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Naval Gazing 13: The Cold War's Hot Spots

By Tom Anderson


HMS Charity, pictured here in 1952 during the Korean War, was badly damaged in 1971 after being sold to Pakistan and renamed the Shah Jahan

In the previous article, I noted that while there were a number of proxy conflicts between East and West during the Cold War, these were predominantly land wars with little involvement from naval forces. When forces at sea were important, this was usually a one-sided affair of bombardments or landing troops, not contested by the other side of the conflict to produce true naval warfare. It should be recognised that naval forces did play a part in what is usually considered to be the biggest crisis point of the Cold War that could have turned hot, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This was prompted by the Soviets basing nuclear missiles in Communist Cuba, which had recently survived the Americans’ desultory ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion by anti-communist Cuban exiles. The Soviets’ new missiles had the range to strike at the heart of the USA, prompting a crisis. (Less commonly mentioned in western historiography is that the Soviets regarded this as a retaliation for the Americans basing missiles in Turkey, which similarly put the USSR’s heartlands within reach of US nuclear attack). The American response by President John F. Kennedy involved the creation of naval Task Force 136 from elements of the US Navy’s Second Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Alfred G. Ward. The force’s role was to blockade Cuba and potentially reinforce Guantanamo Bay, the military base in Cuba which America had obtained in the Spanish-American War and retained through all the Cuban regimes, in the event of a shooting war. The blockade was described as a quarantine of offensive materials only rather than of all materials, a position defined by its implementor Admiral George Whelan Anderson Jr, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). This allowed President Kennedy to invoke the Rio Treaty, signed in 1947 between most of the nations in the Americas except Canada. An attack on one member would be regarded as an attack on all, if approved by a two-thirds vote of the member states of the Organisation of American States. The blockade therefore became international, with ships or resources offered to it by Argentina, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. This lent more credibility to the US position and Kennedy hoped it would stave off war. However, the Soviets called his bluff and tensions continued to rise. The carrier USS Essex and destroyer USS Gearing failed to intercept the tanker Bucharest and it was allowed through the blockade rather than be sunk. The Soviets did, however, turn back some ships bound for Cuba presumably carrying weapons. Frantic negotiations were carried out between the American and Soviet governments, with the Cubans taking a gung-ho position (which Fidel Castro later stated he regretted in hindsight) and a US plane being shot down by a Cuban missile. The closest the crisis came to nuclear war was October 27th, and it was in the form of a naval clash. The Soviet Foxtrot-class patrol submarine B-59 was detected by a US task force led by the carrier USS Randolph near Cuba. The Americans began dropping low-power depth charges in an attempt to force the submarine to surface for identification without damaging her. However, B-59 had standing orders authorising her to use its T-4 nuclear-tipped torpedo to respond to any American attack. Her commander, Captain Valentin Savitsky, and her political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, both believed war must have broken out and wanted to fire the torpedo. However, B-59 also carried the officer who was flotilla commodore of the whole submarine force, Vasily Arkhipov, and he opposed launching the torpedo. Unanimity was required, so war was averted. Decades later, the director of the USA’s National Security Archives stated that Arkhipov had ‘saved the world’ by his decision.


Soviet Submarine B-59 as photographed by the US Navy in 1962 after surfacing rather than launching her torpedo

