Chushul was an important target for the Chinese. It lay on the road to Leh. A narrow sandy valley at an altitude of 4337 meters, It was bound to the north by the clear blue waters of the Pangong Tso (lake), the east and west by 5700 meter ranges and the Chushul airfield to the south. There is an opening in the eastern side known as the Spanggur gap, which led to Rudok a 100 kms to the east. As part of the forward policy a number of posts were established around Chushul. The J&K militia manned these posts. As tensions with the Chinese mounted Western Command requested a division of troops (4 Brigades) for an effective defence of Leh. Instead by September 62 only 114th Brigade with 2 battalions the 1/8th Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat. These units were strung in pickets. They could at the most only serve as trip wires to any Chinese advance. They were targets for Chinese intimidation. In May Alpha post manned by a JCO and 14 Ors of J & K militia was surrounded by 2 companies of Chinese troops. The troops were told that the post had to be held at all costs. The Chinese stood 120 yards away and got into attack formation. The JCO still held his nerve and did not open fire. Finally the Chinese withdrew. In a similar incident on 10th July a Gorkha post was surrounded by 350 Chinese troops at 200 yards. The Chinese used loudspeakers to convince the Gorkhas that they should not be fighting for India. But Subhedar Jang Bahadur told them off in unparliamentary language. Once again the Chinese withdrew but the stage was being set for further confrontations.
The Chinese Strike
In Oct 62 the deployment of the Indian Army was as follows:
- Daulat Beg Oldi and Chi Chap sector -14 J &K Militia plus 1 Coy 5th Jat
- Galwan Valley Coy - 5 Jat
- Chang Chnmo Valley - 5 Jat less 2 Coy
- Chushul - Coy less platoon 1/8 Gorkha Rifles – Sirijap posts
- Coy 1/8 Gorkha Rifles - Yalu Posts
- 2 Coys 1/8 Gorkha Rifles - Spanggur Gap
On the night of 19/20 October all the 14th J & K militias posts as well as the Galwan post held by 5 Jat was attacked. North of DBO at Chandini the post was held by Subedar Sonam Stobdan and 29 men. Attacked by 500 Chinese the men held out for a whole day. Only one man survived seriously wounded. Sub Sonam was awarded the MVC and Sepoys Chiring, Wangchuk and Phunchok were awarded VrCs. Galwan post held by Subedar Jang Bahadur Thapa’s men since July was reinforced by a company of 5 Jat led by Major Hasabnis. The Chinese pounded this post with artillery for a full day before overrunning it. Sub Thapa was amongst those killed. The attacks continued remorselessly. Post Parmodak at 17,000 feet, was held by a section of one NCO and 5 Ors. Soon the others were dead leaving only Havaldar Tulsi Ram. Undaunted he continued to pepper the advancing Chinese with LMG fire till he was gunned down. Likewise at Post Bishan at 18,645 feet, Company Havaldar Major Anand Ram and 12 men of the J & K militia were pounded by the Chinese for 45 minutes. The Chinese made two assaults but were beaten back. Surrounded Anand Ram found a gap along a steep precipice and extracted his men out one by one. So did Subedar Amar Singh and his platoon at Post Patrol Base south of the Galwan river. Although tasked with observing the Chinese and asked to withdraw if contact was made he stood his ground. He and most of his section was wiped out.
The next posts to be attacked were Srijap I and Srijap II. Held by the doughty Gorkhas led by Major Dhan Singh Thapa the Chinese pounded it with artillery from 6 am. In spite of this they beat back 2 Chinese asssaults. Meanwhile Naik Rabi Lal Thapa who had taken a storm boat from Thakung post saw this battle from 1000 metres. As the Chinese made a 3rd assault the Gorkhas leapt out with shouts of "Ayo Gorkhali". Khukris and bayonets clashed in a last grim battle. By 8.30 am it was over with most of the Gorkhas dead. A hundred Chinese were also strewn around. Major Dhan Singh Thapa was awarded the PVC.
By 22nd October the Chinese had cleared all posts north of Chushul. On Oct 27th they turned to the southern approaches. The posts Chang La and Jara La were attacked. For 4 hours its outnumbered defenders fought bravely. Jemadar Ishe Thundup commanding the Chang La post asked his men to withdraw and covered it himself. In the process the gallant jemadar was killed earning a posthumous MVC. The men at Jara La were surrounded but managed to break through in the night.
