70 Years ago: War and 'Liberation' - The Battle of Chamdo
On the occasion of the 70 years of the Battle of Chamdo (October 7, 1950), I republished this article War and Liberation which originally appeared in the USI Journal (April 2016 – June 2016 issue).
During the first weeks of October 1950, as Tibet was invaded by the People’s Liberation Army, Communist China stated that it was ‘liberating’ Tibet. It is not the place here to enter into this debate, but one can see that several decades later, the Tibetans, particularly the first ‘liberated’ in Eastern Tibet, still disagree with this interpretation.
The Battle of Chamdo, the first and only encounter between the Tibetan and Chinese forces, is however interesting to look at for several reasons.
Tibet, a Buddhist nation was not military and tactically ready to oppose the seasoned troops of Mao (and some of China’s brilliant commanders). From the start, The Land of Snows stood no chance, especially without outside support.
Many in Tibet still believed that increasing the number of japa (recitation) or parikramas(circumambulations) around the monasteries and stupas of Kham, would be sufficient to make the Truth Prevail. As Robert Ford, the British radio operator posted in Chamdo, remarked ‘The gods are on our side’ was the mantra most oft-repeated in the town, “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed.”
For the Chinese, it was a well-prepared operation (a ‘police operation’ would have said Marshal Peng Dehuai) in 2 stages: the fall of Chamdo, the capital town of Kham province during the Fall of 1950 and then the advance to Lhasa during the next season .
India was fooled into believing that Communist China wanted a ‘negotiated’ settlement with the Tibetans: it was never the case. Marshal Liu Bosheng in a message in August 1950 made it clear that he was going to ‘liberate’ Tibet.
Opposite the Chinese strategists was Ngabo Shape , the Tibetan Commissioner for the Kham province, a weak leader, ready to surrender; he was obviously not the military chef de guerre that Tibet need at this point in time to coordinate the defence of the different border posts.
It has to be noticed that Mao Zedong entered the Korean campaign on the same day (October 7) as the PLA crossed the Yangtze and started its Tibet operations. It shows the confidence the Communist leadership had in the local PLA commanders.
Finally, the PLA summary of the battle and recommendations distributed by the PLA after the Battle of Chamdo tends to show that it was a good preparation for the Chinese troops for another battle 12 years later on the Himalayan slopes. Against India this time.
Marshal Liu Bocheng Communique
On the first day of August, a message from Marshal Liu Bocheng, the Chairman of Southwest Military and Political Committee, was widely distributed by Xinhua: “[The] People Liberation Army will soon march towards Tibet with object of driving out the British and American aggressive forces so as to make Tibetans return to the Great Family of the Peoples Republic of China.”
The general lines of the ‘liberation’ were given: “As soon as the Liberation army enters into Tibet they will carry out the Programme of National Regional Autonomy, religious freedom, protection of Lama church and will respect the religious belief and customs of the Tibetans, develop their languages and characters as well as their educational and their agricultural, pastural, industrial and commercial enterprises and work for betterment of the Peoples living standard.”
Did the CCP’s Central Committee have the intention to seriously implement these policies? It is difficult to say.
Lui’s message continues: “The military and political systems prevailing in Tibet now will remain as they are and will NOT be changed.” However the present Tibetan Army will become a part of the National Defence Force of the Peoples Republic of China. It was ominous for the Tibetans.
Liu generously added: “All expenditure of the Peoples Liberation Army when they enter into Tibet [will be borne] by this Central Peoples Government so as to reduce the burden of the Tibetans.”
The dice was cast.
The military plans for the ‘liberation’
On August 23, Mao Zedong sent a telegram to the Southwest Bureau of the Central Committee; it is entitled: “Strive to Occupy Chamdo This Year and Advance to Lhasa Next Year”. This cable, repeated to the Northwest Bureau in Qinghai , lays down the Communists’ military plans for the year 1950 and 1951.
