Military & Aerospace

The Border War-November 1962
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After the debacle at Namka Chu, there was some confusion as to where to try and halt the Chinese, should they continue their advance further. Sen visited Tawang on October 22, 1962 and ordered Prasad to hold Tawang at all costs. Subsequently, on October 23, orders were issued that the force at Tawang was to withdraw to Bomdi La and join the forces there with a view to making a stand in that place. After further discussions at Army Headquarters, these orders were changed and 4 Corps was ordered to hold Se La.

The question as to where and how to defend NEFA against a likely Chinese invasion, had received the attention of the Army, when Thorat was Eastern Army Commander and Thimayya was the Chief. As mentioned earlier, Thorat submitted a plan on October 8, 1959. He envisaged that if the Chinese decided to invade NEFA, the important thrusts were likely to be along the lines Tawang-Bomdi La possibly supported by minor thrusts from the flanks, Longru-Daporijo-Ziro and along Rima-Kibithoo-Teju.

He appreciated that while the enemy will have the initiative and will initially succeed in making some penetrations, as the enemy advances farther and farther away from his main bases, he will be faced with the problems of supporting and maintaining his forces. Once he reaches such a situation, Thorat felt that the Indians would be on an equal footing with the enemy as far as support and maintenance problems were concerned, and would be able to give the enemy a tough battle at such a stage and hold him there. He called it the ‘Defence Line’, comprising a number of vital points, along the different valleys of the NEFA. This line would be about the middle of NEFA. Thorat felt that North of this line, he would utilise Assam Rifles, whose tasks would be to give early warning, to put up maximum possible resistance, fight delaying actions and ultimately withdraw to the Defence Line. Once the enemy reaches the Defence Line, he would be halted and destroyed there. Subsequently, efforts would be made to drive him back. Militarily, such a plan made sound strategic sense. With the conditions then prevailing and with the forces that could be made available at the time, this was the best one could do, to deal with a possible Chinese invasion. Unfortunately, every time the question of Chinese threat was mentioned, the Defence Minister overruled the Army, saying that it was exaggerating the threat. Even after the debacle at Namka Chu, little heed was paid to this Plan, both by the Civilians and the Military. The decision to hold Se La at that point of time, proved to be unwise.

After the Namki Chu attack, the Chinese continued their advance towards Tawang. About a divisional sized force advanced through Shakti-Lum La and another force of over a regiment strength came through the Nyamjang Chu Valley. A third force of about a divisional strength advanced from Bum La in the North, towards Tawang. The Indian forces vacated Tawang on October 23 after some resistance, and made their way to Jang (below Se La to the North) and occupied positions there. The Chinese occupied Tawang on October 25, without much opposition. Elsewhere in NEFA also, the Chinese overran some Indian posts and advanced forward, particularly on the extreme North-East, where they reached Walong on October 25. After this, there was a lull in the fighting, during which the Chinese continued to build up their forces. In the operations in Tawang area, Subedar Joginder Singh of 1 Sikh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for gallantry of a high order.

On the Indian side, a general overhaul of forces was carried out, particularly in the East Owing to the sickness of Kaul, Lt.Gen. Harbakhsh Singh was appointed Commander of 4 Corps and took over his assignment on October 24. Maj.Gen. A.S. Pathania replaced Prasad as Commander of 4 Division. Many of the Brigade Commanders were also changed. In particular, Brigadier Hoshiar Singh was appointed Commander of 62 Brigade. A new divisional headquarters was created to take over responsibility for the whole of NEFA, excluding the Kameng Frontier Division. This was designated 2 Division and Maj.Gen. M.S. Pathania was appointed its Commander. 11 Brigade replaced 181 Brigade in the Walong Sector on October 31 (181 Brigade having subsequently been moved out). 5 Brigade was made responsible for the remainder of 2 Divisional Sector. A number of battalions within the formation were also changed. In the Western Sector also, the Indian strength was built up to a division by mid November; and this was designated as 3 Division and placed under the command of Maj.Gen. Budh Singh. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a feeling in the Eastern Command that the Chinese would not advance further in the NEFA, while there was no such complacency in the Western Command. This had affected the preparations in the Eastern Command to some extent. In the West, the Leh-Chushul road was completed and Chushul developed into a Brigade position. Kaul returned to the command of 4 Corps on October 29 and Harbakhsh Singh was moved to 33 Corps in place of Umrao Singh towards the end of October.

