On September 9, 1962, Krishna Menon who was the Defence Minister of India decided to evict the Chinese troops south of Thala Ridge. This decision was endorsed by Nehru, who was in London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. So 7th Infantry Brigade was ordered to move to Namka Chu.
When the Chinese attacked the unprepared Indian post at Namka Chu, the Indian troops tried to repel the attack but suffered heavy casualties.
Phase one of the Sino-Indian war, which began on October 20, 1962 with Force Z-419 (“Z” standing for ‘Xizang’ or Tibet) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacking Nam ka chu ended on October 24, 1962 with the decimation of 7 infantry brigade and fall of Tawang.
Units of the 7 Infantry Brigade gave stiff resistance to the PLA at Nam Ka Chu River in NEFA but were overrun by 1200 hours on October 20, 1962. The 7 Infantry Brigade was practically wiped out in the war at the Namka Chu ridge on October 20, 1962. In the meantime, the tactical Headquarters of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, also known as the Red Eagle Division (because of a Red Eagle on its badge on a black background) under Major General Niranjan Prashad located at Zimithang withdrew to Tawang and reached Dirang Dzong valley at first light on October 21, 1962.
The 4 Artillery Brigade commanded by Brig. Kalyan Singh at Tawang which had two infantry Battalions and three Artillery batteries gave up without a fight on October 23.
The Red Eagle Division was not prepared and poorly equipped for warfare in the mountains that too in the cold climate. This coupled with poor leadership, refusal to assimilate feedback from the forces on the ground, inadequate ammunition and weak communication lines were some of the reasons behind the rout of the Indian forces. After the defeat at Namka Chu, Major General Niranjan Prasad was replaced by Major General Anant Singh Pathania and Brigadier Kalyan Singh was replaced by Brigadier GS Gill.
The only deed worth mentioning in the war was that of Subedar Joginder Singh, commanding 11 platoon of 1 Sikh regiment at the Bum La Pass. Though heavily outnumbered, he and his troops defended the post against the advancing Chinese till he was wounded and captured. Singh died due to his injuries in Chinese custody but not before single-handedly killing more than 50 Chinese soldiers. He was posthumously awarded Param Vir Chakra for his gallant action and unwavering leadership.
The second phase of the Chinese attack commenced on November 17, 1962, after a lull of 23 days. The division faced further defeat and withdrew from Dirang Dzong in the forenoon of November 18.
The situation was not so grim as interpreted by the higher leadership and could have been contained had the leadership shown the guts to fight. Sela, Dirang and Bomdila were formidably held on Tawang -Tezpur axis. Let us study the terrain in the Kameng sector especially the axis of Tawang to Tezpur. The total distance is approximately 180 km. If we go to Bum la, it is an additional 25 km and 50 km to Nam ka chu river but due to difficult terrain and steep gradients travelling time was measured in days, not in hours beyond Dirang Dzong and ahead of Tawang. The ammunition, rations and stores need to be taken by man/ mule pack or air dropped. The altitude gradually rises from the plains of Assam towards the foothills till Rupa and Eagles nest beyond Tenga valley. The height of Rupa is 7000 feet above sea level, Bomdila 11000 feet, Dirang Dzong 7000 feet, Sela 14000 feet, Jang 8000 feet, Tawang 10000 feet, Thang la, Kar pola 2, Yamstola, Bum la, Tuting la were at 18000 feet plus with extremely cold conditions and chilly cold winds could bring down the temperature below minus 10 degree Celsius.
The rivers in this area from south to north are Mighty Bharmaputra in Assam plains, Tenga near Rupa, Drang chu, Tawang chu, Nyamjang chu and Nam ka chu the point of the clash. Despite such formidable terrain and all its disadvantages for the attackers, the Indian formations could not hold their ground.
Today the same road is much better and jeepable till Bum la. Shepards from the Momoa tribe go beyond the Macmahon line with their Yaks and sheep and are often used as guides/informers by both sides. The map shows the area of operations of the Red Eagle Division.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Defence minister Krishna Menon never expected China to attack the ill-equipped Indian troops. Gen P N Thapar was appointed Chief of Army Staff (COAS) after the unceremonious departure of Gen Thimmaya and the supersession of Gen Thorat. Lt Gen L P Sen was the Eastern Army commander and Lt Gen Umrao Singh was the 33 Corps Commander. Maj Gen Nirajan Prashad was the 4 Division Commander.
