20 years after Kargil: Unarmed, first flights, do or die; victory memories burn bright
Four servicemen who were at the heart of the battle, on the ground and in the air, recount what are today memories that serve the nation to keep alive the sacrifice of soldiers who perished in the action. From landing first on Tololing to conquering Khalubar, these Puneites were there and lived to tell the tale.
‘Going unarmed into battle’
Col Gautam Khot (retd), army aviation
Many are not aware of the achievements of men of the Army aviation who flew helicopters in trying weather conditions and landed on unprepared helipads during the Kargil war. Col Gautam Khot (retd) was one such braveheart who was awarded the Vir Chakra (VrC)for being the first to land at Tololing after our tricolor was unfurled and for flying 70 hours in harsh conditions to supply ammunition, provision and carry out rescue operations. “At that time, the motto of Army aviation was ‘Unarmed into battle’, because we did not have any weapons on us. We were just flying unarmed helicopters into forward areas and we were being shot at and had nothing to fight with,” recalls Col Khot, whose parent arm was the 129 Air Defence Unit, but four years later, he moved to army aviation.
“Our unit- 23 Recce and Observation Flight (R&O)- which was located in Bareilly, was moved to Kargil on June 4, 1999. Apart from our primary role, we were also directing artillery fire, which is taking care of where the shots land (so the helicopter tells you if it has fallen on the target or not and if correction is required). Now, this is very difficult because you are exposing yourself to the enemy. We were also doing troop induction, which was taking troops to an unoccupied post at 16,000-18,000 feet on a hillock or part of the mountain range. This was done to ensure that the enemy does not occupy strategic hill tops and if troops trekked in difficult conditions to such posts, they would not have any strength left to fight later on. Hence, helicopters were moved in to do it,” explains Col Khot, who flew the Cheetah helicopter.
Talking about his major mission, Col Khot adds, “My helicopter was the first helicopter which landed on Tololing, the day after it was won. Tololing was captured in the night and next morning we got a message. At 6am, we took off and landed in Drass. We got briefed and we were told where exactly the hill is and given map reference because there is no helipad there. So, they told us that they have cleared an area on the mountain top which is hidden from enemy fire. Meaning the enemy cannot see when we are on the helipad, but they told us very clearly that while flying in/out, you will be seen and be under enemy fire. When we landed there, the first two times we took water, because all the water there had contaminated due to the shelling. Every time we went back, we carried one casualty. So with my fuel capacity, I did six shuttles with water, food and ammunition.”
Landing at Tololing at 15,000 feet in a terrain not suitable for a helipad, was a very challenging task because when the helicopter flies at high altitudes, the engine is working at the highest levels of efficiency and the reserve power which is available to move the helicopter quickly, is very limited, explains Col Khot.
“The presence of helicopters helped boost the morale of the men fighting on the ground. When you know that a helicopter will come and rescue you as soon as you get injured, this helps the man on the field psychologically. Secondly, men carrying extra food and ammunition, when the battle is going on from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet will take up time and effort, so the helicopters solved that issue too. This made a phenomenal difference on the morale of the men,” adds Col Khot on the importance of army aviation during the war.
‘Die on your birthday, go to heaven’
Col Ajai Tomar, 1/11 Gorkha Rifles
The capture of Khalubar reminds us of the audacious courage of Captain Manoj Pandey, who despite all odds and facing incoming fire destroyed at least three enemy bunkers. “Khalubar had false crests and whenever you thought you had reached the top, you see there is more. I remember Manoj Pandey climbing the sharp ridges on all his fours to reach the top that day before he was martyred,” says Col Ajai Tomar, who was leading the Charlie company of the 1/11 Gorkha rifles during the capture of Khalubar.
Explaining the operations, Col Tomar says, “Three companies - Bravo, Charlie and the CO company, were tasked with capturing Khalubar. So, we started moving towards it on July 2 and after about six hours reached a location called STOP 2. From there we were supposed to go to the base of Khalubar. We shed all our loads, only weapons and first line ammunition was taken and we started our climb towards Khalubar south. Bravo company was in the lead, then was CO party, then the Charlie company.” Capt Pandey was a part of the Bravo company.
“We started the capture on July 2, which happens to be my birthday and I had read somewhere that if you die on your birthday, you will go to heaven. So, I was convinced that if I die during the capture, I would at least go to heaven, because capturing Khalubar was an impossible task,” says Col Tomar.
Another unit had tried to capture Khalubar, but failed and lamenting the fact that they had to undertake the same failed access to Khalubar, Col Tomar said, “Generally in tactics, we never re-enforce a failure, but since we were given strict orders not to cross the LoC, our option was to go through that same area which had been under fire. Luckily for us, it was snowing and once it snows, the night vision devices of the enemy are not very effective. They could not directly target us. We were literally going from one boulder to another, because there were no trees, no cover, no grass. The location of the enemy was identified through the sound rounds and sparks seen at night.”
