NATHU LA (1967)
Nathu La lies on the
Old Silk Route
and Tibet .
In 1904 Major Francis Younghusband, serving as the
British Commissioner to India ,
led a successful mission through Nathu La to capture Tibet . This led to the setting up of trading posts
in Lhasa ,
and gave control of the surrounding Chumbi Valley
to the British. The following year, Tibet and China
ratified an agreement approving trade between Great Britain and Sikkim . In 1947,
became an Indian protectorate. After Sikkim took control of China in 1950
and suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959, refugees entered Tibet through Sikkim Nathu La. During
the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La witnessed skirmishes
between soldiers of the two countries. Shortly thereafter, the pass was sealed
and was closed for trade. Five years later, Nathu La was the scene of a ‘border
skirmish’ between Indian and ,
which resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Significantly,
it was the first and only instance when the Chinese got a ‘bloody nose’ from
the Indians. China
In order to help Pakistan during the 1965 War, the Chinese served an ultimatum and demanded that India withdraw her posts at Nathu La and Jelep La. According to HQ XXXIII Corps, the main defences of 17 Mountain Division were at Changgu, while Nathu La was only an observation post. In the adjoining sector, manned by 27 Mountain Division, Jelep La was also considered an observation post, with the main defences located at Lungthu. In case of hostilities, the divisional commanders had been given the authority to vacate the posts, and fall back on the main defences. Accordingly, orders were issued by corps headquarters to both divisions to vacate Nathu La and Jelep La. As a result, 27 Mountain Division vacated Jelep La, which the Chinese promptly occupied. However, Major General Sagat Singh, GOC 17 Mountain Division, refused to vacate Nathu La. He reasoned that Nathu La and Jelep La were passes on the watershed, which was the natural boundary. The McMahon Line, which India claimed as the International Border, followed the watershed principle, and India and China had gone to war over this issue, three years earlier. Vacating the passes on the watershed would give the Chinese the tactical advantage of observation and fire, into India, while denying the same to our own troops. He also felt that the discretion to vacate the posts lay with the divisional commander, and he was not obliged to do so, based on instructions from higher headquarters.
The Chinese had installed loudspeakers at Nathu La, and warned the Indians that they would suffer as they did in 1962, if they did not withdraw. However, Sagat had carried out a detailed appreciation of the situation, and reached the conclusion that the Chinese were bluffing. They made threatening postures, such as advancing in large numbers, but on reaching the border, always stopped, turned about and withdrew. They also did not use any artillery, for covering fire, which they would have certainly done if they were serious about capturing any Indian positions. Indian artillery observation posts on adjoining high features called Camel's Back and Sebu La overlooked the Yatung valley for several kilometres, and could bring down accurate fire on the enemy, an advantage that the Chinese did not have. It would have been a tactical blunder to vacate Nathu La and gift it to the enemy. Ultimately, Sagat's fortitude saved the day for India, and his stand was vindicated two years later, when there was a show down at Nathu La.
Vexed by their failure to occupy Nathu La in 1965, the Chinese continued their pressure on the Indians. In December 1965, the Chinese fired on a patrol of 17 Assam Rifles, in North Sikkim, at a height of 16,000 feet, killing two men. They made regular broadcasts from loudspeakers at Nathu La, pointing out to Indian troops the pathetic conditions in which they lived, their low salaries and lack of amenities, comparing these to those enjoyed by Indian officers. It was a form of psychological warfare in which the Chinese were adept, and had to be countered. Sagat had similar loud speakers installed on our own side and tape recorded messages, in Chinese language, were broadcast every day. Throughout 1966 and early 1967, Chinese propaganda, intimidation and attempted incursions into Indian territory continued. The border was not marked, and there were several vantage points on the crest line which both sides thought belonged to them. Patrols which walked along the border often clashed, resulting in tension, and sometimes even casualties.19
In the first week of August 1967, the border out posts (BOPs) at Nathu La were occupied by 2 Grenadiers, relieving 18 Rajput. Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh was then commanding 2 Grenadiers. Major Bishan Singh took over as ‘Tiger Nathu La’, as the company commander holding the pass was generally known, with Captain P.S Dagar as his second-in-command. The deployment at Nathu La comprised a platoon each on Camels Back, South Shoulder, Centre Bump and Sebu La. The battalion headquarters was at Gole Ghar, while the battalion 3-inch mortars were just above Sherabthang, which also had the administrative base and forward aid post. 18 Rajput took over the BOP at Yakla where they had a platoon plus. The BOP’s at Cho La were occupied by a company of 10 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles.
