Saviors of Leh

By M.M. Munshi

When Soviet Russia took virtual control of Sinkiang (Xinjiang) in 1935 the British Indian administration came to an agreement with the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir under which a sixty year lease of GILGIT (which formed part of Jammu & Kashmir State) was executed. The sole responsibility of defense and administration of Gilgit became the responsibility of the British who raised an irregular force “Gilgit Scouts” recruited from Hunza and Nagar and adjoining parts of NWFP officered exclusively by British.. With the announcement of Mountbatten Plan on June 3rd 19 47 Gilgit was handed back to the Maharaja of J&K amidst much jubilations and funfair in July and Gilgit Scouts became part of the state forces. The Maharaja dispatched a senior officer of the State Forces Brigadier Gansara Singh as Governor who was accompanied by the Chief of Staff of the State Forces Maj.Gen. H.L.Scot. The Governor and Maj. Gen. Scot were informed by the officers of the Gilgit Scouts that all of them had opted to serve Pakistan. Scot returned to make a report to Maharaja while the Governor stayed on in Gilgit. Neither the British officers were segregated from the Gilgit Scouts nor the force was disbanded which proved to be unpardonable mistake. After the Pakistani tribal invasion of Kashmir valley took place the Gilgit Scouts placed the Governor under house arrest and provisional government was installed. Major Brown the British commandant of the scouts ceremoniously hoisted the Pakistani flag. An official from Pakistan arrived and established himself as Political Agent. An under strength battalion of State forces 6th J&K Infantry composed half of Mirpuri -Punchi Muslims and half of Sikhs under Lt. Col. Abdul Majid Khan was located at Bunji. On hearing about invasion of Kashmir and revolt of Gilgit scouts the Mirpuri-Punchi Muslims revolted and along with Gilgit Scouts attacked the Sikh troops and routed them. Col. Abdul Majid Khan who remained loyal to the Maharaja was taken prisoner.

East of Gilgit Skardu in Baltistan was garrisoned by a weak battalion under a Gurkha Commander Lt.Col. Sherjang Thapa and a smaller detachment of State Forces was also at Kargil. East of Kargil and at Leh no troops were deployed anywhere. After the fall of Gilgit Operation sledge was planned at Pakistan’s army headquarters and launched from Gilgit in Feb. 48 and obvious target being Leh the capital of Ladakh The enemy force to implement the operation was composed of a strong element of Gilgit Scouts, Mirpuri and Punchi deserters of J&K State Forces from Bunji and tribals from NWFP of Pakistan. It was an ambitious plan involving a foot march of about 500 Kms. over rugged but not unfrequented terrain all that might have been encountered would have been minor resistance at Skardu by the weak battalion of J&K State forces and a small detachment of the state forces at Kargil.The blatant act of aggression was more for the odious for the fact that people of Ladakh were most peace loving and totally unarmed in consequence were incapable of offering any resistance other than verbal protests. The timing chosen by the enemy for the Operation Sledge was ideal for them and its success was assured, as no help could be sent from Kashmir to Ladakh, because Zoji La Pass remained blocked with snow till May nor there was any airstrip at Leh or any other place in Ladakh. For the enemy the door to Leh was open and success was almost certain.

 

The commander of State Forces garrison at Skardu being under heavy pressure from enemy and had no choice but to concentrate his force inside the fort and placed the troops as well as civilians including women and children on minimum ration scale. Attacks against the fort were delivered at periodic intervals but a steady fire ,firm defense and the casualties inflicted upon the enemy repulsed the latter. The next alternative for the enemy would be to lay siege of the Skardu Fort and force it’s surrender by starvation. The Gurkha commander at Skardu envisaged that with the stock of food gradually dwindling would adversely effect the physical condition of his disciplined troops. It was under these circumstances that the commander planned to send of small batches of women and children with escort parties at night to escape detection and when these parties were away from Skardu he would withdraw his main force and fight a rearguard action up to Kargil where together with the Kargil detachment he would hold the enemy advance towards Zojila and eastwards.  There was no other alternative to this withdrawal plan. It was not the request of a coward but a brave and capable soldier, but in spite of the strong recommendation of 161 infantry brigade his position was not unfortunately appreciated by the HQs JAK Force and he was ordered to fight to the last man and last round. The inevitable happened. The Skardu Garrison held on with no sign of relief of troops or supplies and was forced to surrender by September 1948 after exhausting its ammunition and food stocks.

On March 3rd 1948 after a few days the Skardu fort was encircled by the enemy, its commander signaled to 161 Inf. Bde in Kashmir Valley that about 500 armed men and about 200 porters had arrived from the direction of Gilgit and after halting at the outskirts of the fort proceeded in an easterly direction presumably towards Kargil. The information was also confirmed by a wireless intercept and was passed to the State Govt and it was resolved during a meeting that something would have to be done to save Leh from being attacked as Ladakhis were completely unarmed and any attack on Leh would have repercussions from the Buddhist World. But to do what remained unresolved, as to get to Ladakh from the Kashmir Valley at that time of the year was considered to be an impossibility

Lt.Col. G.G. Bewoor Later General and Chief of Staff, Indian Army who had taken over command of 2nd Dogras from. Lt.Col. U.C.Dubey (later Maj. Gen. and GOC 25th Infantry Division Rajouri mentioned that 2nd Dogras during its service as a territorial battalion had enlisted a number of Lahaulis and men from upper reaches of then Punjab Hill states were still serving with the battalion including two officers Captains Prithi Chand (later Brigadier Prithi Chand) and Khushal Chand (later Col. Khushal Chand a very popular figure from Lahaul who subsequently died in an air crash in Vietnam in early fifties.). Col. Bewoor suggested that since Lahaul was situated contiguous to Ladakh it would be worthwhile to ask these officers if they would go with their men to Ladakh and organize its defenses. In his talk Lt.Col Bewoor did not use persuasion nor did he try to minimize the difficulties or dangers that would have to be faced and only available route was via the Zojila Pass over the Great Himalaya Range which was covered over by 30 to 40 feet of Snow.He asked the young officers to consider the matter carefully and also assured them that no adverse opinion would be held against them if they expressed their inability to undertake the task.

