India 1962: 4th Infantry Division at the
Battle of Bomdila
v.1.0 March 31, 2002
Ravi Rikhye & Dave Sandhu
Sources include British scholar-journalist Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War, Pantheon Books, New York, 1970. This book was long banned in India because it contains a catalog of Indian mistakes, political and military. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it is a scholarly and fair book. Further, Mr. Maxwell may be the only person outside a small circle of Government officials and military officers who has seen the official inquiry report on the debacle, the so-called Henderson Brooks report, named after the Major General who headed the enquiry. This accounts for the great wealth of operational detail contained in Mr. Maxwell’s book. How Mr. Maxwell managed to see the report is another story for another time.
What we call the Battle of Bomdila was actually a series of three battles, fought at Se La, Dirang Dzong, and Bomdila. The battle is also sometimes referred to as the Battle of Se La.
Chief of the Army Staff [General P.N. Thapar]
Director Military Operations [Brig. D.K. Palit]
Eastern Command [Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen] HQ then at Lucknow, about to shift to Calcutta
HQ IV Corps [Lt.-General B.M. Kaul] a paper formation, just raised. Replaced on account of illness by Lt.-Gen. Harbaksh Singh from Western Command. Returns four days later to resume command.
The Bomdila Position
The key to understanding the Battle of Bomdila is that 4th Division was strung out along 100 km of mountain terrain, with its logistics base at Misamari, 200 kilometers away, a journey so arduous it took three days each way by truck. From north to south, first came the Se La, then Dirang Dzong, and then Bomdila. The first two positions appeared to be strong, but could be outflanked by enemy traveling on little-used and long-forgotten tracks. Indian intelligence believed the tracks were impassable; this turned out not to be the case. 4th Division’s natural defense line lay on Bomdila; with the 15 battalions eventually assigned, an impassable defense could have been constructed. Instead, for political reason, it was decided to hold north of Bomdila. Indian troops were in the process of arriving on unfamiliar ground, ill equipped for the altitude and the cold. They seem to have no aerial reconnaissance, the radio network was sparse and failure-prone, equipment and stocks were very low, and the PLA was constantly inside 4th Division’s decision-making cycle. The PLA kept outflanking Indian defenses, and since 4th Division’s fighting patrols and forward companies had no good information on where the Chinese were, they were defeated in detail. To complicate the issue, GOC 4th Division kept ordering rifle companies out of Bomdila. The actual position could have been held with four or five battalions, it was reduced to six rifle companies. Moreover, division, corps, and army kept ordering the brigade commanders to retreat, even when the latter were confident or determined to hang on.
Later on, the Indians were to say they were outnumbered. Given that an Indian infantry battalion was larger than a Chinese one, and given that the Indians were defending, this is irrelevant. India was feeding in battalions piecemeal, and failing to fight a mobile defense – the only thing that would have stopped the PLA’s mobile offense. The Indians should have gradually retreated to Bomdila, held there, and then counterattacked. They might well have thrown the Chinese back to their start line, because the PLA had outrun its supply lines and could not sustain their presence forward. If, however, the Indian higher commanders had the sense for such a strategy, they would have had the sense to avoid getting trapped at the Namkachu – and also, by the same token, have in the first place avoided getting into a fight with the Chinese when Eastern Command was not ready. A shortage of troops was not the issue.
Western Command proved this in Ladakh. It too had suffered from the Government’s refusal to build up Ladakh’s defenses, and from the policy of dispersing troops in penny-packets to hold ground for political purposes. Indeed, in the first Chinese attack dozens of these posts were wiped out even as the Command lacked resources to mount a proper defense or counterattack. Once the war began, however, it was able to calmly and systematically built up its forces in Ladakh. As China’s second attack opened, Western Command gave up empty ground to absorb the attack. The Chinese say they stopped because they reached their claim line; they could not, in fact, have progressed further because four brigades were waiting for them. The difference between Western and Eastern Commands appears simply to have been this: the generals were quietly competent, and with the political leadership’s attention fixed firmly on the east, were able to fight their war they wanted to, with minimum interference from Army HQ, the Defense Minister, and the Prime Minister.
Because battalions were simply being picked up from all over India and rushed into battle, they arrived without their vehicles and heavy equipment, and were also lacking some of their administrative and support elements. Thus, 4th Rajputs arrived with just 8 officers, 15 JCOs, and 575 ORs, roughly 2/3rds of their strength. A battalion with 7th Brigade, 2 Rajputs, had just 513 ORs. We have no direct evidence, but it is likely that that the battalion medical facilities were under strength; certainly there was no extra stretcher-bearers to replace the non-availability of the motor ambulances. The manner in which units were spread out and the acute difficulty of getting up and down the mountain trails makes it likely that most wounded had no access to anything more than a medic, and often not even that
4th Infantry Division [Maj.-Gen. Nirinjan Prasad, replaced for the November battles by Maj.-Gen. A.S. Pathania] HQ Dirang Dzong.
- B/7th Light Cavalry [Stuarts]
- 5th Field Regiment
- 6th Field Regiment
- 22nd Mountain Regiment
- 34th Heavy Mortar Battery
- 116th Mortar Battery
- 7th [Bengal] Mountain Battery
7th Infantry Brigade [Brig. John Dalvi] Based at Tawang, the brigade was overrun in the October fighting, with almost all personnel killed, missing, or POW. It ceased to exist and was not a player in the Battle of Bomdila.