Even while 2 Grenadiers was in the process of taking over the defences at Nathu La, Chinese activities increased. They were noticed repairing their bunkers on North Shoulder and making preparations to construct new ones. On 13 August the observation post at Sebu La reported that the Chinese had arrived on the crest line and dug trenches on our side of the international border. When challenged, they filled up the trenches and withdrew. On the same day they added eight more loud speakers to their already existing 21 speakers on South Shoulder. Due to this the volume of their propaganda increased and could now be heard at Changgu. On the Indian side 30 watt transistorized amplifiers with six speakers had been installed on South Shoulder by 112 Mountain Brigade Signal Company. Propaganda was relayed through tape recorders from Hotel.
The divisional commander discussed the problem with the corps commander, Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, and obtained his concurrence to mark the crest line. 2 Grenadiers was ordered to lay a three-strand wire fence along the border from Nathu La towards the North Shoulder. However, as soon as work began on the fence on 20 August 1967, the Chinese became agitated, and asked the Indians to stop. One strand of wire was laid that day, and two more were added over the next two days. This led to an escalation in Chinese activity. On 23 August at about 1400 hours Major Bishan Singh reported that about 75 Chinese in battle dress carrying rifles fitted with bayonets were advancing towards Nathu La. They advanced slowly in an extended line and had stopped on reaching the border extending from Four Poles area to Mao Tse Tung’s photograph on South Shoulder. At 1430 hours they started shouting slogans which the Political Commissar read out from a red book and the rest repeated after him. Indian troops were ‘standing to’, watching and waiting. Nothing happened for another hour. After standing on the border for about an hour the Chinese withdrew and all was calm and quiet again.
On 1 September the corps commander along with the divisional commander visited Nathu La. The visibility that day was rather poor. They went to Centre Bump first and then to South Shoulder. Then they walked along the border to Four Poles area, where they crossed the border and went a few steps inside. At once, the Chinese Political Commissar came running up to them, shouting “Chini, Chini”, indicating that they have crossed the border into China. The two generals immediately withdrew, but the Chinese kept on grumbling. Soon a photographer came and took photographs of their footsteps across the border.
Next morning Sagat again went to Nathu La. He directed that the border from Right OP to Camels Back must be patrolled. Immediately a patrol of two officers, one JCO and 15 OR was sent out under Major Bishan Singh. As soon as the patrol reached the U Bump near Tekri, the Chinese surrounded them. Major Bishan Singh tried to explain to the Chinese officer that they had not crossed the border and in fact it was the Chinese who were in Indian territory. However, the Chinese did not budge. Bishan and his men then pushed their way through the Chinese and returned to Hotel. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh, was watching all this from South Shoulder.
On 4 September Sagat again went to Nathu La. He directed that the wire fence be converted into a Cat Wire Type 1 obstacle, using concertina coils. The task was assigned to 2 Grenadiers. A platoon of 70 Field Company Engineers under Major Cheema was allotted to assist them. On 5 September work started at 0500 hours but the Chinese objected. There was an argument between Colonel Rai Singh and the Chinese Political Commissar as to alignment of the border. The work was stopped at 0800 hours. However, work on Chinese defences on North and South Shoulder continued. During the night the Chinese came up to the Bump and cut off one shoulder so that if water was poured on the other shoulder it would flow into
morning when our men went to straighten out some wire a few Chinese came
running up to the border with a bucket of water and poured it on the Bump
indicating the watershed. China
On 7 September the work started again on the laying the wire. This time about a hundred Chinese came to the fence and there was hand to hand fighting between the troops. Realising that they were unequal to the Jats, the Chinese withdrew and began pelting stones, the Grenadiers responding in the same manner. Because of all this fighting there was not much progress in the laying of the wire. The Chinese suffered a few casualties in wounded and we had two wounded. On 8 and 9 September things were relatively quiet but the Chinese continued work on their defences.
