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When chinese got a bloodied nose at Nathula in 1967!

MAJOR KULBIR SINGH. Dated: 12/6/2017 10:25:20 AM


By Major Kulbir Singh
Nathu La lies on the Old Silk Route between Tibet and India. In 1904 Major Francis Younghusband, serving as the British Commissioner to Tibet, led a successful mission through Nathu La to capture Lhasa. This led to the setting up of trading posts at Gyantse and Gartok in Tibet, and gave control of the surrounding Chumbi Valley to the British. The following year, China and Great Britain ratified an agreement approving trade between Sikkim and Tibet. In 1947, Sikkim became an Indian protectorate. After China took control of Tibet in 1950 and suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959, refugees entered Sikkim through Nathu La. During the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La witnessed skirmishes between soldiers of the two countries. Shortly thereafter, the pass was sealed and was closed for trade. Five years later, Nathu La was the scene of a ‘border skirmish’ between Indian and China, which resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Significantly, it was the first and only instance when the Chinese got a ‘bloody nose’ from the Indians.
In order to help Pakistan during the 1965 War, the Chinese served an ultimatum and demanded that India withdraw her posts at Nathu La and Jelep La. According to HQ XXXIII Corps, the main defences of 17 Mountain Division were at Changgu, while Nathu La was only an observation post. In the adjoining sector, manned by 27 Mountain Division, Jelep La was also considered an observation post, with the main defences located at Lungthu. In case of hostilities, the divisional commanders had been given the authority to vacate the posts, and fall back on the main defences. Accordingly, orders were issued by corps headquarters to both divisions to vacate Nathu La and Jelep La. As a result, 27 Mountain Division vacated Jelep La, which the Chinese promptly occupied. However, Major General Sagat Singh, GOC 17 Mountain Division, refused to vacate Nathu La. He reasoned that Nathu La and Jelep La were passes on the watershed, which was the natural boundary. The McMahon Line, which India claimed as the International Border, followed the watershed principle, and India and China had gone to war over this issue, three years earlier. Vacating the passes on the watershed would give the Chinese the tactical advantage of observation and fire, into India, while denying the same to our own troops. He also felt that the discretion to vacate the posts lay with the divisional commander, and he was not obliged to do so, based on instructions from higher headquarters.
The Chinese had installed loudspeakers at Nathu La, and warned the Indians that they would suffer as they did in 1962, if they did not withdraw. However, Sagat had carried out a detailed appreciation of the situation, and reached the conclusion that the Chinese were bluffing. They made threatening postures, such as advancing in large numbers, but on reaching the border, always stopped, turned about and withdrew. They also did not use any artillery, for covering fire, which they would have certainly done if they were serious about capturing any Indian positions. Indian artillery observation posts on adjoining high features called Camel’s Back and Sebu La overlooked the Yatung valley for several kilometres, and could bring down accurate fire on the enemy, an advantage that the Chinese did not have. It would have been a tactical blunder to vacate Nathu La and gift it to the enemy. Ultimately, Sagat’s fortitude saved the day for India, and his stand was vindicated two years later, when there was a show down at Nathu La.
Throughout 1966 and early 1967, Chinese propaganda, intimidation and attempted incursions into Indian territory continued. The border was not marked, and there were several vantage points on the crest line which both sides thought belonged to them. Patrols which walked along the border often clashed, resulting in tension, and sometimes even casualties.19
In the first week of August 1967, the border out posts (BOPs) at Nathu La were occupied by 2 Grenadiers, relieving 18 Rajput. Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh was then commanding 2 Grenadiers. Major Bishan Singh took over as ‘Tiger Nathu La’, as the company commander holding the pass was generally known, with Captain P.S Dagar as his second-in-command. The deployment at Nathu La comprised a platoon each on Camels Back, South Shoulder, Centre Bump and Sebu La. The battalion headquarters was at Gole Ghar, while the battalion 3-inch mortars were just above Sherabthang, which also had the administrative base and forward aid post. 18 Rajput took over the BOP at Yakla where they had a platoon plus. The BOP’s at Cho La were occupied by a company of 10 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles.
