Let me start off with one battle whose stories I have heard since my childhood from various sources. Each time I read it or hear it from a source, it seriously moves me.
Some image(s) in this post will give you a sense of the dangerous and hostile conditions in which this battle, in 1962, was fought.
The battle of Rezang La has been listed as one of the ten greatest military battles of all time.
So here it is, the amazing true story of the brave Indian soldiers who fought for the country, last man... last round!
The Rezang La battle
On October 20, 1962, the Chinese launched a full-scale attack on the 7 Infantry Brigade, stretched as it was along the Namka Chu river in the Kaming division of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), later renamed Arunachal Pradesh, and made rapid progress. However, in the Ladakh sector, nothing much happened during the next few weeks except that some of the forward Indian posts were driven back, though there were unmistakable signs of a build-up of forces.
114 Infantry Brigade had been assigned the task to defend the gateway to the Indus Valley at Chushul. The brigade had occupied defences on the heights dominating the Chushul plain and its airfield. It is a vast area and consequently the defences were widely separated with the companies occupying isolated positions, resulting in the break-up of the only artillery battery into troop deployment. One of the forward and important features called Rezang La was occupied by a company of 13 Kumaon, commanded by Maj Shaitan Singh.
He was a sombre, God-fearing, serious-minded officer. He took keen interest in the training and welfare of his men. He came from a military family, with his father having risen to the rank of a Colonel in the army.
Consequently, by training and tradition, he was imbued with a high sense of duty and responsibility and his character moulded to measure up to the trials and tribulations that lay ahead.
Rezang La is a rocky area in the desolate, barren and cold desert of Ladakh and an important post for the attacker to take before making any move towards the plains of Chushul. Its height is over 17,000 feet and dominates the surrounding area, thus making it a vital feature for the defender to hold.
Eventually, there was no better man to defend this outpost than Major Shaitan Singh. Both his commanding officer and the brigade commander (also from the Kumaon Regiment) knew that the enemy will require some considerable effort to dislodge him from Rezang La.
Finally on the night of December 18, 1962, the Chinese made their move around mid-night. The attack opened with a heavy barrage of artillery and mortar fire supported by medium machine guns. Shaitan Singh’s men were ill-clad for the freezing winter of Ladakh, their weapons were outdated and ammunition limited with no artillery support worth the name.
Frozen earth made digging very difficult and the defender had based his defences mostly on Sangars. Notwithstanding all that, these gallant men of Kumoan hills met the overwhelming enemy onslaught head-on.
Shaitan Singh must have been the most inspiring figure in that unequal fight; for his men fought to the last while he himself kept moving to wherever the situation was found getting out of control.
Shaitan Singh was seriously wounded in the legs and stomach, yet he declined to be evacuated by his men and decided to fight to the finish. All this time, the battle raged with unabated fury. Some of the section posts changed hands many times. With the ammunition exhausted the fighting took its most primitive and brutal form, that is hand-to-hand fighting with the Kumaonis refusing to yield ground.
Before dawn could break on the Ladakh hills, silence descended at Rezang La. The last of the men of that gallant company had fallen at their post. When all had been lost, three badly wounded men who had survived the fighting decided to evacuate Shaitan Singh, who by now was totally incapacitated. They carried him some distance, but the task was too much for the already weakened men.
Realising their state and the problem they were having in evacuating him, Shaitan Singh ordered his men to leave him to his fate and find their way to the battalion headquarters. Reclining against the rock, Shaitan Singh must have slowly bled and frozen to death, and that is the position in which they found him next summer.
Out of this gallant company of nearly 120 men, only these three seriously wounded soldiers came back to give the details of this heroic battle.
The Chinese had suffered heavy casualties and the momentum of their offensive in the Ladakh sector had been effectively checked by these handful of Kumaonis under that gallant company commander. Thereafter, the Chinese made no serious effort to push their drive towards the Chushul plain.
While military observers were stunned at the collective bravery of these men and that of Shaitan Singh, Joe Das, an authority on military history, drew a parallel between the battle of Rezang La and the battle of Thermopyalae.
Next summer, when Rezang La was revisited, Major Shaitan Singh’s body was found where the three men said they had left him. At Rezang La, the spread of dead bodies of the Kumaonis, with some still clutching their weapons and from the type and extent of their wounds one could picture the desperate nature of the struggle and the bravery of the men of 13 Kumaon.
Major Shaitan Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (posthumous) for his valour.