1962 – War in the Western Sector (Ladakh)

Author: Major General PJS Sandhu, (Retd)

Period: July 2013 - September 2013

1962 – War in the Western Sector (Ladakh)*

(A View from Other Side of the Hill)
 

Major General PJS Sandhu (Retd)**

Introduction

The War in Ladakh was very different from the operations in the Eastern Sector in many ways. Firstly, the Chinese aim in the West was to reach their Claim Line of 07 Nov 1959 as compared to annihilation of Indian troops deployed in the Kameng Sector in NEFA. Secondly, there were no large scale battles. Most of the actions were at battalion, company or even at platoon levels. Thirdly, the troops were already in contact for many months/weeks preceding the operations as a result of the ‘Forward Policy’ of India and that of ‘Armed Coexistence’ followed by China. And lastly, not enough is known about this war, at least in India, for reasons that will become apparent as we proceed with this narrative.

Confrontation Begins

The Chinese made their first official claim in Aksai Chin in 1954. Ten alignments of the Aksai Chin highway were reconnoitered in 1954-55 by the Chinese and it was announced as completed in Sep 1957. India sent two patrols to the area in 1958; one returned and the second under Major Iyyenger of the Madras Sappers was seized by the Chinese. The confrontation in Ladakh had begun.

      During 1959, there were two serious incidents which made the border situation very tense.1 However, there were two very different approaches on the part of India and China. India, unsuspecting of Chinese intentions, relied mainly on diplomatic exchanges and did not adopt any viable military measures till about Nov/Dec 1961 when it decided to establish additional posts, under what came to be termed as the ‘Forward Policy’. Chinese on the other hand, while continuing to respond with diplomatic exchanges, had set about improving their defensive posture, including patrolling and improvement of infrastructure, as also preparing for military operations.

China Prepares

Chinese deployment in the depth areas of Xinjiang and their staging forward to the area of operations in northern Aksai Chin is shown in a diagrammatic form at Sketch ‘P’. Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) issued instructions to Chinese Frontier Forces on 01 Feb 1962 regarding actions to be taken in the face of Indian provocations. The main thrust of these instructions was to avoid any premature commencement of hostilities while responding to Indian actions. As part of these measures a Forward HQ called Kong HQ under the command of Deputy Commander of Xinjiang Military Command alongwith 2nd Infantry Regiment was set up at Kangshiwar as shown in Sketch ‘P’. It was tasked to organise reconnaissance of the border areas and make preparations for military operations in Aksai Chin.

                PLA GHQ had divided the area of operations into four defence areas as shown at Sketch Q from North to South as under :-

(a)          Tianwendian Defence Area with HQ at Point 5243.

(b)          Heweitan Defence Area with HQ at Heweitan.

(c)           Kongka Pass Defence Area with HQ at Point 5408.

(d)          Ali Defence Area with a Forward HQ southeast of Spangur lake.

                The overall command and control in the Western Sector was to be exercised by the Xinjiang Military Command. Great emphasis was laid on reconnaissance to obtain information about terrain, routes and Indian posts so as to build up a comprehensive intelligence picture before the operations were launched.

Chinese Policy of Armed Coexistence

From about Jul 1962 onwards, in response to India’s ‘Forward Policy’, China adopted the policy of ‘Armed Coexistence’. It is of interest to note the instructions issued by the CMC to Xinjiang Military Command regarding conduct of troops in the developing situation.

“Firstly, follow the principle of not firing the first bullet; adopt the measure of ‘you encircle me, I encircle you’; ‘you cut me off, I cut you off’. Secondly, If Indian forces attack us, warn them, if warning is ineffective time and again, then carry out self defence. While laying seige of Indian forces, try and not to kill them; leave a gap for Indian forces to retreat. If Indian forces try to flee, let them flee, do not stop them. If Indian troops do not withdraw, then stalemate them”.2

                So, the two forces came to be interlocked as is quite obvious from Sketch Q. However, the strategic perceptions on both sides were different. Indian political leadership advised by the Intelligence community felt that the Chinese were bluffing and would not resort to a large scale military action. Hence, Indian Army could establish posts in an area unoccupied by Chinese to stake claim upto the claimed boundary and at times even going behind the Chinese. On the other hand, the Chinese tried to match this race for occupation of posts to check further ingress by India and this they called ‘Armed Coexistence’, but it was not to continue for long. The Chinese by now had a ‘game plan’ but did not want the hostilities to erupt prematurely, till they were ready for a deliberate and coordinated military action to achieve their politico-military objectives.

The Chinese Game Plan

It needs to be noted that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the CMC were laying down the principles and guiding the Chinese military actions on ground very intimately from Jul 1962 onwards. In a conference at the Secretariat in Beijing, Deputy Chairman of the CMC Liu Shaoqi and Premier Zhou En Lai put forward two options to deal with India’s ‘Forward Policy’. The first option was ‘to drive out the Indian forces by use of force’. The second option was ‘to compel Indian forces to withdraw without using military force’. It will be interesting to quote Chairman Mao’s response to the above two proposals :-

“India has set up its posts in our territory; we have a logical reason to fight but there is a need to show restraint. Firstly, it would reveal Nehru’s real face.  Nehru considers that his stubborn tactics are successful. A few days back an Indian newspaper compared Nehru and Menon’s tactics to Napoleon.

