The Battle of Rezang La: When our men fought the Chinese till the last bullet and the last man
On 18 November 1962, the Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon Battalion, Kumaon Regiment, fought a Chinese attack at Rezang La Pass in Ladakh. The company comprised 120 soldiers and was led by Maj. Shaitan Singh. Of these, 110 were martyred in the attack.
18 November 1962, Rezang La, 0810 hours
The Chinese soldiers had by now reached the platoon 7 and 8 positionsor Major Shaitan Singh could see them through his binoculars as they went about organising themselves to launch the next phase of attack on platoon 9, company headquarters and the 3-inch mortar section.
Maj. Shaitan Singh reached out to Naib Subedar Ram Chander on the radio, ‘Ram Chander sahab, the attack can come at any second. Is the platoon ready?’
Naib Subedar Ram Chander was as confident as ever, ‘Sir, we are ready. All the soldiers are at their posts.’
‘Any injuries so far?’
‘Only minor injuries, sir, but no casualties.’
The Chinese artillery attack had so far left platoon 9 to itself. Since company headquarters was located close to platoon 9, Maj. Shaitan Singh knew he would soon have to pool all the weapons and remaining manpower at one location.
The entire focus of the Chinese troops who had gathered in whatever remained of platoon 7 was towards the westerly direction.
The battle was in a state of an uneasy silence as the two sides eyeballed each other. Maj. Shaitan Singh knew that while he had less than fifty soldiers with him now and very limited ammunition and bombs, the Chinese had thousands of soldiers to attack the Indian positions in human waves after waves and, practically, limitless arms and ammunition. While the Chinese seemed to have an unlimited supply of arms, ammunition and soldiers, all the Charlie Company had was raw courage and an indomitable spirit.
The time now was 0830 hours and something miraculous was about to unfold.
As the attention of the gathered Chinese soldiers was towards the west, a volley of LMG and rifle fire hit them from the north. This totally unexpected fire from just a few hundred yards and from a totally unexpected direction filled the Chinese troops with panic and they jumped for cover. This firing brought numerous Chinese soldiers down.
It took Maj. Shaitan Singh only a fraction of second to realize whose guns had brought so many Chinese down. It had to be Naib Subedar Surja Ram’s section three that was deployed at an alternate location by the platoon commander right at the beginning.
It was clear that Nk Sahi Ram and his section had not withdrawn after the attack. Instead, they had decided to follow the last orders of Naib Subedar Surja Ram, their platoon commander, who was no longer alive.
Nk Sahi Ram and the jawans of his section must have been aware of what would happen next. They were in a totally isolated position and within minutes, they were surrounded by the Chinese from all sides. But the brave jawans went down fighting, probably in loyalty for their platoon as they realised that everyone from their platoon, including their commander, had died defending the platoon’s position.
Maj. Shaitan Singh and all the others watched the last stand of Nk Sahi Ram and his jawans through binoculars with pride.
Now, for the first time, the Chinese brought in a 57 mm RCL to a visible distance in the battlefield and positioned it on top of the ridge at 0840 hours.
Maj. Shaitan Singh reviewed the situation. The area north of the pass was clear of Chinese due to Nk Sahi Ram and his section’s last stand. East was all clear with no Chinese to assault them from the front. At the rear location of the company, i.e., to the west of the company headquarters too, there were no Chinese. This meant that the Chinese were only present in the south.
The Chinese, who were now concentrated in the location where platoon 8 was, started firing at platoon 9, company headquarters and the mortar section with two MMGs. They were firing at the Indians from a distance of around 1000 yards and the only weapon the Indians could use to retaliate was the 3-inch mortar. But the problem was that the Charlie Company had limited bombs remaining. It was now, therefore, time to take a major decision.
After a lot of thought, Maj. Shaitan Singh decided to retake platoon 7’s position. He radioed Naib Subedar Ram Chander, the platoon commander of platoon 9, who was present in section three at the time.
Over the fire of the enemy, Maj. Shaitan Singh shouted into the mouthpiece of the radio set, ‘Ram Chander, we will retake platoon 7’s position. Listen carefully, with me your section one and two will also move.’
After this, Maj. Shaitan Singh turned towards Sep. Ram Chander and said, ‘Go and get Havildar Phul Singh.’
While Maj. Shaitan Singh was waiting, he went out briefly to relook at the situation when he was hit by bullets in his hand and on his shoulder. He immediately got back into the company headquarters. A sepoy who was present there pulled out a first aid kit and bandaged him.
Hav. Phul Singh was the section commander of the 2-inch mortar post of platoon 9. When he arrived, Maj. Shaitan Singh said, ‘Phul Singh, we are retaking platoon 7’s position.’