On the political front, the Chinese carried out considerable propaganda to the effect that, it was the Indians who attacked the Chinese in the Thag La area and that the Chinese had to act in self-defence! On October 24, the Chinese issued a three point statement, and this was sent to Nehru by Chou. This statement proposed that both sides affirm to settle the dispute peacefully, both withdraw their Armed Forces 20 km from the line of actual control (November 1959) and that both the Prime Ministers meet again to arrive at a settlement As these proposals were clearly against the stand that India had all along been taking and as these would amount to accepting Chinese occupation of Indian territory, the Indian Government rejected the Chinese stand in its reply of October 27 and reiterated its proposal that both sides revert to the position along the entire boundary as before September 8, 1962. Chou again wrote to Nehru on November 4, explaining his earlier proposals and requesting Nehru to re-consider. Nehru replied to Chou on November 14, stating that India could not agree to proposals, which envisaged China retaining territory that it had secured by aggression. He once again stated that both sides return to the position as obtaining before September 8, 1962. After this, China launched a tirade of vituperative propaganda against India and in particular against Nehru.

As mentioned earlier, the Chinese after overrunning Kibithoo on October 21, advanced to Walong. At this time, Walong had two infantry battalions and elements of an Assam Rifles unit. The Chinese attacked the Walong position, but repeated attacks here were beaten back by the Indian troops. A third battalion was built up at Walong by the Indians by November 13. Kaul decided that a counter attack should be launched by 11 Brigade on November 14, with a view to throwing the Chinese back.

There were reports that the Chinese had built up to over a divisional strength in the Rima-Walong area; and hence it is intriguing as to why a counter attack was planned under the circumstances. However, as ordered, the attack was launched in the early hours of November 14. A battalion of the Kumaonis (6 Kumaon) launched the attack, but the Chinese repelled it. Subsequently, the Chinese launched a counterattack on the Indian position on November 16. Although the Indians fought with great determination and gallantry, the Chinese overran the Indian positions. Here again, the Brigade broke up and the remnants withdrew to Hayuliang in the rear.

In the Kameng Frontier Division, 4 Division was given the task of holding Se La and preventing the enemy advancing further. However, Pathania was also authorized by 4 Corps to withdraw from Se La to Bomdi La and hold the Chinese there, in case the Chinese attacked Se La before the formation was ready to take on the attack. 4 Division was deployed in the area Se La-Bomdi La, in three main defensive positions. 62 Brigade with five battalions was to hold Se La, 65 Brigade with two battalions was to hold Dirang Dzong and 48 Brigade with three battalions was to hold Bomdi La. The Divisional Headquarters was located at Dirang Dzong. The Division was thus spread over a very large area. By mid November, build-up of the requirements of the Division was still going on. The problem can be imagined from the fact that by this time, the Se La Brigade had only a week’s requirements.

The deployment of the 4 Division appeared to indicate that the main advance of the Chinese would take place along the axis Tawang-Se La-Dirang Dzong-Bomdi La. Not much attention appears to have been paid in the initial deployment of the force to counter possible out-flanking moves by the Chinese. However, a company was sent to Poshing La from 5 Guards ex-Bomdi La and a company to Phutang. These sub-units were to look after the Tulung La approach in the East and Bhutan approach in the West respectively.