As an aside, it is worth remembering that both sides (especially the Soviets) were secretive about their naval, aircraft and missile technology at the time, meaning that modern histories may use either the Soviets’ own internal names for their weapons, or the NATO reporting names used as code names by the West at the time. These were often based on the radio call-up code letters, e.g. the Foxtrot-class submarine mentioned above was joined by the Delta-class and Kilo-class, the call-up codes for the letters F, D and K respectively. The Soviets’ own names for these submarines were Project 641, the Murena, Kalmar and Delfin (‘dolphin’) classes for different versions of the Delta, and thePaltus (‘halibut’) cass for the Kilo. Some of the NATO names were less than flattering, such as the ‘Backfire’ bomber (Tupolev Tu-22M) and ‘Satan’ missile (R-36M SS-18). Others, however, eventually met with the approval of Soviet and Russian pilots when they learned of them, such as ‘Fulcrum’ for the Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended when the US and Soviets came to an agreement by which the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba (and, again less talked about in Western historiography, the Americans would remove theirs from Turkey and Italy). Because the latter was not public knowledge, it seemed that Soviet Premier Khrushchev had come off worse in the deal, which helped lead to his fall from power two years later. In the long term, nuclear missiles became long-range enough that basing them geographically close to one’s opponent became less important in the long run anyway, save for giving him less time to respond. This is the closest that the Cold War came to a shooting war between communist East and capitalist West. It was the guiding assumption of many naval and other military strategists during the period that this was the only kind of war one had to plan for. However, the two biggest naval clashes of the Cold War had very little to do with the global ideologial divide. These were the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971, and the Falklands War in 1982. This article will look at the first of these. To cut a very long story short, the former British India was partitioned upon independence in 1947, following demands by the All-India Muslim League after the latter became unconvinced that the rights of their religious minority would be protected in an all-India state ruled by the Congress Party. The idea that all the Muslims of India could be separated from the Hindus and others was always going to be futile; here and now, the Republic of India recorded 172 million Muslims at the last census, which on its own would be the seventh biggest country in the world and the third largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan! However, partition sought to give majority Muslim lands a separate independence, the name ‘Pakistan’ coined as an acronym of Punjab, Afghania (i.e. the Khyber region), Kashmir, Sindh and, tenuously, Balochistan. Notably, all of these regions are in the western part of what was British India, the name having been conceived when this was all envisaged. We will regretfully pass over the controversies and bloodiness of the Partition and ensuing forced movement of people for space reasons, and note only that the Muslim-dominated eastern Bengal were also split off from India and became part of Pakistan. Notably the British had briefly tried a partition of the region of Bengal some years earlier, which had met with considerable opposition on the grounds that the British were thought to be trying ‘divide and rule’ and were splitting a region which had an identity going back centuries. The new partition was therefore also controversial for a number of reasons. Pakistan consisted of West and East Pakistan, separated by the vastness of India, with which it was intermittently at war due to the disputed ownership of Kashmir. (This dispute is not resolved to the present day, with Google Maps and atlases in both countries showing different borders).


East Pakistan took in a majority of the population of the country, yet politics and the military was dominated by the West. The latter attempted to impose Urdu as the sole national language, leading to the shooting of student protestors in the East and civil unrest led by a group called the Awami League. Eventually in 1956 the central government in Islamabad allowed Bengali to also become an official language, but the damage had been done. Military coups against Prime Ministers elected on East Pakistani votes showed that West Pakistan would not allow East Pakistan the proportionate power that its population implied.The people of East Pakistan abandoned the Muslim League in favour of the Awami League, which began demanding autonomy from the 1960s.


Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the father of Bangladeshi Independence. during the fifties

