Yes…you read it right. India or China never officially declared a war during that month long event which started from a bloodbath at Nam Ka Chu river on 20th Oct 1962 and ended when China declared a unilateral ceasefire on 21 Nov.
Lets first get some perspective. Ongoing events related to historical claims by China on the South China Sea are not a new ploy of the Chinese leadership. They have the tendency to travel back in time, pick the point of time which was the most advantageous to China and then lay claim to a piece of land or water. They did this with Tibet in 1949…they annexed an independent nation saying that they had been ruling the region and had cultural and historical ties with it for centuries. Once, Tibet was annexed, all the treaties signed by its leaders like the one with India about the McMohan line, were deemed void by the Chinese. Hence, the recent claim on Tawang region in Arunachal, sighting ‘cultural’ ties since 16th century. While the Chinese were throwing their weight around and getting away with it in style, they found a great ally in Pandit Nehru, who helped them out without their asking. Panditji may have been great at creating the public sector and establishing the IITs , NITs etc. but it seems he had a rather simplistic understanding of strategic and military issues. He had famously said that India didn’t need it’s Armed forces, a police force should be able to do the job. The high level Military decision making was gradually shifted from the Generals and Admirals to the bureaucrats sitting in the South Block. After the military coup in Pakistan in 1958, Nehru’s suspicion and slight despise for the Army leadership only increased. Then, there was this urge to prop up ‘Yes’ men in the Army HQ. After a decade long supine approach towards Chinese intrusions and border violations, Nehru and his Defence minister VKK Menon decided to…overreact…to ride over the political storm which painted him as some one scared of taking action while still playing the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhi’ tune.
With multiple border skirmishes happening in NEFA (North East Frontier Agency, current Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh region through the 50’s, Indian Army knew that the day was not far when the Chinese will come rushing down the mountain passes of the Himalayas. Armies generally have already simulated battle plans for all contingent scenarios that may arise. Indian Army had also planned a similar ORBAT or order of battle. Head of the Eastern Army Command located in Lucknow at that time, General SPP Thorat had prepared a plan for fighting the Chinese in NEFA…his plan involved Indian Army units to be falling back from the mountain passes and forming a defensive line in the Assam plains. This would have stretched the supply lines of the Chinese while Indian would have fought the battle on their own terms. But, the idea of giving up territory to the Chinese, was not politically acceptable to the leadership. Also, after the impression was built up by the media that Nehru govt. was being soft on the Chinese, the leadership in fact wanted to take on the Chinese right on the border and throw out any Chinese incursions as soon as possible.
One such Chinese incursion was reported on Sep. 10th 1962 on the ‘Thagla’ ridge in the Nam Ka Chu valley. Some Chinese soldiers came down to the ‘Dhola’ post of Assam Rifles and told them that they were on Chinese soil, hence they should leave. Assam Rifles personnel didn’t comply and stood their ground. Chinese went back to return with a show of strength with soldiers brandishing AK 47s. The Assam Rifles JCO was startled and over reported the number of Chinese to be around 600 men, occupying the ‘Thagla’ ridge. This number started ringing alarm bells all across the Army command structure. Orders came down from the top to send troops to the Nam Ka Chu valley and throw out the Chinese. These orders were sent by Commanders and planners who had never been to the region…were not aware of the huge logistical challenges…while using maps which were not accurate…while working with incomplete and unverified information about the situation on the ground. Still orders were orders. 7th Brigade started deploying its units along the Nam Ka Chu river on the Indian Side. 2 Rajput, 1/9 Gorkha, 9 Punjab regiments started moving into the valley and building up defensive positions on the Tsangdhar ridge facing the Thagla ridge across the narrow river.
This is rather fair representation of the landscape where the two forces faced each other.
Once, the Indian forces arrived and started siting defensive fortifications, they realized that it was a futile exercise. Chinese occupied high ground, had numerical superiority and large bore weaponry available to them coupled with an excellent logistical support for stocking food/ammo etc. While Indians were lying at the bottom of a steep valley and found it very difficult to manage their logistics. They had to make long marches to the drop zone where only 30-40% of the dropped material was retrievable. Rest fell into the deep ravines. Indians didn’t have proper clothing for the landscape which was having sub-zero temperatures in sept- oct. They just had a thin blanket to manage the nights. They had some large bore mortars but sadly…no ammo for that. Even LMGs had very limited ammo. The junior commanders and JCOs knew they were in a tight spot. Eastern Army leadership still asked them to hold ground and assured that there would be more supplies and reinforcements to allow for a successful operation of ousting the Chinese from Thagla ridge. Detailed plans were made about when and how each unit of 7th brigade will move and take out the Chinese units one by one…operation ‘Leghorn’ was in place.
