities inside Bangladesh. Nothing that happened in Bangladesh could be traced to the Indian Navy, or the Indian government. Plausible deniability, they called it. That meant covert operations, carried out by Bangladeshis.  

What the Cobra needed was the waterborne equivalent of the guerrillas that the Indian army was training in Tripura. Like their terrestrial cousins, the naval guerillas would target the lines of supply and logistics, except on the water. They could start with the main ports and harbours, then move inland to attack traffic on the river, as their numbers grew. Ultimately, they could paralyze all waterway transportation in the province.  

But how would they reach the targets, undetected? Regular scuba diving sets created air bubbles that would be spotted by the enemy. The closed-circuit “rebreather” diving equipment used by frogmen would be better, but the Indian armed forces had no frogmen unit; that type of equipment was in short supply. Ordering them from abroad would raise eyebrows.

If diving was not an option, the saboteurs would have to swim. The Vietnamese had demonstrated how to do it, five years earlier. Vietcong “assault swimmers” armed with limpet mines had blown holes in three American ships in the Mekong Delta, sinking one outright. Another team had demolished two bridges. Surface swimmers would be spotted by day, however; they would have to swim at night.  

Roy could see them in his mind’s eye. Small, single-minded, and elusive, gliding quickly and purposefully through the watery darkness. Like water rats.

It would have to be one small group at first. Like the Mukti Bahini, they would have to be natives, blending with locals. But that initial group could be a force multiplier, recruiting and training others, to create a larger commando force. How to create that force multiplier? Where to look for recruits? There was no Bangladesh Navy. 

As the Cobra plotted, thousands of miles away, on the Mediterranean coast of France, nine Bangladeshi submariners had their own plans. They had been listening intently to the radio dispatches from the BBC and the Voice of America. They knew what was happening. They were not going to sit idly in a Pakistan Navy submarine in Toulon while their fellow countrymen and women were massacred by the very military regime that they served. 

The nine collected their passports from their ringleader, slipped them inside their dark Navy-issued duffel coats, and filtered out of the dockyard.

Chapter three: Escape from France

The Pakistan Navy Ship Mongro left port at Toulon every morning, returning at dusk. The sea trials were almost over; it would leave for Karachi soon, to start deployment. The Mongro would be the third French-built Daphne class submarine in the Pakistan Navy fleet, financed with a loan from the French government.

It was not as big as the PNS Ghazi, the previous class of submarine. It was more fighter-bomber than battleship. It could reach 15 knots, and carried a dozen torpedoes, eight forward, four aft, each lethal enough to sink a ship. It also carried 14 Bengalis among its crew, including leading seaman and telegraph operator Abdul Wahed Chowdhury, or “Chow”, to his friends.

Chowdhury had run away from home in Dhaka to join the Pakistan Navy as soon as he was old enough. With one foreign deployment after another, it had been almost two years since he had last been home. A lonely life, but one he had chosen. His service record was exemplary, and he was now the commanding officer’s secretary. With access to the safe containing the ship’s documents, and the crew’s passports.

Chowdhury picked out the passports of the 14 Bengalis, and stashed them in his mess locker ashore. I’m going to India, to join the resistance, he whispered to each of the Bengali submariners, in turn. Will you join me? Five shook their heads. This was high treason. The punishment, if caught, would be severe. 

He took the remaining eight aside. The nearest Indian mission across the French border is Geneva, he explained. They can arrange passage to India for us. The train to Geneva leaves from Marseille. Each of you leave the mess on your own, and take separate routes to the station. 

As night fell in Toulon on March 29, 1971, two days before the Mongro was homeward bound, nine of its Bangladeshi crewmen left the dockyard, one by one. 

When they gathered in Geneva in the early hours of March 30, they were down to eight. Mannan was missing. Worse, they could not leave the station and enter Geneva without visas. Okay, we’ll go and get visa stamps in Paris, Chowdhury cheerfully informed the station clerk. 

They jumped off the Paris-bound train in Lyon. By now, the alarm had surely been raised; the French authorities would be on the hunt. They had to get out of France, quickly. Where could they go without a visa? At first light, they headed for Spain. Barcelona, then onto Madrid.

We want to join the fight in Bangladesh, Chowdhury explained to the bewildered charge d’affairs at the Indian mission in Madrid that evening. Can you help us? Gurdip Bedi thought quickly. How many of you? Eight, Chowdhury replied. Bedi directed them to a cheap hotel near the Embassy. Lie low, he told them. Wait for instructions. 

As they shuffled off, Bedi fired off an urgent telegram to New Delhi. The reply came first thing in the morning. Arrange passage to India, the message read. Immediately. 

There were no flights from Spain to India; the Air India flight from New York to Bombay stopped in Rome. Bedi booked eight seats on the next available flight to the Italian capital. His staff worked late into the night, taking headshots of the crew and attaching the commonest Hindu names to them. By morning, eight Indian men who had unfortunately misplaced their passports now had temporary travel documents.

Get them to India, Bedi instructed his staff. I don’t want to know how you do it. From now on, don’t tell me anything, he added. He was the representative of the Indian government in Spain, and he had just broken the law. Plausible deniability was essential. 

The next morning, at Madrid airport, the eight defectors lined up at customs for exit stamps on their Pakistani passports. On the other side of the checkpoint, an Indian Embassy staffer discretely swapped their passports for the Indian travel documents. Eight Pakistan Navy servicemen got on the plane in Madrid; eight Indian tourists got off the plane in Rome. 

In Rome, Pakistani embassy officers were waiting for them. As were the Italian press. The alarm had well and truly been raised. Come with us please, the Pakistani delegates instructed Chowdhury and his men, grabbing them by the arm. The crewmen pushed them away. Get your hands off me, Chowdhury snarled. 

The submariners rounded on the outnumbered Pakistanis. We’re going home, one way or another.

But there was no flight from Rome to Bombay that day. A labour strike in New York had left the Air India plane stranded in the US. It would be 10 hours until the next flight out of Rome. Time enough for the Pakistani staffers to return with more numbers, and take them in. 

In Madrid, Bedi was summoned to the Spanish Foreign Office. The Spanish police are looking for a group of Pakistani sailors, the director General informed him. International law requires that they be turned over to Pakistan, he continued. Have you any knowledge of Pakistani sailors travelling out of Geneva? 

Bedi looked at the director General, a blank expression on his face. I can truthfully say, director, that I have no knowledge of Pakistani sailors travelling out of Geneva, he replied.

In Rome, Indian Embassy staffers bundled the defectors onto the next available flight to Geneva. There was an Air India flight, later that day, leaving Geneva for Bombay.  Where Micky Roy and Samir Das waited. 

The Cobra had found his force multiplier. 

A few miles west of Camp 2 Plassey, in a nondescript building in Fort William, the former British garrison that now served as headquarters for India’s Eastern Command, a plain-clothed “civilian advisor” made preparations for sabotage. 

Chapter four: Water rats

To the few who needed to know, he was Captain Mohan Narayan Rao Samant. Methodical and detail-oriented, Samant was one of the last Indians to receive his commission from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Roy knew him from their time together on the Vikrant. He was the man Roy needed to direct the covert ops on the ground. 

If they could pull it off, Navy Commando Operation (X) would inflict not only a physical but also a psychological blow. The guerilla war on land was not going as planned. If Bengali saboteurs could create the sort of havoc that Ray and Samant had in mind, it would lift the morale of the liberation warriors, and demoralize the enemy. In war, confident leadership and morale were paramount. 

It was a big “if.” A lot of things would have to go their way. A lot of decisions would have to be good ones. First and foremost among them were the mines, or the “footballs,” as they were called in the coded messages between Fort William and New Delhi.

Frogmen carried limpet mines, developed by the British. The Indian Navy had some British-made limpets in stock, but they would be easily traced back to New Delhi. Moreover, there were not nearly enough of them. Who knew how long the war would last? The Vietcong and Americans were still fighting, almost a decade after the first American soldiers had landed in Vietnam.

Clearly, the mines would have to be custom-made, at the Navy armaments factory in Madhya Pradesh. They could have no foreign components. And they had to be light. Standard limpet mines weighed almost 10 pounds -- fine for frogmen, but not for swimmers. So the engineers at the factory replaced the metal cover with polystyrene. 

The main challenge was the timer. The conventional limpet mine had a clock mechanism. After the countdown was complete, the clock released a spring-loaded striker that triggered the mine. But the prototypes kept detonating when nearby mines went off, from the vibrations. They needed a different solution.

Depth charges used a simple soluble plug made of compacted salt for the timer. Once the salt dissolved in the water, the plug vanished, completing the circuit, and detonating the mine. But depth charges were designed to go off soon after they were released; soluble plugs lasted half an hour, at most. Not enough time for the swimmers to reach the target, attach the mine, and get away. 

The solution? A rubber condom. Fitted over the plug, the condom kept the plug watertight, while the swimmer made his way to the target. Once the condom was ripped off, the countdown began. They didn’t know it, but the British had used the same trick in WWII.