The central Pakistani government lost face in 1965 when another war with India over Kashmir ended in a damp squib and status quo ante bellum. In 1970 a crisis point was reached when the Bhola cyclone struck East Pakistan, the deadliest tropical cylone in world history, killing half a million people. The central government was severely criticised for its response, and a month later the East Pakistani people expressed their discontent in a general election. Almost all of East Pakistan’s seats were won by the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. West Pakistan, on the other hand, was dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The two sides were initially unable to reach an agreement to govern. The President, the West Pakistani General Yahya Khan, was unwilling to allow the Awami League into government. A proposal to have two Prime Ministers got nowhere; a provisional agreement was eventually reached between Bhutto and Rahman to split power, but by this point the West Pakistani-dominated military had already acted. The army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ to seize control of East Pakistan’s major cities and quell resistance; this became a full-blown genocide, with between a third of a million and three million killed and ten million more refugees fleeing to India. This had been foreshadowed by President Khan stating a month earlier that ‘kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands’. The reality was quite different. A guerilla organisation, the Mukti Bahini, formed and began fighting the occupation troops. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed a declaration of independence for East Pakistan as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and called for nationwide resistance. This call was transmitted out with the help of some students in Chittagong and Major Ziaur Rahman, where it was picked up by a passing Japanese ship and passed on to Radio Australia and the BBC. The world became aware of what was going on. India, under Indira Gandhi, pushed for global recognition of the West Pakistani military atrocities; the US and China, both allies of Pakistan, attempted to take dissuasive action against India intervening; the US under Richard Nixon sent Task Force 74, led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, but was unable to persuade China to mobilise. The Chinese government did, however, later block Bangladesh’s first attempts at UN membership. The USA’s position as effectively being an apologist for genocide and the suppression of democracy was severely criticised by Archer Blood, the US consul general in Dacca/Dhaka (the capital of East Pakistan and then Bangladesh) in what was known as the ‘Blood Telegram’. Indonesia was also a diplomatic backer of Pakistan. Britain sat on the fence, her government talking about atrocities on both sides. She deployed the carrier HMS Eagle in the region; the Soviets sent a force from Vladivostok under Admiral Kruglyakov in support of India, and British and American ships backed away from Indian territorial waters in consequence. (This is an underrated potential alternate history Cold War flashpoint that could have led to wider East-West escalation!) In December 1971 India would intervene in the conflict in support of the Mukti Bahini against West Pakistan, resulting in the 13-day Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which is our focus here as it concerns the naval aspects. It should be noted that the war began with West Pakistan launching a pre-emptive strike against Indian air bases, although India had been near-openly planning an ntervention for months. Bangladeshi freedom fighter and political leader Tajuddin Ahmad had met with Indira Gandhi in April to ask for unofficial aid, referred to as Operation Jackpot. This saw the Mukti Bahini target West Pakistani riverine naval forces, damage bridges and other key logistics points, and so on. It was helped by an unexpected event at Toulon in France; 9 East Pakistani submarine crewmen tried to seize control of a Pakistani submarine there, failed but managed to escape to India, where they were given training to participate in Jackpot. These operations helped keep Pakistani naval forces under pressure despite the rebels not having naval vessels of their own at the time. The Pakistani Navy in the East had been built up by Admiral Mohammad Shariff, but consisted largely of brown-water navy gunboats and could not stand toe-to-toe with the far superior Indian Navy. In an attempt to counteract this, the submarine PNS Ghazi (formerly USS Diablo) was deployed to try to sink India’s carrier INS Vikrant (formerly HMS Hermes). As was later seen in the Falklands War and Ogaden War, it feels as though there were more fights in the Cold War between two sets of NATO or two sets of Warsaw Pact ships or tanks than between one and the other!


The PNS Ghazi, photographed here by Tomme J. Lambertson, when it was the USS DIablo

