Part XVIII

He stumbled back into the command bunker where he had last discussed their strategy with now dead Major and Subedar. All of it felt unreal to the young Lt. who just realised that now he was the senior most officer on the post and was responsible for the well being of all the men under his command. His attention was taken up by the radio which was cackling with excited chatter. He recognised voice of Colonel Saha from the base camp calling on their call-sign, “Watchguard Alpha. This is Base 1. Do you copy ? “

He picked up the receiver and replied, “ Base 1, this is Watchguard Alpha. “

“Thank god, somebody replied. Who are you? Identify yourself. What was that explosion ? ”

“This is Lt Shubhranjan. One Paki artillery shell hit one of our M46s. We lost 4 men including Major Baljit and Sub. Sonam.” Shubhranjan heard himself reporting mechanically.

“Shit !” Voice on the other end replied. “What about the other gun ? Do you have enough ammunition ?”

“Other gun is operational but we are fast running out of it’s ammunition. For heavy fire power, we only have some mortars left.”

“Damn it !. Listen Lt. Activate your UAV feed. We have just started receiving live video from one of our UAVs flying in your sector. It seems like Pakis are making an attempt to capture your position.We can see their infantry moving up on the slope from west. Do you have a visual on them ?”

“Negative sir. Visibility is less than 100 metres.”

Colonel replied in a worried voice, “That’s bad. That bird won’t stay up there longer than 30 minutes. Listen Lt., As you might’ve known it by now, Pakis have moved in a couple of their M198s. We are sending you reinforcements and ammunition right now. You just hang in there tight and don’t let those bas**** come anywhere near your positions.
Use your mortars, machine guns anything to hold their advance. We’ll provide you support against their heavy artillery from our 155mm guns.” and added almost as an afterthought, “as long as our stocks last.”

“Understood sir. I will not let Pakis take this post” Shubhranjan said with much more confidence than he actually felt.

“Good luck son. Over and out.”

The young Lt. Was left staring at the headset of the communication gear for a while before he was jarred back into reality by sound of yet another Paki artillery shell landing close by. He immediately picked up the short ranged field radio to contact the crew of remaining M46 and filled them in with the new developments. The artillery crew in turn replied that they had only 13 shells remaining.

Indian 155mm gun crews immediately started targeting Paki gun positions after the feed from UAV started coming in. Indian soldiers on top of Pt 6431 could hear the distant rumble as Indian gunners fired off their first salvo targeting their Pakistani counterparts. Effect of this counter- artillery fire was immediate. Some of the Paki guns were forced to change their positions, thus providing some respite to besieged defenders on Pt 6431. But they were not quite out of danger yet. Pakistani infantry was still advancing along the rolling slope of the mountain. Even in the bad weather, Heron operators could see the mortars they were carrying. It was only a matter of minutes before they reached close enough to fire them.
Subharanjan hailed crew of his remaining M46 on radio and ordered them to concentrate their fire on advancing Paki infantry. Indians knew the territory like backs of their hands and the effect of their firing made it quite obvious. Still smarting from the losses they had sustained earlier, they let loose a volley of high explosive shells that very nearly wiped out the whole advancing column of Paki infantry.

Subhranjan watched in quiet fascination as he sat in front of UAV feed console watching shells exploding in between Pakis. But the invaders were spread out over a large area and there were not enough heavy guns to cover them all. Even as one of the advancing parties was wiped out, another group started racing upwards. Now, it was turn of Indian mortar crews. AS soon as they were in range, all of them started their fire simultaneously. Although the effects were not as spectacular as 130mm shells, they were not less deadly for the attackers. A lot of them were blown to pieces even as they were running on the slopes. Survivors tried to take cover behind the rocks, but mortars were still finding their mark with deadly results.

Subhranjan allowed himself a slight smile as he watched Paki offensive break up and loose steam under sustained Indian artillery and mortar fire. Pakis had been unable to come close enough for their machine guns or mortars to be of any use. They were counting on their own heavy artillery to suppress the defenders. Banking on element of surprise, dense fog and fast deteriorating light they felt they had good chance of taking the post without suffering too many causalities. But early warning given by UAV and subsequent Indian artillery fire had broken the back of their offensive. With their forces severely depleted and scattered, they ordered retreat causing quite a few roars of joy and laughter from Indians. But Indians were not quite out of woods yet. Ammunition for mortars and sole 130mm gun was almost depleted and reinforcements were still more than 3 hours away.

Colonel Saha came on the radio, “ Nice work Watchguard Alpha ! Paki infantry is retreating, good job by your mortars. Our Bofors guns managed to break up their artillery formation but not as well as I’d have liked. Still, they’ll be out of action for some time. How are you faring up there ?“

“No further causalities sir, but we are all out of ammo for our 130mm. Less than 12 mortar rounds left. We need supplies immediately.”

