Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa is that hero of Skardu who fought to prevent Pakistani forces from reaching Kargil and Leh.
The siege begins.
By mid-November 1947, the Gilgit Scouts assisted by the Muslim troops of 6 Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Infantry, originally based at Bunji, had secured the entire Gilgit Agency. Sardar Mohammad Alam flew into Gilgit from Peshawar to take over its administration on behalf of the Government of Pakistan. Soon Pakistan Army officers arrived to coordinate further operations towards Skardu-Kargil-Leh and Dras. Local militias were raised to operate alongside the Gilgit Scouts. The onset of winter prevented any major operations towards Leh, Kargil and Dras, but Skardu at an altitude of 7000-8000 feet, was a low-hanging fruit, blocking the track to Kargil and Leh.
By early February, all the preparations had been made. Major Ehsan Khan and Captain Muhammad Khan (deserters of 6 J&K Infantry) and Lieutenant Baber Khan (erstwhile Subedar Major of Gilgit Scouts), mustered a mix force – Ibex Force of 600 (as per Pakistani accounts – 400) personnel which included elements of Gilgit Scouts, Chitral Scouts, deserters of the 6 J&K Infantry and local militia. With complete secrecy they marched up the Indus River and on the night of February 9/10, attacked the covering force positioned at Tsari as described in the previous column. The Muslim platoon on the right bank under Capt Nek Alam was won over and the Sikh platoon on the left bank of the river under Captain Kishan Singh was attacked. Surprise was total and the platoon was annihilated. There were only a few survivors including Capt Kishan Singh who were taken prisoner and killed in cold blood by their former comrades of 6 J&K Infantry. As mentioned earlier, there were no radio communications and none of the survivors made it back to Skardu, leaving the garrison oblivious of the happenings at Tsari. The attacking force then advanced to Skardu 32 km away. The Skardu Garrison had 40 Sikh and 31 Muslim soldiers. The first batch reinforcements -100 soldiers – under Captain Prabhat Singh had providentially arrived late on February 10 and were given a well-deserved rest after the arduous journey. The defences were in the form of a semi-circle with a radius of 1.5 km with the base resting on the Fort and the Garrison Barracks.
Satellite imagery as on date
Original sketch made by Captain Ajit Singh
On February 11, early morning, the garrison of Skardu woke to the rattle of musketry and shouting. The Muslim platoon of the garrison deserted and joined the enemy. The void was quickly filled up by resting troops of Capt Prabhat Singh. The enemy attacked with vigour supported by 3″ mortars and machine guns, but was met with a disciplined hail of fire from the defenders. The fighting continued for six hours. Some outposts were captured but were recaptured with counter attacks. After a grim battle the attack was beaten back with the enemy leaving behind 10 killed and one wounded who was taken POW. One medium machine gun, some rifles and a 2-inch mortar were captured by the defenders. Frustrated, the enemy now poured its wrath on the town below which was sacked and plundered. A large number of Hindus and Muslims were killed and their properties looted. However, some managed to reach the safety of the garrison including Wazir Wazarat, Shri Amarnath. The defenders had 7 other ranks killed and one officer and 16 other ranks wounded. Three Muslims who manned the Wireless Telephony (WT) set had deserted. Thapa now took charge of this wireless set himself.
The shock of defeat had put the enemy force in disarray. It broke contact and did not maintain the siege by cutting off the route of reinforcements along the Indus Valley. This allowed two more batches of reinforcements led by Captain Ajit Singh numbering 70 soldiers each to reach Skardu on February 13 and 15. The Garrison now had 285 all ranks. In addition, the garrison had 229 non-Muslim refugees, 19 Muslim refugees and 22 Muslim civilians in custody.
The tactical areas that were required to be held included Point 8853, Skardu Fort, Ranbir Ridge, Hargassa Nala and the relative high ground in the built up area to the south. This required a force of a battalion plus for the defence, which Thapa did not have. He had only the equivalent of three weak companies including the personnel required for administrative tasks. Thapa held Skardu Fort, Garrison Barracks and the Ranbir Ridge in strength and occupied other areas with a number of outposts manned by 8-10 men. What he could not hold, was the all-important Pt 8853 which the raiders occupied on the night of February 14/15.
