Military & Aerospace

1962 War: Observations, Comments and Lessons
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Political Appreciation

India had been invaded several times, during its long history. Most of these invasions came from the North-West through Hindukush and Suleman mountains into the Indian Sub-Continent However, there were a few cases of invasions from the North-East also. After attaining Independence, as far as the Northern border was concerned, it was somehow believed that owing to geographical factors such as the natural protection provided by the ‘impregnable’ Himalayas, historical reasons of long and abiding friendship with China, the background of non-violent struggle for freedom and its ultimate success, the post-Independence policies that the country set itself, namely, Non-Alignment, Pursuit of International Peace and Willing participation of the constituent units in national integration and development, no threat would accrue to the country. As such, no action was initially taken for the protection of the Northern border, so much so, no border police even were deployed anywhere along the long frontier.

The former rulers the British, however, had a different perception. Their constant worry was a threat from the North to their Indian Empire, from the Russians. In whatever actions they took for the defence of their Empire, the Soviet threat loomed large in their minds. They always aimed at keeping the Russians as far away from their frontiers as possible. The Durand Line about 2400 km long, was drawn and demarcated for a considerable portion, between Afghanistan and the Indian Sub-continent, in order to provide adequate depth to the plains of Northern India. Of course, there were occasions when the British carried their operations well into Afghanistan. In the Ladakh area, the Kuen Lun mountain range was the limit of the boundary. In the North-East, the McMahon Line was treated as the boundary. Here again, expeditions were carried out into Tibet, such as by Younghusband in 1904. Tibet was a free country from 1911, the period when the Manchu dynasty fell, upto 1949 when the Communist Chinese came into power; and the British entered into certain treaties with Tibet during this period. These in turn were inherited by the successor power India, although after Independence, India entered into separate arrangements with Tibet. At the time of Independence, the situation was that in Ladakh in North-West, there was no disturbance to the Kuen Lun mountain range as the border. In the Central Sector also, the border along the watershed as depicted in the Survey of India maps remained undisturbed. Sikkim, which was a British protectorate since 1819, became an Indian protectorate. The special treaty that the British had with Bhutan since 1910 to be guided in its foreign affairs by Britain, devolved on India. The McMahon Line also remained undisturbed. As far as Tibet was concerned, the British Mission became an Indian Mission in 1947, with all the earlier treaty rights having been inherited by India.

Although the Chinese had no control over Tibet during the period 1911 to 1949, even the Nationalist Chinese Rulers of the time, had reservations with regard to the status of Tibet as well as that of the McMahon Line. Subsequently, after the People’s Republic of China came into being on October 1, 1949, the new regime announced clearly that its forces would move into Tibet. Soon thereafter, the Communist Chinese moved into Tibet and established their control. This single action by the new Chinese regime, should have sufficiently indicated to India, the likely future attitude of the Chinese towards the country in general and the Northern border in particular. Indeed, Sardar Patel did appreciate and warn of the impending threat, as is evident from his letter of November 7, 1950, to the Prime Minister. Consequent to this, the Civilian Administration was extended more into the tribal areas towards the border, but no measures for border protection as such were taken.

After the Chinese occupation of Tibet, several events took place, which also should have given an indication of the likely Chinese attitude. There were some indications during the discussions leading to the 1954 Agreement on Trade and Inter-communication between Tibet region of China and India, that the Chinese had some reservations regarding the boundary. Later, when some Chinese maps showing large tracts of the Northern areas of India as part of China, came to notice in 1955, this fact also should have made India suspicious, although the Chinese stated at the time, that the maps in question were inherited from the previous regime and were yet to be revised. Subsequently, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and was granted asylum in India in 1959, and the Chinese reacted in a belligerent manner, this was a further indication of their attitude towards India. Later, when the road constructed by the Chinese through the Indian territory of Aksai Chin (started in March 1956) came to notice in 1959, it should have been clear to India that the Chinese paid scant respect to the border as understood by India. In any case, Chou-En-Lai’s letter of September 8, 1959 completely rejected the Indian stand on the border and confirmed their claims to large areas of Indian territory. Thereafter, there were several intrusions across the border in different areas; and these indicated the toughening approach of the Chinese to assert their claims. At various stages, therefore, there were reasonable and increasing indications that the Chinese did not recognise the Indian contention on the border and that they could well resort to the use of force, in order to establish their claims on the ground.

