The Annexation of Goa
17th to 19th December 1961
by Nick Brazil
Goa - A part of metropolitan Portugal
These days, the vast majority of tourists who visit the Indian State of Goa, remain unaware that for 450 years this was considered to be a part of metropolitan Portugal. In 1510 a Portuguese expeditionary force defeated the local Sultan Yusuf Adil Shah and set up a small colony they called Velha Goa.
They and their descendants would remain there for the next four and a half centuries as a little bit of Portugal in the Indian subcontinent. They would intermarry with the locals who took Portuguese names, embed their dishes in the local culinary culture and make Catholicism the predominant religion via missionaries. For most of that time, Goa was unassailably Portuguese.
Goa’s relationship with its British Colonial neighbour was “live and let live”. After all, Britain was considered to be her oldest ally following Wellington’s expulsion of the Napoleonic forces from mainland Portugal in the early nineteenth century. Even during The Second World War when Portugal was neutral under a fascist dictatorship, this status quo remained. A neutral neighbour during a conflict provided a useful unofficial conduit with one’s enemy as the case of Ireland had shown.
Then in 1947 everything began to change. With Indian Independence, Goa’s relatively benign British neighbour was replaced by a much more assertive and less friendly one. Since 1928, there had been a small anti-Portuguese independence movement. This was founded and led by Tristao Braganza Cunha a Goan engineer who had been partly educated in France. It had been largely low key under the portly and bespectacled Cunha who ran it from exile in Bombay
However, after the war, the resistance became more active and violent. Armed groups such as the Azad Gomantak Dal (Free Goa Party) and United Party of Goans made cross border raids from where they were based in India. Their targets were Goa’s telephone, road, rail and water networks. Nehru’s government gave active material and financial support to these groups.
In 1950, the Indian Government attempted to negotiate the future of Portuguese territories in India with the Government in Lisbon but hit a brick wall. As far as the Portuguese were concerned, their territories in the subcontinent had been founded hundreds of years before independent India so they were not colonies but as much part of metropolitan Portugal as Lisbon or Oporto. All further communications on the subject were blocked. Faced with such intransigence, the Indian Government closed their diplomatic mission in Lisbon effectively placing relations between the two countries in aspic.
Portuguese territory in India was not solely confined to Goa. There were also a number of Portuguese exclaves and enclaves up the coast known as Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli. In 1954 the Indian Government turned the diplomatic screw on Portugal by introducing travel restrictions between India and these Portuguese territories. This served to rupture normal trade and communications between Goa and the Portuguese territories. For good measure, India extended sanctions to the whole of Portugal. Further pressure was applied by the Indian dock working unions who refused to work on any ships bound to or from Portuguese India.
Is time up for the Portuguese?
However, the biggest blow to Portugal occurred in the summer of 1954. Between 22nd July and 11th August armed activists including groups such as Azad Gomantak Dal and the Indian Communist Party successfully invaded Dada and Nagar Haveli forcing the local police to surrender. This action must have shown the Portuguese regime that its time in India was nearly up. However, the Salazar Regime in Lisbon refused to read this writing on the wall.
As is so often the case with dictatorships, instead of bowing to the inevitable and negotiating a dignified exit it responded with defiant violence. When approximately 5000 unarmed protestors mounted a peaceful “trespass” of Goa at various points, the Portuguese forces opened fire with live ammunition killing between 21 and 30 of the demonstrators. This tragic incident greatly hardened Indian attitudes against Portuguese colonial rule on the subcontinent and set the clock ticking for her expulsion from India. However, it would be another seven years before the Portuguese presence in India was finally brought to an end.
Fight to the last man...
The fact that it took military force and some consequent loss of blood to achieve was down to the character of the hardline Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. Whilst he was not a tub-thumping populist like other dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini, Salazar had a firm belief that the Portuguese empire should last forever. To ensure this, he believed Portugal should fight to the last man. This was, in fact, the term he used when Portuguese Defence Minister General Júlio Botelho Moniz approached him on the subject of Goa in 1960.
He explained to Salazar that holding onto Goa and other overseas territories would be “a suicide mission in which we could not succeed”. Salazar’s response was to order the Governor General of Goa that his forces should fight to the last man defending the territory. “Our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead,” he concluded. By the time Portugal came into conflict with India over Goa in the 1950s, he had been in power for over twenty years. No doubt, he felt somewhat disdainful of an “upstart” like Nehru threatening him.
Portuguese in Angola
By late 1960, Portugal was facing the prospect of fighting wars to defend its colonies not only in India but also Africa. The most threatening of these was in Angola where a budding insurrection was already threatening to become a full-scale bush war against well-armed and motivated guerillas. This had the effect of drawing away troops from less important candidates for defence of the Empire to fight in Africa. As a result, the garrison in Goa was reduced from 7,500 men to 3,300. It seemed that Portugal’s military leaders had already faced up to the hard truth that Goa was impossible to hold against the vastly stronger Indian forces.
The invasion of Goa
They were right. On 11th December 1961 Goa was invaded under the codename Operation Vijay (Victory) by the first units of Indian Forces consisting in total of 45,000 ground troops, 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, 1 destroyer, 8 frigates and 4 minesweepers. Air cover was provided by 20 Canberra bombers and a mixture of other aircraft consisting mainly of fighters. Against this overwhelming force the Portuguese had 3,995 men only a proportion of whom were trained to fight, 1 frigate and 3 in shore patrol boats. They had no aircraft whatsoever.
