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18 Punjab Operations in High Altitude Terrain of Kargil
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Brig Jagbir Singh Grewal, VSM (Retd)
1971 War Veteran and author of the book "Poonch: India's Invincible Citadel".

Like most other days at Drass, 03 December 1971, was again a chilly day. The bone-chilling afternoon deterred all activity, but we had found out a method to beat back the freezing cold. Our prolonged deployment at Drass and the large open area adjoining our field fortifications had turned us into accomplished baseball players. Baseball had become our favourite game. And as we played baseball during that afternoon, our Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel B. S. Joshi suddenly left the game abruptly as he was called over to the Brigade Headquarters. He smiled, taking long strides as he walked past us to his jeep. Eruption of a war was imminent, but that could not deter our festivities.

Drass is the second coldest inhabited place after Siberia, and located at a height of 10,500 feet (3230 metres). There are frequent blizzards and an icy breeze blows for most part of the day and night. But, the icy breeze could not dampen our spirits; it could only redden Gulshi Bhola’s cheeks. Holding the baseball bat like a hockey stick, Balkar Singh Gill’s shots tore into the opposing team making them pant for breath while chasing the ball in the uneven high altitude area. Major Sarjit Singh Sahota roared with laughter, putting the overhanging roaring clouds to shame. The sheer weight of our hefty coat parkhas impeded our running, so chasing the ball was not everyone’s cup of tea. Holding the bat and hitting the ball was preferred. As everyone awaited his turn to hold the bat and hit the ball, the game ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. Taken aback, we realised that Quarter Master Pritam Singh left the game and quickly whizzed away as if he was chasing the devil on its tail.

For us there could be no sleep that night, packing, fastening the weapons and equipment, we took off time to sit up, with legs tucked in our sleeping bags to listen to Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s midnight address to the Nation over radio. She had announced, “We are at war with Pakistan”.

Thereafter, we concentrated at Kala Pahar astride the     Srinagar-Kargil Highway, which had a sparse growth of rhododendron bushes. These bushes could be lit up to ward off the extreme, unbearable cold, but tiny sparkles thrown up from these fires emitted a ‘khad, khad’ type of sound. This was ignored, because the fires provided the much needed soothing warmth and that also compensated for the smoke that oozed into the nostrils.

Some men sat in semi-circles around the small bush fires, with their palms and feet extended towards the fire, while others held up their socks to dry. Some others busied themselves in cooking food in small groups for their sub-units. The empty Rum bottle had become the most desirable cooking aid for rolling chapattis, which were rolled atop the all purpose jerricans that were also utilised to fetch our water and Kerosene oil. This was the mundane routine that we followed during our stay at Kala Pahar. Each day brought forth fresh expectations of our impending task.

The ‘D Day’ came on 06 December when we were to be launched into battle. That day, the sun too appeared to be excitedly rejoicing as it played hide and seek with the clouds, appearing momentarily, soon to be covered by the clouds, till it finally went down beyond the surrounding high mountains. My Battalion, 18 PUNJAB had been tasked to capture Brachil Pass at a height of 13,990 feet (4260 metres).

I was the Battalion Intelligence Officer with about three months of service; part of the Commanding Officer’s party and this was to be my first exposure to combat. After the ‘ardas’ (prayer) by one of our men, and invoking God’s blessings, we descended stealthily into Pakistan territory at last light on 06 December from Kala Pahar and we moved further into Pakistan with prayers in our hearts and confidence in our strides. Treading softly so that no stones rolled down and unduly alerted the enemy, we moved in a single lane through our own minefield.

The russet sky had turned grey as shades of twilight spread across the valleys. The mountains around Kala Pahar now became gloomy high walls. There was no inhabitation on the neighbouring mountain slopes, except for enemy posts that dotted the surrounding peaks. Moving through hostile territory, more so, when it is fraught with danger is an incredible experience, indescribable in mere words. The immense risk of getting ambushed, the inherent danger of treading on mines and of loosing surprise or getting trapped in hostile fire from adjoining enemy posts haunted us.    

The goat track that we followed descended downwards and almost reached the valley floor. And then, when crossing the Line of Control, the sudden emergence of a few stone-walled huts in the dreary, desolate surroundings had imposed extra caution, lest some enemy elements or civilians may be present there. While moving on the beaten track through a flattish area thereafter, it had occurred to me that in normal circumstances this place could have been a lovely picnic spot, but tremendous danger lurked now in the darkness of that intense cold night. We had never earlier imagined that some day we would be destined to set foot in that forbidden valley.

