“Operation Jackpot brought us three steps closer to liberation”
On March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stood at the Ramna Race Course and faced a gathering of over 10 lakh people. The tensions between East and West Pakistan were fast simmering. Bangabandhu's speech was a ray of hope for our people. His historic speech did not just motivate and inspire the people in Bangladesh to take up arms and fight for their nation; the speech crossed multiple borders to reach the ears of submariner AW Chowdhury living in Toulon, France, and indirectly resulted in the turning of the wheels which led to the formation and successful execution of Operation Jackpot.
In the year 1971, AW Chowdhury was serving in the Pakistani submarine PNS Mangro (S133) then stationed in Toulon, France. The speech had moved him to a great degree and he became unhappy being so far away from all his people. At first, he carried on with his job in France with a deep pit in his heart that ached to be back home. In the meantime, the non-cooperation movement was going on in Dhaka.
"Every day I listened to my one band transistor and tried to understand what was happening back in my country. On March 25, 1971, the crackdown happened. I could not live happily in France after this. My heart went out to the people of my country. I was a person in the navy; a military personnel. I needed to provide my services to the people in my country. I was fully aware of the lack of military personnel and expertise in Bangladesh as well. In the early morning of March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared independence. I read the news about independence in the Le Monde newspaper. I was on the deck of the submarine when I read the news. My mind was immediately set on returning to my country."
Submariner AW Chowdhury's zeal was the only thing that pushed him forward from then on. He did not have any solid plan. All he knew was, he wanted to be a part of the Liberation War. So, the first line of action was to find a way to return to Bangladesh.
He knew this was not going to be an easy feat. He began by gathering nine other trustworthy crew members who were Bengali, to accompany and assist him on this mission. Then came the hard part of planning the defection. A South African friend of Chowdhury's advised him to go to the nearest neutral country and seek political asylum there. The nearest neutral country was Switzerland.
A plan was hatched. Since Chowdhury was a key person in the submarine, he had access to everyone's passports. On March 29, 1971, he led nine submariners on a journey to their home country.
"After sunset, we individually left our rooms in order to not raise suspicion. The plan was to go to Geneva through Marseille. But, we did not board the train immediately to deceive the Pakistani authority in France. In case someone was tracking us, boarding a train would make it much easier to trace us since trains have a list of the passengers. Instead, we went to Marseille by taxi and bus and then boarded a train there. We were at Marseille in an hour and immediately boarded the train to Geneva."
Alas, the plan did not quite pan out as expected. Firstly, out of the nine guys, one of them left to go to London to his family. So, now there were eight of them. Secondly, none of the crewmates had visas to enter Switzerland and they were stopped. The immigration officers would have contacted the Pakistanis but Chowdhury's quick thinking saved them. He told an immigration officer that they would return to Paris to get their visas and boarded the next train to Paris. But, instead of getting off at Paris, all of them got off at the very next station which was at Lyon. This was done to cover up their tracks.
At Lyon, Chowdhury quickly consulted a local travel agent to find out the nearest neutral country they could all go to which did not require a visa. The answer was Barcelona, Spain. That very evening, they boarded another train and reached Barcelona. Their next step was contacting the Indian Embassy and seeking help from them to reach Bangladesh through India.
They contacted Sri Bedi, the Charges de Affairs of the Indian High Commission and were soon provided political asylum under the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. On April 10, 1971, after a tumultuous and uncertain journey, they were finally on a plane to Bombay, India. But, the plane journey itself proved to be chaotic as well. The flight to India had a stopover of about 10 hours at Rome and at the Rome airport, Submariner's Chowdhury's team encountered Pakistani officers. It became a matter of concern because Italy had a good relationship with Pakistan. To deflect any trouble that may arise in the stopover, the crew changed their routes and went to Geneva first. From there, within an hour, they boarded a flight to Bombay and then finally to Delhi.
"After reaching Delhi safely, the Indians asked us what our plan was. We did not really have a plan besides the fact that we wanted to be a part of the liberation of Bangladesh," shared AW Chowdhury.
Along with Chowdhury, the eight crew members were secretly given extensive training. Chowdhury disclosed to us that initially, the plan was to only use them to execute Operation Jackpot. But they later realised that if all nine of them lost their lives, Bangladesh would lose its naval experts. These people were the very first of the nascent Bangladesh navy. So, on May 21, 1971, at a camp in Plassey, they started to train 500 people and Chowdhury's crew became instructors under the Indian naval authority.
Meanwhile, the Operation Jackpot was incepted. The mission was to block the four ports and stop the logistics supply for Pakistan.
After three months of training, Chowdhury was chosen to lead a team to Chattogram port which was the most important port. He led a group of 60 commandos to this Chattogram operation. All these men who had been training for months had become naval commandos at that point.
Secrecy was maintained at every level of the operation. No one was aware of the full details.
Within Chowdhury's group, the only thing they knew was that the Karnaphuli River of Chattogram was their area of operation. On August 11, 1971, they started their walk towards the mission location.
An interesting detail of the operation were its commence signals. On August 13, 1971, at 6 o'clock in the morning, the song "Ami Tomai Shuniyechilem Joto Gaan" by Pankaj Mullic came on the transistor that Chowdhury always carried. This was the first signal. The song was played again at 6pm that day. Next day at 6 am, the song "Amar Putul Ajke Prothom Jabe Shoshur Bari" came on. This was the second signal for commencement of the operation. The song was again played at the evening.
"We began moving secretly through Chattogram. The importance of maintaining the timing cannot be overstated. One wrong move and we could all lose our lives. To carry out the operation we crossed the Karnaphuli River and went to the other side to the Sadarghat area. I was the one carrying all the detonators inside a plastic bag. It was risky but someone had to carry them."
Submariner Chowdhury further proudly added how none of the naval commandos hesitated throughout the operation. All of them were ready to do what was needed.
It was decided that their target for the mission was 11 ships. 33 commandos would be in the water and they prepared 33 mines; three for each ship.
To this day, Chowdhury has a clear memory of the details of the night of August 14, 1971. The devices were set just a minute before the clock struck midnight.
"It took us about five to six minutes to swim to our targets. Throughout the day it was drizzling. After reaching the targets, we took out our daggers and started digging six feet below the waterline to ensure that the limpet mine could stick to it. After that, we took out the pin. We had 30 minutes to return to safety but on our way back Pak army fired at us. The bullet passed right past my ears but fortunately it did not hit me. For an instant, my mother's face flashed in front of me in the middle of the Karnaphuli River."
Fortunately, all the naval commandos under AW Chowdhury safely reached shelter after which they continued running east till morning.
The news of the detonation reached them in the morning. The Pakistani news reported that some terrorist group had sunk nine ships in the Chattogram port and the port was now closed. The operation had successfully disrupted the arms and ammunition supply line of the Pakistanis. It cut the lifeline of the Pakistan Army.
"All of our lives could have been lost anytime. We were making a brave journey and to this day, I wonder where our strength came from. Operation Jackpot brought us three steps closer to liberation."