9th December 1971 was the saddest day in the history of Indian Navy as on this day Indian Navy suffered largest wartime casualty loosing 176 sailors and 18 officers including Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla who chose to go down along with ship as an old tradition, "captains don’t abandon their ships."
One of the survivors COMMANDER Manu Sharma hasn’t forgotten the night of December. The Indian Express paper quoted him saying, "I remember when the ship was sinking after being hit by a Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor, there was a small hatch escape from where we were pulling the sailors and everyone was trying to save his life. There was a moment which even made a person like me cry. My captain M N Mulla pushed me and Lieutenant Kundan Mall from the ship, and said you go ahead, do not worry about me. When Kundan Mall and I started swimming under water, after a while I lost track of Mall. And I as looked around for him I saw Captain Mulla holding the top of the ship’s railing with a cigar in his mouth. Those were the last minutes for INS Khukri and Captain Mulla, who choose not to abandon the ship," His daughter Ameeta Mulla Wattal speaking to The Hindu correspondent during release of book The sinking of INS Khukri – Survivors’ stories, by Maj.Gen. (retd.) Ian Cardozo, recently, wondered, "I suppose he saw himself as nurtured by the traditions of the sea that required him to stay with his vessel. One such man is enough to bring honour to an entire nation for a life time."
INS KHUKRI (Courtesy: Indian Navy Website)
After reading these news clippings, I thought of compiling this article about one of heroes of 1971 war, Captain M.N.Mulla and the loss of INS Khukri
Events leading to fateful night
Immediately after bombing of Indian airports by Pakistan on evening of 3rd December, suspecting presence of Pakistan submarines in Kutch area, Indian Navy made attempts to intercept submarine broadcasts on West Coast. Results indicated possible position of submarine southwest of Diu on 7/8 December. Diu was assembly area for our ships to be deployed for missile attack on Karachi. Presence of submarine in area was cause of great concern. The 14th Frigate Squadron comprising of the vessels INS Khukri, Kirpan and Kuthar had sailed from Bombay on 2nd December. However, Kuthar had suffered a boiler room explosion on 4th December and was towed back to Bombay by the Kirpan for repairs. The odds were heavily in favor of Pakistan submarine Hangor, the Indian Navy, however could not allow threat by Pakistan at our doorstep.
Admiral Kohli was the Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Naval Command in 1971.He decided to deploy the 14 Frigate Squadron along with the Navy’s latest Seaking anti submarine helicopters operating from Bombay to eliminate the submarine Hangor’s threat off Diu coast. Captain MN Mulla was Senior Officer of the Squadron. The Seaking helicopters were to operate in the southern sector of the search area closer to Bombay. The frigates were to operate in the northern sector of the search area, closer to Diu.
Admiral Kohli his book, "We Dared – Maritime Operations in the 1971 Indo Pak War" published in 1989 states:
"Where the Pakistan Navy scored over the Indian Navy was in their submarine arm. The French Daphne class submarines were the most modern conventional submarines, with sensors and armament far superior to not only our submarine but also our anti submarine frigates. This is how the KHUKRI was detected by a Daphne much before the frigate became aware of the submarine’s presence."
"As expected there were sonar contacts and reports of occasional sightings of periscopes by Indian ships and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. There were subsequently confirmed sighting reports of an enemy submarine in the area west of Diu Head. Direction Finder bearings obtained of a submarine which had transmitted a wireless message to Karachi also confirmed the position. This submarine was a potential threat to our shipping and it was decided by the Western Naval Command to eliminate this threat. The 14th anti submarine squadron comprising KHUKRI (F14), KIRPAN and KUTHAR was the only force available for the task, together with some Seakings."
"Urgent operational orders for a hunt were prepared in consultation with Captain MN Mulla, Senior Officer of the Squadron, requiring the squadron to sail on 8 December for the last known position of the submarine. KUTHAR’s problems were too serious to permit early readiness of the ship for sea. After considering the gravity of the situation and in consultation with F 14, who accepted decreased Anti Submarine capability of the two ships, KHUKRI and KIRPAN were sailed for the hunt."
