Coming back to General Kaul at Tezpur on 4 October, we find him being briefed by Sen and Umrao Singh. After the briefing, he plunged into the task he had taken on. To get over the shortage of porters, he ‘commandeered’ about a thousand of them from the Border Roads Organization and informed Delhi of his action. He was determined to get 7 Brigade to the Namka Chu in time for the eviction operation. In the Dalvi Plan, as sent up by Lieutenant General Umrao Singh, 10 October had been specified as the date by which Operation ‘Leghorn’ would have to commence if the logistics base was ready. Kaul decided to treat this date as a deadline, regardless of logistics. With this in view, he ordered the two battalions at Lumpu to move to Tsangdhar the next day, although they had not yet been equipped and the build-up of supplies and ammunition was woefully low. He also ordered 4 Garhwal to Towang to reinforce the garrison there. Headquarters 62 Brigade was left at Charduar, doing nothing.
This message stated that in view of Chinese superiority in resources, he could not rule out the possibility of the Indian force being overwhelmed; and that unless the situation was ‘retrieved’ there might be a ‘national disaster’. As a precautionary measure, he again recommended that offensive air support be positioned.
It forecast heavy casualties in the initial stages and asked for evacuation arrangements.
Having sent this signal Kaul flew into Lumpu, where he arrived at about 1500 hours. When he found that the two battalions there had not yet moved to Tsangdhar, he was very annoyed and ordered an immediate start. The brigade major (the brigade operational staff officer) pointed out that the distance covered at night in that terrain would be negligible and that Tsangdhar still needed to be stocked with rations, ammunition, blankets, snow-clothing and other necessaries. He also said that no porters were available; the men would have to move on hard scales and the sick rate would go up if the troops were sent without adequate clothing. Kaul overruled the brigade major and ordered that the brigade must concentrate at Tsangdhar by the evening of 7 October. He, however, promised that he would hasten the despatch of their equipment and stores.
A staging-post had been established at Serkhim, on the Lumpu-Hathung La route. On 6 October, Kaul flew to Serkhim; a helipad had been constructed there overnight by 100 Field Company. Thence Kaul and his party, which included Niranjan Prasad, made for the Namka Chu. The journey included a three-and-a-half-hour climb to Hathung La. It was arduous even for acclimatized troops; but Kaul was in a hurry and had himself carried pick-a-back part of the way by a porter. Seeing their Corps Commander carried in this fashion could not have been an inspiring sight for the troops.
Reaching Bridge I that evening, Kaul spent 7 October going round Indian positions. He could now see for himself that the troops were in a death trap; their positions were dominated by the Chinese all along. He met Dalvi in the afternoon, when the latter briefed him on the serious shortages of his brigade, as also the progress of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles and 2 Rajput.
He (Gen Kaul) then pointed out that even if initial success was gained, the Chinese were bound to counter-attack and throw the Indians from positions they might capture.
These two battalions, 34 Heavy Mortar Battery (less a troop), a company of 6 Mahar (machine guns), less the platoon already at Che Dong and most of 7 Brigade Headquarters reached Tsangdhar around 1700 hours that day. Only a few porters were available and all equipment in any case had to be carried manpack. These units had travelled via Karpo La I (5,250 metres) and on arrival at Tsangdhar (4,790 metres), the men had bivouacked in the open in freezing cold, with groups of three sleeping under two ground-sheets. The two battalions were still in cotton uniforms and the exposure brought on a good deal of sickness: chilblains, frostbite and pulmonary disorders. Two men of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles died of pulmonary oedema the next day.
Kaul sent three radio signals on 7 October to Lucknow and Delhi. The state of communications had not improved and the first message reached Delhi after three days. It forecast heavy casualties in the initial stages and asked for evacuation arrangements. The subsequent messages portrayed the difficult nature of the terrain, the precarious situation of Indian troops, assessment of Chinese strength and the unsatisfactory position of supplies and equipment. After recounting the difficulties of the situation, Kaul went on to say that despite these he was taking every step to carry out the orders he had received from the COAS and the Government. He then pointed out that even if initial success was gained, the Chinese were bound to counter-attack and throw the Indians from positions they might capture. To counter this, he recommended the marshalling ‘of all military [sic] and air resources’ for ‘restoration of the position in our favour’.