The enemy reorganised its force and prepared for a sustained siege. Having realised that it did not have the strength to defeat the garrison, it decided to wear down the garrison by cutting off all routes of withdrawal and reinforcements and constant harassment. It kept a fair distance away and launched sporadic attacks on the outposts. Sher Jung Thapa responded with aggressive patrolling and raids. Between February 15 and March 16, a number of clashes took place and in all cases the defenders came away the better.
Lt Col Sher Jung Thapa kept his troops motivated despite reduced rations, increasing casualties and incessant battle. He had advocated a temporary withdrawal to Kargil to build up for the counter offensive. However, he was ordered to hold Skardu at all costs. The strategic plan was to build up at Skardu and use it as a base for recapture of Gilgit-Baltistan. Sher Jung also used this theme to inspire his troops to fight. He reminded the troops that their forefathers had shed their blood to capture this area under General Zorawar Singh a 100 years ago. But he desperately needed supplies and reinforcements.
Air supply using Dakotas was ruled out due to altitude ceiling. Even after this was disproved once the first Dakota landed at Leh on 24 May 1948, it was never attempted to air drop supplies at Skardu for inexplicable reasons. No thought was given to landing Dakotas or Harvard light aircraft at the Skardu airstrip before the siege set in. In hindsight, this was a strategic blunder. From June to August 1948, Tempest Fighters were used to drop supplies but made little difference due to limited capacity and inaccuracy of drops.
‘Biscuit Column’ – a tragic saga
On February 01, a relief column known as ‘Biscuit Column’ of one ad hoc company of the J&K State Force troops, with two MMGs were despatched to Kargil where another platoon was added to the column. Ammunition and supplies were also being carried for the Skardu garrison by a large column of porters and ponies. Brigadier Faqir Singh, Commander Kashmir Brigade personally led the column. He was assisted by Major Coutts, the Special Service Officer from the Indian Army. A tradition from the British Indian Army, to oversee the State Forces units. On March 8, the column began their move to Skardu by way of Parkutta and Gol which was 32 km east of Skardu. Gol was reached on March 16. Unfortunately for the ‘Biscuit Column,’ the enemy was aware of their movement and pulled out as many troops as he could from Skardu and moved towards Gol. Five km from Gol where the track went through a narrow gorge, an ambush was laid.
On March 15, Thapa’s lookouts reported some raiders heading towards Gol. The next day, a larger body of the raiders headed in the same direction. Thapa was well aware that a relieving column was on the way and expected them to arrive on March 18. He realised that the raiders were going to intercept this column. He could not warn the ‘Biscuit Column’ on the WT as their only WT set had broken down at Kargil and was dumped there. Thapa had conveyed his fears to Srinagar with a request for air strikes against the raiders. Unfortunately, no air support was forthcoming.
On March 17, Brigadier Faqir Singh’s ‘Biscuit Column’ commenced the last leg of the march. The column entered the gorge without taking fundamental tactical precautions of searching the defile with patrols and placing pickets for flank protection. Once in the gorge, all hell broke loose. Surprise was complete and panic ensued. The Brigadier was himself wounded and ‘Biscuit Column’ fell back all the way to Kargil to reach there on March 21. They left behind 32 killed and 18 wounded troops. A huge quantity of arms and ammunition fell into the hands of the enemy – 27 rifles, 5 sten guns, 2 Vickers machine guns, 64,000 rounds of rifle ammunition. Supplies being carried for the Skardu garrison were also lost.
The fact that the column had to turn back after reaching ‘a day’s March’ from Skardu was most tragic. The tragedy was compounded after it became known that Sher Jung Thapa had personally led two platoons towards Gol to receive the column halfway on March 18, the day the column was expected to reach Skardu. This was the information conveyed to the garrison by the State Forces Headquarters. Had the column been in communication with the garrison, Kargil and Srinagar, the history would have been different. Even after being surprised at the gorge, there was no need to hurry to head back in panic on the night of March 17. On March 18, a combined effort of both the columns could still have cleared the enemy and reached Skardu. Imagine the dejection of Sher Jung Thapa, the besieged commander, when the villagers informed him of the fate of the column. However, he remained stoic and even cleared an ambush without any casualties to return to Skardu late in the evening.