By now Sagat’s patience had been exhausted and he was determined to complete the work before he proceeded on leave on 12 September. On the night of 10 September he held a conference at HQ 112 Mountain Brigade in Changgu, where he personally briefed everyone on how the operation for laying the wire was to be carried out on 11 September. Additional resources in men and material were moved for this purpose. One company of 18 Rajput was brought in to reinforce the defences. An ad hoc force of 90 men was organised into a protection party to charge the Chinese positions if they opened fire. Major Bishan Singh was in charge of the work with Captain P.S Dagar as his assistant. Apart from the platoon of 70 Field Company, a pioneer platoon was to assist in the construction of the fence.20
The Events of
11 September 1967
As soon as work commenced on 11 September, the Chinese came up to the fence, and tried to stop it. There was a heated discussion between the Chinese commander, who was accompanied by the Political Commissar and CO 2 Grenadiers. Sagat had foreseen this eventuality and told Rai Singh not to expose himself but remain in his bunker, where the brigade commander, Brigadier M.M.S. Bakshi, was also present. But this was not heeded and Rai Singh, with an escort, came out in the open to stand face to face with the Chinese officers. As the arguments became more heated, tempers rose, with both sides standing their ground. Suddenly, the Chinese opened fire, causing several casualties among the troops working on the wire fence. Colonel Rai Singh was hit by a Chinese bullet, and fell down.
Seeing their CO fall, the Grenadiers became mad with rage. In a fit of fury, they came out of their trenches, and attacked the Chinese post, led by Captain P.S. Dagar. The company of 18 Rajput, under Major Harbhajan Singh, and the sappers and pioneers working on the fence had been caught in the open, and suffered heavy casualties from the Chinese firing. Realising that the only way to neutralise the Chinese fire was a physical assault, Harbhajan shouted to his men, and led them in a charge on the Chinese position. Several of the Indian troops were mowed down by Chinese machine guns, but those who reached the Chinese bunkers used their bayonets and accounted for many of the enemy. Both Harbhajan and Dagar lost their lives in the action, which developed into a full scale battle, lasting six days. Sagat had asked for some medium guns, and these were moved up to Kyangnosa La, at a height of over 10,000 ft. The artillery observation posts proved their worth in bringing down effective fire on the Chinese. Because of lack of observation, and the steep incline west of Nathu La, most Chinese shells fell behind the forward defences, and did not harm the Indians. During the first day’s action, there was a loss of morale in 2 Grenadiers, when troops occupying the South Shoulder vacated their positions. This became evident after breakdown of communications with South Shoulder. The position was re-occupied and the troops pushed back into their trenches. Signals played an important role in this operation, which has been described subsequently.
The Indian casualties in the action were just over two hundred - 65 dead and 145 wounded. The Chinese are estimated to have suffered about three hundred casualties. Though the action taken by Sagat, in marking the border with a wire fence, had the approval of higher authorities, the large number of casualties suffered by both sides created a furore. The Chinese had already announced that it was the Indians who started the conflict, and the large number of Indian bodies and wounded Indian soldiers in their possession, seemed to support their claim. However, Sagat was not perturbed. For the last two years, the Chinese had been instigating him, and had killed several Indian soldiers. The spectre of the Chinese attack of 1962 still haunted the military and political leadership in India and had prevented them from taking effective action against them. This was the first time the Chinese got a bloody nose, and the myth of their invincibility was broken.
Signals in Nathu La
Second Lieutenant N.C Gupta was commanding 112 Mountain Brigade Signal Company. He had recently relieved Major R.K. Marwaha, who had proceeded on leave. Gupta had joined the brigade after completing the Commando Course at the Infantry School, and was promptly christened ‘Commando’ by the brigade commander, Brigadier M.M.S. Bakshi, M.V.C. A soft spoken and affable officer with a diminutive frame, Gupta made up in courage and diligence what he lacked in size. For his fearless actions in the Nathu La operations, he was awarded the Sena medal. Thanks to his innate modesty, very people in the Corps of Signals know that he was in fact recommended for a Maha Vir Chakra.
Though young in years, Gupta maintained a diary of events as they occurred. Filling several foolscap sheets of paper now yellowed with age, the record makes fascinating reading. It also busts several myths and corrects discrepancies that are to be found in regimental histories written afterwards. (The Author of this volume was also serving in 17 Mountain Divisional Signal Regiment in 1967. Subsequently, he had interviewed Lieutenant General Sagat Singh in 1997 and 1998 while writing his biography. Most of the details given in this account are based on the diary maintained by Gupta, and personal interaction with him and General Sagat Singh.)
