‘I told my commander that they were not militants, but full-fledged soldiers with machine guns.’
Brigadier Umesh Singh Bawa, retired, returned from Drass near Kargil early this week. The trip was a journey of homage to soldiers he had known, lived and fought with in the Kargil War.
Standing at the Kargil War Memorial and looking at the icy peaks of Kargil and Drass he was overwhelmed, filled with memories of the valour of his men in capturing Point 4875 — one of the most difficult military operations undertaken by the Indian Army.
Brigadier Bawa lost 36 brave men from his unit in the battle fought over four days at a height of 16,000 feet in the Mashkoh Valley.
“Everyone who wears a uniform wants to fight a war some day. This is what a soldier trains for and the brave of 17 Jat paid in blood for victory,” says Brigadier Bawa, who was then commanding officer of the unit.
His unit was decorated with 1 Mahavir Chakra, 4 Vir Chakras [including one for Brigadier Bawa], 6 Sena Medals and 20 mentions in despatches.
Captain Anuj Nayyar, 24, just two years into service received the Mahavir Chakra posthumously for his exceptional courage. Twenty-four years on, Brigadier Bawa remembers the young officer’s courage like it was just yesterday.
In a conversation with Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih, Brigadier Bawa talks about those days of the war and salutes the brave men of 17 Jat who scripted victory with their blood.
When did you come to know that your unit had to fight the Kargil War? Where were you immediately before war broke out?
I had taken command of my unit and moved to J&K in 1998. We were co-reserves and would be moved every few months to fight infiltration, hence in two years, I had moved my unit 10 times.
I was posted to a high altitude area in Kashmir before the war; I had just moved my battalion there 15 days back and had taken about 10 days to stock up.
Around May 20, I was told by my General Officer Commanding that my battalion had to move to Kargil-Drass within 24 hours. We had been getting information about infiltration in that region and we moved towards Kargil in about 80 vehicles.
It took me two days to get the boys down from those icy heights with luggage, ammunition and ration.
Did you know that you would be fighting a full-fledged and bitter battle on those icy peaks?
At that time we did not have an inkling, we thought it was an anti-terrorist operation. We moved towards Sonamarg, crossed the Zojila Pass and camped in a vacant area in Matayan.
I told my second in command to organise the camp, while I went ahead to meet my brigade commander to get more information about that area.
Our area of responsibility was Mashkoh Valley and he told us that there were about 8-10 militants in that area. He told me to send some patrols and get those militants by the neck. It did not seem a very difficult task.
When did you know that the enemy was much greater in number and was deeply entrenched? Looking at those snow-capped peaks and altitude, how did you plan the operation? What were the difficulties?
I saw the peaks of the Mashkoh Valley in front of me. The capture of Point 4875 was given to us. It was at a height of about 16,000 feet. It could see the snow topped peak.
On May 28, I sent about 80 boys with a company commander towards Point 4875. There was a small feature in front of Point 4875 from where we engaged with the enemy and they fled.
We occupied that height that was leading up to Point 4875.
The next day I got a junior commissioned officer and 30 men to get closer to Point 4875. As this patrol was going up, they were fired heavily by 7 machine guns. We lost 1 JCO and 6 ranks there itself, 12 were injured with gunshot wounds.
It was only then that we came to know what we were up against. I told my commander that we had to send small patrols all around to find out the strength of the enemy.
I told my commander that they were not militants, but full-fledged soldiers with machine guns.
For the next 10 days, I sent patrols on the eastern, western and southern sides to find out the strength with which they were occupying the heights.
My patrols from different direction reported 20-25 men in black salwar suits. I figured out that there were 60-70 people.
To confirm, my commander said that we would go on a helicopter recce to find out. There was a helipad at Drass which was also under enemy observation, we knew it was in the line of enemy fire, so the helicopter just stopped for a minute, we jumped in and went towards Point 4875.
We could see black specs and make out that they were Pakistanis. We tried going lower to get a better look and just then a stinger missile was shot at us. It missed us by a few metres.
The pilot raised the chopper to about 7,000 feet and we had a narrow escape, otherwise the machine would have been brought down along with us.
We then realised it was not the task of one battalion, but of three. Each battalion consists of 500-600 men. We decided to attack Point 4875 on July 4.
I made the attack plan — and moved ammunition, ration and water up on top. It took four nights to do this because we could not do it during the day as we were in direct view of the enemy.
We launched an attack with 13 JAK Rifles; the third battalion was 2 Naga which was kept in reserve. My objective was the Pimple Complex — Pimple 1, 2 and Whaleback.
I decided to take Pimple 1 and Whaleback on July 4 and attack Pimple 2 the next day with the 3rd company. We were able to capture Pimple 1 and Whaleback by July 5.
On Monday: ‘Capt Anuj Nayyar said, “Sir, I will not let you down, I will capture the objective given to us”.’
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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