While Samant and the ordnance engineers fine-tuned the weapons, the camp commanders were busy assembling the delivery system: 400 Bengali refugees and eight submariners. 

The X-men, as the recruits took to calling their trainers, drove them hard. Time was short. Samir Das’ family had roots in Dhaka, so he spoke fluent Bangla, but the six other trainers were from the four corners of India. Chowdhury and his fellow eight submariners acted as invaluable go-betweens, translating, explaining, and providing support.

Training started every morning at 6 am. Basic PT, then a ten kilometre barefoot run through the farm. After breakfast, classroom instruction: Explosives, covert warfare, how to identify ships by their silhouette, where they were vulnerable, and how to sink them. 

Then endurance swimming, followed by lunch. In the afternoon, practical firearms training, explosives handling, and unarmed close-quarter combat training, followed by more swimming. Then tea, followed by night swimming. The recruits were usually asleep before their heads hit their pillows. 

Once the trainees could swim for hours effortlessly, in daylight or darkness, it was time for advanced training: how to enter and operate behind enemy lines. That meant nap reading, infiltration, evading capture, target profiling, launch points, and getting out alive. 

And last, but not least, how to plant the mines. Das and the X-men drilled them incessantly. Six feet below the ship’s water line. Target the points of vulnerability. The propeller shafts, the engine room. It all had to be second nature. Never panic, always think.

The swimmers would be able to travel through the water twice as fast if they wore the Churchill fins that divers use. And they needed diving knives, strapped to the thighs. But how to order fins and diving knives, without drawing undue attention? As luck would have it, camp commanders Kapil and Das knew a Navy diver who had left the service recently to open his own commercial diving company. They tracked him down. Yes, he could supply fins and knives.  

In July, Samant put the finishing touches to the plan. Eastern Command had organized their operations in Bangladesh into five sectors, circling the province. The first wave of attacks, by Task Force 54.1, would be launched from Charlie and Delta sectors, in Tripura, in the middle of August. The Task Force would have four units, each commanded by a Mongro crewmember, each targeting one of the main ports: Chandpur, Narayanganj, Mongla/Chalna, and, most important of all, Chittagong. 

By August, the X-men had turned the refugees into tireless, amphibian saboteurs. They could swim six miles in the dark, and run twice as far. They could handle explosives, fight armed and unarmed, recognize every type of ship by their silhouette, and know where to attack them. They knew how to survey the land, orient themselves, and evade capture. They were ready. 

Samant and the camp commanders selected 170 from the 400 recruits. Headshots of each swimmer were inserted carefully into their personal dossiers. Know that this is likely a suicide mission, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bangladesh forces, Colonel M A G Osmani had warned during a visit to the camp in May. 

Recruits, trainers, and camp commanders had been living and training together, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for this one, shared purpose. The moment had come. Some, if not many, of those who left, would likely never return.

Chapter five: Operation X

Chowdhury was already awake when Amar Putul warbled out of the small radio. He and the 60 men under his command had crossed into Bangladesh from their infiltration point in Tripura a week ago. 

It had been a three-day trek, barefoot, in lungis and vests, following their guides to this safehouse, 50 miles north of Chittagong. The only thing that suggested they were not nondescript local farmers or itinerant workers was the 9mm Sterling sub-machine gun that Chowdhury kept by his side.

Sixty limpet mines were stashed in the nearby hut, as were 60 sets of fins, swimming trunks, and diving knives. The 3-band battery-powered National Panasonic radio was tuned to All India Radio, Station B. They waited for the stand-by signal.

Amar Putul. They had heard it so many times in their last week at the camp. Across the province, the three other units of Task Force 54.1, tuned to the same station, heard the same song. It was 6 am, August 13, 1971. The countdown had begun. H-hour minus forty-eight. 

Chowdhury’s targets were sitting at anchor on the banks of the Karnaphuli River. The port in Chittagong was the principal gateway for supplies from Pakistan to Bangladesh. The merchant ships MV Ormazd and MV Al-Abbas, recently arrived from Karachi, would soon be unloaded onto Orient Barge Number 6, for the last leg of the journey, to Dhaka. 

The city was on edge. The regime had received intelligence indicating a high possibility of imminent attack by rebels. Troops patrolled the streets, blocked roads. The best place for Chowdhury and his men to hide was inside the city itself. Leaving the mines and fins locked in the hut, they made their way, in two’s and three’s, into the city, to the next set of safehouses. 