If Kaul had studied the reports sent by Dalvi and the recommendations of Umrao Singh before setting out from Delhi, he need not have come all the way to the Namka Chu to convey to the COAS and the Government the difficulties in the way of Operation ‘Leghorn’. Even at this stage, there was nothing to stop Kaul from recommending that the operation be called off for the time being. It was perhaps the Prime Minister’s injunction that came in the way.
On 8 October, Kaul held a conference near Bridge IV. It was meant to be an operational conference but turned out to be a rambling discussion of possible moves, interspersed with anecdotes. At one stage, a burst from a Chinese weapon from across the river broke up the conference, with everyone taking cover. After a lengthy pow-wow, Kaul’s final decision was that due to the physical impossibility of evicting the Chinese from their strong positions, he would make a ‘positional warfare manoeuvre’ and occupy Yumtso La, a feature the Chinese had not yet occupied. It lay West of Thag La and Kaul nominated 2 Rajput for the task.
Kaul’s announcement astonished his audience: the mission was suicidal. It involved the move of a battalion in cotton uniforms from the floor of the Namka Chu Valley to a mountain that was about 5,250 metres above sea-level. The move would take place under the very noses of the Chinese and without artillery support. They could massacre the battalion en route; even if they allowed the move to take place, the men would freeze to death on Yumtso La. The Chinese could also starve the Rajputs after they were in position by merely cutting off their lines of communication.
When these possibilities were pointed out to Kaul, he brushed them aside. But he accepted Dalvi’s suggestion that as a first step a patrol from 9 Punjab should be sent. The battalion knew the area and the patrol’s task would be to find a suitable crossing-place for the Rajputs and occupy Tseng-jong, a small feature on Thag La slopes, from which the Rajputs’ move could be covered. The Rajputs, less a company, were to advance at first light on 10 October. One company of this battalion was already deployed at Bridge I.
Even at this stage, there was nothing to stop Kaul from recommending that the operation be called off for the time being.
The Punjabis despatched a platoon to Tseng-jong soon after the decision was taken and occupied the feature without opposition. Before nightfall, two companies of the Rajputs had reached the Bridge IV area; the rest of the battalion (less the company at Bridge I) was deployed in the Dhola Post area. The Gorkhas had taken up positions on the Northern slopes of Tsangdhar, above Bridge III.
That night, Kaul jubilantly reported the occupation of Tseng-jong to Eastern Command and Army Headquarters. At the same time, he asked for the despatch of 11 Brigade to Lumpu to meet the anticipated Chinese reaction. It does not need much imagination to realize that in the conditions then prevailing, it would have taken some weeks for 11 Brigade (then in Nagaland) to reach Lumpu. Perhaps the Chinese were expected to be on their best behaviour till Kaul had his second brigade in position.
On 9 October, 9 Punjab reinforced the position at Tseng-jong with a platoon from their company at Tsangle, a section being sent up to the spur of Karpo La II, West of Yumtso La. The Chinese too were seen to reinforce their positions towards Tseng-jong. Kaul received a message that day from Army Headquarters conveying an intelligence report that about 300 mortars and guns had been seen moving near Tsona Dzong towards the McMahon Line and that their objective might be Towang. The message is an indication of the paralysis that gripped those in authority at this time. Army Headquarters knew that the only guns with 7 Brigade were two 75-mm (Para) field guns from 17 (Para) Field Regiment air-dropped at Tsangdhar and a troop (4 pieces) of 4.2-inch mortars (without ammunition). Sending this message to the Corps Commander without telling him what they intended to do about it was a meaningless exercise on the part of Army Headquarters. At this time Towang had three batteries (two mountain, one field) and a troop of 4.2-inch mortars.
The Para Gunners had come by road from Tezpur and were suffering from the effects of high altitude, like other troops rushed up from the plains without acclimatization. Four of the guns had been dropped at Tsangdhar on 8 October. Of these, it had been possible to retrieve only two. Even the two pieces could give no solace to the men on the Namka Chu as they were outranged by Chinese infantry mortars.