And They Lived Forever…. Soldiers @ Kargil 99
July 26 :Kargil Vijay Divas
3rd May 1999, little did India know that the enemy had crept up to the gates. Our troops completely oblivious of the impending doom, geared up with hardly any battle gear for the mountain warfare to reclaim the grounds seized by the adversaries.
It so happened…. In harmony with the unwritten Gentleman’s Agreement, armies on both the sides of LOC vacated the posts in the higher reaches of Kargil in October, owing to glacial winter. During the winter months of 1998/99 our non-maintainable posts were vacated. Northern Light Infantry of Pakistan army, awaiting this opportune span, not only did not vacate their posts but occupied some of the dominant posts on our side of LOC.
May 1999 brought with it a big surprise for the Indian army as some local shepherds cautioned the presence of infiltrators on the Indian side of the hills. This was confirmed by the first patrol led by Capt. Kalia, all of whom were captured and brutally killed by the Pakistanis. The Srinagar-Leh National highway is the lifeline for Ladakh and it passes through Kargil running parallel to the LOC. The aim of infiltration was to sever the link between Kashmir and Ladakh and force the Indian army to withdraw from Siachen. Thus, compelling India to negotiate a settlement of the Kashmir dispute by internationalising the issue. Pakistan outrightly denied the involvement of their regular soldiers in Kargil and instead stated that Mujahideens had crossed the LOC and occupied the posts. True face and the malicious intent of Pakistan were revealed to the world
when the Indian army displayed IDs of the Pakistani soldiers, captured and killed in the Batalik Sector. The furious, backstabbed Indian Army planned a fierce counter-assault, ‘Operation Vijay’.
‘Living & Dying by the Credo’
A serving Colonel, who was in the thick of Kargil action, describes the spirit of the Indian army. He draws our attention to the Chetwode motto, The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time. Maintaining the sanctity of every word of this credo, the heroes of Kargil scaled vertical cliffs in glacial temperatures, without snow boots or night-vision devices.
“We will fight with what we have,” said the then Army Chief General V.P. Malik, and indeed they did. Our unstoppable soldiers, held the enemy by the neck and reclaimed the strategic peaks of Tololing and Tiger Hill.
Airman soaring to glory
Let’s take-off for an eagle-eye view of the Kargil battlefield from the eyes of none other than Air Commodore Anil Kumar Sinha (Retd), Vir Chakra. The decorated and celebrated officer led a four aircraft formation, tasked to fly a live air to ground rocket attack on feature 5140 located on the strategic Tololing. The enemy was aiming accurate fire from this peak on our Srinagar-Leh National highway. Warmly greeted by the legend of Kargil, at a quiet cafe of the Air Force Club Delhi, I was completely in awe of the charisma the hero exuded. A sombre ambience set the mood for the real war-talk over coffee. The reposeful warrior with a mild expression of pride, unveiled his side of chapter Kargil. “Well, my active tenure as combat pilot was almost coming to an end in May 1999. I was the Commanding Officer of the Nubra Warriors 129 HU. I would have retired without any actual Combat, had Kargil not happened. Wars are never desired by any country or a soldier. But once initiated, a soldier is committed to engage until his last drop of blood and breath”.
Reminiscing the intense saga of his career, he went on, “On May 17, 1999 I was detailed as the TFC (Task Force Commander) to lead the armed Helicopter operations of the IAF. Air Power had never been deployed in combat at the icy heights of 15000 ft to 18000 ft. This posed a real challenge to execute strike missions as the aircrafts and weapon systems were not designed to be used at such rarer atmosphere and altitudes. Improvisation and innovation were the only answers. Time was at premium too”. “I was fortunate to be the most experienced high-altitude pilot, with maximum experience of Siachen Glacier flying”, he shared passionately. “My strike team comprised of highly motivated and committed youngsters from Nubra Warriors and Mighty Armours”. With the clock ticking and much to be fixed technically, did you know no fear? “To deliver to the best of his capacity despite compelling circumstances is intrinsic to every soldier’s ethos”, said he while sipping coffee.
