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Battle till the last man

The Battle of Rezang La by Kulpreet Yadav is an accurate account of one of the most highly decorated companies of the Indian Army — Charlie Company — that fought valiantly, and decicively, to prevent Chinese occupation of Ladakh; Excerpts:

Battle till the last man
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29 September 1962, Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir

The 13 Kumaon Battalion is ordered to move from Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir to Leh. They are given only a few hours' notice. The commanding officer (CO) conducts a meeting with his officers and addresses the jawans just after receiving the order. Maj. Shaitan Singh, the company commander of the Charlie Company, addresses his jawans too and informs that he will be joining them a few days later as he has to hand over the quartermaster's charge. The Charlie Company will be led by Capt. Prem Kumar in his absence, he adds. Subsequently, Maj. Shaitan Singh also holds an operational briefing with the three platoon commanders of his company, Naib Subedar Surja Ram, Naib Subedar Hari Ram and Naib Subedar Ram Chander. The unit's convoy of vehicles commences its move by road after this.

At the battalion headquarters of 13 Kumaon in Baramulla, Lt Col H.S. Dhingra was staring at the decrypted message he had just received. The orders had finally come to move immediately to the border. As the CO of the battalion, Lt Col H.S. Dhingra had the command of over 800 soldiers. The time was five in the evening and the pleasant temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius outside had started to dip.

The CO was known to be a hard taskmaster. He was a Sikh officer of medium height and build, but his most striking feature was his upturned, gravity-defying moustaches that stayed vertical at all times of the day. He glanced up at the radio operator who had brought this signal and after dismissing him with a nod, he reached out for the telephone. The radio operator briskly moved to the door, turned, gave him a crisp salute and shouted, 'Jai Hind!'

13 Kumaon, like all battalions of the Indian Army, had four companies. These companies were commanded by officers of the rank of captain or major and comprised approximately 120 soldiers each. The remaining soldiers formed the staff of the battalion headquarters.

Lt Col H.S. Dhingra's call was picked up on the first ring by Capt. D.D. Saklani, the battalion adjutant. When the CO spoke, there was steel in his voice, 'We have to move to Leh within the next five hours. Prepare the orders and pass on the message. But first, I want the "O" group in ops room. On the double, in five minutes.'

The adjutant replied, 'Roger, sir!'

The CO placed the phone down and got up from his chair. He walked across to the window of his office and looked out. It was a typical autumn evening in Baramulla cantonment. He saw soldiers play volleyball while others cheered them from outside the court. As he watched, his mind elsewhere, the game got over and one team jumped with delight to celebrate their win.

The CO looked to his left and noticed smoke escaping from the langar. It was time. The cooks must be busy preparing dinner for the troops. He looked further left and saw the vertical rope where three soldiers, apparently under punishment, were climbing the rope while a senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) was waving a baton up and down animatedly. The CO could even hear the distant rumble of angry orders and reprimands. Not far away, further to the left, the unit washerman was removing clothes from the clothing line that he must have put out to dry when the sun was up.

This was an everyday sight but soon, the CO knew, everything was set to change. A shadow of concern crossed his face. He had no doubt about the capability of his battalion and the patriotism of his officers and jawans, but he was worried about the preparation time he had.

It took the CO just a few more seconds to firm up his mind. All he needed were three actions: move as quickly as possible, prepare defences on the border as best as possible, and fight with the true valour that the 13 Kumaon Battalion and the Ahir soldiers who comprised it were known for.

His thoughts turned to Srinagar where he had been admitted due to ill-health until last week and the faces of the officers of the medical board flashed before his eyes. When he had said that he wanted to join his unit and lead his battalion to the war in person, the doctors had warned him of serious medical consequences. But, as he insisted on going, they asked him to sign an undertaking that he was taking this risk knowing full well that he was not a hundred per cent fit. Lt Col H.S. Dhingra had signed the undertaking without any doubt and here he was.

Within minutes of his order to the adjutant, the CO heard the sound of the whistle. Every soldier knew, when blown this way by the Battalion Havildar Major (BHM), what the tone of the whistle meant. The regimental police were also going about with the whistle to the extremities of the army base so that no corner of the battalion was left out.

There was a knock on the CO's door. The adjutant entered and gave a crisp salute, 'Sir, O group is ready in the ops room.'

The CO picked up his baton and marched out, the adjutant catching up behind him. The ops room was at the end of the corridor.

