A SURGICAL STRIKE AT SEA IN 1971

Mukti Bahini Naval Commandos

The True Story of the Sinking of Merchant Ships in Chittagong Harbour -1971

by the Mukti Bahini Naval Commandos, led by Lt Cdr Akku Roy, VrC, Indian Navy. 

Authors Note: “Lest some Pakistanis or our own very articulate left-liberal secularists quote this account as a confirmation of their beliefs that it was India that was the first to intervene and take offensive actions inside East Pakistan, I would like to clarify that it was not so. 

Pakistan, mistaking our passivity in the first half of 1971, took it as a sign of weakness and started aggressive actions along our border. Being posted there, I was a witness to these acts of aggression. In one case, we defused two mines that were planted on the road on our side of the border; they also shelled our BSF posts regularly and on some occasions also shelled deep into our territory. Agartala, the capital of Tripura, was shelled several times.

In July 1971 when my Battalion 4 Guards was located in Southern Tripura, my friend and fellow officer Major Amar Singh Chohan were severely wounded in one such shelling incident when he and Col Himmeth Singh had stopped by the roadside and were in conversation. This unprovoked act required a befitting response, and it was only then that we started supporting the offensive actions of the Mukti Bahini.”

This is a story about a naval officer, Lt Cdr Ashok Kumar Roy, VrC, popularly known as Akku Roy. Akku was a Naval Aviator, flying the antisubmarine Alize aircraft.

He was a maverick and supremely competent professional who was loved and admired by all whom he came into contact with. While the account of his exploits could fill volumes, for the purpose of this article I have confined myself to relating the story of an incident, which though little known, was to have a profound impact on the 1971 War for the Liberation of Bangladesh.

When the troubles in East Bengal started, and India decided to aid the freedom fighters, Akku was seconded to a special operations group operating under Capt Samant, IN, which was tasked to raise and train the incipient Bangladesh Navy comprising personnel who had deserted the Pakistan Navy to fight for freedom. They were also tasked to carry out operations inside East Pakistan. I first came to know of Akku sometime in the third week of August 1971. At that time, my unit 4 Guards was in Tripura, and the battalion HQ was located on a hilltop in Pongbari, in the Belonia area of South Tripura. Sitting at the battalion HQ, sipping a mug of tea,

WHEN THE TROUBLES IN EAST BENGAL STARTED AND INDIA DECIDED TO AID THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS, AKKU WAS SECONDED TO A SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP OPERATING UNDER CAPT SAMANT, IN, WHICH WAS TASKED TO RAISE AND TRAIN THE INCIPIENT BANGLADESH NAVY COMPRISING PERSONNEL WHO HAD DESERTED THE PAKISTAN NAVY TO FIGHT FOR FREEDOM. THEY WERE ALSO TASKED TO CARRY OUT OPERATIONS INSIDE EAST PAKISTAN.

My gaze was fixed on a long line of Bengali refugees, walking past the HQ, a short distance from me. It was at this point that a tall and fair man, with his hands tied behind his back, was brought to me by two of our men who were abusing him roundly and prodding him with their bayonets and rifle butts with great enthusiasm. That day I was standing in for my Commanding Officer Lt Col Himmeth Singh, who that morning had gone to Agartala to meet the Brigade Commander, Brig RN Mishra.

My gaze was fixed on a long line of Bengali refugees, walking past the HQ, a short distance from me.

The prisoner did not look too pleased as he appeared to have been an unwilling recipient of some hard blows from rifle butts. The captors, who were men from my company, pushed him forward, making him sprawl at my feet. They told me that they had spotted this man, whom they presumed to be a Pakistani spy, trying to cross the border by merging with the refugees. They also said that they had detained some Bengalis, who appeared to belong to the same group and who were at this moment being interrogated by my senior JCO, Subedar Makhan Lal.

“Your game is up,” I told the prisoner after the men had pulled him up on his feet. “You better come clean.” He looked me in the eye. “My name is Major Roy of the Indian Army,” he said. “I am on a secret mission”. I asked him which unit he belonged to, and he maintained a stoic silence. As he did not appear to have a clue about the Army in general or the units in the area, I asked my men to rough him a bit more. Sensing that my men were quite keen to carry out this task, the prisoner said that he would tell me the truth if the men were told to move out of hearing range.