The Indian response to the Chinese actions was, what came to be known, as the Forward Policy. Basically, it comprised establishing a number of posts along the entire length of the border to prevent further intrusions by the Chinese, but without adequate backing of effective bases from where any, major reaction by the Chinese could be countered effectively. It was believed that, for various reasons such as historical relations between the two countries and likely adverse international opinion, the Chinese would not react in strength to the feeble Indian moves. Even when the decision was taken to clear the Chinese from the Thag La ridge and the necessary forces (7 Brigade) were concentrated for the purpose, it was felt that the Chinese would not react violently. However, what actually happened proved to be different. The Chinese response became increasingly aggressive, resulting in their large scale invasion all along the border in October-November 1962.

It is apparent that the Indian Government deluded itself into believing that the Chinese would not resort to a war, to settle the border problem. Apart from Sardar Patel’s letter, there is sufficient evidence to show that General Thimayya had warned the Government of the impending threat as well as the likely reaction of the Chinese to the contemplated Indian moves. However, the then Defence Minister (Krishna Menon) and his advisors in the bureaucracy and the Intelligence Bureau (Malik), as also the subsequent Chief of the Army Staff (Thapar) and the Chief of the General Staff (Kaul), thought differently and advised the Prime Minister wrongly. According to Thorat, it was clear that Prime Minister Nehru was not briefed thoroughly on the Army’s point of view with regard to the Chinese threat (when Thorat was Eastern Army Commander and Thimayya was Chief of the Army Staff).

Lt. Gen. S.P.P. Thorat in his book ‘Reveille To Retreat’ says, “I signed the paper on October 8, 1959….. I do not know how many read it but I do know that it was not shown to the Prime Minister. He saw it for the first time in October 1962 when he sent for me after the debacle in NEFA, and was very annoyed that it had not been shown to him before. An important paper concerning national security written by an Army Commander and supported by the Chief should have been shown to him, but Mr. Krishna Menon had conveniently overlooked this aspect.

“Mr. Krishna Menon wanted me to locate small posts practically on the McMahon Line ‘to establish our right to the border’. He argued that if even a small post were in position, the Chinese would not try to evict it, and if they did, they would place themselves in the wrong.

“…..During my reconnaissances, I was convinced that the fate of any war in NEFA would depend absolutely and entirely on my ability to keep the troops supplied with their essential needs for fighting as well as for living. This required:

Rail heads and air heads in the Brahmaputra Valley.

Road heads at Bomdila, Tawang, Ziro, Daporijo and Along which I intended to use as ‘firm bases’.

Shelters for living, and bunkers in the vicinity of the McMahon Line covering likely approaches for fighting.

All the above tiers to be interconnected with roads, tracks and signal communications.

The ‘firm bases’ and the forward posts to be stocked with rations, clothing, ammunition, fuel etc., for three months.

“The position in 1959 was that none of these requirements was present in NEFA, and was not likely to be made available for a year or so after the Government reached a firm decision to organize the defence of NEFA on a war footing. It was my unshakable conviction that if I were to listen to the Defence Minister, adopt his Forward Policy and send troops to the McMahon Line without adequate maintenance cover, I would be sending them to certain defeat and death. When I explained my views to the Minister, he was most annoyed and said that I was over-exaggerating the administrative difficulties.

“…..The troops, the equipment, and the stores necessary for this stupendous task came much later, but what came earlier was a serious difference of opinion between the Defence Minister and me over the manner in which the defences in NEFA were to be organized. The Defence Minister insisted that I should adopt the ‘Foward Policy’, which I have already discussed in detail. Advised by Lt. Gen. Kaul, he wanted me to organize the defences for NEFA in very close proximity of the McMahon Line, with which I entirely disagreed. I have already explained my reasons for it. I was so sure of the correctness of my stand that rather than subordinate my convictions to Mr. Krishna Menon’s fancies, I decided not to implement them until I received written orders, which I knew he would not have the courage to issue. Fortunately for me, the Chief was in full agreement with me on this point but he had warned me that it would cost me dearly. I knew it. But instead of disobeying the dictates of my conscience I decided to abandon all hopes I may have had of becoming the Army Chief, and to retire from the Service on reaching the age of superannuation. This happened on May 8, 1961 when both Thimayya and I retired.