“We modified our Mi-17 helicopters by fitting GPS on site, calibrated gun sights, fitted infra-red flares to deceive heat seeking missiles and armour plates. Not all helicopters could be modified due to acute paucity of additional equipment”.
“We simulated targets at 15000-16000 ft, practiced attack profiles with live ammunition, gathered actual flight data, studied the behaviour of the aircraft, rocket trajectory and its effective range. Based on this vital data and trials, we fine-tuned our attack methodology”.
“It was the afternoon of 25th May 1999 when Group Captain A R Oak and I briefed the Chief of Air Staff, A Y Tipnis in detail about our strike strategy. Convinced with the feasibility of the mission, the Chief gave his OK to the Prime Minister that very night and we got the eagerly awaited GO AHEAD”. How overwhelming was that night and fear of facing the unknown the following morning? With a smile and a nod, the veteran resumed the story. “It seemed the longest and the shortest night of my life. The thought of bombing real enemy and not simulated targets at practice ranges, was unbelievable. Helicopters were being armed with 128 rockets and 128 IR flares each. Gun sights being harmonized. Aircrew busy preparing maps, loading personal weapons and AK-56 automatic rifles. Chocolates procured as emergency rations”. “Finally, it was time to write one Last Letter to our wife/family and keep it in a sealed envelope in our respective rooms”.
It was all so fresh in his mind, like a thing of yesterday. “Two targets to be engaged were Tiger Hill at 18000 ft and Tololing at 16000 ft. TOT (Time on Target) decided was 0650 hrs. In the blink of an eye, it was dawn and time for mission briefing, the whole team was charged like a 440-volt live wire on the D Day. The toughest task I faced as the Strike Leader was to motivate my youngsters to fight until death. I summed up my briefing with, Cowards die many a times in their lives, but Brave die once and live forever. They were expected to fearlessly pierce through the volley of enemy fire and deliver devastating salvos of rockets to annihilate the enemy defences. It was the final test of our life-long training and love for our country. We would not fail…. come what may…!!” The blitz while bluffing death must’ve been beyond belief. Didn’t the cacophony of Mi-17 choppers alert the enemy to fire?
“This was a well-planned strategy,” he grinned and went on to describe the daredevil manoeuvres of the mission impossible.
“Both the armed Mi-17 formations lifted off at the designated time. Approaching Tiger Hill, we flew lower and hugged the mountain slopes to mask our approach and popped up short of the target. Simultaneously, as a part of the coordinated tactics the MiGs roared above the target and made a deafening sound thus distracting the enemy. I acquired the target on my gun sight and pressed the trigger to let go the salvo of 64 rockets. Successively, I pressed the trigger again to release another salvo of 64 rockets”.
“It was a treat to watch this celestial event, much like the TV series Ramayan, when one arrow splits into a hundred in mid-air. The effect was very intimidating which pulverized the enemy. With the mission accomplished, the ecstatic crew members shared chocolates to celebrate”. His excitement dipped as he informed about the unfortunate crew, Nubra 3, who were hit by enemy stinger missile with more than 20 stinger missiles fired at our formation.
“Later in the evening we got confirmed reports and pictures of the target, post attack. Our strike was successful. There was also an enemy intercept – ab hum capture hone wale hain… (Now we’ll be captured….)” The hero commemorates the victory with some Words of Wisdom
“I discovered the true purpose of Life-There is nothing more fulfilling than sacrificing for your country. It gives immeasurable pleasure and satisfaction”. “Akin to Team Nubra Warriors our country too is Team India. We all need to come together and contribute in our own way and capacity. Undoubtedly, there can be nothing stopping us from being the next superpower”.
And Miles To Go Before I Sleep…. We salute our heroes who fought for the Tricolour and also the ones who came back wrapped in it.
Kargil Vijay Diwas! Jai Hind!
Written by Baljeet Makin