New Delhi: The village of Chushul in Ladakh lies 14,000 feet above sea level, sandwiched between undulating sand slopes, and cutting across the south bank of the Pangong Tso lake.
Located about 200 kilometres from Leh, Chushul was a central flashpoint in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Specifically, there were two phases to the clashes at the Chushul sector—first at Sirijap post on 21 October and then at Rezang La and Gurung hill from 18 November onwards.
Despite a valiant defence, a consequence of being outnumbered and outgunned, Indian soldiers from 1/8 Gorkha Rifles, 13 Kumaon, and 1 and 5 Jat suffered heavy casualties in the Chushul sector. They consequently had to withdraw to the hills west of Chushul.
However, the Indian soldiers offset the first few waves of attack by the Chinese at Gurung Hill and Rezang La—two crucial battles in Chushul. This defence even included engaging in hand-to-hand combat and drawing the Gorkha Khukri (small knife).
India’s official war history on the 1962 war, published by the Ministry of Defence notes, “Chushul was probably the only organized defensive battle fought by the army in 1962.”
Chushul, lies on a strategic point, as the road to the capital Leh passes through it. During the 1962 war, an airstrip located near Chushul played an important role. By October 1962, with the work of army engineers, the airstrip was capable of flying packet aircraft, a twin-engine cargo plan and and AN-32s, Soviet-made transport aircraft.
China wanted control over Chushul for two main reasons—to cut off access to the capital Leh and to prevent any reinforcements coming in via the airfield, explains the official war history.
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India’s deployment in Leh
In 1962, as fears of a clash with the Chinese forces escalated, the Western Command requested the presence of an army division to defend Leh. This essentially would amount to having 4 brigades. However, instead by September of 1962, only the 114th Brigade with 2 battalions—including 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat —were deployed to defend Ladakh. Further, prior to the war, units of the Jammu & Kashmir militia were also guarding areas around Ladakh.
As part of the forward policy, India had set up a number of posts scattered around Chushul to protect it from the Chinese forces. These posts were under the control of the Jammu and Kashmir militia.
The J&K militia was a paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home Affairs till 1972. On 1 December 1972, they were inducted into the army as a full-fledged regiment. In 1976, they were renamed as Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI).
The official war history notes that prior to the fighting in the Chushul sector—north of the Pangong lake a company-less platoon of 5 Jat, along with 1/8 Gorkha Rifles were deployed at Sirijap complex to defend Indian territory. Further, south of the lake, three posts at Yula complex were defended by companies of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles.
First phase of attack at Chushul sector
From early September, the Chinese had started to encircle the Indians at Sirijap post. The Chinese had also deployed a regiment opposite Chushul, adds the war history.
After the war broke out on 20th October, around 0600 hrs on 21 October, the Chinese attacked three posts held by the Indians at Sirijap. They first carried out heavy shelling at one of the posts—Sirijap-1. Consequently, they targeted Sirijap-1 with light tanks.
The Indians had no counter to the light tanks. Shortly after the attack began, Sirijap-1 lost communication. Later, it was discovered that the entire unit at Sirijap-1, including the company commander, had lost their lives in the attack.
The Chinese then took over Sirijap-2. Very few soldiers survived, they narrated that wounded soldiers were brutally lined up and shot dead by the Chinese, the war history explained.
By 22 October, the Chinese had taken over all the posts at the northern bank, including Sirijap, Sirijap-1, and Sirijap 2. Given the size of the forces consolidating, the Indians at Yula decided to withdraw to Gurung Hill.
Consequently, the war history notes that to fortify Chushul, India moved 13 Kumaon along with a platoon of 1 Mahar to the sector. Ammunition and supplies were also airlifted to Chushul. After this quick movement by the Indian military, an imminent crisis was averted and there was a lull in fighting in Chushul between 22 October to mid-November 1962.