Secondly, strive for maximum sympathy and international support for us, especially from the non-aligned group. At the international level there are some countries who are not very clear about Sino-Indian border issue. There is a need to make it clear who is right and who is wrong. Our struggle with India is a complicated international issue. It is not only an Indian problem, the America and the Soviet Union are also supporting India. They (Americans and Soviets) think of using this opportunity to push us into a battle and make us suffer a bit. However, we will not fall into this trap. We will not fire the first bullet. Our guiding principle will be of eight characters, “never to make concessions and avoid bloodshed”.

                On 16 Jul, Chief of the General Staff Luo Ruiqing instructed Xinjiang Frontier Guards about Mao’s instructions. Chairman Mao further added to the above eight characters a sentence to say, “armed co-existence, and to be very close to and be interlocked with”.3

                As a consequence of stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Tianwendian Defence Area and Heweitan Defence Area, Chinese were compelled to withdraw from some of the posts in the Galwan River Valley as their positions had become untenable. However, this action of the Chinese was misread by the Indian politico-military leadership as a success of the ‘Forward Policy’. As a result, Indian forces were ordered to set up more posts wherever gaps existed. This process gave rise to a race to set up posts by both sides to lay claim to the territory by physical presence. It continued unabated from Jul-Sep 1962. By the end of Sep 1962, Chinese had set up 57 posts in key areas and Indians had set up 77 posts out of which 43 Indian posts were considered as intrusions by the Chinese.

                Just to illustrate the effect of ‘Forward Policy’, the example of 14 J&K Militia which was holding the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) Sub-sector along with a company of 5 JAT can be cited. The battalion was holding a total of 21 posts and none of these was mutually supporting. Out of these, 7 posts were of a platoon strength each and the rest were of a section strength. One company was deployed with the Battalion HQ. Similar was the situation with other battalions. In all, atleast 36 posts were of a section or even a lesser strength.4

Indian Order of Battle (Western Sector)

India had deployed HQ 114 Infantry Brigade consisting of four battalions (14 J&K Militia, 1/8 GR, 5 JAT and 7 J&K Militia) for defence of Ladakh. Around end Sep/ beginning Oct 1962, this Brigade was reinforced by 1 JAT and 13 KUMAON ex 70 Infantry Brigade, i.e. a total of six infantry battalions. Each of these Indian posts was given a number by the Chinese. HQ 114 Infantry Brigade was located at Leh, while its tactical HQ was at Chushul.5

Chinese Order of Battle (Western Sector)

Xinjiang Military Command under He Jiachen, Commander and Political Committee Member was responsible for conducting operations in the Western Sector. HQ 4 Infantry Division was also moved forward for command and control purposes. Apart from the Border Defence Troops already deployed in the area, it had the following additional units/formations 6 :-

(a)          3rd Battalion/10th Infantry Regiment / 4th Infantry Division (3B/10R/4D).

(b)          3rd Battalion/11th Infantry Regiment/ 4th Infantry Division (3 B/11R/4D).

(c)           120 Artillery Regiment, Engineer Battalion, Anti Aircraft Gun Battalion and the Signal Battalion; all these were units of 4th Infantry Division.

(d)          2nd Infantry Regiment.

(e)          Ali Detachment (equivalent to a regiment)

(f)           3rd Cavalry Regiment (four companies)

(g)          1st Battalion of 109 Engineer Regiment.

The Decision for Attack

On 17 Oct 1962, the CPC Central Committee issued orders for launching the general offensive. However, forces in the Western Sector (Aksai Chin) were to coordinate their actions with the Eastern Sector (NEFA). Xinjiang Military Command in order to accomplish the mission assigned to it decided to concentrate superior military forces and adopted the tactics of encirclement, blocking enemy’s retreat and then destroying them. 

The Chinese Plan

Please refer to Sketch R. Broadly, the Chinese planned to eliminate all the 43 Indian posts which they perceived to be intrusions, i.e. across their 1959 Claim Line. However, priority was to be given to the two northern defence areas, i.e. ‘Tianwendian Defence Area’ and ‘Heweitan Defence Area’. Operations for these were to commence simultaneously with the Eastern Sector. The D Day (day to commence operations) which initially was 18 Oct was changed to 20 Oct 1962 to allow preparations to be completed in the Eastern Sector (Kameng Frontier Division).

Tianwendian Defence Area (DBO Sub-sector)

On the Indian side this area was held by 14 J&K Militia plus a company of 5 JAT. On the Chinese side, the defences were held by four companies of 2nd Infantry Regiment with their HQ at Point 5243. The ‘Indian Stronghold No.6 in Tian Area’ was considered the most dangerous position and was selected as the first objective for the attack. It was named by the Chinese as the ‘Red Top Hill’. This is an independent mound (Point 5270) with a circumference of more than one km and a relative height of approximately 200 m. Its northern and northeastern slopes are steep, while the southern and southeastern slopes are comparatively gradual. The mound is terraced with two layers and a commanding hill top. It seems to have been held by company less a platoon of 14 J&K Militia, a strength of 62 all ranks. The attacking troops were :-

(a)          3 B/11 R/4 D.

(b)          One platoon of 57 mm recoilless guns (3 guns).

(c)           One company of 82 mm mortars (6 mortars).

(d)          One platoon of Engineers.

(e)          One platoon of flame throwers (10 flame throwers).

(f)           Artillery Group comprising :–

(i)           A battalion less one company of 120 mm mortars.

(ii)          A company of 76.2 mm field guns.

                As per Chinese assessment, the attacking troops had a superiority of 10:1 in numbers and 7:1 in fire power. The approach march was carried out during Night 19/20 Oct and the assaulting troops were in position by 0500 h 20 Oct .7 The route of reinforcements had also been interdicted by a reconnaissance detachment during the night.