The communications set up within the battalion was based on radio and line. The B1 outstation was on radio set AN/GRC-9. The battalion radio net using radio set VM-25 had its control at Gole Ghar, with outstations at Camels Back, South Shoulder, Centre Bump, Sebula and the mortar position. There were lines from the battalion exchange at Gole Ghar to Camels Back, South Shoulder, Hotel, Centre Bump, Sebu La, Sebu La Forward, Sebu La High Ground, Nathu La, Mortar Position, Sherabthang and rearwards to brigade headquarters. The Sherabthang exchange had lines to Camels Back, Sebula, Nathu La, Mortar Position, BOP Yakla, and battalion headquarters of 18 Rajput. The line to HQ 112 Mountain Brigade at Changgu was on PL, the others consisting of WD1/D3 cable on ballies. The line to Camels Back was on laid on the ground.
The events of 11 September are described by Colonel N.C. Gupta in the following words:-
GOC’s conference of 10 September finished at around 2300 hrs. Throughout this period and over the following night the Engineers were busy moving their stores to Nathula for the fence laying next morning. As part of the signal plan a new line was laid overnight from Brigade HQ to Sherabthang and patched backwards directly to the Divisional HQ. A back up Rover was created to be positioned at Brigade HQ to be used by BM in case required. The primary Rover was to move with the Brigade Commander to Nathula in the morning. An additional line was also laid between Sherabthang - Nathula Exchange at Hotel Section.
I left at around 0500 hrs on 11 September with the Rover, one line party and an additional Radio Set VM 25 as part of the Commander’s entourage to Nathula. We reached H Section at around 0515 hrs and were met by CO 2 Grenadiers and OC 70 Field Company. CO of the Artillery Regiment was also with us. After a quick review of the situation CO 2 Grenadiers, OC 70 Field Company and CO of Artillery Regiment left for South Shoulder where the fencing was to take place and I along with the Commander and Company Commander of 2 Grenadiers went to area of Central Bump. This was a platoon location overlooking the entire pass including North and South Shoulders, H Section etc. It was around 400 mtrs behind the border and an excellent vantage point. It also housed a MMG Section. We were in position by 0600 hrs. The visibility was good and it was a clear day with a clear sky.
By the time we reached area of Central Bump laying of fence, along the slope of North Shoulder and in this area of the pass itself, had started. There was quite a lot of shouting going on. We had around 120 men involved in the fence laying. They were working in small teams at around six points on the slope and the pass. All the posts at and adjoining Nathula were at full alert and communications to these parts on battalion radio and on cable were through. Artillery network was on and cables also through. North Shoulder, South Shoulder, Pass, and H Section were working directly to the Brigade Commander on the B1 net, which also had CO 2 Grenadiers and Tiger Nathula on it. The Chinese had around 150 troops opposing the wire laying in a hand to hand battle. Barring the commotion and despite the hand to hand opposition things seemed to be moving as planned and the fence appeared to be getting into position.
For about an hour and a half things appeared to be going well. The time was around 0745 hrs. From the vantage point we noticed that the number of Chinese opposing the fence had gradually reduced. The PA equipment on the Chinese side started a speech of Mao Tse Tung in Hindi. The volume of the PA equipment was unusually high and had shielded the noise of the commotion on account of the hand to hand fight. Just as we thought things are in control all hell was let loose. Every bunker and gun of the Chinese on North and South Shoulder started firing on the Indian troops laying the fence. They were in the open and bore the initial brunt of the firing. Our troops at South Shoulder who were hardly 30 mtrs from the Chinese were also taken by surprise.
The Commander got onto the B1 net and started speaking to the people at the other end. In due course of time it was learnt that the CO of 2 Grenadiers had been injured. It was also learnt that the number of casualties amongst the troops involved in fence laying would be high but no exact figures/estimates were available. Major Bishan Singh, Tiger Nathula, was in communication with the Commander, who instructed him to try and evacuate the CO and other casualties to H Section.
