Fifty-eight years ago on 20 October 1962, the Chinese began their “Counterattack in Self Defense on the China-India Border” to simultaneously attack in Eastern Ladakh and North East Frontier Agency, or NEFA. The phase 1 of the war lasted from 20-24 October in the northeast and from 20-27 October in Eastern Ladakh.
This column is restricted to Phase 1 of the war in Eastern Ladakh. The account is based on data from the The Official History of 1962 India China War and 1962 – War in the Western Sector (Ladakh) [ A View from Other Side of the Hill]
Until 1959, both India and China were pursuing the traditional forward policy to flag mark the frontier regions without coming in contact. In the northeast, we preempted the Chinese and had secured the area up to the McMahon Line using the Assam Rifles by 1951. In Ladakh, the Chinese preempted us to assert control over Aksai Chin and built the Xinjiang-Tibet highway, and set up posts to defend it. In response, we set up posts with subunits of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
After the violent clashes at Longju ( 25 August 1959) and Kongka La (21 October 1959), the Army was directed to take over the defence of the border and we adopted a new forward policy of establishing posts, beginning 5 December1961, as close to, to the flanks and behind the Chinese posts. The premise was that the Chinese will not initiate a conflict and we will flag mark additional territory. The Chinese did the same under their policy of “armed coexistence”.
The rival posts became interlocked. India’s strategy, based on the assessment by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was that the Chinese were bluffing and would not resort to a large-scale military action. Hence, the Indian Army could establish posts in areas unoccupied by the Chinese to stake claims up to its boundary, and at times go behind the Chinese to force their withdrawal. The Chinese played along, doing the same to stalemate the situation until they were ready for decisive military action. This dangerous cat and mouse game continued until China launched military operations on 20 October 1962.
By the end of September, Indian Army had set up 77 posts in Eastern Ladakh, out of which 43 posts were considered as intrusions by the Chinese because these were east of the 1959 Claim Line.
Indian Army deployment
The Army had deployed 114 Infantry Brigade consisting of four battalions, 14 J&K Militia, 5 JAT, 7 J&K Militia and 1/8 Gorkha Rifles for Ladakh’s defence. The headquarters of the brigade was at Leh and a tactical headquarter at Chushul. The brigade was later reinforced with two more battalions – 13 Kumaon and 1 JAT. However, these took part only in Phase 2 of the battle beginning 18 November 1962.
Interlocked posts as on 20 October 1962
The Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector opposite the Chinese Tianwendian Sector was held by 14 J&K Militia and one company of 5 JAT. The battalion was holding 21 widely separated isolated posts. Out of these, seven were of a platoon strength (30-40 personnel) and 14 were of section strength (10 personnel). One company was in reserve at DBO.
Four posts each in the Galwan River Valley and Changchenmo River Valley were held by two companies of 5 JAT. The third company was manning the line of communication to Changchenmo Valley with six posts. On the Chinese side, Hewetian Sector and Part of Kongka Pass Sector was opposite this area.
The Pangong Sector was held by 1/8 Gorkha Rifles with a company less a platoon on the north bank and a company on the south bank of Pangong Tso. There were two platoon posts in Sirijap and three posts on the south bank. Two companies were deployed on the Kailash Range, one each at Gurung Hill and Magar Hill to the north and south of the Spanggur Gap. The Chinese Kongka Pass Sector was opposite the north bank and Ali Sector responsible for the south bank.
In the Indus Valley Sector, 7 J&K Militia was stretched from Dungti to Demchok, a distance of 70 km. It had two posts on the Kailash Range at Chang La and Jara La, one at Dumchele and four posts at Demchok. The Chinese Ali Sector was responsible for this area.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mustered one division consisting of three infantry regiments (equivalent to a brigade) with requisite supporting arms and some tanks. Some additional ad hoc units were also created for the operation.
Map showing first phase of operations 20-28 October 1962
Our thin deployment in penny packets stretched over 400 km was hardly conducive to defend the territory. Hence, the strategy was to conduct a planned withdrawal to depth areas for defence of Leh in event of a major attack. The PLA relied upon infiltration to get behind our isolated posts and in most cases, did not allow a planned withdrawal except from those posts that were not attacked.
The attack commenced in the wee hours on the night of 19/20 October in all sectors. In the DBO Sector, the main focus was opposite DBO itself, north and south of the Chip Chap River The attack commenced at 0825 hours on Post Number 6 (as numbered by the PLA) held by 62 soldiers. The post was captured by 1045 hours. Forty soldiers were killed in action and 20 were taken as prisoners of war (POW). Over the next 30 hours, most of the posts defending the DBO Sector were captured. On the intervening night of 21-22 October, 14 J&K Militia was given permission to withdraw. The withdrawal was orderly and by 24 October, the entire sector was vacated. The PLA did not advance beyond 1959 Claim Line.
In the Galwan River, our main post close to Samzungling had been established by a platoon of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles using the route from Hot Springs along Kugrang River. The post had cut off the routes to three PLA posts. It had been under siege since 4 July 1962. A company of 5 JAT was inducted by helicopters from 4-12 October to relieve the platoon. It was attacked at 0825 hours on 20 October and captured in two hours. The intensity of fighting can be gauged from the fact that out of 68 all-rank soldiers, 36 were killed in action and 32 taken as POW.
In the Hot Springs sector, there was a sharp fight at the outpost near Kugrang River and Changlung Nala Junction. The PLA did not advance beyond this area. All other troops in Changchenmo Valley were withdrawn.
North of Pangong Tso, Sirijap 1 held by a Company headquarter and one platoon was attacked at 0900 hours on 21 October and was captured by 1100 hours. Fourteen soldiers were killed and 25 were taken as POW. The PLA suffered 21 casualties. The Company Commander, Major Dhan Singh Thapa, was wounded and taken as POW. He was later awarded Param Vir Chakra. The PLA pressed on the attack to Sirijap 2 and after a stiff fight captured it by 1700 hours. Our troops suffered 10 killed in action and 12 were taken as POW.
South of Pangong Tso there was not much of a fight and our three posts managed to withdraw.
In 48 hours, the PLA had secured the 1959 Claim Line up to Pangong Tso. It had to regroup to attack the Indus Valley Sector. Ali Sector of the PLA was responsible for the operation. Commencing operations on 27 October, the entire area up to the 1959 Claim Line was captured by 28 October.
The Chinese political aim in 1962 was simple – to “teach India a lesson”, neutralise it as a rival for position of preeminence in Asia and the world, and prevent it from challenging the perceived Chinese territorial integrity and sovereignty over Tibet. The military objective was to impose a crushing defeat on Indian armed forces operating in NEFA and Ladakh, and in so doing, completely annihilate the forces in NEFA, and secure territory up to the 1959 claim line in Ladakh.
The war in Eastern Ladakh in 1962 was fought in the same areas into which the PLA has intruded with effect from May 2020. Ironically, the military aim seems to be the same – to secure the territory up to its 1959 Claim Line and in the event of an escalation, impose a crushing defeat on India. As per the Chinese perception, over the years, India has creeped across its Claim Line, which it had secured in 1962 and was developing border infrastructure that threatens its territorial integrity.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.