Answering a note that he had received 3 days earlier Mao writes: “The plan to push for occupying Chamdo this year and to leave three thousand men to consolidate Chamdo is good. You can actively make preparations according to this plan, and when it is ascertained by the end of this month or the beginning of next month that the road has reached Ganzi without obstruction, the advance can go ahead. It is expected that Chamdo will be occupied in October. That would be advantageous for pushing for political changes in Tibet, and marching into Lhasa the next year.”
A few days earlier, KM Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in China had met Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Foreign Minister. The Ambassador reported to Delhi: “I am satisfied that the representations we have made have had two important results; the Chinese will NOT now proceed to attack Tibet unless all efforts at peaceful settlement have been exhausted. …Short of giving Tibet its privileged position, China, I am convinced, would do everything to satisfy Tibetans, at least for the time, and will NOT proceed to military action.”
Such a foolish assessment!
On August 22, the Ambassador had handed over an aide-mémoire to the Chinese Government in which he stated that the Government of India “have no political or territorial ambitions in Tibet and no desire to seek any novel privileged position for themselves or their nationals in Tibet.”
The next day, the Great Helmsman could affirm: “Now India has issued a statement recognizing Tibet as China’s territory, only expressing hope that the issue can be settled peacefully, not by force. …If our army can occupy Chamdo in October, there is the possibility of pushing the Tibetan delegation to Beijing for negotiation, begging for a peaceful solution… Right now we are using the strategy of urging the Tibetan delegation to come to Beijing and reducing Nehru’s fear.”
The strategy was clear. The PLA had to occupy Chamdo before the winter; stop the advance for a while; get time to force ‘an agreement’ with the Tibetans and then complete the ‘liberation’ by advancing to Lhasa in 1951.
In his telegram to Chengdu, Mao explains: “When Tibetan representatives arrive in Beijing , we plan to use the Ten Points already decided as the basis for negotiation, urge the Tibetan representatives to sign it, and make the Ten Points an agreement accepted by both sides. If this can be done, it will make things easier for advancing into Tibet next year.”
In other words, it would be a ‘peaceful liberation’.
It is what happened in May 1951 when the Tibetan ‘negotiators’ were forced ‘under duress’ to sign the 17-Point Agreement; the road to Lhasa was open.
In August 1950, Mao’s rationalizes further: “Your plan to leave 3,000 men in Chamdo for the winter after occupying it, not to advance into Lhasa this year, and withdraw the main force back to Ganzi may be seen by the Tibetans as a gesture of good will. The matter of 30 airplanes is in process, but it takes time. You should not count on them in the short term. All the provisions for the 16,000 men marching from Ganzi to Chamdo have to be carried by manpower and yaks, and 3,000 men among them will need provisions for winter. …Part of the grain and meat (needed by troops) may be purchased in Chamdo etc., and have you prepared some gold, silver and goods that Tibetans need, such as silk, to take with you?”
That was it. The military operations could start.
The Battle of Chamdo
For the description of the Battle of Chamdo, our source is a Chinese text called Detailed Report on Battle of Chamdo by the 52nd Division of the 18th Army of the People’s Liberation Army.
It is part of a Chinese report, The Liberation of Chamdo, which was translated by two independent researchers, Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester.
While reflecting the views of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China, it shows that the Battle of Chamdo was a military operation conducted in a professional manner by the 18th Army of the Second Field Army, with the possibility to receive support from the North (Qinghai), the South (Yunnan) and even a few troops from Xinjiang.
While Nehru was banking on ‘talks’ to peacefully solve the issue, there was no question of ‘peace’ or ‘negotiations’ for Mao, and Chamdo was merely the first stage before an advance towards Lhasa during the next season.
What is surprising is the elaborate planning of this military operation. Comparatively, the leaderless Tibetans were novices and stood no chance in front of the calculated tactical moves of the PLA. We shall see that the Chinese learned a lot during the Chamdo operations; this is apparent in their ‘Summary’.