“Eighteen months later, on 20 October, 1962, my fears came true and the Chinese mounted a massive offensive on the NEFA front. It came exactly as I had predicted three years earlier in my paper on the Defence of NEFA of 8 October, 1959, and followed identically the same pattern. How it ran through NEFA like a streak of lightning and made a laughing stock of Mr. Menon’s ill-fated Forward Policy is too well-known to need repetition. This national disaster might have been avoided, or at least its effects might have been softened, if only the Defence Minister had given credit to soldiers for knowing more about war than he himself claimed to know.”

Subsequently, Nehru saw Thorat’s paper of October 8, 1959 only after he sent for him at the conclusion of the war, to seek his advice in 1962. He was annoyed that the papers were not shown to him earlier by the Defence Minister. It may be mentioned that the Prime Minister appointed General Thorat as a Member of the National Defence Council, the Highest advisory body on defence. Thorat naturally felt that his honour was vindicated by the magnanimous Prime Minister.

It was obvious from the above, that a clear political appreciation was not made of the Chinese threat. As brought out, it was taken for granted that there would be no threat across the Northern border. A clear and pragmatic perception of the Vital Interests of the Nation and the likely threats to these, without any emotional considerations, would have revealed that the threat from China was very much a possibility. To analyse these, it is necessary that the Civil (including political masters, bureaucrats concerned and Intelligence) and give due respect to each other’s professional expertise. Based on the conclusions arrived at, necessary preparations are required to be made to deal with the threats to the National Vital Interests. If this was done in the early stages of the Independence of India, the country would have been much better prepared to protect its Northern border and to deal with the Chinese threats that subsequently materialised. Lack of experience could be one of the reasons for the failure to do so, although there were other facts such as lack of pragmatism. The political leaders themselves admitted to this after the war. Further, it opened the eyes of the Nation and subsequently led to a more sound apprisal of the Nation’s interests and the threats to these. The outstanding lesson that comes out of this war is, therefore, the need to make a sound appreciation of the National Vital Interests and the threats to these, as also to prepare for effectively combating such threats.

Military Appreciation

While the politicians and their close-advisors must take their share of responsibility for the debacle in the 1962 War against the Chinese, the Military cannot be absolved from its commissions and omissions that contributed towards the disaster, which resulted in the humiliation of the Nation. The responsibility of the Military is covered under three major parts, namely, the Forward Policy, the Orders to Evict the Chinese from the Thag La ridge and the Invasion by the Chinese.

Forward Policy

As brought out earlier, when it became evident that the Chinese were asserting their claims on the ground, it was decided at the governmental level that a series of posts would be established all along the border in order to prevent the Chinese carrying out further intrusions. In some areas where Chinese had already occupied Indian territory, some posts were established in between the Chinese posts as well as beyond the line of Chinese posts, but remaining within Indian territory. However, the posts so established, did not have the support of strong bases in depth. Thus, the posts were isolated and open to destruction in detail by the enemy. In other words, they were at the mercy of the Chinese. While the Prime Minister ordered that there should be more effective surveillance of the border, it was for the Military to ensure that the modalities were properly worked out. With preconceived ideas that there would be no major reaction by the Chinese such as a war, the Government no doubt, brushed aside the Army’s apprehensions of a Chinese threat and reaction, and pressurised the Army to carry out its instructions to open up the posts speedily. As is well known, the Defence Minister (Krishna Menon) and the head of the Intelligence Bureau (Malik) played a major role in this unfortunate policy. So long as Thimayya was there as the Chief, he resisted the pressures on him. Equally, his Army Commanders in the East (Thorat) and the West (Daulat Singh) were also emphatic in pointing out the consequences of the Forward Policy. However, after the change in the setup at Army Headquarters, and in some of the Commands, the new incumbents, instead of correctly advising the Government against the wrong policies contemplated, went along with these policies. Kaul who was the Chief of the General Staff, apparently was in full agreement with the Government. There were even reports that he was the author of this Forward Policy. Thapar who was the Chief, supported the Policy, although at times, it appeared that he had his reservations.

