Background to the Battle
Gilgit was the headquarters of the Northern Region. Approximately one battalion of the State Forces was located there. In addition, there were paramilitary forces, the Gilgit Scouts and Chitral Scouts, which operated directly under the British. The Gilgit Scouts along with their British officers had opted for Pakistan in July 1947. They along with the Muslim troops in the State Forces took over Gilgit on November 4, 1947 and massacred all non-Muslims in the garrison. They then moved south and south east to capture as much area as possible (Map No 6). The Pakistani raiders encircled the State Forces garrison at Skardu. Another column moved south via Burzil and captured Gurais. Some of the raiders bypassed Skardu and headed towards Kargil and Leh. By the summer of 1948, Kargil, Dras and Machoi were in Pakistani hands. Thus as the Indian forces launched the summer offensive in West Kashmir in May 1948, Pakistani forces made a move to enter the Sonamarg Valley through the Zoji La pass and Gurais and threaten Srinagar from the east and north east.
Zoji La was the lowest pass in the Great Himalayan Range. This pass was the north-eastern approach to the Valley and was one of the best land routes to Leh from Srinagar. 1 PATIALA battalion was given the task of removing the enemy incursions and defending Zoji La Pass. The battalion under command of Lt Col Sukhdev Singh MC was inducted from Jammu Sector and concentrated in Sonamarg, Baltal area. ‘A’ Company of the Battalion under Maj JS Sidhu along with a detachment of mortars left Sonamarg on May 21. The route from Baltal to Zoji La had 10 to 12 feet of snow. The company reached the top of Zoji La Pass on May 22. The rest of the Battalion followed. The entire area was covered with snow. There was no place to pitch tents. As there was no place to camp, the troops moved on to Gumri. On May 23, a platoon was sent ahead to Machoi where it came under machine gun fire from the enemy. ‘A’ Company put in an attack and evicted the enemy. Maj Sidhu was awarded Vir Chakra for this action. Another company was moved forward to reinforce the position. Two companies of 1 PATIALA thus held Macho!. By the last week of May the whole battalion had concentrated at Zoji La with the Battalion headquarters at Baltal. By then small detachments of State Forces from Skardu and Kargil areas began to trickle back. On June 7,550 personnel including six officers under Lt Col Kripal Singh reached Sonamarg. They were in a pitiable condition and were looked after by 1 SIKH.
By the middle of June, Pakistani troops had occupied the heights dominating the Indian defences at Gumri and Machoi and brought in more heavy mortars and machine guns. The area from Baltal to Machoi was now under enemy observation and fire and movement through the Pass became very difficult. On June 14, the Pakistanis launched their first major attack. The attack was beaten back with the support of Indian Air Force and sepoy Amar Singh was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for outstanding gallantry in the battle. Pakistanis now brought up mountain guns and launched repeated attacks. Indian positions in and ahead of Gumri had become untenable. 1 PATIALA pulled back to new positions at the southern end of Zoji La behind the Gumri Basin. From June to August the Battalion foiled all attempts of the Pakistanis to capture Zoji La. The battles were fought at heights varying from 3000 to over 5000 mts without any specialised equipment or clothing and without artillery support. Lt Col Sukhdev Singh MC, Commanding Officer 1 PATIALA was awarded Vir Chakra for his gallant leadership in battle. By the end of August, Pakistanis had consolidated their position on Zoji La and the heights around it. They had also established themselves on the Gumri side and completely dominated the Pass.
Leh, which was held by only one company of State Forces, had survived only because of poor surface communications. But it was in great danger. The Leh garrison was strengthened by two companies of 2 DOGRA, which reached Leh on foot via Manali. In addition two companies of GURKHAs had been airlifted into Leh in May and June. The Pakistanis reached the outskirts of Leh and launched their first assault on July 11. The attack was beaten back but the situation was serious and there was a need to open a land route to Leh. Skardu fell on August 14. The valiant garrison had fought as long as food and ammunition had lasted. The surrender was followed by a massacre in which all men were executed and all women raped abducted or killed. India could not leave Leh to a similar fate. Thus it became imperative for the Indian Army to clear, the enemy from Zoji La and establish a land route to Ladakh. This had to be done before winter set in so that the Pakistanis had less time to consolidate their positions in Ladakh and establish a strangle hold on Leh. The task was given to 77 Para Brigade commanded by Brigadier KL Atal that had concentrated at Sonamarg by the end of July. The other battalions of the brigade were 5 MARATHA, 5/11 GURKHA RIFLES and 3 JAT. 1 PATIALA was placed under command of the Brigade. One battery (six guns) of 3.7 -inch howitzers was made available for providing artillery support.