There was a clash of opinion between the 33 corps Commander and the Army Commander regarding the deployment of troops beyond Nam ka chu river on Thang la ridge. Then, came the meteoric rise of Lt Gen B M Kaul (Army service corps) who was very close to the PM. He was appointed 4 Corps Commander. At his behest 4 infantry Division was removed from 33 Corps and put directly under the command of the newly raised 4 corps located at Tezpur on October 5, 1962. Gen Kaul made sure that the 7 infantry Brigade moved up from Tawang to Nam Ka Chu despite reservations from Brig JP Dalvi the Brigade Commander who projected that defence stores, ammunition, and extra cold clothing were not available for the troops as well as a shortage of troops but was overruled.
Gen Kaul himself reached the Brigade headquarters (HQ) at Rong la and ordered 9 Punjab to occupy Tsangle north of Nam ka chu and Tseng jong a small cluster of huts, across Log Bridge. On his orders, a patrol of 9 Punjab launched an attack at Yamstola on the last light of October 9. The Chinese retaliated and brought down heavy fire on the patrol on October 10. This resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. Gen Kaul was so stunned by Chinese retaliation that he left for Lumpu and then by helicopter to Tezpur the next day from where he was evacuated to the Army hospital in Delhi by fixed-wing aircraft due to high altitude sickness. So, when the war finally broke out the 4 Corps Commander was convalescing in the VIP suite in the Army Hospital, Delhi Cantt.
After the disaster at Nam ka chu and Tawang, the COAS decided to overhaul the top leadership in the middle of the battle on October 23, 1962. Major General Harbaksh Singh was rushed to Tezpur to take over command of 4 Corps. Maj Gen A S Pathania MVC, MC replaced Maj Gen Niranjan Prashad. Brig N K Lal Brigade Commander of 62 Brigade (Sela) was replaced by Brig Hoshiar Singh. Likewise, the 65 Brigade at Dirang Dzong was also put under a new Commander. Brig GM Sayeed was replaced by Brig A S Chima. Brig G S Gill replaced Brig Kalyan singh at Tawang. Brig Gurbaksh Singh, Commander 48 Infantry Brigade located at Bomdila was the only one, retained.
According to military analysts replacement of 4 corps Commander was a wise decision but to replacement of so many others too at the same time, in the thick of battle was not advisable. Chinese foxed the Indian Political and military leadership by having a long lull in the battle on October 24, probably to review the progress of operations in phase 1 and logistics pause.
This gave a wrong signal to New Delhi that the War was over.
The Chinese had achieved their aim to humiliate India and did not advance further due to the long logistics tail. The morale of the 4 Corps was restored with the appointment of Gen Harbaksh Singh, a seasoned strong military leader who had vowed not to permit any withdrawal. But to everyone’s surprise, Gen Kaul was reinstated as 4 Corps Commander on October 30, 1962 and Gen Harbaksh Singh was reverted to his old appointment in less than six days. The troops were not happy and their morale deteriorated because of sudden changes in command.
After his reinstatement, one of the first things that Gen Kaul and his new Division Commander did was to convert the Sela pass area 30 km away from Tawang at 14000 feet into an impregnable fort under Brig Hoshiar Singh Commander 62 Brigade. Brig Hoshiar Singh was a tough Commander and was liked by his troops. At his orders, 4 Garhwal deployed a company at Jang and Battalion minus at Naurang to keep an eye on the Chinese advance from Tawang or further east. The lull in battle allowed them to lay mines and consolidate their defences by building formidable bunkers and trenches with ample stocks of rations and ammunition to last at least 20 days. The Battalions under the 62 Brigade included 2 Sikh LI, 4 Sikh LI, and 13 Dogra. 1 Sikh also joined on 24 Oct after withdrawing from Tawang. Sela’s top shoulders were at 16000 feet and were held strongly. By the end of 28 Oct Sela fort too was fully ready to take on the Chinese offensive.
Dirang Dzong village in the Valley of Dirang River was occupied by 65 infantry Brigade with 4 Rajput, 17 Maratha LI, a field battery and co-located was 4 Division Headquarters after withdrawal from Zimithang. The area was about 30 km from Sela and again well defended but down in a valley dominated by heights.
Bomdila at the height of 10000 feet too was formidably defended by 48 infantry Brigade. Bomdila was the last strong bastion before the foothills of Tenga valley – about 20 km from Dirang. It was defended by 5 Guards, 1 Sikh LI, 1 Madras and B squadron of 7 Cavalry with Stuart tanks. Two Battalions were deployed on the Northern approach and 5 Guards were stationed at Thembang to guard the eastern approach from Poshing la axis.
On November 17, 1962 after a lull of 23 days, phase 2 of the Chinese offensive commenced at first light. Suddenly 4 Garhwal was attacked by Force 419 infantry regiments at Naurang and Jang. The Garhwalis beat four attacks before being ordered to withdraw to the Sela fort. Its Battalion Commander was awarded MVC for fighting a pitched battle with the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Special Forces of PLA attacked 2 Sikh LI but Brig Hoshiar Singh and his troops put up a brave fight and remained firmly in control of the situation.
