On September 8, 1962, Nehru had gone to London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference. On September 9, a meeting was held by Krishna Menon, where a decision was taken to evict the Chinese South of the Thag La ridge. Nehru was informed of the developments and he in turn endorsed the decision. Army Headquarters ordered 7 Brigade under Brigadier J.P. Dalvi to move to the area of Dhola post immediately and undertake the operation. This was code-named as “Operation Leghorn”.
At this time, 7 Brigade was dispersed over a large area. 9 Punjab was on the move to Lumpu and subsequently to Dhola. 1 Sikh was at Dirang Dzong and 1/9 Gorkha Rifles was at Misamari, awaiting move out after relief. Owing to lack of road communications, the Brigade had to trek a very long distance, without heavy weapons and on hard scales of ammunition, equipment and rations. It had to undertake operations at high altitudes without any training or acclimatisation and without winter clothing, and with maintenance being entirely dependent on air supply. As far as the Chinese were concerned, it was clear that the troops dominating the Dhola post were supported by considerable strength from behind Thag La ridge. Estimates of Chinese strength were, a battalion South of the Thag La ridge, about two regiments North of Thag La and the remainder of a division at Tsona Dzong, about 32 km away. Heavy concentration was also reported in the area of Bum La, north of Tawang. In the light of assessment of the likely reaction by the Chinese, the field commanders Dalvi, Niranjan Prasad and Umrao Singh protested that the task given was beyond the capability of 7 Brigade and that it could lead to disaster. Despite the militarily sound views of the field commanders, they were overruled by the Army Commander, the Chief and the Government. The Government continued to be under the impression that the small Chinese force could be pushed back and that China would not retaliate by a general attack with a larger force.
It appeared that despite acquiescing with the Government and overruling the subordinate commanders, Thapar had a lingering apprehension that the Chinese may retaliate in strength, particularly in the Western Sector. On September 22, 1962, in a meeting in the Defence Ministry, he pressed his point, but was overruled and the order for the eviction of the Chinese from the Southern side of the Thag La ridge was reiterated. Thapar then asked for written orders. These were signed by H.C. Sarin (an official in the Defence Ministry) and given as under:
The decision throughout has been as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw out the Chinese as soon as possible. The Chief of the Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the Kameng frontier division of NEFA as soon as he is ready.
Sen had ordered an outline plan tor the operation to be prepared and submitted to him at a very early date. Dalvi and Prasad prepared a plan and stressed the numerous tactical and logistic problems involved in evicting the Chinese who were in considerable strength. The Namka Chu river, though small was unfordable and well covered by the Chinese. The Thag La ridge, a formidable feature could only be attacked from the West to the East down hill and could well be reinforced by the Chinese before the attack. Further, the Chinese were well entrenched. The Brigade had little artillery support (a battery or so) with very restricted ammunition. Troops were themselves on hard scales for everything. Adequate stocks of ammunition and rations had to be built up and maintenance had to be by air. There were very few dropping zones and loads collected would have to be man-handled long distances. Unless the build up took place by mid-October, the operation would not be feasible due to snow fall.
Umrao Singh discussed the plan with his field commanders on September 26 and personally submitted it to Sen on September 29 at Lucknow. Sen overruled Umrao Singh’s recommendations and wanted the operation to be launched early. Umrao Singh protested in writing, against the orders. Sen felt that the Corps needed a new Commander and discussed the issue with the Chief and the Defence Minister. The Defence Minister felt that rather than change the Corps Commander, which could have political repercussions, a new Corps should be raised to undertake the task of evicting the Chinese. Considerable time had already lapsed since the decision to evict the Chinese was taken on September 9 and there was a great deal of public pressure with regard to lack of any substantive action. Kaul was selected as the new Corps Commander by the Government and the new Corps was designated as 4 Corps. Kaul arrived at Tezpur on October 4, 1962 and assumed command of the forces in NEFA, which were hitherto under 33 Corps;and concurrently, Headquarters 4 Corps started raising 33 Corps under Umrao Singh and it was given responsibility for East Pakistan borders and Nagaland.
On the political side, India sent a note to China on September 19, 1962, agreeing to hold discussion and to restore the status quo in the Western Sector, countering a Chinese allegation on September 13 that India was refusing to hold further discussions. On September 25, as brought our earlier, India rejected Chinese charges of aggression in the East and wanted the Chinese to withdraw behind the McMahon Line. In a note on October 3, the Chinese insisted that discussions should embrace all sectors and that the Government of China absolutely does not recognise the ‘so-called’ McMahon Line. On October 6, 1962, India in its reply stated that it was prepared to hold discussions, as soon as Chinese accepted the basis proposed and terminate the latest intrusion South of the McMahon Line. The Chinese described this as shutting the door to negotiations by India.
