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Battle of Eastern Ladakh : 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict

Major General SV Thapliyal, SM (Retd)


Introduction

Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 in Eastern Ladakh was fought in the area between Karakoram Pass in the North to Demchok in the South East (Map 1). The area under territorial dispute at that time was only the Aksai Chin plateau in the north east corner of Ladakh through which the Chinese had constructed Western Highway linking Xinjiang Province to Lhasa. The Chinese aim of initially claiming territory right upto the line – Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) – Track Junction and thereafter capturing it in October 1962 War was to provide depth to the Western Highway.

In Galwan – Chang Chenmo Sector, the Chinese claim line was cleverly drawn to include passes and crest line so that they have complete observation and domination of our defences and at the same time denying the same to us. In Chushul Sector also, the Chinese aim remained the same. In Demchok Sector the aim was to deny Demchok funnel to India so as to preclude any Indian offensive towards Tashigong and thereby sever the Western Highway. 

Geography of Eastern Ladakh

The geography divides the Ladakh front into various sectors. The Northern most part is DBO, a very small out post on the traditional Silk route that eventually crossed over the Karakoram Pass into the Chinese province of Xinjiang. To the South of DBO is the Chang Chenmo – Galwan Valley sector. Phobrang was the support base for this Sector. Next came Chushul Sector (Map 2) that extended from Sirijap complex north of Pangong Tso lake upto Rezang La, south of the lake. The southern most sector in Ladakh was the Indus Valley Sector that extended from Dungti to Demchok.

picture (map)

Except for Chushul and Indus Valley Sector on the Indian side, there was no lateral communication available. The fighting, therefore, was perforce isolated and unconnected with other sectors. The events of 1962 can thus be conveniently dealt with by sectors. 

Build up and Dispositions

The Indian forces build up can be divided into three distinct phases that is, upto March 1960, then upto October 1962, just before the first Chinese offensive, and lastly for the Battle of Chushul on 18 and 19 November 1962.

(a) Period up to March 1960. Till, the end of Mar 1960, the operational responsibility for defensive operations in Ladakh was that of 121 Infantry Brigade and this region was considered as an extension of Kargil Sector.
(b) Period April 1960 to October 1962. 114 Infantry Brigade was inducted in March – April with a complement of two Jammu and Kashmir (J and K) militia battalions, one regular infantry battalion, a field company and detachments of Services units. Over the period of time, more troops were brought in and by 22 October 1962, the order of battle (Orbat) of the Brigade contained two militia and two regular infantry battalions with the brigade Headquarters at Leh. The units were deployed in platoons and companies in the following general areas:-
(i) 14 J&K Militia (DBO Sector). DBO, Margo, Sultan Chusku and Saser Brangsa.
(ii) 5 JAT (Galwan-Chang Chenmo Sector). Galwan, Hot Spring, Kongma area with one company South of DBO. The Battalion Headquarters was at Leh.
(iii) 1/8 Gorkha Rifles (GR) (Chushul Sector). Area Sirijap, Yula, Spanggur Gap and around Chushul.
(iv) J&K Militia. Area Dumchele and Demchok.
(v) 38 Field Battery ex 13 Field Regiment and 114 Light Battery. Flown into Chushul on 21-23 October.
(c) Period 01 November – 20 November 1962. During and after the initial phase of Chinese operations in DBO, Galwan sector, Hot Spring, Sirijap, Yula and Demchok areas which came to a close by the end of October, the following additional troops were inducted :-
(i) Headquarters 3 Himalayan Division. It was raised in Leh on 26 October 1962.
(ii) 70 Infantry Brigade. This Brigade with two battalions, 9 DOGRA and 3/4 GR was in position in area Dungti by 01 November 1962.
(iii) 114 Infantry Brigade. Troops of 20 Lancers (equipped with Amx tanks) and two new units i.e 1 J&K Militia and 13 Kumaon were inducted.
(iv) 163 Infantry Brigade in Leh.

Dispositions of 114 Infantry Brigade for the Battle of Chushul (Map 2).