Meanwhile, the Chinese psychological operations, rumours, and propaganda played havoc on the mind of Maj Gen Pathania the 4 Division Commander who without even discussing with Brig Hoshiar Singh the Brigade Commander informed Gen Kaul that Se la was likely to be encircled and wiped out. Gen Kaul almost froze to hear this and ordered an immediate withdrawal of the 62 Brigade which was in reality firmly entrenched and capable of fighting for at least another 15 days. Brig Hoshiar Singh, was furious when he heard the order to withdraw to Dirang Dzong at midnight on November 17/18. Brig Hoshiar Singh and his troops were ambushed near phutang while going down from Se la and killed. Only small sections of the Brigade managed to cross over to Bhutan, while others headed for the plains. The Se la withdrawal ended up as a shameful blunder.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Force 419 reserve regiment and its advance elements led by special forces headed for Dirang Dzong after clearing pockets of resistance at Sela and engaged 4 Rajput and 17 Marata LI of 65 Infantry Brigade on 18 Oct first light. The general officer commanding (GOC) Red Eagle division panicked and ordered the immediate withdrawal of Division HQ and units holding Bomdila. He planned to join up 48 Brigade at Bomdila but on the way, he was wrongly informed that Bomdila had fallen. The whole force disintegrated and headed for Bhutan and the plains of Assam. Meanwhile, the 11 Chinese Division reached Bomdila from the East.
Bomdila was defended by the 48 Infantry Brigade under Brig Gurbax Singh who was confident that he would be able to stall the Chinese forces. But suddenly he received an order from Gen Kaul who asked him to send half a battalion and half a squadron of Armour to Dirang Dzong. Hence a task force left Bomdila to defend Dirang which had already fallen — leaving a gap in the northern defences of Bomdila. The Chinese troops launched several attacks on 5 Guards, which were ordered to fall back to Bomdila but were ambushed en route. Finally, Bomdila was abandoned on November 18, 1962.
Meanwhile, the 48 Brigade was redeployed at Rupa overlooking Tenga valley 10 km away from Bomdila. Gen Kaul ordered the 48 Infantry Brigade to move to Chaco foothills by mid-day on November 19. However at 1400 hours, they were ordered to reoccupy Rupa heights but it was too late as PLA troops had already occupied Rupa. Hence 48 Brigade did not have a choice but to head for Chaco.
Meanwhile, Radio Peking announced a unilateral ceasefire at the dawn of November 21, 1962 and the 31 Day long Indo-China War came to an end. On the last day of the war, 4 Rajput fought a pitched battle at Mandala ridge with the Chinese while withdrawing from Dirang. In this battle, 175 soldiers including the commanding officer laid down their lives after inflicting heavy casualties on PLA.
Interestingly the China war which started with an attack on 2 Rajput on Nam ka chu at the first light of October 20, terminated with the action by 4 Rajput at Lagheya Gompa near Bomdila on November 21, 1962. Both the units fought bravely and proved that the PLA is after all not as invincible as it seems.
There is a famous saying – ‘victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. Many reasons can be cited for the Himalayan blunder. Some of the reasons include the following:
- India as a nation was not prepared for war
- Both Nehru and Krishna Menon were convinced that China would never attack India
- The political leadership lacked vision and was not prepared for War
- Nehru wanted to bag the noble peace prize
- Competent and sound military leaders were bypassed by the likes of Gen Kaul
- Military equipment was obsolete
- Commanders at all levels were changed in the middle of the war
- There was a lack of faith and communication in the chain of command
- Many orders for withdrawal were taken in panic without knowing the ground realities
- The IAF was not used to carry out offensive action
- Artillery was seldom used
- The troops were neither acclimatized nor properly equipped
- The defence minister interfered with military plans and blocked all equipment procurement
- It was an intelligence failure – the intelligence agencies were caught with their pants down
During the war, U.S. Ambassador John Keneth Galbraith was in constant touch with the Indian Prime minister and wrote two letters to President John F Kennedy on November 13 and December 6, 1962 recommending military aid to India and warning to China.
At his behest President, Kennedy gave an ultimatum to China to stop the war and an attack on India will be treated as an attack on the United States.
As a result, the Chinese Military commission agreed to a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew to the Macmahon line in NEFA. But by then China had achieved what it wanted and even today claims stakes claim on Aksai chin and Eastern Ladakh by virtue of the misadventure – 60 years ago. Mission accomplished??
-The writer is an Indian Army veteran and a defence analyst. He has keen interest in Geo-strategic affairs and writes regularly on internal and external affairs issues related to India and neighbours. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda