Vice Admiral EC Kuruvilla
Bear with me for continuing with the memories of 1971. But this story too should be told for there wouldn't be a more opportune moment for it than this 50th anniversary.
The bombing of Karachi in December 1971 has been the highest point in the history of the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy has never tasted greater success before or after this historic event. Hence Indian Navy celebrates December 4, the day it made the 'world's biggest bonfire' of Karachi as the Navy Day every year.
Yet, one of the most important leaders of this historic operation has not received due recognition, even in his own state of Kerala. He is Vice Admiral Elanjikkal Chandy Kuruvilla (1922-1994). He commandeered the Western Fleet, which stunned Pakistan and even the superpowers like the USA and the USSR by this blitzkrieg. Although the Indian government awarded him the Param Vishist Seva and Athi Vishisht Seva medals, Kuruvilla has not received due public attention, unlike many others involved in the bombing.
Indeed, the man who deserved the biggest credit for the bombing was the then Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral S.M. Nanda (1915-2009), who even named his memoir, the 'Man who Bombed Karachi' (2004) as suggested by his journalist friend Kushwant Singh. For, Nanda did this offensive deliberately to recapture the Indian Navy's 'lost reputation and morale' caused by not being permitted to participate in India's former wars of 1962 and 1965.
There was another reason too for the Karachi-born Nanda to deserve the highest credit for the bombing. For, he had it done against stiff opposition from his force. Nanda wrote, 'I have little hesitation in saying even at the risk of sounding immodest, that this idea was essentially mine and also that I had to overcome rather strong resistance and stiff opposition from staff that had been brought up on the theory that a naval force must desist from approaching a hostile coast defended by Naval and shore-based aviation.'
According to Nanda, the most vigorous opponent was his second in command, Vice Admiral S N Kohli, Flag Officer C-in-C, Western Naval Command. Kohli (1916-1997) later shared the highest accolades for the operation and succeeded him as the Chief of Naval Staff. He also penned a memoir, 'We Dared' (1989), on the bombing of Karachi. Nanda's stunning revelation in his book is his conflict with Kohli and that he even had wanted to remove him from the post of C-in-C. In the crucial meeting in November 1971 of the Chiefs of Staff Committee attended by important officials like the Cabinet Secretary, Nanda was particularly offended by Kohli's open expression of reservations about his proposal to attack Karachi.
Nanda writes, 'Kohli prefaced his presentation with a statement: The Pakistani naval ships are better armed, and they have better firing capability than ours. But the instructions from my chief are that we are supposed to attack Karachi'. A stunned Nanda later called Kohli to his office and asked why he never raised those issues with him before or at the in-house meetings instead of doing it at a larger gathering. He also told Kohli that he had no option but to remove him as C-in-C as he had no faith in the operations. But the decision was shelved after Kohli wrote to him saying there was some misunderstanding and that he would undertake any order given to him. 'Despite this proverbial peace pipe, I continued to feel a deep disquiet; what made it worse was that I could not even share my anxiety with anybody for the duration of the war.' Nanda says Kohli was very upset about the Navy's decision to shift INS Vikrant from the Western to Eastern Command before the war.
In this context, the role of Rear Admiral Kuruvilla, who, as Fleet Commander (FOCWEF), was second in command to C-in-C Kohli in the Western Command, became crucial. For, unlike Kohli, Kuruvilla was exceptionally enthusiastic about the Karachi operation. Nanda has revealed that at that time, Kohli and Kuruvilla had serious mutual differences over the operation. 'The controversy seemed centered around the role of the fleet during an actual war situation. The initial operational directive from the C-in-C sometime in June 1971 was that the Western Fleet should remain about 500 miles west of Bombay and concentrate on trade warfare'.
According to Nanda, Kohli's view was a 'replay of the strategic fiasco of the 1965 war all over again, when the fleet had done nothing'. He wrote that the tensions between the two could be sensed several months before the war. 'I could feel that both the admirals were not on the same length. Eventually, I met fleet commander (Kuruvilla) in October 1971 and discussed with him in great detail the operational plans and how, in his view, he ought to carry them out. Kuruvilla was enthusiastic about the whole thing and eventually suggested that he wanted some missile boats deployed with the fleet. I readily agreed and ordered that two missile boats be assigned to the Western Fleet. The missile boats operated both under the fleet commander and also at times, directly under the FOC-in-C West.'.