While Panikkar in Beijing was talking peace and dialogue, the PLA’s slogan in Eastern Tibet as: “Surround more, annihilate more; surround less, annihilate less” or “Cutting into the heart of the enemy position, penetrating, separating, surrounding and annihilating the enemy.”
It did not mean that some of the Tibetan troops did not fight well, particularly the Gadang regiment under Dapon Muja.
It is a tragedy that nobody in India thought of studying the Battle of Chamdo, it would have perhaps avoided a lot of suffering and the crushing defeat of 12 years later.
Chinese narrative of the Battle of Chamdo
The Chinese report tells us that after crossing the Jinsha river from October 6 to 9, the troops reached “the vast plateau of a thousand li in length and width and in coordination with brother troops, units of this division were divided into three wings, left, middle and right, forming the assault on Chamdo, a powerful pincer attack targetting the 1500-li-long position of the Tibetan army commanded by Chamdo Governor Lhalu. ”
It has to be noted that before the operations started, Governor Lhalu had been transferred to Lhasa. Robert Ford was not happy with Ngabo who ‘seemed too cool and confident’.
It was one could say, ‘a British understatement’.
The report continues: “During the fourteen days of rapid advance and fighting, all units were moving across the unfamiliar plateau without accurate maps. Soldiers carried loads of 60 or 70 jin , climbed more than 50 high mountains and crossed rivers over 60 times. On average, foot soldiers cover 72 li, cavalry 80 li a day, those who had to march day and night moved up to 34 hours continuously without enough food. However, all units answered the call by party committees of both the army and the division and endured extreme hardship, annihilated all the defending enemies in Chamdo on schedule, and successfully completed the capture of Chamdo.”
How such a quick success?
It is explained in detail: “[the PLA] annihilated five Dapons , the main force of the Tibetan army, and over 2,000 militia, liberated the region north to Qinghai , south to Yunnan , east to Jinsha river, west to Luolong and Leiwuqi , a vast area more than one thousand square li. The success further strengthened our unity with Tibetans west of the Jinsha river, laid the foundation for advancing next year (1951), struck blows directly and indirectly at the British and American imperialist invaders, inspired people in the near east and repaid the people of the whole country who had warmly supported us.”
Of course, apart from the poor Robert Ford, who soon would be captured and kept five years in a Chinese gaol, there were no imperialist around.
But the Tibetans had to be ‘liberated’ from something or somebody. It was an easy alibi for the world at large, and particularly for the gullible Indian Ambassador in Beijing.
The military operation to ‘liberate’ Tibet also demonstrates how Mao’s concept of a ‘Liberation War’ was applied on the ground.
The Report says: “…Tibetans have warmly supported us (taking in and escorting individual stragglers, delivering information, guiding the way, providing transportation, building bridges, preparing firewood and fodder, etc.), all of this shows that we had good influence by carrying out the policies conscientiously before the attack and shows the tangible benefits brought to Tibetans during our westward march. This is a small accomplishment we achieved in the past, and it is also a major pointer for the future in the liberation and construction of Tibet.”
The ‘political’ instructions to the ground forces were: ‘Three Keep-in-Mind’ and ‘Eight Things-to-do’.
The Political Department of Tibet Military Area Command in Chengdu later prepared “A Brief Report on Battle of Chamdo by Southwest Military Area Command”. One gets an idea of the role of the ‘liberated populations’ in the military operations: “Before the battle, troops had gone through comprehensive education on minority policy and conducted work aimed at uniting with the minority people in a planned way. This work contributed greatly to accomplishing the battle smoothly,” notes the Report.
Of course, the situation rapidly changed and by mid-1950s, the Khampa guerrilla started resisting the ‘liberation’.