                The attack commenced at 0825 h with an artillery bombardment which lasted for about 30 minutes. No. 8 and 9 Companies of the 3rd Battalion formed the first echelon of the assaulting troops while No. 7 Company was in the second echelon. The attack was launched from South to North. The battle was over by about 1045 h on 20 Oct. On the Indian side 42 men were killed and 20 made prisoners of war (PsW). No Indian soldier was able to come back to tell the tale. The Chinese battalion suffered 8 killed and 26 wounded.

                In the wake of the success at Red Top Hill, the Chinese troops (3B/11R) continued the attack and eliminated another 6-7 Indian strongholds, including Indian Posts 8 & 11, each held by about a section (8-10 troops). So buoyed were they with their success that the 3rd Engineer Company deployed in the vicinity asked permission to attack Indian Stronghold No. 5 which was granted and the Indian post was attacked and captured soon thereafter. The Chinese troops continued to attack during the Night 20/21 Oct and the day of 21 Oct. By last light 21 Oct, they had eliminated all the Indian posts in the Tianwendian Defence Area which they perceived to be intrusions. As per Chinese accounts, 14 J&K Militia suffered about 90 casualties (killed, wounded and PsW).

                Commencing on the Night 21/22 Oct, HQ 114 Infantry Brigade gave permission to 14 J&K Militia to withdraw all the isolated posts as these posts had no mutual support and could not be reinforced. Most of these posts had been sited to show the Indian flag and were not tactically sited. The withdrawal was carried out in an orderly manner though it involved movement across some of the most difficult terrain and with heavy loads. Each man carried his personal weapon and 100 rounds of ammunition. Heavy equipment was destroyed. However, the machine gun platoon of 1 MAHAR refused to destroy the heavy Vickers Machine Guns and carried them along. The IAF carried out air drops of supplies to the withdrawing troops on 23 and 25 Oct and also evacuated some of the serious casualties by helictopers.8

                By 24 Oct, all the forward posts established in the Chip Chap and Nachu Chu river valleys had been withdrawn. DBO was also abandoned. 14 J&K Militia continued to hold Saser Brangsa, Murgo, Sultan Chushku and the junction of the Galwan and Shyok rivers. The Chinese had established effective control upto their 1959 Claim Line. There was no further fighting in the DBO Sub-sector right upto the unilaterally declared ceasefire by the Chinese on 21 Nov 1962.

Heweitan Defence Area (Changchenmo and Galwan Sub-sector)

On the Indian side this area was held by 1/8 GR till the end of Sep 1962. During the first week of Oct, 1/8 GR was relieved by 5 JAT less a company in Changchenmo and Galwan River Valleys. 1/8 GR continued to hold the area further South (Pangong Tso Lake and South of it). In this area, Galwan Post (named by Chinese as Indian Stronghold No. 14) which had been established on 04 July 1962 and was held by a company of 5 JAT was considered the most dangerous as it cut off the rearward communication of three Chinese posts; namely, 5, 6 and 16 held by the 9th Company of 10th Infantry Regiment. Hence, on establishment of this post on 04 Jul, the Chinese had reacted immediately by moving in the 3 B/10 R/4 D as reinforcements to this sector and had surrounded the Indian post from three directions, i.e. North, South and East. Thus, the 3rd Battalion of the Chinese had been in a state of ‘Armed Coexistence’ with the Indian Stronghold No. 14 for about three months and had already drawn up detailed plan for the attack.

The Chinese Plan of Attack against Indian Stronghold No. 14

The Chinese Forward HQ at Kangshiwar had ordered the formation of a Combat HQ to deal with the Indian Stronghold No.14. This HQ consisted of Deputy Commander of Kong HQ, Lishuangsheng; Head of Operations Branch Liuyw Zhong and the Deputy Regimental Commander of the 10th Infantry Regiment, Liusanfang. The plan was to encircle the post during night and launch attack at first light. The attack was to be launched from three directions, i.e. North, South and East; the main effort being from the East. The 3rd Battalion 10th Regiment (3 B/10 R) tasked its 7th and 9th Companies to launch the main attack from East to West on the northern half of the objective, while the 8th Company was to attack the southern half from the South. One platoon ex the 9th Company was tasked to cut off the route of withdrawal. 8th Company was also tasked to send a section to occupy a small spur on the western bank of Galwan River to intercept the withdrawing Indian troops. The trap was to be completely closed with no escape route.

The Attack

The assaulting troops had reached their designated positions during the Night 19/20 Oct. At 0825 h on 20 Oct, the artillery guns and mortars commenced an intense bombardment which was to last for about ten minutes. The assaulting troops commenced the attack at 0835 h as per the plan. The Indian company HQ was overrun right in the initial stages. No artillery guns or mortars were available to support them. The men had only small arms and open trenches to fight from. However, they fought to the bitter end. Not a single Indian soldier escaped from the battle. The defenders (a company of 5 JAT) had a total strength of 68 all ranks. They suffered 36 killed and 32 wounded/taken PsW. As per Chinese accounts they suffered ten casualties.

                After the above success, the Chinese 3 B/10 R received instructions to remove all Indian positions in the Galwan River Valley. They divided themselves into two groups. The main force of the battalion was to move on the northern route, while the 8th Company alongwith the Engineer Company was to continue attacking on the southern route. By the evening of 23 Oct the battalion had successfully removed six Indian strongholds located on the North and South Bank of the Galwan River. The Chinese had thus reached their 1959 Claim Line in this sector also. Indian troops had suffered about 80 all ranks killed/wounded and made PsW.

