Monday, 9 May 2011

The Day Pakistanis Got the Shock Of Their Life At 11000 Feet

Zoji La presented one of the most difficult terrains for the Indian Army. Srinagar was connected to Sonmarg by an 84 km one way fair weather road, with weak bridges unable to take heavy vehicles. The main bridges were in Wyle(29 km), Kangan (38km) and Gund (59 km). From Sonmarg to Baltal was a 14 km long track. Baltal was the junction for tracks from Srinagar, ZojiLa and Pahalgam. From here the track climbed steeply 2000 ft to Zoji La(11,578 ft). From the pass it continued on the same elevation with steep shoulders ranging to 16000 feet on both sides. Two nullahs flowed through this, the Bod Gumbhar Nar from west and Lokut Gumbhar Nar from the east. There is snow near these tracks even in summer. 3 km from Zoji La the path broadens into a flattish area called Gumri. A little away is Machoi from where the track descended into a large pastureland called Minamarg, at the end of which was Matayan village. 21 kms from Matayan was Dras (10,060 ft). Tall cliffs and ridges rising 5000 to 6000 feet above the tracks flanked the entire route. Dras was the coldest place in the country with winter temperatures reaching –50 degrees centigrade. To further complicate the situation the low level of oxygen caused problems to everyone except the locals.

Zojila, which means Path of Blizzards', is located at an elevation of 3529 meters or 11578 feet and about 102 kilometers east of Srinagar. It is the main pass on the route connecting Leh to the state capital.

When the Indian Army landed at Srinagar airport in the wee hours of October 27, 1947, the Pakistani raiders were just a few kilometers away. If they had not paused a day at Baramula on October 26 to whet their appetite for rape and loot, they could have been in Srinagar and the Maharaja's accession would have come too late.

The Pakistanis, offensive saw fall of Kargil on May 10. On June 6, Dras fell. The Srinagar-Leh route was blocked. The Pakistanis also came to control the heights dominating the Zojila defile. The Zojila garrison was besieged. In Ladakh, the Pakistanis were in Nimmu and controlled the Nubra Valley. Leh was less than 30 kms away and defending it was a puny force consisting of one platoon of Dogras and three platoons of J and K state forces. Less than 70 men supported by 300 newly raised Ladakhi home-guards faced a battle-hardened force of over 5000 Pathans, Chitralis and deserters from J and K forces stiffened by a strongcontingent of Gilgit Scouts. The only access to Leh were foot-tracks from Manali via Keylong over the 17,000-foot-high Bara Lacha La and Taglang La passes, and another one from Jammu via Kishtwar and Zanskar.

Pakistan next aimed for Skardu, a major center on the Gilgit-Leh road. On February 15, 1948, the siege of Skardu began. The Indian Army made two attempts to relieve Skardu. Both failed. On August 14, as the country was preparing to celebrate the first year of independence, Skardu fell.The battle of Zojila is set against this backdrop.

After a record-breaking landing at an airfield along with Air Commodore Meher Singh, the Indian contingent had to necessarily reopen the old Srinagar – Leh trade route after retaking Dras and Kargil.

Maj Gen K.S. Thimayya issued his operational instructions to Brigadier K.L. Atal of the 77 Para Brigade on August 29. Itwas an ambitious plan. This was the first time the Indian Army would be operating at high altitudes. The brigade was entirely unprepared for warfare in extreme weather and on arduous terrain. Most of the troops in the five battalions comprising the brigade hardly had any time for acclimatisation and were in light clothing. Nevertheless the attack commenced on September 1. The enemy held firm and Operation Duck failed.The Army Commander, Lieutenant General K.M. Cariappa, ordered: "Change the name of the operation from Duck to Bison, but continue we must with our plan with Zojila and capture Kargil.'' Thimayya realised that a mere change of names was not enough. The 77 Para Brigade needed firepower to blast the enemy from the positions he had strongly dug himself into on the Zojila heights.

His solution was brilliant. He ordered the deployment of a squadron of Stuart Mk-VI tanks of the 7 Light Cavalry commanded by Lt-Col Rajinder Singh "Sparrow''. Accordingly its C company of the 11-ton tanks was ordered to move to Baltal. The tanks were moved through cities after curfew was imposed at night with their turret removed. Utmost secrecy was the key. The tanks needed a road. An eight-km length of the track had to be widened and strengthened to take the width and the weight of the tanks. The engineers cut this path into the rockface in about 20 days. The road was completed on October 15 and the stage was set for the assault on Zojila. Because of the steep gradient the tanks had to be physically pushed up by the jawans on to the narrow track to position them for the final assault. Tanks had never been used at this altitude before.

The assault began on November 1 having been held up for about two weeks due to bad weather. The appearance of the tanks rattled the enemy. The Pakistanis were so shocked that one of the soldier when reported to his officer about Indian tanks the officer chastised the soldier for telling fibs and spreading rumours.But when they saw the tanks most Pakistani's ran for cover leaving behind everything. The tanks shot out the enemy's high pickets while the infantry mopped up the slopes.Many of the bewildered Pakistanis were hunted out of the numerous caves and killed. The tanks were not to stop there. On November 12 they appeared further up the road to Kargil at Matayan. On November 24 Kargil was retaken and the linkup with Leh completed.