By this time of the year in 1999, a limited conventional war had erupted between India and Pakistan, better known as the Kargil war. There were many battles fought during the course of war which lasted for more than 2 months. The deadliest of those battles for the Indian side was the one fought to capture Tololing top. It is said to be one of the major breakthroughs for the Indian forces and an important turning point in the war. Indian army took 3 weeks from the start of operations on 20 May 1999, to capture this feature at a heavy cost of men including senior commanders, up to the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Lets understand why would the Army want to capture this point so desperately.
Tololing is a mountain ridge overlooking the town of Drass. Anyone sitting on top or the other three points shown, had a bird’s eye view of the national highway NH 1D ( from Srinagar to Leh). Enemy sitting at such a nice vantage point could easily direct their artillery, sitting pretty 20-25 kms away, to fire at any lucrative target on the highway. Moving troops and material during the day was becoming a very risky affair as both the Pakistani Artillery Spotter sitting on Tololing and the Pakistani Artillery commander were really adept at their jobs. It was imperative for the Indian Army to remove these intrusions else they would find it very difficult to support the operations further east on the highway in Kargil and Batalik sectors.
Offensive operations started on 20 May. But as you can see in the picture Toloing is a naked mountain…no trees…no shrubs…no cover for attacking troops coming up the mountain. Imagine you are asked to face Shoaib Akhtar bowling at full speed..but you are not allowed to wear your helmet…nor your gloves…neither your pads or any other kind of guard. Add to that the fact that you are facing him on a ground which is 16000 feet above sea level…with night temperatures falling to minus10 deg C in the month of May. Also, Akhtar is not bowling a leather covered cricket ball but a Grenade. Can you imagine how scary and dreadful experience that would be. Now, multiply the amount of dread you felt while imagining such a scenario by a thousand times. Even then, you may not come close to the feeling which Indian Army personnel tasked with re capturing Tololing, may have experienced. But that feeling was curbed under the sense of duty and ‘izzat’ of the battalion as 18 Grenadiers launched assault after assault on the Pakistani held positions.
The Pakistanis were well entrenched in their ‘Sangars’…they had carefully chosen their spots and built strong fortifications. They had some heavy weaponry at their disposal…Stinger MANPADs,
Dashka Heavy Machine Guns (also known as Infantry killer)
, mortars etc. And they used those weapons rather effectively in beating down one Indian assault after another. Pakistanis even used to roll down large boulders to smother any Indian troops coming up along the ridge. Situation was rather grim for the Indians with progress very slow and costly.
On 28 May, the Pakistanis even managed to shoot down a Mi-17 helicopter (only one out of four, which didn’t have flare dispensers to survive a heat seeking SAM like the Stinger). Every day, the causalities kept growing and the progress was very slow. After suffering multiple setbacks, one group led by Major Rajesh Adhikari managed to get within 15 meters of Pakistani positions, when his team was outnumbered and out gunned. Maj. Adhikari along with some other members of his troop were martyred while remaining members including his second in command fell back and took refuge behind a large rock, on a ledge overlooking a sheer drop. They were stuck there for three days and had to bear the taunting from the Pakistanis who kept asking the Indians to come out and retrieve the body of their commander.
18 Grenadier leadership now understood that to capture Tololing they would need bigger firepower…an artillery barrage to soften the targets before frontal assaults. But their request were not being paid attention to, which forced the second in command Lt. Col. Vishwanath to personally lead an assault team. The team reached the top by dawn and instead of waiting for the sun to come out, decided to attack in the dark. It was suicidal move and the whole team was martyred while trying to protect the Regiment’s honor. The loss of such a senior officer jolted the Army leadership and they realized the gravity of the situation. Big guns started rolling into Drass…Bofors 155mm guns pulled by Scania trucks came in during the night…with headlights off…two soldiers jogging in the front using torches (occasionally) to ensure they were still on the highway. This was done because the enemy was still occupying all surrounding high points.
Once Indian guns were in position, they started pounding the Pakistani sangars. The shelling was so intense that the observing troops remember it like the night of Diwali. After hours of shelling, three Indian assault teams (30 each), now comprised of 2 Rajputana, moved in. Despite the intense shelling, many Pakistanis had survived by hiding in natural caves. Fierce close quarter fight ensued and the gallantry of Rajputana soldiers was on display. Grenades were lobbed into bunkers. Hand to hand fighting took place. Finally, Tololing was taken at 0410 hrs on 13 June, 1999.
But, this didn’t mean that the troops could relax. There were other strong enemy fortifications close by and they had to be taken out. As Tololing was the highest point in that area, it allowed Indians to consolidate their victories from that vantage point and a string of such victories was put together eventually ending with the takeover of Tiger Hill on 4th July.
Two Mahavir Chakras (2nd Highest war time honor), were awarded during this battle. Faced with insurmountable odds, our troops kept pushing and through their blood, guts and bullets, re claimed India’s land.
This battle also proved the efficacy of Indian Artillery units in the war. They shall keep getting better and better as the war progressed.
A tearful salute to all those patriots who made the supreme sacrifice on the slopes and ridge-lines of Tololing.