Battle on the Pangong Tso Lake and Chushul Sub-sector

There were two Indian positions on the northern bank of Pangong Tso Lake. The first position was located at 4000m on a small height (relative height 8m) and was held by a company less two platoons of 1/8 GR. It was referred to by the Chinese as the ‘Indian Stronghold No. 16’. The second position was on the northwestern side of the above position and was located at 4400 m (relative height 60 m). It was held by a platoon of 1/8 GR. The Chinese referred to it as ‘Indian Stronghold No. 29’. Together, these positions were also referred to as the ‘Sirijap Compex’. It was supplied by boats across the lake and had no land link with the battalion. There were two Chinese posts – Kang 9 and 10 which were located East and North of Indian positions and the troops of the two sides were face to face.

                1/8 GR had deployed another company on the southern bank of Pangong Tso Lake in three posts. These were referred to by the Chinese as ‘Indian Strongholds No 1, 2 and 3 in Ali Area’. The Chinese Posts held by the 5th Company of Ali Sector were face to face with the Indian positions but were located on a dominating hill feature (4903 m), relative height difference between Indian and Chinese posts being 600 m, with advantage to the Chinese.

                The rest of the battalion (1/8 GR) was defending the Spangur Gap and was deployed on the northern shoulder called Gurung Hill and the southern shoulder named Magar Hill. There was a post in the Spangur Gap itself.

The Attack against Indian Strongholds No. 16 and 29 (Sirijap Complex)

The responsibility for capturing the Indian positions North of Pangong Tso Lake was that of the Kongka Pass Defence Area. As no uncommitted troops were available, the Kong HQ organised a ‘Task Force’ for carrying out this task. This Task Force had a total of 117 personnel and consisted of personnel from various detachments defending this area; namely, 2nd Company of 2nd Infantry Regiment (2C/2R), 2nd Platoon of the Engineers Company of 11th Infantry Regiment, 66 personnel of 3rd Company of 2nd Battalion of 4 Division Artillery Regiment and a water surface squadron. The fire support was to be provided by 6×82 mm mortars.

                The plan was to carry out encirclement during the night and launch the attack at first light. The main attack was to be launched by 2C/2R from the southwest, while a subsidiary effort was to be launched by 3rd Artillery Company from the northwest, both directed towards the centre. Two sections of engineers formed the reserve. One platoon strength was employed to interdict Indian reinforcements from Point 4400. The Water Squadron on the lake was tasked to exercise surveillance of any other troop movements, possibly from the South Bank towards North.

                The assaulting troops started from Chinese Post ‘Kong-10’ at 0600 h on 21 Oct and moved stealthily along a dry ravine to get close to their objectives. Unlike previous attacks, this was a silent attack. The assault was launched at 0900 h from southwest and northwest simultaneously. Both the attacks faced stiff resistance and were temporarily stalled. The Company Commander and the Platoon Commander were both wounded. Some regrouping had to be done and reserves were committed to continue the attack. However, keeping in view the tactically unsound positions of the Indian posts and lack of any reinforcements or fire support means, the result was a foregone conclusion. The battle was over by about 1100 h and the Indian Stronghold No 16 was captured, and no Indian soldier could come back to tell the tale. The Indian casualties were 14 killed and 25 made PsW, which included the Company Commander Major Dhan Singh Thapa, PVC. The Chinese suffered 21 all ranks killed. The casualties suffered on both sides indicate that it was a tough fight with no quarters given by either side.

                Having captured the Indian Stronghold No 16, the Chinese now turned their attention to the ‘Indian Stronghold No 29’ (Point 4400) which was held by a platoon of 1/8 GR, strength of 22 all ranks. After some rest and reorganisation, the Chinese launched their attack on Point 4400 at about 1330 h the same day. 2C/2R launched the main attack from North to South and the 2nd Platoon of the Engineer Company attacked from East to West. The Artillery Company sent a part of the force to block the route of withdrawal, while rest of the company was to form the reserve. Six 82mm mortars, one anti-aircraft machine gun and a heavy machine gun were to provide the fire support for attack from the Chinese Post ‘Kong 10’. The battle was over by 1700 h. The Indian troops suffered 10 killed and 12 made PsW; apparently no one was able to escape. The Chinese suffered five killed.

Attack on Indian Posts No. 1, 2 and 3 on the South Bank of Pangong Tso Lake

The sector South of Pangong Tso Lake was designated as Ali Defence Area and was held by Ali Detachment (equivalent of an infantry regiment). 1/8 GR had established three posts on the southern bank of the lake, the total strength being a company. Chinese named these posts as ‘Indian Strongholds No. 1, 2 and 3 in Ali Area’, from East to West. Chinese considered No.1 Post to be about 20 kms inside their 1959 Claim Line. The Chinese post at Azhi held by 5th Company of the Ali Detachment was in contact with the Indian positions, the inter se distance being about 1.5 km. However, the relative height of the Chinese positions was about 600 m higher (4903 m), while the Indian positions were at 4300 m. Thus, the Indian Posts 1, 2 and 3 were dominated by the Chinese positions. The communication from the Battalion HQ of 1/8 GR to these posts was by boat over the lake. Since the lake was dominated by the Water Squadron of the Chinese, these Indian posts were practically isolated.

