The decision to make Se La the main defensive position of 4 Division and to put half its fighting strength there had been unwise. However, a withdrawal from that position when it was under a frontal attack and had been outflanked could bring nothing but disaster. In his battles against the Japanese, Slim had evolved a standard tactic for such a situation.
When any force was cut off, it would stand and not withdraw; at the same time, it would try to cut the enemy’s lines of communication. Air supply was assured to the besieged force and other troops were sent to relieve it. With some effort, Se La could have been maintained by air.
The morale of the men there was by no means cracking; the Garhwalis had shown that. What was missing was determined and foresighted leadership. A determined stand at Se La might have proved a turning point in the Kameng battle.
The Chinese closely followed the Sikh LI as the latter withdrew and opened up with mortars and small-arms. It would appear that the information regarding the Sikh LIs withdrawal did not reach the men of 1 Sikh”¦
Kaul returned to his Headquarters around 1930 hours. Within 15 minutes Pathania was again on the line to seek permission for abandoning Se La. Kaul did not agree and told Pathania that Se La had a week’s supplies and should be able to hold out even if cut off.
Later during the night, while Kaul and his guests from Delhi and Lucknow were at dinner, the telephone rang again; it was Pathania reiterating his request for a withdrawal. Kaul told him that he must hold on at Se La that night and that he would give final orders the next morning. However, after consultation with Thapar and Sen, he later sent Pathania a directive. Instead of being a firm and precise command, it left room for different interpretations. Among other things, the directive told Pathania: “You will hold on to your present position to the best of your ability; when any position becomes untenable I delegate the authority to you to withdraw to any alternative position you can hold”.25 By the time the directive was ready, communications between 4 Division and 4 Corps Headquarters had broken down. It reached Pathania via 48 Brigade in the early hours of 18 November. By then much had happened at Se La.
Around 1830 hours on 17 November, Hoshiar Singh held a conference, at which a plan for withdrawal on the night of 18/19 November was chalked out and conveyed to those who could not attend. He made it clear that the information was for them personally and that he would brief them in detail the next morning.
Later that night around 2200 hours, Hoshiar Singh rang up his brigade major from his bunker to tell him that he had ordered 2 Sikh LI to withdraw during the night from its position on Kya La, North of Se La; the battalion was to leave one company covering the road to Se La. He had done this, he told the brigade major, as there were reports of enemy build-up for a dawn-attack against Kya La and he did not want the battalion to be involved in battle. Hoshiar Singh had informed Pathania of this decision, as also the commanding officer of 1 Sikh, through whose positions 2 Sikh LI would withdraw. But the move, when it began, resulted in chaos.
Brigadier Hoshiar Singh reached Phutang after some days but his small party was later ambushed by the Chinese and he was killed.
The Chinese closely followed the Sikh LI as the latter withdrew and opened up with mortars and small-arms. It would appear that the information regarding the Sikh LI’s withdrawal did not reach the men of 1 Sikh; the firing and unexpected movement of 2 Sikh LI caused panic among them and they abandoned their positions. By then, communications between Brigade Headquarters and battalions had broken down, adding to the confusion.
Around 0400 hours on 18 November, Hoshiar Singh went up to Se La to see things for himself and found 2 Sikh LI mixed up and completely disorganized. He tried to restore order. An hour or so later, when he returned to his Headquarters, he discovered that his line and radio communications with Divisional Headquarters had also broken down. He now decided to withdraw straightaway to Senge as one side of Se La was already in enemy hands. He tried to inform everyone who could be contacted. He could not get in touch with 4 Sikh LI, on the left shoulder of Se La and the unit was left to its fate.
The head of the brigade column reached the vicinity of Senge around 0900 hours. Here Hoshiar Singh decided to send the vehicles straightaway to Dirang Dzong. His brigade major had informed 48 Brigade and 4 Corps from a wayside camp that the brigade was making for Bomdi La by way of Dirang Dzong. Neither he nor Hoshiar Singh was aware that Dirang Dzong was being evacuated even as 62 Brigade was making for the place.
Of the infantry that had accompanied Hoshiar Singh from Se La, only the Garhwalis were in good shape; 2 Sikh LI and 1 Sikh were still sorting themselves out. There was the risk of hot pursuit by the enemy. He, therefore, decided to push off to Dirang Dzong with the Garhwalis as his advanced guard; 2 Sikh LI and l Sikh were to follow; 13 Dogra (less two companies with Divisional Headquarters) was to act as the rearguard.
The advanced guard was divided into two groups. Two of the companies under Lieutenant Colonel Bhattacharjea moved along the heights; the remainder of the battalion was under the brigade commander, leading the main column. The move had begun at about 1040 hours. When the main column rounded a bend in the road beyond the village of Nyukmadong,
“a harrowing sight suddenly came into view. Vehicles, guns and bulldozers lay scattered. The road and the shallow drain running along it were littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying. This was the end of the vehicle column”.26
The main foot column was on the move till 1400 hours when it came under heavy fire from the heights overlooking the road. Soon, the Chinese appeared at the rear also. Efforts to dislodge the enemy failed and by 1600 hours the column was completely disorganized. As darkness enveloped the scene, control was lost and the column disintegrated into small parties. Brigadier Hoshiar Singh reached Phutang after some days but his small party was later ambushed by the Chinese and he was killed.27
After the conference, when Pathania went in his jeep to watch the progress of road-clearance, he witnessed utter confusion.