By August 25, a platoon of 13 Field Company under Jemadar Benedict had managed to convert a pony track from Sonamarg to Baltal into a jeepabie road, By September 8, the entire 13 Field Company was concentrated at Baltal to support the impending offensive. The Field Company lost no time in commencing work on improving and widening the Baltal – Zoji La track and to make it jeepable.
Baltal is located at the foot of Zoji La on the western side. The Pass itself is a 3-km long defile with high peaks, 4000 to 5000mts in height, dominating on either side. Enemy held both shoulders of the pass. These ridges were called Mukand Ridge and Chabutra Ridge. The enemy also held another ridge in depth called the Machine Gun Ridge. The enemy had about one battalion in the area supported by machine guns, 3 inch mortars and 3.7 inch mountain guns. The defences were located in caves at the heights. Their morale after the fall of Skardu and Indian withdrawal from Machoi was very high.
There were two battles fought for the capture of Zoji La. The first, called Operation Dack, failed and wiIi be covered in outline. The second called Operation Bison, was successful and will be covered in detail.
Brigadier Atal’s plan for capture of Zoji La was as follows (Map No 7):-
- 5/11 GURKHA less one company was to make a wide left hook via Botkulganj Pass and try to get behind the enemy and capture Dras.
- A frontal assault on the Pass by 5 MARATHA and 3 JAT.
- One company of 5/11 GURKHA was to carryout diversionary operations from Kanabal via Sum towards Kargil.
It was estimated that Pakistan had one battalion astride Zoji La. (The Pakistanis claim that they had only 400 Azad. Kashmir troops under the command of Capt M S Qureshi). They had prepared strong defences on all the three ridges., Chabutra Ridge, M G Hill and Mukand Ridge. They had mounted a gun on North Hill. The Pass was thus well defended. The high ridges they held were difficult to climb. Their bunkers were either in caves or on the reverse slope. Hence artillery fire and air attacks had little effect on them.
OPERATION DUCK commenced on September 3 with the GURKHAs proceeding on the hook and one company of the GURKHAs proceeding towards Sum. The operations proceeded satisfactorily till September 6. GURKHAs secured Botkulganj Pass and left one company to secure it and proceeded further. They now hit a glacier and were unable to cross it and proceed further. The Battalion less one company at Botkulganj Pass was withdrawn and concentrated at Baltal as reserve.
The Brigade put in its first attack on Zoji La on the night of September 5 / 6 with cne battalion, 5 MARATHA. The attack could make no progress because of stiff enemy opposition. Another attack was launched on September 14 with two battalions and more elaborate artillery and air support. This also could not make any progress in the face of stiff enemy opposition. The attacks were called off by evening due to heavy casualties. 3 JAT lost 135 men whose bodies got buried in snow and were recovered after one year. The main factors, which resulted in the failure, were the strength of enemy positions, terrain and weather. It is difficult to assault and capture well-prepared positions at the best of times. The debilitating heights, bitterly cold weather with snow covering the higher reaches, the steep slopes and lack of cover made the task impossible.
With the failure of two well-planned infantry attacks, the chances of dislodging the enemy from the Pass were considered to be remote. But leaving Ladakh to its fate was not acceptable. General Cariappa, now overall in charge of operations in Jammu and Kashmir was determined to try again. He held a conference at Srinagar which was attended by General Srinagesh, the Corps Commander, General Thimayya, the Division Commander. Brigadier Atal and Colonel Sparrow. It was realised that infantry attacks would not be successful. General Cariappa asked Colonel Sparrow if he could bring the tanks from Jammu to Zoji La and employ them to break through the enemy defences. Colonel Sparrow was confident that it could be done. It was decided to use one squadron Stuart tanks and armoured cars of the 7 Cavalry. Colonel Sparrow flew down to Jammu the same day to put the plan into action.
