Monday, November 18, 2013

Rezang La - The Last Stand of 13 Kumaon

This post is dedicated to the 123 men and officers of the C Company of 13 Kumaon (comprising of Ahirs hailing from the Ahirwal region of Southern Haryana) who, in the course of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, on 18th November 1962, fought with a zeal unparalleled in military history against a numerically superior enemy (the Chinese Army) and against all odds at Rezang La a pass on the south-eastern approach to Chushul in Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir. 114 of these brave men were martyred.

A small memorial at Rezang La, reads: 

How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds,
For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods,
To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La,
114 Martyrs of 13 Kumaon who fought to the Last Man,
Last Round, Against Hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962.
Built by All Ranks 13th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment.

This battle has been compared by many military historians with the famed battles of Thermopylae fought between Greek and Persian empires in 480 BC and the incredible Saragarhi fought on 12 September 1897 in the North-West Frontier Province Battle by the 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment (currently the 4th Battalion, the Sikh Regiment) who gave up their lives in devotion to their duty fighting over 10,000 tribals. Both these battles are listed in the eight stories of collective bravery published by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Like wise the ill clad and ill equipped but hardy Ahirs of the Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon led by undaunted leadership of Major Shaitan Singh ferociously fought in blood freezing minus 30 degree temperature till there was nothing left in manpower and equipment.

Colonel N.N.Bhatia (Retd) has vividly described this heroic battle in Unforgettable Battle of 1962: 13 Kumaon at Rezang La which appears in the Bharat Rakhshak website. Mohan Guruswamy has also written a piece "Men of Steel on Icy Heights" in Bharat Rakshak.  It is this writer's endeavour to reproduce the narrative of that great battle and keep the memory of this great battle alive.

13 Kumaon was raised on 5 August 1948 at Kanpur by Lt Col HC Taylor with class composition of 50 percent each of Ahirs and Kumaonis. During the 1956 Reunion, Lt Col NS Krishna, the then Commanding Officer accepted the proposal of the Colonel of the Regiment, General KS Thimayya that the Regiment must have a 100% Ahir Battalion. Thus 13 Kumaon became an all Ahir battalion.

The Terrain
Running north to south, 40 km long and 5.6 km at its widest, Chushul is a narrow, sparsely populated, barren sandy valley across the water shed at altitude of 14,230 feet with towering mountains, high passes, where only the best of friends or worst of enemies may desire to meet. It is virtually close to the Chinese border. It is bounded in north by deep 160 km long clear salt water Pangong Tso (lake) running parallel to Indus River, the east and west by higher ranges rising over 19,000 feet and all weather airfield in the south. Pangaso changes colour with the phases of sun and moon. The Spanggur Gap is the opening in the eastern side that leads to the Spanggur Tso (lake). Like the Pangong Tso, it extends well into Chinese territory. Before the war commenced, the Chinese had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Gap capable of carrying tanks. Chushul could be approached from Leh by going over the Chang La pass skirting the Pangkong Lake, while another route crossed the Chang La pass and took a deep turn to the east. For all Indian out posts in this sector from Daulat Beg Oldi to Damchok, Chushul was the nodal rallying point. Loss of Chushul as such would not have jeopardized defence of Ladakh region, but in those days its importance caught up with Indian psyche and pride. The terrain and climatic conditions favoured the Chinese and they made most of these in 1962 operations. Rezang La as the name suggests is a pass and is on the south-eastern approach to Chushul Valley. The feature was 3000 yards long and 2000 yards wide at an average height of 16,000 feet. Digging defensive positions and building shelters was hard going for the men were still not acclimatised and cold wintry winds made life even more hard.

The Battle

18 November 1962 was a Sunday. When the dawn broke it was unusually cold, with snow falling lightly over Rezang La.  

'C' Company's three platoons were numbered 7, 8 and 9 and had .303 rifles with about 600 rounds per head, and between them six LMGs, and 1,000 grenades and mortar bombs. The Chinese infantry had 7.62mm self loading rifles; MMGs and LMGs; 120mm, 81mm and 60mm mortars; 132mm rockets; and 75mm and 57mm recoilless guns to bust bunkers. They were much more numerous and began swarming up the gullies to assault Rezang La at 4 a.m. while a light snow was falling. 