 

(a) 114 Infantry. Brigade Headquarters with two troops of 20 LANCERS and 38 Field Battery in Chushul.
(b) 5 JAT. General area Lukung and Phobrang with troops of heavy mortars, one company in area Tsaka La.
(c) 1 J&K Militia. Deployed in general area Thakung covering the approach to Chushul from the north.
(d) 1/8 GR. General area Spanggur Gap, Gurung Hill and Chushul.
(e) 13 Kumaon. General area on features south of the Spanggur Gap i.e. Maggar Hill and Rezangla.

Chinese Forces

By the end of 1959, the Chinese had spread to the west and south of the Aksai Chin road and established new posts disregarding Indian protests. Later they also constructed a road from Lanak La to Kongka Pass. In the north, they had built another road, west of the Aksai Chin Highway, from the Northern border to Qizil Jilga, Sumdo, Samzungling and Kongka Pass.

picture (map)

In 1960, it was estimated that there was only one Chinese regiment, equivalent of a brigade opposite Ladakh with its HQ at Rudok. The estimated deployment of the Chinese regiment with four battalions was as follows :-

(a) Regimental HQ and one battalion based at Rudok with responsibility up to Tashigong (Indus Valley Sector).
(b) A battalion at Shingzang with companies at Spanggur, Khurnak Fort and Dambuguru (Chushul Sector).
(c) A battalion based in Lanak La with a company at Kongka Pass and Hot Spring (Chang Chenmo – Galwan Sector).
(d) A battalion based in DBO Sector.

In the period between 1960 and October 1962, as tension increased on the border, the Chinese inducted fresh troops in occupied Ladakh. Unconfirmed reports also spoke of the presence of some tanks in general area of Rudok. The Chinese during this period also improved their road communications further and even the posts opposite DBO were connected by road. The Chinese also had ample animal transport based on local yaks and mules for maintenance. Their division had full complement of artillery. Presence of upto a battalion of horsed cavalry was also reported. The horses were primarily for reconnaissance parties. At the time of conflict in October 1962, the Chinese enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in infantry, and also advantage in artillery. The road communication network on their side gave them a further advantage, as they could deploy their troops and specially artillery, opposite Indian posts at will. By July 1962, the Chinese had inducted a complete division in Ladakh. The division was deployed as follows :-

(a) Qizil Jilga to Dambuguru - Regiment.
(b) Rudok - Regiment minus.
(c) Area Noh, Tashigong and Gartok - Regiment.

It needs to be noted that leaving aside one regiment plus for the ground holding role, the Chinese had a total of two regiments less one battalion for the offensive. 

Employment of Chinese Forces in Ladakh Sector.

(a) Period from 19 October to 27 October 1962.
(i) One infantry battalion in Northern Sector against DBO and its subsidiary posts.
(ii) One infantry regiment in Central Sector against Galwan post, Kongka, Sirijap and Yula.
(iii) One infantry battalion in Southern Sector against Dumchele and Demchok.
(iv) Remainder force was kept as reserve in addition to holding role opposite Chushul and Southern Sectors.
(b) Period from 15 November to 19 November 1962. On seeing that the Indian Army was fast reinforcing the Chushul Sector, one infantry regiment was earmarked for the capture of Maggar Hill, Rezangla and Gurung Hill.

 

CHUSHUL SECTOR


Geography and General Dispositions

South of Chang Chenmo valley running north west to south east is the continuation of Karakoram Range, with heights over 6,000 metres. The mountains end on the shores of Pangong Tso lake. This is a long lake with crystal clear but undrinkable brackish water. The lake is over one kilometre wide and very deep. It freezes in winter and even vehicular movement over the frozen ice is possible. In the afternoon strong winds give rise to high waves, making it difficult to cross. On the southern bank of the lake there are high broken mountains that slope south to Spanggur lake. West of this lake there exists a clear gap between the mountains called the Spanggur Gap. It is nearly two kilometres wide and joins the Chushul plateau with the main Tibetan plateau to the east. To the west of Spanggur Gap lies the village of Chushul. Between Chushul village and Spanggur was located the Chushul airfield. By October 1962, through efforts of army engineers, this was capable of taking AN-12 and Packet aircraft. 