Move of the Tanks and Other Preparations
The move of the tanks commenced on September 23. To maintain surprise it was most important to ensure that Pakistan did not come to know about the proposed deployment of tanks at Zoji La and take anti tank measures. The Commanding Officer 7 Cavalry addressed all ranks of the ‘C’ Squadron and impressed upon them the need for complete security of information regarding the move. Arrangements were made with Corps Headquarters to ensure that unauthorised personnel were not permitted anywhere near the tanks. Great care was taken to maintain the secrecy of the move. The turrets and guns were moved separately so that the enemy would mistake the tanks as tracked weapon carriers (T 16). This measure was also necessary to reduce the weight of the tanks so that they could cross over weak bridges on the Jammu Srinagar Road. The tank chassis were camouflaged to make them look like T 16 weapon carriers. Bogey wheels of the carriers were fixed on the front of the tank hulls. The tank guns were removed from the turrets to remove all indication of presence of tanks. The turrets and guns were carried concealed in 3-ton lorries. All movement of tanks was carried out at 52 Outstanding Victories night. Curfew was imposed in areas through which the tanks passed. At Baltal, a specially secluded spot was selected’ for concentration of the tanks and armoured cars. No unauthorised personnel, not even personnel of other Indian Army units were allowed near the tanks. On the Indian side of Zoji La, a longish cave was dug into the mountain near the track to hide the tanks. The removing and refitting of the turrets and guns at Akhnur and Balta1 was carried out by personnel of 7 Cavalry to ensure security.
The movement of the tanks was not going to be easy. The Jammu – Srinagar Road consisted of over 540 kilometers of fair weather roads. The gradients were steep with loose under-soil. The bridges were not suitable for tanks and had to be improved. The Corps of Engineers played a remarkable role in making the movement possible.
In view of the oncoming winter, speed was of utmost importance. The turrets of all the tanks were removed in two days, on August 24 and 25. The squadron moved to Jammu and had to wait there till September 5 while the road and bridges from Jammu to Srinagar were improved to enable the movement of tanks. The moves started on the 5th and the tanks reached Srinagar on the September 9th. The tanks reached Baltal on September 14/15 night. The refitting of the turrets and guns of the tanks was immediately started. This was a very specialised task and was normally carried out by command base workshop at Delhi. However, the task was taken up by the Light Aid Detachment (the integral workshop of the regiment) with some outside assistance. The task was completed by October 6 and the tanks were now ready for action.
In the meantime the Headquarters 7 Cavalry and A Squadron (armoured cars), which were taking part in Uri – Chakotia operations, were moved to Baltal and reached there on the night of September 23/24.
The Baltal – Zoji La track was only a mule track about 8 kms long. The Corps of Engineers had improved this into a jeepable track for 1 PATIALA. It was only fit for four wheel drive jeeps and light vehicles. While the tanks were moving from Akhnur, 13 Field Company of the Engineers under Major Thangaraju worked day and night to make the track wide enough for the tanks. To assist the effort, 433 Field Company less one platoon and a field platoon of 682 Field Park Company was also rushed up to assist in the task. Major Thangaraju was made the overall commander. The track had to be widened; its gradient and some of the bends also had to be improved. The track beyond the jeep head and inside the pass also had to be improved and widened. This was a difficult task as the area was under observation and fire of the enemy. Most of the work had to be done at night and under enemy fire. Over 18 tons of explosives per km were used to blast the rocks. As the road progressed towards Gumri, the enemy interference increased and there was frequent sniping. There were many casualties but the Engineers carried on regardless. In this effort, the gallantry of Jemadar R Thangavelu deserves mention. He and four of his men had been given the task of blasting the rocks in the last kilometre of the Baltal Gumri Road. While at work his party came under heavy enemy small arms and mortar fire. He asked his men to take cover and carried on doing the work alone. With determination and courage and in utter disregard for his personal safety, he carried on blasting the rocks obstructing the passage of tanks till his task was finally completed on October 15. For his heroic exploit, Jemadar Thangavelu was awarded the Vir Chakra. The road was finally completed on October 16 with the completion of a culvert under enemy fire. The road for the tanks up to Gumri was now ready. It was a magnificent effort of the Corps of Engineers. The road was named ‘Thangaraju Road” after Major Thangaraju the Engineer task force commander. The General Officer Commanding, Major General Thimayya talking about the performance of the Engineers said, “I consider this is a record in any operation”.
On October 19, one tank was taken forward up to the mouth of Zoji La on a trial basis. A great number of difficulties were experienced. They were all overcome. Because of the steep gradient and weakened engine power due to high altitude, the tank failed to climb on its own and had to be pushed by soldiers or winched up with the help of a truck. When the tank slid back on the steep slopes, jawans were ready with wedge like blocks to put under the tracks to prevent it’) sliding back. While this trial was going on, it began to snow. The tank could not move forward. With great difficulty it was brought back before sunrise and the loss of surprise prevented. The trial was carried out again on October 21 after some further improvements were done to the track. This was successfully completed.
