As an example, one might quote the briefing given by Brigadier (later Major General) D.K. Palit, Director of Military Operations at Army Headquarters, when he paid a visit to 4 Division in August 1962, barely two months before the invasion. He is said to have stated that for the next few years there was no question of a hot war with the Chinese as they were incapable of mounting a serious offensive till the completion of their rail-link with Lhasa some time in 1964,
Lack of intelligence about Chinese intentions and their preparations was a major deficiency on the Indian side.
Surprisingly, in this guessing game, General Kaul hit the bull’s eye. In his autobiography, he mentions a meeting in March 1962 with Chester Bowles, Special Representative of President Kennedy of the United States, at which he expressed the view that ‘the Chinese were likely to provoke a clash with us in the summer or autumn of 1962’.4 The General’s prophecy proved correct. Evidently, he had kept his side (Palit) in the dark, otherwise he would not have gone around telling people not to expect a Chinese offensive till 1964. Curiously enough, Kaul himself was on vacation at the time of the crisis that he had so correctly forecast.
The Chinese had undertaken a close study of Japan’s victorious campaigns in the Second World War. They employed Japanese tactics to good effect in Korea against UN forces; they were now to use them against the Indian Army. They moved a general who had proved himself in Korea to command their troops in Tibet. Many officers of the Indian Army had fought the Japanese during the Second World War. Also, a study of their campaigns in Malaya, Singapore and Burma formed a part of the syllabus for several examinations for Army officers. But those who were at the helm in October-November 1962 made little use of this knowledge.
The Chinese planned their campaign with meticulous care. They established their forward dumps and stocked them well. They had an assured system of supply to forward troops. For this, they recruited thousands of Tibetan porters and organized them into labour battalions. They also had hundreds of ponies. In mountain and jungle warfare, it is necessary to guard against a breakdown of communications between formations and units. The Chinese insured against such breakdowns by providing their units with powerful radio sets. The Signals set-up of the Indian Army was as outdated as its weapons and woefully inefficient.
The latter is said to have given Menon an assurance ‘that China wanted a peaceful settlement of the border dispute and. . . whatever happened China would never resort to war to settle this issue’.5 The Chinese kept up their diplomatic correspondence till the end, urging the Indian Government to resume negotiations, though they were not prepared to quit Indian territory occupied by them in Ladakh. The Galwan incident was also a part of the deception. It succeeded in conveying the impression that Chinese reactions to the occupation of disputed territory might result in confrontation, but not war.
But there was nothing to stop those in authority from following the normal procedure for undertaking a military operation
At Che Dong, the Chinese move conformed to the pattern of their action at Galwan. They surrounded the Indian post on three sides. After a few days, the post commander admitted that in his first report he had inflated the number of Chinese troops facing him in order to get help quickly and that there were only 60 or so of them, not 600. However, the first report of 600 Chinese debouching across Thag La appears to have conveyed to the Indian authorities the impression that this was the implementation of China’s oft-repeated threat of moving across the McMahon Line in case India’s forward moves into Chinese-claimed territory in Ladakh did not cease. That perhaps accounted for the different line of action in the case of this incident. In Ladakh, in such situations, Indian troops had merely been told to hold their ground. In this case, the orders were to evict the Chinese. The aim, perhaps, was to deter further intrusions.
Let us now take a look at the reactions of Indian field commanders to the message from the Che Dong Post. On 8 September, Brigadier Dalvi was at Tezpur. He had been granted his annual leave and was to catch the next morning’s flight homeward. He was in a holiday mood. Having played a round of golf with Niranjan Prasad in the evening, he was in his bath when the telephone rang to inform him of the incident. He realized that this was the end of his leave.
