The Battle of Chushul was a saga of unprecedented courage, valour and supreme sacrifice. Never before had so many officers and Jawans (114 out of 120) laid down their lives in one battle. Colonel N N Bhatia writes on the battle in detail – along with some rare photographs of the aftermath
The rivalry for the leadership of the Afro-Asian countries between India and China and disputed international border were the main pretext for China to launch 1962 War. But the other issues also played their roles. The perceived Indian role in Tibet to undermine Chinese control was not appreciated by the Chinese and granting asylum to the Dalai Lama after the uprising in Tibet annoyed them immensely. There had been a series of violent border incidents. As part of the forward policy, India had placed many outposts along the border, including several on the MacMohan Line that Chinese did not recognize as the international border. They claimed many disputed areas along the border existed and occasionally carried intrusions across the entire border for reconnaissance. In August 1959 Indian border post at Longju in NEFA was seized while in Ladakh Chinese established a camp near Spanggur and arrested Indian police patrol with in Indian territory. On 21 October 1959 in a skirmish near the Konga pass nearly 80 km inside the Indian territory, 9 policemen were killed and 7 captured by the Chinese. Since the Chinese were always interested in Chushul and Walong, not only their skirmishes increased in these areas but they also constructed good network of roads in the border region right up to Spanggur Gap in the Western sector and Indian Border Post in Walong in the eastern sector. Sadly, unlike the Sun Tzu’s quotation on top of this article, while the Chinese had enough strategic and tactical intelligence about us, we had none and fought in dark like blind men with tied hands.
The Chinese strategic aim in 1962 conflict was to ensure heights both in the Aksai Chin and the Lohit Valley across the watershed overlooking their positions were captured and India was militarily defeated so that they could overlook Indian territory across the border and assume the undisputed leadership of the Afro-Asian countries.
We cannot reverse history, but no self respecting Indian soldier or citizen would like to ever remember the ignominy of the rout of the Indian Army in 1962 Sino- Indian War. There was nothing to cheer or feel proud of total unprofessional defeat, except the sympathies for the families of fallen soldiers whose lives could perhaps be saved with adequate and appropriate modern equipment, training coupled with apt diplomacy, political will and military leadership then found missing. In that utter chaos, the two Battalions of the Kumaon Regiment namely the 6 Kumaon and the 13 Kumaon fought savagely against the Chinese hordes with indomitable spirit of their regimental officers and men. The courage of the Kumaonis, now a part of the folklore in their villages against the overwhelming disaster has been the only grace for the disgraced Indian Army. Though the country lost the war that was thrust upon the army, these two Battalions deployed at the two extremes ends of 3500 km long disputed border, won their honours respectively at Rezang La and Walong against heavy odds and huge sacrifices in an otherwise catastrophic national shame.
13 KUMAON’s ‘Battle of Rezang La’
Brief Description on Ahirs
Ahir and Yadav are synonymous and the same side of the coin residing throughout the country especially in Haryana and call themselves Somavanshi Kshatriyas. The Yadav contribution to the composite kaleidoscopic culture of India is immense especially most of all in ‘The Krishna Cult’. They form one composite group and are an important community of Haryana. Most of them live in the region around Rewari and Narnaul which is known as Ahirwal or the abode of the Ahirs. Rao Tula Ram was one of the most important Ahir leaders of the 1857 War of Independence. In the Indo-China War of 1962, almost all the Ahirs hailing from the Ahirwal region of Southern Haryana serving in 13 KUMAON set an unparallel example in the military history of India by defending their motherland at frozen windy heights of Rezang La with a missionary zeal. Many Ahirs excelled in Kargil war and insurgencies in Punjab, J&K and the Northeast. Havildar Umrao Singh of Palra village in Jhajjar (Rohtak) was the only Ahir and a gunner, who was awarded Victoria Cross in Arakans during Burma Campaign in the Second World War. Yadavs are good sportsmen and their new found passion is boxing. Besides 13 KUMAON, many brave Ahir soldiers from Haryana and other parts of the country have made their mark in the various wars fought by the Indian Army and won gallantry medals. Among them are Brig RS Yadav, MVC, Commodore BB Yadav, MVC, and Leading Seaman CS Yadav, MVC. Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav born in Aurangabad village in Bulandshahr (Uttar Pradesh) of 18 Grenadiers was the first Ahir and the youngest recipient of the PVC in the Kargil War. Incidentally, his father served in the Kumaon Regiment and took part in 1965 and 1971 India – Pak Wars. 13 Kumaon again created history by routing Pakistani 1 PUNJAB plus a Company of 10 PUNJAB in a multi-directional day light attack with almost no artillery support in Longewala desert in the Rajasthan sector. On 26 Sep 1994, Sub Sujjan Singh won Country’s highest peace time military gallantry award of Ashok Chakra while fighting Pakistani sponsored militants in Kupwara district posthumously. 13 KUMAON is the rarest of rare Battalion that has won the Param Vir Cakra and the Ashok Chakra in its short checkered history.