In Kargil, the terrain evidently favours the defenders occupying ridges and peaks. The rarefied air and lack of oxygen impedes walking. Whereas, running and moving uphill is extremely tiresome and causes breathlessness. Carriage of equipment is further agonising. Water is available only at lower altitudes and it has to be carried manually, or on mules, wherever tracks are available. Vegetation is scarce. Greenery is sparse and confined to areas around river banks, nullahs and rivulets mainly during summers. The dry air creates dehydration, and consumption of water becomes a necessity. The problem is further compounded because water carried in personal water bottles also freezes.

Mountains favour the defenders and provide natural cover and protection to the defenders. Mountains eat up troops and Kargil is no exception. Implying that mountains require more troops to hold ground, but that again increases the density of troops in ground holding role and turns out to be an advantage for the defenders. Albeit, in situ treatment of casualties suites the defenders. An attacker is at a disadvantage in the mountains, exposed to vagaries of weather, out in the open and prone to sustain casualties from the fire of defenders. With the chain of supplies stretched, an attacker requires more transport and manpower in mountains. Treatment and evacuation of casualties is equally burdensome for the attackers. No wonder, mountains prove to be a nightmare for the logistician.

A short halt was taken at Conical to dump our heavy baggage, bivouacs, and back-packs. This pause was enough to chill the feet. A longer halt would have frozen the sweat on the body leading to chilblains or frostbite. As my feet felt frozen, I frequently wriggled my toes in the snow boots. It was better to keep legs and feet shaking to ward off the extreme cold.

We had worn two socks, one woollen and the other heavy woollen ones, with feet tucked in rubberised snow boots. The third pair of socks was kept in the coat parkha pocket. Warm vests, angola shirts, jerseys and triple layered coat parkhas covered our chests. Warm leggings were worn under the serge trousers and balaclavas covered our heads. Our hands were tucked in leather gloves. On our backs were the big packs with an odd blanket inside and the sleeping bag was fastened outside the big pack.

Conical was a feature in enemy territory that took its fancy name from its appearance, adhering to the Army’s penchant of naming mountain features matching their appearance. Conical was the pre-selected area to dump our heavy baggage, which was to be fetched up later whenever there was pause in the battle. As we reached Conical, the Brachil Pass beckoned us temptingly. Brachil is an awesome, formidable mountain pass that stands majestically with sharp protruding features amidst the mountain tops of Kargil region. Brachil Pass, the main objective assigned to 18 Punjab was visible now.

During December 1971, Brachil Pass was strongly defended by the Pakistanis by creating an array of posts and a series of well fortified defences of motley bunkers around the Pass. The Pakistanis were well entrenched and fully prepared to face the onslaught of an attack, and also to ward off the extreme cold weather conditions and freezing temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius.  

From Conical we steadily negotiated our way uphill panting and gasping for breath. The likelihood of enemy minefields had also tremendously slowed down our pace. It was now past 5 o’clock in the wee hours of the morning, when slopes and silhouettes of the enemy Post Bahar, the outer crust of Brachil Pass defences loomed out of the hazy darkness in front of us.

Suddenly, a Pakistani sentry challenged us, screaming in a shaky voice, he mumbled, “Kaun hai”, and an illuminating round fired by the Pakistanis had lit up the area around. Arrival of a military column had completely stunned the Pakistanis. The ordeal had just begun. Even before the illuminating round had extinguished, enemy machine gun opened up, and the valleys reverberated with the echo of the machine gun fire. Our weapons opened up in response and by now the echo of unabated firing of multitudinous weapons was deafening. Nothing could be heard and sign language was indiscernible in the early morning haze, only one’s personal example mattered.

Post Bahar

Capture of Post Bahar had been tasked to Charlie Company, commanded by Major Sarjit Singh Sahota, a gallant, practical and a thoroughly dependable officer. Realising that time was running short; he had instantly decided to lead the assault himself. Exhorting his men to move forward, he raised his walking stick skywards to make his men realise that the enemy’s fire was going overhead. Citing his own example of not being hit by the enemy fire, even when standing up, he rushed forward valiantly urging the men to move forward for the assault. Full throated ‘jaikaras’( war cries), “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”, “Durga Mata Ki Jai” and our Battalion war cry, “Har Maidan Fateh” rant the air and electrified the environment. We fired relentlessly into the loopholes of enemy’s bunkers and lobbed grenades. Our voices too matched our enthusiasm, the ‘jaikaras’ resounded all over and reached a crescendo.