On 9th Oct, as the first step of the operation ‘Leghorn’, a 50 man patrol of 9 Punjab crossed the Nam Ka Chu and started to form a defensive line which would provide flanking fire on any Chinese movement towards Indian side. Next move was to be from 2 Rajput units who were supposed to cross the river on the first light on 10th Oct and occupy some of the features on Chinese side. 2 Rajput was preparing to start their movement on 10th Oct, just before dawn, when they noticed large number of torches moving in the direction where 9 Punjab had crossed earlier. As the Indians started crossing the river and gathering in an assembly area, at around 5 AM the Chinese opened up with their heavy and medium mortars. The myth that the Chinese won’t react was shattered by the explosion of all those bombs falling around 9 Punjab positions. After a 30 minute bombardment the Chinese infantry attacked. For initial few minutes the Indian LMG positions took a heavy toll but with ammo running out, they had to fall back. The Chinese kept re grouping and launching attacks. The Punjabis fought bravely but had to fall back to their positions across the river as Chinese pressure increased. Even the 2 Rajput elements who had crossed the river, had to turn back to their original positions. Thus, on the morning of 10th Oct, first offensive movement of the Indians was thwarted back by the Chinese who made their intent clear…they meant serious business.
For the next ten days, Indian and Chinese units sat facing each other on the steep mountain slopes, across a narrow river. Indians knew that the Chinese would launch attack anytime now and the way Indian defenses were spread across thinly, along the flow of the river, meant that the Chinese won’t find it too difficult to overpower the Indian positions. Some thoughts were shared from Junior and middle level leadership to withdraw from Nam Ka Chu valley and form a defensive line further south at a point where the Indians had at least some chance of holding off the Chinese. But, these thoughts were rejected by the Eastern Command leadership. The Brigade commander was even labeled a ‘Coward’ indirectly and threatened with dismissal if he didn’t obey orders to not give up a single inch of land.
So, the brave men in Nam Ka Chu valley sat in their positions, knowing very well, the suicidal nature of their deployment. To rub insult to their predicament, Chinese started lighting up camp fires in the night while the Indians huddled together to escape the cold in their single thin blankets.
Then, on 20th Oct with first light the attack came. First the mortars opened up from Chinese side with deadly accuracy. Indians either didn’t have shells for their heavy mortars or their medium mortars were woefully out of range. After about an hour of bombing as the Indians looked out of their bunkers, they didn’t see any activity on the Chinese side. They expected groups of Chinese infantry marching towards their positions after crossing the river. But…no movement. Suddenly the sound of bugles and whistles filled the air…behind Indian positions…That’s when the Indians realized…the attack was coming from the rear…Chinese had crossed the river in the darkness…re grouped behind Indian positions and after the bombardment stopped were rushing towards the Indian bunkers and machine gun nests. Indians turned their guns around…ran up the slope…saw the hordes of Khaki clad PLA soldiers rushing towards them. The Rajput…Gorkhas…Punjabis fought like men possessed. When their ammo ran out, they used their heavy .303 guns as battering rams…when that option was not there…they got into hand-to hand fighting with the Chinese…snatched their gun…killed the enemy before being sprayed with AK 47 bullets. There were many instances of supreme courage which took a heavy toll on the Chinese. Indians fought with their antic .303 rifles while the Chinese came equipped with automatic AK 47s which were really effective in close combat. Esp. the 2 Rajput units fought to the last man and last bullet. In fact, captured Indian men were later asked about the Rajput regiment traditions and ethos…even the Chinese were impressed and wanted to know more about this enemy unit which had inflicted maximum casualties on them in the NEFA theater, through that undeclared war.
The artillery unit had a brave officer who with only two serviceable guns and about 80 shells was making sure that the Chinese were being paid hell. Apart from the amazing showcases of bravado, there were also some instances where emotions got the better of some junior commander and they decided to desert their positions along with their men. But the officers who held their position, were ably supported by their men. Within about 2 hrs, the Chinese overran all Indian positions. Close to 300 men made the supreme sacrifice…eighty one were wounded and ninety men were captured. About sixty men, managed to escape the Chinese.
This was an avoidable defeat had the Indian Army senior leadership not engaged in Ego wars and jingoism. The Generals had failed their soldiers. Despite this debacle, strange decisions would continue to be made at the highest levels led to more embarrassing string of defeats in coming days.
There is a reason why we don’t find too many movies/books/material available on the 1962 war. It was a real bad mess as far as both the political and army leadership was concerned.
On the eve of our independence day, I would like to dedicate this post and my heartfelt respect to the fallen soldiers who fought and gave their best in that narrow valley on the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan.
Repeating those forceful words which brought tears to Pandit Nehru’s eyes too,
‘aye mere watan ke logon…jara aankh mein bhar lo paani
jo shaheed hue hain unki, zara yaad karo kurbani’
- Jai Hind
Ref: 1962- The War that Wasn’t by Shiv Kunal Verma