Just before the conflict, the garrison at Chushul was also connected with Leh by a road that passed over Tsaka La, a high pass, before reaching Dungti that lies due South of Chushul. From this point onwards the road led north west along the bank of Indus river to Leh. The shorter northern route to Chushul was via Chang La near Karu. This road route is via Darbuk and Tangtse along the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake. This was an old caravan route and was fit for mules and yaks. West and north west of Chushul was the high Ladakh Range rising to over 6000 metres (20,000 feet). This range continues due south east. 

In the early phases of fighting in Ladakh, Chushul defences were held by two companies of 1/8 GR. After being relieved by 5 JAT in the second week of October 1962, a company less platoon strength was deployed in Sirijap complex north of Pangong Tso Lake. This post was supplied by boats across the lake and had no land link with the battalion. South of Pangong Tso Lake was the Yula complex consisting of three posts manned by another company of 1/8 GR. Nearly two companies defended the Spanggur Gap. Both the northern shoulder named Gurung Hill and to the south named Maggar Hill, were held. In addition there was a post in the gap itself. 

Since early September the Chinese had surrounded the Sirijap post. They had also constructed a road joining their posts with their HQ at Khurnak Fort. The total Chinese strength opposite Chushul Sector was estimated to be a regiment.

Chinese Attack – Stage 1 : October 1962

The Chinese attack on Sirijap complex consisting of three posts, Sirijap, Sirijap 1 and 2, commenced at around 0600 hours on 21 October 1962. The Chinese carried out heavy shelling of Sirijap – 1 for nearly 2½ hours. They then attacked this post with light tanks, against which the post had no weapons. The ferry point near Thakung had a small Indian post and it was possible to observe the battle from there. Soon after the shelling started the posts at Sirijap went out of communication. A patrol under a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), Rabilal Thapa reached as close as 1000 yards from Sirijap-1 in a boat. After observation of the post the JCO came back and reported that the entire post including the company commander Major Dhan Singh Thapa had died in the attack.1 After capturing Sirijap-1, the Chinese turned their attention to Sirijap-2 and captured it after fierce resistance. Very few escaped from this battle. The returning soldiers also narrated that after collecting the wounded the Chinese lined them up and shot them dead. Yula complex of posts had begun the process of consolidating all the persons at Yula 2 and 3 by evening of 21 October. By 22 October the Chinese were in complete control of the northern bank of Pangong Tso lake and maintaining Yula posts by boats became difficult as Chinese were firing with medium machine guns (MMGs) on boats. Decision was taken on 22 October to withdraw troops from Yula complex to a high ground north of Gurung Hill.

On 21 October, Indian transport aircraft flying in the area reported seeing a two miles long column of Chinese vehicles proceeding towards Spanggur Gap. The troops deployed in the area also confirmed move of vehicles that alarmed the brigade HQ, who thought that threat to Chushul was imminent. The entire front of nearly 60 kilometres from Chang Chenmo to Dungti had only one weak battalion. 13 Kumaon located in Leh was ordered to move to Chushul on 21 October. XV Corps took energetic action and airlifted one battery (eight guns) of 25 pounder to Chushul. The Chushul defences were now strengthened and the airlift of stores and ammunition continued. The Chinese did not launch an immediate attack and the lull period set in after 22 October in Chushul Sector. The quick build up served the purpose of averting an immediate danger. The Chinese were to attack the area later. 

In Demchok Sector, Chinese secured the Demchok funnel and all passes on the Kailash Range, thereby precluding any Indian offensive towards Rudok and Tashingong. 

The Lull

It would be interesting to note that prior to attacking Chushul defences in stage II of their general offensive both in Eastern and Western Sectors, Chinese had captured all Indian posts on the north bank of Pangong Tso lake and secured all passes on Kailash Range and the Demchok funnel in eastern Ladakh sector, east and south east of Chushul.

Sequence of Events – Chushul Sector (22 October to 18 November 1962)

On the 20 October 1962, once the Chinese launched their well coordinated attack in Ladakh and North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), the basic assumption underlying the ‘Forward Policy’ ceased to exist. The Western Command, which all the while had been pleading for deployment based on ‘military logic’, now put into action its own plan for defence of Ladakh. The earlier operational instruction about not withdrawing resources and troops facing Pakistan was revoked, and between 20 October and 30 October, nearly a division worth of troops were inducted in Ladakh.
 
It was a feat achieved in the face of heavy odds. To augment the meagre transport resources, even the first line transport from units and formations was withdrawn to form adhoc motor companies to facilitate induction. Divisions facing Pakistan were milked for battalions. The Indian Air Force (IAF) transport fleet also rose to the occasion and flew much beyond its normal capability. Basically the induction was for defence of Leh. The strength in the forward most posts was increased only marginally. Most deployment was in the rear areas well away from the immediate Chinese attack. 

Major General Budh Singh, MC and Bar raised the 3 Himalayan Division on 26 October 1962 at Leh. The 114 Infantry Brigade HQ was moved to Chushul and was responsible for Chushul and Phobrang Sectors. Brigadier RS Grewal, MC arrived in Leh with 70 Infantry Brigade HQ on 25 October and took over responsibility of the Indus Valley Sector. By 03 November, it was established at Dungti and later at Asale in the rear. On 24 October, Delta Sector was raised out of existing troops to look after the Northern Sector with its HQ at Thoise. 163 Infantry Brigade arrived in Leh to look after the close defence of Leh proper. The Western Command had been pleading for the induction of a division since 1961, and the troops did materialise in the midst of the conflict. The new formation did not have any immediate operational problems, as 114 Infantry Brigade was being commanded directly by XV Corps. Aware of the need to maintain continuity, HQ 3 Himalyan Division left the existing structures intact and interfered very little in the fighting, brunt of which was being borne by 114 Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Tippy Raina who later rose to become the Army Chief. Significant addition to the fire power of troops in Ladakh was the induction of 13 Field Regiment equipped with 25 pounder field guns. One battery was already in Chushul. By 03 November another battery reached Dungti. The third battery was located in Leh along with the regiment HQ. 114 Heavy Mortar Battery equipped with 4.2 inch mortars was inducted in Chushul between 26 and 31 October. One troop was sent to Lukung to support 5 JAT and the rest of the battery was sent to Dungti. The IAF achieved a major feat when the AN-12 air lifted a troop of AMX-13 tanks of 20 Lancers to Chushul on 25 October.

In the meanwhile additional infantry battalions were also being inducted. These included 9 Dogra, 3/4 GR, 3 Sikh LI, and 1 Jat. The troops were being airlifted in small groups and were being deployed post haste to plug the various gaps in the defence. Visualising the likelihood of the road to Chushul garrison being cut off, the army engineers were ordered to construct an alternate route via Karu, Chang La and Tansgte to Chushul.

The GOC XV Corps informed the Army Commander on 30 October 1962 that he was not asking 3 Division to make any plan for withdrawal from Chushul. He felt this would have only an adverse effect on the morale of the troops defending Chushul and Dungti. Both these positions were to be defended to the last man. He also urged him that provision of close air support would be of immense help in the defensive battle. This was turned down.

All possible routes to Leh were now held in strength. In the North, D Sector with a strength of nearly two battalions held the Saser La, Sultan Chushku, Shyok, Galwan – Shyok river junction. The route passing over Chang La was defended at the pass itself, as well as at Darbuk. Giving depth to the Chang La defence were the troops deployed at Phobrang and Chushul with some artillery support. In the Indus Valley Sector, a whole brigade blocked the axis at Dungti, Chumathang and areas further back. In Leh proper there was nearly a battalion worth of troops to defend the surrounding hills. The newly inducted troops were thus placed in a reasonable position to defend Leh. Only one battalion, 1 Jat, was deployed in Chushul area. On 27 October itself, request for further troops for defence of Chushul, made by 114 Infantry Brigade Commander, was turned down by the Corps Commander, his mind being made up that Leh must remain secure at all costs. 

BATTLE OF CHUSHUL

Deployment of 114 Infantry Brigade

      Commander 114 Infantry Brigade planned to defend Chushul as follows:-

(a) 1 JAT.
(i) Company less a platoon - Area Jetty.
(ii) Two Companies plus platoon - Thakung Heights.
(iii) Remainder - Gompa Hill.

 

(b) 5 JAT (less one company at Morgo).
(i) Company less platoon, section - Tsaka La.
MMG and Two 57 mm recoiless 
(RCL) guns
(ii) Remainder - Lukung.

