It was early December 1971, and Bangladesh was inching towards independence as the Mukti Bahini fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Indian forces against the Pakistani military junta in a brutal war.
Gunboat Padma – helmed by Indian Commanding Officer Lt Suvesh Kumar Mitter and crewed by the joint forces – was prowling the river Pussar on December 8, making her way upstream to Khulna with a covert mission.
The crew onboard was planning to launch an attack on Khulna against the Pakistanis, which they believed would be instrumental in destabilizing these troops across the region. The Pakistanis already under attack from the land.
Gunboat Padma was not a lone wolf, she was accompanied by three other vessels in this mission.
Indian Navy officers Lt Cdr Jayanto Kumar Roy, Lt Cdr Noronha and Lt Cdr GD Mukherjee were commanding the Gunboat Palash, Indian Navy Ship Panvel and Chitrangada – a vessel requisitioned from the Border Security Force – respectively.
The men onboard knew Bangladesh was just days away from independence, and they were determined to play their part in changing the course of history.
Commander MNR Samant was onboard the INS Panvel, and he was one of the key architects of Operation X – a joint operation of eight escapees from a Pakistani submarine, divers and Bengali youths fleeing the genocide and Indian Navy officers that commenced in May 1971.
Once shrouded in mystery, details regarding this key operation came to light in a 2019 book titled "Operation X: The Untold Story of India's Covert Naval War in East Pakistan," co-authored by Commander Samant and India Today's Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan.
The book is also the first to document in vivid detail the bravery and sacrifice of the crew of Padma and Palash.
Into the fog of war
As part of Operation X, Padma and Palash began sabotaging Pakistani naval forces, cutting off logistics and supplies, and demoralizing the enemy since November 1971 through a series of daring raids under the call-sign Force Alfa.
The Indian Navy requisitioned Padma and Palash – both nearly 100 feet in length – from the then Calcutta Port in September the same year. The vessels were then refitted with two 40/60 mm Bofors guns each.
They were the products of months-long efforts undertaken by the Indian Navy, who also trained Mukti Bahini naval commandos, assault swimmers and divers. The vessels INS Panvel and BSF vessel Chitrangada later joined this force on early December.
When the four vessels reached Mongla on 10 December, Commander Samant ordered Chitrangada to stay behind, assist the local population, search for survivors and prisoners of war, and await the return of Force Alpha.
Padma, Palash and INS Panvel then continued on their way upstream in a single line towards the then East Pakistan's second largest naval base in Khulna. As the Force Alpha moved towards its destination, it was met by cheers from the local villagers.
As the vessels approached the railway bridge on River Rupsha, Pakistani military, paramilitary forces and razakars (Pakistani sympathizers) dug into bunkers along the western riverbank barely 200 feet away, and began firing on the ships.
This immediately triggered an intense exchange of fire.
Cruel twist of irony
Three Gnats – Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircrafts – were circling the skies above. In cruel twist of irony, when the fighter aircrafts took notice of the battle below, they mistook Commander Samant's men as the enemy.
Lt Mitter heard the sound of approaching jet engines, and poked his head out of the Padma's bridge. His face darkened as he saw the lead Gnat flip in and line up directly behind the gunboat.
In this very moment, the fate of Padma and Palash was sealed. Both vessels were shot and sunk by their own allies after they came under friendly fire. INS Pavel narrowly escaped the air strike, and returned to the site later to rescue any survivors of Force Alfa.
Mohammad Jalaluddin – a freedom fighter who was the gun captain of Padma – recounted his experience of the tragic incident while speaking to The Business Standard, saying, "I lost my companion Farid, who was loading ammunition to the cannons in the first round of the bombardment.
"Farid was a Radio Electrician of the navy. Soon our vessel caught fire and we decided to abandon the ship. Commanding Officer Lt Mitter injured his arm and had trouble swimming. So I attempted to carry him to shore, but he pushed me away and urged me to save my own life."
Several members of Force Alfa were martyred in the IAF's friendly fire. A number of personnel, including Lt Mitter, were captured by the Pakistani forces, and later released after Pakistan surrendered. Most survivors incurred serious injuries in the incident.
Despite widely considered as one of the largest covert navy operations in the history of maritime warfare, Operation X and the surviving members of Force Alfa quietly faded under the layers of history, just as quietly it came into existence.
Commander Samant and Sandeep Unnithan's book has shed light on this operation, and commended the Force Alpha for showing a remarkable feat of perseverance and courage using limited sources.
Operation X played a major role in supporting Bangladesh's struggle for independence, and both nations fondly remember the bravery and sacrifice of the Alpha Force till this very day.
Commander Samant was made the first temporary chief of staff of the Bangladesh Navy under Col MAG Osmani in 1971 following Bangladesh's independence. He was succeeded by Nurul Huq in April 1972.
Along with his co-author, Commander Samant dedicated their book "To the people of Bangladesh, who fought and won a heroic battle against extinction. The inheritors of Sonar Bangla, the land of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's dreams."