Then he looked at CHM Harphul Singh and said, ‘Harphul, I want you to take section one and section two of platoon 9 with you and move to the northernmost edge of the company headquarters. We will give you covering LMG fire. Once you reach there, wait for me to join you. Okay?’
CHM Harphul Singh left immediately.
Maj. Shaitan Singh wanted to leave two LMGs before he went. One was already with Sep. Nihal Singh.
He asked those who were present, ‘I want a volunteer for the second LMG.’
Before the others present could say anything, Hav. Phul Singh, who was still at the company headquarters, said, ‘Sir, I volunteer.’
Then the major turned and sited both the LMGs facing south, in a position that was in-between the 3-inch mortar section and the company headquarters.
Satisfied, he looked at Hav. Phul Singh and Sep. Nihal Singh and said, ‘Your orders are to engage the MMGs. Stop the enemy for as long as you can.’
Both replied, ‘Roger, sir.’
Maj. Shaitan Singh’s plan after reaching the place where CHM Harphul was waiting was simple. First, he, along with sections one and two, under covering fire, would make a rush northward. Then, section three with Naib Subedar Ram Chander would follow. Once all of them were safe, both LMG handlers were to take cover of the mortar fire and leave for the same location. And finally, the mortar section would do the same action after dismantling the mortars. It was a phased operation of shifting position under covering fire.
The plan seemed to work for a while, but when Maj. Shaitan Singh and the soldiers accompanying him were 400 yards from the company headquarters, an unseen MMG cut through their column. Maj. Shaitan Singh got hit by a burst of MMG fire in his abdomen. Others fell down too. CHM Harphul Singh shouted for everyone to turn left and he hooked the major’s left arm and helped him move for 200 yards till they were safe.
Out of the twenty men from the platoon and eight from the company headquarters, only five survived the targeted attack of the enemy’s MMG.
Simultaneously, section three of platoon 9 also came under heavy fire. By now, jawans of section three had exhausted their LMG and rifle ammunition.
As CHM Harphul Singh turned, he got a final glimpse of Lance Hav. Balbir Singh, the section commander, leading his three men in a bayonet charge into a mass of grey uniforms of Chinese soldiers. Section three, which was located 400 yards ahead of platoon 9 near the knoll, ceased to exist in a few minutes.
The Chinese soldiers now started edging towards the company headquarters and the 3-inch mortar section. When they were just 150 yards away, the 3-inch mortar had to be fired at an elevation of almost 80 degrees. Soon, the mortar’s usability had run out as the Chinese had reached closer than the weapon’s minimum range of 125 yards.
At that moment, the situation at the mortar section was about to turn for the worse. Nk Surat Singh was hit by a splinter charge and he died.
Over the ear-splitting sound of enemy fire, Nk Ram Kumar ordered L/Nk Siri Ram and L/Nk Roshan Singh, ‘Both of you disable your mortar and leave. Now!’
But the courageous soldiers replied, ‘No, sir.’
Nk Ram Kumar persisted, ‘There are just a few bombs remaining now. It would be of no purpose to stay any longer.’
‘Sir, we will not leave you alone here.’ The loyal soldiers refused to leave without Nk Ram Kumar.
By now, Nk Ram Kumar had been riddled with many bullets and his nose had been blasted away by shrapnel.
Tragically, as the two soldiers were loading a new round, a burst of MMG fire stopped them midway and both died. Now, out of ten soldiers who were present in the mortar section at the beginning, only one was alive—Nk Ram Kumar.
The time was 0900 hours.
Seventh Wave of Chinese Attack, 9 am, 18 November 1962
By any standard, it was an unequal fight, but Hav. Phul Singh and Sep. Nihal Singh, LMG gunners of the Charlie Company located east of the mortar position, were continuously firing at the flaming MMGs of the Chinese and the enemy soldiers who were edging closer with every passing second.
Hav. Phul Singh managed to neutralise one of the guns briefly, but their location was hit by a 75 mm anti-tank rocket soon after. After this, Hav. Phul Singh stopped firing as he was fatally wounded by shrapnel.
Even as Hav. Phul Singh, one of the most respected NCOs of the unit, lay next to him without breathing, Sep. Nihal Singh kept on firing. Within a few minutes, both his hands were shot through by an MMG bullet and the LMG fell out of his hands. Sep. Nihal Singh lay down and tried to dismantle his LMG, as ordered by the company commander, but his hands were bleeding heavily and refused to obey the commands of his brain. He was helpless, lying there among the martyred soldiers of his company.
When there was no fire from the Indian side for a few minutes, a large number of Chinese soldiers descended on the LMG’s position. This was their seventh major wave.
The Chinese had simultaneously bombed platoon 9 too. Soon, there was no resistance coming from this platoon’s positions and it was an indication for them that the Indian resistance was over.
Sep. Nihal Singh was finally taken prisoner.
