By Col NN Bhatia (Retd.)
New Delhi. 14 August 2021. The Chinese strategic aim in 1962 conflict was to ensure heights across the Tibetan watershed overlooking their positions were captured and India was militarily defeated and assume the undisputed leadership of the Afro-Asian countries. But 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.
The Rezang La 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 Sep 1897 in the North-West Frontier Province Battle by the 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment (now 4 Sikh) who gave up their lives in devotion to their duty fighting over 10,000 tribals.
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 itself in high altitude collective training that made it battle worthy. The Battalion by 2 Oct 1962 had moved to Leh on the orbat of 114 Infantry Brigade that had then only two battalions and was scheduled to move to Chushul in Mar 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 and 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 Spanggur 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-mettle 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 deployed at Lukung. 1 Jat (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 6 AMX-13 tanks ex B Squadron 20 Lancers, 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.
To capture Chushul, appreciated approaches available to the Chinese were Khurnak Fort- Dungra Ford- Yula- Thakung-Lukung- Darbuk – Leh. Difficult circuitous route on a mountainous track where battalion worth with support of animal transport (AT) could only move, Rudok-Shinghang-Chushul. Maintained by class 9 road that could sustain divisional strength thrust and Rudok-RezangLa-Chushul. Comparatively shorter approach that had road developed up to Spanggur Gap which could sustain force more than first but less than the second given above.
Tasks Allotted to 114 Infantry Brigade were 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, inflict maximum causalities on the enemy and save as much stores and equipment as possible. This 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 was B and D Companies less a platoon plus Section 3 inch Mortar under overall command of Major RV Jatar-Mugger Hill, C Company plus Section 3 inch Mortar under Major Shaitan Singh- Rezang La about 30 km south of Chushul and A Company plus four 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.
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 crested adversely artillery fire, 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, whereas 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 being locals from Sing kiang region were hardened to the existing climatic and terrain conditions whereas many of the Ahirs hailing from the north Indian plains were deployed in high altitude environment for the very first time in their service.
The famed Major Shaitan Singh deployed C Company over 2 km frontage on the massive 5 km long Rezang La feature. 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 and the Company Headquarters behind 9 Platoon along with section of 3 inch Mortar under Naik Ram Kumar Yadav 150 meters west of Company Headquarters.
As per national policy, no patrolling along the international border was permitted and as per battle routine regularly during day light Observation Posts and in the night LPs ( Listening Posts ) were sent to provide early warning, Due to wide frontages, there was no mutual support and minefields within the sub-units and artillery fire across Rezang La was totally crested 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 appreciated gullies as expected approaches for the enemy to attack, three additional light machine guns were provided to C Company. The defences were wired and stocked with six first line scales of ammunition alongwith 1000 bombs for the 3 inch Mortar Section.
On the night of 17-18 November around 2200 hrs, heavy snow storm engulfed 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 within 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. To cover wide gaps in 7 and 9 Platoon localities, he 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 hours, 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. The Chinese launched four more wave 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. In these skirmishes enemy was successful in snapping the telephone line leading to the Battalion Headquarters. By about 0545 hours, the Chinese frontal attack was beaten back and failed.
The Chinese having realized that Rezang La was not a cake walk, changed their operational plan. Rezang La was resorted to heavy artillery shelling and to destroy field fortifications they used concentrated fire of 75 mm RCL guns brought on wheel barrows from the flanks. The deep craters near the Company Command Post 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, could bear the preponderance of enemy’s devastating artillery fire.
The Chinese regrouped 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, his handful men and weapons. His Company Havildar Major 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 firing 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 Jainarain to safer place behind a boulder who bandaged his wounds. He ordered Phool Singh and Jainarain to leave him and rush to the Battalion Headquarters and froze to martyrdom in the night. 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. Due to terrain remoteness and no communication, 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 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.
Surprisingly though the Chinese claimed area up to Chushul, on 21 Nov 1962, without any further offensives, they declared unilateral cease fire. The War Diary of 13 Kumaon states that Battalion 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. In January 1963, a local Ladakhi shepherd wandered over the Rezang La feature. He was amazed by the awesome war spectacle 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. 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 gunshot 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.
Every soldier out numbered 10 to 1 fought and died at Rezang La was a national hero and deserved a gallantry award. But wars are never fought for personal glory or awards. Major Shaitan Singh was conferred with the Param Vir Chakra-the country’s highest gallantry award posthumously. Of the others, Jemadar Hari Ram*, Jemadar Surja* Jemadar Ram Chander, Naik Hukam Singh*, Naik Gulab Singh* Naik Ram Kumar Yadav*, Lance Naik Singh Ram * Sepoy (Nursing Assistant) Dharam Pal Dhaiya* were decorated with Vir Chakra and CHM Harphool Singh*, Havildar Jai Narain, Havildar Phool Singh and Sepoy Nihal Singh were decorated with Sena Medal each, while Jemadar Jai Narain* was Mentioned-in-Dispatches. Brigadier TN Raina, another die hard Kumaoni and the inspiring Brigade Commander of the 114 Infantry Brigade was awarded country’s second highest gallantry award Maha Vir Chakra while Lt Col HS Dhingra, the Commanding Officer of 13 Kumaon was awarded Ati Vishisht Seva Medal for his inspiring leadership under adverse battle conditions. The Battalion was also awarded ‘The Battle Honour Rezang La’ and ‘The Theatre Honour Ladakh’ . (*Awarded posthumously) 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.
High Ground, the place where Battalion Headquarters had been at the time of the battle, the 96 bodies of the heroes of Rezang La were consumed to flames with full military honours in mass cremation amidst chanting of Vedic Mantras. The Rezang La Memorial was constructed by the Battalion to honour those who gave their lives to defend our values and way of life. On the first anniversary of the epic Rezang La Battle on 18 Nov 1963, I stood close to the Memorial overlooking massive Rezang La feature, in biting chilly winds to pay my homage to Rezang La warriors with pride and tears in my eyes, as I read the inscription on the marble slab as under: –
“How Can A Man Die Better?
Than Facing Fearful Odds,
For The Ashes Of His Fathers,
And Temples Of His Gods.”
Today we remember these brave men on the day they gave the supreme sacrifice and created history in India.