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Reinforcements during the lull
The Chinese, during this lull, reinforced their troops and weaponry. Like the strategy employed in Walong, and other sectors of the battle. They had deployed a regiment plus a battalion in the Chushul sector through this period. These forces were equipped with weaponry like mortar, medium and light machine guns, and artillery, adds the war history.
The Indians, on the other hand, after the initial reinforcement prior to the pause did not reinforce their troops again in the Chushul sector, instead focusing on the defence of Leh.
Further, winter was setting in, and none of the Indian troops was adequately prepared for it. Neither did they have the clothing for sub-zero temperatures nor the time to bring them in. Consequently, many soldiers lost their lives due to frostbite, notes the official war history.
All hell breaks loose at Rezang La
Early morning on 18 November 1962, China launched a simultaneous attack on both Rezang La and Gurung Hill.
Around 0400 hrs, a battalion strength of the Chinese started to attack the Indian soldiers posted at Rezang La. Armed with light machine guns, the Chinese launched a frontal attack at the Indian posts at Rezang La guarded by soldiers of 13 Kumaon.
Dug into their trenches, the Indians started firing with their 3-inch mortars and grenades, once the Chinese were in range. A period of intense firing between the two armies went on for nearly an hour, after which there was a brief lull. The Indians had successfully offset the first wave. By 0540 hrs, the Chinese started to re-attack with mortar and artillery fire. However, apart from destroying the communication lines, they did not succeed, the war history explains.
Consequently, the Chinese changed track and decided to attack the posts at Rezang La from the flanks. As a counter, the Kumaonis jumped out of their trenches and attacked the Chinese with their bayonets and even engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The 3-inch mortars were also fired at the Chinese from point-blank range.
The fighting was hard and bitter leaving behind a deadly trail of bodies and blood. The last of the Indian machine guns stopped firing by 2200 hrs. Both the Indians and Chinese suffered heavy losses at Rezang La. Out of the 112 Indian soldiers posted at Rezang La, only 14 survived, the war history notes.
A year later in 1963, the war history explains that the Indian Red Cross visited Rezang La and recovered the bodies. The party that visited observed the place to be littered with field dressings and blood, a sign of the heavy losses suffered there. India awarded the highest wartime gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra to Major Shaitan Singh, for his bravery at Rezang La.
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Bloody encounter at Gurung Hill
Simultaneously, at 0530 hrs on 18 November, the Chinese began an intense bombardment of the Indian posts held by 1/8 Gorkha Rifles at Gurung Hill. After a fierce defence by the Indian soldiers, at around 0800 hrs the Chinese occupied some portions of Gurung Hill. However, the Indian company commander, Tej Bahadur Gurung, led his men and using the traditional Gorkha Khukri, a curved knife, fended the Chinese off the hill. By 1000 hrs, Gurung Hill was back in Indian control, the war history explains.
The Chinese then launched a second attack that was preceded by heavy shelling. The Gorkha soldiers were finally overwhelmed due to stark asymmetries in numbers. The Chinese then took over the forward positions of Gurung Hill. More than 50 soldiers from the Gorkha Rifles died in this clash, data from the war history shows.
Consequently, the 114 brigade ordered a withdrawal of all troops from Gurung Hill and posted them to the mountains west of Chushul. This was in lieu of a larger military priority to defend Leh. Even though the army assessed that the soldiers would be able to hold on for longer, the losses and dwindling supplies could no longer justify their deployment. “Despite a successful defence, a withdrawal was ordered on the night of 19/20 November,” the official history notes.
Further, the Chinese did not try to follow the withdrawing Indians, and neither did they try to take over the airfield. It would seem that the Chinese were content with depriving Indians of the use of the airfield.
Though the odds were stacked in China’s favour, the Indians gave a tough fight and made it a close contest. With better manpower and supplies, the official war history argues, India could have perhaps defeated the Chinese at Rezang La and Gurung Hill and even turned the tide in the battle.
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)
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