BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 3(6) May-June 2001

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A Ridge Too Far: The Battle For Tololing

L.N.Subramanian

In the early days of May 1999, after patrols sent in the mountains disappeared indicating something was amiss, the 18th Grenadiers was pulled from the counter insurgency grid in the Valley and ordered to evict the intruders. The initial briefing by the commander of Kargil based 121 Brigade was that there were no more than 8 – 10 infiltrators on the tops. " Just go up and bring them by the scruff of the neck " was the casual order. Tololing, a naked mountain, loomed large rising to 16000 feet, overlooking the town of Drass. With no cover a single steep track led to the top zig zagging along a narrow path. There was absolutely no cover for climbing troops. From their concrete bunkers and reinforced sangars the Pakistanis could see every inch of the track. There was nothing to hide behind but the faith of God.From this vantage point, the Pakistanis brought in heavy artillery fire on the National Highway NH 1A which was closest at this point. This brought movement on the highway to a standstill. It became imperative that Tololing had to be cleared first to reduce the threat to the highway and also to provide a foothold to recover the surrounding peaks.

Initial Assaults

Three battalions from the Nagas, Garhwal and Grenadier regiments tried to make their way from 2 sides but came under effective fire. The Pakistanis were entrenched all across the ridges in bunkers fortified with iron girders and corrugated sheets. The first 3 assaults were beaten off. The soldiers crawled up inch by inch along the steep incline with the wind howling around them and temperatures between –5 and –11 degrees Centigrade. The soldiers had to climb 16,000 feet with packs upto 25 kgs. In such situations where every kilogram counted a 2 kg food pack was discarded for more ammunition. Unfortunately the trade off did not work. The Pakistanis simply mowed them down. At times they did not even waste their ammunition preferring to throw stones and roll down boulders. The Nagas were the victim of such tactics. The men with just a single parka, jungle shoes, with rifles slung were climbing up with the help of a rope when rocks were rolled down crushing some troops. With no headway being made B company of 18th Grenadiers led by 28 year old Major Rajesh Adhikari made another frantic assault. Although two previous assaults had been repulsed, Adhikari succeeded in reaching a point beyond the Hump. The brilliance of his attack carried him to 15 meters of the ridgeline. At that point he and his men found themselves surrounded and outnumbered. A bitter close combat battle raged in which Adhikari along with Subedar Randhir Singh, Lance Naik R K Yadav and grenadier Parveen Kumar were killed. The rest were pushed back. Captain Sachin Nimbalkar and his men were stuck behind large rock on a tiny ledge on a sheer cliff face for 3 days. During this time the Pakistanis taunted him to take Adhikari’s body. The Grenadiers were shocked and that night the kitchen fires were not lit to mourn a dear officer.

By now company and battalion commanders had realised the gravity of the situation and were trying to convince their superiors who in turn were trying to convince Delhi. This pressure caused another attack to be mounted on June 2. Unable to convince his superiors of the need to delay till adequate firepower was provided the second in command of the 18th Grenadiers Lt. Col. Vishwanathan personally led the attack. With Regimental pride under stake the men reached the top after an arduous 6 hour climb. If they chose to recover before attacking dawn would be on them so they made the choice of an immediate attack. It was a suicidal attack and was promptly cut down. Lt. Col. Vishwanathan knew he was going to die. His last letter to his father indicated his anguish at not being able to live to his family commitments. There was shock and gloom all around. Furthermore the bodies of Adhikari and his wireless operator were still lying in the battlefield. Any attempt to recover it was met with UMG fire. Furthermore the Pakistanis booby-trapped the bodies. One jawan who tried to drag Adhikari’s body away lost his hand to a booby trap. Lt. Col. Vishwanathan‘s death finally jarred the senior echelons of the Indian Army. Finally the army was realizing the need to get in more firepower before any assault could be made.

Induction of Artillery

In the last few days of May, Brigadier Lakhinder Singh commander of Drass Artillery brigade moved in to the battle zone. He observed that the deployment of artillery was frugal and that the attacks were not concentrated. The tall and well built Sikh soon started things moving. In the initial phase from mid May to first week of June there were only a few batteries of 105 mm guns. By the end of the first week of June, 130 mm as well as 155 mm guns started moving in.

With the Pakistanis watching the highway from Peak 4875 in the Mushkoh Valley, Tiger Hill and Tololing Top the deployment was done after sundown. At the Gumri and Matayin bases guns from the plains were brought in, still in desert camouflage. After sundown powerful Scania trucks pulled them to predetermined gun positions. The trucks moved with their lights switched off. 2 soldiers jogged in the front flashing their torches every few minutes to show the outlines of the road and the curves so that they wouldn’t run off the mountainside.

The gun sights were carved out of the mountain side. They had to be sited not only to provide accurate fire but also to avoid counter battery fire. By 7th June the guns were deployed and fired to get the range. Artillery observation officers started climbing to vantage positions to direct the fire. As the H hour to launch the attack approached soldiers worked in the bitter cold to make sure all guns were in perfect condition. Soldiers stood guard with rumors of SSG troops on artillery raiding missions. Anti aircraft guns scanned the skies for any RPV on spotting missions. Meanwhile para commandos had moved through the enemy lines and lined up on enemy artillery. Their job was to direct counter battery fire in case any Pakistani guns got in the play.