Some views have been expressed that the Forward Policy acted as a provocation to the Chinese. It should be remembered that it was China which was responsible for provoking India, into taking measures for securing Indian territory, by its violations. Otherwise, prior to the Chinese intrusions, India never set up even police posts anywhere along the border. No one can question India’s right to protect its own territorial integrity. However, what had gone wrong in the Forward Policy was that a sound Military plan was not made for securing the borders. Merely spreading small posts all along the long border, was a sure invitation to disaster. Suitable bases should have been established at strategic points and from these strong detachments should have been put out. The job of these detachments would be to ensure that the border is patrolled effectively, that information is passed back constantly, that some resistance is offered in the event of an attack, and to fall back on the main positions when really hard pressed. The mam positions would hold the enemy and destroy his forces. As and when adequate reserves are available, the enemy would be pushed back from own territory mat he may still be in occupation of. Militarily, this was the only sound way of protecting the territorial integrity. Infact, both Thorat and Daulat Singh recommended such a course of action. However, as the Defence Minister and his close advisors had made up their minds that there would be no violent Chinese reaction, these recommendations were not taken due cognisance of. What followed was that the posts established as a result of the implementation of the Forward Policy, could not really carry out their tasks and many were overwhelmed by the Chinese, or had to be withdrawn in disorder.

Eviction of Chinese

When reports of the Chinese occupying the Thag La ridge had reached Delhi, the Government was already under considerable pressure to deal with the Chinese intrusions elsewhere in a more effective manner. There were insinuations that the policy pursued by the Government was weak and had resulted in loss of considerable part of Indian territory, particularly, in the West. The Government, therefore, felt compelled to not only deal effectively with the new intrusion on Thag La in the North-East, but also wanted to impress the Parliament that it was effectively discharging its duties. Thus, a decision was taken that the Chinese should be evicted from Indian territory. The Army was ordered to concentrate 7 Brigade in the area concerned, and to evict the Chinese as early as it could. This decision was taken by the Defence Minister (Krishna Menon) and his advisors, but the Prime Minister had subsequently endorsed it.

On the Army side, initially, there was some hesitation on the part of Thapar, the Chief of the Army Staff, as evidenced by the fact that he insisted on written orders. However, subsequently he proceeded to implement the Government’s directions, without any protest. Kaul was of course a party to the decision.

From a Military’ point of view, it should have been clear from the outset that the task of evicting the Chinese was fraught with grave and unjustifiable risks. While the initial strength of the Chinese reported in the area was about 600, although this figure varied later, it would have been reasonable to presume that the Chinese would build up considerable strength, by the time the Indian 7 Brigade concentrated in the area. In actual fact, it had transpired that the Chinese had built up the better part of a division in the area of operations. Further, the conditions under which 7 Brigade had to operate, were anything but in favour of the Indian troops. The terrain and climate were such that the troops had not been used to before, the Brigade was ill-equipped, not trained for the type of fighting they were to undertake, inadequately supported both from point of view of fire power and logistics, and had no reserves to call upon. To expect that under these conditions, the Brigade would succeed was unfair and not based on a sound Military appreciation. If these problems were not foreseen, it is even worse. It was the duty of the Military High Command to thoroughly go into all these aspects and to point out to the Government, the consequence of undertaking such a hazardous and dicey task. This was obviously not done. Even after the forces were concentrated and the local commanders including Brigade, Divisional and Corps Commanders, pointed out the impossible nature of the task, they were over-ruled. Kaul, the Chief of General Staff, proceeded to the area and personally assumed control of the situation, in order to ensure that the Government’s directions were implemented. However, what followed was a disaster of the first magnitude, in that 7 Brigade was wiped out by the Chinese in a counter-operation.