To come back to the Report of the Battle, it notes: “In this battle, troops advanced rapidly for 15 days with heavy loads across the high plateau a thousand kilometers in length and width, wrapping up…entire enemy position 1500 li in length and accomplished the task on schedule, completely annihilated the third (two Dapons), the seventh, the eighth, the fifth and the tenth Dapon, altogether five Dapons (averaging small regiments) under Tibetan Frontier Envoy Commissioner General , captured …over 3,000 men. This victory is fundamentally due to correct leadership by leading officers of the Military Area Command and the Army Party Committee, strong support from the people of the whole country, coordination from brother troops (particularly engineer corps), …and the eight-month long preparation.”
In some places, the Tibetans fought quite well. As noted by Melvyn Goldstein, already in August, the Tibetans fought a pitch battle in Denkok: “The battle of Dengo [Denkok] was technically a victory for the Tibetans, in that they had pushed the Chinese back and demonstrated they could contend with the People’s Liberation Army. The battle boosted the morale of the Tibetan forces in Kham, but it did not alter the basic military situation of the Tibetans, who were woefully undermanned and under- armed.”
But at the time, Mao and his generals had not completed the preparations for the Battle of Chamdo.
Analysing the Tibetan opposition
We shall not go into the details of the operations, but it is worth stopping for a moment at the Chinese analysis of their opponents, the Tibetan troops:
- The enemy had no focus, no depth and attached no importance to flanks.
- Enemy lacks systematic strategic planning and command, they fought wherever they were attacked and were easily misled by us. After we crossed the river from Dengke , it was quite possible that the enemy might mistakenly believe, based on historical experience, that the Chinese could be stopped.
- The enemy had never experienced large scale battle
- The Tibetans had no knowledge of modern military science and were equipped with few heavy weapons.
- Their combat capability was not strong.
- The Chinese estimated that there were 3 possibilities:
- The Tibetans would retreat without fighting and escape without hesitation (“if this happened, it would definitely make it more difficult for us to annihilate them”)
- The Tibetans would scatter at the first contact, everywhere in the mountains and wilderness to entangle us also existed (“this would make it more difficult for us to annihilate them”).
- The Tibetans would concentrate forces and put up strong resistance in strategic locations (“this was exactly what we were hoping for, for we were absolutely sure that we would annihilate them thoroughly, straightforwardly and completely”).
After a first encounter in Denkok in August, the Chinese report comments: “we did not seize the moment of strength to strike the enemy a fatal blow. The enemy might mistakenly have thought that our combat capability was not strong”.
But this was not the real Battle of Chamdo. Mao wanted to complete the logistic preparations before the fatal blow to the Tibetans.
A first step well-accomplished
The Report gives insight on the strategy; the Battle of Chamdo was the first step towards Lhasa: “Liberating Chamdo, annihilating the main force of the Tibetan army in the area east of Upper Mekong, Enda and Riwoche lays the foundation for advance into Lhasa next year 1951 and liberate the entire Tibet.”
The report describes the battle: “We decided to deploy a powerful right-flank encircling force composed of infantry and cavalry, providing strong points to offset each other’s weaknesses, making a detour via Batang and Nangchen and pushing forward vigorously and precipitately. Troops should not be blocked by small numbers of enemy, doing everything possible to clear away obstacles and circle bravely…the entire field, cutting off the enemy’s retreats from Enda to Gyamda Dzong in Kongpo and from Riwoche to Nagchu, the two main escape routes, making it impossible for enemies to escape even if they intended to slip away without fighting.
Performance of troops in this wing is the key to success or failure in annihilating more than three Dapons of the enemy force. The middle wing cut into the heart of the enemy position by way of …cutting into the heart of the enemy position, penetrating, separating, surrounding and annihilating the enemy within the entire enemy position and advancing straight to Chamdo.”
If the enemy did not rest, we wouldn’t rest; when the enemy took rest, we annihilate them. The left wing force crossed the river at Kamtok, marching slowly by way of Dongpu, Jomda and Jueyong to draw in the enemy. They seized the Damala Pass and controlled Sichuan bridge.