Admiral further states:
"While in the process of hunting, the enemy submarine with her superior sonar facility, obtained contact of KHUKRI before her own detection by the ship and struck KHUKRI by a salvo of three torpedoes in quick succession. The ship sank in a matter of minutes at 2055 on 9th December, taking down with her 18 officers and 176 men including the Commanding Officer, Captain MN Mulla. It was a serious blow in an encounter in which the superior underwater destruction capability and its allied weapons systems of a modern submarine turned the scales and thus the hunter became the victim."
KIRPAN, who was searching for the submarine together with KHUKRI, reported detecting torpedoes going past her at the time KHUKRI was torpedoed. She took vigorous evasive action and fired mortars on the torpedo bearing. After a few salvos, her mortars went non operational. KIRPAN now faced a dilemma – should she rescue KHUKRI’s survivors – either by going amidst them on a dark night or should she lower her boats to rescue survivors. Both actions would require KIRPAN to stop and this would make her an easy target for the submarine, if it chose to attack KIRPAN. Or should KIRPAN leave the area, repair her mortars and return to the area with an additional ship to rescue the survivors and start hunting the submarine? This however would give the submarine time to get away from the scene of the sinking and consequently greatly enlarge the area to be searched. The CO of KIRPAN decided to withdraw from the scene and return later."
Only 67 crew could be saved by KIRPAN which returned next day. Captain M.N.Mulla was awarded Maha Vir Charka posthumously.
There was considerable debate about sinking of Khukri, particularly in view of heavy loss of life. The issues about advisability of deploying Khukri and Kirpan to hunt much superior submarine, Kirpan leaving the scene without saving more sailors, slow speed movement of Khukri as against tactical doctrine of high speed etc were debated. Some of these actions were justifiable and certain follow up actions were initiated. In conclusion Admiral Hiranandani states:
"The lesson learnt from the loss of the KHUKRI was that longer range sonar and longer range weapons had to be inducted if ships were to have a fighting chance against modern submarines and their long range homing torpedoes.
Immediate action was taken to improve the anti submarine capability of the Leander Class frigates then under construction in Mazagon Docks at Bombay.
In retrospect, KHUKRI’s tragic loss did not go in vain."
INS Khukri Memorial
INS Khukri memorial was inaugurated on 15th December, 1999 in memory of the officers and the sailors who chose to go down with the warship INS KHUKRI when it was hit by a salve of three torpedoes fired from PNS Hangor, a Pakistani Submarine on 9/12/1971 during the INDO-PAK war. INS Khukri which sank 40 nautical miles off the coast of Diu taking down a crew of 18 officers and 176 sailors. The memorial constitutes a model of INS Khukri encased in a glass house, placed atop a hillock facing the sea. The memorial was built as a tribute to the officers and sailors of the Indian Navy who laid down their life for the country.
Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla ,Maha Vir Charka (Posthumous)
Born: 15th May 1926 Gorakhpur U.P.
Commision: 1st May 1948
Two ships of the Indian Navy under the command of Captain M.N.Mulla, senior officer of frigates squadron, were assigned the task of locating and destroying a Pakistani submarine in North Arabian Sea. During these operations on the night of 9 December 1971,INS "Khukri" was hit by torpedoes fired by enemy submarine and sank. Having decided to abandon the ship, Captain Mulla without regard to his personal safety, supervised the arrangements for rescue of his ship’s company in very cool, calm and methodical manner. Even at later stage whilst the ship was sinking, Capt Mulla showed presence of mind and continued to direct rescue operations and refused to save himself by giving his own life-saving gear to a sailor. Having directed as many of his men as possible to leave the ship, Captain Mulla went back to bridge to see what further rescue operations could be performed. In doing so, Captain Mulla was last seen going down wit the ship. His action and behaviour and the example he set have been in keeping with highest tradition of the services. Captain Mulla displayed conspicuous gallantry and dedication.
Ref :Transition to Triumph-History of the Indian Navy 1965-1975 by Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani PVSM, AVSM, NM, PhD (Retd)
Ramesh Lalwani, New Delhi
Author: Ramesh Lalwani- New Delhi