                From the Chinese accounts it appears that during the Night 21/22 Oct, the Indian troops at ‘Strongholds No 2 and 3’ managed to exfiltrate leaving their infrastructure intact. During the same night, the troops from ‘Indian Stronghold No. 1’ which was 12 km to the East moved into ‘Stronghold No. 2’ which had been vacated and remained there during the day of 22 Oct. The Chinese Post No. 12 at Azhi sent a reconnaissance detachment of 9 men on the morning of 23 Oct to check if the Indian Post was still held. The reconnaissance detachment on finding that the Indian Post No. 2 was still held called for reinforcements. Soon a proper attack was launched at 1805 h on 23 Oct from the South and East, while cutting off the route of withdrawal to the West. The battle was over by 1100 h the next day. It was not really a battle as Indian troops were trying to withdraw in small groups and were being intercepted by the Chinese. They had no option but to surrender once they ran out of ammunition. The Indian casualties were two killed and 18 wounded / made PsW. No Indian soldier could return to tell the tale. The Chinese suffered two wounded.

The Operations in the Indus Valley (Balijiasi Region)

The Chinese now turned their attention to the Indus Valley Sector which lies to the South of Chushul. This area was held by 7 J&K Militia. It had deployed the Battalion less three companies at Koyul, with a company at Dungti and rest of the troops (two companies) at various passes and bottlenecks along the International border as perceived by India.

                On 22 Oct, Xinjiang Military Command issued orders for the following troops to start moving South to Ali Defence Area, a move of approximately 500 km over rough and frozen roads, and be ready for battle by 26 Oct:-

(a)          3 B/11 R/4D which had taken part in battles in the Tianwendian Defence Area.

(b)          3 B/10 R/4D which had already taken part in battles of the Galwan and Chengchenmo River Valleys.

(c)           3rd Cavalry Regiment less one company.

(d)          Reinforcing artillery (120 mm mortar battalion less a company and a 76.2 mm gun company)

(e)          Reconnaissance Company and the Engineer Regiment of 4th Division.

                The attacking troops were divided into two groups. One group was to advance on the northern flank and cut off the route of withdrawal of the Indian forces. The second group was to advance on the southern flank and launch the main attack along Shiquan River valley, and attempt to surround the Indian forces in an area between Zhamagere – Kariguo and annihilate them.

                The first unit to kick off on its mission was a detachment of 3rd Cavalry Regiment. It commenced move at midnight 26/27 Oct from Jiagong and after covering about 40 kms reached the area of Changla Pass by 0800 h 27 Oct. The Pass was held by 17 men of 7 J&K Militia under a JCO. The attacking column was discovered by the defenders and they held their fire till the Chinese column was within 100 m. The two leading vehicles were destroyed and a fierce battle developed which continued for more than three hours. However, on finding themselves outnumbered and outflanked, the JCO was ordered to withdraw to Fukche. In this battle, Indian casualties were four killed including the JCO commanding the platoon and seven wounded, and made PsW. On the Chinese side, they suffered two killed and four wounded.

                The main attack by the Chinese against the Indian positions held by 7 J&K Militia in Demchok sub-sector was launched on 27 Oct. The attack was in the form of two pincers aimed to meet at Kariguo, thus cutting off the route of withdrawal from Shiquan River Valley. The 3 B/11 R Group carried out a wide outflanking move on Night 27/28 Oct from Jiagong southwards to Zhaxigang and then turned northwest towards Kariguo behind Demchok. Simultaneously, the 3 B/10 R Group moved out at 1200 h on 27 Oct and byepassing Yue Pass, converged on to Kariguo. This was the northern inner pincer. The outer pincer in the North was provided by 3rd Cavalry Regiment and the 4th Division Reconnaissance Company. Since the southern outflanking move by the 3 B/11 R Group was delayed, the trap could not be closed fully. Indian troops were able to withdraw during the Night 27/28 Oct to Koyul and Dungti in fairly good order. The Chinese Engineer Regiment was not able to provide bridges over Shiquan River (it had to be crossed twice) in time due to paucity of bridging material. As a result crossing of artillery vehicles got delayed and they could not marry up with the assaulting infantry in time. Hence, these attacks were launched with inadequate fire support.

                However, by the end of the day of 28 Oct, the Chinese troops had achieved their objectives and had occupied the Kailash Range that dominated the eastern bank of the Indus Valley. All the seven Indian strongholds in this sub-sector were removed and New Demchok itself was captured. The first phase of the operations in the Western Sector which had commenced on 20 Oct had concluded on 28 Oct. In these operations, four battalions of the Indian 114 Infantry Brigade had been severely mauled. As per Chinese accounts, the Indian casualties in the Indus River Valley Operations (26-28 Oct) were approximately 136 killed and 160 wounded/made PsW. On the Chinese side there were 37 killed and 93 wounded. The Chinese attacking troops had withdrawn to Ritu, Jiagong and Shiquan river region to rest, reorganise and await further orders.

The Second Phase : 18-21 Nov 1962 (please refer to Sketch ‘S’)

There was a lull in the fighting in the Western Sector from 29 Oct – 17 Nov 1962. On the Indian side, this period was utilised to organise the defence of Leh and to strengthen the defensive posture in the Chushul Sub-sector. The 3 Himalayan Division was raised on 26 Oct at Leh. It was commanded by Major General Budh Singh, MC. HQ 114 Infantry Brigade moved to Chushul on 27 Oct and took over the responsibility for Chushul and Phobrang Sub-sectors. HQ 70 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier RS Grewal, MC was inducted on 25 Oct and took over the responsibility for the Indus Valley Sub-sector. 163 Infantry Brigade was inducted for defence of Leh. For this phase of the operation, we will be concerned with the actions of 114 Infantry Brigade in the Chushul Sub-sector. It was holding a frontage of about 40 km as under :-

(a)          1 JAT – Area Chushul.

