New Delhi: Exactly 71 years ago, the Indian Army pulled off the unthinkable — deploying tanks at 11,553 feet in Ladakh — which took the Pakistan military by surprise and stopped their evil design to take over the region.
The famous battle took place in the Zojila pass — which means the Pass of Blizzards.
Ladakh, at the time of Partition, was guarded by personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir State Force. Eyeing the entire Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan launched a simultaneous assault there along with in the Kashmir valley.
Within days, Pakistan managed to take over Gilgit and Baltistan, even before the Indian Army could even react.
Most of the State forces fell back to Skardu, a small town guarding the approach to Leh. The town was held by a small garrison of around a thousand men, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa, which withstood Pakistani attack till finally falling on 14 August 1948.
Pakistan had managed to capture Kargil and Drass towns by end of May 1948. What was even more worrying was that Pakistan forces had captured the crucial Zojila Pass.
The importance of Zojila lay in the fact that it commanded entry to Leh and provided a direct all weather approach to Leh and Kargil from Giligit and Skardu.
Once Zojila closed in winter, no direct route was available in Srinagar and Leh.
By March 1948, Leh was threatened both from the north and the south. The enemy had occupied Zojila, Drass and Kargil. Between Kargil and Leh, only two State Forces platoons, which guarded the bridge at Khaltse, stood in the way of the enemy.
Indian Army swings into action
According to the official history as noted by the Army, Leh detachment was ordered to build an airstrip near Leh in these difficult conditions, which they managed to complete by May 1948.
As Pakistani forces approached Khaltse, the State Forces platoons demolished the bridge, halting the enemy in its tracks at the nick of time, the records say.
On 1 June 1948, one company of 2/4 Gorkha Rifles had been flown to Leh from Srinagar, and this helped the reinforced Leh garrison keep the enemy at bay.
Leh still had no proper logistic support system. The route from Srinagar was blocked with enemy occupying Zojila, Drass and Kargil.
And hence, General K.S. Thimayya decided to clear Zojila, Drass and Kargil.
The 77 (Para) Brigade commanded by Brig K.L. Atal was given the task of capturing Zojila in September 1948.
This brigade of Chindits and Burma fame comprised 3 JAT, 1/5 Gorkhas, 5 Maratha Light Infantry, a platoon of heroic engineers, a platoon of machine gunners and a few ancillary units.
1 Patiala, located at Baltal after clearing the Sonamarg valley, was put under command of the brigade for this mission.
77 (Para) Brigade launched action on September 3, but was unable to complete the mission due to difficult terrain and snow conditions on the heights surrounding Zojila, the records say.
The enemy position was so strong that the soldiers attacking Zojila from the front could make no headway, “despite adequate artillery support and strafing of enemy positions by Tempest aircraft” of the IAF.
A second attempt made on September 13, too, failed.
Deployment of tanks
The enemy’s position on the Pass was strong, but Gen Thimayya had a plan — a bold and unthinkable one.
The Army records say he decided to use light armour to dislodge the enemy from Zojila, and then head to Drass and Kargil. Nowhere in the world had tanks operated at such heights ever.
Within a month, the Army Engineers (Madras Sappers) built a track that the Stuart tanks could use to reach the Pass from Baltal base.
The plan also involved the move of a squadron located at Akhnoor across the Pir Panjal Range.
In 1948, the Jammu-Srinagar road was a dusty track with weak wooden bridges over streams and rivers. The troops needed Engineer assistance at each crossing, the Army noted.
The move had to be kept secret, and to ensure this, tank turrets were removed and transported by vehicles. Turretless armoured vehicles, heavily camouflaged, moved under the cover of darkness.
That the tanks had to be winched across many bridges only added to the challenge. After nearly a month, the Army records say, the Stuarts finally arrived in the vicinity of Srinagar.
A curfew was imposed so that direction of the tanks’ movement could be kept a secret.
Zozila usually sees the season’s first heavy snowfall towards the end of October, and 1948 was no exception. It started snowing on 20 October and ‘Operation Bison’ had to be postponed.
Heavier snow was expected, but Gen Thimayya declared 1 November as the next “D Day” — irrespective of the weather conditions.
The Army says full credit must be given to Lt Col Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’, the CO of 7 Cavalry who “did not hesitate for a moment to accept this seemingly impossible mission”.
During the assault, the Army says, tanks were closely followed by infantry soldiers with bared bayonets. Gen Thimayya travelled in the leading tank.
Any hesitation to take back Zojila at this juncture would have resulted in the loss of Leh and Laddakh, the Army notes.
Shocked enemy runs for life
Negotiating the tough terrain, which was steep and slippery amid heavy snowfall, the tanks reached the Ghumri basin on 1 November 1948, at 1440 hours.
The tank column followed by 1/5 (Royal) Gorkhas continued across the Pass, while 1 Patiala and 4 Rajput charged and drove out the enemy from their strongholds.
The appearance of tanks came as a bolt from the blue for the enemy. Surprised and highly demoralised, heavily punished by artillery fire, and blinded by snow, the enemy ran for their lives, the records said.
Gen Thimayya ordered the Brigade Commander to press on to Machoi, a few kilometres ahead, and 1 Patiala reached Machoi the same night. The surprised enemy had to once again run for their lives, this time leaving a howitzer behind.
The Army rightly observed that to assault the enemy position with tanks, at minus 20 degrees temperature with blowing blizzards, without any snow clothing or equipment, had never before been achieved anywhere else in the world.
With success in the pocket, the Army pushed further, and 4 Rajput captured Matyan, 18 km ahead of Zojila, on 4 November.
However, the advance was now held up by a very strong enemy position on dominating grounds. Once again, tanks were moved up to dislodge the enemy. By 15-16 November, Drass, the second-coldest inhabited place in the world, was captured.
The brigade resumed its advance on 17-18 November with Kargil as its main objective, and by the night of 22-23 November, all enemy positions on the way to Kargil were eliminated.
The Army noted that a company of 5 Gorkhas took a long detour, crossed a feature more than 4,000 metres high, and contacted the Kargil defences at dawn.
Another company of this battalion crossed the Shingo river and dealt a blow to the enemy from another direction.
Later that day, a column from Leh effected the link-up at Kargil, which was finally cleared of enemy, and the direct link from Leh to Srinagar restored.