THE HIMALAYAN DEBACLE
Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha
PART 1 - THE BACKGROUND
October 20 is the fiftieth anniversary of our Himalayan Pearl Harbour. The humiliation of a highly professional army of two centuries standing, with an outstanding war record in battles fought over different continents, stunned the world. During the two world wars, the Indian Army earned a very enviable reputation among the Allied armies. Winston Churchill referred to the over two million Indian Army in laudatory terms, describing it as the largest volunteer army known to history. Having seen the prelude to the 1962 war from close quarters at the highest level, I shall recount how the Army had started hurtling down towards an abyss from 1959 or even earlier. Lt Gen B M Kaul and Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh were both favourites of Defence Minister Krishna Menon and had direct access to him. Besides, General Kaul was very close to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The first three days of that war followed by a lull of nearly three weeks and then the total disaster in the last three days. The strong defences at Se La were abandoned by 4 Infantry Division. It withdrew without putting up a fight. It was the same Division which in the Second World War was regarded as the ace division of Allied armies during the North African campaign. It had played a key role in the historic battle of El Alamein. The Chinese pursued the demoralised and routed Division down to the foothills near Tezpur. The war ended with China declaring unilateral cease fire and their withdrawing to the MacMohan Line. The Nation’s faith in the impregnability of the Himalayas, the infallibility of our foreign policy and the invincibility of our Army lay shattered.
A few weeks before he died, ailing Sardar Patel wrote a very perceptive letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on 17 December 1950, warning him about Chinese intentions and the need to make suitable defence preparations in the Himalayas. Nehru was then in the grip of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai euphoria. He did not attach much importance to this letter. However, the Minister of State for Defence, Himmat Singh was asked to chair a committee to examine the issue. His report is not now traceable. It is said that Sardar Patel asked Jai Ram Das Daulat Ram the Governor of Assam and responsible for NEFA , to send a column to establish India’s sway over Towang, which lay South of the MacMohan Line. The Lhasa Government had been collecting revenue from Towang from before China’s occupation of Tibet. Major Bob Cutting a brave Naga erstwhile army officer was then serving in IFAS, later absorbed in IAS. He then posted at Bomdila was given the task of establishing control over Towang. He departed with a company of Assam Rifles and a large number of porters for Towang, along a difficult mountain foot track. It took him nearly two weeks to reach his destination. With a show of force and tact, he got the Tibetan officials to accept Indian control over Towang. Had he not done so, today Towang would have today been in occupation of China. Nehru had no prior information of this move and was upset when he heard of it. He felt that it would ruffle diplomatic feathers. Anyway, the deed had been done and he had to reconcile to it. After the 1962 war, Henderson-Brooks - Bhagat report examined the course of operations and the reasons for our debacle. Fifty years have now elapsed and this report is still under wraps. It is generally believed that Neville Maxwell had access to the report. His book, India’s China War is based on it.
A look at the top personalities involved in the run up to the 1962 disaster is revealing. Jawaharlal Nehru was a great colossus. The people had full faith in his judgment and no one dare express contrary views. Nehru trusted Krishna Menon implicitly and had a blind spot for him. Both Nehru and Menon firmly believed that China will never go to war with India. Menon was said to have been a red card holder. He was a highly intelligent person but very abrasive with his juniors and those who opposed him. As Defence Minister, he would deal directly with junior officers short circuiting the normal chain of command. He had favourites and promoted factionalism. He showed little regard for Service Chiefs. Bhola Nath Mullik was an outstanding Director Intelligence Bureau, whose forte was internal intelligence. He had become the Man Friday of Jawaharlal Nehru. At that time there was no dedicated organisation for external intelligence. Adequate military intelligence about China or Tibet was not available. The fact that the Chinese woefully lacked suitable airfields in Tibet was known to US intelligence but we in India were perhaps unaware of this. Mullick had an anti Army bias and fueled the politician’s fear of the man on horseback. The bureaucracy reinforced this for its vested interests, marginalising the military in decision making. The Service Chiefs did not interact directly with the Prime Minister.
Details about senior Army officers at the helm on the eve of the 1962 war and during the course of it, are also relevant. General Thimayya was the Army Chief till a year before that war broke out. He was a very professional and charismatic military leader. He was the only Indian who had commanded a brigade in battle during the Second World War. He did so in the hardest fought Battle of Kangaw in Burma against the Japanese, earning a high gallantry award. In the battle of Zoji La in Kashmir, he used tanks to break through the 10,000 feet high pass. This was the first time in military history that tanks were used at that height. I am an eye witness to Thimayya as the Divisional Commander leading the assault in a tank. As Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea, he earned international fame. No General with better credentials had become the Army Chief. Yet Thimayya was not familiar with the ways of politics and politicians. He had strong differences with Krishna Menon which got aggravated by the promotion of Maj Gen Kaul to Lt Gen and his posting as QMG in Army Headquarters aginst Thimayya’s recommendations.. Kaul as his Chief of Staff in Korea used to bypass him and exploit his connection with Jawaharlal Nehru. Thimayya’s resignation in 1959 caused a nationwide stir. Nehru persuaded him to withdraw his resignation, pointing out that Field Marshal Ayub Khan was transiting through Delhi and his resignation will send out a wrong message, tarnishing India’s image. Later Nehru castigated him in the Parliament. He failed to resign over this. This seriously damaged Thimayya’s reputation and did immense harm to the Army. Had he resigned again citing lack of defence preparedness in the Himalayas, things could have been set right and the 1962 war prevented. Instead, he sulked and became a lame duck Chief for his remaining tenure. General Thapar took over from him and was the Chief during the 1962 war. Lt Gen Thorat was Eastern Army Commander. He had won a gallantry award as a battalion commander in the battle of Kangaw and again in Korea as Commander of the Custodian Force. He wanted to hold a defensive line based on Towang –Bomdila- Along. These places being at road heads, we would be better placed administratively than the Chinese advancing a hundred miles from the border, dependent on foot or mule tracks in mountainous terrain. Thorat had planned small listening posts covering the approach tracks near the border. These posts were trip wire posts to give early warning and not to put up any fight. Well behind this line would be a line of covering troops in good tactical positions to gain time and impose attrition. They were then to withdraw to the well stocked main defences which were to be held at all costs to the last man and defeat the enemy offensive. Thorat retired a year before the 1962 war. The third General holding a key appointment at that time was Lt Gen L P Sen who had also won a gallantry award commanding a battalion in the battle of Kangaw. On 7 November 1947 as Brigade Commander, he routed the invading Pakistan forces in the decisive battle of Shelatang on the outskirts of Srinagar. That saved Srinagar and liberated the Valley. Over the years his family problems had broken him and he was now a different man. He was Eastern Army Commander during the 1962 war. Lt Gen Kaul with no combat experience and from a non combat wing service of the Army was appointed the field commander in NEFA to fight the Chinese. During the run up to that war and its conduct, our competent and combat experienced senior military commanders, were rendered ineffective. The individual gallantry of our soldiers in the prevailing circumstances was of no avail. However, under competent military leadership in the West, the Army gave a good account of itself in Ladakh..
PART 2 - THE PRELUDE, THE WAR AND AFTER
In 1960, to my great surprise I was posted to Quarter Master General’s Branch at Army Headquarters. I was not happy about this posting but I had no option. The all powerful QMG, Lt Gen Kaul desired that I report to him immediately. When I reported to him, he told me that he had specially selected me to work as his personal staff officer as also with the newly started operational logistic cell of three officers including me. This cell is now a large Directorate of Logistics under a General officer. I will record two instances which I witnessed to show how powerful Kaul had become.
One day when I was in Kaul’s room he received a telephone call about an Air Force Dakota on a supply mission in Nagaland being shot down and pilots taken prisoners by Naga insurgents. He rang up Nehru direct and apprised him of this. He told him that he was going to Nagaland immediately. He asked an Air Force plane to be positioned at Palam at once to take him to Nagaland. He asked me to inform the Chief’s Secretariat that the QMG was going to Nagaland to conduct operations! QMG deals with administration and does not conduct operations. This is the responsibility of the General Staff. Yet everyone acquiesced to Kaul having his way.
The other instance was when Kaul took me with him to a meeting in Defence Minister’s room to discuss air maintenance ln Ladakh . I was dealing with that subject and I had all the statistics with me. The Defence Secertary, Pulla Reddy, a senior ICS officer was at the meeting. So was Air Marshal Engineer, the Air Chief along with some senior Air Force officers. At the instance of Menon, we had recently started getting military hardware from Soviet Russia. Earlier, we were obtaining all our military equipment from the West. We had recently acquired AN 12 transport aircraft from the Soviets for use in Ladakh. Menon was under the impression that the Indian military brass was not too happy with this. This was the first time I saw Menon from close quarters. He drank several hot cups of black tea at quick intervals. It was said that during the day he would drink over sixty cups of tea. He appeared to have a bad liver that morning. He told Pulla Ready that he had neither any pull nor was he ever ready. The Air Chief stated that flying to Ladakh was very hazardous and he wanted to ground the AN 12s to carry out some checks. Menon replied sarcastically that all sorts of checks and trials had been carried out before acquiring the AN 12s. It was now too late in the day to have philosophic doubts about their performance. He added that of course flying to Ladakh was hazardous but since when has service in the Air Force begun to be equated with taking out a life insurance policy. Engineer persisted that he wanted checks to be carried for only two days. Krishna Menon now burst out saying, “ Air Chief your mind is like a magnetic compass which reacts to every gravitational change in the earth . As Defence Minister, I refuse to function like a gardener who pulls out a plant every morning to see what progress it has made.” I was stunned at the Minister’s language. Half way through the meeting Kaul stood up and said that he had to go to an important meeting and was leaving me to answer any queries pertaining to the Army. I was surprised to see that Krishna Menon nodded his head and Kaul departed. The meeting appeared bizarre and to this day, I vividly recall the language used by Krishna Menon.
Kaul was a workaholic and had tremendous drive. He achieved much in organising logistic support for operational plans. However, he was very ambitious and lacked strategic vision. He had political ambitions. After becoming Chief he apparently wanted to be Prime Minister thereafter. A book, After Nehru Who, published at that time mentioned him as a possible successor. More than half his time he devoted to work not connected with his duties as QMG. Yet he did not neglect his duties and he was one of our successful QMGs.
He laid the foundation for Directorate of Logistics. For the first time Administrative Instructions for the three operational Commands spelling out logistic plans were issued. In event of war with Pakistan, the Armoured Division from Jhansi Babina was to concentrate in Punjab in three weeks at its operational locations in Punjab. He felt that this was much too long. He reduced this period to three days. Under his personal guidance, we worked tirelessly to achieve this target. Railways agreed to keep fifty per cent of the rolling stock stationed permanently in Jhansi Babina, so that in emergency train moves could start from the very first day instead of a couple of days later. Units were trained to reduce loading unloading time by half. All passenger and goods trains on the route had to be suspended for three days to allow simultaneous troop specials on both Up and Down railway lines. Flyovers at level crossings en route were constructed for uninterrupted road and rail move. Distance to be covered by road convoys each day was increased by 25 per cent. It took nearly six months to complete this plan. A successful skeleton rehearsal was held to validate it. In the East, Kaul wanted to improve administrative infrastructure to support large scale operations. There was then no bridge over the Brahmaputra. He planned an Army Maintenance Area to hold stocks North of the river. A vast jungle area of a thousand acres was acquired at Narangi, North of Guwahati. The process of acquiring land, clearing jungles, constructing miles of internal roads, and hard standings with overhead covers began. The jungles were cleared. Several thousand of tons of ammunition, equipment and stores were earmarked for this Maintenance Area. Work on improving the road from the foothills to Towang via Bomdila began. There was no road in the hundred mile stretch from Towang to the border. Work on all this started in 1960 but during monsoon work had to be suspended. Although much progress was made to complete all this gigantic task, when the shooting war started in 1962, it was nowhere complete.
Thimayya was approaching retirement in late 1961. He recommended Thorat to succeed him and Lt Gen Verma appointed CGS. Kaul ensured that his recommendation was turned down. Thapar became the Army Chief and Kaul took over as CGS. He nominated me for a very coveted course in the UK. I went abroad for a year and I returned in September 1962.
Kaul had a flair for administration and had extraordinary drive. He used his political clout to achieve results. He lacked strategic and tactical ability. He proved to be a poor commander in battle. He promoted factionalism for his political motives. He projected himself as a nationalist and took to wearing buttoned up coats when almost all officers wore lounge suits. He tried to build his coterie in the officer corps often championing the cause of some superseded officers. He was good at doling favours to ambitious officers. He had a court of inquiry convened against Manekshaw for anti national activities. The inquiry exonerated Manekshaw. He discarded Thorat’s sound operation plan and sponsored forward policy instead with a bravado that not an inch of Indian territory, will be conceded even temporarily. Thus he deployed a totally ill prepared and ill provided brigade on the indefensible Namka Chu river line against the enemy on the dominating Thagla ridge. This brigade got wiped out within hours of the commencement of the war.
In his enthusiasm, he exposed himself to the severe climate in the high mountains and took ill for a while. He continued to command the Corps from his sick bed in Delhi. After recovering quickly he rushed back to his Headquarters at Tezpur well before the period of lull was over. The Chinese infiltrated behind Se La in the rear, cutting off the Division. The Divisional Commander panicked and sought permission to withdraw. The Army Chief and Eastern Army Commander were present at Tezpur but did not intervene, waiting for Kaul to return from Walong Sector. When Kaul returned in the evening, he was persuaded by the Divisional Commander to allow him to withdraw.
In somewhat similar circumstances, when the British Eighth Army was routed by Rommel’s Panzers during the North Africa campaign in 1942 and he withdrew to El Alamein. General Auchinleck who was the theatre commander, immediately rushed from Cairo to El Alamein . He sacked Eighth Army Commander Lt Gen Ritchie and took over personal command of the Army at El Alamein. He stabilised the situation and saved Egypt.
Unfortunately our top army leadership on that fateful day at Tezpur suffered a paralysis of taking sound military decision. The Divisional Commander conducted a totally disorganized withdrawal on the night of 17/18 November night. The Division withdrew without putting up any fight. The withdrawal became a complete rout. The following day the famous 4 Infantry Division was virtually decimated. By the 19th the Chinese reached the foothills and then declared unilateral cease fire. Our top military leadership had totally failed, letting down the Army and the Nation.
Had the Army Chief taken up matters directly with the Prime Minister to ensure that the Thorat plan was not shelved and protested against the forward policy, had he sacked the Divisional Commander and even removed the Corps Commander and had he ordered the troops at Se La to fight it out to the last and hold the formidable Se La defences at all costs, the rout would have not taken place.
After the humiliating war when Thorat met Nehru and told him about his plan, he enquired why he had not been apprised about the plan before the war. Menon advocating Forward Policy had deliberately failed to do so. Further, had the then Air Chief gone to the Prime Minister and insisted on the use of offensive air power, the war would have taken a very different course. Unlike the Chinese, we had developed airfields close to the area of operations. Though less in numbers, we had a qualitative edge over Chinese combat aircraft. The Chinese lacked the capability to bomb our cities. The Indian Air Force could have inflicted crippling losses on the Chinese and boosted the morale of the soldiers on the ground. The history of the Royal Air Force in the famous Battle of Britain during the Second World War could have been repeated by our Air Force.
After this disastrous war Nehru was totally shattered. He desperately appealed for offensive support from the US Air Force. Churchill faced a much greater disaster after Dunkirk in the Second World War. The entire British field Army had been destroyed and Britain was bereft of any allies. In our case the bulk of our field army was intact and we had friends to help us. Relations between Soviet Russia and China were breaking. With the Himalayan passes closing due to snow in winter and the Chinese invading army not having heavy guns or tanks, we could make the Chinese bite the dust that winter. In 1940, Winston Churchill after the Dunkirk debacle, thundered declaring, “We shall fight on the beaches, fight in the streets but never surrender.” Jawharlal Nehru meekly accepted the unilateral Cines Cease Fire and a broken Prime Minister broadcast on the Radio that his heart went out to the people of Assam.
I had returned from the UK in September 1962 and was an Intructor at Staff College in Wellington. I closely watched from a great distance in South India, the tragic drama unfolding in NEFA. After the war, I was sent to the battlefield areas and study what had happened for updating our mountain warfare training doctrine. I went over the ground and also interacted with many friends at my level, who had participated in that war. I found that we had lost sight of our experience in Burma during the Second World War. Strong defensive positions must not be abandoned even when enemy infiltrates behind and isolate them. Defensive positions can be air maintained. More casualties are suffered in withdrawal which tends to become a rout than in fighting from prepared defences. We updated at the Staff College our training doctrine accordingly.
I also interacted with officers who had participated in the recent operations. There were three main reasons for our debacle. These were mismatch between foreign policy and defence policy, isolation of the military in the process of decision making including lack of direct interaction between the Prime Minister and Service Chiefs, and army officers losing their elan. There is now better interaction between defence and foreign policy but this needs to be institutionalised.
Cosmetic changes in higher defence organisation without a CDS and full integration of the Defence Ministry with Service Headquarters, will not do.
During the wars of 1965 and 1971, Gen Chauduri was interacted directly with Lal Bahadur Shastri and Gen Mnekshaw with Indira Gandhi respectively. This brought about successful results.
The bureaucratic stranglehold in Ministry of Defence must be eliminated bringing our Defence functioning at the apex level, at par with other democracies in the world.
Constantly lowering the protocol status of military officers and denying them legitimate emoluments and career prospects, are not conducive to maintaining their elan.
As for defence preparedness, unlike the Chinese, we have been lackadaisical. Weapon acquisition, improving defence infrastructure and our Defence capability are not keeping pace. The recent decision to cancel the raising of a mountain corps during the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit is incredible.
In conclusion, I may mention that the darkest clouds have silver linings. The 1962 catastrophe also was a wake up call for us. Thus we could shatter Ayub Khan’s dream of his tanks rolling down the plains of Panipat. And in 1971, we could achieve a decisive and historic victory.
Let us not at all costs go back to the somnolence of the pre 1962 days. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.