(b)          1/8 GR was deployed to cover the northern flank of Spangur Gap. Two companies were on Gurung Hill and one company to the North of Point 5167. The fourth company was located in the Spangur gap itself. The battalion HQ was located at the Chushul airfield with an adhoc company as reserve.

(c)           13 KUMAON looked after the southern flank with two companies on Muggar Hill, a company with a section of 3 Inch mortars at Rezangla Hill and the battalion HQ with one company at Track Junction.

(d)          The Brigade had two troops of AMX – 13 tanks located at the airfield. These tanks had been airlifted to Chushul on 25 Oct by the AN-12 aircraft, a major aviation feat in itself.

(e)          The Brigade also had the support of 13 Field Regiment less a battery (25 pounder field guns).

                The Chinese had named the positions held by 1/8 GR North of Spangur Gap as ‘Indian Strongholds No. 5, 6 and 16 in Ali Area’, while the positions held by 13 KUMAON South of Spangur Gap were referred to as ‘Indian Strongholds No. 7, 8 and 9. The Indian positions on No.16 Stronghold in the North and No. 8 and 9 Strongholds in the South were on prominent heights which were approximately 600m higher than the Chinese frontier posts No. 1, 2 and 11. Indian positions had a clear view upto nearly 20 km from the border and could observe clearly the activities of Chinese forces in the area of Spangur Lake. Besides, Chinese felt that Indians could also launch a limited offensive through the Spangur Gap; thus posing a threat to their rear areas.

                To overcome the above concerns, the Chinese took the following counter measures :-

(a)          They set up two posts – ‘No. 1 Ali and No. 11 Ali’ on both sides of Moerduo Pass, opposite to ‘Indian Strongholds No. 5 and 6 in Ali Area’.

(b)          Between the Chinese Posts No. 1 Ali and No. 2 Ali, they laid a mixed anti-tank and anti-personnel minefield to cater for the Indian threat through the Spangur Gap.

(c)           Chinese set up another post – ‘No. 2 Ali’ on the opposite side of ‘Indian  Strongholds No. 7, 8 and 9’ to be able to observe Indian activities on these positions.

(d)          More importantly, they set up a post – ‘No. 10 Ali’, North of ‘Indian Stronghold No 16’ which was more than 100 m higher than the Indian post. From this post they could observe the activities of Indian troops deep in rear areas.

China Prepares for Phase II (18 – 21 Nov 1962)

On 14 Nov 1962, CMC issued telegraphic instructions to Xinjiang Military Command and the Forward HQ of Kong in Tibet Ali Defence Area conveying their approval of the plans for annihilating Indian forces deployed at Strongholds No. 8, 9 and 16 ( No. 8 and 9 were held by 13 KUMAON and No. 16 by 1/8 GR). The instructions issued with the above approval are of interest and an extract is reproduced below:–

“While eliminating the Strongholds, do not fight with the Indian forces deployed in artillery bases and Strongholds set up outside our territory by the Indian troops. If we do not attack and Indian forces attack us, in that case we will definitely launch a counter attack. Retaliate with short, fierce and sudden fire power, hit their airfield at Chushul; the shells may cross the border but personnel should not cross the border. While returning fire it must be approved by the GHQ.”10

The Plan for Attack

Xinjiang Military Command and Kong Forward HQ decided to first deal with Indian Strongholds No. 8, 9 and 16 which were considered most threatening. Depending upon the situation, further operations were to be undertaken to wipe out Indian Strongholds No 5, 6 and 7. Their plan was to utilise the following troops for attack on Indian Strongholds No. 8 and 9:-

(a)          3 B/11 R.

(b)          9th reinforced Company of 3 B / 10 R.

(c)           One platoon from Post No. 2 Ali belonging to Ali Detachment.

(d)          120mm Mortar Battalion (less one company) and a company of 76.2 mm guns.

(e)          Four 75mm recoilless guns directly attached to 10th Infantry Regiment.

(f)           One platoon (three guns) of 57mm recoilless guns of 3rd Cavalry Regiment.

(g)          One engineer company.

(h)          One flame thrower company.

(j)           One anti-aircraft gun company.

                Simultaneously with the above, another Task Force based on a company from Ali Detachment and reinforced by a mortar company of 3rd Cavalry Regiment, recoilless gun platoon, one platoon of engineers ex 10th Regiment, one flame thrower platoon plus one company ex 3rd Cavalry Regiment as the second echelon were to attack and wipe out ‘Indian Stronghold No. 16 in Ali Area’ (held by 1/8 GR). Later, depending upon the situation, they were to be prepared to eliminate ‘Indian Stronghold No. 5 in Ali Area’.

                Further, 3rd Cavalry Regiment (less two companies) and 3rd Battalion (less one company) of 10th Infantry Regiment were to act as reserve under the Forward HQ during Phase 1 of the attack. They were to be prepared to deal with Indian reinforcements and counter attack, if any. The reconnaissance company of 4th Division was to control the Xinzhang Pass and prevent any Indian troops from Dungti intruding into the rear and flank of the Chinese attacking forces. They were also to be prepared to act in anti-airborne role.