Prelude To Operation
13 Kumaon was raised on 5 August 1948 at Kanpur by Lt Col HC Taylor with class composition of 50 percent each of Ahirs and Kumaonis. During the 1956 Reunion, Lt Col NS Krishna, the then Commanding Officer accepted the proposal of the Colonel of the Regiment, General KS Thimayya that the Regiment must have a 100% Ahir Battalion.It was decided to make 13 th as the first pure Ahir Battalion by transferring its Kumaonis to 2 Kumaon and 6 Kumaon who reciprocally sent their Ahirs to 13 Kumaon. This process was completed by March 1960.
Since its raising the Battalion had seen no active operations except to serve in Jammu &Kashmir. Col Krishna volunteered to serve in Naga Hills, as Naga Land was then known. The Naga hostilities were at their prime at that time. The Battalion was put through tough regime of counter insurgency operations and did extremely well by capturing maximum weapons, many self styled senior officers and destroying the headquarters of notorious Kito Sema, the so called self styled Commander in Chief of the hostile underground Naga Army. The tenure in Naga Hills and able leadership led to the “seasoning” of all ranks and prepared them for the impending Battle of Rezang La. Incidentally, during this time only 6 Kumaon also was operating in the Naga Hills and second in command of 13 Kumaon, Major CN Madiah eventually was posted to be its commanding officer during 1962 War and the Battalion excelled in the Battle of Walong.
The ‘choras’ as Ahirs are affectionately called, excel in sports and both individual and collective training. I joined Indian Military Academy (IMA) in June 1962 and I did not know much about 13 Kumaon. I was commissioned a year later and by then from a battalion, 13 Kumaon had become ‘The well known Battalion’ of the Indian Army for its heroics that became folklores of Haryana, northern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh. The one night battle on 18 Nov 1962 made 13 Kumaon one of the most hardened, die hard, battle worthy, respected ,honoured and decorated battalions of the Indian Army. This battle has been compared by many military historians with the famed battles of Thermopylae fought between Greek and Persian empires in 480 BC and the incredible Saragarhi fought on 12 September 1897 in the North-West Frontier Province Battle by the 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment (currently the 4th Battalion, the Sikh Regiment) who gave up their lives in devotion to their duty fighting over 10,000 tribals. Both these battles are listed ion the eight stories of collective bravery published by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Like wise the ill clad and ill equipped but hardy Ahirs of the Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon led by undaunted leadership of Major Shaitan Singh ferociously fought in blood freezing minus 30 degree temperature till there was nothing left in manpower and equipment.
Strategic Importance Of Chushul
Running north to south, 40 km long and 5.6 km at its widest, Chushul is a narrow, sparsely populated, barren sandy valley across the water shed at altitude of 14,230 feet with towering mountains, high passes, where only the best of friends or worst of enemies may desire to meet. It is virtually close to the Chinese border. It is bounded in north by deep 160 km long clear salt water Pangong Tso (lake) running parallel to Indus River, the east and west by higher ranges rising over 19,000 feet and all weather airfield in the south. Pangaso changes colour with the phases of sun and moon. The Spanggur Gap is the opening in the eastern side that leads to the Spanggur Tso (lake). Like the Pangong Tso, it extends well into Chinese territory. Before the war commenced, the Chinese had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Gap capable of carrying tanks. Chushul could be approached from Leh by going over the Chang La pass skirting the Pangkong Lake, while another route crossed the Chang La pass and took a deep turn to the east. For all Indian out posts in this sector from Daulat Beg Oldi to Damchok, Chushul was the nodal rallying point. Loss of Chushul as such would not have jeopardized defence of Ladakh region, but in those days its importance caught up with Indian psyche and pride. The terrain and climatic conditions favoured the Chinese and they made most of these in 1962 operations.