At Divisional Headquarters, there was the usual weekend atmosphere, 8 September being a Saturday. Niranjan Prasad had to be summoned from the Planters’ Club at Thakurbari, 32 kilometres away. It took some time to collect the concerned staff officers and a conference was eventually held, at which certain immediate measures were decided upon. A helicopter took Dalvi back to Towang the next morning. At this time, one company of 9 Punjab was at Shakti and another company was under move to Lumpu. Dalvi now ordered the whole battalion to move to Lumpu and send out reconnaissance patrols to the Namka Chu. The Assam Rifles had a wing at Lum La. He told them to send a platoon to reinforce the Che Dong Post. The post commander had already been ordered to hold his ground. The other battalion at Towang, 1 Sikh, had a company forward, at Pankentang. Dalvi ordered the battalion to send a company forward to Milakteng La.
On 10 September, Niranjan Prasad arrived at Towang. He had with him a radio signal from Eastern Command, which had been sent as a result of the meeting in the Defence Minister’s office the previous day. The message ordered the immediate move of 9 Punjab to the Che Dong area; the rest of the brigade was to get ready to join the battalion within 48 hours. The message said that all troops should go prepared for battle and, if possible, an attempt was to be made to encircle the Chinese investing Dhola Post. The operation was given the code name ‘Leghorn’.
Besides bringing him these orders, Prasad told Dalvi that his brigade was to be reinforced. For this purpose, 2 Rajput had been placed under him and ordered to move up straightaway. This battalion had done a three-year tenure in the Walong sector and had been at Charduar the last few months, awaiting a move to a family station. It had already handed over its radio sets, entrenching tools and other equipment to the relieving unit at Walong. Another addition to the brigade would be its old battalion, 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, which was still at Misamari. It must have been quite a shock to the men of these two battalions when their dreams of rejoining their families were thus shattered.
A great deal of the confusion that took place in the implementation of the Government’s order was due to lack of knowledge of the terrain on the part of higher commanders. They sent orders which were impracticable. When moves were ordered to build up 7 Brigade, no thought was given to the problems of movement in the mountains, or to the logistic support of the troops inducted. It does not seem to have been realized that in the mountains it might take a whole day for a body of troops to cover a distance that is marked as 10 or 12 kilometres on the map. General Sen did not even consider it worthwhile to familiarize himself with the area in which 7 Brigade was to operate. Between 8 and 19 September, the period during which he ordered many crucial moves, he paid several visits to Delhi but none to the Namka Chu. Ignorance of the conditions in the theatre of operations led him to make rash promises. At a conference in the Defence Minister’s room on 11 September, he stated that to neutralize the Chinese, at that time reported to be about 600, he would need a brigade and that he had ordered the move of the brigade, which would concentrate in ten days.6 In the event, the brigade had not concentrated even by 5 October, when Kaul reached the scene.
Important decisions were taken on 11 September. Among these was the warning order to 62 Infantry Brigade, then at Ramgarh (Bihar), for move to NEFA. Another decision was that in the operations against the Chinese close air support would not be permitted. Fear of reprisals was responsible for this decision.
At Che Dong, the Chinese move conformed to the pattern of their action at Galwan. They surrounded the Indian post on three sides.
Unquestioned compliance with the wishes of political leaders marked the actions of the Army Headquarters at this time. They did not consult the field commanders before making promises to the Government. Apologists might take shelter behind the principle of civil supremacy. But there was nothing to stop those in authority from following the normal procedure for undertaking a military operation; and in case an appreciation by the field commander showed that it had no chance of success, the civil authority should have been told. It would then have been the Government’s business to think of other means to deal with the situation.
The first man to stand up and argue was Lieutenant General Umrao Singh. He did this when he met Sen and Niranjan Prasad at Tezpur on 12 September. He told Sen that he felt strongly about 7 Brigade being hustled into the impossible venture of evicting the Chinese from Thag La. He pointed out that the troops were on restricted rations as bad weather had been interfering with air-drops and that they had no reserves. They would have to operate at altitudes up to 5,250 metres; winter was approaching and they would need heavy clothing and tents. The sensible course, he suggested, was to withdraw the Che Dong Post to the map-marked boundary and in case this was unacceptable for political reasons, to commit only two battalions, which should be deployed South of the map-marked McMahon Line, to meet any further advance by the Chinese. However, Umrao Singh’s arguments and suggestions fell on deaf ears; Sen merely reaffirned his earlier orders.