An emboldened enemy renews attacks — March 18 – April 10
Having inflicted a humiliating defeat on the ‘Biscuit Column’, the emboldened enemy, stepped up the attacks on Skardu. At 0300 hours, March 28, No 6 picquet was attacked, but it held firm. This was actually a diversion.
Two hours later, the Skardu garrison was attacked from all sides and medium machine guns opened fire from Pt 8853. The fighting continued throughout the day on March 28 but the defenders stood firm and held their ground with controlled fire.
On March 29, the enemy decided to launch a night attack and concentrated on two picquets (posts) of ‘School’ and ‘Raja House’ to breakthrough the crust of the defences. These posts, under Captain Ajit Singh and ‘Jemadar’ (Naib Subedar) Piar Singh, had been isolated and cutoff from the main defences on March 28 itself, but the troops held on against all odds. Captain Ajit Singh was wounded on March 30 but did not leave his post. Sher Jung Thapa launched a counter-attack to rout the enemy attacking the two posts. The enemy pulled back leaving behind 20 soldiers dead. Captain Ajit Singh and Jemadar Piar Singh were awarded Vir Chakras after the war.
The enemy made another attempt on April 7. The ‘School’ picquet was cut off once again. As the dawn came up on April 10, Naik Chatru of 6 Jammu and Kashmir Infantry led a desperate sortie from the Fort. They cut their way through the raiders to reach the ‘School’ picquet, who were at their last gasp. The raiders gave up, demoralised by their casualties and defeat.
This was the finest hour of the Skardu Garrison under its indomitable Commander – Sher Jung Thapa. The siting of weapons was flawless, the bunkers were shell-proof and the defensive fire plan well thought out. But the most important factor behind the pertinacious resistance was the unflagging spirit of the defenders who despite the critical situation they were in, with regard to ammunition, rations and medicines, gave the enemy a bloody nose every time he attacked. Tactically it would have been more prudent to fall back to Kargil, as Lt Col Thapa had recommended. However, J&K State Force Headquarters wanted to hold Skardu at all costs. This was contingent on reinforcements, ammunition and supplies.
‘Sugar Column’ – another tragic saga
The desperate situation at Skardu was clear to J&K State Forces Headquarters. However, given the operations in the Valley and south of Pir Panjal, no Indian Army troops were available. It was also clear that a small force cannot fight its way through. 5 J&K Infantry and two companies of 7 J&K Infantry, a total of one and a half battalions were mustered as reinforcements. Porters and ponies were mustered at Sonamarg and Kargil to carry ammunition and supplies. 5 Jammu and Kashmir Infantry had to be moved from Jammu to Srinagar and thence onwards via the onerous route – Sonamarg, Zoji La, Kargil and beyond. An undertaking already experienced by the ‘Biscuit Column’. The present column was to be identified as the ‘Sugar Column’.
Two companies of 7 J&K Infantry located at Srinagar were first to be despatched to Kargil and were accompanied by Major Coutts, the Special Service Officer/Advisor from the Indian Army. Lt Col Kirpal Singh, Commanding Officer, 5 J&K Infantry was to be the overall commander of the relief force. To compound the problem, Lt Col Sampuran Bachan Singh was also appointed as Senior Special Service Officer/Advisor to the column. On April 3, ‘B’ Company of 5 J&K Infantry left Srinagar for Kargil followed by ‘D’ Company.
Lieutenant Colonel Thapa had been sending urgent requests for reinforcements. Consequently on April 11, Major Coutts was ordered to immediately advance to Skardu with two companies of 5 J&K Infantry. By April 14, the reinforcements were strung out-Major Coutts was 14 km beyond Bagicha, the first batch of the 5 Jammu and Kashmir Infantry was entering Kargil, the second near Dras, the third at Matayan and the fourth and fifth at Gumri. The sixth batch was just leaving Srinagar. The column had to move in company groups due to limited accommodation and administrative arrangements at the staging areas.