The Ghazi, working on outdated information, was unable to find the Vikrant and sank—even the circumstances of this remain a point of controversy between Indian and Pakistani sources. India credits the sinking of the Ghazi to depth charges dropped by the destroyer INS Rajput (formerly HMS Rotherham), while Pakistan states that the submarine sank due to an accident while laying mines. Nonetheless, this represents the only non-wargame attempt since the Second World War for an attack submarine to sink an aircraft carrier. Vikrant survived, and her aircraft joined the Indian Air Force craft launched from land to attack Pakistan Navy shipping. The gunboats and lone destroyer PNS Sylhet were destroyed, and Admiral Shariff surrendered to Vice-Admiral Krishna of the Indian Navy (after successfully overseeing the evacuation of some of his forces to Burma). In the west, where Pakistani naval firepower was more concentrated, the fighting was somewhat more balanced. Pakistan was still outnumbered, but deployed submarines, once again, in an attempt to even the odds. In the West this consisted of PNS Hangor, built in France but always intended for Pakistan’s use rather than being second-hand. On December 4th the Indian Navy launched Operation Trident against the West Pakistani port city of Karachi. This was only the second use of modern anti-ship missiles (the first being during the sinking of the Israeli ship Eilat, formerly HMS Zealous, by Egyptian forces in 1967). The Indians deployed three Vidyut-class missile boats, their name for the Soviet Osa-class (which they had purchased from the USSR after observing the Eilat incident). These were escorted by two Arnala-class anti-submarine corvettes, again a Soviet purchase (originally being the Petya III class). The attack was made with Soviet Styx missiles and was a great success, sinking or damaging two-thirds of the Pakistani navy with no losses to Indian forces. This included the destroyers PNS Khaibar and Shah Jahan (formerly HMS Cadiz and Charity) along with a minesweeper and supply ships. Pakistan retaliated with an air attack on the boats’ home base at Okha, but the Indian Navy had already moved the boats, and were able to launch Operation Python, another attack on Karachi, only three days later. The immense success of the operation led to December 4th becoming India’s Navy Day, while Pakistani forces went on high alert and reported false alarms; the frigate PNS Zulfiqar (formerly HMS Deveron) was mistakenly reported as an Indian ship and strafed by the Pakistan Air Force in a friendly fire incident. Meanwhile, the submarine Hangor successfully avoided detection by a major Indian fleet led by the cruiser INS Mysore (formerly HMS Niagara) which passed right over her. Commander Ahmed Tasnim, her commanding officer, broke radio silence to warn of the attack, but his message was intercepted by the Indians. The Indian Navy sent the anti-submarine warfare frigates INS Khukri and Kirpan (British-built but always intended for India) to take on the submarine. On the night of December 9th, Commander Tasnim ordered Hangor to dive deep and blindly approach the two frigates as they came within firing range, running silent and escaping detection. Hangor attacked Kirpan from just 40 metres away, but her torpedo either missed orfailed to detonate. Kirpan detected the torpedo and fled the battle, but Khukri increased speed to attack Hangor. Tasnim’s attack team shifted focus to Khukri and quickly managed to fire a second torpedo, which scored a direct hit on the frigate’s magazine. Khukri sank rapidly, while Kirpan attempted to attack with depth charges, but once again Hangor scored a hit with a torpedo. She did not sink, but was damaged and forced to flee. This incident represents the first case since the Second World War of a successful kill by a submarine. Khukri is the only vessel of the Indian Navy lost in combat and her destruction represents one of Pakistan’s few victories in the brief conflict; December 9th is now Hangor Day in Pakistan, the legend enhanced by the fact that Tasnim was able to return to port and avoid the outraged Indians’ massive search and destroy mission following the sinking. The war ended with the independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh and the defeat of Pakistan, now reduced to only its western section. One can hopefully see why conflicts such as these attracted such interest from naval (and other military) theorists from around the world. Ships built by Britain, France, the USA and the USSR, which lived out their lives without firing a shot in anger in their home fleets before being sold on, had finally been put to the test in a shooting war. Both the Indian Navy and Pakistan Navy had generally fought quite competently given the limitations they faced, and from a cold-blooded perspective the war represented a comprehensive and reliable test of how effective their materiel had been. It was clear that air power and aircraft carriers were still important, as they had been in the Second World War, as were submarine attacks, but anti-ship missiles also meant that even small ships (or planes) could inflict great damage on larger ones. Essentially the missile boats of the 1970s became viewed as the torpedo boats of the 1890s had been, a potential threat to big nations which had built huge ships. This conflict is typically less known in the West compared to the Falklands War (which we will consider next time) but arguably represents a bigger range of naval conflict. The lessons learned from the war continued to influence naval doctrine in both East and West. Anti-ship missiles would go on to play a big role in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Falklands War, and formed the centrepiece for future warships of any class below carrier. Missiles launched from submarines (not only nuclear ones) also became more common, and the potential effectiveness of submarines was reinforced. Many of these assumptions would ultimately lead the US and her allies to overestimate Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a foe in 1991, and continue to underwrite military planning to this day—a necessary corollary of there being a lack of many 21st century non-asymmetric military conflicts between organised opponents. Something which, perhaps, we should be grateful for!

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth