An unsuccessful attempt was made in April-May 1948 to relieve Skardu. A battalion of the Jammu and Kashmir Infantry was sent from Srinagar together with a small party of regular troops. Due to the size of the staging camps and the narrowness of the tracks, the force had to be sent piecemeal. In the beginning of May, while the battalion was strung between Dras and Parkutta, the enemy decided to leave the garrison at Skardu alone for the time being and attacked the staging camps. The small detachments at these camps were surprised by the sudden appearance of the enemy and were either destroyed or driven out. The relief column for Skardu, staging in these posts, was also taken in the sweep, a small number escaping to Leh. The enemy on reaching Kargil along the Indus and moving a column along the Shyok was now in a position to threaten Leh as well as Srinagar from the direction of Zoji La. The Kashmir Valley was now ringed from the West, North and East.
Thapa and his gallant men stood firm at Skardu but they did not have the means to bar the route to the South. The enemy left just enough men there to continue the siege while making for Kargil. The small garrison there was ordered to withdraw to Leh. With Dras and Kargil gone, Indian land communications with Leh were firmly cut: only one tortuous route remained, the mountain track from Manali to Leh.
The enemy left just enough men there to continue the siege while making for Kargil. The small garrison there was ordered to withdraw to Leh.
When Sher Jang Thapa left Leh to save Skardu, he left behind just 33 men of the state forces. A few days after Skardu came under attack, Sen despatched a party of three officers and 70 men to Leh to raise and train a local militia for its defence. Strict secrecy was maintained about the despatch of this force. Called ‘Lehdet’, it was commanded by Major Prithi Chand of 2 Dogra and consisted entirely of volunteers. The 415-kilometre trek in the midst of winter was a dangerous venture. A number of Lahaulis from his own battalion formed part of Prithi Chand’s detachment. Zoji La was under nine metres of snow at the time and Prithi Chand prepared it for the crossing in an ingenious manner. Drums were beaten in the stillness of the night to create avalanches and the process was repeated over three successive nights before the crossing was effected without a mishap. Lehdet reached its destination on 8 March.
Prithi Chand had taken a hundred spare rifles to train and arm the Leh militia. Towards the end of April, more arms and ammunition arrived. Among the first volunteers to join was the young Raja of Leh, a scion of the dynasty that had ruled over Ladakh for centuries. He enlisted as a jawan but was later given a commission in the Indian Army.
While the enemy was building up for an attack on Leh, a company of 2/4 Gorkha Rifles was flown in from Srinagar on 1 June. Thus reinforced, the garrison was able to undertake some aggressive patrolling.
The remnants of the Kargil garrison reached Leh on 17 May. The only troops now between Kargil and Leh were two platoons guarding the bridge at Khalatse (see Fig. 3.7). At this place, about 60 kilometres from Leh, the Kargil-Leh track crossed from the South bank of the Indus to the North bank. The enemy now converged upon Leh from the North, the West and the South.
In the winter months, the Leh garrison had built an improvised air-strip with the help of a Ladakhi engineer and on 24 May, Thimayya landed there. He had been flown in a Dakota by Group Captain (later Air Commodore) Mehar Singh over an uncharted region above 7,000 metres without using oxygen. The air route was opened none too soon for, two days earlier, the state forces platoons at Khalatse had been attacked and forced to withdraw. Fortunately, they blew up the bridge before falling back.
While the enemy was building up for an attack on Leh, a company of 2/4 Gorkha Rifles was flown in from Srinagar on 1 June. Thus reinforced, the garrison was able to undertake some aggressive patrolling. In an engagement with about 600 of the enemy on 26 June, near Gumkhar, the Gorkhas killed and wounded a good number. Meanwhile, 2/8 Gorkha Rifles had been despatched from Ferozepur by the old caravan route through Manali, in Himachal Pradesh.
By 18 September, the whole of 2/8 Gorkha Rifles had joined the garrison but it was not yet possible to mount a link-up operation as the line of communication from Srinagar had not been cleared of the enemy.
No troops had used this difficult 325-kilometre track in recent times and the first company reached Leh on 5 July, 38 days after the battalion had left Ferozepur. Bad weather prevented the fly-in of reinforcements from Srinagar till 15 August, when some troops, stores and ammunition began to arrive. Meanwhile, the enemy had been pressing its advantage in numbers, and one of its groups managed to come within 6 kilometres of Leh. By 18 September, the whole of 2/8 Gorkha Rifles had joined the garrison36 but it was not yet possible to mount a link-up operation as the line of communication from Srinagar had not been cleared of the enemy.
Skardu fell on 14 August. While the rest of the country was preparing to celebrate the first anniversary of Independence, this garrison, without ammunition and hardly any rations, had to hoist the white flag. The jubilant enemy commander is said to have reported his victory thus: “All Sikhs shot, all women raped”.37
To save Leh from the fate of Skardu, Thimayya now turned his attention to Dras and Kargil. He had earlier planned to take Gurais which was captured by 1 Grenadiers in the early hours of 29 June. However, before an advance towards the Burzil Pass could commence, Skardu fell. There being little point now in going in that direction, Thimayya decided to move 77 (Para) Brigade to Baltal for a thrust against Kargil through Zoji La. The formation was now commanded by Brigadier K.L. Atal and it had left its old battalions in the Uri sector. It now comprised 3 Jat, 1/5 (Royal) Gorkha Rifles, 5 Maratha LI, J&K Mountain Battery, Engineers, a platoon of Mahar machine-gunners, and the usual ancillaries.