At around 0815 hrs when all this was going on I suddenly heard a sharp whistling sound overhead. It appeared as though it was an aircraft that had made a quick pass. It was no aircraft - it was the sound of artillery shells that had overshot our position to land in the valley below. It was clear the Chinese had opened up their artillery on the pass. After some adjustments shells were falling all around us and in the entire area of Nathula.
Soon I learnt my first lesson of war – if you hear the whistle of a shell you do not have to duck (especially in the mountains) as it will over shoot and you are safe. The information of the Chinese opening fire was flashed to Divisional HQ and upwards to Army HQ. However it took quite some time before permission for retaliation was received. Our artillery fire was guided by the OP at Camels Back. By later accounts it was learnt that our fire in the rear areas had been very effective and had resulted in a lot of casualties.
By about 0930 hrs, Chinese fire had intensified and gradually we started getting out of touch with the troops at North Shoulder and South Shoulder. By 0945 hrs we had no contact with anyone on the position on the shoulders even on the Artillery network. It was a panic situation for me. All the lines were down and so was the B1 to the pass. I tried to enter the battalion net and the company net but failed. There was no response on any of the almost dozen frequencies of the battalion in use that day for various nets. I asked the operator at Brigade HQ to press in additional radio sets and keep trying for a response directly on AN/GRC-9 working to the Artillery OP and CO of the Field Regiment.
Around this time from the vantage position at Central Bump the Commander saw over a dozen troops running down the slopes of South Shoulder towards Sherabthang. He also observed that some of them had shed their helmets, packs and even rifles as they ran down. This created a panic for us. The Commander asked me to call South Shoulder but there was no response. We tried to observe the area of South Shoulder but could see no movement. The shelling on the South Shoulder had also increased.
Under the circumstances perhaps there was no other option for the Commander but to ask me to send someone to South Shoulder to restore the communication. While I had a line party and spare radio sets with me it was decided that a radio be sent to South Shoulder, a distance of around 500 mtrs. The route was open at places and involved going down around 300 mtrs and then up around 200 mtrs. The linemen with me were new to Nathula and had never gone to South Shoulder. Havildar Bhakuni of the Rover had gone there many times. The choice was therefore between him and me. Seeing the gravity of the situation and the shelling, the Commander said, “OK, Commando (my pet name in Brigade HQ), off you go”.
I reached South Shoulder at around 1000 hours. To my astonishment I found the post totally abandoned. I informed the same to the Commander. He asked me to look around for wounded if any and remain at the post and keep him in picture. From the bunkers on South Shoulder I could see the Chinese in their bunker across. By this time intermittent fog had started setting in. I informed the Commander that I can see a few dead soldiers in the area ahead of our defences close to the fence. Barring this there is no one on the post that was designed for a platoon of Infantry. I resorted to intermittent firing from my carbine to indicate that the post is still occupied. Soon I found an LMG in its bunker. I then used it very carefully to try and depict our presence on the post.
At around 1100 hrs the Commander informed me that re-enforcements are on their way but would take at least three hours to reach and that I must hold on till then. A little later he asked me to go around 100 mtrs down South Shoulder where he had spotted around six soldiers sitting behind a huge rock. After firing a few salvos of LMG I went down. I found six Jawans of 2 Grenadiers including 2/Lt Attar Singh (fresh from IMA), one Havildar and four Jawans. I made Attar Singh speak to the Commander. Thereafter we all went back to the post and organized ourselves.
By 1200 hrs the fog had intensified. As I was watching from one of the bunkers I saw one of the bodies moving. He was just next to the fence barely 10 mtrs from the Chinese bunker. Taking advantage of the fog I went ahead to try and recover him. To my surprise it was Major Bishan Singh, Tiger of Nathula who had been injured in the initial firing. He was a 6 foot tall Jat. He was badly injured. With great difficulty I managed to lift him and partly drag him into our defences. Once inside I made him speak to the Commander. After the Commander had been briefed by him the Commander asked me to evacuate him using the four Jawans and asked me, Attar Singh and the Havildar to remain at the post. Ten minutes later the Commander asked me to return to the area of Bumps leaving the radio set with 2/Lt Attar Singh. 21
The shelling was on off. On my way back I was hit by shrapnel of one shell. However I never came to known of it at that point of time. I say so because that was the closest any shell had exploded near me. I came to know about it after three days when I was changing the uniform. My vest was full of dried blood with a small wound on the chest. In our family we had a tradition to give a silver coin when someone was going out on some important job. My mother had given me this coin when I left
for 17 MDSR after YO’s course. This coin was in my wallet along with the ID
card and had taken the brunt of the shrapnel saving me from certain death. Delhi
By about 1330 hrs the reinforcements had reached South Shoulder. After passing necessary instructions the Rover Group decided to move to area Steps and then to Sherabthang. Before moving I left Havildar Bhakuni and the line party with the task of restoring the line in the battalion defended area including those to South Shoulder, H Section and the OP. I took the B1 radio myself and moved with the Commander.