By the time Kaul arrived at Tezpur on October 4, 1962, some more progress was achieved in the movement of troops forward. The situation was that Headquarters 7 Brigade with two Battalions, namely, 2 Rajput and 1/9 Gorkha Rifles were established at Lumpu. 9 Punjab was deployed on the Namka Chu river (South Bank). One company of the Rajputs joined 9 Punjab and another company was on its way. Within 9 Punjab, one company was established at Tsangdhar, one company at Bridge III(Dhola) and two companies further down. Another infantry battalion 4 Grenadiers were on the move to Lumpu. At Tawang, there were two infantry battalions, 1 Sikh and 4 Garhwal Rifles;these were put under Headquarters 4 Artillery Brigade (Brigadier Kalyan Singh), which was functioning as an ad hoc Brigade Sector. In the rest of NEFA, 5 Infantry Brigade with five battalions was deployed. One of these battalions was on the move to Walong. A new Brigade, 62 Infantry Brigade was inducted from Central India and its Headquarters located at Misamari, but its battalions were parcelled out to the Brigades already in position, to reinforce them. Headquarters 4 Division was at Tawang, with the General Officer Commanding (with a small staff) having moved forward to Lumpu.
After discussions with Umrao Singh and Sen (who was on a visit) at Tezpur, Kaul flew to Lumpu on October 5, where it appeared that he intended to stay on till the completion of the operation (eviction of the Chinese). Later, he moved forward to Serkhim, where he met Prasad. On October 6, Kaul set out for Dhola post by foot and reached there on October 7. He had ordered the immediate move of the Rajputs and Gorkhas from Lumpu forward on the 6th and these Battalions reached Tsangdhar on October 7 and further down to the River Line on October 9. These battalions were deployed in the area of Bridges III and IV. After discussions with Prasad and Dalvi, Kaul sent messages to Army Headquarters (with copy to Command Headquarters) emphasizing the difficulties involved in the operation (including the logistic problems), the build up and strength of the Chinese opposite, the likely reaction of the Chinese and the fact that although his forces may capture the objective, the Chinese might counter attack and overwhelm the Indian forces. He wanted the Air Force to be prepared to provide offensive air support.
He also wanted further resources to be made available speedily. It appears that after a visit to the area and studying the problem on the ground, in conjunction with his field commanders, Kaul started understanding the realities of the situation, as earlier depicted by the latter. On October7, a report received from the Indian Consul General in Lhasa transmitted by Army Headquarters to Kaul, indicated that Divisional Artillery and certain other troops were concentrating on the Chinese side of the McMahon Line in the area, and that there was talk of an attack on Tawang. On October 9, Kaul made it clear to his subordinate commanders that despite the difficulties involved, he had to launch the operation on October 10, the last date indicated to the Cabinet for the purpose. He ordered the Rajputs to move to Yumtso La (on Thag La ridge) on October 11, where they were to take up positions to dominate the Chinese from behind. As a preliminary to this, he ordered a strong patrol to be sent up to Tseng-Jong on the same ridge, as per Dalvi’s original plan. This patrol from the Punjabis reached Tseng-Jong by dusk on October 9. A company of the Punjabis was already located at Tsang Le on the high-ground to the West, on the earlier orders of Sen.
Here, it would be advantageous to understand the terrain, in the area of operations. The Nyamjang Chu comes down from the higher reaches of the Himalayas, flows via Khinzemane (near border) from North to South and meets the Tawang Chu further down. The Namka Chu which flows from West to East takes off from a small lake near Tsang Le and meets Nyamjang Chu below Khinzemane. To the South of Namka Chu, is Dho La ridge and to the North is the Thag La ridge. Over the Dho La ridge, there are three passes—Hathung La (4050 metres), Dho La (5550 metres) and Karpo La I(4800 metres). Tsang Dhar is on the Northern side of the Dho La ridge at a height of 4350 metres. On the Namka Chu, there were a number of log bridges (numbered one to five from East to West). Dho La post (Che Dong) was near Bridge III. The river line in the middle area is at a height of about 3300 metres. North of Namka Chu, the ground rises on to Thag La ridge. On the Thag La ridge, the prominent passes are Thag La itself (4350 metres), Yumtso La (4800 metres) and Karpo La II (4800 metres). North of the Thag La ridge, on the Chinese side, the area of the Tibetan Plateau is more open. In fact, advertantly or inadvertantly, an impression was created in the public mind, that while the terrain in the Ladakh Sector was difficult for Indians and in favour of the Chinese, the terrain in the North East was difficult for the Chinese and easier for the Indians. The real position was, that the terrain in the North East also was dis advantageous to the Indians.