Major Coutts entered Parkutta on April 17 to find it deserted, the reasons were obvious. The very next day, the skirmishes began with the enemy who had blocked the route to Skardu. On April 28, Lieutenant Colonel Sampuran Bachan Singh arrived at Parkutta with ‘B’ Company 5 J&K Infantry. The rest of 5 J&K Infantry was still stretched between Kargil and Zozi La. At this critical juncture, there were command and control problems. HQ 163 Infantry Brigade which was controlling the operations was passing direct orders to the advisors bypassing Lt Col Kirpal Singh. This created a parallel command channel and was objected to by Lt Col Kirpal Singh. Both the advisors were recalled.
In the meantime, the enemy had cut off the route and did not allow ‘D’ Company, 5 J&K Infantry to link up with the three companies at Parkutta. Rather than attacking the enemy from two directions, a force of four companies decided to wait for the rest of the battalion to fetch up. But unknown to them ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were still stuck at Sonamarg due to non-availability of porters and ponies. Lt Col Kirpal Singh with the battalion HQ and support elements decided to push on to Parkutta. At that very moment, the enemy had decided to launch a bold riposte to capture Kargil, Dras, Zozi La and Leh. The Sugar column except A and C Companies was cut off and annihilated piecemeal over the next one month. The fate of the Skardu Garrison was sealed!
The heroic resistance of the Skardu Garrison notwithstanding, the enemy was busy making plans for an exceptionally audacious operation to seize the entire Baltistan-Ladakh region and in doing so, rout the reinforcement column stretched between Zozi La and Parkutta. Using the Gilgit Scouts numbering approximately 600 personnel and 200 deserters of 6 J&K Infantry as the mainstay, a militia force of 2000 soldiers was created. Chitral Scouts also joined this force. Since all personnel were locals of the area, they were masters of the high altitude terrain. Field craft and marksmanship were natural to them. Lt Col Alam Khan, a regular Pakistan Army officer who was involved with the invasion of the Valley in end October 1947, arrived in December to coordinate the operations. However, the leadership was provided by the three officers of the Gilgit Scouts – Major Ihsan Ali Khan and Captain Hassan Khan of 6 J&K Infantry, and Lieutenant Shah Khan of the Gilgit Scouts. The line of communications from Sonamarg to Skardu ran parallel to the battle-front. The intent of the enemy was to interdict the line of communications, isolate the reinforcement columns and destroy them, and capture Zozi La, Drass, Kargil and Leh.
The entire force was divided into three columns each of 600-800 soldiers (as per Pakistani accounts, the strength of each force was 400), backed by a larger number of porters and ponies. The force level was maintained during operations by training new recruits. Ibex Force under Major Ihsan Ali Khan was to operate on Axis Gilgit-Skardu-Kargil, to prevent reinforcements from reaching Skardu, isolate and capture Skardu, and later to conduct operations towards Leh in conjunction with the Tiger Force. The Tiger Force under Captain Hassan Khan was to operate on Axis Bunji-Kamri-Gurais-Bandipura to preempt the Indian Army counter-offensive to recapture the Northern Areas in summer of 1948 and open a new front in the Valley. The Eskimo Force under Lieutenant Shah Khan had the most ambitious task. It was to advance on Axis Astor-Deosai-Gultari-Drass-Kargil and sever the communications between the Valley and Kargil/Leh. It was to isolate the garrisons at Drass, Kargil and Leh and capture them. It was also to capture Zozi La. The code name given was Operation Sledge.
All operations were synchronised to commence on May 10. But as we have seen, the Ibex force had been attacking Skardu since February 11 and had also simultaneously, routed the Biscuit Column. It now left a small force to contain the beleaguered Skardu garrison and began the task of isolating and routing the elements of Sugar column stretched between Parkutta and Kargil.
Pakistan Army showed tremendous enterprise by using one of its two available Dakota aircraft for dawn to dusk air supply drop sorties at Gilgit dropping zone to supply weapons, ammunition and rations. In addition, Harvard light aircraft was also used as it could land at the Gilgit air strip.