In the early sixties the Hindi- Chini Bhai Bhai and Panch Sheel era was crumbling and war clouds started gathering due to deteriorating relations between India and China, 13 Kumaon was moved from its peace location Ambala to Baramula in June 1962 and got involved it self in high altitude collective training that made it battle worthy for the unexpected impending operations. The Battalion by 2 October 1962 had moved to Leh on the orbat of 114 Infantry Brigade. The formation had then just two infantry battalions and was scheduled to move to Chushul in March 1963.There were no intelligence inputs of any Chinese build up opposite this sector. But the events moved quickly and the Chinese threat was perceived in Chushul valley that had an all weather landing ground. 3 Infantry Division was hurriedly raised under Maj Gen Budh Singh, MC. On 13 Oct B and C Companies of 13 Kumaon were quickly moved to Chushul and rushed to Mugger Hill and Rezang La feature located 30 km south –east of Chushul. The Battalion reached Chushul on 24 Oct and D Company occupied the Spanngur Gap. The Battalion Headquarters was located in High Ground with A company as Brigade reserve. On 26 Oct the Tactical Headquarters of 114 Infantry Brigade under Brig (later General and COAS) TN Raina arrived in Chushul. Tactical features known as Gurung Hill, Gun Hill and the Spanggur Gap were held by 1/8 GR with Battalion Headquarters and adhoc Company at the airfield. The flank of 13 Kumaon towards strategic un-mettled Chushul- Leh road at Tsakla was manned by Company less a platoon with section 3 inch Mortar of 5 Jat while rest of the Battalion was deployed at Lukung. 1Jat (LI) was deployed in Thakung Heights, north of Chushul. The RCL guns of the infantry battalions less 1 Jat (LI) were brigaded and located in the Spanggur Gap. Two troops ex B Squadron 20 Lancers (6 AMX-13 tanks), a battery of 13 Field Regiment, a troop of 32 Heavy Mortar Regiment, 1 Jat (LI)less a Company and a Company of 1 Mahar (MMG) joined as meager reinforcements. The AMX tanks in the mountainous terrain were not very effective and the artillery resources not only meager but mostly crested but they played a major role in destroying and destabilizing the enemy in Spanggur Gap.
Routes of Ingress (Approaches) To Chushul
To capture Chushul, the following appreciated approaches were available to the Chinese:-
(a) Khurnak Fort- Dungra Ford- Yula- Thakung-Lukung- Darbuk – Leh. It was difficult circuitous route on a mountainous track where battalion worth with support of animal transport (AT) could only move.
(b) Rudok- Shinghang- Chushul. Maintained by class 9 road that could sustain divisional strength thrust.
(c) Rudok-Rezang La-Chushul. It was comparatively shorter approach that had road developed up to Spanggur Gap that could sustain force more than (a) but less than (b) given above. Tasks Allotted to 114 Infantry Brigade
(a) To defend Chushul for as long as possible and to withdraw only when continuation of the battle would annihilate or turn the round into rout.
(b) To inflict maximum causalities on the enemy.
(c) To save as much stores and equipment as possible.
Needless to say, the tasking of 114 Infantry Brigade was rather ambitious with the paucity of troops, fire power and wide gaps in the defended localities.
Deployment of 13 Kumaon
(a) B and D Companies less a platoon plus Section 3 inch Mortar under overall command of Major RV Jatar-Mugger Hill.
(b) C Company plus Section 3 inch Mortar under Major Shaitan Singh- Rezang La about 30 km south of Chushul.
(c) A Company plus four recoil less (RCL) guns as Brigade reserve under Major GN Sinha, poised for counter attack with Battalion Headquarters at High Ground under Commanding Officer Lt Col HS Dhingra.
A Word about Rezang La and War Preparations
Rezang La is a pass on the south-eastern approach to Chushul valley. The feature is roughly 3 km long and nearly 2 km wide at an average altitude of 16000 feet above the sea level. Digging defences in the rocky boulders, due to paucity of oxygen was extremely tiring both mentally and physically due to lack of mechanical digging equipment, oxygen and bitter cold. Walking a few paces made men breathless as they were not yet acclimatized to the high altitude. The first few nights were the most uncomfortable ones as local ponies and yaks had not fetched woolen clothing, sleeping bags and rations. It took hours to boil kettle of water and fruits and fresh rations were frozen hard like cricket balls. Rezang La had another serious flaw. The
High crests of mountain-tops interfered with the flight of artillery shells and adversely affected artillery fire, thus, denying Rezang La the much needed fire support. War preparations were being made on hectic scales by both sides. But the under strength Indian defenders had no artillery support, were equipped with poor antiquated .303 single shot bolt action rifles of the World War II vintage, paucity of woolen clothing, automated digging tools and old 62 radio sets that did not communicate due to frozen batteries, where as the Chinese had 7.62 self loading rifles (SLRs) and acclimatized troops. They had enough, ammunition, rations, heavy engineering equipment, vehicles, artillery and tanks could come right up to the Spanggur Gap as they had built a road up to their terminal post. During nights their boats were observed plying with men and war like stores in Spanggur Lake. Our observation posts regularly observed hectic Chinese build-up and their commanders spreading their maps and carrying out reconnaissance. Chinese troops also being locals from Singkiang region were hardened to the existing climatic and terrain conditions whereas many of the Ahirs hailing from the plains of the north India were deployed in high altitude environment for the very first time in their service.