Indian Forces swept into the north of the territory, but met with no opposition. In fact, it did not become a shooting war until a quarter to ten on 17th December when Indian forces attacked and took the town of Maulinguém. It was here that the first two Portuguese troops were killed. At 4:00 pm the Indians opened up on the Portuguese lines to the south of the town with their artillery. This was combined with a ground attack. There was a reason for this since they had intelligence that the Portuguese had heavy battle tanks positioned there. That was false intelligence, there were no tanks there.
Indian Air Force Canberras in action
Meanwhile, twelve Indian Air Force Canberra bombers dropped 63,000 lbs of bombs on the runway of Goa’s only airport at Dalbolim severely damaging the runway but no other facilities. A second raid by eight Canberras also damaged the runway. Considering the collateral damage that often occurred in the days before precision bombing, the fact these two raids did not kill anyone or cause any accidental damage says much for the skill of the Indian crews of the Canberras. However, this action courted controversy since the airport had no strategic value and was considered by many to be a civilian target.
Two important items that escaped unscathed from these raids were a Super Constellation airliner belonging to the Portuguese airline TAP and a Douglas DC4 belonging to a local airline. Both of these aircraft made hair raising short take offs using the 700 metres of the runway that remained usable after the raids. Despite sustaining fuselage and undercarriage damage in its take off, the TAP Super Constellation made it to safety in Pakistan flying extremely low in the darkness to successfully evade Indian air patrols. The DC4 also escaped but without damage. These two flights were undoubtedly very skillful and heroic acts of airmanship under extremely hazardous conditions.
Take up defensive positions
In the only other ground to air action of this little war, Hawker Hunters of the IAF destroyed the only Portuguese radar station. As a result of this, the Portuguese were now effectively blind as far as radar was concerned. The Portuguese Navy ship Alfonso de Albuquerque was ordered to take up defensive battle stations off the coast of the small port of Mormugao Harbour. Her job was also to provide radio communications that had been lost in the air raid on the radio station. It was from that position she would fire her very first and very last shots ever in anger.
The Alphonso invited to surrender
At nine o’clock on the morning of December 18th, three Indian Navy frigates arrived at the entrance to Mormugao Harbour. Once there, they awaited orders to attack and take the port and capture the Alfonso. For two hours nothing happened. The tension must have been acute for both sides. At eleven o’clock Indian Air force bombers streaked across the horizon and over the port releasing their deadly cargo of bombs. Still the Indian frigates made no move. Then at twelve o’clock two of the vessels entered the harbour firing their 4.5 inch guns at the Alfonso. She returned fire with her 120mm guns whilst moving towards the Indian frigates and into the open sea.
During this time, the Indians sent out invitations for the Alfonso to surrender in morse code. These offers were ignored. Outgunned by the Indian navy frigates, the Alfonso took several serious hits, one of which damaged her engines. Another hit the control tower injuring the weaponry officer and the ship’s commodore. A shrapnel shell fired from one of the Indian ships, exploded overhead killing her radio operator. At 12:30 in the afternoon, the Alfonso was beached and, having fired four hundred rounds at the Indian Navy frigates, was abandoned by her crew under heavy fire. Her injured commander and the remainder of the crew abandoned ship shortly after one o’clock having set fire to her first. The Alfonso had fought and acquitted herself with honour in her only wartime action. Her crew eventually surrendered the following day. The Alfonso would eventually end her days in a Bombay scrapyard.
On the afternoon of 18th December, the Indian Navy attacked Andjiv Island. This was a small largely uninhabited island belonging to Goa off the coast of the Indian State of Karnataka. It had a garrison of Goan forces of the Portuguese army. Indian marines were put ashore under covering fire from two Indian warships. However, the landing party met much stiffer fire from the defenders than they expected. After seven of their number were killed and nineteen injured, they were forced to retreat. It was only after heavy bombardment that the Portuguese force in the fort finally surrendered.
The Governor General surrenders
As night fell on 18th December, with most of Goa in Indian hands, three thousand Portuguese troops gathered at the city of Vasco da Gama to make a last stand. They had been ordered to fight to the death by the Portuguese President, Antonio Salazar back in Lisbon. Moreover, he demanded a scorched earth policy to deny Goa to the Indian invaders.
Fortunately, the territory’s Governor General Manuel António Vassalo e Silva realised the bloody futility of such an action and disobeyed these orders. At eight thirty in the evening of 19th December 1961 the Portuguese Governor General surrendered to the Indian Forces bringing 451 years of the Portuguese presence in India to an end.
On return to Portugal Vassalo e Silva was reviled as a coward and traitor. After being Court Martialled he was thrown out of the army and exiled. However, his action in surrendering, prevented many lives from being needlessly sacrificed. In 1974, when democracy replaced dictatorship in Portugal, he was fully rehabilitated. His military rank was restored and he was allowed back from exile. In a final vindication of his controversial surrender, he made an official visit to Goa where the locals gave him a hero’s welcome.
All wars no matter how small, carry fatal consequences. The two day war in Goa cost the lives of thirty Portuguese Goan forces and twenty-two Indians. For those killed in action, no war is ever a small war.
This article is an extract from Nick’s next book on forgotten wars. Further details to follow.
© Nick Brazil 2022
About The Author
Nick's latest Book
Copyright © 2019 bmmhs.org – All Rights Reserved
Images © Nick Brazil