                The Artillery Support Group consisted of four 120mm mortars, four 76.2mm guns, mortar company of 10th Regiment and two 75mm recoilless guns. This was deployed at the rear flank of No. 1 Ali and No. 11 Ali posts. An anti-aircraft battalion was deployed near ‘Post No. 2 Ali’ for providing cover against air attacks in the direction of the main effort.

Indian Dispositions on Rezangla Hill (Strongholds No. 8 and 9)

The Rezangla Hill was defended by a reinforced company of 13 KUMAON commanded by Major Shaitan Singh, PVC (posthumous). The two strongholds were defended by a platoon each. The Company HQ and the third platoon were deployed on a height Point 5150 between the two strongholds. The total strength including the supporting elements of mortars, heavy machine guns and rocket launchers was 141 all ranks. The localities were mutually supporting and defences were well coordinated. However, Chinese during their reconnaissance had noted that fire power towards the front was strong and was comparatively weak towards flanks and rear.

Chinese Pattern of Operations

Chinese commanders had carried out a detailed reconnaissance of the layout of defences of Indian Strongholds No. 8 and 9 (Rezangla Hill). They planned to carry out a night approach march and attack at first light. They decided to outflank the positions from the South and launch a multidirectional attack. As for Indian Stronghold No. 16 (held by 1/8 GR), since outflanking was not possible, they decided to launch a frontal attack under the cover of heavy artillery fire.

The Battle of Rezangla (Attack Against Indian Strongholds No. 8 and 9)

3 B/11 R/4 D alongwith a reinforced 9th Company of 3 B/10 R was given the task of capturing Indian Strongholds No. 8 and 9. The attacking force was divided into two groups – North and South, each under the command of the Deputy Commander of 4th Division, Wanghongjie and the Regimental Commander, Gaohuanchang respectively. The Southern Group consisting of 7th and 8th Company (less one platoon) of 11th Regiment under the Regimental Commander was to attack from South to North and capture Indian Stronghold No. 9. The Northern Group consisting of 9th Company of 11th Regiment and 9th Company of 10th Regiment under the Deputy Divisional Commander was to attack from North to South and capture Indian Stronghold No. 8.

                The attacking troops commenced their move from assembly area near Ritu on respective routes – North and South at 2000 h on 17 Nov. The southern route was longer and difficult; it took them nine hours to cover about eight km and could reach their base for launching the attack only by about 0600 h 18 Nov. The northern group did the approach march in vehicles moving without lights and dismounted after reaching the foothills of Point 5580, and thereafter moved up the mountain to reach their point for launching the attack. 9th Company of the 10th Regiment penetrated between ‘Indian Strongholds No. 7 and 8 in Ali’ and cut off the route of withdrawal of ‘Indian No. 8 and 9 Strongholds’, thus achieving the encirclement of Indian positions, as also prevent reinforcements.

                After a short but intense artillery bombardment, the attack from both directions commenced at 0915 h on 18 Nov. The battle was fierce with no quarters given by either side. The attack by the Southern Group was stalled time and again, and reserves had to be called in. The Chinese Company Commander of No. 8 Company was killed in battle. For several hours the outcome of the battle hung in balance. Men were engaged in hand to hand combat. The Indian Company Commander even tried to launch a platoon counterattack to regain the height, Point 5300 but did not succeed. The telephone line to the Battalion HQ was cut and the company radio set was destroyed in the initial stages. C Company 13 KUMAON was now on its own. No reinforcements could reach them. For them it was a fight to the finish. The guns fell silent only around 2200 h on 18 Nov. As per Chinese accounts, out of a total strength of 141 Indian troops, 136 were killed including the Company Commander Major Shaitan Singh, PVC (posthumous) and five men were made PsW. The Chinese suffered 21 killed and 98 wounded. It was a battle which has gone into the annals of military history as an epic battle.

Attack against Gurung Hill (Indian Stronghold No. 16 in Ali Area)

Indian Stronghold No. 16 was located North of the Spangur Gap and was held by a company less a platoon (about 60 men) of 1/8 GR. Its height was 5100m. The responsibility for capturing this position was given to the Forward HQ of Ali Detachment. As outflanking was not possible, they decided on a frontal attack. A Task Force consisting of three sections 4th Company, two sections of 5th Company, two sections from No. 8 Post, one section from No 1 Post; altogether eight sections formed the assaulting company under the command of 4th Company Commander Zaofurong. It was reinforced by one heavy machine gun, one 57 mm recoilless gun, one platoon of eight flame throwers and one platoon (18 men) of 1st Platoon of the Engineer Company of the 10th Regiment. 1st Company of 3rd Cavalry Regiment formed the second echelon for the attack. The fire support was to be provided by 12 X 82mm mortars.

                The attack commenced at 0922 h on 18 Nov and was preceded by a short artillery bombardment. An effort was also made to outflank from the South but did not succeed. The defences were well coordinated and covered by a protective minefield which stalled the attack and caused a number of casualties. The Gorkhas held their ground and forced the Chinese to regroup and call in reinforcements. The attack had to be reorganised and was resumed at 1100 h. the Chinese finally succeeded in capturing the position by about last light on 18 Nov after repeated attacks. The Chinese Engineer Platoon played a major role in maintaining the momentum of the attack. By now 1/8 GR had suffered about 50 killed and several wounded. No reinforcements were forthcoming. This was also a fight to the finish. In this attack Chinese attacking troops suffered 81 casualties (killed and wounded) and expended 20,000 rounds of various types of ammunition. The Chinese communication link also broke down. Apart from being a frontal attack, it was poorly planned, coordinated and executed. The high casualties suffered by the Chinese testify to the brave fight put up by the Gorkhas.