The Garhwalis under Bhattacharjea cleared the enemy from several places along their route of withdrawal. However, beyond Nyukmadong this group lost touch with the main column. On arrival at Dirang Dzong after midnight, it was ambushed. Most of its men became casualties; Bhattacharjea was taken prisoner with some others. When a count was later taken, 34 officers, 43 JCOs and 1,610 other ranks of 62 Brigade were found missing. The Garhwalis won many awards for gallantry, including two MVCs and seven Vir Chakras.
Major General Pathania abandoned Dirang Dzong in the forenoon of 18 November. Lying in a valley, the Headquarters of 4 Division was hardly capable of defence. Early that morning he had sent off the three infantry companies with him to bar the enemy’s route to Bomdi La. Later he called a conference. ‘All contact with 48 and 62 Brigades had by then been lost and the atmosphere was one of impending doom’. While the situation was being discussed, an officer of 19 Maratha LI came at the double to Divisional Headquarters with the news that the Chinese had arrived at Munna Camp on the Bomdi La road, only a few kilometres from Dirang Dzong.
This was enough ground for the GOC to decide that Dirang Dzong be abandoned. He told his audience that his intention was to withdraw to Bomdi La by way of Manda La. This pass lay South-West of Bomdi La and a track leading to it ran due South from Dirang Dzong. No plan for the withdrawal was given out. The last order that Pathania gave was that the two companies of Dogras, already deployed East of Dirang Dzong and the tanks of 7 Light Cavalry should clear the road-block which the enemy had just established. He told the squadron commander of 7 Light Cavalry that if he could not fight through to Bomdi La, he should abandon the tanks and withdraw with his men to the plains.
Among those who had attended Pathania’s conference was the commander of 65 Brigade. When the conference ended, he went to his Headquarters and after informing his staff of the withdrawal order, drove away in his jeep. One of his battalions, 19 Maratha LI, took the Manda La track soon after and reached Phutang before the Chinese got there. The brigade’s second battalion, 4 Rajput, could not withdraw as one body as its companies were widely dispersed. The Rajputs had been in contact with the enemy since 14 November and had fought a company-action North of Nyukmadong on 16 November, losing many men. Two of their companies withdrew independently.
The Rajputs had been in contact with the enemy since 14 November and had fought a company-action North of Nyukmadong on 16 November, losing many men.
The rest, under Lieutenant Colonel B.N. Avasthy, began to withdraw on 19 November. Four days later, the Chinese ambushed them South-West of Bomdi La. They fought gallantly against superior numbers and suffered heavy casualties. Among the killed was the battalion commander. A count after the withdrawal showed that 37 of the battalion had been killed, while 226 were missing.
In a radio signal to Eastern Command and Army Headquarters, sent around 1730 hours on 18 November, Kaul informed his superiors: “I am just going to the Bomdi La battle”. Unfortunately for him, the Chinese were always a few steps ahead of him. An hour before he had put his signature to that message, Brigadier Gurbux Singh had ordered a withdrawal from Bomdi La. Kaul did not know at the time that Dirang Dzong had fallen. He had been out of touch with 4 Division since 0730 hours that morning. But he knew that prospects were bleak and reflected it in his signal by repeating his request that the Government should seek the help of foreign armies and air forces to throw back the advancing Chinese.
Among the last-minute attempts to reinforce 4 Division was the move of 67 Infantry Brigade from Nagaland. Its Headquarters and advance parties from units reached Misamari on 14 November. Two days later, its commander, Brigadier M.S. Chatterjee, left for Dirang Dzong to meet Pathania. He arrived there on the morning of 17 November, only to witness the rout the next day.
One of the battalions of 67 Brigade was flown to the Lohit sector. The advance parties of Brigade Headquarters and one of the remaining battalions – 3 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles — reached Bomdi La around 0930 hours on 18 November. Brigadier Gurbux Singh ordered the men from Jammu & Kashmir Rifles to take up a position West of Bomdi La, where 5 Guards had earlier been deployed.
The artillery could not take on the enemy as communications between the guns and the forward observation officer had broken down.
Bomdi La was poorly held. North of the town was 1 Sikh LI, less its company at Phutang. The defences East of the town were held by 1 Madras. Brigade Headquarters was South of the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow. The units had no wire or mines to strengthen their defences and they only had their first-line scale of ammunition. This was to some extent due to the fact that Se La had been getting preference for stores and equipment. The Headquarters of 67 Brigade was placed under 48 Brigade on arrival.
Shortly after the arrival of the advance elements of the new brigade at Bomdi La, Kaul ordered 48 Brigade to send out a mobile column to Dirang Dzong. Gurbux Singh protested but was overruled and told to despatch the column within 45 minutes. Sent around 1100 hours, the column consisted of two tanks of 7 Cavalry, a section of mountain guns and two companies of 1 Sikh LI. Only sentries and cooks were left in the positions which the two companies had been holding, except for a section of medium machine guns that remained behind.