It is almost 50 years ago when a detachment of 20th Lancers comprising two tank troops opened new vistas of armoured warfare in the Battle of Chushul (Ladakh) in the Indo-China war 1962.
I had the proud privilege to command this Detachment in this battle. My reminiscences of this battle bring back memories of the historic landing of the first AMX-13 tank in Chushul on 25 Oct 62 by AN-12 aircraft, at a height of 14,230 ft, subsequently built up to two tank troops, and the heroic performance of the men under my command in the most adverse conditions of sub-zero temperatures and rarefied atmosphere at such high altitudes. This proved to the world that armour has no limitations.
Early memories of Chushul
Our success in this battle was largely due to the untiring efforts and indefatigable spirit of all concerned to overcome the numerous problems and difficulties that faced us during induction, and the subsequent problems and difficulties that confronted us after the landing of tanks in Chushul. The driving and motivating force behind the success of this Detachment was indeed one man—my Commanding Officer, Lt Col Gurbachan Singh– popularly known as “Butch”, who later in service rose to the rank of Army Commander. He saw to it that we got what we needed to live and fight in such inhospitable terrain and truly cared for our welfare.
The loading of the first tank in AN-12 in Chandigarh on 22 October failed as the front half of the tank after negotiating the steep ramp of the aircraft came down with a thud like a dead weight when its centre of gravity passed the edge of the aircraft floor. This resulted in damage to the aircraft as the iron rod jack supporting the rear of the aircraft went through its aluminium floor, and the tank tracks started to slip on it resulting in the tank gun ramming the side of the aircraft and damaging it. Our VCOAS and senior AF officers were present during this loading trial.
The AF authorities put their hands up and declared the loading trial as a failure as they were not prepared to take any more risk of causing damage to their recently inducted AN-12. This news was received with disquiet and disappointment, but ‘Butch” was not the one to give up and let this opportunity slip out. He overcame this problem by getting hold of the fabricators/carpenters in Chandigarh and got a platform made of the same height as the aircraft floor and flush with it, along with a suitable ramp.
To avoid the tank slipping on the aluminium floor of the aircraft, wooden decking was also done on it. It was now easy for the tank to go up the ramp to the Platform, which would absorb the thud of its dead weight, and drive slowly into the aircraft. Having made this platform by working 24 hours round the clock, we successfully demonstrated loading of the tank in the aircraft to the satisfaction of the AF by noon 24 Oct.
The next problem was that of bringing down the tank load within the aircraft restrictions of an all-up weight of 10 tons. To start with the AF insisted that the tank gun if not the whole of turret be taken off and assembled at the other end. They were assured that if this were the only answer even this would be done, but emphasized that the need for the tank to arrive in one piece was imperative so as to be operational within the minimum possible time.
The AF appreciated our view- point and decided to reduce the all up weight by cutting down on fuel in the aircraft– just sufficient for flying to Chushul and back and minimum stay at the airfield without switching off engines.
This need was dictated by the proximity of the enemy to the airfield, their constant observation of our flights, and therefore possible reaction in the form of precipitate action to prevent further build up of tanks. Further a recce of Chushul airfield the same morning and assessment of the resources and working conditions aggravated by the high altitude and sub-zero temperature effects, as also the lack of facilities for re-assembling heavy parts of tanks, had left no doubt that speedy preparedness for action would be highly problematical if the tanks were inducted in part knocked-down condition.
The AF appreciated our view- point and decided to reduce the all up weight by cutting down on fuel in the aircraft– just sufficient for flying to Chushul and back and minimum stay at the airfield without switching off engines. It is this risk taken by their pilots, which was largely responsible in making possible this memorable and historical armoured adventure. We played our part in reducing the tank weight by unloading its ammunition, keeping fuel to the minimum, and removing all detachable access plates/equipment and stowage items.
The first pilot who volunteered to fly the tank to Chushul was Sqn ldr Chandan Singh, a very brave officer indeed, and other aircraft were to follow one at a time on his successful return to base. He earned many decorations during his service—MVC, AVSM, VrC–and rose to the rank of AVM.