“A team with reinforcements and ammunition is on it’s way Lt. You can expect them in 3 hours maximum. There’ll be no UAV coverage for 3-4 hours at least, as the bird needs to be refueled and repaired. You’ll have to hold on to your position till then. ”
Subharanjan could feel the unease in Colonel’s voice even as he broke the bad news. Lack of UAV coverage in such low visibility conditions was going to be a big handicap for Indians. Without UAV, they had to rely on their night vision devices, which had a very limited range and utility in comparison.

“I understand sir. Just try keep their heavy artillery off our backs and we can manage the rest.”

“Good. One of our convoys just delivered a artillery position locating radar. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. Hope it’ll do the the job.”

“One good news at last.”Subhranjan thought to himself then heard the Colonel say, “Listen son, I know I’m asking a lot from you, but you have to hold your positions until reinforcements arrive. A lot depends on you tonight. God bless.”

It’s going to take much more than just blessings if we want to defend the peak against another attack. Subharanjan thought to himself and went out again to check on his men.

Part XVII

Things had gone on as expected with Subhranjan. He had learnt from his his first experience of being in enemy fire and as the more experienced soldiers had predicted, learnt to took it in stride. After nearly 2 weeks, his initial “welcome” was just another part of life on the border. Still, the soldiers watched the events unfolding in Pakistan warily. They knew that any kind of unrest in Pakistan will definitely affect the peace on border. They were not entirely wrong in this assumption and Pakis proved them right by increasing the amount of shelling just after the news of attack on Paki President had hit the news channels.
Although they were under strict orders to exercise restraint, Indians had no choice but to retaliate in self-defence. The shelling that lasted for a maximum of 10-12 rounds earlier, had now escalated to full blown artillery duels being fought on multiple locations. Now after 2 days of facing intense firing Indians were hoping that the news of coup will dampen the enthusiasm of Pakis and volume of fire might decrease. Much to their disappointment, Pakis had actually increased the tempo.

The 3 senior most ranking personnel on Point 6431, Major Baljit, Lt. Shubharanjan and Subedar Sonam were huddled in a bunker discussing their plan of action in current situation. The walls of the bunker were covered with maps and recently taken pictures of Paki positions by Heron UAVs . Things were not going well for Indians. They were running short of ammunition due to paucity of stocks. The convoys that were expected to bring more supplies were delayed due to bad weather and land slides. Bad weather had also stopped the base camp from sending mules and porters up.

“What’s our inventory situation Sonam?” Major Baljit without lifting his eyes from the reports he was studying.

“We are running short of ammunition for our M46s as well as 81mm mortars. Stocks for both are reduced to 31 and 42 rounds respectively. We do have enough grenades and bullets for our rifles, but that’s only because we haven’t had to fire them, yet. We still have enough food and water to last us a week” Sub Sonam was quick to reply.

“Going by the current rate of fire, these stocks wouldn’t last for more than a day. When are we going to get more supplies ?” Shuhranjan couldn’t help wondering aloud.

Sonam gestured towards the small window of the bunker “Our mules can’t carry anything up due to this bloody fog and rain. They tried sending some men in the morning but the team had to turn back within 1 hour of leaving the camp. Using choppers in these conditions too risky. We can only hope that the weather eases soon.”

“Even if the mules start their journey right now, it’ll take them at least 3 hours to reach here. If our ammo runs out sooner then their arrival, we will be in real deep shit.”

“What do we do then sir? “ Sonam asked Major Baljit.

“We’ll have to use our ammunition more judiciously. Fire only when you have a sure fix on their position. No need wasting firing just for the effect.”
Taking up a pointing stick, he pointed out position of Paki guns on maps and pictures, “Herons took these pictures last night. As you can clearly see, we did manage to hit one of their big guns in previous night’s shelling. But they still have 2 more type 59Is and 3 Type 54s spread all over this sector, most of them pointed in our general direction. Although 59Is have more range, it’s 54s that worry me more. These smaller guns are comparatively more mobile and can proved really hard to counter if Pakis keep moving them as they’ve started to do recently. Am, I clear on this ? “ He asked.

Both men nodded their agreement and Major continued, “Lt., I’ll need you to check on machine guns and mortar crews. Make sure the they are ready to fire and have enough ammunition. You never know when we might need to fire them. Sonam, come with me. I want to check the big guns myself.”
With this he ended the meeting and went out of the bunker followed by his two juniors. Subhranjan watched the two men walk towards M46 positions while he himself started his walk towards machine gun bunkers.

He found the soldiers slightly tired and wary but in good spirits otherwise. He was in first bunker on the eastern side when he heard the sound of artillery shells streaking in.
Even just by listening to the sound of the shells as they streaked towards his post, Shubhranjan realised that something was different. But he didn’t have enough time to guess what. Within seconds, 1 shell landed smack in middle of the post area, with 2 passing over the peak.
“Damn it! They are firing 155mm shells. “ Lance Naik Joginder shouted in surprise.

