Fifty-five years ago today, India airlifted tanks to Chushul in Ladakh to halt the invading Chinese Army.
This augmentation in firepower inflicted severe losses on the Chinese, delayed their advance towards India’s defences around Chushul and deterred them from further adventurism.
On 20 October 1962, Chandigarh Air Force Station became the first witness of the scope and scale of the Chinese offensive against Indian forces in the western sector as an Antonov An-12, a transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force on a mission to airdrop supplies near Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, came back to the airbase, hit 19 times by Chinese machine gun fire. The undeclared war had begun.
As the news of the use of tanks by the invading Chinese army against Indian posts was received, the Army asked for the airlifting of six AMX-13 tanks (two troops) of the 20 Lancers to Chushul in southeastern Ladakh. The tanks were to be used for securing flat approaches from Tibet towards India’s defences at Chushul and delay the advancing Chinese thrust into Ladakh.
The IAF took up the challenge, and work began at Chandigarh Air Force Station – home to the Air Force’s fleet of seven Antonov An-12s of 44 Squadron, inducted just months ago in 1961. The task was unprecedented, and the IAF soon encountered problems.
Jugaad At Work
An early challenge came in the form of the steep loading ramps of the An-12s. When the tank operators rode their machines up the steep ramps, tank tracks slipped over the aluminium floor of the aircraft. The problem came to light when the floor of an aircraft got damaged during tank loading trials on 22 October. The IAF feared that the tanks could tear up the floor of the aircraft, leaving them damaged in the midst of an ongoing conflict. With one of IAF’s seven An-12s damaged even before the commencement of operations, the trial was abandoned.
Lieutenant Colonel Gurbachan Singh, the Army officer in-charge, soon found a way out of the problem. The officer, who later rose to become a Lieutenant General and commanded the Northern Command, got local carpenters to construct a wooden covering to prevent damage to the floor of the aircraft, and a suitable ramp so that the tanks could enter the aircraft without slipping.
Soon, more problems emerged. The IAF wasn’t sure if the tail-wheel area of the aircraft could bear the weight of the tank as it was driven into the aircraft. A solution was found in the form of a wooden arc to support the tail area. Sand bags were plied between the wooden arc and the body of the aircraft to act as shock absorbers.
The forces also had to bring down the load within the aircraft’s 10-tonne limit. At first, the IAF insisted that the Army dismantle the tank gun to reduce the load. However, the idea of airlifting tanks to an active battlefield in a knocked-down condition was not conceivable to those working on the task as they feared a slowdown of the induction process and consequently affecting preparedness.
A solution was reached when the IAF offered to cut down the fuel in the aircraft to the minimum required for a Chandigarh-Chushul-Chandigarh run and the Army agreed to lower the tank load by removing some non-essential and detachable parts of the tank, unloading some ammunition and reducing fuel.
Helping Deliver A Baby
The next challenge that the forces dealt with was to drive the tanks – heavy yet delicate – safely into the aircraft. The job involved sophisticated manoeuvres. A three-man Army team was required for each tank – a man to drive it, another to give him directions and a supervisor. The Army teams practised these difficult and delicate manoeuvres multiple times and demonstrated them to the satisfaction of the IAF by the on 24 October 1962. The tanks were to be airlifted the next day.
However, in a last-minute twist, one of the operators who had practised these manoeuvres reported that his wife was in labour and wished to take leave. It was apparently their first baby and his family wanted him to come home.
On being informed that one of the tank drivers had requested for leave, the Air Force team wasn’t happy. Despite Lieutenant Colonel Singh’s assurance of a substitute, as former Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal recalls in his book, My Years With the IAF, the “Air Force people were aghast, they had practiced this very difficult and delicate operation as a team and a new man may spell disaster!”
However, a solution was soon found, and the driver was not changed. The driver belonged to a nearby village, and herein lay the solution. Lieutenant Colonel Singh jumped into action and immediately dispatched a doctor from the Army’s medical unit to the driver’s home to see that all had gone well. Having delivered the baby, the doctor brought back a photograph of his wife and the new born as testimony. When the driver returned from Chushul after successfully completing the task, he was presented with the photograph and given leave to go home.
The first batch of tanks was loaded on to An-12 aircraft in Chandigarh on the intervening night of 24 and 25 October and landed in Chushul – 15,000 feet above the sea level – on the morning of 25 October. The second batch was loaded the following night and airlifted to Chushul on 26 October.
Having reduced the fuel in the aircraft to the minimum, the aircraft barely had enough fuel to make the Chandigarh-Chushul-Chandigarh run. To add to that, the An-12s had to keep their engines running when landing in Chushul due to freezing temperatures. The aircraft could not remain on the airfield longer than 15 minutes before taking off in order to save sufficient fuel for a flight back to Chandigarh. Therefore, the tanks had to be unloaded within 15 minutes, and this too was accomplished.
For the first time in India’s history, tanks had been flown into combat under the very nose of the enemy. This was a major achievement for the IAF, which was kept out of the war for the most part. The sheer audacity of this feat, by some accounts, was comparable to the crossing of Alps by Hannibal in 218 BC.
Why Is Chushul Important?
Chushul is located in southeastern Ladakh, south of the famous Pangong Lake. It has immense strategic value and holds an important place in the defence of the region. In Chushul lies one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Ladakh. Indian posts around Chushul are critical for controlling these approaches from Tibet towards roads and valleys leading to Ladakh.