The events of 11 September at Nathula had been an experience for me. We lost around 70 troops in the day. The skirmish lasted five days before being called off. The most amazing event was the recovery of a wounded soldier from the fence after six days in the open. It was nothing short of a miracle.
The sad part was that over 90 soldiers of 2 Grenadiers had run away from the post. More than three dozen of them were later court martialled. As a Signaller it was something I had never expected out of Infantry.
After returning to Sherabthang with the brigade commander Gupta took stock of the state of communications in the sector. He has recorded the events of 11 and 12 September in his diary. Apparently, 2 Grenadiers was not the only battalion that showed traces of fear and weakness. Similar instances occurred in other units, including Gupta’s own company, as the following entries in his diary reveal:-22
The lines to Sebula, Yakla & Camels Back were through. B1 at Sherabthang was through with B1 at Nathula. But they needed some more dry batteries and wire aerial which had been destroyed by shelling. Sigmn Daryao Singh, operator of PA equipment at H Sec who had come down to Sherabthang when firing started was with me. He seemed to be quite fresh and he was the only person with me who knew the Nathula area so I detailed him to take two dry batteries & one wire aerial to Nathula & give it to L/Nk
Om Prakash I/C det.
This man I guess was rather afraid for he went about ¼ of the way and
returned two hrs later with an excuse that he has stomach ache in fact gas
trouble and cannot go to Nathula.
In the mean time I had got my three linemen ready with cable to go with me to lay a new line to Nathula. They could not move alone for none of them knew the route. Any way I took two dry batteries & one wire aerial. The two linemen took one drum each. The third lineman Mannu showed cowardice and said that he cannot go because he has pain in leg. At this time I felt like emptying my sten magazine into his stomach. Anyway I did not want any malingerers with me so I took the two linemen & proceeded with line laying. With great caution due to the intermittent fire that was going on we continued with the line laying.
It was a well moon lit night & the enemy could easily have spotted us but we were rather lucky. We reached Gole Ghar at 2000 hrs but we fell short of cable by about 200 meters. I knew in the morning my rover det had brought a coil of about 300 meters. I went to Centre Bump & luckily found the coil there. So we joined it & put the line through to Tiger Nathula & Nathula Exchange in parallel at 2030 hrs. There we wasted no time but returned to Sherabthang. On our way back we crossed many wounded soldiers slowly making their way back to Sherabthang. Most of them were without their arms & equipment.
When I reached Sherabthang the Commander was briefing & making liaison for the plan which the GOC had given when he had come to Sherabthang. Same time Maj Balwant Singh came from Changgu to take over as Tiger Nathula. Commander briefed him of what he was supposed to do. Maj Balwant left at 2300 hrs via area Steps with one radio det & some dry batteries of VM 25-B. At 2400 hrs we had some dry chapattis which were lying in Sherabthang with pickle. We were really very grateful to SM for he managed to give us a glass of hot tea which put us back into mood.23
Things were being married up for the next morning’s operation which had three phases. In phase one two patrols under JCOs would patrol area S Shoulder & N Shoulder for casualties and bring back as many as they can. In phase two a platoon under Capt Daniels would assault S Shoulder from Camels Back side, destroy or capture as many enemy as possible, bring back enemy arms, ammunition, dead, wounded, alive or any other souvenirs. Also Capt Rathor was to be on S Shoulder with his platoon. As soon as S Shoulder would fall Maj Cheema & Capt Rathor would go ahead with the rest of the wire which was to be laid. Priority of laying was to lay the wire on the Bump. We all hoped that the weather should be bad for this operation but unfortunately it was a moon lit night.
