Maj Gen (Dr) G.G. Dwivedi (Retd)


Explained: Why Kailash Range Matters

The  Kailash  Range  was  the  theatre  of  conflict  during  the  1962  Chinese  offensive,  with  key battles  at  Rezang  La  and  Gurung  Hill.  In  2020,  Indian  troops  secured  Kailash  Ridge  in  an operation that took the Chinese by surprise. A look at the strategic importance of the mountain range, and the lessons learnt.

It was in early October 1962 that Chairman Mao Zedong decided to launch a large-scale invasion to severely punish India.  While  the  main  offensive  was  to  be  in  the  Eastern  Sector,  coordinated  operations  in  the  Western  Sector were to be undertaken to capture areas up to the 1960 Claim Line in eastern Ladakh, which entailed elimination of

43  Indian  posts.  Gaining  control  over  entire  Aksai  Chin  was  essential  to  guarantee  security  of  the  Western

Highway, linking Kashgarh in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet.

The  People’s  Liberation  Army  (PLA)  offensive  began  on  October  20,  1962,  simultaneously  in  the  Eastern  and

Western Sectors. The operations in  Aksai Chin  were executed  in two  phases. During Phase One (October  20-28,

1962)  PLA  went  on  to  clear  Indian  posts  at  Daulat  Beg  Oldie,  Galwan,  astride  both  banks  of Pangong  Tso and Dungti-Demchok areas. Phase Two  was launched after a tactical  pause of three weeks on November 18, 1962 to capture the strategically important Kailash Range.

Reorganising India’s defences

The  Karakoram  Range  ends  on  the  northern  side  of  the  Pangong  Tso.  The  Kailash  Range  originates  from  the southern bank and runs northwest to southeast for over 60 km. The Kailash Ridge is characterised by rugged, broken terrain with heights varying between 4,000-5,500m, and its key features include Helmet Top, Gurung Hill, Spanggur Gap,  Muggar  Hill,  Mukhpari,  Rezang  La  and  Rechin  La.  The  Ridge  dominates  Chushul  Bowl;  an  important communications centre.

The lull following Phase One was utilised by the Indian Army to reorganise its defences. The 3 Infantry Division was  raised  at  Leh  on  October  26, 1962  under  Major  General  Budh  Singh.  The  HQ  of  114  Infantry Brigade  was moved  to  Chushul,  the  70  Infantry Brigade  took  over  the responsibility of  Indus  Valley  Sub  Sector,  and  the  I63

Infantry Brigade was inducted for the Defence of Leh.

Deployment at Chushul

The 114 Infantry Brigade responsible for Chushul area was holding a frontage of around 40 km, and was deployed as under:-

   1/8 Gorkha Rifles covered the northern side of Spanggur Gap. Its two companies were deployed on the Gurung

Hill, another company was deployed to the North, and a fourth company was in the Spanggur Gap itself with

Battalion HQ along with an ad-hoc company at the Chushul airfield.

   13  Kumaon  was  on  the  southern  side  of  the  Spanggur  Gap  with  two  companies  on  the  Muggar  Hill,  one company at Rezang La, and a fourth company along with Battalion HQ south of it.

   Brigade HQ along with 1 JAT and two troops AMX 13 tanks of 20 Lancers were located at Chushul. 13 Field

Regiment less a battery, equipped with 25 Pounder guns, was in support.


Chinese plan of attack

The  plan  duly  approved  by  the  Central  Military  Commission  (CMC)  envisaged  capturing  both  Rezang  La  and Gurung  Hill  simultaneously.  Troops  comprising  three  battalions  of  the  PLA’s  4  Infantry  Division  along  with supporting  units  were  concentrated  in  Retuzong  area,  about  40  km  from  the  border.  All  these  units  had  been  in action during Phase One as well. As per instructions from the CMC, operations were to be confined to the positions on the ridge line only.

Battle of Rezang La

The C Company of 13 Kumaon, responsible for the defence of Rezang La, was deployed two platoons up (Strong Points 7&9 ) with a third platoon and Company HQ on Point 5150 (Strong Point 8) in the centre. Besides, there were supporting detachments of 3-inch mortars, heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.

The Chinese, having carried out detailed reconnaissance of Rezang La, planned to outflank the position at night and attack simultaneously from the northern and southern directions at first light. Accordingly, the attacking troops were divided  into two  task  forces.  One task  force, composed  of 3rd  Battalion less company  of 11th Regiment,  was  to attack Strong Point 9 from the south. The second task force, composed of two companies (one each from the 3rd Battalions of 10th & 11th Regiments), was to attack Strong Point 8 from the North. The 3rd Battalion less company ex-10th Regiment, and 3rd Cavalry less two companies, were to act as reserves.

The two task forces started from Retuzong at 8 pm November 17 and were in their respective firm bases by 6 am on November  18. Following brief artillery bombardment, the  attack commenced  from both directions at 9:15  am.  A fierce battle ensued, with the defender beating back successive Chinese attacks. With communication snapped and the  position  encircled,  leaving  no  possibility  of  the  C  Company  being  reinforced,  it  was  “do  and  die”  situation. Major  Shaitan  Singh,  the  Company  Commander,  even  launched  a  local  counterattack.  Finally,  by  employing reserves, the Chinese did manage to break through and Rezang La fell by 10 pm November 18.

