Sunday, June 27, 1999
AFTER the disastrous humiliation against the Chinese in 1962, followed by the psychologically diminishing stalemate forced upon us by Pakistan in the Rann of Kutch in April, 1965, the Army and the nation badly needed a victory. Objectives chosen to be captured across the CFL were two massive hill features, Pt 13620 (denotes the height of the hill top in feet) and the adjoining Black Rocks, reported to be held by a company of Northern Scouts stiffened up with Pakistani regulars. From these heights, Pakistani troops had complete observation over the area below. Accurate artillery fire could be directed on to the Kargil town and the vital road to Leh by deploying guns with suitable range as is being done now from other points of observation. Both these hilltops and the Kargil town were recaptured by Indian troops on May 10, 1947. During the ensuing winter after the ceasefire on January 1, 1949 and before the ceasefire line was sanctified, Indian troops were pulled down from the hilltops due to logistic constraints in the extreme cold.
At the onset of summer of 1949, before our troops could reoccupy the heights, Pakistani troops had already moved in. During the signing of the Karachi agreement in July 1949, Pakistan claimed occupation of these heights before the ceasefire. Indian claims were rejected. The Pakistani Army has repeated its perfidy in the Kargil sector by similarly occupying commanding heights astride the Mushko valley, north of Dras, north-east of Kaksar, west of Batalik and in the areas of Chorbat La-Turtok. We are now faced with the arduous and costly task of recapturing all the strategic heights that we have lost again due to our complacency despite our past experiences of the psyche of treachery of the Pakistan establishment.
Looking back at what we did in 1965 holds valuable object lessons for what we have to do now and for the people to understand what their soldiers are facing. The terrain is invested with a highly exaggerated grain. Bare hilltops with steep and narrow slopes are interspersed with deep valleys. Most of the area lies in a heavy snow belt. The ground layouts favour the defender, who can bring down integrated fire from the relative protection provided by well prepared defensive positions. While the attacker needs big battalions to carry out sustained operations, the actual deployment in the assault is on very narrow frontages. The attacker is reduced to fighting in platoons, sections and even smaller groups. The effect of his close air support and atrillery fire is dissipated by the configuration of the hill features.
The inhospitable terrain and climate add to the strain of climbing steep slopes hampered by reduced physical efficiency at high altitude, and that, too, under fire from an alert enemy who is expecting to be attacked. Recounting of these hard conditions is not to build an alibi for failure or a justification for the time being taken to evict the enemy. We faced similar conditions in 1965 and we overcame.
It all started on May 13, when Sudarshan (4 Rajput) and I, (85 Light Regiment), were given the task to capture Pt 13620 and its adjoining Black Rocks by May 17, 1965. The Rajputs were holding a frontage of nearly 15 KM. By taking a calculated risk, Rajputs could muster three companies less a platoon for the attack. For artillery support on the objectives there was only 853 Light Battery of my Regiment already located in Kargil (6 x 4.2 inch mortars, range a paltry 4100 yards). The 852 Light Battery airlifted from Pathankot to Leh arrived from there after dark on May 16 and was deployed near the Harka Bahadur Bridge to take on likely enemy reaction astride the Shingo River. To capture these two massive hill features, held by the enemy, these were very slender resources by any tactical reckoning. However, the enemy had been lulled into complacency by our well known reluctance to undertake any aggressive hostile activity across the CFL ever since the ceasefire on January 1, 1949. We were counting upon achieving complete surprise. We hoped that surprise combined with our high morale and determination will offset our paucity of resources.
Rajputs were very well led. On May 14, Capt Ranbir Singh Kang requested Sudarshan in my presence to be reassigned to his old platoon which had been chosen to lead the attack. A similar request was made by Capt Ahluwalia. While Sudarshan acceded to Ranbir, Ahluwalia could not be spared from D Company detailed to hold the defensive frontage. The sleepy tenure of normal activity was rigidly maintained. The limited build-up and all preparatory activities, including deployment of our mortars 3000 feet up on a hillside, were carried out at night.