By first week of May 1948, all columns had carried out the approach march over treacherous high altitude terrain and commenced operations in their respective areas on May 10. The battalion strength reinforcement columns between Parkutta and Kargil were isolated/raided/ambushed and ceased to exist as fighting force by end May. Kargil was captured/abandoned on night of May 10/11. Drass was captured on June 6. After a month’s fighting even the formidable 1 Patiala was forced to withdraw to Zozi La by July 7. Due to paucity of resources and energetic action taken to defend Leh, the enemy could only advance up to Nimu.
The enemy force primarily based on and led by the Gilgit Scouts had demonstrated an exceptional feat of arms by routing a larger force in one of the most hostile terrains in the world. They were the masters of the tactics of raid, ambush, sniping and isolation. They rarely directly attacked a defensive position but relied upon isolation and harassment to break the will of the defender.
Last men standing!
The Skardu Garrison watched with dismay the rout of a two battalion size reinforcement column between Parkutta and Dras by an enemy force one-third of its size in just under four weeks. The bravehearts of the garrison were the “last men standing” of the Indian Army in the entire Baltistan region. They were determined to go down fighting. The garrison had 550 souls who had to be fed. Some food grains had been collected from private houses before the siege began but that was all. As the weeks went by, daily rations were cut to 250 grams of wheat flour and 30 grams of ‘Dal’ per day. The sick and the wounded suffered in silence.
The attacks became less intense in May, June and July since the bulk of the Ibex force had pulled out for the riposte. The garrison was besieged by a force of 200 soldiers. However, sniping and mortar shelling was constant. Offensive patrolling had become impossible and the garrison was soon hemmed in a perimeter of 1350 metres long and 550 metres wide area. Lieutenant Colonel Thapa had covered all approaches by crossing interlocking fire, the bunkers were deep and fully protected from mortar shells. Fire discipline remained excellent.
Firm news of the destruction of ‘Sugar Column’ in June came as a big blow to the defenders at Skardu but they carried on with their duties. When ‘Sugar Column’ had been given permission to withdraw, Lieutenant Colonel Thapa had refused to withdraw as he knew that all routes were blocked. Also, because of the high moral responsibility to ensure the safety of the sick, wounded, women and children.
On June 17, the raiders sent a messenger from Parkutta, through a POW, Sepoy Amar Nath of 5 Jammu and Kashmir Infantry under a flag of truce. He carried a letter from Colonel Shahzada Mata-ul-Mulk, son of the Mehtar of Chitral addressed to Lieutenant Colonel Thapa. The same is reproduced below.
The Officers and Men Kashmir State Forces Skardu Grn.
From:- Col SHAHZADA M MATA-UL-MULK Comd Azad Chitral Forces Skardu(.)
ONE (.) All attempts to relieve your Grn by Brig FAQIR SINGH
Lt Cols KIRPAL SINGH and SAMPURAN BACHAN SINGH have resulted in absolute failure resulting in numerous killed and prisoners taken(.) Azad Forces are now operating in KANGAN SONAMARG and BANDIPUR area also in some case within 15 miles of Srinagar(.) TWO(.) You have done your duty as every soldier should do(.) Now that it is clear that no relief can reach you in this mountainous area there is no doubt about it(.). It is no use to carry on a struggle which will result in your total annihilation(.) THREE(.) I therefore advise you to lay down arms and I take full responsibility to give protection to one and all(.). You must believe me and trust me as I am not only a soldier but also posses royal blood(.) I have given instrs to my officers and men that any one approaching with a white flag will not be fired at but taken into safe custody(.). FOUR(.) Lastly as a proof of my goodwill I wish to inform you that not a single Sikh or Hindu resident of CHITRAL has been hurt and not a single non-Muslim property looted or damaged and uptil now they carry on their business as if nothing at all has happened(.) I therefore advise you again to lay down arms and thus save your lives(.) An officer should accompany back the white flag if you consider my words sincere and honest(.).
The messenger was sent away with contempt, the siege went on.
On June 19, two Tempest Fighter aircraft of the RlAF attacked positions around the Fort which brought much cheer to those inside. Supply drops from these Tempest aircraft were received on June 28, July 1, 8, 11 and 17. Though most welcome they were just not enough for their requirement.