Battle for the capture of Post Bahar, the first layer of defences of Brachil Pass had begun. Enemy’s sustained machine gun fire impeded our uphill assault. Havildar Gurmukh Singh, the Intelligence Havildar was suddenly hit by a bullet. Incessant lobbing of grenades by the enemy raked us. Splinters of a grenade burnt a hole on the side of my coat parkha, and the smell of burnt rubber oozed from my right foot snow boot.

It was then that we heard the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bhim Sen Joshi, who was leading from the front, shouting and encouraging everyone to rush forward, exclaiming in a shrill voice, “tagre ho, tagre ho”. It was creditable for Lieutenant Colonel Joshi to have imparted us extensive war oriented training preceding the war and for the tough mental and physical conditioning that we had undergone. The Battalion had been turned into a tough, hardened battle fighting machine.

Unabated enemy fire came onto us. A volley of bullets flew on us and around us, forcing us to seek cover. Then it suddenly dawned on me that we should not pause or stop, because during an assault if you pause once, you are likely to pause forever and lose the momentum of assault. Undeterred and disregarding his personal safety, Sepoy Sampuran Singh threw a grenade in the machine gun bunker, neutralising all its occupants. The machine gun and its ammunition were captured intact. Sepoy Sampuran Singh was awarded the Vir Chakra.

While assaulting, I realised that Lieutenant Ramesh (Gulshi) Bhola, a brave and cheerful officer of Charlie Company was moving closer to the Commanding Officer’s party. We chanced upon one of our Medium Machine Guns that was just not moving up. The men carrying it uphill were thoroughly exhausted and appeared to have given up. We had to lift this machine gun. We pulled, pushed, shoved and hauled these men uphill. They got emboldened on reaching the top. Later, I was to gift my ‘kara’ (iron bangle), to Gulshi Bhola, which he still wears and proudly displays as a token of our life long bondage.

It was daylight now, but our machine gun fire and the 57 mm Recoilless gun rockets could not dislodge the enemy from their command post at Table Top, so we attacked adhering to the adage, “When in doubt, attack”. Gulshi and Subedar Mohinder Singh’s platoon was rushed forward for the assault. As the perplexed enemy left their bunkers and ran rearwards, the enemy occupying Left Shoulder opened fire, killing three of our men. Weapons, mortars, and huge quantities of ammunition, rations and clothing were captured. Dead bodies of the enemy lay scattered. Subedar Mohinder Singh was awarded the Mahavir Chakra.

The enemy had made a valiant effort to defend Brachil Pass with all their might. This became more evident when even after capture of Table Top, the enemy had resolutely held on. Charlie Company personnel cleared the Pass after midnight 7/8 December. They found that the enemy had withdrawn, but each bunker had to be physically cleared. It had taken more than 36 hours at a stretch from 06th December onwards to capture the formidable Brachil Pass. Remaining enemy posts were captured subsequently.

However, the morale of our high spirited men did not falter, because as officers, we too shared the worries, discomforts, and problems of our men and underwent the same hardships. The other reasons were superb camaraderie, regimentation, unit ethos and good training, which had enabled us to emerge as winners. Time and again this story has been amply proven, and this time it was again proven by 18 Punjab. 

Brachil Pass was captured after an arduous battle, through sheer grit and determination. Brachil Pass dominates the valleys around, and it opens the gateway beyond to Olthingthang and Skardu, considered to be the strongholds of Jammu & Kashmir. These captured posts are now part of India. The offensive operations had exhibited India’s aggressive, belligerent posture at the crucial juncture.

Loss of Brachil Pass had caused a psychological and physical blow to Pakistan. Over 40 kilometres of Pak occupied territory and 19 posts had been captured by 18 Punjab by attacking an impregnable enemy in the barren, inhospitable, rocky, undulating terrain. This was a record of sorts and a feat in itself, and this opened the passage for further operations and earned the Battle Honour, “Brachil & Wali, Malik” for 18 Punjab.

This operation was Indian Army’s earlier trysts with winter warfare in high altitude terrain. Many invaluable lessons for subsequent operations were formulated. Siachen Glacier Operations and even the Kargil Operations during summer of the Year 1999 were conducted much later. During the 1999 Kargil Operations, the troops had operated in summer and had an edge with better, improved clothing and equipment. The troops now operating in Siachen Glacier are better off with superior clothing and equipment. It was not so during December 1971.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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