Headquarters 7 Brigade moved to Lumpu by the time Dalvi finished going round the 9 Punjab positions. There were other moves too. Tactical Headquarters 4 Division started moving to Towang and 7 Brigade was relieved of the responsibility for the Bum La -Towang axis. Its defence was entrusted to Headquarters 4 Division Artillery Brigade under Brigadier (later Major General) Kalyan Singh. It began moving to Towang, and 1 Sikh was placed under it. Another change was the removal of 5 Brigade from the operational control of 4 Division; henceforth it was to be directly under Headquarters 33 Corps and 4 Division was made solely responsible for Kameng. Effectively, when this shuffling took place Headquarters 4 Division had only 7 Brigade under it. Other formations were to join piecemeal later.
The outbreak of firing on the Namka Chu and reports of the Chinese build-up induced General Thapar to ask the Government to reconsider its decision regarding Operation ‘Leghorn’. Nehru and Menon were both abroad at this time and Thapar presented his case at a meeting that was held under the aegis of the Deputy Defence Minister, K. Raghuramaiah, on 22 September. The Army Chief stated that the Chinese could react to Indian moves on the Namka Chu by sending more reinforcements against that position; they could also commence operations elsewhere in NEFA or in Ladakh. The Foreign Secretary, who was present, explained the Prime Minister’s instructions on the subject and stated the Government’s view that no infringement of the border in NEFA was to be accepted. He was of the opinion that the Army must build up in the Namka Chu area and evict the Chinese from Indian territory there even at the cost of Chinese reaction in Ladakh. He stated that the Chinese would not react strongly in Ladakh but might only try and capture a post or two.
“¦the operation was to be a probe in strength to gauge Chinese reaction. The plan catered neither for a further Chinese build-up nor for their counter-action.
His advice having been overruled, Thapar asked for written orders from the Government. As a result, he received a note signed by a Joint Secretary, to the effect that there was no change in the Government’s previous stand in the matter, and that the COAS should take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the Kameng Frontier Division of NEFA as soon as he was ready. Thapar repeated the Government’s orders to Sen, with the injunction that arrangements be made for the eviction of the Chinese at ‘top speed’. At the same time, he warned Western Command of the possibility of Chinese reaction in Ladakh and ordered that Indian posts there should be strengthened.
The responsibility of preparing a plan for Operation ‘Leghorn’ fell on Brigadier Dalvi. As he later wrote, the task of evicting the Chinese was militarily impossible and the modest plan that he evolved ‘under duress from the Chief’ was in the nature of a police action. He did not envisage a set-piece attack to capture the Chinese positions on Thagla; the operation was to be a probe in strength to gauge Chinese reaction. The plan catered neither for a further Chinese build-up nor for their counter-action.9
The Thag La Ridge sloped from West to East and its Southern face was steep. This ruled out an approach from the East as also a frontal attack across the river. The only practical approach was from Tsangle in the extreme West of the valley. Dalvi’s plan, therefore, envisaged an out flanking move from Bridge V to capture Tseng-jong, a small feature on the Thag La slopes. After its capture, the assault force would roll down to the Chinese positions on the Namka Chu. The move of this force from Lumpu was to be carried out in stages and he allowed ten days for the approach march. While working out the logistics for this plan, Dalvi asked for the stockpiling of 30 days’ rations, three first line scales of ammunition, snow-clothing and other equipment, provision of artillery, helicopters for evacuation of casualties and porters for the loads from Tsangdhar onwards. Winter was approaching and he made it clear that unless the logistic base was ready within a fortnight, there would be no scope for operations before April next.
On 25 September, Niranjan Prasad arrived at Dalvi’s Headquarters at Lumpu. He studied the plan and made some alterations. The next day, Umrao Singh helicoptered to Lumpu and discussed it in detail with both of them. He wanted more fire-power and a higher administrative build-up to be catered for and objected to the laying down of firm dates. He insisted upon a line of action that would have a chance of success, even if the execution had to wait for six months. The plan was then modified in, the light of his advice and he took it with him. Before leaving, he ordered that there was to be no concentration of troops ahead of Lumpu till essential stores and equipment were in position at Tsangdhar.
Prisoners of their own commitments, Thapar and Sen had now to find a way out of the impasse created by Umrao Singh’s stand. The easiest way out was to replace him by a more pliant Corps Commander and this course is said to have been suggested to Menon after he returned to Delhi on 30 September. However, on Nehru’s return from abroad two days later, it was decided to form 4 Corps to handle Operation ‘Leghorn’. Umrao Singh was to be left in command of 33 Corps, the only change being that NEFA would no longer be under his jurisdiction.
The Government had also taken an unwise step in leaking out the eviction order and reports had appeared in the foreign and Indian Press regarding the impending military action.
During the Second World War, 4 Corps had been largely responsible for throwing the Japanese out of India. Now, the newly raised 4 Corps was to throw the Chinese out of NEFA. The Government entrusted its command to Kaul, who had been recalled from leave on 3 October. It is unusual for an officer holding a senior appointment like the CGS to step down and take charge of a job of lower status. But 4 Corps was no ordinary corps. It was to carry out a task dubbed impossible by another corps commander. It was perhaps a unique instance in military history that a newly formed corps-level formation had to plunge into operations straightaway. Significantly, no fresh appointment of CGS was made after Kaul left to command 4 Corps and the post was kept vacant at a time when crucial operations were about to be undertaken. The expectation perhaps was that Kaul would soon be back in Delhi after chasing the Chinese across Thag La. According to some sources, Kaul volunteered for the command of 4 Corps.
