Sunday, October 28, 2012


                                                              Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

  The immortal, last stand of Maj Shaitan Singh, PVC (Posthumous), and Charlie Company, 13 KUMAON, at Rezang La  during the Sino-Indian War, 1962.

"How can a Man die better than facing fearful odds,
                                          For the ashes of his Fathers and the temples of his Gods?"
                                  - Quoted from the poem ‘ Horatius’, by Thomas B. Macaulay, 1842.

It was sometime in the summer of 1986. Having just attended the Staff College course, I was pleasantly surprised when ordered  to report to the Kumaon Regimental Centre (KRC), Ranikhet, for correction of the Army’s Part D Promotion Examination papers. I spent a week there, in that pine scented Centre in the Kumaon hills, helping correct the papers. I also spent some time during each day of my stay, visiting the KRC War Museum; one of the finest the Army had available.

There were fascinating exhibits to see but none more moving than those of Maj Shaitan Singh, PVC (Posthumous), that held me riveted.…His blood stained uniform shirt, his bullet pierced FSMO (back-pack) and aluminum  mess tin, were indisputable proof of the  manner in which this bravest-of-bravehearts met his death, and, with him, almost all of his Charlie Company…I have traveled widely but do not recall any other bravery exhibits that so compel you to salute the spirit of a men who led himself and his men into the noblest of deaths; on an icy Himalayan battlefield, equipped with little more than cold courage, sheer grit and passion for Naam, Namak and Nishan. 21 years later, I visited the war memorial at Chushul, in Ladakh; the strategic area that he had died defending. I recalled too, another war wounded Chushul hero, the dignified, quietly humorous Maj Gen PL Kher, VrC, 1/8 GR, who, at Staff College, had once narrated his memories of 18 November 1962 in the Chushul battle. This article is, for I, one of the most moving of war stories that I have ever narrated. Read on…

The Macro Picture
The  thoughtless conception and unprofessional conduct of the rhetoric driven, militarily unviable and catastrophic ‘Forward Policy’ on the Sino-Indian border, prior to conduct of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 (20 Oct-21 Nov 1962) led to savage Indian reverses at all the posts occupied by the Indian Army to lend substance to this policy. This notwithstanding, the often superb display of courage by the officers and soldiers at the tactical, unit and sub unit levels commands our soldierly respect. Their posts were over-run only after their ammunition was expended and bayonets and khukri’s used as a last resort.
On the Western Sector front, the reduction of the forward policy posts from their hasty deployments on the Indian claim line; right from the area of the Karakoram Pass-DBO southwards to general area Chushul, was completed by the PLA by 22 Oct 62.

Chushul in 1962 was an important strategic target for the Chinese. It is a small Ladakhi village in a narrow (40 kms long and 6-7 kms wide), sandy valley at 14230 feet; flanked by the towering ridges of the Ladakh Range (19000 feet) on its west and the Pangong Range (22000 feet); an extension of the Karakoram Range on its east side. Chushul is   located less than 15 kms from the Chinese claim line and its great importance lay not only in its all weather landing strip that was critical to the defense of Ladakh, but also its strategic location on the just completed road linking Chushul to Leh. Extended eastwards, this road linked through the critical “Spanggur Gap” in the Pangong Ranges to the Chinese hamlet of Rudok, a key PLA forward zone launching base. The importance of Chushul is better understood if one sees it as roughly equidistant between Leh, the capital city of Ladakh about 130 kms to the northwest across the Ladakh Range and Rudok, the key Chinese launching base about a 100 km to the southeast of Chushul.  Immediately to the north of Chushul lay the 160 km long Pangong Tso (Lake) and eastwards across the Spanggur Gap, lay the far smaller lake, named after it.
The strategic Spanggur gap which Chushul controlled had dominating heights on either side. On the north lay Gurung Hill at 4808 metres. On the South lay Maggar Hill at 5182 metres and adjacent to it and southeast from Chushul, lay Rezang La at  5005 metres or about 16300 feet; a key pass to which the Chinese had built a motorable track which linked with the Spanggur-Rudok Road. The capture of the pass by China would lay the newly constructed Indian road to Chushul which ran southwards from Chushul to Tsaka La and thence to Leh open to Chinese interception/road block; thus cutting off the Chushul defences from their supplies and sustenance which were Leh based. Readers familiar with the area will note that in 1962, the northern road from Leh, via Karu-Chang La and along the southern banks of the picturesque Pangong Tso (depicted in the Amir Khan film Three Idiots) did NOT exist. Any Indian military appreciation could divine that, to capture the Chushal complex, the Chinese first needed to capture Gurung Hill, Maggar hill and, most importantly, Rezang La, which provided the flanking and therefore the most dangerous approach to cut off the sole Indian communication life-line to Leh around Tsaka La. They did.
The Build up to the Battles of Chushul
HQ 15 Corps had approved of Gen Budh Singh, GOC of the just raised 3 Infantry Division at Leh recommending Chushul as the  Vital Ground (VG) foreseeing that if the Chinese intended to take Leh, then the Spanggur Gap between the mountains in which Chushul lies, would be their obvious route. 114 Infantry Brigade, till September 1962 a two battalion Brigade tasked to defend the whole of Ladakh, thus suddenly found itself tasked to defend Chushul with four battalions under Brig (later Army Chief) TN ‘Tappy’ Raina, MVC, a Kumaon Regiment officer. He was ordered to defend this VG to the last man, last bullet. He flew into Chushul on 28 October 1962. His area of responsibility was from Lukung in the north to Tsaka La in the south; a formidable 80 km stretch in high altitude.

Raina assessed that the Chinese had three attack options for Chushul; from the north (Lukung/Thakung area); from across the Pangong Tso; and, lastly, integrated infantry/armour attacks launched from Rudok, which provided road access up to the Spanggur Gap, along with the option of cutting off the Indian road communications near Tsaka La. This he considered most likely. He realised that defending Chushul could be done by holding the western heights of the valley (the air strip would be compromised) or occupying the eastern heights (Gurung Hill, Maggar Hill and Rezang La). He chose the latter option. His final deployment was to hold the northern approach (Lukung) with 1 J&K Militia; the southern (Tsaka La) approach with 5 JAT, Gurung Hill with 1/8 Gurkha Rifles supported by two troops of AMX-13 tanks of 20 Lancers which had been airlifted by AN-12B aircraft to Chushul on 26 October and the Maggar Hill-Rezang La complex with 13 Kumaon, with one of its companies at the site of the current Rezang La memorial in the valley. Chushul proper was protected by the half squadron of light tanks, the RCL guns of the Brigade; a battery of 13 Field Regt and a troop of 32 Heavy Mortar Regt, as also a lot of camouflaged dummies made of abandoned dozers and other unserviceable vehicles. The Brigade HQ was on the high ground overlooking the airstrip, protected by the Battalion HQ of 1/8 GR and a section of Mahar Regt MMG’s.
The stage was thus set for war. The Chinese, realising that rushing the Spanggur Gap would prove prohibitive, chose to try and pretend that rushing was indeed their best option, while preparing silently for the more pragmatic option of clearing the heights surrounding it. Clausewitz would have approved…

The Battle of Rezang La

As stated above, till September 1962, the defence of all of Ladakh was vested with the 114 Brigade and consisted of just two infantry battalions; 1/8 Gurkha Rifles and  5 Jat. Initially, only the Gurkhas were deployed in Chushul. 13 Kumaon, which was at Baramula, in the Kashmir Valley, with its CO, Lt Col HS Dhingra in hospital, was rushed in; beginning its deployment on 24 October, with the CO leading. He simply walked out of the MH as the unit was going to war.  Charlie Company, led by Maj Shaitan Singh, was allotted to defend Rezang La by the experienced CO, putting his best company commander at his most critical and furthest deployment, a full 10 km from his Battalion HQ.  
IC-7990 Shaitan Singh Bhati was born on December 1, 1924 at Jodhpur. His father was Lt Col Hem Singh Bhati. He was commissioned in 13 Kumaon on 1 August 1949. He is recalled as a thoughtful, serious soldier wedded to his profession. The defensive positions dug out in the permafrost soil and rock by his 7, 8 and 9 Platoons were ‘crested’ for Indian artillery, meaning, thereby, that these troops could not access  artillery fire support when needed as the guns were behind the Maggar Hill complex in the Spanggur Gap – a major disadvantage. The company was stretched to straddle the two kilometer wide pass; besides being compelled by terrain considerations to spread themselves in depth, with wide gaps between the platoons and without shell proof overhead cover for their bunkers.
13 Kumaon, an old Paltan with a glorious military record was the Kumaon Regiment's only all-Ahir battalion; its hardy men of farming stock; coming from the Gurgaon/Mewat/Mahendergarh/Rewari Ahirwal belt of Haryana. The men had bolt action .303 rifles equipped with five round magazines and 600 rounds@soldier, six LMGs and some grenades and 1000 mortar bombs. The company had no anti-personnel mines. The Chinese, by comparison, had 7.62mm self loading rifles; MMG’s and LMG’s; 120mm/81mm/60mm mortars; 132mm rockets; and 75mm/ 57mm recoilless guns to bust bunkers. Topographically also, the Chinese attacks on the Indian positions in the Chushul area, came from the ridge line of the Pangong Ranges, which dominated the lower Indian positions.
Before we proceed to the Rezang La battle, understanding what was happening at Spanggur Gap will place Shaitan’s last stand in context. The Chushul battle commenced at 0435 hours on 18 November 1962. The eerie silence was shattered by the Chinese pounding the gap and many of its dummy positions with murderous artillery barrages. The Indians retaliated. At 0545 hours, Gurung Hill, held by 1/8 GR was attacked. Capt (later Maj Gen) PL Kher, VrC, repulsed the attack, with severe losses to the Chinese; ably assisted by his Artillery OP, 2/Lt SD Goswami, 13 Field Regt. A second attack was also repulsed. In the Spanggur Gap, the half squadron tanks had also got into action against the Chinese human waves. Kher had by now got wounded, but held on; with his troops using their Khukri’s to regain a lost position. Goswami, with most of his OP Party dead, continued to bring effective fire on the Chinese till he was grievously wounded. His final orders before losing consciousness asked for his own fire to be directed on to Gurkha positions crowded by PLA soldiers; called ‘Defensive Fire Save Our Souls (DF-SOS). Located late that night, barely alive, his legs had to be amputated. He was awarded the MVC. By about 0900 hours, on 18 November, Gurung Hill had fallen. Maggar Hill was kept under fire but not attacked. Instead, Rezang La was.

With his Battalion HQ 10 kms away and with little interconnectivity with the adjoining Maggar Hill Kumaoni Company, Shaitan and his men knew that, for them, it would be “last man, last round” ab initio and accepted their situation cheerfully. 7 Platoon led by Jemadar Surja was deployed north of the pass, 9 Platoon, led by Jemadar Ram Chandra was 1 km south of 7 platoon’s position along with the Company HQ and 8 platoon was deployed a further 1.5 km  south along with the section of 3 in mortars.
It started snowing on the night of 17 November. At 0200 the Chinese were seen approaching. A skirmish followed. Meanwhile, a Chinese patrol had cut the telephone lines to the Battalion HQ. At 0435, all platoons reported heavy shelling. Shaitan ordered them to watch their flanks. At 0505 hours both Hari Ram and Surja saw attacks forming up against them. By 0515 the attacks had been beaten back. The Chinese now changed tack, shifting to tactical assault and  bringing forward an MMG. Jemadar Surja watching the attack forming up ordered Naik Ram Singh to take an LMG and move forward towards some rocks along with Gulab Singh. This attack was also beaten back. However, the Chinese MMG fire took its toll. Surja now had only 11 men left. It became imperative to take out the MMG. Gulab Singh volunteered and, along with Ram Singh he worked his way forward and both charged the MMG from 50 metres. Both fell dead, just feet away. Out of respect, the Chinese later covered them with blankets, leaving a “Brave Indian Soldiers” note behind; a gesture of rare battlefield chivalry.

Meanwhile 7 Platoon was also targeted by intense mortar and MMG fire, picking up heavy casualties. The attack was, however, beaten back. It had become clear that the Chinese planned to capture the 7 and 8 Platoon defended localities before taking on the centrally located 9 Platoon and CHQ. At 0655 hrs the sun rose. The Chinese barrage recommenced. The first two of the renewed attacks were defeated, followed by two more which were also beaten back. But now the Kumaonis were down to a few men. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, and in one case, stones, ensued, in which all the men were killed; found months later with multiple bullet and bayonet wounds. At 0800 hours the Chinese signaled their success over the platoons.  

Shaitan was everywhere. Unmindful of his own safety, he went from post to post raising the morale of his men and continued to fight; ordering quick readjustments and taking spot decisions. He gauged the grim situation and decided that the best position for him to make his last stand would be the No 7 Platoon location. En route, a Chinese MMG from a hidden location suddenly came to life, causing debilitating casualties.  Shaitan  was hit in the arm and pulled by Phul Singh to cover. Phul Singh along with Jai Narian tried to thereafter take him along to relative safety. Shot again, this time in the abdomen, Maj Shaitan Singh sensed danger to their lives and ordered  the two to leave him and go fight.  They placed him behind a boulder, where he was located, months later. By 1000 hours, it was all over. Of the 118 men at Rezang La, 109 men were martyred, 5 were captured and only 4 returned alive; amongst them the two soldiers who were last with Shaitan.
With the fall of Rezang La, Maggar Hill was next but this attack was never launched. The Chinese had obviously had enough.  Witnesses have  testified that the PLA used blue uniformed porters to load their dead into trucks. Opposite Rezang La, 25 such trucks were loaded, placing the Chinese dead at a conservative 500 against the immortal loss of the “Rezang La” company. This was witnessed by Brig R Jatar, who was commanding the Bravo and Delta Companies of 13 Kumaon on Maggar Hill. He had also sent a patrol of four men to find out the situation in Charlie Company but only two had returned alive. Peking radio, in a rare confession, admitted to having suffered its worst casualties at Rezang La. Overall, they lost 1000 men in the Chushul battles combined.
What is noteworthy is that, Chushul, the 15 Corps and 3 Infantry Division Vital Ground had not fallen. 114 Infantry Brigade had held up the honour of the country. Brig (later Army Chief) TN ‘Tappy’ Raina, the Commander, was correctly awarded the MVC; yet another Kumaoni honour.
 The War Diary of 13 Kumaon noted movingly for that day: We are now without Charlie company” – a  poignant testimonial at par with that written for the dead at Thermopylae, Greece in 480 BCE, when most of the defenders; especially the 300 Spartans and their leader, King Leonidas, had died, defending the pass against the Persian invaders:
Wayfarer, tell the world
Here we lie
Obedient to our orders
The Rezang La War Memorial at Chushul, raised in memory of those who died in this battle stands out for recall of another moving testament to classic heroism rarely found on the battlefields of the world across the time continuum:
"How can a Man die better than facing fearful odds,
                                          For the ashes of his Fathers and the temples of his Gods?"
                                  - Quoted from the poem ‘ Horatius’, by Thomas B. Macaulay, 1842. 

The Aftermath

In January 1963, a shepherd chanced on Rezang La. It was as if the last moment of battle had turned into a frozen tableau. Using International Red Cross facilitation,  Brig Raina led a team which recorded the scene for posterity with cine/still cameras. Proud India learnt what had actually happened on that Sunday morning. The company commander and his Jawans were found in the trenches still holding their weapons; each with multiple bullet and shrapnel/bayonet wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb in his hands; the medical orderly with a syringe in his hands…993 of the 1000 mortar bombs had been fired, with the balance seven ready to be fired. Every man had died a hero.
Major Shaitan Singh was conferred the PVC. Eight JCO’s/Jawans the VrC. 13 Kumaon received the battle honour 'Rezang La' and its Charlie Company is today proudly called Rezang La Company.                                         

Concerned at media reports as recently as in May 2010 that the widow of Maj Shaitan Singh, was on hard days, I requested Col Gaurav Bhatia, an intrepid Regimental officer on staff in Jodhpur to do a reality check. He has found that the lady, Ms Sugan Kanwar, who is Phalodi based is in good material and physical health. Her son, Narpat Singh is a petrol pump owner-cum-farmer. She has been paid all emoluments due to her which she has wisely invested. She is getting her full pension entitlement; a substantial sum indeed.  Her father, Mr. Khet Singh, is a respected personality in Jodhpur. A social worker, Mr. NS Ujawal has nobly assisted the Desert Corps in looking after all ESM and widows.  

What can one say in summation except that the Indian Army, will, forever, live and die for Naam, Namak and Nishan. It deserves the unqualified support of its countrymen, their deathless love; not their cynicism, disregard and neglect.

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