 

(c) 13 KUMAON.
(i) Company plus section - Rezang La.
3 inch mortars
(ii) Two companies less platoon - Maggar Hill.
with section 3 inch mortars 
and section MMG
(iii) Remainder battalion - Track Junction 
with four RCL Guns. (Kumaon Memorial).

 

(d) 1/8 GR.
(i) Two companies less a platoon, - Gurung Hill.
section MMGs and section 
3 inch mortars
(ii) One company, platoon MMG - Spanggur Gap.
and six RCL guns.
(iii) One company - Point (Pt) 5167.
(iv)  Battalion HQ and adhoc - Air field.
company

 

(e) Artillery - Troop each Gurung and Maggar Hills.

Armour. Two troops of AMX-13 light tanks were air lifted by AN-12 aircraft to Chushul by 26 October 1962. The half squadron was commanded by Captain AK Dewan, VrC. The tasks of armour located at the base of Gurung Hill were as follows:-

 

(a) To deny Spanggur gap approach to the enemy, particularly to armour which may try to venture out towards Chushul.
(b) To act as a mobile reserve with a company ex 13 Kumaon located in area Track Junction with a view to safe guard flanks and any sizeable enemy infiltration which may take place during battle particularly along road Tsaka La – Chushul.

The Battle

After the Chinese attack, between 20 and 27 October 1962, there followed a period of lull, which was utilised by the Chinese to consolidate and build up. The second phase of Chinese offensive began on 18 November 1962. The Chinese attack was preceded by intense artillery and mortar fire on our posts at Rezang La, Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Spanggur gap at about 0615h. The Chinese infantry meanwhile was closing in for an assault on Rezang La and Gurung Hill. As they neared the objective, their guns and mortars lifted their fire and brought a hail of shells on the airfield, tanks, gun positions and road Chushul – Tsaka La. The Chinese fire, however, proved mostly ineffective. By about 0900h both Rezang La and portion of Gurung Hill had fallen in the face of overwhelming Chinese superiority. Shelling of the airfield area, and road Chushul – Tsaka La continued. 

The Chinese had in fact become so bold as to move their artillery and mortars well forward of their Spanggur post towards the Spanggur gap. This placed them under direct observation of our artillery observation posts at Maggar Hill. They were soon to pay for this since own guns engaged them so effectively that they were forced to withdraw after a direct hit on one of their mortars blew it to bits. This saw the end of their shelling of the airfield area. 

When Rezang La fell it was felt that the Chinese might establish a road block on road Chushul – Tsaka La thus blocking the only exit route of our vehicles and battle casualties to Leh. As has been mentioned earlier in those days no road existed across Chang La to Chushul via Tangtse and all move to Chushul from Leh was via Tsaka La. It was also appreciated that the enemy would require four to five hours to establish the road block after the fall of Rezang La. The main hindrance to this move, however, was the constant shelling of road Chushul – Tsaka La. With effective neutralisation of Chinese guns and mortars, a calculated risk was taken and approximately 100 vehicles comprising second line and a portion of first line transport alongwith all casualties were rushed to Dungti. This timely action saved valuable lives and transport. 

With a portion of Gurung Hill and the whole of Rezang La with the Chinese on the one hand, and the neutralisation of their guns and mortars on the other, there followed a comparative lull throughout the afternoon and the remaining hours of 18 November 1962 except for sporadic shelling of the airfield area during night 18/19 November 1962.

At 1030h on 19 November, the Chinese infantry was reported to be moving for an attack on the remaining defences on Gurung Hill. Own artillery and tanks immediately engaged the enemy. Eventually, it was at 1400h that under cover of heavy snowfall and mist, the Chinese launched their attack. The attack was in such overwhelming strength that Gurung Hill finally fell at 1530h. Furthermore Chinese move towards the forward slopes of Gurung Hill was observed. Small infiltrating parties were also seen moving down from Mukhpari towards the airfield. The Chinese pattern of attack had become clear. They were obviously aiming at rolling down in strength from Gurung Hill and Mukhpari on night 19/20 November with a view to cutting off the rear of our troops in Spanggur Gap and at Maggar Hill. It had been earlier appreciated that in such a contingency it would be futile to hold on to Spanggur Gap and Maggar Hill. Accordingly orders were given to own troops at these posts to commence thinning out at last light. Similar orders were also issued to troops holding the line between Thakung and Gurung Hill. All withdrawing troops were to fall back on second line of defence in areas already earmarked. This move was successfully carried out, and the whole brigade with practically its entire equipment and stores, was redeployed on its new defence by first light on 20 November 1962. It may be mentioned here that on the fall of Gurung Hill, the Chinese advance towards the airfield from Gurung Hill and Mukhpari was prevented entirely by the effectiveness of own tanks and artillery fire.