Within a few moments Prithi Chand and Khushal Chand appeared before the Brigade and Battalion Commanders and announced that they would go to Leh. Immediately volunteers were called from 2nd Dogras. In addition to all the Lahaulis many Dogras also volunteered. After a careful medical examination and aptitude tests about 50 men were selected and given possible training about loading and unloading of ponies step cutting etc.  Requirements and transport limitations of the volunteer force were very carefully scrutinized and nothing was left to chance. Besides the arms carried by officers and men about 150 additional rifles and their ammunition meant for equipping the Ladakhis was added to the baggage. The party later designated as Leh detachment assembled at Baramula and equipped with items like Gilgit boots, snow goggles ,Gloves Fur lined jackets etc which were available in Srinagar markets provisions etc were transported to Sonamarg by motor transport. Local ponies which had been procured with difficulty joined the detachment marched with it to Baltal.

After establishing camp at Baltal avalanches were created by beating of drums and bursting of crackers in the stillness of night for three days after which Prithi Chand signaled to Barmula that it was ready make the attempt to cross Zoji La. After about 48 hours another signal was received that the crossing of Zoji La was accomplished without a casualty and the column was setting out for Kargil on way to Leh.From Kargil they were accompanied by the state forces detachment on their march to Leh Prithi Chand and his men reached Leh without encountering the enemy. The rifles and ammunition were distributed among suitable young men who were given a hasty training Defensive positions were prepared near a bridge east of Leh and when the enemy duly arrived met with serious reverses due to determined resistance, refrained from attacking Leh.

In the meantime two companies 2/4 Gurkha Rifles accompanied by Sherpa mountaineers including the famous Tenzing Norkay who had been dispatched from Manali by the Western Command of Army joined Prithi Chand and his gallant men after crossing the Passes of Rohtang, Bara Lacha and Tanglang La ranging in heights from 13,500 to 17,300 Ft. Thus Leh was saved it was the outcome of a great deed which have few equals in military history. It called for unbound determination, courage and stamina and these qualities and more were amply demonstrated by the defenders who took the first shock of the attack , the two gallant officers and men of the 2nd Dogras.

But Leh remained isolated from Kashmir Valley by occupation of Kargil and Zojila Pass by Pakistanis. An attempt was made in late May 1948 to relieve/ reinforce Skardu Garrison but the State Forces troops which moved out under the command of Fakir Singh made very little progress against determined enemy resistance and withdrew. As already stated Skardu Garrison was forced to surrender after exhausting its food stocks and ammunition by September 48. The Pakistanis had pushed up stream from Gilgit-Skardu south eastwards and were only a few miles north of Leh. They had also occupied Kargil as well as Zojila Pass. The enemy forces from Kargil Zojilla area could be withdrawn when the winter snows closed the passes and together with reinforcements from Gilgit could be used to bring pressure on and possibly liquidate the limited troops defending Leh. Pakistanis had deployed a couple of mountain guns on commanding heights at the Zojila pass against which infantry assaults proved failures and resulted in heavy casualties.

Maj.Gen K.S.Thimaya who had taken command of the newly formed Shri Div (later designated as 19th Infantry Division) had only about few weeks before the winter snows blocked the pass. Field guns of the artillery were not effective due to limitation of their elevation angles. The divisional commander decided to use tanks to neutralize the mountain guns and concentrated first in improving the road leading from Baltal towards the pass. The road was improved and completed in about 1 months time by Madras Sappers and Miners. In the meantime seven Honey Staurt tanks of the7th Light Cavalry were dismantled at Jammu transported to in camouflaged trucks reassembled at Sonamarg. Simultaneously 77th Infantry Brigade comprising a battalion of Patiala State forces , 1/5 Gurkha Rifles and 1st Battalion of Rajput Regiment under Brig. K.L.Atal was also assembled at Sonamarg. The D Day was fixed for 4th Nov 1948 but early morning of that day it started snowing and to many it looked that operation would not materialize. But since Cease fire under the auspices of United Nations was round the corner Gen. Thimayya decided to go ahead with the attack the tanks moved slowly uphill and places were virtually pushed by Infantry and towed by powerful weapon carries and out of seven only two tanks reached the pass and silenced the mountain guns in less than half an hour Rajputs stormed the pass and Gurkhas mopped up the slopes.

The enemy was taken completely by surprise and when they reported to their senior that they were attacked by tanks, the seniors disbelieved them. Without pausing the leading troops reached Kargil. The Leh Garrison also moved towards Kargil, the enemy was completely beaten and retreated north westwards to Skardu. The road / bridle path from Kashmir to Leh was secured.

*(The author has remained a Geologist of repute and is based in Jammu).