The officers behind Indian Navy's successful Operation X in Bangladesh | Twitter @HarperCollinsIN
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The key personnel of Operation X waited for the rumble on the radio waves that would signal mission accomplished. In NHQ Delhi, the King Cobra, Captain Roy waited for one of his many phones to ring. In the naval detachment in Delta Sector, Aku Roy waited with the Mukti Bahini sector commanders for news from Chittagong. In Fort William, Samant hummed ‘Aami tomai joto, shuniye chchilem gaan’ as he typed out his report on the launch of the commandos. The songs had been chosen by Major General Sarkar. The planners had nixed the idea of a third song that would signal ‘abort mission’.

Samant hadn’t told his task units that there was no turning back on this mission. The naval planner noted, with a tinge of regret, that an estimated 10 per cent of the task units he had sent into the operation were likely be killed or captured.

In Chittagong that morning, Chowdhury’s task unit began leaving the city. The commandos were transported in private cars, two and three per car, hired by the local resistance. They were put on boats and guided to a safe house across the river. Khurshed’s WAPDA van had left the city in the evening, carrying a large wicker basket of drumsticks to fetch the limpet mines from the shed in Chotto Komira. The vehicle was also stocked with a large supply of locally procured gamchas or thin cotton towels. Chowdhury had paid for all this with the 200 Pakistani rupees he had been given as special allowance for the operation.

Chowdhury’s commandos had converged in a village called Anwara Thana across the Karnaphulli that morning. The house belonged to a sympathizer identified only as ‘the potter’. In the safe house, Chowdhury and Shah Alam armed forty limpet mines with detonators. They slid pencil detonators into each mine, pushed the soluble plug in behind them, and rolled condoms over the plug to make it waterproof. The charges were now armed and ready for action. There was no sign of the third group of commandos who were staying in Fauzdar Haat. As the precious minutes slipped by, worry lines creased the young sailor’s forehead. Finally, he decided to launch the mission with the remaining forty. He lined the commandos along the riverbank for the task.

Also read: Even before 1971 war started with Pakistan, India had won the battle

Across Bangla Desh, close to midnight on 14 August, over a hundred assault swimmers discarded their lungis and vests. They donned swimming trunks, strapped diving knives to their calves, and slid their feet into the Abee rubber fins. They extracted the limpet mines and the gamchas from the bags and baskets and helped each other tie them to their chests. They used large double knots that could be easily opened underwater. The commandos then walked into the water backwards, the most efficient way to walk with fins on land, proceeding to noiselessly launch themselves into the rivers of their beloved country – the Karnaphulli in Chittagong, the Pussur in Chalna/Mongla, the Shitalakshshya in Narayanganj and the Meghna in Chandpur.

The limpeteers swam downstream with the current, backwards and diagonally towards their targets, their hands holding their deadly payload on their stomachs, hips noiselessly scissoring their finned feet, heads barely above the water, steering themselves through the darkness, just as they had been trained at C2P. Some of them had covered their heads with water hyacinth and breathed through bamboo reeds.

In Chittagong, Shah Alam was the first to hit the water and swim on his back towards the well-lit silhouettes of the merchantmen across the river. The ships were a kilometre away. The swarm attack had been planned for just after midnight for two reasons. It coincided with the beginning of the ebb tide, when the river waters rushed out towards the sea, and also with the changing of the shift among the dock labour. The fast-moving ebb tide that was underway swiftly took the swimmers to their targets in under ten minutes. Shah Alam took a deep breath and lowered himself into the water. Around six feet under, he felt the ship side and reached for his diving knife. He used it to scrape the barnacles off. It was not easy, for he had to rise to the surface for mouthfuls of air and locate the same spot in complete darkness. He then reached for his chest, untied the knot, extracted the limpet mine and tossed away the condom and the gamcha. He dived in again, taking care to keep the deadly explosive away from the ship’s hull, and then looked for the cleared spot to place his magnetized charge. The limpet hugged the merchant ship in a fraternal clunk. Deed done, Shah Alam rose to the surface, gasped for air, and flipped around, allowing the Karnaphulli to carry him downstream to the designated pick-up spot downriver where Khurshed and the others would be waiting for him with a fresh set of clothes. The forty commandos sploshed out of the water one after the other. They speedily discarded their fins, knives and swimming trunks, and changed into singlets and dhotis. They needed to leave the target area in a hurry.

The ‘Pantle plugs’ sat on the sides of the limpet mines, slowly dissolving in the water of the Karnaphulli. A half hour later, when each of the plugs had completely dissolved, the firing sequence was initiated. The thin lead wire in each mine gave way to the tension of the spring and snapped. The spring fired the tiny plunger into the percussion cap, which exploded the small charge explosive pellet in front of it. This, in turn, set off the main TNT charge. At around 1.40 a.m., the first dull, watery explosion resounded across Chittagong.

The Al-Abbas shuddered. Soon, the explosive orchestra began. Underwater blasts rattled ship sides, cracked their hulls, and sent up spouts of water in the river. On the harbour front, there was panic. And then gunfire. The army sentries began firing wildly into the water. The explosions continued. The angry waters of the Karnaphulli rushed into the sides of the Al-Abbas, the Ohrmazd and Orient Barge Number 6 as the limpet mines punched holes in their sides below the waterline. All three ships settled to the bottom of the harbour, in about twenty feet of water, as if their bottoms had been sliced away. The commandos also seriously damaged five barges, two tugs and one gunboat. Across the Karnaphulli, the commandos counted twenty-three explosions. That night, similar dull blasts reverberated across the harbours of Narayanganj, Chandpur, Chalna and Mongla, crippling merchant ships and sowing confusion.

This excerpt has been published from Operation X: The Untold Story of India’s Covert Naval War in East Pakistan by Captain M.N.R. Samant and Sandeep Unnithan, with permission from HarperCollins India.

Also read: General ‘Jake’, Indian Army’s 1971 war hero who negotiated Pakistan’s surrender


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