Preparations for the assault were now in full swing. The crew of the tanks and armoured cars were given practice in driving on the track over the difficult road between Baltal and Zoji Va. Infantry – armour marrying up training was carried out. Personal ground and aerial reconnaissance was carried out by commanders at all levels. Colonel Sparrow personally carried out reconnaissance on the first night into enemy held areas of the pass. The other crew members also carried out patrols on the subsequent nights. Thus a good picture of the route up to the first half of the track was available. An assembly area was prepared near the mouth of the pass for the tanks and armoured cars by blasting the hillside near the road for parking and hiding the tanks and armoured cars. The tanks were moved into the assembly area on October 29. The tank squadron was sent ahead of the armoured car squadron as they were to spearhead the attack and because the steep gradient was more difficult for them to climb. The armoured cars were moved forward only on October 31.
While these preparations were going on, Pakistan had increased its strength from one battalion to five companies. They had also increased their automatic firepower with Indian weapons seized during the abortive attacks. They had brought up 3.7-inch howitzers. They were well dug-in in caves at the heights. The enemy positions in the caves were almost immune to artillery fire. The positions were considered impregnable and had already repelled two determined brigade attacks.
Indian forces available for the attack under 77 Para Brigade were:–
- 1 PATIALA
- 4 RAJPUT
- 1/5 GURKHA RIFLES
- 7 Cavalry less ‘B’ Squadron (Stuart tanks and armoured cars)
- Two batteries of field guns (12 guns)
- One battery of 3.7 inch mountain guns (6 guns)
77 Para Brigade was to break through the Zoji La Pass and capture Dras by D plus 7. Thereafter the Brigade was to capture Kargil and relieve the Leh Garrison. As a diversionary operation, one infantry battalion of 5 Infantry Brigade was to threaten Kargil via Sum.
The 77 Para Brigade plan for the capture of Zoji La was as under:–
- On D-Day at H hour, the tanks and armoured cars would advance through the Zoji La Pass to Gumri. Their task was to neutralise the Pakistani positions on Mikuni and Chabutra Ridges, Machine Gun Ridge and North Hill and exploit towards Machoi. One company of 1 PATIALA was to accompany the tanks in covered carriers and provide local protection to armour at Gumri.
- 1/5 GURKHA RIFLES was to capture the lower slopes of Mukand ridge during the night of D-Day plus 1.
- 1 PATIALA less one company was to capture Machine Gun Ridge and North Hill on the night of D-Day plus 1.
- 4 RAJPUT was to be brigade reserve.
Initially D-Day (day of attack) was fixed as October 20. But there was heavy snowfall on October 19 and the trial move of tanks had not been carried out. The D-Day was postponed to October 25. There was another heavy snowfall on October 23. As the snow persisted and the trial move of tanks could be completed only on the 29th, the D-Day was again postponed to November 1. This was to be the last possible day after which the operations would have to be called off due to onset of winter.
The plan of attack was reviewed on October 31. In view of the snow it was not possible for the infantry to climb the slope and attack the ridges. It was decided that 1/5 GURKHAS would immediately follow the tanks and under their covering fire occupy the lower slopes of Gumri Basin. Thereafter the enemy positions were to be cleared from the rear. A platoon of 433 Field Company under 2 / Lt Ahmed was to accompany the tank column to carry out mine clearance in case any mines were encountered.
The historic battle for Zoji La was joined on the morning of November 1. There were low hanging clouds and a heavy mist. It started snowing at 1000 hours. The artillery guns, which were to start firing, were silent. Some advised Colonel Sparrow to abandon the attack. But Col Sparrow was determined. At 1030 hours the guns began to fire. The tanks began to move forward at 1045 hours instead of at 1000 hours. It had been anticipated that the tanks might stall on the steep gradient on the route. Thus ahead of the tanks a Dodge recovery truck with winch was sent and positioned at the top of the incline. Daffadar Nahar Singh volunteered for this suicidal mission. The armoured column of seven tanks moved up the steep slope. The first tank did stall on the steep incline and had to be winched up. The others made it on their own. The visibility was poor. Disregarding the danger from enemy small arms and artillery fire, the tank commanders and drivers had to keep the hatches open to see the track and enemy positions. The tanks kept on advancing and firing at the enemy bunkers and destroying them. They destroyed 25 strongly held bunkers located in the caves. The Pakistanis were completely surprised and terrified on seeing the tanks. To escape some of them climbed the high ridges and pinnacles of Chabutra and Mukand Ridges and came down after a day or two, unable to bear the cold, to be taken prisoners. By 1400 hours the tanks had reached the Gumri Basin and the battle of Zoji La had been won. The Pakistanis had been almost annihilated. The follow up infantry had little opposition. 1/5 GURKHAS reached Gumri by 1700 hours and occupied all the ridges. Machoi was captured on November 2. The Indian Army captured a considerable amount of rations, clothing, arms, ammunition and other equipment. 7 Cavalry thus had written a glorious chapter in the history of armoured warfare by employing tanks at a height of 11.300 ft. The tremendous effort of the men of the Corps of Engineers had made this possible by making the track under enemy fire. The Indian Army did not suffer any casualties in the battle.