“I am Commander Akku Roy of the Indian Navy,” he said after the men had moved back some distance. “I am returning after the completion of a secret mission in Chittagong Harbour, and this can be confirmed by the HQ Eastern Command in Calcutta”.

The story was plausible, but I needed to be sure. I told him that he would be kept as a prisoner until such time as I could confirm his identity. He understood my dilemma, but asked that his hands be untied, so that he could pull down his trousers and show me that he was not circumcised, and hence not a Muslim.

After verifying that aspect of his anatomy, I asked him to sit down, but continued with the interrogation, the final confirmation of his true identity as a naval officer being established when he rattled off the names of Gilbert Menezes, John D’silva, Manda Boppaya, Vijay Shivdsahani and several other of my naval course mates from NDA who as midshipmen had served under him on INS Vikrant.

This was clinching evidence and proof of his true identity. Profuse apologies followed along with hot tea and pakoras for him and his men; however, an offer of rum was politely declined. Whilst an armed escort and a vehicle to take them to Agartala were being arranged, he told me his story of how he and his men had destroyed five ships and sunk twenty thousand tons of warlike stores, but more importantly, put Chittagong Port out of commission.

This information I could now relate to an event about three weeks earlier, in which I had played a small role. Capt. Rafiq ul Islam, the local Mukti Bahini Sector Commander (later a Member of Parliament and Minister of Bangladesh), had approached me to help facilitate the entry of a group of about forty freedom fighters into East Pakistan. This was a large group who also carried much equipment, and we had to devise a method and plan their induction into enemy territory without they being detected.

I neither asked nor was told what their mission was to be nor asked to see the members of this group, for by now such activity was fairly routine and having our own work to worry about and take care of, we left the Mukti Bahini to do much as they pleased. Moreover Capt. Rafiq ul Islam was a friend whom I trusted, for I had known him from the beginning of April when he and Major Zia ur Rehman (later General and President of Bangladesh) crossed over to my battalion sector.

Since then, they had been operating with us, and we had planned and executed many missions together. Much later, I learnt from Capt JK Sengupta aka Jojo, my friend and former school mate from RIMC, that the reason for Akku’s non-Bengali looks and build was that his mother was an Estonian refugee who had escaped from Estonia after the Soviet takeover in the thirties and somehow landed up in Calcutta where she met his father. Some days earlier, we had heard on the radio that five merchant ships had been sunk in Chittagong harbour by Bengali rebels.

This was done by a group of frogmen who had deserted from the Pakistan Navy and joined the Mukti Bahini. In India, they were trained like other deserters from the Pakistan Navy by Capt. Samant of the Indian Navy. This task force of frogmen had been placed under Akku Roy by Capt Samant. Akku trained them in the techniques of underwater work and placing of limpet mines with timed fuzes on the hulls of ships to be sunk.

On completion of training, he had led the team to Chittagong and successfully accomplished the mission. They had several narrow escapes and on one occasion were even stopped by the Pakistan Army, but managed to talk their way out of trouble because they had taken the precaution of having the wife of Azizur Rehman, one of the saboteurs, accompany them to avoid suspicion.

When they were stopped at a check post, they claimed they were returning home after a family ‘dawat’ (party). This group of frogmen for the large part consisted of former Pakistani Naval personnel, who had earlier deserted from TOULON in France where they had gone to take over a Daphne class submarine PNS MANGRO from the builders.

They were led by Lt AW Chowdhuri. The Mangro was the same class of submarine as The Hangor, which torpedoed and sank INS Khukri on 9 December, when it was returning to base after having taken part in the raid on Karachi. The Mangro had several Bengalis as crew members, who on learning of the atrocities being perpetrated on their fellow Bengalis by the Pakistan Army had decided to desert and return to join the freedom struggle.

They escaped via Italy and Spain where the Indian Embassy provided them travel documents and air tickets for an Air India flight from Rome to Delhi. After the successful completion of their task, they were returning to India disguised as refugees when they were spotted and arrested by our troops. To keep our involvement with the Bengali freedom fighters secret, many of our officers and men wore either police khaki uniforms or civilian clothes.

Khaki was also the colour of the uniforms of the Pakistan Army, which perhaps led to some confusion in the minds of Akku and his team. Akku Roy though a Bengali looked more like a North Indian, tall and fair. It is a reflection of his courage that he took the risk of operating inside East Pakistan, knowing for a fact that he could not pass off as a local. I tried to contact Akku after the war but learnt sadly that Akku who was a naval aviator in normal life had just before the war returned to perform his normal duty which was flying antisubmarine Alize aircraft from Jamnagar.