Relations between Sen and Umrao Singh were known to be strained. But, in marshalling his reasons against Operation ‘Leghorn’, the latter was not bringing in his personal feelings. After Sen’s refusal to heed his advice, he followed up with a formal letter reiterating his views.
Meanwhile, 9 Punjab was on its way to the Namka Chu under its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel R.N. Misra. The battalion had established a base at Lumpu, which had a helipad and a dropping zone.
Mid-September was harvesting time in these parts. No ponies or porters were available and 9 Punjab had to carry everything manpack. The men moved with one blanket, a hundred rounds of ammunition, two grenades, three days’ rations and their share of light machine-gun magazines. The total load per man was 30 to 35 kilograms. The battalion took the Hathung La route from Lumpu and after a day’s forced march, reached Bridge I late in the evening on 14 September. There they bivouacked for the night. The next morning, after dropping one company at Bridge I, Misra took the rest of the battalion to Bridge II, where a company of Chinese troops was in position on both sides of the Namka Chu. The bridge had been damaged, but could still be used by one or two men at a time. The Chinese had a civilian official with them.
That night (15 September), 9 Punjab at Bridge II carried out a clever manoeuvre. They crept closer to the bridge. The Chinese started shouting but withdrew to the North bank, leaving two sentries on the South bank.
The close proximity in which Indian and Chinese troops were placed along the river was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later.
During these early days of the confrontation, the Chinese showed keenness to fraternize with the Indians. They would offer cigarettes and make over some of the parachuted supplies landing in their lines. They would announce over loudspeakers in Hindi that the two Governments would soon begin talks to settle the boundary question and advised caution so that firing should not spoil the chances of peace. But they did not neglect their preparations and continued to strengthen their defences by building bunkers and clearing lines of fire. They were well equipped for the purpose and had mechanically operated saws to cut logs. while Indian troops had to depend on dahs, even shovels, for this purpose.
On 19 September, the Punjabis received an intriguing radio signal. It was from Army Headquarters and addressed to everyone in the chain of command down to the battalion. Sent on 15 September, it had taken four days to reach 9 Punjab. It ordered the battalion to capture, as soon as possible after arrival on the Namka Chu, the Chinese position 900 metres North-East of Che Dong, contain the Chinese South of Thag La and, if possible, establish two posts atop the Thag La Ridge (height over 5,250 metres).
This message is clear proof that the Indian high command did not understand the Chinese, the situation at hand or have any idea of their capability. It had been issued after a report had reached the Government that the Chinese facing Che Dong numbered 60 and not 600. Those in authority should have, by this time, realized that the Chinese seldom made any move without due preparation and that the 60 on the river could soon be reinforced to many times that number. In fact, by the time the Punjabis had reached the Namka Chu, the Chinese already had two companies between the river and the Thag La Ridge. On 16 September, a third company arrived and local intelligence reports put another infantry battalion at Le. Under the circumstances, execution of the order from Army Headquarters would have meant annihilation of the attacking force.
When this order reached 9 Punjab, Dalvi was on an inspection tour of the battalion. He told Misra to take no notice of it, and informed Niranjan Prasad of his action. The latter protested to 33 Corps regarding the propriety of this order being given direct to one of the units under him. Umrao Singh, in his turn, asked Eastern Command to have the order cancelled. 9 Punjab were at this time living on rice and salt; they did not even have sugar for their tea. Perhaps this did not interest those who issued the order.
The close proximity in which Indian and Chinese troops were placed along the river was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later. The night of 20 September8 saw the first outbreak of firing. Around 2230 hours, a Chinese sentry on Bridge II lobbed a grenade into one of the Punjabis’ bunkers. Thereupon the latter opened fire, killing one Chinese soldier on the South bank and another across the bridge. Intermittent firing continued throughout the night. The Punjabis suffered four casualties as wounded.