It was an epic battle, literally fought to the “last  man, last  round”. Of the total 141 personnel at Rezang  La, 135 fought  to  the  finish  and  5  were  taken  prisoners,  with  one  lone  survivor.  Major  Shaitan  Singh  was  posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. The Chinese suffered 21 killed and 98 wounded.

Battle for Gurung Hill

Gurung Hill was held by two companies of 1/8 GR (Strong Points 16, 5 & 6) located northeast at Spanggur  Gap. Strong Point 16, the most dominating feature, was at a height of 5,100 m. It was held by a company minus a platoon. The defences were well coordinated and covered by a protective minefield. The position was supported by a troop of AMX 13 light tanks.

The task to capture Gurung Hill was assigned to Ali Detachment, the holding formation. A force of eight sections was mustered and duly reinforced by a platoon each of engineers and flame throwers, one heavy machine gun, one

57 mm recoilless gun and twelve 82mm mortars for fire support. One company of 3rd Cavalry was to act as reserve. The operation to capture Gurung Hill began at 9:22 am November 18, coordinated with the attack on Rezang La. It was  preceded  by brief  artillery  bombardment.  In  the  face  of  stiff  resistance  from Gorkhas  with  tanks  in  a  direct shooting role, the Chinese suffered heavy casualties and the attack was stalled. On regrouping and reinforcements joining in, the PLA resumed the offensive at 11 am. After repulsing repeated attacks with no reinforcements coming by, the position was captured by PLA towards last light on November 18. The intensity of fighting can be gauged from the casualties — 1/8 GR suffered 50 killed and several wounded while the Chinese sustained over 80 (killed and wounded). The PLA could not capture the remaining part of Gurung Hill i.e. Strong Points 5 & 6.

While only Rezang La and part of Gurung Hill had been captured, a decision was taken at the highest level to pull back  from  the  Kailash  Ridge  and  redeploy West  of  Chushul  on  the  night  of  December  19. The  Chinese  did  not follow the withdrawing troops or go for Chushul airfield. The PLA had only division-plus at their disposal for the

operations in Aksai Chin, and  hence  were severely constrained  to undertake any further operations. On the other

hand, India’s 3 Infantry Division had the capability to launch a limited counteroffensive. After declaring ceasefire

on November 21, Chinese troops fell back to depth positions due to logistics constraints.

Explained |What is the new disengagement agreement in eastern Ladakh?

August 2020: the present

The course of history was set to reverse 58 years later when. on August 30, 2020, the Special Frontier Force (SFF) troops secured Kailash Ridge as a pre-emptive operation, taking the PLA by surprise. This action proved a game- changer,  neutralising  gains  made  by  the  Chinese  along  the  northern  bank  of  Pangong  Tso  and  rendering  PLA positions  east  of  Spanggur  Gap-Maldo  Garrison  totally  vulnerable.  Why  the  PLA  did  not  go  for  Kailash  Ridge initially as part of its aggression in May 2020 could be because of two plausible reasons: first, paucity of infantry as 4 Infantry Division, now motorised, not suited to hold ground, and second, a presumption that Indian Army will not venture     to     undertake proactive counteractions.


In 1962, it was on the Kailash Ridge that    Indian    soldiers    proved    their mettle and made the PLA pay a heavy price,  despite  being  poorly  equipped and  ill-prepared.  Today,  given  a  rich  experience    in    high    altitude-cum- glacial  warfare,  coupled  with  vastly improved equipment and infrastructure,   the   Indian   Army   is well  positioned  to  hold  the  Kailash Range for good. The Chinese, on the other  hand,  are  beginning  to  realise the    harsh   realities   of   winters   at  the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Aware   of   the   inability   to   regain Kailash  Ridge  with  the  current  force level,    and    with   the    window  for launching   major   operations   already foreclosed due to the onset of winter  the   Chinese   may   use   all   ploys   to negotiate the Indian Army’s pull-back from  south  of   Pangong  Tso.   India should  be  wary  of  past  mistakes  and avoid  falling  into  the  Chinese  trap. The     PLA’s     current     aggression, wherein    it    flouted    a    series    of agreements     signed     between     the countries  over  last  three  decades  to unilaterally alter  the status quo  along the LAC, is a case in point. The Kailash Ridge marks a tryst with history,  a  turning  point,  as  it  is  the first piece of territory that  has been recovered  from Chinese illegal occupation, but definitely  not the last one as India’s  claim  line  is  the  Johnson  Line  of  1865.  External  Affairs  S  Jaishankar  recently  said  that  India  was  being tested  in  the  seven-month-long  standoff  with  China  in  eastern  Ladakh.  Therefore,  it  is  time  to  convey  a  stern message to the Chinese leadership that India will not compromise on its sovereignty.

Expert Explained MAJOR-GENERAL (RETD) G G DWIVEDI on July 1, 2021 rated 4.9 of 5