After the establishment of the Tseng Jong post, Kaul sent another message to Thapar explaining the various moves carried out without the knowledge of the Chinese, his confidence in succeeding in the attack about to be launched and of the high morale of the troops. On October 10, in the early hours of the morning, the Rajputs started their move towards Yumtso La. It was hoped that once a strong force gets to the crest of the Thag La ridge, the Chinese positions on the Southern slopes of the ridge, would become untenable. If the Chinese held on, they could be winkled out by sending a force down from the ridge. However, events turned out to be otherwise. In the early hours of the morning of October 10, the Chinese heavily shelled the Tseng Jong position and attacked with the overwhelming strength of a battalion. The Punjabis fought gallantly, but were unfortunately overrun. There were heavy casualties on both sides. This incident proved that the Indian conviction that the Chinese would not react was unfounded. Kaul informed Delhi that a grave situation had developed and that the Government approach to the problem needed to be reconsidered. He left Dalvi in control of the battle, instructing that his Brigade should hold on along the line Tsang Le – Namka Chu and wait for further directions. Dalvi and Prasad of course suggested that the Brigade be withdrawn from the Namka Chu to positions further behind which would be tactically feasible to hold; but this was not accepted. On the same day, Kaul left for Tezpur, along with Prasad. Enroute, below Hathung La, he was taken ill with a pulmonary problem, but went on to Tezpur by a helicopter next morning (October 11). The same day, he left for New Delhi and reached by the evening.
A meeting was held by the Prime Minister at his House, where Kaul gave a detailed account of the situation and recommended that the eviction operation be postponed and that 7 Brigade be pulled back to tactically better positions. After some discussion, Nehru left the decision to the Army. Subsequently, Thapar and Sen recommended that the Brigade should stay where it was. This was agreed to. Kaul returned to Tezpur on October 13 and conveyed the Government’s decision to 7 Brigade. During this period, 4 Grenadiers had moved forward and reached the Namka Chu by October 14, as also a sub-unit of Para Field Battery. On October 18, Kaul’s illness became more serious and he was evacuated to New Delhi. However, from Delhi, he ordered the Tsang Le position to be reinforced by two companies, despite protestations from the field commanders, as it would deplete the troops on the main defences at Namka Chu; and this force was to move on the morning of October 19.
On October 18 and 19, 7 Brigade could see considerable Chinese troop movements taking place opposite them. A regiment group could be seen concentrating in the area Tseng Jong. Further, preparations for a night attack could also be seen. As brought out earlier, more troops, perhaps balance of a division, were on the Northern side of the Thag La ridge. Dalvi explained that his Brigade would not be able to hold with the present strength, if the Chinese attacked. Dalvi sought permission to withdraw the Tsang Le force to the river line, but this was not granted. In that case, Dalvi told Prasad, that rather than see his troops massacred, he would put in his resignation. Prasad passed on the request to his higher authorities, but got no response. On the night of October 19/20, the Chinese troops moved down the Thag La ridge and crossed over the Namka Chu (which was fordable at this time) in the early hours of the morning of October 20. Under a heavy barrage of artillery and mortar fire, the Chinese assaulted
the Indian positions on the river line in the centre, i.e.,the area held by the Rajputs and the Gorkhas. Another thrust was launched on Tsangdhar, where there was only a company. The Indian troops fought bravely, but were overwhelmed by much superior strength. By about 1000 hours on October 20, the Chinese had overrun all the Indian positions. Prasad ordered the remnants of the Brigade to withdraw through Hathung La. However, as the Chinese had already captured the ridge line and the passes, the remnants broke up and made their way to India through Bhutan. Dalvi was taken prisoner on October 22, along with many others. Prasad managed to move back to Tawang with his tactical Headquarters.
In the Western Sector, during the same period, i.e., October 19/20, the Chinese attacked the Indian posts in the Chip Chap, Galwan and Pangong areas. Despite the fact that the posts were isolated and lacked any backing or fire support, they fought gallantly; but were ultimately overrun by the superior strength of the Chinese. However, a few posts which were not engaged by the Chinese, were withdrawn under orders of the Command.
The reaction to the development, whereby, instead of Indian troops throwing the Chinese back, the Chinese attacked the Indian positions and dissipated an Indian Brigade, was one of shock, humiliation and anger. Intense public pressure for replacing Menon as Defence Minister was acceded to and Nehru took over the Defence Portfolio. The Chinese action was construed as deceit and treachery. There was considerable pressure that unless the Chinese were thrown out from Indian territory, the country should not rest content. Nehru said, “We are getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation.” The Western world was sympathetic and offered aid to India. The Non-Aligned World also generally expressed its sympathy with India. The Soviet Union wanted India to settle the dispute with China peacefully. There was a new sense of unity and determination among the Indian people, to face the situation with resolution and fortitude. This is expressed in the Prime Minister’s assertion that India would not rest content until the last Chinese soldier was thrown out from its soil.