Major Shaitan Singh deployed C Company over 2 km frontage on the massive 5 km long Rezang La feature as under:-
- 7 Platoon under Jemadar Surja 3 Km north of the pass on forward slopes.
- 8 Platoon under Jemadar Hari Ram in pass area.
- 9 Platoon under Jemadar Ram Chander 1 km south of 7 Platoon position.
- Company Headquarters behind 9 Platoon along with section of 3 inch Mortar under Naik Ram Kumar Yadav 150 meters west of Company Headquarters.
There was little time to stock, mines and prepare defences adequately. As per national policy, no patrolling along the international border was permitted and as per battle routine regularly during day light OPs (Observation Posts) and in the night LPs (Listening Posts) were sent to provide early warning, Due to wide frontages, there was no mutual support with in the sub-units, not many mines could be laid and as highlighted earlier, the artillery fire across Rezang La was totally crested. Thus, Rezang La had no artillery support and paucity of anti personal mines to halt the advancing enemy. In spite of all these inadequacies, the Battalion Operation Order issued on 24 October tasked all sub-units to fight to ‘the last man and the last round’. To cover the numerous gullies which were expected approaches for the enemy to attack, three additional light machine guns (LMGs) were provided to C Company. The defences were wired and stocked with six first line scales of ammunition along with 1000 bombs for the 3 inch Mortar Section.
The Battle of Rezang La
On night 17-18 November around 2200 hrs, a heavy snow storm was leashed in the battle zone for nearly two hours. After the snow storm, visibility improved to 600 meters. At 0200 hrs, LP ahead of 8 Platoon observed a large body of Chinese soldiers swarming through the gullies at a distance of about 700-800 meters moving from the pass. Lance Naik Brij Lal the LP commander ran back to Platoon Headquarters to in inform this unusual development. He, with his Section Commander Hukam Chand and one LMG were rushed as reinforcement to the post. By then the Chinese had advanced with in firing range of small arms from the post. The LP fired a pre-determined red Verey Light signal along with long bursts of LMG fire, warning the C Company to ‘stand to’ in their dug out positions. Similarly, 7 Platoon’s LP on the forward slopes also saw Chinese forming up and the entire C Company was alerted. Maj Shaitan Singh immediately contacted his sub-unit commanders on the radio communication who confirmed that all ranks were ready in their battle positions. Since the paucity of troops had caused wide gaps in 7 and 9 Platoon localities, he also ordered 9 Platoon to send a patrol to ascertain the situation. The patrol confirmed massive Chinese build up had taken place through the gullies. Though, the Chinese had brought their assaulting troops to their forward assembly areas under the cover of inclement weather, their intensions to shock the defenders with silent surprise attack had failed miserably in all aspects.
All ranks of the Charlie Company with their fingers on triggers, waited patiently for the impending major frontal attack on their positions around first light with improving visibility. Around 0500 hrs, the first wave of the Chinese were spotted through their personal weapon sights by every Ahir manning the defences and hail of LMGs, MMGs and mortars fire greeted the enemy. Scores of the enemy died, many were wounded but rest duly reinforced continued to advance. Soon all the gullies leading to Rezang La were full of Chinese corpses. Constant wave after wave of the Chinese launched four more attacks that were beaten back that dwindled defenders strength and ammunition as many Ahirs fell fighting. As the fifth attack was launched, Naik Chandgi Ram, a wrestler of repute led his comrades with bayonet charge killing 6-7 Chinese single handedly till he fell to martyrdom. There were some skirmishes with the Chinese patrols that too were beaten back but one such patrol had severed the telephone line leading to the Battalion Headquarters. By about 0545 hrs, the Chinese frontal attack was beaten back and failed.
By now, the Chinese realized Rezang La was not a cake walk and changed their operational plan. Rezang La was resorted to heavy artillery shelling and to destroy field fortifications they used concentrated fire of 75 mm recoilless (RCL) guns brought on wheel barrows from the flanks. The deep craters near the Company Command Post (CP) indicated use of 132 mm rockets. The Chinese shelling was a spectacular display of fire power against defenders who had no artillery support and no bunker on the Rezang La feature, re-visited after 3 months in February 1963, was seen could bear the preponderance of enemy’s devastating artillery fire.