Communication between troops was difficult at high altitudes because of jamming and the batteries of radio sets stopped working. Recalling the bravery of one of his men when communication was tough, Col Tomar, said, “Janak Bahadur Rai was my CHM (Company Havaldar Major) and since our time in the glacier, he had developed some cold injuries. So, I had initially kept him at the base camp, but he refused to stay behind. It was Janak who was coordinating all moves, one platoon to another. He used to rush with the runner and give all instructions on how to coordinate the attack. After the capture of Khalubar, we counted the bodies and there were 25 bodies of Pakistanis. We were regrouping and I asked around where Janak was, that’s when someone told me he had died in the course of the capture.”
Col Tomar recalled more such stories of bravery of his Gorkha men, wherein the men were not worried about their own life, but took care of others. “One of my company guys was bleeding. Another person who was 10 to 12 feet away took out his FFD (first field dressing) and threw it at the injured person. I asked this man later on, if you would have been injured, what would you do without the FFD? He just smiled and said somebody else would have given me sir. Courage is an ingrained trait in our Gorkhas,” says a proud Col Tomar
Recalling one of the most delicious meals he has ever had, Col Tomar said, “We were hungry since 50 hours and after the capture when dry, crumpled puris (fried bread) came in rag sacks torn due to enemy firing, it was one of the best meals we ever had.”
‘Karlega tu... haa sir, kar lenge’
Col Pradeep Kurup, army aviation
Born to a 1962 Indo-China war veteran, Colonel Pradeep Kurup, had a strong urge to join the army since the early ages. Col Kurup was commissioned into the artillery and after three years of service, opted for army aviation. Col Kurup was posted with one of the artillery divisions in the Siachen glacier before the Kargil war and had just moved to Jalandhar when he was asked to mobilise.
“One day, I was sitting and watching television in the evening and my commanding officer called me and told me to mobilise. He said you have to move to Kargil and you have to move in 36 hours. My first encounter was when I was asked to land at a certain spot to pick up casualties. A young instructor was flying with me and when we landed, I could see some guys firing from 100 metres away. That is how I was introduced to the Kargil war. It was real, a close-quarter war and we were entering a war midway. So, we were starting off from a position of disadvantage,” said Col Kurup, who believes that the tri-services training men receive at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakwasla, helps troops develop an instant connect during times of crisis.
“The very concept of NDA is to build camaraderie among the three forces, so that in the time of war, you need not introduce yourself to each other. When I went out there, I met people one/two courses senior to me and there was no official chat between us. We said, “Karlega tu… haa sir, kar lenge.” (Will you be able to do it… yes sir, we will do it),” says Col Kurup.
Flying a Cheetah (helicopter), Col Kurup said that the problem faced was that they didn’t know where to land and often landed very close to the enemy. “We were shot at, but luckily we managed to get back,” he adds.
Another important aspect, which Col Kurup brings to the table is that most young pilots were literally “baptised” during the Kargil war. “The number of pilots trained to fly the aircraft was less, so other than flying in the war, senior pilots had to teach youngsters. There was added burden on senior pilots - they had to save their skin, complete their mission and train these men,” adds Col Kurup.
Picking up a shell carefully displayed in his drawing room, Col Kurup speaks about his mission to search for a missing Air Force Mi17 helicopter during the war. “I got this shell with Pakistani markings as a souvenir from the company which was posted at Tololing. The Mi17 had been shot just 15 minutes ago. I had to fly around that hill top at least four times to locate the crash site. When I met the company commander after a few days, he asked me if I was the one flying the Cheetah the day the Mi17 was shot. I replied in the affirmative and he said that I was lucky to be alive because the Pakistanis were firing at my helicopter constantly, and handed me the shell,” recalls Col Kurup.
‘If the bullet has my name...’
Col Lalit Rai (retd), 1/11 Gorkha Rifles
Colonel Lalit Rai, is a decorated Kargil war veteran and led his men from the front during one of the fiercest battles ever fought in Kargil. Col Lalit Rai’s unit, the 1st battalion of the 11 Gorkha Rifles was responsible for capturing the Khalubar top in the Batalik sector. “I volunteered to take the Khalubar top and even though I was not given the first chance, when the time came, I told my boys to focus on that objective - do or die- we have to capture it by next morning,” recalls Col Rai.
Calling it one of the most decisive moments of the war, Col Rai adds, “One of my companies, Bravo, was bombarded just the night prior to the attack. There were casualties too and people were having doubts if that company would be ready to go forward depleted. However, I was resolute and stood steadfast on the decision to capture Khalubar. We captured it the next day.”
Col Rai believes that the sacrifice and valour made by the men of his unit must be remembered because of their sheer courage to fight in the icy heights without proper food, water and ammunition.
Looking back, Col Rai cherishes the lighter moments he shared with his troops on the battlefront. “We were all sitting together just before the capture of Khalubar and all these youngsters were high on josh (energy). As the commanding officer, I told them that you guys should be careful, you all are youngsters… don’t be in too much josh because bullets are flying everywhere. So one of the youngsters said, “Jis goli pe apna naam hoga, jis din aayega tabhi jaayegenge” (if the bullet has my name, we will go that day). I asked them, hat happens to you if there is a bullet with “to whomsoever it may concern” written on it?... I still remember vividly, it was a laughter riot that day,” concludes Col Rai.