The brigade reorganised its defences by first light 20 November with a battalion each on Gompa Hill, Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) Hill and Hill astride Tsaka La. With the Brigade HQ on Pankha Ridge. On 21 November the Chinese declared cease fire. 

 

ANALYSIS OF WAR IN chushUl sub sector


Deployment in the Chushul Sub Sector

Deployment on the north bank of Pangong Tso lake was unsustainable and, therefore, doomed to destruction. It was nothing but forward policy posture where we thought that by deploying sections and platoons on indefensible features, we will scare away the Chinese. Sirijap 1 and 2 has neither any tactical significance nor defensibility. Our defences should have been on high ground to the west within easy turn round distance and maintainable from our administrative base at Phobrang.

Unfortunately, deployment was faulty at Chushul. Instead of holding the ridge line east of Chushul which was not held by Chinese at that time, we decided to hold the low ground of Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Rezang La. Two most important features which should have been held are Black Top and Mukhpari. By not holding these features we not only denied ourselves observation of Chinese buildup opposite Chushul but also allowed Chinese to roll down on our defences on the low ground. Troops at Gurung Hill, Magar Hill and Rezang La were, therefore, foredoomed.

It would also be prudent to mention here that 114 Infantry Brigade had sufficient troops for the defence of Chushul. Faulty deployment only enabled the Chinese to overrun our defences piecemeal.

There was no logic in deploying a battalion (5 JAT) spread out between Tsaka-La in the south and Lukung in the north, a total distance of nearly 30 kilometres. To compound the folly, one company of this battalion was in DBO Sector. Also apart from protective elements, deployment of a battalion in area Jetty and Thakung made no tactical sense. The Chinese could not have mounted a brigade attack across Pangong Tso. 

Even 13 KUMAON had only two companies deployed on the ridge line ie, Magar Hill and Rezang La. Balance of the battalion was deployed in a low ground nearly four kilometres in depth at Track Junction where a memorial of the valiant troops stands today.

Deployment in the South Eastern Sector

In this sector, 70 Infantry Brigade was deployed in depth on the features of Ladakh Range. There was no attempt to move forward and occupy dominating features on Kailash Range and thereby observe Chinese buildup and deny the passes through which Chinese offensive forces moved forward. Even today the Chinese are in occupation of dominating features on the Kailash Range and they hold all the passes thereby precluding any thoughts of an offensive by us.

Air Power

Another blunder was not using the air power to destroy enemy build up and concentrations in Ladakh. The overwhelming advantage here is that our aircraft take off from plains with full load and can operate over the Tibetan plateau where there is excellent visibility and no camouflage. The Chinese Air Force on the contrary suffers from the disadvantage of having to take off from high altitude air fields in Tibet consequently reducing the useful load significantly. Also at that time, the Chinese were far from deploying strategic missiles in Tibet. 

Failure of Leadership

Across the board, the biggest failure in 1962 war was the inability of our political leadership to visualise Chinese aims in both the Eastern and Western Sectors. Both the government and military hierarchy thought that the Chinese hordes will come down and cross Brahmaputra in the East and capture Leh in the Western Sector giving little thought to where the Chinese claim lines were. In the event the Chinese did not cross their claim line both in the East as well as in the West and withdrew unilaterally in the East thereby adding insult to injury. In the Western Sector since the Chinese aim was to capture territory upto their claim line to provide depth to Western Highway and preclude any Indian offensive across the Demchok funnel, no withdrawal by the Chinese took place except from features Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Rezang La. 

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Major General SV Thapliyal, SM (Retd) commanded a division in Ladakh.