As it turned out later, the operation was planned and executed, as Kuruvilla said. Major General Ian Cardozo, in his book, 'Sinking of Khukri,' wrote: 'Admiral Kuruvilla stated that if he had the missile boats with him at sea, he could guarantee total victory regardless of the enemy's superiority in speed and gun power. Admirals Nanda and Kohli responded to the idea enthusiastically, and a series of trials were ordered'. Hence many months before Pakistan triggered the war, the Indian Navy and the Western Fleet were ready for the missile offensive on Karachi. On December 1, two days before Pakistan started the war with multiple attacks and air raids on Indian targets, the Western Fleet led by Kuruvilla was going to Karachi. Their assignment was outlined inside sealed envelopes by the Navy, which was not to be opened until ordered by FOC Kuruvilla. The armada led by a flagship INS Mysore consisted of eight frigates, three patrol vessels, a Destroyer, two submarines, and eight Osa Class Missile boats carrying Soviet-built Styx surface-to-surface missiles.
The three phase-missile attacks to be carried out on three days were codenamed Trident, Python, and Triumph. Trident was unleashed at 10.30 PM on December 4 by the two Indian missile boats anchored 450 km off the Karachi coast. It resulted in the sinking of the Pakistani Navy destroyer Khaibar, the coastal minesweeper Muhafiz and the cargo ship MV Venus Challenger. The attack was followed by another one at the Pakistani oil tanks at Keamari, which was ablaze in seconds. IAF pilots who flew the next day over Karachi said they saw the 'biggest bonfire in Asia.' Karachi was engulfed in fire and smoke for days.
A second missile attack was made four days later, in which the casualties included a Panamanian vessel, a British ship, and a Pakistan Navy Oiler. The third attack was called off because the job was over already. Nothing terrified Pakistan more than this attack which stunned even their ally, the USA, and also USSR, India's ally. (Yet, without any remorse, Nanda justified in his memoirs his most controversial decision; sending INS Khukri to destroy the far superior Pakistani submarines resulting in the sinking of the ship and the death of 194 Indians.)
'Our morale was very high after the attack on Karachi. That was the time all the 13 ships sailed together under Rear Admiral Kuruvilla,' wrote Lt. Commander S.K.Basu of Khukri. Sudha Mulla, the wife of Mahendra Mulla, the legendary Captain of INS Khukri, wrote that Kuruvilla had given her husband the command.
T.J. Rajasekharan Nair, one of the survivors of INS Khukri told this writer; 'Kuruvilla sir has never been given due recognition. I cannot forget the day I shook hands with him at Kochi when he met us to give an inspiring speech some days before we left for the Karachi operation in 1971'.
Though from a family from Niranam near Thiruvalla, Kuruvilla was born, brought up, and died outside Kerala. Born in Bengaluru, his father, Elanjikkal John Kuruvilla, founded Anamalais Timber Trust Company. (he was related to the Kerala Congress leader E. John Jacob aka Elanjikkal Baby). Kuruvilla spent only two years in Kerala when he studied at St. Thomas College in Thrissur for his pre-university course. After graduating from Madras Christian College, he joined the British-run Royal Indian Navy as a sub-lieutenant when he was 20. Kuruvilla had an exemplary career in the Navy, both before and after independence, when he held various vital positions in and outside the country.
Kuruvilla and K.M. Mathew of Malayala Manorama were college mates at MCC. Mathew recalled in his autobiography, ' Most of the students in our mischievous group were Malayalis - W.T. Mathews, Moses, and E Chandy Kuruvilla, whom we called Thambi. Thambi later became a rear admiral in the Indian navy, went in a submarine to Karachi and bombed an area, without receiving orders from his superiors to do so...'.
Kuruvilla later headed the Southern Naval Command and became vice-admiral while serving as chairman of Mazagon Docks. Retired from the Navy in 1976, he settled in Ooty with family and died there in 1994.Two daughters survived Kuruvilla and his wife, Pinky. Let us remember this Malayali who bombed Karachi on its fiftieth anniversary and also when another Malayali became the Chief of Naval Staff for the first time.