A little before noon, the radio operator received the message that Maj Shaitan Singh was on his way to Rezang La with the rest of the Charlie Company and the arms and ammunition. A wave of excitement ran through the platoon.
Born on 1 December 1924, Maj Shaitan Singh, at the time of India’s Independence, was a part of the Jodhpur state forces. Once the Jodhpur state acceded to the Indian union on 7 April 1949, he was transferred to the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment. An experienced officer, by 1962, he had participated in operations in the Naga Hills and the 1961 liberation of Goa. A sound tactician and a keen football player, Maj Shaitan Singh was very close to his soldiers.
When Maj Shaitan Singh arrived along with Naib Subedars Hari Ram and Ram Chander and the others, the first action he did was to address the jawans. By now, the jawans had fortified their existing bunker (the one they had taken over from CRPF) with stones, prepared a few sangars with rocks, organised a makeshift langar, and activated and tested the magneto telephones and the two wireless sets.
When everyone had assembled, Maj Shaitan Singh looked around, smiled, adjusted his snow goggles and started to speak, “Hum Bharat mata ki zameen pe khade hain. Dushman ko yahan se aage nahin jane denge (We are standing on the land of Mother India. We will not allow the enemy to go beyond this point). Clear?”
“Ji sahab.” The chorus echoed in the rarefied mountain air.
He continued, “I want to tell you a few important facts. Pay attention. Rezang La Pass is at a height of around 16,000 feet. On the north of it lies the Pangong Tso Lake which runs roughly in the west-east direction and is around 130 kilometres in length. To the south of the western edge of the lake is the Spanggur Gap, one of the open areas that the Chinese can easily cross to reach the Chushul airfield. We already know that the Chinese have constructed a Class 9 road from Rutog in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Lake which lies south of Spanggur Gap.”
The major paused and scanned the faces of his soldiers. All looked straight into his eyes.
He went on, “The Chinese will most likely cross through the Spanggur Gap. The brigade’s appreciation says there’s little point for the Chinese to first come south, go through Rezang La Pass, and then move 20 kilometres to the north for Chushul airstrip. Makes no sense. But the Chinese might surprise us by doing the unexpected. Therefore, we must prepare our defences to cater for all contingencies.”
After a few more details, the jawans were ordered to disperse as the major requested the three platoon commanders to stay back.
The three JCOs, Surja Ram, Hari Ram and Ram Chander, were all experienced soldiers. Maj Shaitan Singh and the platoon commanders walked to all corners of the pass with maps in their hands to identify the positions on ground and correlate them with the markings on the map. Here, Surja Ram played an important role and since he had already surveyed the area with Capt. Prem Kumar the previous morning, he was able to lead the party.
At that time, the strength of the company had increased to around 75 JCOs, NCOs and jawans, including the new arrivals with Maj Shaitan Singh. But soon, the major had been assured by the CO that more jawans would be sent, which would take the total strength of the company to around 120.
After final discussions and hearing all the JCOs, Maj Shaitan Singh shared his plan. It was decided to locate platoon 7 with around thirty-five soldiers on the forward slope on the north side of the pass under the command of Naib Subedar Surja Ram. Platoon 8 was to be located in the pass area, closer to its southern side with forty soldiers.
The distance between platoon 7 and 8 was 3000 yards, ie, a little less than 3 km. It was decided to give the nursing assistant to platoon 8 because, in the event of a direct confrontation, the casualties here were likely to be the highest.
For platoon 8, it was also decided to use the already-prepared CRPF bunker. This bunker had a single-layered barbed wire fence around it which was less effective than the usual double-layered concertina coils. Platoon 8 was under the command of Naib Subedar Hari Ram who was also the senior JCO of the Charlie Company and was the most experienced of them all.
It was decided to locate platoon 9, also with forty soldiers, roughly 1 km south-west of platoon 7. This platoon would be the last line of defence to protect the command post which was decided to be located 150 yards behind platoon 9. Fifty yards to the south of the command post, the langar would be built and 150 yards behind the command post, on the downward slope, would be the section with the two 3-inch mortars.
Overall, the plan was very close to what Naib Subedar Surja Ram had proposed.
Tactically, this looked like the best way to protect Rezang La Pass with the available arms, ammunition and manpower. The company was not issued with mines, which could have slowed down the enemy’s progress in the event of an attack. The company also didn’t have any Recoil-less guns (RCL guns) and Medium Machine Guns (MMGs) which are ordinarily an integral part of an infantry company. The absence of these critical weapon systems was something that would hurt the Charlie Company in days to come.
To sum up, the Charlie Company only had Lee Enfield .303 rifles (600 rounds of ammunition per rifle per soldier), nine LMGs, three 2-inch mortars (one with each platoon), two 3-inch mortars and hand grenades (around 500, authorized at the rate of two per soldier and the rest as reserves).
By midday, as the soldiers got to work preparing the bunkers guided by their platoon commanders, the wind picked up. Maj Shaitan Singh knew that they were lucky to have been sent to Rezang La in October because every year by early November, the road link to Leh was cut off due to heavy snowfall.
The sun was right over their heads now and the day temperature rose a few degrees above zero. Even though the sunlight was extremely bright as it reflected off the ice on the mountain ranges around them, the weather allowed for some work, particularly by those who weren’t feeling very sick.
Wearing their snow goggles, the jawans toiled hard, but soon the cold started to penetrate deeper into their bodies. As long as they worked, the heat generated by exertion warmed their bodies, but when they stopped due to breathlessness, they shivered even more.
When Maj Shaitan Singh walked to different platoon locations, which were kilometres apart from one another, for the final inspection of the day just before sunset, he realised that the progress had been slow. With the basic implements like pickaxes and shovels that they had with them, it was impossible to break the rocky and frozen ground. By now, the temperature had started to dip rapidly once again.
He drafted another signal and sent it to the battalion headquarters requesting them to send jawans from the Pioneers. What they needed were construction implements and dynamite to loosen the surface. Naib Subedar Surja Ram had informed him that Capt. Kumar had asked for these too, but apparently no action was taken.
A statue of Major Shaitan Singh in Jodhpur and (right) map including Rezang La, Rechin La and their valleys leading to the Spanggur Lake.
Left: Medovar / CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Defense Mapping Agency / Public Domain.
Excerpted with permission from The Battle of Rezang La, Kulpreet Yadav, Penguin Books India.
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