Infantry Brigade at the Battle of the Namkachu 1962
v.1.1 March 31, 2002
We acknowledge with thanks “Famous Battles” from http://www.bharat-rakshak.com
This battle extended in phases over 31 days and ended with the sacrifice of 7 Infantry Brigade for no purpose.
Before the battle, Lt. General B.M. Kaul, GOC IV Corps, when repeatedly requested by his subordinate commanders for artillery for the brigade, made one of the most fatuous utterances in the long and illustrious history of the Indian Army: "Determined infantry do not need artillery," said the General.
Indian Army officers are taught how not to do things using the example of the Battle of the Namakachu. In fairness, every senior officer from the original corps commander on down tried unsuccessfully to impress on the Army and Army HQ commanders the reality of the situation. This battle was fought in an era when every man in a combat battalion understood he was not free to withdraw without orders; 7th Brigade stood by this code and paid the price for the stupidity of the Army's senior most commanders.
The problem began in Delhi, when the Government decided the Chinese had to be thrown out of their positions at Thagla Ridge, on the north bank of the Namkachu – “chu” is Tibetan for stream or river, “la” means mountain pass. For reasons beyond the scope of this brief narrative, the higher military leadership had been so beaten down and cowed by the Government, that the senior officers who should have set the terms and the timetable for this offensive remained silent. They let Lt.-General B.M. Kaul, then Chief of the General Staff (a position that was later abolished in the Indian Army) dictate military events.
General Kaul has been justly vilified in Indian history, but he was neither the coward nor the buffoon he has been made out to be. He was brilliant, articulate, energetic, and efficient, and in the events leading to the China War and during it, he missed no chance to take risks to his personal safety. He made a mistake fatal to his career and his reputation when, as a newly commissioned graduate of Sandhurst, he went to the Army Service Corps instead of to a fighting arm. He realized the error, and tried to get back to a combat formation, but was never able to do so. Instead, he used his charm and kinship with Prime Minister Nehru to advance to his high and prized position.
Where other general were prone to point out the difficulties in throwing the Chinese out given the logistical realities and the years of neglect that had reduced the Army to a hollow shell, General Kaul promised the Prime Minister and Defense Minister he would do the job. With the Prime Minister’s backing, he proceeded to browbeat anyone who tried to explain the ground situation. In later years, when proper histories of the period are written – 40 years later even the official history has not been published – General P.N. Thapar, Chief of the Army Staff, and Lt.-General L.P. Sen, GOC-in-C Eastern Command, will come in for the heaviest criticism of all because of their failure to control General Kaul.
Before we judge these men, we need to understand that in the Indian Army of the day, to oppose General Kaul was to risk the worst consequences: the end of one’s career, investigation by the Government and civilian intelligence, even petty harassment such as one’s pension withheld. Nonetheless, the dilemma Generals Thapar and Sen faced were no different from those faced by military leaders in every war: to do one’s duty to one’s men by protesting and risking dismissal, or to do one’s duty and carry out suicidal orders. In recent history this dilemma was faced on the largest possible scale by Hitler’s generals.
Yet, India in 1962 was no Germany in 1942. It was a strong, functioning democracy with a free, vibrant press. Had the generals handed in their resignations, the madness that General Kaul unleashed would have been brought to a stop. In the event, it was not, and 7th Infantry Brigade paid the price with its blood.
We will not retell the painful logistical details of Operation Leghorn because these are too well known. Instead, we will note that 7th Brigade needed almost 600 tons of supplies to mount its ordered offensive; it probably had less than 20% that. It had two light howitzers with 260 rounds for artillery – the Indian guns were outranged by Chinese mortars. Its defensive positions on the Namkachu and the paths used for movement were completely exposed to Chinese observation and fire. Heavy weapons were conspicuous by their absence. Men went into battle straight from the plains, pushed so hard across the unaccustomed high mountain terrain that many died of altitude sickness before they reached the front line. They wore their cotton uniforms with a thin sweater, and they had a single blanket for the freezing nights. Often even that one blanket had to be shared. Once facing the Chinese, often they fought with 60 rounds for their bolt-action rifles; most often, there was no resupply available at their forward positions. Battalion mortars had no ammunition. "Hard rations" was a euphemism for no tea, sugar, or salt, indeed, for such limited quantities of any food that the already weakened men weakened more. Air drops went awry, less than 1 in 3 reached the men when dropped by the C-119 Packet, which could not slow sufficiently to make accurate drops. To save money, the Indian Army had been recovering and repacking supply parachutes, many were so worn they broke. After a load was successfully dropped, the men had to haul it over distances of several kilometers and elevations of thousands of vertical feet.
General Kaul was personally present for the planned start of the operation. When the Chinese instead attacked, and he saw for himself, for the first time, what he had sent his men into, he had three reactions. (a) He was evacuated sick. There is ample evidence he was not as sick as he said; nonetheless, a 50-year old man had no business to be at that altitude. (b) He sent a message to the Government that India was faced with overwhelming Chinese strength and only intervention by the Americans and British could save the day. (c) After fussily instructing the brigade commander to move a platoon here and a platoon there, he uttered another of the India Army’s Famous Last Words when he told the brigade commander before leaving: “Its your battle now”.
That the Indian infantry stood and fought and died in the conditions and circumstances of the Battle of Namkachu had nothing to do with its senior officers, and everything to do with its company and battalion officers and its traditions of honor – honor to your brother soldier, to your unit, to your officers, and to your flag.
It was not just the men of 7th Brigade who died on the Namkachu. It was the unspoken compact between the fighting men and their generals: look after us the best you can, our lives are yours in return. And yet, the tragedy need not have been. In the west, in Ladakh, the generals while operating under the same messed up instructions from Delhi, went about their job quietly and competently. Perhaps 10% of the losses in 1962 were in the west; but for the probable failure of withdrawal orders to reach C/13th Kumaon at Rezang La, the percentage would have been even less. How many people outside the Indian Army remember the names of Brig.T.N. Raina and Lt.-General Daulet Singh? Very few. The converse is true with Lt.-General Kaul. It is indeed an oddity of fate that the men who did their job well have passed into anonymity. Instead, we remember the names of those who failed us.
A last word. When we read vivid history, each of us comes away with an indelible impression stamped on their mind. For most, the defining picture might be the scene repeated over and over again at the Battle of the Namkachu: men refusing to retreat and being cut down when their ammunition gave out. For this writer it is another image. When General Kaul reached 7th Brigade at Tawang, he wanted to inspect the front lines himself. Because of the altitude, he was already exhausted. No pack animals were available. So a local porter helped create what must be a unique event in modern warfare. He cheerfully hefted the General Officer Commanding, Indian IV Corps and temporarily-on-leave Chief of the General Staff on his back, and hauled him off to the front like a sack of flour. One wonders what the soldiers, carrying their own heavy loads, thought of this sight and of their general as he went by.
HQ Eastern Command [Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen] located at Lucknow, moving to Calcutta
HQ IV Corps [Lt.-Gen.B.M. Kaul] at Tezpur
HQ 4 Division [Maj.-Gen. Nirinjan Prasad] at Bombdila
7th Infantry Brigade [Brigadier John Dalvi – POW, tactical commander for the battle]
- 1/9th Gorkhas [Lt. Col. B.S. Alhuwalia]
- 2nd Rajputs [Lt. Col. Maha Singh Rikh] Lost 282 KIA, 81 WIA, 90 POW in a single day. 60 escaped.
- 4th Grenadiers [Lt. Col. K.S. Harihar Singh]
- 9th Punjab [Lt. Col. R.N. Mishra]
- One company, 6th Mahar Machine Gun Regiment
- One troop, 17 Parachute Field Regiment (4 guns, only 2 operational, 260 rounds, no sights or FOO)
- 34 Heavy Mortar Troop (Minus one platoon; No ammunition)
- 100 Field Company (Engineers)
- One platoon, Assam Rifles
- 450 civilian road construction crew, Border Roads Organization, used as porters
Chinese forces directly attacking 7th Brigade included 11th Division [Tsona Dzong]. A second division and a separate or independent regiment joined 11th Division in the subsequent fight against 4th Division.
A. 1 Sikhs rotated out of the brigade before the battle. This battalion participated in heavy fighting at another part of the front, losing 134 killed including its commanding officer, but winning one of the three Param Vir Chakras awarded for the 1962 operations.
B. The area originally came under XXXIII Corps (Lt.-Gen. Umrao Singh). Because, however, GOC XXXIII Corps repeatedly protested the unprofessional arrangements underway to evict the Chinese from their positions, the corps area of responsibility was divided. XXXIII Corps was confined to Sikkim/Western Bhutan; a new IV Corps was raised for NEFA/Eastern Bhutan at Tezpur and put under Lt.-Gen. B.M. Kaul, who as a distant relative, friend, and confidante of the Prime Minister was considered both by the Prime Minister and Army HQ to more supportive of the political and military plans. Lt.-Gen. Kaul was evacuated sick before the battle.
C. Both IV and XXXIII Corps originally fought under the legendary Field Marshall William Slim's 14th Army during World War II. 4 Infantry Division was the famous "Red Eagle" Division from 8th Army. Along with 8th Division it was considered among the best of any British or Dominion divisions.
D. Please note that "Gorkha" is the correct spelling for Indian regiments; "Gurkha" is the British spelling. After Independence the regiments remaining with India - 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, and 9 had the spelling changed to Gorkha; the regiments that went to the British Army - 2, 5, 6, 7, and 10 retained the spelling Gurkha. 11 Gorkhas is an Indian raised regiment with no ties to the old British-Indian Army.
Back to Main