The role played by 1 PATIALA at Zoji La and in the subsequent advance and capture of Dras and Kargil was stupendous. Its saga of gallantry and sacrifice was recognised and well rewarded. The Battalion bagged 8 Maha Vir Chakras and 17 Vir Chakras. 7 Cavalry, 1 PATIALA, 4 RAJPUTS and Madras Sappers were awarded the Battle Honour “Zoji La”.
The battle of Zoji La was a remarkable victory. A determined enemy in impregnable rock cave defences, inhospitable terrain and inclement weather were all defeated and the Pass, where over a hundred soldiers had laid down their lives in the abortive attacks in September, were captured in less than a day without any casualties. How was it possible?
The first reason was the achievement of complete surprise. A few anti tank mines and anti tank weapons could have made the assault impossible. But the Pakistanis could not imagine in their wildest dreams that the Indian Army could employ tanks at Zoji La. They even discounted some of their own intelligence reports which indicated that tanks would be used at Zoji La. Doing the unexpected is a battle-winning formula. But it requires imagination, boldness, grit and sound preparation to be able to successfully do the unexpected. The Pakistanis were so shocked and demoralised at being confronted by tanks that they lost the will to fight and fled. Surprise is the most important battle-winning factor.
The second reason was the effectiveness of tank fire. Cave based well-prepared defences are almost immune to artillery fire. They can be reduced only by direct firing guns like the tank guns or artillery guns in direct fire role. Thus the tanks were able to destroy over 25 strongly held cave bunkers without any loss to themselves.
The third reason was leadership and willingness to take risk. Col Sparrow did not know whether the 60 Outstanding Victories enemy had any anti tank weapons or had laid any anti tank mines. It had snowed and the condition of the track and visibility were bad. Many advised him to call off the operations and no one would have blamed him if he had. But he was not a quitter. He was determined to succeed and he did. The leadership of Major Thangaraju whose men constructed the road from Baltal to Gumri under enemy tire was most inspiring.
The fourth reason was excellent co-operation between various arms and services. The Corps of Engineers did wonders in making the movement of tanks from Jammu to Zoji La and into the Zoji La Pass up to Gumri possible. The Electrical and Mechanical Engineers did a remarkable job in refitting the turrets and guns with hardly any facilities, a task that is normally performed only at base workshops. The Armoured Corps, the Infantry, the Gunners and the Air Force all played their roles to perfection.
Lastly, difficult terrain intimidates the ordinary soul. But it provides opportunities to bold commanders to achieve surprise. Centuries ago, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants. The Indian Army crossed Zoji La with tanks in 1948. Where there is a will, there is a way. However, it is necessary to take the engineers into confidence well in advance. Engineer tasks require time and resources. Once these are provided, the Corps of Engineers has always made the impossible possible.
It is, however, not out of place to mention that Zoji La had been captured by 1 PATIALA without opposition on May 22. The Battalion had also captured Machoi on May 23 against light opposition. However, due to inadequate troops, administrative and fire support, they were unable to occupy the heights at Zoji La. Thus by July 7, the Pakistanis were able to occupy the dominating heights and recapture Zoji La. If 1 PATIALA could have been reinforced by another battalion and some guns, in time and the track through the pass improved, the Pakistanis could not have retaken Zoji La and the sacrifices of the gallant officers and men of 5 MARATHA and 3 JAT could have been avoided. Why was 1 PATIALA not reinforced in time? Why no action was taken to ensure that Zoji La did not fall to the enemy? No answer is readily available. Was it due to under estimating the enemy capabilities and misreading its intentions? Was it due to shortage of troops? Was it due to misreading the importance of Zoji La for the liberation of Leh and Ladakh? Whatever be the reason, the decision not to reinforce 1 PATIALAat Zoji La in time proved to be a Himalayan blunder by our higher commanders. In the mountains, particularly in the high altitude areas, it is much easier to reinforce threatened positions in time than to recapture them after they had fallen into enemy hands, albeit after a heroic battle.