On 4 October, Kaul flew to Tezpur to take up his new appointment. His corps would have its Headquarters there. He took with him a few key officers to function as his staff. The previous night he had gone to meet the Prime Minister at the latter’s residence. At this meeting, Nehru told him the reasons that had led him to order the action at Che Dong. These were substantially the same as given by the Foreign Secretary to Thapar on 22 September. According to Kaul, Nehru said that a stage had come when India ‘must take – or appear to take – a strong stand irrespective of consequences’. In Nehru’s view, the Chinese, by their action on the Namka Chu, were establishing their claim on NEFA, which must be contested. He considered that if the Government failed to act it would forfeit public confidence.10 The fact that the disputed place did not lie in Indian territory on India’s own maps was evidently forgotten.
When Kaul landed at Tezpur, he was received by Sen and Umrao Singh. It was unusual for an Army Commander to go and receive a Corps Commander under his command. But Kaul was no ordinary Corps Commander. He was the Supremo, armed with special powers to report directly to the Prime Minister. Newspapers had announced his appointment in big headlines, though the creation of a new operational formation and the name of its commander should have been kept secret in accordance with normal practice. The Press reports said that Kaul had been specially assigned the task of forcing the Chinese back over the Thag La Ridge.
The main reason was the shortage of porters to move the air-dropped supplies from Lumpu.
Let us take a look at the situation in Kameng on 4 October. The two infantry battalions (2 Rajput and 1/9 Gorkha Rifles) ordered to join 7 Brigade had reached Lumpu. Both units were in cotton uniforms and without essential equipment, many of the men even without boots. They had moved from the plains in heavy rains when the Foot Hills-Towang road had become slushy and unfit for vehicular traffic. They marched most of the way, spending the nights in the open under improvised shelters. Neither unit was fit for war. 4 Grenadiers, earlier earmarked to replace 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, had arrived at Towang towards the end of September.
The build-up at Tsangdhar was slow. The main reason was the shortage of porters to move the air-dropped supplies from Lumpu. Tsangdhar had a small flat area that could be used for drops in an emergency. Towards the end of September, it was brought into use to hasten the build-up. But due to the limitations of the dropping zone there were heavy losses. The parachutes landed in ravines from which it was difficult to retrieve the stores. Unfortunately, the drops were also not planned properly. While the troops needed items like ammunition and snow-clothing, they were getting tent-pegs; kerosene oil was being dropped in large 200-litre barrels, weighing over 200 kilograms each. No thought was given to the fact that the men would have to roll them up and down steep slopes. When Packets (C-119) were pressed into service, the losses mounted, as much as 80 per cent being lost on one day. The comparatively high speed of the Packet reduced its suitability for drops at Tsangdhar. Bad weather also began to interfere with dropping operations and Tsangdhar had its first snowfall on 1 October.
The Chinese had by then deployed a regiment (brigade) in the Thag La area. They were also active in front of Khinzemane and Bum La. Intermittent exchange of fire in the Bridge II area had continued till 30 September. Both sides suffered casualties but 9 Punjab had an edge over the Chinese in these exchanges. Against the advice given by Dalvi, who was supported in this by Prasad and Umrao Singh, Sen had been insisting on the occupation of Tsangle. Ultimately, Dalvi had to give in, and the Punjabis set up a company locality there.
In the way of support weapons, two platoons of medium machine guns from 6 Mahar were available to 7 Brigade. Also 34 Heavy Mortar Battery, less a troop, had reached Lumpu; but it had no ammunition. After some Chinese wheeled guns were spotted on Thag La, a troop of 75-mm guns from 17 Parachute Field Regiment was flown from Agra to Tezpur; the guns were later to be dropped at Tsangdhar.
From Ramgarh, 62 Brigade had moved with its three infantry battalions 4 Garhwal, 2/8 Gorkha Rifles and 4 Sikh. En route, the Sikhs and the Gorkhas had been diverted to the Walong sector. The Headquarters of 62 Brigade and 4 Garhwal had reached Charduar and were awaiting further orders.
Before leaving, he (Gen Kaul) sent off a message to Army Headquarters to alert the Air Force for the use of fighter aircraft to combat the Chinese Air Force if such a contingency arose.
Around 0930 hours on 4 October, Niranjan Prasad arrived at Lumpu. After breaking the news of the formation of the new corps, he told Dalvi to move with his reconnaissance group to Tsangdhar immediately. Dalvi was taken aback and pointed out that he had received no operation order that would necessitate his move to Tsangdhar; also that by making a start at that hour, there would be no chance of completing a day’s march. But Niranjan Prasad seemed to be under great compulsion. According to Dalvi, the general ‘begged’ him to leave at once, ‘and take shelter in the nearest herder’s hut; all that mattered was that he [Prasad] should be in a position to say that the commander had gone “forward”’. This left no choice for Dalvi and shortly before noon he set out for Tsangdhar by way of Karpo La I. With him were the commanding officers of 2 Rajput and 1/9 Gorkha Rifles. About three kilometres from Lumpu, the party camped at a herder’s hut and reached Tsangdhar around midday on 6 October. No tents were available there and they used parachutes for shelter.