48th Infantry Brigade [Brig. Gurbax Singh] Based at Bomdila; a hurried arrival after war broke out; see note
- 5th Guards [Lt. Col. Jai Singh]
- 1st Sikh LI [Lt. Col. M.S. Brar]
- 1st Madras
62nd Infantry Brigade [Brig. Hoishiar Singh, killed during retreat] Based at Se La, a last minute arrival; see note
- 4th Garwhal [Lt. Col. B.M. Bhattacharjea] Winner of the sole battle honor for the 1962 War given in the East.
- 1st Sikhs [Lt. Col. B.N. Mehta]
- 2nd Sikh Light Infantry [Lt. Col. A.R. Irani]
- 4th Sikh Light Infantry [Lt. Col. R.B. Nanda]
- 13th Dogra [Lt. Col. M.S. Oberoi]
65th Infantry Brigade [Brig. G.M. Saeed, replaced by Brig. A.S. Cheema] Based at Dirang Dzong along with division HQ, another new arrival, see note.
- 4th Rajput [Lt.-Col B. Awasthy]
- 19th Maratha LI
67th Infantry Brigade [Brig. M. Chatterjee] Started arriving at Bomdila just hours before a badly depleted 48th Brigade was overrun. A reinforcement from another division. See note.
- 3rd JAK Rifles [Lt. Col. Gurdial Singh]
- 5/5th Gorkha Rifles
- 6/8th Gorkha Rifles
5th Infantry Brigade [G.S. Gill] The only brigade belonging to 4th Division
- 1/4th Gorkha Rifles
- 2nd JAK Rifles
- 6th Mahar Machine Gun (one section)
5th, 7th, and 11th Infantry Brigades. When ordered to the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1959, 7th Brigade went to the northwest corner of NEFA and 5th Brigade went to the northeast corner. 11th Brigade was detached for CI Operations in Nagaland.
Part of 17th Infantry Division at Ambala. This division was raised to replace 4th Division when the latter went to NEFA. 4th Division had been a reserve division for the Pakistan plains front. 48th Brigade was assigned 5th Guards, 1st Sikh LI, and 4th Sikh LI. It left Ambala on October 23rd, a day after the PLA opened its offensive, and by October 28th had concentrated at Misamari, the railhead for Bombdila. On November 6th, it reached Bomdila. At Bomdila, 4th Sikh LI was detached to Se La as part of 62nd Infantry Brigade. 1st Madras replaced it coming from Nagaland. While Bomdila was high alpine terrain, Nagaland was tropical jungle. At the minimum, three weeks is required to acclimitize troops for operations at 4000 meters. In the post-1962 reorganization, 17th Division became 17th Mountain Division assigned to Sikkim under XXXIII Corps and 4th Division went back to Ambala to convert to 4th Mountain Division for operations on the Indo-Tibet border in Himachal Pradesh.
Was raised in 1959 as part of 20th Infantry Division (Ranchi) and was stationed at Ramgarh. It left for Tezpur (HQ IV Corps) on September 15th and 16th with 4th Sikh, 4th Garhwal, and 2/8th Gorkha Rifles. At Jorhat, 2/8th GR was taken away for 5th Infantry Brigade and 4th Sikhs was taken away for 11th Infantry Brigade. On October 25th, HQ 62nd Infantry Brigade moved to Se La, and 1st Sikh was placed under its command. This battalion had left the ill-fated 7th Brigade on normal rotation. 4th Sikh LI from 48th Brigade and 2nd Sikh LI joined the brigade at Se La.
Was at Hyderabad in southern India and left for Siliguri (XXXIII Corps) on October 14th/15th. The destination was changed to Misamari. It arrived there October 23rd with 4th Rajput and 19th Maratha LI.
4th Rajput was at the last minute given Lt. Col. B.M. Awasthy as its CO. He was commonly accounted as one of the best field officers in the Indian Army. His battalion, already having suffered heavily during the fighting, was tasked to cover the retreat of 62nd Brigade from Se La, being required to hold a bridge open.. No one bothered to tell him that the other columns had taken another route. After fighting off several attacks on the bridge, with time running out, 4th Rajputs, now a hodgepodge of men from various companies, set out again. They carried their wounded and their personal and light weapons, having destroyed the stores they could not leave with. Running into an ambush set by a Chinese force that had outflanked them, Lt. Col. Awasthy refused to retreat further and attacked the numerical superior and well-situated Chinese. The story of what happened next is not known with any degree of accuracy. Every single man fell in the subsequent battle, with 126 dead buried by the Chinese. Some men taken POW returned to India, but for unknown reasons their story was not properly recorded. No awards were ever given to this battalion because aside from one civilian, a young shepherd, there were no witnesses left. Lt. Col. Awasthy’s story was recently reconstructed, 40 years after the events, by L.N. Subramanian http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/MONITOR/ISSUE4-3/lns.html Indian are strong believers in fate, and Lt. Col. Awasthy’s fate would have led him to NEFA in any case: he was slated to take over as CO of 2nd Rajput, the battalion he had been commissioned into before his posting was changed. 2nd Rajput also fought to the last man in 1962, at the Namkachu, losing 90% of its strength as KIA, WIA, and POW on a single day.
All content © 2003 Ravi Rikhye. Reproduction in any form prohibited without express permission.