On November 15, reports were received that some Chinese forces of about a battalion strength were coming down the Tulung La approach. The initial reaction was that the reports were unduly exaggerated. However, another company of Guards was sent on November 16, and on the 17th the rest of 5 Guards was moved out from Bomdi La, to clear the Chinese. A company from another Battalion was sent to an area North of Dirang Dzong, to block another approach. With the troops taken away for these tasks, the Bomdi La Brigade was reduced to about half of its strength. The Guards battalion reached a place called Tembang on November 17 and were attacked soon thereafter by the Chinese, of estimated strength one regiment. The Guards fought for some time, but were ultimately overwhelmed. The Chinese then cut off the road between Bomdi La and Dirang Dzong.

On the same day, i.e., November 17, the Chinese attacked 4 Garhwal Rifles positions in the Jang Area. The Garhwalis fought back gallantly and repelled repeated attacks by the Chinese, inflicting heavy casualties on them. Subsequently, Hoshiar Singh ordered the Garhwalis to withdraw into the main defences in the Se La area.

While these actions were going on, on November 17, Pathania sought permission of 4 Corps to pull back 62 Brigade from Se La to Bomdi La. It appeared that he was very much upset at being cut off by the Chinese. As Kaul was away at Walong, necessary permission was not given by 4 Corps. Again, on the same evening, Pathania pressed for the withdrawal permission. At this time, Thapar and Sen happened to be at the Corps Headquarters, but indicated to Pathania that he would have to wait for the Corps Commander’s return. As far as 62 Brigade itself was concerned, Hoshiar Singh was reluctant to withdraw, stating that his Brigade was capable of holding out and that the battle was in progress.

After the return of Kaul to his Headquarters late on the evening of November 17, there were some discussions between the Chief, Army Commander and himself, as also with his staff. Then, a signal was sent out, instructing 4 Division to withdraw from Se La and Dirang Dzong to Bomdi La. However, after a little while, on Kaul’s orders, the signal was stopped. By then, it was transmitted to 48 Brigade at Bomdi La, but had not reached the rest of the Division. Subsequently, on Pathania pressing for a decision on his recommendation, another signal was sent to 4 Division, directing Pathania to hold on to his present positions to the best of his ability, and when any position becomes untenable, to withdraw to any alternative position he could hold. He was told that 48 Brigade was ordered to clear the enemy road block, and was warned that he could be cut off by the enemy between Se La and Dirang Dzong also. He was advised to fight out as best as he could. A new Brigade, namely 67 Infantry Brigade less a battalion was promised to him and was expected to reach Bomdi La by November 18.

On the night of November 17/18, there appeared to have occurred some confusion with regard to the withdrawal proposal, during discussions between Pathania and Hoshiar Singh. A Battalion from the Se La position was ordered to be withdrawn, to an area South of the Pass between Se La and Dirang Dzong. The concerned battalion commander on the extreme flank apparently protested that his battalion was about to be attacked at dawn, but was over-ruled. The battalion then withdrew through two other battalions, which were deployed enroute. Soon thereafter, the Chinese occupied the position of this battalion and opened fire on the adjacent battalion. When the units at Se La saw the first battalion withdraw and the Chinese on top of them, they themselves started pulling out, perhaps thinking that a general withdrawal had been ordered. Apparently, Hoshiar Singh was overtaken by the events and could not influence the situation. On the morning of November 18, the Chinese occupied the positions at Se La, while the Brigade broke up and withdrew in a disorganized manner.

The same morning (November 18), the Chinese attacked some positions of the Dirang Dzong Brigade and even opened fire on Divisional Headquarters. There appeared to be absolute confusion at Dirang Dzong. Pathania ordered his Headquarters and 65 Brigade to withdraw and make their way to the plains through Phutang. Apparently, the Chinese established a number of road blocks and cut off forces of 4 Division at different places. As troops started withdrawing in a disorganized manner, they were ambushed at several places and severe casualties inflicted on them.

On November 18, Kaul lost touch with Divisional Headquarters and had no information with regard to the situation either in Se La or in Dirang Dzong. He ordered 48 Brigade to send out a strong column to link up with Dirang Dzong. The Brigade Commander, Gurbax Singh protested that the Chinese were in the vicinity of Bomdi la and that an attack was expected at any time. However, he was over-ruled and ordered to send out the force, as instructed earlier. As this force was being mustered and moved, and readjustments were being carried out in the Bomdi La defences, a Chinese force attacked the Bomdi La position. Repeated attacks by the Chinese resulted in over-running of the Bomdi La position also. Gurbax Singh ordered his Brigade, or what was left of it, to withdraw to Rupa. As the Brigade reached Rupa and was preparing its positions, it was ordered by 4 Corps to pull back to the foot-hills. Subsequently, these orders were cancelled and the Brigade tried to get back to Rupa. However, by now, the Chinese occupied Rupa also. The Brigade was then ordered to fall back to Chaku. The remnants reached Chaku on the evening of November 19. However, the same night, the Chinese followed up and attacked the Chaku position also. The Brigade then broke up and withdrew to the plains in driblets. The disintegration of 4 Division was thus complete. Hoshiar Singh was reported to have been killed in the area of Phutang, in an ambush by the Chinese.

Kaul apparently tried to make contact with some of his forces, particularly 48 Brigade, by physically going up himself, but it was too late. By the time he got back to his Headquarters on the night of November 19, 4 Division had already disintegrated. On the morning of November 20, Kaul gave orders to his Corps Headquarters to move to Gauhati, on the Southern side of Brahmaputra river. On the advice of his staff, Kaul with an element of Headquarters stayed on at Tezpur, but the bulk of the Corps Headquarters moved to Gauhati. Owing to the panic thus created, people in large numbers also left the Tezpur area for safer places.

In the Western Sector, as brought out earlier, Chushul was built up to a brigade. Headquarters 114 Brigade under Brigadier T.N. Raina was in control of operations here. Consequent to the earlier operations when the Chinese over-ran a number of posts in the Chip Chap, Galwan an Pangong areas, Western Command had withdrawn certain other posts which were badly isolated and exposed, such as Daulat Beg Oldi. On October 21, the Chinese over-ran some posts on the North of Pangong. Demchok was overrun by the Chinese on October 27.

The hills dominating Chushul in the East were held by the units of 114 Brigade, in order to ensure that the approaches to Chushul were effectively protected. Some of these defensive positions were 4800 metres high and fighting at this altitude presented numerous problems. On November 17, Chinese troops in strength were seen moving up for an attack. At this time, 5 Jat was holding the area of the hills dominating the Pangong approach, 1/8 Gorkha Rifles the hill feature on the North of the Spanggur gap and 13 Kumaon the feature South of the Spanggur gap including a hill called Rezang La.

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In the early hours of November 18, the Chinese bombarded the Indian positions and followed this up with simultaneous assaults on the positions. The Indian troops repulsed several attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese. Ultimately, owing to the superior strength of the Chinese, the Indian positions were over-run. A classic example of the grim resistance put up by the Indians can be discerned from the battle of Rezang La, where a whole company of 13 Kumaon fought to the last man and last round. After capture of the hill features dominating Chushul, the Chinese did not continue their advance and stopped at their claim line. In the operations in the Chushul Sector, Major Shaitan Singh of 13 Kumaon and Major Dhan Singh Thapa of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles were awarded the Param Vir Chakra for displaying valour of the highest order; the former being posthumous.

General Thapar returned to New Delhi from Tezpur on the night of November 19 and submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister, Lt.Gen. J.N. Chaudhuri, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Southern Command, was appointed as the new Chief of the Army Staff on November 20. Kaul was removed from the command of 4 Corps and Lt.Gen. S.H.F.J. Manekshaw was appointed as the new Corps Commander. Pathania and Sen also resigned subsequently.

The first order of Chaudhuri to the troops was to stop retreating any further and to take up positions wherever they could hold the enemy. Subsequently, several other changes occurred. Headquarters 4 Corps was ordered back to Tezpur. Krishna Menon resigned as Defence Minister and Y.B. Chavan, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra had been appointed as the new Defence Minister.

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