The Chinese also wrote down the lessons of the battle and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the Tibetan Army. It makes interesting reading:
- All Tibetan troops were organized in a comparatively primitive way. Troops have neither commanding offices (headquarters?) nor maps.
- Everything was handled by one single officer-in-charge.
- Special reconnaissance troops and communication tools were very outdated.
- They did not fight aggressively and lacked counter attack ability. In several battles we did not find the enemy launching strong counter attacks.
- Lack of systematic strategic thinking
- No attention paid to protect flank and rear while deploying the forces. No knowledge of using the terrain to block our advance.
- No night combat experience.
- No guards posted at encampments.
- Enemies were slow in climbing mountains: the 156th regiment’s speed was nearly one third faster than the speed of the enemy.
- In terms of tactics: the Tibetans were good at riding horses, highly skillful at shooting and utilizing terrain and landforms, but not good at operation. There is certainly some exaggeration in this account, but the lack of larger strategic thinking cannot be discounted.
- One should also not forget that the Tibetan troops were less than 5,000 (perhaps 7,000 if one includes the local militia) and the PLA numbered around 20,000.
The tactics used against Tibetan army are also mentioned in the Report:
- To deal with the weak Tibetan army with our current equipment, the key is to encircle the enemy
- No need to worry about breaking through Tibetan army’s positions, the only worry is not being able to encircle them.
- Once the supply line is cut, enemy will retreat in disorder without fighting.
- Based on special conditions of the plateau cavalry is the key to annihilate the enemy, and the guarantee of success.
A good coordination between the Infantry and Artillery is required: “Due to weather conditions on the plateau and our equipment, vigorous activities and rapid charge are not favourable to the troops. Therefore, during combat firepower must be well organized so as to coordinate with foot soldiers continuously and effectively.”
About the reconnaissance, as no accurate map was available and rivers, forests and mountain ranges are serious obstacles: “knowledge of enemy situation and terrain through reconnaissance prior to battle is highly important. The method is to inquire from Tibetans familiar with the area …as long as we are nice to him, he would give us such information honestly.”
About the Artillery, to combat on the plateau, distance should be well measured: “Observation is not easy since too many objects block the view, and as a result, distances are often misjudged as closer.”
Perhaps more interesting for India are the suggestions on the PLA structure and equipment required for future operations.
The Summary recommends:
- A division should have a cavalry regiment to fulfill the task of circling and surrounding the enemy.
- A regiment should have a mounted reconnaissance company to facilitate communication and reconnaissance.
- Mounted reconnaissance company can perform tasks of circling and surrounding in small actions.
- One engineers platoon should be allocated for building bridges, handling boats, and clearing away obstacles to increase advancing speed.
- Reduce mountain artillery, increase recoilless guns, high-angle guns, dynamite, detonator, fuse and explosive.
- Quality and style of current field tools needs to be improved.
- The current style of uniform must be changed and quality must be improved, otherwise it will not be able to last the season
- It is better to make the uniform with strong and durable cloth, shoulders, backsides and knees should be reinforced.
- Weight of coat should be reduced. Comforter should be changed into soft, warm, damp-resistant, lightweight, larger size wool blanket which can be used as mattress pad as well as comforter.
- Raincoat and damp-resistant canvas should be combined into one, based on current raincoat size and shape, adding more rubber to make it thicker so it can be used to wear and to spread as bedding. Quality of shoes should be improved, soles should be softer and the upper should be higher, water-proof and damp-resistant.
- Headgear should better be helmet with goggles fixed on.
- Regiment and above level should be equipped with larger radio of 50 watt or more.
- All food should be high quality, low quantity, long-lasting and easy to carry, otherwise it increases soldiers’ burden, reduces their physical strength, slows down marching speed and has negative impact on accomplishing tasks.
These lessons were certainly useful for a far more difficult campaign; i.e. against India in 1962. The battle of Chamdo can hence also be considered, logistically at least, as a rehearsal of the 1962 ‘Indian’ War.