The Chinese started regrouping for a long detour over 7 Platoon positions that had no survivors. A little distance away Naik Sahi Ram the only survivor detached from his platoon waited for the enemy to assemble and let them have it with accurate LMG fire. The Chinese dispersed and Sahi Ram waited for the next wave that came with RCL guns and blasted his lone firing position. Major Shaitan Singh re grouped his dwindling assets to charge the advancing Chinese. Since all the platoon positions had been overrun with no survivors, the enemy was re-grouping to assault the C Company Headquarters after heavy pounding. While moving from one gun position to other, motivating his depleted command, Major Shaitan Singh was hit by the enemy LMG fire on his arm but undaunted he kept motivating, regrouping and reorganizing his handful men and weapons. His Company Havildar Major (CHM) Harphool Singh kept persuading him to move to safer place with few survivors who could walk .Ahir guns kept firing till silenced but camouflaged sniping enemy MMG covering the flank fired long bursts killing many. Maj Shaitan Singh was hit again severely in the abdomen. Grievously injured and bleeding profusely he was pulled by Phool Singh and Jai Narain to safer place behind a boulder and bandaged his wounds. Since there was no line or radio communication, he ordered Phool Singh and Jainarain to leave him and rush to the Battalion Headquarters and froze to martyrdom in the night. In the Spanggur Gap, 1/8 GR fought bravely with artillery support by Lt Goswami and troops of tanks commanded by 2 Lt Baswani firing and destroying the enemy. While the Chinese kept swarming to capture Gurung Hill, held by the company of 1/8 GR under command Capt PL Kher, Goswami to give closest support, ordered to fire on his own observation post (OP) position that killed 3 other ranks and severely wounding Goswami whose frost bitten legs had to be amputated later. He was decorated with well deserved Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) for his heroics.
Harphool Singh led 3 survivors to fight and stop enemy’s onslaught till martyred. Ram Kumar’s 3 inch Mortar Section having coughed all its ammunition was ordered to be disabled and fire plans and maps destroyed less they fell in the Chinese hands. As Ram Kumar was disabling his mortars, he was hit by rifle fire from the Chinese 20 yards away. Though wounded, he took position in his command post and as the Chinese peeped in, he pumped bullets with his bolt action .303 rifle and killed many of them. The remaining Chinese hurled hand grenades to silence him and left. After many hours profusely bleeding, he regained consciousness and painfully trekked back to Battalion Headquarters to narrate the chilling, gallant untold story of the Rezang La Battle for the posterity. Five soldiers were taken prisoners of war by the enemy and Sepoy Balbir Singh died in captivity. Silence of war engulfed Rezang La as the last round had been fired and the last soldier bled to martyrdom. Neither any help or reinforcements were asked for nor could any be provided to C Company..
The Chinese massive two-pronged advance and offensive embarked to secure Chushul succeeded with heavy causalities on both sides. The remoteness of Mugger Hill, Gurung Hill, both the Brigade and Battalion Headquarters and A Company as brigade reserve, negated the possibility of any reinforcement or counter attack at Rezang La.
The Chinese did not attack Mugger Hill on 18 November but shelled it heavily. B Company had good observation of the Spanggur Gap and directed artillery fire on the enemy gun positions. D Company had sent patrol to Rezang La under Naik Roop Ram and was engaged by the enemy MMG that killed two and wounding another two soldiers. Enemy fired over 600 shells on Battalion Headquarters but there was mercifully not a single causality.
The Ceasefire And Aftermath
Surprisingly though the Chinese claimed area up to Chushul as theirs, on 21 November 1962, without any further offensives, they declared unilateral cease fire.
As per the War Diary of the Battalion, 13 Kumaon regrouped after the ceasefire less the C Company that had ceased to exist.
C Company after the war was re-raised from the ashes of Rezang La by milking men from the other companies and fresh recruit drafts that came as reinforcements after the war and rechristened as the Rezang La Company to honour its war heroes and deservingly in the precedence, it became the senior most company of the Battalion.
In January 1963, a local Ladakhi shepherd wandered over the Rezang La feature. He was amazed by the awesome war specticle of soldiers frozen to death but still clinging to their damaged weapons in enemy’s shelling. Their weapons were mostly with empty magazines and bulged barrels due to excessive firing. A month later in February 1963, the first Indian party under the aegis of International Red Cross visited Rezang La could find 96 bodies with multiple splinters and gun shot wounds frozen to death with weapons in their hands in the shattered trenches. Major Shaitan Singh’s body was recovered from the same spot where he was last left by the two jawans. While the other ranks were cremated with full military honours in Chushul, the body of Major Shaitan Singh draped in national flag was flown to Jodhpur and cremated in his village with state honours.
Courtesy-Bharat Rakshak, Col N N Bhatia (Retd)