                Keeping the overall situation in view, i.e. loss of Rezangla Hill and the Northern Shoulder of Spangur Gap, it was decided by HQ 114 Infantry Brigade to withdraw troops from Gurung Hill, Muggar Hill, Spangur Post and Tokung, and to redeploy them on mountains West of Chushul. Thus, despite the fact that some of the defensive positions were holding on, a withdrawal was ordered on the Night of 19/20 Nov.

                The Chinese made no attempt to follow the withdrawing Indians, nor did they try to capture the Chushul airfield. However, it was rendered unusable as it now lay in no man’s land and was dominated by the Chinese on the eastern hills. It seems the Chinese had no plans to conduct any further offensive operations as they had reached their 1959 Claim Line in the Chushul Sub-sector.

                As per Chinese accounts, the total casualties to Indian troops during Phase II of the operations were 160 killed and five made PsW. The Chinese suffered 67 killed and 133 wounded.

Some Conclusions on the Fighting in the Western Sector

The fighting was spread out over a large area from North to South (approximately 600 km) but was confined to an area of about 20 km from West to East. There were no large scale battles. The Chinese attacks were mostly battalion / company group attacks but were well coordinated and adequately supported by artillery and other combat support elements.

                In the Western Sector, Chinese aim was to remove the Indian posts which they perceived were across their 1959 Claim Line. Chinese had neither aimed, nor did they have the resources to capture Leh or any sizeable chunk of territory in Ladakh.

      Chinese had also given a lot of importance to psychological aspects of warfare. During the phase of ‘Armed Coexistence’, they gave no indication of impending operations. They were successful in making the Indian political leaders, diplomats, intelligence agencies and the military leadership believe that they were neither capable, nor likely to undertake large scale military operations. At the same time their military preparations were proceeding apace.

                As regards their pattern of operations, the assaulting troops moved by night and launched their attacks soon after first light. The attacks were invariably preceded by a short but intense artillery bombardment. Also, before launching the main attack, the route of withdrawal was cut off and the post was encircled. Most attacks were multidirectional.

                It needs to be noted that during the phase of ‘Armed Coexistence’, Chinese invariably left a route open for withdrawal but once the war started, the policy was to completely encircle the post and annihilate the defenders. In most of the actions, hardly any defender was able to escape to tell the story. This explains the fact that very little information is available in India about these battles.

Sketch ‘P’


Skitch Showing Chinese Deployment in Depth Areas of the Western Sector October 1962

""
Sketch ‘Q’
 Sketch Showing Interlocked Indian and Chinese Posts in the Western Sector (Ladakh) : Oct 1962
 
 
""
 This  Sketch has been sourced from the Chinese Book, A History of Counter Attack War in Self Defence Along Sino-Indian Border, Academy of Military Science Publications, 1994.
 ""
 Sketch ‘S’
 Sketch Showing Chinese Attack in Chushul Sub-Sector: 18-21 Nov 1962 (Battles of Rezangla Hill and Gurung Hill)
""
 This Sketch has been prepared by the Author based on description of the battles in the Chinese sources.


 
                There is a difference in policing a border and defending a disputed border. India from 1959 – 62 was using its Army to police the border with China which was unsettled, un-demarcated and disputed. Police like border posts were being established by the Army at the behest of political authorities abetted by the Intelligence Bureau. It was for the Army to resist such an irrational course and insist on holding ground based on operational and tactical considerations. That is the real test of generalship.

                The last and the most important observation which comes out loud and clear is, that the Indian soldier was not found wanting in courage and fighting spirit, even in the most inhospitable terrain and under highly adverse tactical circumstances. Time and again, even in the most hopeless situations, he stood his ground and fought to the very end. Unfortunately, these heroic deeds and sacrifices have not been accorded due recognition. He gave his life for the Country with abandon. He had nothing more to give!

 

Endnotes

1.            The first such incident occurred in the Eastern Sector at Longju on 25 Aug 1959. The second incident was more serious and took place on 21 Oct in Ladakh in the area of Kongka Pass in which an Indian Police patrol suffered nine killed, three wounded and eight personnel including Deputy Superintendent of Police Karam Singh taken as prisoners. Chinese suffered one person killed.

2.            Chinese Book, A History of Counter Attack War in Self Defence Along Sino-Indian Border, Academy of Military Science Publications, 1994, Chapter 3, Section 3.

3.            Ibid 2.

4.            History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, New Delhi, 1992 (accessed on internet on 20 Aug 2013).

5.            Ibid 4.

6.            Loc cit 2, Appendix, Table 1

7.            All timings are based on Chinese time which is 2 hand 30 min ahead of Indian Standard Time.

8,            Loc cit 4.

9.            Loc cit 2.

10.          Loc cit 2, Chapter 5, Section 5.

 

*This article is in continuation of the two earlier articles “1962–Battle of Se-La and Bomdi-La” and “1962–The Battle of Namka Chu and Fall of Tawang” published in

Oct-Nov 2011 and Apr-Jun 2013 Issues of USI Journal respectively.

**Major General PJS Sandhu (Retd) was commissioned into 8th Light Cavalry on

15 June 1966 and later commanded 47 Armoured Regiment. He retired from the Army as Chief of Staff, 1 Corps on 31 July 2003. Presently, he is working as Deputy Director and Editor at USI since 01 May 2007

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLIII, No. 593, July-September 2013.

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