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Major Shaitan Singh and the battle of Rezang La: How 120 Indian Army soldiers manifested the phrase ‘Last Man, Last Round’

60 years after the battle, the story, the truth, and the permanence of unfathomable sacrifice, where the Indian men in uniform were confronted with overwhelming odds, continues to inspire us.

Among the many great stories of heroic bravery for India on the frontline, the Battle of Rezang La figures prominently. The Indian Army’s gallantry and fortitude at the battle of Rezang La during the 1962 war with China is a goosebump-raising story of unimaginable bravery. Major Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra, of the 13 Kumaon regiment, a great Indian hero and the sheer embodiment of valour and patriotism, perished in the battle, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of Indians who will be eternally grateful for his bravery.

60 years after the battle, the story, the truth, and the permanence of unfathomable sacrifice, where the Indian men in uniform were confronted with overwhelming odds, continues to inspire us. It is scarcely believable that such brave men were ever born and lived amongst us.

When we talk about the Rezang La battle, the name of Major Shaitan Singh PVC, who symbolised bravery and courage, is the first name that comes to mind. Today is Major Shaitan Singh’s 98th birthday and a good time to remember this great son of India.

Birth and early years

Shaitan Singh Bhati was born on December 1, 1924, in Banasar village of Jodhpur district in Rajasthan to a Rajput family of the Bhati clan. His father was Lieutenant Colonel Hem Singh. Singh completed his secondary education at Jodhpur’s Chopasni Senior Secondary School. He was well-known in school for his football prowess. Singh attended Jaswant College after finishing high school in 1943, and graduated in 1947. 

Shaitan Singh joined the Jodhpur State Forces as an officer on August 1, 1949. He was assigned to the Kumaon Regiment when Jodhpur was merged into India after independence. On November 25, 1955, he was promoted to the rank of captain and participated in operations in Naga Hills as well as the Indian takeover of Goa in 1961. He was subsequently elevated to the rank of major on June 11, 1962.

Indo-China war 1962

On October 20, 1962, China launched a full-fledged military attack on India. India sustained substantial losses along the Ladakh border in the days that followed. The Chinese had overrun border checkpoints from Daulat Beg Oldie to Damchok in their initial attack on Indian forces in October.

Indian forces were preventing the Chinese from crossing the Spanggur Gap, a 2-kilometre-long opening in the Kailash Range, south of Pangong Lake, and moving into Chushul. Rezang La is located around 11 kilometres south of the Spanggur Gap. The formation, which guards the southern gates to the Chushul Valley, is situated at an elevation of around 5,500 metres.

Shaitan Singh
Image: Wikiwand

The Chinese might would have cut off the route that connected Chushul and the areas south of it to Leh if they took control of Rezang La, a road that was finished just before the war. Chushul’s defence was under the command of the Indian Army’s 114 Infantry Brigade, which was operating without a battalion. An infantry brigade typically consists of three battalions, however, the 114 Brigade only had the 1/8 Gurkha Rifles and the 5 Jat Regiment.

The 13 Kumaon regiment was moved from Baramulla to support the 114 Brigade when the threat to Chushul was ascertained. The 13 Kumaon Battalion, which reached Leh on October 2, 1962, and was undergoing acclimatisation, was given the task of defending the area south of the Spanggur Gap by the 114 Infantry Brigade.

Shaitan Singh
Charlie Company 13 Kumaon Regiment. (Source: Reddit)

The weather was perilous, with a chilly and piercing wind and rough terrain. Another disadvantage India had was that it was inaccessible to Indian artillery owing to an intervening feature, requiring soldiers to go without the protective cover of the artillery cannons. The other 13 Kumaon companies held Gun Hill, Gurung Hill, and Mugger Hill. Rezang La, a 19-kilometre pass on the southern approach to Chushul, was assigned to Charlie Company under Major Shaitan Singh. Rezang La was all rock, terribly cold with bone-chilling winds, and the men did not have time to acclimatise to the conditions.

Chinese attack Rezang La post

Charlie Company was unprotected, unsupported, and all on its own. The Chinese Army attacked the 7th and 8th platoons in the early hours of November 18. The Indians responded with a fierce response to the Chinese aggression at 05:00 hrs. The reaction was so fierce that hundreds of Chinese were killed. and the Chinese Army’s initial wave was crushed.

At 05:40 hrs, Charlie Company came under heavy artillery and mortar shelling, and 350 Chinese attacked the 9th platoon under cover of this fire. True to their instruction, the platoon delayed its fire until the very end. The 9th platoon opened fire with all their guns when the Chinese were only 90 metres away. Hundreds of Chinese perished in the face of this onslaught from India.

For the next round of strikes, the Chinese deployed recoilless (RCL) guns to the Charlie Company’s wings and began relentlessly hitting Indian positions with 75 mm and 57 mm bombs, as well as 132 mm rockets. As visibility increased after dawn, the Chinese were also spotted deploying a Medium Machine Gun (MMG) and putting it 600 yards away from the Indian position. Chinese soldiers quickly began hitting Indian positions in the area with mortars and RCL guns.

Recoil Less Gun (RCL)

Major Shaitan Singh moved from platoon to platoon, shooting at the enemy and encouraging his troops. He continued to fight despite the significant threat to his life. He battled like a man possessed, utterly unconcerned about his own safety.

The incredibly high rate of casualties could not be sustained by the Chinese and they altered their strategy. The 9th platoon was placed under MMG fire, while 400 Chinese attacked the 8th platoon from behind. The platoon’s barbed wire fence halted the onslaught. At the same time, a highly equipped assault party of 120 Chinese struck the 7th platoon from behind. The 7th platoon fired mortars and rifles in response. Both sides suffered a high number of casualties in the subsequent battle.

The strength of the 7th and 8th platoons had been badly diminished by this point. When the Chinese attacked the 7th platoon again, Indian men jumped out and confronted the Chinese in a hand-to-hand battle. The Chinese arrived with reinforcements and Charlie Company’s entire 7th and 8th platoons were decimated with no survivors. The strength of the 9th platoon was also badly reduced and ran out of supplies. As a result, the survivors used their bare hands to fight the fully armed Chinese.

Major Shaitan Singh moved from bunker to bunker, motivating his soldiers and leading from the front. During the conflict, he was seriously wounded by MMG fire. During the evacuation, the Chinese opened fire on him and the two men escorting him. He ordered his men to leave with his weapon and go to battalion headquarters since he did not want them to be killed in this situation.

“I want you to leave me here and go to the battalion headquarters. Report to the CO how bravely our company fought. Go fast, save yourselves. The enemy can come here any time,” he said, according to Kuldeep Yadav in the book ‘The Battle of Rezang La.’

“Finally, after helping their company commander to rest against a boulder, the jawans reluctantly left. By now, Maj. Shaitan Singh had given his personal pistol to Sepoy Mamchand of platoon 9 who was with them, to deposit it with the battalion quartermaster so that it would not fall into the enemy’s hands,” Yadav writes.

The benchmark of valour

Charlie Company, 13 Kumaon, withstood seven Chinese attacks until every man of the company sacrificed their life in battle. The frozen remains of Indian troops were discovered in February 1963 by a Ladakhi shepherd who arrived at Rezang La. The Indian Army spotted Shaitan Singh’s body three months later at the exact location where the soldiers had left him.

Major Shaitan Singh’s frozen body was discovered against a boulder, where his troops had left him. Many of the troops had perished while holding their rifles. There was no undamaged bunker in the Charlie Company area. The search party of the Indian Army which went to the location discovered 759 bullet holes in the shield of one of the bunkers. One of the soldiers was shot 47 times.

In the attempt to seize Rezang La, 1300 Chinese soldiers were killed. 114 Indian troops died out of a total of 120. Major Shaitan Singh’s body was transported to Jodhpur the next day after it was discovered at Rezang La. He was posthumously bestowed India’s highest gallantry medal, the Param Veer Chakra, for exceptional valour and heroism beyond the line of duty. In addition, the company received eight Veer Chakras and four Sena Medals for extraordinary courage. The Charlie Company was afterward renamed “Rezang La Company.”

Today, a memorial honours the soldiers of Charlie Company who fell in the battle. It reads, “And how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, from the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of the gods.”

Shaitan Singh
Rezang La Memorial. (Image: Indian Observer Post)

Major-General Ian Cardozo writes in his book Param Vir, Our Heroes in Battle, “When Rezang La was later revisited, dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons… every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullets or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him… Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders, all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun.”

The phrase ‘Last Man, Last Round’ finds its manifestation in the battle of Rezang La. As Major Gaurav Arya writes, “At minus 30 degrees Celsius, Ahirs from Haryana, headed by Major Shaitan Singh Bhati of Jodhpur, fought for Naam, Namak, Nishan.”

It would be fair to say that the rugged mountains never witnessed such tenacity and such bravery before, and since. On this very first day of December in 1924, was born Shaitan Singh, the man who never learned to surrender, to give up for mother India, as he knew sacrifice, not defeat.

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Searched termsIndia China 1962 war
Pallav
Pallav
Aristotelian and Platonic simultaneously.

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