Chushul stood isolated with only the battalion headquarters of the 1/8th GR and a MMG section to defend it. However the Chinese also needed a break to regroup from the severe losses they had suffered. For 8 days they had thrown everything at the Indians from masses of troops supported by heavy artillery. The Indians had some small arms and 2 in mortars with very little ammunition. Still they had caused heavy casualties. Blue uniformed porters were seen carrying truckloads of wounded and dead at the end of each day’s battle. They suffered over 50 percent casualties.
Deployment of 114th Brigade
114th Brigade reeled backed in the face of the Chinese assault. All they could do was to concentrate its resources on the outskirts of Leh. If Leh fell it would open the door to the whole of Ladakh. Brigadier Raina was planning the deployment of his newly arrived 5th battalion, the 13th Kumaon when the orders arrived for him to move to Chushul to take over command of its defences. At first it seemed another one of those crazy plans that characterised the Indian response elsewhere against the Chinese. After all there were only the Bn HQ of 1/8 and MMG section at Chushul. But additional messages from Corps Headquarters clarified the situation. Leh was to become Divisional HQ for 3rd Infantry Division commanded by Maj Gen Budh Singh. Moving to Leh were the 70th and 163rd Infantry Brigades along with 2 tank troops, a field artillery regiment, a heavy mortar battery and other supporting arms. This was made possible by IAF An-12s.
114th Brigade now comprised of the 1st Jat,5th Jat, 13th Kumaon, 1/8th Gorkha Rifles and elements of J&K militia. In addition there were 2 troops of 20th Lancers, 38th Battery of 13 Field Regiment, a troop of 32 Heavy Mortar Regiment and company of Mahar Regiment MMG. It was in charge of the Lukung-Chushul-TsakaLa area a distance of 80 km. Brigadier Raina flew down to Chushul on 28th October with the rest of the Brigade HQ moving by road.
The Chinese could attack Chushul in three possible ways
1. From Tsaka La in the South down the mountains east of Dungti. This would have to be an infantry attack because of lack of motorable roads. They could also come down the Demchok – Dungti road allowing them to use armour and artillery. But this would mean a major battle at Dungti where 70th Brigade was deployed.
2. An attack via Thakung in the North West which gave them 2 options
a. advance along Marsmik La to Lukung and subsequently along Lukung – Thakung-Chushul
b. An waterborne assault across the Pongong Lake
3. The third way would be to attack Chushul via Rudok. This had motorable roads up to the forward posts allowing for an infantry attack supported by armour and artillery around the Spanggur Gap.
It seemed highly likely that the Chinese would take the third option. This meant 2 options for the defenders
1. Holding the heights east of the Chushul Valley – Gurung Hill, Magar Hill and Rezang La
2. The heights on the west side of Chushul
The second option meant giving up the airfield and thus the first option was chosen. Accordingly the Brigade’s sector was divided into 2 sub sectors Lukung and Chushul.
The deployment was as follows:
Lukung – 5 Jat with a company at Tsaka La
Spanggur Gap – 1 Coy 1/8 Gorkha Rifles
Gurung Hill –1 Coy 1/8 Gorkha Rifles. Plus 2 troops of Tanks, Artillery
Rezang La – 1 Coy 13 Kumaon
Magar Hill – 2 Coys 13 Kumaon, Artillery
Thakung Heights – 2 Coys 1 Jat
Once allocated the troops started digging in and set up the defences. For once supplies started arriving in sufficient numbers. In fact there was a shortage of porters to carry the stores to forward positions. Under Brigadier Raina’s supervision every tankable approach was mined and covered by 106 mm recoilless guns. The Field Artillery and armour was hidden under cover. In addition dummy guns, tanks and fuel tanks were set up. Old disused bull dozers were made to look like tanks. With preparations the Indians awaited the Chinese attack.
The early morning hours of 18th November were unusally cold. A mist shrouded the area with visibility for only 200 yards. The calm of the dawn was shattered by the explosions of artillery fire. It was 0435 hours and the battle for Chushul had begun. The early barrage targeted the dummy fuel dumps, artillery positions and tank positions. The Indians had the satisfaction of watching the Chinese waste a lot of ammunition on the dummy defences.
Brig Raina asked for situation reports from the various battalions. Only 1/8th GR and 13 Kumaon had been shelled. Raina ordered covering fire for the two battalions and the 25 pounders of the 38th Field Artillery replied back. By 0515 hrs the 1/8th GR reported enemy figures moving in the dark. At 0545 hrs the Chinese attacked the 2 platoons on Gurung hill commanded by Captain P.L.Kher. The Gorkhas beat back the attack. As the Chinese started an artillery bombardment in preparation for an attack the Indian gunners fired back in DF mode at Chinese preparation sites. Guided by OP 2nd Lt S.D. Goswami the artillery attack caught the Chinese in the open and the severe casualties forced them to abandon the attack.
Meanwhile 13th Kumaon was asked to send out a patrol led by Major Jatar to see what was happening with C company at Rezang La. The phone wires were dead. Meanwhile the radio crackled with Kher reporting a second attack forming. Once again Goswami brought down accurate fire. The Chinese advanced line after line. The artillery and MMGs were tearing big gaps in the advancing Chinese. At 150 yards Kher ordered his men to open fire. Meanwhile other Chinese troops were streaming down the gullies leading to Gurung hill from the Spanggur Gap. Now the AMX 13 tanks of B Squadron 20th Lancers commanded by 2nd Lt S.P.S. Baswani were thrown in the fray. As Baswani tried to fire his gun he found the automatic loading gear had frozen. He switched to manual. After a few rounds the loader thawed out. The crews pumped out HE shells decimating ranks of advancing Chinese. As they ran out of ammunition they withdrew to reload. On their return they found the Chinese still swarming in huge numbers. Even for the concept of human waves this was unprecedented. Inspite of whole lines being decimated the Chinese pressed forward desperate to take Gurung Hill at any cost. By 0900 hours they reached the forward posts mannned by Jemadar Amar Bahadur Gurung. Intially the Gorkhas were thrown back but the valiant Gurung led a khukri charge and retook the positions. However he was mortally wounded. Meanwhile Kher was wounded and as he watched the Chinese attack again develop he had 2 options. Stand and fight and be overrun or withdraw to Camel’s back where he had a better chance. He opted for the second and called for artillery fire on his own positions to give him a chance to disengage. Meanwhile Goswami continued to direct fire from his OP. The 3 others in his post were dead. After ordering fire on his position he started to withdraw on Kher’s order when he was hit. He collapsed and lay their till a patrol found him in the night and brought him back. But the severe cold had caused frost bite and his legs had to be amputated. Goswami was awarded the MVC. The other 3 men Tech Assistant Gurdeep Singh received the VrC and signallers Naik Pritam Singh and Lance Naik Sarwan Sin gh received the Sena Medals. The Chinese had achieved half their aim of taking the 2 shoulders. With Gurung Hill in their hands they now turned their attention on Magar Hill.
Meanwhile lets shift our attention to Rezang La. This was a massive feature of 5180 metres. It was defended by C company of 13th Kumaon led by Major Shaitan Singh. They were deployed over a 2 km frontage with a total of 118 men. The 3 platoons 7th led by Jemadar Surja 3000 yards north of the pass,9th led by Jemadar Ramchandra was 1100 yards south of 7th platoons position and 8th platoon was deployed a further 1600 yards south with company headquarters behind them along with the 3 in mortars. Unfortunately due to the shortage of guns 13th Kumaon unlike the men at Gurung Hill did not have artillery cover which were needed for the more important posts. Although they were well entrenched they did not have mines as well as adequate overhead protection for the command posts.
Every morning the Company would put out 3 Ops and every evening the platoons would send out 3 LPs. In addition patrols consisting of an Nco and 3 men would constantly move about each platoon overlapping with the other. With the distances between the Rezang La and the others there was very little support that could be given. The men at Rezang La were to fight till the "last man , last round". In spite of this expectation morale continued to be high.
On the night of the 17th the LPs as usual went forward. At 22oo hrs a storm blew up lashing the area with heavy winds and snow for about 2 hours. When it subsided the fresh snow helped in seeing out to 600 meters. At 0200 the LP from 8th platoon saw a body of troops half a mile away moving up the pass.The LP commander Lance Naik Brij Lal rushed back to inform the platoon HQ. Platoon HQ sent an LMG out to the LP post. On returning to the post with section commander Hukum Chand it was found that the Chinese were less than 250 yards away. Along with Lance Naik Ram Singh and his LMG section they moved further down to engage the Chinese. Since the Chinese were now moving rapisly Hukum Chand fired a red very light as well as opened a burst of LMG fire to warn the rest of the company. There was silence now from the LP. Meanwhile the burst of LMG fire had the brought the rest of the company to a rapid stand to. As Shaitan Singh checked on the wireless of the various positions.
Meanwhile a Chinese patrol snuck up and cut the lines to the battalion headquarters. The Company lines were now silent. The platoons were ordered to put out patrols to see what was happening. At 0435 all platoons reported heavy shelling. The barrage went on for 20 minutes. Naik Ram Kunwar in charge of the mortars reported that No 1 mortar position was hit. The crew were killed and the optical sight was damaged. A new crew was assembled. Meanwhile for some reason nobody from 5 Jat under 13 Kumaon seemed to have reported the tell tale flashes of the shelling.
Meanwhile Shaitan Singh ordered the platoons to watch their flanks as the first attack was probably a feint. Meanwhile Naik Sahi Ram and his LMG section which had moved forward to cover a rentrant saw a Chinese column come up carelesly. When the column came close the section opened up with LMG and grenades leaving the column decimated.
Now at 0505 hours both Hari Ram and Surja saw attacks forming up against their platoon positions. They requested mortar support. Under the Ops accurate sighting the mortars hammered the Chinese attack caausing heavy casualties. By 0515 the attacks had been beaten back. Over the next 50 minutes there was a couple of skirmishes with Chinese patrols. For some reason the Chinese seemed to just walk in with no tactical movement of any sort.
Now the Chinese realised that this was no walkover and started forming for a more tactical assault. Jemadar Surja watching the attack forming up asked Lance Naik Ram Singh to take an LMG and move 40 yards forward towards some rocks along with Gulab Singh. The Chinese meanwhile brought in a MMG and set it up 600 yards from the platoon lines. Then under a 10 minute mortar barrage they attacked. With the MMG covering them they advanced to about 40 yards when Surja ordered his men to open fire. The fire from the platoon lines as well as the LMG fire from the left broke up the attack. However the MMG was causing problems with 3 dead and a few more with serious head wounds. Surja now had only 11 men with him. It became imperative to take out the MMG. Gulab Singh volunteered for the job. Along with Ram Singh he worked his way 500 yards down the left to the cover of some rocks. As they peered over the rocks at the MMG 70 yards away they also saw a platoon sized unit in a depression. Realising that they had been lucky to come this far the 2 men charged the 70 yards with the cry " Data Shri Krishna ki Jai". 30 yards away the MMG opened up and Gulab Singh fell. Ram Singh still continued firing from the hip till a burst of MMG fire hit him. He fell only 5 feet away from the MMG. The mission to knock the MMG out had failed by a few feet.
Meanwhile 7th platoon also continued to get hammered by mortar fire. Then an MMG was dragged up opposite them and they too were under MMG fire. The combination of continuous mortar and MMG fire was taking its toll. The No 2 mortar postion was hit killing its crew. A bullet passed through Ram Kunwar miraculously missing his spine. He continued to reorganise, forming a new time consisting of Lance Naik siri Ram for the No 1 mortar and himself and Naik Surat Singh for the No 2 unit.
The wait was on for the next Chinese attack. It had become clear that the Chinese planned to finish of 7 and 8 platoon before taking on the 9th paltoon and CHQ. At 0655 hrs the sun rose and the Chinese artillery began again. Naik Chandgi Ram’s 3rd Section and Hukum Singhs 1st section opened up and cut down the first two waves. Regrouping the Chinese launched two more attacks which were also beaten back. But now the Kumaonis were down to a few men. As the 5th attack was launched. Chandgi Ram led his men into a bayonet charge. Likewise Hari Ram took the second section in a counter attack which temporarily stabilised the situation. But the Chinese threw in yet another wave alos engulfed Rugha Nath’s 1ste section. With that attack 8 platoon ceased to exist. At 7th platoon as the barrage lifted Surja saw a mass of grey at 40 yards. Calmly he called up HQ to tell them that they were going out to meet the assault. A vicious hand to hand fight ensued in which all the men were killed. All were found with multiple bullet and bayonet wounds. At 0800 hours the Chinese fired a green light signalling the end of 7th and 8th platoons.