Invasion by the Chinese

After the destruction of 7 Brigade by the Chinese, the question arose as to where to make a stand and hold further advance by the Chinese. The merits and demerits of various positions, namely, Tawang itself, Se La and Bomdi La, were considered. As no prior planning was carried out, there was considerable confusion. Details of orders and counter-orders issued by Commanders at different levels, to hold one or the other positions, have been brought out in the narrative. Ultimately, it was decided to vacate Tawang and hold the Se La position, as the main defensive position. As brought out,-the deployment was a strong Brigade group on Se La, a Brigade less a Battalion at Dirang Dzong and a Brigade at Bomdi La, with Divisional Headquarters at Dirang Dzong. In considering the question of effectively countering the Chinese invasion, in this sector, two major aspects need to be analysed, namely, the choice of the positions itself and the subsequent fighting; and these are considered below.

There was not sufficient time to develop the Tawang position after the reverse at Thag La, nor were there sufficient troops to defend it. The decision to leave Tawang was, therefore, acceptable. As far as the Se La position was concerned, this was a most formidable defensive position and could be made extremely strong, if time were available. However, within the period of about three weeks or so available, a strong Brigade group could be concentrated, essential defensive positions prepared and about a week’s requirements of logistics could be built up. Although intrinsically strong, the Se La position could be by-passed in strength by the enemy. Thus, by a combination of out-flanking movements and attacks in strength on the main position, the Indians could be winkled out of the Se La position. As far as Dirang was concerned, this was really useful in protecting the line of communications, and not so much to provide depth to the Se La position, as these were not mutually supporting. The Bomdi La position could be developed into a very strong defensive position. This was sufficiently far behind, and the necessary logistic requirements could be built up more easily from the plains.

Further, by the time the Chinese reached this position, they would be very far away from their main bases, with all the dis-advantages that this brings about. There was a point of view that if the Bomdi La position was developed as the main position and the bulk of the troops (4 Division) were deployed to hold it, with covering forces carrying out some fighting forward, the Chinese could have been halted here. Of course, it would have meant loss of territory up to Bomdi La. With the forces then available, and under the conditions then prevailing, perhaps this could have been one of the courses that could have been followed. However, it cannot be said that the course actually adopted, namely, the holding of Se La in reasonable strength, was tactically unsound. In all cases, it was necessary to ensure that whenever out-flanking moves were possible, the approaches from the flanks were effectively blocked. In actual fact, what happened was that the potential of these approaches was under-estimated and inadequate measures taken to guard them. Only after the enemy’s advance along these approaches came to light, did the Divisional Commander react, and that too, piecemeal. The enemy was thus able to create consternation in the Division and defeated each position in detail.

As far as fighting is concerned, it appeared that because of leaving the option with the Divisional Commander (Pathania) to vacate the Se La position in the event of the Chinese attack materializing before it was fully ready, there was no firm will or resolve to fight it out to the finish at Se La. Merely because some enemy was able to bypass the position and establish road blocks in the rear, Commanders got rattled and launched a process of quitting the Se La position, even before any major attack came on it. The Brigade Commander (Hoshiar Singh) apparently was prepared to fight, but reluctantly withdrew from the position. This had resulted in opening up the route, clearance of the other positions (Dirang and Bomdi La) with ease and the ultimate destruction of 4 Division. Irrespective of the road blocks by the enemy, had 62 Brigade stuck to the Se La position and fought it out, the result would have been quite different. It would have been extremely difficult for the Chinese to take this position. As far as the out flanking elements were concerned, these could not have sustained themselves for long, had the Se La position and other main positions (Dirang and Bomdi La) been held firmly. It was the job of the Higher Commanders up the line, to clear these road blocks, with the reserves available at their disposal at the appropriate time. In the event, none of the main defensive positions gave a real fight to the Chinese. Of course, some of these were depleted, due to troops having been moved away for dealing with road blocks established by the Chinese between the main positions.

It is obvious from the above analysis that although given tasks which were not militarily sound, commanders concerned in the Army right up to the highest level, had failed in their duties, to correctly advise the Government and to ensure that once they accepted the tasks, these were fulfilled to the best of the ability of the Army. However, there were many isolated actions within the sector, where troops gave a good account of themselves, such as Jang where repeated attacks by the Chinese were beaten back with heavy casualties to them. Equally, in Chushul in the Western Sector and Walong in the Eastern Sector, the troops gave a creditable account of themselves. It, therefore, follows that if the leadership in the sector had lived up to the trust reposed in them, the troops would have given an equally good account of themselves here also and would perhaps have saved the Nation from the humiliation that it suffered.

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