The Chinese soldier kicked the LMG out of Nihal Singh’s reach and asked him in Hindi, ‘Tumhara naam kya hai? (What is your name?)’
Nihal Singh, who was in a lot of pain as he was bleeding from both his arms, replied, ‘Nihal Singh.’
The Chinese asked his next question, ‘Tumhare CO ka kya naam hai? (What is your CO’s name?)’ ‘No,’ shouted Sep. Nihal Singh.
The Chinese took him away, but the courageous sepoy would escape from Chinese custody a day later.
Naib Subedar Ram Chander, the platoon commander of platoon 9, who was seriously wounded, was taken prisoner too. But he was in an unconscious state at the time. A few hours later, lying in the open, he would see a line of trucks filled with the bodies of Chinese soldiers. He would be released six months after the war and share details about the battle.
But the Chinese had no idea that the Charlie Company had not given up yet. There was one man still standing.
The time was 0915 hours and Nk Ram Kumar had by now disabled his mortar. He was contemplating his next course of action when he saw the Chinese soldiers less than 20 yards away. Right behind him was the reverse slope and to escape, all he had to do was roll down. He had done his job well. Only seven bombs out of the 1,000 that his section had prepared were remaining.
His entire section had been martyred. One thing he would certainly not do was to even think about returning back to the battalion. This was where his buddies had laid down their lives and this was where he would lay down his. But not before he could inflict further damage upon the Chinese.
Nk Ram Kumar had no personal weapon with him and therefore, he moved towards his left unseen and got inside the damaged company headquarters. Inside, he found a rifle. He cocked it and sat down waiting, staring at the entrance. Nk Ram Kumar was badly wounded with as many as nine bullet marks on him by now and his nose had been blasted away. In the middle of his face all that remained were two bloodied holes. His clothes were soaked in blood. As he waited, looking at the entrance through the rifle’s sight, his eyes were heavy and he was barely breathing.
He killed the first enemy soldier who popped his head inside with a single shot. That’s when grenades were thrown inside the company headquarters through every hole. Nk Ram Kumar set his rifle aside and lay down in a foetal position. That’s when he lost consciousness. The Chinese were, however, still scared and, seconds later, they set the company headquarters on fire.
Due to the intense heat, Nk Ram Kumar woke up with a start. He must have been knocked out for just a few minutes. Dazed, he looked around and realised that his clothes were on fire and the company headquarters was full of smoke. He was unable to breathe. He found an opening and with his breathing laboured due to exhaustion and lack of oxygen, he escaped through it.
Outside, the entire place seemed to be on fire. Smoke was coming from every direction. There was no sign of the Chinese now.
Nk Ram Kumar crawled for some distance before rolling down the hill. On the way, he lost consciousness again.
Finally, the next day, he limped and somehow made it to the battalion headquarters.
By now, Maj. Shaitan Singh had been carried to a lower location through a gully with the support of CHM Harphul Singh and four others including Sep. Ram Chander. The company commander was in a lot of pain and he said he wanted to sit down.
Then he said, ‘Please open my belt. I’m in a lot of pain.’
The batman bent forward and when he put his hand inside, he realised that the burst of bullets had done a lot of damage. If he removed the belt, the internal bleeding would increase and the intestines would come out. He looked at the CHM.
CHM Harphul Singh said, ‘Sir, just some more distance. We need to take you to a hospital.’
By this time, the gallant company commander had realized that he would not survive. He said, ‘I want you to leave me here and go to the battalion headquarters. Report to the CO how bravely our company fought.’
The jawans persisted but the major urged them, ‘Go fast, save yourselves. The enemy can come here any time.’ The jawans had tears in their eyes. Finally, after helping their company commander to rest against a boulder, the jawans reluctantly left. By now, Maj. Shaitan Singh had given his personal pistol to Sep. Mamchand of platoon 9 who was with them, to deposit it with the battalion quartermaster so that it would not fall into the enemy’s hands.
Maj. Shaitan Singh was hardly breathing when the jawans left him to follow his last order—to save their lives and to report to the CO how the Charlie Company fought the battle. The Indian Army would find him at the same spot three months later, his whole body covered in snow, except his face.
When this handful of jawans reached the administrative base of the Charlie Company, they found it to be on fire and no staff was present there. Soon, they saw a vehicle approach them and as they were identified, they were taken to the battalion headquarters.
On arrival, the first thing Sep. Mamchand did was to safely deposit the company commander’s pistol to the Battalion Quarter Master Havildar (BQMH) Nand Kishore.
First Lt Col HS Dhingra and then Brig. TN Raina gave the survivors a patient hearing on the night of 18 November 1962.
A product of the Naval Officers' Academy, the author has spent two decades as an officer in uniform and has successfully commanded three ships in his career. This was an extract from his new book, ‘The Battle of Rezang La’, published by Penguin.
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