The Garrison at Chushul had been connected with Leh by a road just before the conflict. The Chinese knew that the control of Chushul and surrounding areas would give them unhindered access to roads and valleys leading to Leh. Capturing Chushul was the only way for them to get to Leh quickly. Therefore, an attack on Indian defences on approaches towards Chushul was inevitable.
The main threat to Chushul was through the Spanggur Gap, a two-kilometre wide break in mountains along the Line of Actual Control. The gap lies south of the Pangong Lake, about 15 km east of Chushul. The gap falls on one of the approaches from Tibet towards Chushul which are conducive to mechanised warfare. Any major mechanised thrust from the Chinese side towards Chushul would have to come through this gap.
The Chinese had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Gap. The road linked the gap with China’s National Highway 219 (that runs through occupied Ladakh and connects Xinjiang to Lhatse in Tibet) and was capable of carrying tanks.
Operations in Chushul
Following the attack and capture of Indian posts around Daulat Beg Oldi on 20 October and some positions north of the Pangong Lake on 21 October, there was a lull in the battle. The Chinese, who already enjoyed a 1:3 superiority in infantry over India and also had a considerable advantage in artillery strength, further improved their position in the region around Chushul during the lull. They deployed an infantry regiment against Indian positions in and around Chushul, apart from an infantry battalion against Indian positions in Dumchele and Demchok.
India too took advantage of the lull to induct nearly a division worth of troops into Ladakh by 30 October. Leh-based 114 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Tippy Raina who later rose to become the Army Chief, was moved to Chushul. Additional infantry battalions, including 9 Dogra, 3/4 Gurkha Rifles, 1 Jat, and 13 Field Regiment equipped with 25 pounder field guns, were also inducted. Forces were so deployed that all possible routes to Leh were held in strength.
The tank crew quickly acclimatised itself to the freezing temperature and ratified air at 15,000 feet. The machines, however, faced more problems than the men. Low operating pressure and ratified air created problems in the cooling systems of the tanks and the freezing temperature affected the efficiency of their engines.
The army deployed tanks airlifted from Chandigarh at the base of Gurung Hill – a towering feature on one side of the Spanggur Gap (Magar Hill being on the other side) – to deny Spanggur gap approach to the advancing Chinese Army and secure the crucial approaches leading to Chushul and Leh.
The lull ended on 18 November, weeks after the tanks landed. The Chinese launched a blistering artillery attack from their positions near the Spanggur Gap, targeting Indian positions, including Gurung Hill where tanks were deployed. 1/8 Gurkha Rifles, supported by the tanks, responded to this attack. This was followed by a Chinese infantry and artillery attack on tanks and gun positions on Gurung Hill, a portion of which fell in the face of overwhelming Chinese superiority.
On 19 November, the Chinese launched another attack to capture the remaining positions on Gurung Hill. The attack was met with fierce resistance from Indian tanks and artillery. Captain A K Dewan, the commander of one of the two troops of AMX-13 tanks who later rose to become a Major General, found an ingenious way of targeting Chinese positions on Gurung Hill from Chushul village at a distance of 8 km. His improvisation paid off despite the fact that the tanks were designed to engage targets only up to the range of 3 km. Despite Singh’s effort, the remaining portion of the Gurung Hill fell as the Chinese brought to bear their overwhelming numerical superiority in the region. His tanks, however, continued firing till the last light, facilitating the withdrawal of troops from the hill.
By now, the pattern of Chinese attack was clear to Indian commanders. The Chinese, as was evident from their movements following the capture of Gurung Hill, were planning to roll down in strength from the forward slopes of the hill and cut off lines of supply and communication to Indian troops in Spanggur Gap and at Maggar Hill. This would have left Indian troops with no escape route.
It was consequently decided that the troops in Spanggur Gap and Maggar Hill would withdraw to the second line of defence in mountains west of Chushul. Orders for withdrawal were given on the intervening night of 19 and 20 November. Tanks again jumped into action, providing cover to the withdrawing troops.
Although the Army, based on multiple reports between 1960 and 1962 of presence of mechanised forces on the Chinese side of the Spanggur Gap, was expecting a Chinese armoured thrust from the gap, none arrived. Having reached their claim-line (1960) in the Chushul sector, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November, bring the two-month long conflict to an end.
The efforts put in by the IAF and the 20 Lancers paid off. The effectiveness of the Indian tanks had prevented Chinese advance towards the Chushul airfield, located between Chushul village and Gurung Hill. Chushul airfield was important because the lack of road connectivity to Ladakh necessitated the movement of supplies to the area by air. The tanks also provided the necessary firepower to the Indian defences, preventing a complete run-over by the Chinese.
As a result of the firepower that tanks and artillery brought to bear, China paid dearly for every inch of land it captured in Ladakh. Its war machine suffered far more damage in the Western theater than it did in the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). By some accounts, the tanks acted as deterrent, and contributed to stemming further Chinese adventurism in Chushul.
Brigadier Amar Cheema, in his book The Crimson Chinar: A Politico Military Perspective, notes that the tanks accomplished their task of deterring the enemy.
“The artillery, armour, services, and the Air Force can all be proud of the Battle of Chushul, and it can be counted as one of the most fiercely fought battle of the war, and one where Indians, working in synergy blunted the Chinese attack successfully,” Cheema writes, adding that the “armour acted as a tonic in more ways than plugging the Spanggur Gap. Tanks gave the men hope”.