The Chinese now were regrouping in the area where they had wiped out 7th platoon. Yet the fight was not over. A little distance away Naik Sahi Ram watched with controlled fury. He had wondered why he was not called back to the platoons main position but like a good soldier waited at his position. When he saw the Chinese regrouping he realised that they his platoon was no more. He waited for the Chinese to assemble before he let rip with his LMG. The bunched up Chinese did not expect this and were mowed down in large numbers. The Chinese fled and Sahi Ram settled back awaiting the next attack. The Chinese brought in recoiless guns and methodically destroyed his positions. Shaitan Singh gauged the situation and decided that the best position for him to make his stand would be the No 7 platoons position. After Sahi Ram’s devastating fire the position was clear of Chinese. He called up 9th platoon Jemadar Ramchander and told him to leave 2 LMGs to engage the Chinese while the rest of the men moved to the bump. The 2 LMGs were under Sepoy Nihal Singh and Harphul Singh. Harphul already having lost his brother in law and his nephew was thirsting for revenge. The mortars now without ammo were to be disabled and all maps and other documents burned. The men moved in singl file. After they had covered 600 yards tragedy struck. An unseen MMG coughed to life and mowed down the attacking Kumaonis. Major Shaitan Singh was hit and pulled by Phul Singh to cover. 32 men were killed. Meanwhile back at 9 platoons postion the few men left behind were under attack. With the odds arrayed against them Lance Havaldar Balbir Singh led his 3 men into swirling mass of grey. Ram Kunwar and the remaining men fired off their last riunds before machine gun fire killed them. The 2 LMG men and the MMG had been duelling for 10 minutes now. Harphul finally managed to hit one of the crew neutralizing one MMG briefly. A 75 mm antitank rocket exploded amongst his postion killing him instantly. Nihal singh continued to fire till he was hit on both elbows and could not hold on anymore.
As Ram Kunwar disabled the mortars and was moving away he was hit by rifle fire. He saw the Chinese 20 yards away. Angry he took a rifle and went inside the command post. The first Chines soldier to peek in received a round into his head. The remaining Chinese threw a flurry of hand grenades to silence him. Phul Singh along with OP Jai Narian tried to drag Shaitan Singh. But the gaping hole in his back was draining his life out. Finally as Shaitan Singh stopped breathing they moved back to the main lines. Incredibly both Nihal Singh and Ram Kunwar managed to slip out enemy captivity and make it back to safety. Of the 118 men at Rezang La 109 men laid down their lives. 5 men were captured and only 4 men returned back alive.
With the fall of Rezang La the men on Magar Hill now awaited the anticipated Chinese attack. The gunners at Magar Hill were itching to get have a go. At one point a Chinese column was marching up the gully between Rezang La and Gurung Hill. The guns were moved into direct firing mode. Wisely the Chinese decided not to attack. At another point the Chinese moved in mortars in the Spanggur Gap. Sighted by the Magar observation post they were immediately shelled. One mortar was knocked off and the rest scampered back to safety. But with Gurung in their hands the Chinese now could regroup and roll down the hill and overrun the Gorkhas and Kumaonis and take the airfield. This would cut off troops deployed eastwards including those on Magar Hill.
With over one thousand Chinese killed for 140 Indian dead the Brigade had achieved its primary task. It was now decided to pull all troops to positions in depth and wait for the second round. Accordingly in the night the units withdrew with smart discipline taking with them every piece of equipment. Except for a couple of disabled tanks and empty fuel containers and other junk everything else was pulled out. The depth positions had better tactical advantages. To attack these positions the Chinese would have to come up from the lower heights. Also their build up will have to be in the open. The attack will have to traverse through the Chushul Valley an ideal killing field.
The Cease Fire
The second round never came. On 21st November the Chinese declared a ceasefire. The Indian Army and 114th Brigade was justifiably proud of its conduct during the battle of Chushul. Outnumbered 10 to 1 they had fought with considerable elan and tactical skills inflicting horrendous casualties on the Chinese. There was no vain sacrifice of lives due to egos. Peking radio admitted to having suffered its worst casualties at Rezang La. Ironically it could have also been a indicator of things to come. The Indian Army was just coming to grips with this war. Barely a fraction of the Army had been involved. It was possible that the Battle at Chushul was a sign that the remainder of the war was going to be much harder and a notice to us that if the country had not lost it’s nerves the end of this war could have been on better terms