“Seems like they have a good lock on our position as well. You sure it’s 155mm ? “ Shubhranjan shouted back, his ears ringing by sounds of the blast.

“100% sure sir! These shells are much bigger and even clearing the peak this time. Their 130mms cant fire that far.” Joginder replied back.

Their conversation was interrupted by the boom of Indian M46s firing back at the Pakis.

Joginder grinned at the Lt., “Heh! That’s sure to teach those idiots some good lesson.”

Right about then, 1 of the shells fired by Pakis got lucky and landed smack on one of Indian M46s. The ammunition dump right next to the gun caught fire and some of the shells exploded.

Shubhranjan heard the racket with a sickening feeling as he remembered that both Major Baljit and Subedar Sonam were supposed to be right there. He at once scrambled out of the bunker and started running towards the gun’s position. He stopped in his tracks when a badly wounded soldier, covered in soot and dust staggered in front of him and collapsed. He muttered deliriously, “Nobody survived sir. The shell landed right on our position.” Shubhranjan asked the soldier to keep quiet and shouted for the medic. He was also scrambling towards the gun’s position along with his assistant. He at once started administering first aid to the wounded soldier.

Shubhranjan left the 3 men there and resumed his search for his two compatriots. He stopped dead in his tracks when he came across the gun’s position. The small clearing was nothing but a mess of twisted metal, smoke and fire. Overcome by fear and desperation he sprinted towards the clearing trying to find survivors. All he could find was splashes of blood and a few dismembered limbs. Unable to control himself, he collapsed on his knees and puked. He didn’t knew how much time had passed as he vaguely felt rather than heard sounds of more explosions as the fight got more intense. He was shaken out of his state by the medic who was trying to drag him back towards cover.

He shook away his arm and said confusedly, “What are you doing ?” Pointing at the place where the gun was, he screamed, “We have to help them ! Come with me !”

That medic, another NCO in the unit replied gently, “We can’t help them sir. They are all dead. But we need to get back in to cover.”

“But Major Baljit and Sub Sonam were there.”

“I know sir. They are both dead. The wounded soldier you saw earlier saw them die with his own eyes. Now, we have to get out of this exposed position in to cover. Please hurry up.”

Part XVI

Lt. Shubhranjan had learned of the above mentioned fact on second day of his arrival when he had to scramble towards cover when Pakis started shelling the place. He was on a familiarisation tour of the post with Sub. Sonam playing the tour guide, when sound of first shell screeching towards the post hit their ears. Both men immediately scrambled towards the nearest bunker, reaching there only seconds before first of the shell landed, albeit well short of the place they were in. Pakistanis were using 122 mm Type 54, Chinese copy of Soviet M30 and ironically, Type 59I which were Chinese copy of M46 that the Indians had. Indians retaliated with shelling of their own. The duel ended as soon as it had started. Pakis didn’t want to risk needling Indians more than usual due to the strategic advantage latter held and Indians on the other hand, were almost always short of ammunition.

Sitting in the bunker while guns were blazing, Shubhranjan had not realised the cramped conditions inside. There was barely enough space for 2 man crew of the machine gun in the bunker and addition of 2 extra men had left little room for anyone to move without bumping into somebody else. He was too busy to pay any attention to this as he watched Sub. Sonam providing coordinates to the artillery crew on the short range radio. But he couldn’t help but notice shaking of earth as Paki shells landed close by and Indian guns fired back. Although both sides had fired only 5 shells each in less than 2 minutes, it has seemed liked an eternity to the young Lt, who was facing enemy fire for the first time. Slightly shocked and disoriented, he had just sat there until Sub. Sonam shook him awake after the firing stopped.

“Are you OK sir ? Don’t worry about this. Ye sab to chalta hi rehataa hai.” The veteran Subedar had told him with a nonchalant grin and went out of the bunker motioning the still confused Lt. to follow him.
They were met by Major Baljit who was always in a cheerful mood, irrespective of whatever was going around. He slapped Shubhranjan on the shoulder and asked, “ So Lt., did you liked the Paki welcome ? Quite a show they put on to make you feel special, didn’t they ?“

Subhranjan was still gathering his wits and could only mumble confusedly, “Yes sir!”

Both of other men laughed on hearing this much to the discomfort of somewhat embarrassed Lt. “Don’t worry Lt. You will get used to it. It’s nothing much.” Major Baljit said in a kindly way.

Although he nodded his agreement, Subhranjan still couldn’t understand how could anybody get used to high explosive shells exploding around him. “Around”, if the chap is somewhat lucky. No amount of luck is going to help someone who gets a direct hit, even within meters.” He thought to himself.