Even while 2 Grenadiers was in the process of taking over the defences at Nathu La, Chinese activities increased. They were noticed repairing their bunkers on North Shoulder and making preparations to construct new ones. On 13 August the observation post at Sebu La reported that the Chinese had arrived on the crest line and dug trenches on our side of the international border. When challenged, they filled up the trenches and withdrew. On the same day they added eight more loud speakers to their already existing 21 speakers on South Shoulder. Due to this the volume of their propaganda increased and could now be heard at Changgu. On the Indian side 30 watt transistorized amplifiers with six speakers had been installed on South Shoulder by 112 Mountain Brigade Signal Company. Propaganda was relayed through tape recorders from Hotel.
The divisional commander discussed the problem with the corps commander, Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, and obtained his concurrence to mark the crest line. 2 Grenadiers was ordered to lay a three-strand wire fence along the border from Nathu La towards the North Shoulder. However, as soon as work began on the fence on 20 August 1967, the Chinese became agitated, and asked the Indians to stop. One strand of wire was laid that day, and two more were added over the next two days. This led to an escalation in Chinese activity. On 23 August at about 1400 hours Major Bishan Singh reported that about 75 Chinese in battle dress carrying rifles fitted with bayonets were advancing towards Nathu La. They advanced slowly in an extended line and had stopped on reaching the border extending from Four Poles area to Mao Tse Tung’s photograph on South Shoulder. Next morning Sagat again went to Nathu La. He directed that the border from Right OP to Camels Back must be patrolled. Immediately a patrol of two officers, one JCO and 15 OR was sent out under Major Bishan Singh. As soon as the patrol reached the U Bump near Tekri, the Chinese surrounded them. Major Bishan Singh tried to explain to the Chinese officer that they had not crossed the border and in fact it was the Chinese who were in Indian territory. However, the Chinese did not budge. Bishan and his men then pushed their way through the Chinese and returned to Hotel. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh, was watching all this from South Shoulder.
On 4 September Sagat again went to Nathu La. He directed that the wire fence be converted into a Cat Wire Type 1 obstacle, using concertina coils. The task was assigned to 2 Grenadiers. A platoon of 70 Field Company Engineers under Major Cheema was allotted to assist them. On 5 September work started at 0500 hours but the Chinese objected. There was an argument between Colonel Rai Singh and the Chinese Political Commissar as to alignment of the border. The work was stopped at 0800 hours. However, work on Chinese defences on North and South Shoulder continued. During the night the Chinese came up to the Bump and cut off one shoulder so that if water was poured on the other shoulder it would flow into China. Next morning when our men went to straighten out some wire a few Chinese came running up to the border with a bucket of water and poured it on the Bump indicating the watershed. Then started the battle.
Seeing their CO fall, the Grenadiers became mad with rage. In a fit of fury, they came out of their trenches, and attacked the Chinese post, led by Captain P.S. Dagar. The company of 18 Rajput, under Major Harbhajan Singh, and the sappers and pioneers working on the fence had been caught in the open, and suffered heavy casualties from the Chinese firing. Realising that the only way to neutralise the Chinese fire was a physical assault, Harbhajan shouted to his men, and led them in a charge on the Chinese position. Several of the Indian troops were mowed down by Chinese machine guns, but those who reached the Chinese bunkers used their bayonets and accounted for many of the enemy. Both Harbhajan and Dagar lost their lives in the action, which developed into a full scale battle, lasting six days. Sagat had asked for some medium guns, and these were moved up to Kyangnosa La, at a height of over 10,000 ft. The artillery observation posts proved their worth in bringing down effective fire on the Chinese. Because of lack of observation, and the steep incline west of Nathu La, most Chinese shells fell behind the forward defences, and did not harm the Indians. During the first day’s action, there was a loss of morale in 2 Grenadiers, when troops occupying the South Shoulder vacated their positions. This became evident after breakdown of communications with South Shoulder. The position was re-occupied and the troops pushed back into their trenches. Signals played an important role in this operation, which has been described subsequently.

 

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