“How are we going to bring the mines to the target area,” Chowdhury asked Kurshed. A Chittagong native, Kurshed knew the city like the back of his hand. “Leave it to me,” he answered, “I know people.” That’s why he had been assigned to their unit. 

After sunset, Kurshed pulled up in a white Nissan pickup truck. Water and Power Development Authority, it said on its doors. “We have a local contact who works as an engineer at the Authority,” Kurshed explained. He had conveniently left the pickup truck, tank filled up, in front of his office. 

“Nobody will think twice about a municipal vehicle out and about in the city,” he added. “And when they find the truck missing,” Chowdhury inquired. Kurshed shrugged. “It’ll just be reported stolen.” Kurshed drove off to retrieve the mines and fins.

Next morning, August 14, same time, same frequency. This time, a song by Tagore: The go-ahead signal. 

Chowdhury and his men made their way out of the city. A boat-ride took them to the final safehouse, across the river, upstream from the docks. Kurshed had delivered the mines. Chowdhury counted 40 swimmers in the safehouse. They were 20 short. Where were they? Anyway, it was time to prep the mines. He went through the drill: Slide in the detonator, jam in the soluble plug, wrap the plug with the condom. 

Only one more signal to go, the final confirmation. Then they would take to the water, at midnight. The ebb tide was strongest then; it would carry them downstream to their targets more quickly. The current is your friend.

At 6 pm, Amar Putul on All India Radio, one last time. Final confirmation. H-hour minus six. There was no turning back now. Still no sign of the missing 20. There was nothing to be done about it. They would go with what they had.  

The swimmers slid into their swimming trunks, and waited for H-hour, each lost in their thoughts. At the stroke of midnight, they lined up on the river bank. They carefully tied the mines to their chests with the cotton gamcha scarves, and slipped their feet into the fins. A final check, and then the careful walk, backwards, fins quietly flapping, into the inky waters of the Karnaphuli.

The tide swept them downriver. The merchant vessels, barges, tugs, and Pakistan Navy gunboats, moored at their steel pontoons, were a little over half a mile away. It would not take long to reach them. The merchantmen were the priority targets. 

When they reached their targets, the swimmers carefully unsheathed their diving knives, took a deep breath, and went under. Into the black water, grimy with fuel and flotsam. The voices of Das and the X-men rang in their ears. Six feet under the waterline. Next to the propeller shafts. Next to the engine room. 

They came up for air, then down again, searching for the barnacles with their knives. Grip the knife like this. Up for air again, then down, groping for the same spot on the hull. Never panic, always think. Then up again, carefully unwrapping the mine from their chests, tearing off the condom. Then down again, one last time, groping for the spot, mine firmly in hand. Keep hold of the mine. The dull “thunk” of the magnet against the metal hull. 

The plugs began to dissolve. Half an hour until the detonator went off. Then all hell would break loose. The swimmers surfaced, flipped onto their backs, and kicked their legs, fins pushing against the brackish water. They had to get to the pick-up spot. The current is your friend. 

Kurshed was waiting as Chowdhury climbed out of the river. He shed his fins, his diving knife, his swimming shorts. Dark fuel oil and river water glinted on his wiry body. He turned to look back towards the port, towards the ships ferrying the weapons and ammunition for the occupying army, their silhouettes barely visible in the darkness that swallowed the river. They would not be carrying anything again. Not these ships.

Chowdhury’s thoughts flew back to France, to the submarine telegraphist hunched over a transistor radio in his steel bunk, straining to hear the sickening reports. The anger that swelled in him, the vow he had made. It was all just a few months ago, but it felt like a lifetime. Promise made, promise kept.

The explosions began at approximately 1.40 am, on the morning of August 15. Dull thuds that sent sheets of water scudding 10 feet into the air, punching holes into the hulls of the Al-Abbas, Ohrmazd, and the Orient Barge Number 6. 

Dark river water rushed into the listing ships, as panicked sentries unloaded their rifles, shooting wildly into the darkness. A short while later, the two merchant vessels and the barge came to rest at the bottom of the Karnaphuli river.

Across Bangladesh, in Mongla, Chandpur, and Narayanganj, 25 merchant vessels suddenly blew holes in their hulls. In the space of an hour, 58,000 tons of shipping was disabled or sunk. Eight runaways from a submarine and a ragtag collection of refugees had pulled off the largest underwater demolition operation since WWII. 

Chowdhury tied his lungi, pulled on his vest, and slipped away into the Chittagong night. 

Rezwan Hussain is a writer and researcher in Dhaka. He teaches at ULAB.

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