Saturday, Oct 21, 2017 | Last Update : 02:51 AM IST
The story culminates in the Battalion accomplishing its task in the capture and occupation of the Saltoro Ridge line on the Siachen Glacier in 1984.
Gorichen, a majestic peak in the Eastern Himalayas at an altitude of 22,500 feet, is the highest in Arunachal Pradesh. Beautiful to look at and providing a fantastic view from the top, it is extremely tough climb for mountaineers. Siachen, which in the Balti language (of Baltistan) means a land with an abundance of roses, is the name of one of the five largest glaciers in the East Karakoram Range of the Northern Himalayas, at an average altitude of 5,400 meters (17,700 feet) above sea level, is considered as the highest and coldest in the world. The name itself is most ironic as not a blade of grass grows in that entire area.
Gorichen to Siachen is an account of how the 19th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment, popularly known as the “Unnis” and “Mountain Marauders”, was pitched into very challenging actions in peacetime and how it succeeded as the pioneers in establishing control of the Saltoro range to defend the Siachen Glacier. With the coldest of temperatures — around minus 40 degrees — and with the highest of features at over 20,000 feet of altitude, Siachen is the most exacting of active battlefields in the world. The author considers it an honour to have led the first battalion ever to be deployed there. The story culminates in the Battalion accomplishing its task in the capture and occupation of the Saltoro Ridge line on the Siachen Glacier in 1984.
Raised in 1979, 19 Kumaon, in the short span of barely five years till its occupation of the formidable Saltoro Ridge, had been preparing and training itself for any eventuality. While doing so, volunteering for an expedition to scale Mount Gorichen, in 1982 even though with limited resources and inadequate expertise, proved to be a good precursor to its deployment in Siachen. The other task was aid to civil authorities in Assam in 1983, when the Battalion was spread over a distance of 400 kms, too wide a stretch for a single battalion.
The rigorous training schedule undertaken to prepare the battalion for the Siachen Glacier proved the saying, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. For Unnis, the move to Siachen Glacier meant traversing 630 Kms, including crossing Zoji La (La means a mountain pass), which was covered with about 40 feet of snow and Khardungla, which, during winters, is considered impassable on foot with full battle loads. The Battalion was fortunate to achieve this stupendous task without suffering any serious casualty.
All these actions and more while on the glacier have been lucidly described by the author in the book, which also happens to be the first ever to be written about military operations at a battalion and lower levels. Every chapter elaborates on tasks accomplished by forming plans after carefully examining the options available. Various situations described in the book can be a matter of debate as to whether any other courses of action were available with the inputs at hand from the field. The chapters on Operation Meghdoot, fought for the first time in world military history at unprecedented altitudes and extreme cold conditions, are rare revelations.
The book is all the more valuable not only for armed forces, but even civilian leaders as it highlights bravery, determination endurance and other attributes of good soldiers on the one hand and on the other, the unfortunate aspects of poor planning, haphazardness and some negative traits of senior commanders, fortunately, only a few.
While the bureaucracy can be blamed for depriving the army of some crucial requirements, senior military leadership too has to share the blame. An awful example: After almost two months of use, the clothing worn by soldiers deteriorated considerably and had to be kept together with needle and thread by the soldiers themselves-from a small hold-all pouch, ironically officially named “housewife”. Owing to extensive walking on rough terrain, the single pair of snow boots per soldier started getting holes in the soles. Wet feet can lead to frostbite and worse, gangrene. The men were using ingenuous methods of blocking the holes in their boots. Even after two months there was no special extreme cold weather clothing even for those doing night sentry duties. There was no highly required mountaineering equipment issued like climbing boots, crampons, ice axes and good quality sleeping bags. Operations at extreme high altitude were conducted with the same clothing authorised for up to 9,000 feet. Hats off to the indefatigable soldiers of Unnis, who, like their comrades in the Indian Army are known for, bore all these shortcomings, maintained their morale and remained ready to take on any task.
There are also situations when a military commander’s mindlessness, to put it mildly, which also sometimes infects his close staff officers, causes avoidable problems. An example: After the arduous 630 kms move of the Battalion, the first order issue to it by the sector headquarters in its operational setting was providing troops for “administrative duties” involving two non-commissioned officers (NCOs), six soldiers, a clerk, a mess waiter and even a bugler, as well as separately, a working party of one NCO and nineteen soldiers.
The book, with many photographs gives the reader, particularly the uninitiated, an idea of the kind of challenges of terrain and weather conditions and unfavourable situations Indian Army troops function in.
There are dilemmas of command which a commander often faces during operations. When viewed in retrospect, it is very difficult to imagine and appreciate the operational environment which existed at the time of the decision. For example in Chapter 12, “The Longest Day”, should a young officer like Second Lieutenant Poondir have volunteered for a suicidal mission? More so, should the commanding officer have permitted such a mission knowing fully well that it may not succeed, or did he have any other option?
The book offers today’s leaders an opportunity to judge the actions taken more than 30 years ago with the advantage of the knowledge of the course history has taken and to discuss if it could be any different or any better. This book is most recommended not only for all young military officers and junior leaders in all walks of life, but also for senior military commanders, particularly as it mentions some avoidable blunders and glitches.
It can also be enjoyed by students, scholars, adventure lovers and avid readers, because many of the daunting feats related in it make it an adventure-thriller.
Anil Bhat, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi