1962--A Warrior's Memories
Posted on: 26 Oct 2012
'The special flight came for us in Kunming. We changed back into our uniforms and marched into the plane. We did not bother to shake hands with the Chinese'.
|V K Singh|
sector of NEFA in November 1962. He, along with other officers and soldiers of the defeated units, was made to walk to a POW camp in Tibet. They were released after six months. But while the men were allowed to return home straightaway, officers of field rank (that is Majors and above) were taken on a tour of China. The officers were treated well, provided with suits and taken to a number of cities and scenic sites. Then they were allowed to fly back from Kunming. In reverting to their uniforms these officers signified that their soldierly pride and élan were intact. Most went on to serve with valour and distinction in the wars of 1965 and 1971 and to retire with the honour that was their due.
Singh, a sprightly septuagenarian, spoke with dignity and wry amusement as he narrated his experiences of those fateful days while sitting in the comfort of his NOIDA house on a fine October morning. I had been warned by family friends that he had never spoken about those experiences before and was apprehensive that the recollection could prove traumatic. But the old
soldier had settled his memories, learnt his lessons and come back strong many years ago. The core belief from which he drew his fortitude was revealed in an unguarded sentence, 'How can you say that the Indian army was defeated? One division plus one brigade of ours went up against three Chinese divisions'.
The discrepancy in numbers--a little more than 10,000 men against 25-30,000--was just one of the fearsome odds that our soldiers in the Kameng sector faced in 1962. Barely a couple of the dozen odd battalions that took part in the month-long battles had the acclimatisation and training to fight in the 10-15000 elevations of this sector. Their rifles were World War II vintage .303's. Some men were given lessons in throwing grenades only days before they faced the enemy. Mortars and machine guns were short of requirements. Barbed wire and mines needed to shore up defenses were not available. Artillery and armour support was negligible.
Most units had moved from locations in the plains without being re-equipped to cope with the cold and muddy pathways of the jungle-covered hills. The men wore canvas shoes and had little warm clothing or tents. Ready-to-hand rations were barely above starvations levels. Supplies had to be moved on a single track fit for only 1-tonne trucks and even that for only a little
over half the distance from the railhead at Misamari. Porters carried the supplies for the rest of the way. Air drops were infrequent due to uncertain weather and about 40 per cent of the supplies dropped were either destroyed because of bad parachutes or lost because they fell into ravines.
As against this, the Chinese troops had been inducted into Tibet and trained in high altitude fighting since months before. They had good boots, padded uniforms and fur-lined caps. They were armed with AK-47 variants and could call up heavy artillery support. Above all, the Chinese political and military leaderships as well as the troops knew precisely what they were
fighting for and had clear directions about their tasks.
On the Indian side, the political directive to drive out the intruder had been issued. But the political leadership appeared to have no clue about the huge military difficulties that would have to be overcome to achieve this objective. And, the top echelons of the military did not impress upon their civilian bosses that the task was near impossible. What followed were national humiliation and the traumatisation of hundreds of young men from the farmlands of India.
Apart from the physical hardships, the Indian soldiers had to cope with a flow of events that often left them uncertain and confused; events that sometimes bordered on the surreal. Gen. Singh's narrative offers a glimpse of the ways in which dizzying turns of events impacted on the mental state of the soldiers.
'I was on leave in Calcutta on October 20. The next day was my wife's birthday, the first after our marriage and we were out celebrating. In the evening news we heard that fighting had broken out in Thagla (the Thagla Ridge battle was the opening round). I told my wife immediately that my leave was bound to be cancelled and that I would be called back'. His
prediction turned out to be completely accurate.
Singh confirms other accounts that there was utter confusion in the staging areas. Units did not have clear ideas about where they were to go. Men who had been on leave or in hospital and hence out of contact with their units did not know how to locate them. At one staging area, Singh located a few 'Thambis' who had been forced to stay behind because of illness. They told
him that the Battalion had moved to Misamari. But when he reached Misamari the Battalion was not to be found. Unwisely, he rang up a superior officer in charge of movement control and got a earful for his pains.
'What sort of officer are you? Are you deserting your unit at the time of war? Don't you know that your Battalion is in Walong?' It was only when the officer asked the last question that Singh knew he was not in trouble. The man was obviously referring to the sister battalion, 2 Madras, which was indeed in Walong.
Singh once again located some Thambis who told him that the unit had marched towards Se La. He managed to get on to one of the 1-tonners in a convoy and reached Se La after nightfall. The convoy drivers told him that he was free to sleep anywhere, including the cabin of the truck but the convoy would be going no further. Singh was about to go to sleep when he heard some more Thambi voices. He had at last located his unit. It was posted on the southern ridge line overlooking the Se La valley.
'And then for a week, we just sat'. The higher-ups did not know what to do with this unit. So it just sat in Se La.
When the orders finally came, 1 Madras moved to the heights above Se La where they dug defensive positions.
'My post was at the highest point, so we could see deep into the territory over which the enemy could come. But for days, there was no sign of hostile activity at all. Meanwhile there were all sorts of rumours. It was already November and the snow would begin to fall soon. We knew that the Chinese could not attack or even stay in front of our lines once winter set it.
There really was a feeling that we would not have to fight'.
One morning a platoon of the Guards was sent down what was called the Bailey road to ascertain the truth of a rumor that the Chinese had reached a distant ridge line. After the platoon set off, the higher-ups felt the contingent was too small to deal with real danger. So they sent off the whole Guards battalion.
'We could see the whole Bailey Road from our positions. The tract ran along a crest line, dipped in some places and then rose again. After a while we saw the Guards going up a hill-side. They looked like ants from where we were. Suddenly we heard a burst of fire. Then the ants began to run down the hill. The Guards disintegrated after that. '
'There was very little information. We tried to make out what was happening from what we could see. After a while we saw a troop of tanks advancing on the Se La valley floor. There was another burst of firing and the tanks withdrew'.
At that time there were nominally two battalions on the southern ridge at Se La. But companies (each consisting of about 100 men) from both 1 Madras and the Sikh Light Infantry had been shifted to other positions. So, in effect, there were just six companies on the ridge. The Sikh LI was over-run. The commander of 1 Madras sent men down to the Se La valley to
see if there was another defensive position to which the battalion could withdraw. The men returned with the message that Se La too had been over-run.
'Our battalion commander then decided that there was nothing we could do in the posts we were at. He decided to pull back in the hope that we could join defense lines at Bomdi La.'
'I was with the leading troops when we reached the Tenga Valley. That's when the Chinese ambushed us. The men in the back companies go away but we were made prisoners'.
The Chinese made their prisoners walk back to Tibet. On the way they were shown piles of sleeping bags and each man was asked to pick one. The walk ended at an abandoned monastery. The prisoners were provided with straw to use as mattresses but few other comforts.
'A POW camp is not your father-in-law's house', Singh wryly observed. But neither officers nor men were ill-treated.
'I lost 20 kilos in six months'. The food, understandably enough was terrible. There was rice that could be made into gruel, maida which could be used likewise and a supply of vegetables, The same vegetable day after day. 'They grow these huge radishes in that part of the world. So that was what we had every day. Until about five years ago I could not get myself to
eat radish. ', says Singh.
One a rare occasion they were given tinned pork. But it was all fat. Powdered eggs were given to the officers with the instruction that it should be given only to Majors and above. Singh, who was in charge of the officers mess refused to follow the instructions. In the Indian army all officers were given the same treatment he insisted. So they cut the egg ration. 'But I insisted on sharing that out as well. Finally I was giving one teaspoon to each officer'.
The biggest problem was the lack of baths. The POWs did not have a bath for six weeks. By the end of that period they were covered with lice. The Chinese medical staff was warned that the POWs could be infected with typhus if remedial measures were not taken. They then provided baths and new uniforms.
The officers were ordered to not mix with the men housed in the same camp. And the enforcement of this order could be supervised. Almost.
'You see there were no toilet arrangements and all of us had to use the fields. So I would make sure that the senior Subedar and senior Havaldar joined me when I went to do my business. We would sit alongside each other as we went through our ablutions. We would do our personal business and discuss battalion matters at the same time'.
Singh got his men to believe that they would return to India some day. The encouragement given to the jawans became noticeable in their deportments. The Chinese noticed, found out that Singh was responsible and called him in for questioning.
'It went on for a few hours. But eventually it turned out that they only wanted me to confess that I was the culprit. Once I admitted that I was, they let me go'.
The officers also decided that they would celebrate Republic Day come what may. Singh got the word out to the jawans about what they must do. On January 26 at 8.30 in the morning the whole group of prisoners stood up wherever they were, sang the National Anthem, yelled three 'Jai Hinds' and promptly dispersed. The Chinese guards were very disturbed and cocked their
guns. Matters could have got out of hand if any hothead among the jawans had decided to do anything further. But they obeyed the order and dispersed after the third 'Jai Hind'.
Release came six months later. The jawans were sent back straightaway. But the officers above the rank of Major were taken on a tour of China. The first stop was in Lhasa.
'There was a bathhouse in Lhasa. I can still remember the luxury of soaking in the hot water', says Singh.
The last stop was Kunming. The plane was waiting on the tarmac. The officers discarded their Chinese-provided suits and changed back into their uniforms. They returned as unbowed soldiers of the Indian army.