'Gentlemen, the war is imminent,' the CO announced, exchanging no greetings as he moved straight to the map in the ops room. He picked up the wooden pointer and started to explain. Besides the four company commanders, there was Maj. G.N. Sinha, the 2 I/C or the second-in-command, and the adjutant. All of them took out their small maps from the map cases they were carrying and started to make markings on them using china-graph pencils.

The CO pointed to the region of Ladakh and said, 'According to the ORBAT (order of battle), we will now be under the 114 Infantry Brigade. Besides us, there are four more battalions, 14 J&K Militia, 7 J&K Militia, 5 Jat and 1/8 Gorkha Rifles. The task allotted to the brigade is to protect this area, inflict maximum casualties on the enemy, and save as much equipment and stores as possible, if circumstances force us to withdraw.'

The CO paused and looked at each of those present for a few seconds and continued, 'We have only five hours' notice. Get your boys moving. The first halt will be at Leh so that everyone can acclimatize for the high altitude. Be prepared to stay put there for a few weeks, but if the situation deteriorates faster, we might have to take positions within days. Any questions?'

The officers shook their heads. Good officers never had questions and these were the best infantry officers of the Indian Army.

The CO's briefing lasted fifteen minutes and everyone moved back to their locations as soon as it got over.

Meanwhile, outside on the battalion's grounds, all four companies had assembled and were standing in a formation according to their identities. The companies were called 'Alpha', 'Bravo', 'Charlie' and 'Delta', or simply, A, B, C and D. The battalion headquarters' staff stood separately. The officers had arrived too and stood facing the soldiers. As soon as the minor shuffling of feet ended, there was pin-drop silence.

After the headcount, the adjutant made a report to the 2 I/C. Within seconds, the CO emerged from his office and walked towards the gathered officers and jawans of 13 Kumaon. The only sounds that one could hear were of his footsteps. The CO came to a halt bang in the centre facing the troops. There was no mic. It wasn't needed.

As the CO spoke, his deep voice boomed across the entire base, 'Patriots of 13 Kumaon, we have received the orders to move and the moment that all fauzis wait for has finally arrived. You must have heard on the radio about the tension on the border. Now, it's our turn to teach the Chinese a lesson. Are you ready?'

There was a roar, 'Ji sahab' (Yes sir).'

It was time for the battle cry now and on prompting, all the officers and jawans of 13 Kumaon shouted in chorus, 'Dada Kishan ki jai.'

After a few seconds of silence, this was followed by, 'Bharat mata ki jai.'

The CO's words and the shouting of the battle cry had sent a rush of adrenaline coursing through the veins of every soldier present. All looked straight ahead, faces chiselled after years of training in harsh conditions, now taut with determination. The battalion was raring to go.

As soon as the CO turned and walked back to his office, the company commanders stepped forward to face their respective companies. Among them was Maj. Shaitan Singh, the commander of the Charlie Company. Thirty-seven-year-old Maj. Shaitan Singh had just been promoted to the rank of Major. Besides being the company commander of the Charlie Company, he was also the quartermaster (QM) of 13 Kumaon.

He looked at the faces of the jawans and the JCOs of his company with pride. The Charlie Company had been the best company in sports and had some of the strongest and the fastest athletes in it. Most of the medals, both at the brigade level and even at the division level, were won by the Charlie Company.

One of their most recent achievements was winning the 'Best Defence Preparation' trophy at the division level in which all nine battalions had sent their best companies. The Charlie Company had represented 13 Kumaon and had returned as the overall winner.

The major started to speak, his voice calm and levelled, 'Samay aa gaya hai. Bharat mata ko hamare balidaan ki jarurat hai. Aur hum sab, hamesha ki tarah, ek jut hokar, Chinese ko muh tod jawab denge. Dikha denge ki jo Bharat mata ke anchal pe haath dalega, hum uska keval haath hi nahi, hum uska gala bhi kaat denge. Kya hum tayyar hain? (The time has come. India needs our sacrifice. And all of us, like always, will face the Chinese with courage. We will show them that if they try to touch our Mother India with their hands, we will not only cut their hands, but we will also cut their throats. Are you ready?)'

The Charlie Company roared, 'Ji sahab.'

(Excerpted with permission from Kulpreet Yadav's The Battle of Rezang La; published by Penguin eBury Press)

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