The Battle of Rezang La commenced hours before the shelling that the rest of Brigade saw from a distance. In fact, the first Chinese attack was ‘silent’, with the intention to surprise the defenders of Rezang La, in which, the Chinese failed. 

At about 0400 hours, it was noticed that a large body of enemy troops, scrambling up through gullies towards a platoon post. Within no time every man of the Kumaon Company under Major Shaitan Singh was at ‘ready for action’ state. Every gully that descended to the dry bed of Rezang Lungpa was swarming with Chinese. It was still pretty dark. Major Shaitan Singh and his brave men were now certain to face a big attack. With bated breath they waited, their fingers on their triggers.

At about 0500 hours, when the dawn was just cracking, the first wave of Chinese assault was seen through their gun sights. Just when the Chinese came within range, Major Shaitan Singh ordered to open fire and the Company under Major Shaitan Singh let the attackers have it. Many of the Chinese soldiers fell; others continued to advance. But with every weapon of the Company firing, the gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese. Having failed in a frontal attack the Chinese let loose a murderous shelling. It was this intensive shelling which made a spectacular display of the Chinese superiority in weapons. Under the cover of this intense shelling the Chinese infantry came again in swarms. 'C' Company, now severely depleted, let them have it once again. Position after position fell fighting till the last man. 'C' Company had three JCOs and 124 other ranks with Major Shaitan Singh.

Evidence of large number of the enemy casualties came, when Rezang La was visited three months later.  There were no bunkers left on Rezang La. Evidence of this was seen when Rezang La was revisited in February 1963, but there was no sign of panic or withdrawal. According to those who visited Rezang La, three months later:-

“The dead men were found in their trenches, frozen stiff, still holding their weapons. Broken Light Machine Gun bipods, and some men holding only the butts of their rifles while the remaining weapon had blown off, bore witness to the enemy fire.”

The odds against the Company were heavy, superior numbers and fire power was beginning to tell. But the Rezang La company defended locality was being astutely defended, till the end. Finding his Company surrounded, after the enemy shelling, Major Shaitan Singh reorganised the position and resited the automatic weapons to take on the enemy attack. It was during the re-organisation, which Major Shaitan Singh was personally supervising, that he received a burst of fire in one arm. After a while, he received another Light Machine gun burst in his abdomen. His mortal remains were found three months later.  By any test, every man of the Company who fought and died at Rezang La was a hero. The name of Major Shaitan Singh, who fired these men with the spirit that prefers death to surrender, will live forever in the pages of India’s history. The Kumaonis "fought till last man last bullet" at the icy heights of Rezang La.  The nation’s highest military award for gallantry the Param Vir Chakra was conferred on him posthumously. His body was flown to his hometown, Jodhpur, where it was cremated with honours befitting a national hero.

Few events in the annals of heroism can match this. 'C' Company gave its all to defend Chushul, a Ladakhi village, which for one brief moment in Indian history came to symbolise national honour. At Thermopylae on 18 September 480 B.C., 1200 Greeks led by King Leonides of Sparta died fighting the Persian King Xerxes' mighty bodyguard called the Anusya or Companions. But Leonides was fighting for a great prize. In July 481 B.C. the Oracle of Delphi told him that in the next war with Persia either the King will die or Sparta would be destroyed. Leonides thus died to save Sparta. But 'C' Company willingly sacrificed itself to save a little village and that makes its sacrifice all the more glorious. That is why Indians must never forget Rezang La.

[A few years ago, this author had the opportunity of interacting with the men of 13 Kumaon during a visit to the Kumaon Regimental Centre at Ranikhet]


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

A gripping narrative of heroism. It helps explain the present day border tensions with China. It would also have contributed to India's decision to later match China in nuclear weapons.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
Sadly, very few remember such heroism. Each soldier in that Charlie Company was a brave heart.

In India, it is not the soldiers who have let the nation down; the politicians and the bureaucrats sitting in Delhi are responsible for the problems on India's borders.


Bill said...

Thank you for describing this display of heroism.

One question: the strength of the unit is described as 123 men, but only 114 are said to have been martyred, in spite of their having fought to the last man. What of the other nine?

Kumar said...

According to one account five were taken PoWs, four returned to the garrison and four were declared missing. One can only guess that the four who returned to the garrison were thought to be dead by the Chinese.

Anonymous said...

1was sent by commander to bring backup support of ammunition , rest were fatally wounded and imprisoned by China.