The stage was now set to load the tanks on nights 24/25 Oct and 25/26 Oct. By noon 26 Oct 62 two troops of AMX tanks had landed in Chushul—first time in our history that a tank had been flown into combat under the very nose of the enemy, and also first time in the world that the tanks had operated at such heights and in such extreme sub-zero temperature conditions.
Not just a tank
It is difficult to express my feelings when I landed with the first tank at Chushul on the morning of 25 Oct. It was perhaps one of exhilaration at the prospect of fighting my first action, mixed with awe of the bleak and barren landscape, and anxiety about the performance of tanks in this terrain and the well being of my men in such conditions, having been inducted without any acclimatisation. It was only a few days back that I had retuned to the Regiment after my ERE at ACC&S Ahmednagar; so the totally changed conditions one had to adjust to can well be imagined.
Within a few days of arrival of our complete Detachment at Chushul, the inhospitable conditions took their toll and three officers including the Sqn Cdr were evacuated due to high altitude sickness/effects. I therefore assumed command of the Detachment and had the good fortune of commanding it in the Battle of Chushul.
We faced many problems regarding performance of tanks but managed to solve them as they came along by innovation and sustained support from the Regiment. The major ones were-
- Loss of engine power due to lack of sufficient air resulting in rich fuel mixture leading to incomplete combustion and stalling of tanks. Our LAD officer, Bunty Ayenger innovated a temporary solution by inserting a thin copper wire in the main jet to reduce the flow of fuel. Although this did not result in an ideal fuel mixture, yet it helped a lot in preventing stalling, though with appreciable loss of power.
- The difficulty of starting a tank exposed to such sub-zero cold conditions. Temporary solution was found by keeping one tank started for some time every 2 to 3 hours and starting remainder tanks by connecting their female socket with jumper lead from the started tank.
- The difficulty in building up engine operating temperature due to low boiling point in rarefied high altitude. An engineer of TDEV, Ahmednagar attended to this problem and fitted a higher rating vapor pressure relief valve (VPRV) in the water header tank. He did this job on 17 Nov but did not want to wait to see the result. The Chinese attacked early morning on 18 Nov and the header tank of this tank busted as the VPRV did not open thus grounding one tank!! So much for our engineers!
- Longer main gun ranges were achieved with shorter application on the telescope. We managed to test the tank guns by actual firing a few days before the battle. This proved to be very useful when the battle was joined, as gunners knew what to expect.
- Bulky snow clothing issued to the crews was not conducive to working inside the tanks. It is to the credit of “Butch” that he got us light and warm clothing– fur-lined cap, jacket, trousers, boots and double gloves– in record time.
It is difficult to express my feelings when I landed with the first tank at Chushul on the morning of 25 Oct. It was perhaps one of exhilaration at the prospect of fighting my first action, mixed with awe of the bleak and barren landscape, and anxiety about the performance of tanks in this terrain and the well being of my men in such conditions, having been inducted without any acclimatisation.
We did not allow these problems to get the better of us but solved them fairly effectively, thanks to the motivation and indefatigable spirit of all ranks, superbly supported by “Butch” and his team. We were also lucky to get sufficient number of days to become a well-knit, highly motivated outfit before joining action. Our spirits were high as one can gauge from Lt Avinash Chad’s example of refusing to get evacuated despite succumbing to serious high altitude sickness a week before the battle.
So on 18th Nov when the Chinese attack was preceded by intense artillery and artillery fire on Rezang La, Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Spanggur Gap at about 0615h, we lost no time in getting ready for action.
The initial dispositions of own infantry were a company each at Tsaka La and Rezang La, two companies each at Gurung Hill and Maggar Hill and one company in Spanggur Gap. Our two troops were located close to the airfield and Gurung Hill.
Our task was –
- To deny Spanggur gap approach to the enemy, particularly to Armour that may try to venture out towards Chushul. (It was however learnt later that enemy had no tanks contrary to earlier intelligence reports).
- To act as mobile reserve with an infantry company to safeguard flanks and any sizeable infiltration that may take place during battle along road Tsaka La-Chushul.
- To provide close fire support.
As the enemy descended down the forward slopes, the three tanks kept pumping in accurate fire and managed to stall the attack by 1015h causing heavy casualties.
The Chinese started closing in for an assault on Gurung Hill and Rezang La around 0700h on 18 Nov. As they neared the objective, their guns and mortars lifted their fire and brought a hail of shells on the Chushul airfield. I got in touch with CO 1/8 GR and learnt that two pls were under attack. I immediately moved one troop closer to Gurung Hill led by me in an open jeep under heavy shelling to have better observation to bring down fire on the enemy. The target was top of Gurung Hill at an altitude of 18,000 ft and 4000 yards away from the firing position.
As the enemy descended down the forward slopes, the three tanks kept pumping in accurate fire and managed to stall the attack by 1015h causing heavy casualties. Since the range of the target was more than the graticules marked on the telescope, the firing was conducted by improvised method making corrections on the hand wheel, which incidentally is also not graduated to any scale. By this time the Kumaonese Company at Rezang La had fallen in the face of overwhelming Chinese superiority. It is here that Maj Shaitan Singh and his valiant men carried out fighting to the last man and last round. Their action will forever remain a shining example of unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.
Chinese get aggressive
After the fall of Rezang La, there was a possibility that the Chinese might establish a roadblock on road Chushul-Tsaka La thus blocking the only exit route to Leh. To counter this I sent one troop (consisting of only 2 tanks as one tank had become off-road before the battle due to bursting of the water header tank) under Avinash as ordered by the Brigade HQ. Avinash, who had been itching ‘to have a go’, moved like lightning and established himself in a suitable position to thwart enemy design. He had to remain there in a firing position precariously perched in a narrow re-entrant for many days hoping in vain to have a shoot.
With a portion of Gurung Hill and the whole of Rezang La with the Chinese on the one hand, and the neutralization of their guns/mortars, and heavy casualties suffered by them on the other, there followed a comparative lull in the remaining hours of 18 November except for sporadic shelling of the airfield during night 18/19 November.
After the fall of Rezang La, there was a possibility that the Chinese might establish a roadblock on road Chushul-Tsaka La thus blocking the only exit route to Leh
The Chinese infantry resumed movement for an attack on the remaining defences on Gurung Hill around 1000h on 19 November and were engaged by own artillery. I moved a troop of tanks under Ris Dalsukh to pre-selected firing positions and started pounding them with relentless fury causing heavy loss of lives. Eventually, it was at 1400h that under cover of mist and snow fall, the Chinese launched their attack in such overwhelming strength that Gurung Hill finally fell at 1630h.
The Chinese aim appeared to be to roll down in strength from Gurung Hill on night 19/20 November with a view to cutting off the rear of our troops at Spanggur gap and at Maggar Hill. Our tanks also helped in covering the withdrawal of troops from the forward positions to their second line of defence, which was occupied by the Brigade by first light 20 November.
Getting an edge
It may be mentioned here that after the fall of Gurung Hill, the Chinese advance towards the airfield from Gurung Hill was prevented entirely by the effectiveness of our tanks and artillery fire.
On 21 November the Chinese declared cease-fire.
Thus ended the heroic and magnificent performance of this Detachment under the most difficult conditions. This was generously applauded by all the higher commanders in the theatre right up the echelons of command. Our Brigade Commander, Tappy Raina (who later became COAS) remarked, “ the tanks gave a magnificent account of themselves” GOC 3 Himalayan Division addressed all ranks of our Detachment and said, “ words fail me when I want to express my gratitude for the excellent work done by you all.” The Corps Commander was equally appreciative and flew into Chushul a couple of days later to congratulate us. Our action was also recognized by the award of Vir Chakra and Sena Medal.
25 October 1962 — for 20 Lancers and for the whole of Armoured Corps– is indeed a unique day as it was on this day that AMX tanks were flown direct into combat for the first time. This battle also established that we could handle our equipment anywhere and under any circumstances with the barest of frills.
This battle has also perhaps established an unbeatable record of operating with tanks at heights from 14,230 ft to 16000 ft. This should make us all us all very proud indeed.