Simultaneously a fresh battalion the 2nd Rajputana Rifles was brought in for the assault. The Grenadiers consolidated at 3 points 300 metres below the Pakistani positions thus providing a foothold to launch the attack from. The 2nd Raputana Rifles meanwhile fired and tested weapons, carried on reconnaisance and mock assaults on nearby ridges. 90 volunteers led by Major Vivek Gupta were assembled for the final assault. Among them were 11 Tomars. The Tomars have a long tradition of serving the army. Their tradition does not allow them to come back from the battlefield defeated. They must do or die. The youngest among them was 23 year old Praveen Singh Tomar who was to lead one of the platoons. Havaldar Yashvir Singh Tomar said sombrely "Sahib gyarah ja rahe hain aur gyarah jeet kar lautenge(Sir, 11 Tomars are going and 11 will return victorious)". Col Ravindranath gave them a final pep talk. The men were charged and JCO Bhanwer Singh said " Sir come to Tololing Top in the morning. We will meet you there". Most of them were the battalion sportsmen and atheletes. Letters were written in case they didn’t make it back and by12th June they were in position behind the boulders, 300 metres from the Pakistanis. H hour was 1830 hours on 12th June.

The Final Assault

At 1830 hours 120 artillery guns opened up on Tololing top. The Bofors 155 mm guns started first. Used in direct fire mode they targeted the bunkers. Within minutes they were followed by the 130 mm and 105 mm guns. Shell after shell slammed into the ridges. As the expected Pakistani counter bombardment started, the 155 mm guns switched to HEER shells and started firing across the LOC at Pakistani gun positions located by the para commandos. The Pakistani guns were soon put out of action and were relegated to occassional shells. A few Pakistani mortars continued to lob shells.

Close to midnight the firing stopped. Major Vivek Gupta led his men with the battle cry "Raja Ramchandra ki Jai". There were 3 teams code names "Abhimanyu", "Bheem" and "Arjun". One went straight up. Another went around a lower ridge to cut off the enemy’s retreat and a third from behind. The Grenadiers provided covering fire against the Pakistanis on the nearby ridges.

In spite of the artillery there were still strong pockets of Pakistani troops in natural caves beyond the effect of artillery. They now opened up with machine guns on the crawling Indian troops. The troops inched up using the craters caused by artillery for cover. Inspite of the withering machine gun fire from the bunkers, troops had to crawl and use grenades to silence them. Back at the base the commanders were huddled around the wireless. However with the enemy at close quarters there was no time for communication. By 2.30 am desperation was setting in. Havaldar Yashvir Singh Tomar collected the grenades from the rest of the men. He then charged the last few bunkers. Getting there he tossed in 18 grenades being cut down. He was found with an assault rifle in one hand and grenade in the other. . Finally the troops closed in and bitter hand to hand combat ensued. At 4.10 am the wireless crackled the news. Tololing was won. It was at a heavy cost with Major Gupta and seven others killed that night. Among the dead was JCO Bhanwer Singh. The troops now had to hold of Pakistani reinforcements. It was the first major victory and there was jubilation all along the front. Every available camera clicked the moment. The army released extra rations for mithai that morning. At the Rajputana Rifles camp the celebration was tempered by the loss they had suffered. They suffered 4 officers, 2 JCOs and 17 OR dead and 70 wounded of whom 26 were incapacitated that they would never serve again.

Meanwhile the job was still not over. Tololing was still vulnerable to a counter attack from the Hump. The task of capturing it was given to Major Joy Dasgupta of Charlie company 18th Grenadiers. At 2000 hours Major Dasgupta led the attack. Wading through the carefully sited machine gun fire it was suicidal. But once again the 155mm guns provided support. Firing and scooting to escape counter bombardment they kept a withering fire. The Grenadiers charged on till they reached the first bunker and silenced it. However the attack was stalling under heavy casualties. It was at this stage 2 extraordinary soldiers saved the day. Havaldar Dashrath Lal Dubey and Havaldar Udham Singh from two different companies joined together for an extra ordinary charge. The two charged the last few bunkers and cleared them. However Udham Singh died at the last bunker. The radio at headquarters crackled with the news that the Hump was taken. 12 men died in this do or die mission. Over the next few day a series of points all around fell to the Indian troops.

The importance of this victory cannot be underestimated. Till then the daily sight of men coming down the mountains carrying their dead comrades was a distressing sight. To the men stuck on various points in mountains the taunting of the Pakistani troops had left them feeling impotent. Now the Army had got a major victory followed by a string of successes. It meant that the Pakistanis could be beaten in spite of all the odds. Once again Indian soldiers with their fierce determination, living on so little achieved the impossible. Retaking Tololing was truly the turning point of the war.

Further Reading

1. A Soldier's Diary - Harinder Baweja
2. Dateline Kargil - Gaurav Sawant
3. India Today, 15 July 1999.
4. Kargil 99 - Blood, Guts and Firepower

Copyright Bharat Rakshak 2001