Commander also rang up Maj Chandrashekar and told him what was expected of him. The task given must be fulfilled under all circumstances. He also told him that Maj Balwant Singh was coming up to take over as Tiger & that he should stay at South Shoulder & supervise the operation from there.
Capt Lamba’s company which had gone to area Steps was to be in radio communication with Tiger Nathula, Camels Back, Sebula, & Sherabthang but he was not through with anyone. I knew that when all the net was through, either he has not opened his set or his batteries are drained out. Any way myself and Capt R. Prakash took one VM 25-B set and left for area Steps via the road. On the way we met many wounded slowly making their way to Sherabthang. We also saw a lot of arms & equipment lying on the road. Anyway when we reached area Steps we found that Capt Lamba’s set was not put on. I put my set on & in the very first call we were through. I then put his set through, briefed the operator & returned to Sherabthang. On our way back we met the Rajput patrol which had gone to lay an ambush. I asked them if they were through to Capt Lamba on radio & they replied that they had never opened up the set. Any way we reached Sherabthang at about 0430 hrs.24
The Chinese opened fire on the party which went to lay the wire under Maj Cheema with small arms. Most of them were pinned down & two killed. Apparently Capt Daniel had failed to capture South Shoulder and silence the BMG there. Also the two patrols which had gone to search for casualties came back empty handed mainly because of lack of initiative & poor patrolling on part of patrol commander.
I took my line party of two linemen to lay a new line to area Steps. When we reached area Steps at about 0800 hrs I found Capt Daniel was not there with his company. Anyway I went to look for his company. A little below area Steps I met Capt Daniel with his platoon. He told me he has been ordered to report to Maj Balwant Singh. I advised him to follow the route via Sebula. Anyway I soon met Capt Lamba, gave him a telephone & put the line through. We were back in Sherabthang at about 0830 hrs.
Signal JCO of 18 Rajput came to me for three drums of WD1 cable required for lines at Nathula post. I gave him three drums & then left for Nathula via Sebula at 0900 hrs. In the mean time we laid a new line to mortar position, which was completed by about 1000 hrs. As soon as this line was put through the enemy opened up heavy arty fire on area Steps, mortar position & Sherabthang. I was very close to the exchange when this fire opened up. I saw couple of operators running out of the exchange room. Thinking that it might be abandoned I went inside but I saw that a Grenadiers operator was inside & still manning the exchange. Anyway I stayed along with him. The Corps Commander was also at this time in area Sherabthang. Our B1 under Naik Bhakuni was through strength 5. Anyway as we sat in the exchange the line to Steps & Camels Back went out. The shelling stopped at about 1130. I at once sent a line party to Camels Back.
This shelling had created lot of confusion in our adm tail that was going up to Nathula via Sebula. One mule was killed & six injured near mortar position and a message was sent on B1 to Brigade for RVC doctor. Capt Lamba’s company in area Steps had scattered, left the area & come down to as far as Kupup road. Capt Daniel’s company took cover there only and stayed there indefinitely. The Rajput Subedar carrying cable also remained somewhere near mortar position. People carrying ammunition to BMG position also hid in rocks. They threw a part of the ammunition. Some stretcher bearers and other men came back to Sherabthang running via the road. The BM got hold of all and ordered them to go back. He also had one drum of cable sent to Nathula which was later on found in roundabout near area Steps.
We started work to shift the Sherabthang exchange from the wooden barrack to a shell proof bunker. The work was completed by 1400 hrs. The work done by Signalman Mohinder Singh was commendable. Unfortunately no sooner was the exchange shifted the lines to Mortar position, Sebula, Nathula, Steps & Camels Back were out. The two lines to Brigade were also down but B1 was through. Anyway, I sent a line party to Nathula, one to mortar position & Sebula & one to Camels Back & I myself went on Brigade line with one lineman. Luckily the Brigade was through by 1600 hrs. But at about 1630 enemy started shelling Area Theguk & Haryana as a result these two lines were again out. The Brigade line party reached our location at about 1730 hrs laying a new line. But when they reached our exchange they could not get 112 Brigade exchange. Mortar position line was through at 1800 hrs, Sebula at 2100 hrs, Nathula at 2330 hrs and Camels Back line was not through that night. They were however through on VM 25-B to Tiger Nathula. Line to Tiger Steps was through but his telephone was faulty & as such no calls were made. He was not through on wireless also.
Commander, CO 182 Light Regiment with his radio det, GLO & myself left for Nathula via area Steps. At Kupup road junction we met a party who were bringing back two casualties. A little ahead we met a section of D Company 18 Rajput resting. On questioning we came to know that they had left area Steps and come down due to heavy shelling and would be going up after darkness. Commander ordered them to go forthwith. A little short of Steps we met Capt Lamba with the rest of his company. Commander questioned him & took him to Steps and saw his position & told him to bring up his full company & send one of his JCOs to Nathula Tiger to take orders if his platoon was required to move up to South Shoulder.
A little ahead we saw lots of equipment like packs, steel helmet, ammunition & cable drum lying on the ground. We met a few men of Capt Daniels’ platoon who had left in the morning trying to make their way to South Shoulder via
. The road had been badly shelled and was in a
very bad state. We left the radio
detachment half way as going up via short cut was rather difficult for them
& we could not move via the road due to good visibility. area
We reached Tiger’s Bunker. Commander had a few words with him & told him his plan & how they were to bring out the casualties from North & South Shoulders. The plan to lay the wire had been dropped. We left Tiger’s Bunker at about 2000 hrs. On our way back we met the stretcher bearer parties going up to bring back the casualties.
GOC arrived at Sherabthang with C Arty to discuss the operation for the morning of 13 September 67. The plan in general was as follows.
Before first light we would provoke the enemy to open fire. Once he opens fire we would destroy his bunkers with RCL, rocket launchers & strim grenades. Then on a signal of white smoke, troops on South Shoulder would withdraw & take cover just before S Shoulder. Then CO 182 Light would bring down the full divisional artillery and mortars on South & North Shoulders till every soul & bunker is destroyed. Once this is achieved on a signal of red smoke our troops would move from below South Shoulder & capture enemy position on South Shoulder & prevent any enemy counter attack. The plan sounded really ambitious and Commander was rightly rather reluctant to execute it with the amount of briefing of local commanders and degree of preparedness on our own side. The GOC agreed to Commander’s suggestion to have a rehearsal on 13 morning & execute the same on 14 morning. For in that time he will also be able to get an OK from Delhi. After briefing, GOC left for Changgu at 2400 hrs.25
The skirmish at Nathu La continued for another five days. As would be evident from the personal account and diary of Second Lieutenant N.C Gupta, the events left a deep impression on his mind. In his own company, he found instances of fear and cowardice. More than that, he found it difficult to get over the fact that two of the elite infantry battalions of the Indian Army had been found wanting in courage.
Gupta’s actions in holding South Shoulder alone for a few hours, taking Attar Singh and his platoon to reoccupy the feature and saving the life of the badly wounded Major Bishan Singh under enemy fire were indeed commendable and deserved to be rewarded. His actions had been witnessed by the brigade and divisional commanders and it was expected that he would be given a gallantry award. Unfortunately, the fact that South Shoulder post had been abandoned was mentioned in his citation. As was to be expected, the military hierarchy as well as the political leadership was reluctant to highlight this aspect. This was the first brush with the Chinese after 1962 and such a statement was politically not acceptable. On account of its likely repercussions the citation was diluted and the portion about Indian troops vacating their posts was removed. In the event, N.C. Gupta was awarded a Sena Medal instead of the MVC that he deserved.
An interesting sidelight of the Nathu La incident has been given by Lieutenant General M.S. Sodhi, who writes:-
I recall the Nathu La incident too. I was commanding XXXIII Corps Signals. The telephone lines were down and the GOC wanted immediate confirmation of action proposed by him. He dictated his very clear cut and precise appreciation of the situation on the telephone to me and had me send a message to the GOC-in-C with copy to Army HQ !! General JS Aurora considered dictation to me more expedient than sending for his BGS/GSO 1. The message was encrypted and cleared on RTT in a Flash. He got concurrence to his proposed action in very good time.
I also recall a conversation with General Sagat when I happened to meet him at the airport a few days later. I asked him how the communications support was during the operations. His response was, with tongue in cheek, "Bloody awful! The Corps Commander could contact me in the most forward post!"26