Sudarshan had taken over command of 4 Rajput only a few days earlier. My regiment, not even a year old, was determined to earn its spurs in its first battle. Both of us had a high stake in success of this attack. Joint planning started on May 13 itself. We agreed that for the sake of surprise there would no pre-attack registration of targets by artillery. During the attack itself no artillery fire would be brought down till the surprise was lost and the attacking troops called for artillery support through the forward artillery observers accompanying them. On the left, B Company commanded by Major Baljit Randhawa were assigned to capture Pt 13620. C Company less one platoon was in reserve. On the right A Company under Major Bhatnagar was to capture Black Rocks. Sudarshan and his command party would acompany the left column. H. Hour (time fixed to cross the start line for the attack) was fixed at 0230 Hours May 17.
The enemy had approximately a platoon supported by MMG and mortars on each of the assigned objectives. A section of MMGs with some troops were also known to be holding the saddle connecting the two objectives. The detailed layout of enemy defences on the Black Rocks was not so well known. On Pt 13620 enemy defences were linear along the axis of attack and surrounded by a five feet high stone parameter wall. Due to this layout and the narrowness of the hilltop, B Coy organised its attack by platoons echeloned in depth. A similar pattern was followed by A Company. Patrolling had revealed that the north-west approach to Pt 13620, chosen in all contingency planning, was not feasible due to cliffs en-route.
A more negotiable route from the south-west through re-entrants was selected. On the 14/15 and 15/16 nights of May, relief and concentration of troops earmarked for the attack took place. On May 16 troops prepared for the attack. Leaders down to sections went forward in small groups to observe Pt 13620 from a concealed view point. A patrol was deployed in this area to keep enemy activities constantly under watch. Soon after dark on May 16, the left column led by B Company took off for the forming up place (FUP) for the attack secured ahead of them, approximately 300 yards from the objective. At times soldiers had to claw their way up the steep slopes on all fours during this stiff climb of nearly 4000 feet. The FUP was reached by 0200 hours.
It was bitterly cold. Skin froze to the metal parts of weapons if touched with bare hands. Being a silent attack and artillery was not firing on the objective on a timed programme, it was decided to kick off half an hour earlier. After the leading platoon had covered half the distance to the parameter wall the enemy opened up with all its weapons. Troops coming under heavy fire for the first time tended to go to ground. Here was when the time immemorial creed of leadership in battle, "Follow me" came into play. Ranbir, though already wounded in the scalp, Randhawa and Sudarshan came to the fore, firing light machine guns picked up from their the dead and the wounded. The men steadied and the momentum of attack picked up. Over the wall and hand-to-hand fighting delivered the coup de grace. Whoever of the enemy could run, jumped down the reverse slope and made good their escape. By 0430 Pt 13620 was firmly in our hands. Ten enemy dead were counted.
On the right advance of A Company was held up by unexpected fire from two bumps en route. Artillery fire was called down and the enemy position was fought through its considerable depth. MMGs, which had opened up from the saddle, were also similarly silenced. Black Rocks was also captured by 0600 hours. The valiant and determined Rajputs had overcome all odds and given India our first victory after the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir. There casualties were fairly heavy. Killed officer: Major Baljit Randhawa, JCOs 2 and other ranks 10. Wounded officers 2; other ranks 60. Gallantry awards, Randhawa, MVC; Ranbir Kang, Naib Sub Girdhari Singh and Lance Naik Budh Singh, each VrC; Mention in Despatches, 2.
Kargil brings memories
flooding back. On May 17, around 11 am as Ilooked far
down to Kargil and the road, I marvelled at the
determination and valour of these soldiers gathered
around me, who had climbed nearly 5000 feet at night up
these steep and inhospitable slopes hampered by their
lowered physical efficiency at this high altitude and
then assaulted these formidable defences in the face of
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