July, a month that would herald summer and ripening of fruit, brought only continued misery to the defenders. Barley was now the main diet, malnutrition had set in, except for a steely indomitable will, the physique of the defenders now displayed clothes hanging on shrunken frames.
By August, the garrison was reduced to two ‘chapatties’ of barley and a cup of tea per day. On August 4, a conference was held. It was strongly felt that since no assistance had reached them for over six months, the garrison be permitted to break out and hope for the best. This was conveyed to Major General (later General) KS Thimayya, DSO who ordered that no withdrawal will take place without his permission.
On August 7, Tempest aircraft attacked the enemy positions and dropped two containers of supplies, a pittance indeed. August 9 was announced by the loud boom of a new gun, two 3.7 inch howitzers had now been brought in for the kill.
August 12 witnessed a determined attack by 200 enemy soldiers on a picquet just outside the Fort. Hand-to-hand combat ensued. With ammunition running low, the last box of ammunition from the Fort was rushed to them. The attack was repulsed, the enemy withdrew leaving behind a pile of their dead. This was the swan song of the garrison, they had carried the day yet again. It was, however, the beginning of the end. Rations had finished and only 10 cartridges were left with each rifleman.
The day of August 13 passed slowly and as night fell, those of the garrison who could and wished to, were allowed to slip away from the Fort in small groups. Permission to surrender was granted and conveyed by Colonel Shri Ram Oberoi of the Srinagar Division on behalf of Major General KS Thimayya, DSO.
The garrison on August 14, 1948, consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Thapa, 4 Officers, 1 JCO and 35 Other Ranks apart from the civilians. The end is best described in the words of General Thimayya: “My strategy was to save Ladakh was to hold on to Skardu at all costs so that Pakistani forces may be prevented from reaching Kargil and Leh. Fortunately, I had the right man in Skardu to fulfil this mission. No words can describe the gallantry and leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa who held on to Skardu with hardly 250 men for six long months. It is one of the longest sieges in the annals of war. While ordering him to defend Skardu to the last man last round, I had promised to send him reinforcements and supplies. Unfortunately, neither could reach Skardu. I also tried to air drop more rations and ammunition but these were merely helping the enemy. At the end of six months, when he completely ran out of ration and ammunition, I asked him to surrender. My General Staff Officer, Colonel Shri Ram Oberoi, gave this order to the gallant officer in August 1948. Thapa’s response is etched in my mind and I can never forget it. He said, ‘I know that I cannot hold out without rations and ammunition. General Thimayya has failed me. I know the fate my troops will meet after surrendering to the enemy. I cannot do anything now against the enemy but I will certainly take revenge in my next birth’. It is officers of this stamp who make great armies and great nations.”
Many years later in an interview, Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa described the scene of the last 24 hours: “We used our last box of ammunition. Everyone knew our plight and there was panic and chaos all over. The women started committing suicide by jumping into the Indus and poisoning themselves in order to save their honour. There was an instance when a girl jumped thrice into the Indus to kill herself but each time the waves carried her to the shore. My troops fought under very adverse circumstances and held Skardu for six months and three days. Then was left with no alternative but to surrender. The surrender was followed by mass murder. All Sikhs were shot dead. Captain Ganga Singh, my Adjutant, was tied laid on the ground and shot. The only Sikh who escaped was Kalyan Singh, my orderly who was staying with me.”
Why was the life of Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa and his orderly spared? Fortune favours the brave, they say. The Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army was General Sir Douglas Gracey, KCB, KCIE, CBE, MC. He was none other than the young Major who played hockey with the young Sher Jung Thapa at Dharamsala and had mentored him to join the army!
Sher Jung Thapa and his orderly were taken POW. A few weeks after the war, he was repatriated back to India and awarded the Mahavir Chakra. He rose to the rank of Brigadier and retired in 1961. Sher Jung Thapa passed away at the age of 92 in August 1999, unnoticed, unsung and unwept by either the Indian Army or the nation.
I salute you Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa. You once again proved Napoleon’s maxim that “In war, it is not the men that count, but ‘the man’ that counts”. You were indeed ‘ the man’!