He had lost his life over the Arabian Sea off Jamnagar later in the year on 10 December, when he was sent on a mission to search for the survivors of INS Khukri, which had been sunk by a Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor, another Daphne class submarine.

Khukri was escorting missile boats that were returning to Bombay after a raid on Karachi Harbour when it was torpedoed and went down with most hands including the Captain of the boat, Capt Mulla. The Alize anti-submarine aircraft Akku was flying went missing, probably shot down by a Pakistan Air Force aircraft returning to Karachi after bombing Okhla port.

One report says that he was not shot down but crashed into the sea hitting an unusually high wave when he flew low to evade the Pakistani fighters. According to an account by a pilot of a Pakistani F-86 fighter aircraft, Akku wilfully dived into the sea rather than suffer the ignominy of being shot down by the enemy. Many in the Navy are still sore that Akku was sent without the protecting cover of our own fighters into an area frequented by Pakistani fighters.

In a slow-moving propeller-driven Alize Anti-Submarine aircraft, he did not have a chance against modern fighter planes. The news of the sinking of the ships in Chittagong harbour was widely covered by the international media and did a lot to raise the morale of the freedom fighters, having at the same time, an opposite effect on the Pakistanis. It also reduced the handling capacity of Chittagong Port, thereby affecting its warfighting potential.

This was by far, the most spectacular action undertaken by the freedom fighters and needs to be better known both in India and Bangladesh and if possible, Akku needs to be honoured posthumously for this action. My salaams to the memory of a brave Naval Officer who gave his life for the nation but is now, sadly forgotten. 

Post Script

Several months after the war had ended and the Indian Army had pulled out of Bangladesh, my Battalion 4 Guardswas still deployed in the Cox Bazaar area to prevent Pakistani troops from escaping to Burma along with Mizo hostiles.

Whilst there, I visited Chittagong and saw the hulls of the ships destroyed by Akku and the Mukti Bahini Naval Commandos, blocking the entrance to the harbour. In the port was also anchored INS Magar, our only troop-carrying ship, which gave me the opportunity to catch up with one of my coursemates from the Navy. Lt Cdr PB Chowdhry who was flying helicopters.

PB told me how Akku had been lost; at that time, he was officially still missing in action. In his time Akku was a legend in the Navy, and anyone who ever came into contact with him has a story to tell about him. During the time he spent inside East Pakistan he carried forged identity papers which declared him to be an employee of Burmah Shell, whose head office was in Dacca but the fuel storage depot and housing colony was in Chittagong.

The General Manager of Burmah Shell in East Pakistan was Mr Kashmullah, whom I got to know quite well after the war. His family were a nawabi family from Uttar Pradesh who had migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. He knew many prominent people in India including Nayantara Sahgal, the niece of Nehru.

In fact, he was so besotted with Nayantara that after a couple of drinks, he would entertain us by reciting Urdu couplets in her praise, which he had composed. On one occasion he even asked me if I could arrange to help him cross the border into India, something which of course I could not do.

His internment inside Bangladesh was spent in comparative comfort in the compound of the Burmah Shell housing estate and my friend Capt Rafiq ul Islam who was then the Mukti Bahini Sector Commander in Chittagong ensured that he was safe and not harmed or harassed and even had the freedom to move around and visit the Chittagong Club for his evening drinks which he loved.

Commissioned in 4 Guards, Major Chandrakant Singh, VrCis a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, where he was wounded and awarded the VrC for conspicuous gallantry and courage displayed throughout the war. Popularly called ‘Paunchy’ by his friends, he took premature retirement in 1977 and is now involved in writing and speaking on environmental and defence-related issues.

THE SOLEMN CEREMONY AT THE HUT OF REMEMBRANCE TO PAY HOMAGE TO OUR COURSE MATES AND ALL NDA MARTYRS WAS DEEPLY MOVING YET FILLED US ALL WITH A SENSE OF PRIDE. FOR MOST OF US IT WAS A PILGRIMAGE TO THE INSTITUTION WHICH MOULDED US AND GAVE US SO MUCH IN RETURN. FIFTY YEARS OF A LIFE LIVED WITH HONOUR AND DIGNITY!

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