November 18, 1962! Another Day, another time. The winters had set in. It was icy cold and the snow covered peaks sent down breeze that penetrates to your very bone. The night temperatures dropped to low single digits. It was icy cold on the peaks around Chushul. Our adversaries from China decided to unfold a devious plan. The wanted to annex the entire Leh/ Ladakh sector. The entered from Rezang La and they encountered 13 Kumaon led by a tiger Major Shaitan Singh (MSS). The battle was fought at an altitude of 18,000 feet in Ladakh.120 soldiers of the Indian Army pitched against 5,000 soldiers of the Chinese Army. The Chinese also had artillery support. The brave 120 soldiers were bereft of artillery support.
This is the story of unparalleled valour, raw courage and victory buried in the overall defeat in 1962. Even to this day, my heart fills with immense pride regaling the saga of the battle. Rezang La (a pass in the mountain range), Gurung Hill and Spanggur Gap. Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon was at Rezang La. MSS was a Rajput commanding an Ahir company. Around 4 in the morning the scouts alerted MSS about advancing troops through the gullies not in ones or twos but in hundreds, heading for the peak.
MSS told his men to remain alert but not to open fire until he gave the command. As the Chinese troops advanced, the light machine guns opened fire with menacing accuracy. The first wave retreated. But the Chinese were numerically far superior. Before dawn the second wave advanced. This too was beaten back. By now at least 100 Chinese troops lay dead or injured but even before the Indian soldiers could replenish their stocks and reload the machine guns, at Number 3 Platoon Post Chinese soldiers kept advancing wave after wave. MSS and his boys kept firing even though they were under constant barrage of artillery fire. There was no way of replenishing ammunition.
MSS had two options: a. Fight to the last man, last bullet or b. Abandon Post.
His soldiers were tired and bleeding. But their morale was high. They chose option A. Not a single soldier abandoned post. Not a single man fled the battle. But 120 men against 5,000? Isn’t that very heavily skewed? Yes, it was and yet each man fought till the last bullet.
Individual gallantry apart, there were innumerable stories during the battle. The wrestler who crushed two chinese soldiers head with his bare hands. Another flung himself on two Chinese soldiers as they were climbing the peak – and took them down along with him. MSS did not want to be captured. He was mortally wounded. He ordered his jawans to hide his body behind boulders. One of his buddies unslung his rifle, used the sling to tie MSS’s body to his and rolled down the hill, all this while MSS breathed his last. His body was hidden. Only six of the 120 soldiers survived. Five were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs). One slipped back and narrated the story. MSS was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (Posthumously).
As the folklore goes, the Chinese stopped at Rezang La to count their dead and tend to the injured. They lost their will to move forward and retreated. The battlefield was covered in snow. In 1963, when the snow melted and a new battalion returned to Rezang La, they found the brave soldiers of 13 Kumaon still in their trenches, frozen, fingers on their triggers.
This was bravery beyond the call of duty, in the line of fire. 114 bodies were cremated with full military honours in 1963 at those icy heights. Bravery that continues to inspire generation of soldiers. At Rezang La are etched the lines:
“How can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father and the Temples of his Gods.”