Next few days passed away in a similar way with Pakis marking their presence with an occasional burst of shelling which kept Indians on their toes. Pakis had the advantage of a terrain suitable for moving around and always fired from a different location, unlike Indians who were forced to stay in a restricted area. Although it somewhat evened out the odds, neither side liked it’s status. After all, no body likes to fight an evenly matched enemy, let alone a more powerful one. Much of the work on Indian side consisted on keeping an eye on Paki movements, just to keep the odds even.

This task they performed using high powered binoculars and with additional thermal sights during night or heavy fog. Recently, army HQ in Poonch had managed to get hold of a couple of Heron UAVs. Although it had made the task much easier, there was simply too much ground to be covered by only two UAVs. Local commanders had been pressing for more UAVs but the equipment and trained manpower were hard to come by. It meant that, they could manage to receive pictures and live video feed of their sector only once every two days. Rest of the time, they had to depend on their own eyes and binoculars. Looking at the pictures taken by Heron for first time, Shubranjan immediately noticed the immense force multiplier effect an eye-in-the sky provided. Even during low visibility conditions caused by fog, clouds or night, thermal imaging cameras of the UAV could capture every detail of men and machines on the ground and stream back the images in real-time to their handlers. He had talked about it with Major Baljit and wished that they could have more time with the UAVs. Major had replied simply, “We fight with what we have Lt., not with what we wish for. I agree with what you said, but we simply don’t have the resources right now. “
Seeing the expression on of Subhranjan’s face, he had smiled and continued, “ That’s what Brigadier Gagan said to me when I asked him for more UAVs just the way you said. Who are we to question the old man, eh ? I know he is trying his best. Who knows, we might get more in coming days.”

Previous Part

Point 6431 was just one of countless mountain peaks that formed the rugged landscape on India-Pakistan Line Of Control in J&K.; Like with every other mountain peak right on the border, this one too had army posts manned all year round. Maintaining round the clock vigil all through the year was tough in summers and murderous in winters. The process was exhausting, expensive and most of all, took it’s toll on the soldiers who considered a posting like this akin to a punishment tour. Cut off from rest of the civilisation, except for the field radio in small bunker high up in a god forsaken mountain, all the while keeping up constant vigil was nobody’s idea of fun. But still, the work had to be done. Neither side was sparing any effort to better or at the very least, keep up with the other side.

Conditions were not always like this though. Prior to Kargil war in 1999, most of the posts high up in the mountains were vacated during winters and reoccupied in summers by both armies. Both India and Pakistan had a gentleman’s agreement on the issue and neither side tried to occupy others empty posts. The truce between two sworn enemies had held in spite of some hiccups till 1999, when Pakistani army broke the agreement and occupied numerous Indian posts while they were empty during winters. Intruders were regular Paki army personnel disguised as “mujahideen”. Indian intelligence and armed forces were caught with their pants down. A limited, yet bloody war ensued with Indian Army throwing waves of infantry and artillery attacks against a well established enemy in an impossible terrain. The war took it’s toll on both sides. India lost more than 600 soldiers and 5 aircraft in a war that lasted just more than three weeks. Losses on Pakistani side were much higher. Indians claiming more than 1400 while Pakistanis claiming no more than 300. Pakistanis owned up some of their dead 11 years later. They had to do it sooner or later, specially since loss of a whole army unit, NLI was difficult to hide anyway.

One of the effects of that war was a halt on the practice of abandoning posts during winters. All along LOC, new bunkers were constructed, existing one fortified with more supplies and armies on both sides started their 365 days a year watch.

But Point 6431 differed from rest of the peaks. It had immense strategic value for both sides. It had been in Indian control since 1947 and unlike many other peaks, it’s posts were never abandoned during winters even before 1999. Much of it’s strategic value came from it’s unique position. It was directly on top of Bahu pass, that connected Indian territory with Pakistan. Although the pass had been in disuse for 6 decades, it was still a vital feature for both the sides. It was the only place in the sector which allowed tanks from either side to cross over in to the other. Both sides had realised the possibility and constructed roads that could support heavy armour movement right up to the opening. But Pakistanis had a major disadvantage in the fact that whoever controlled Pt. 6431 effectively controlled the pass and the control was in Indian hands.

One other advantage that controller of the peak enjoyed was the strategic view it offered, on both sides of border, specially Pakistani. While terrain on Indian side behind the peak was still uneven and covered with smaller mountains, Pakistani was more or less flat with only a small series of hillocks that actually marked the end of the mountain range in this area. Although it gave Pakis an easier and faster terrain to move their convoys, control of the peak in Indian hands negated much of their advantage. Any movement they made was difficult to hide from the Indians. Even the small 130 mm field guns and 81 mm mortars on top of the mountain were deadly and had extended range due to the altitude advantage. Additionally, they could always call for backup from the heavier 155mm Bofors guns which were placed only a few Km back.

Importance of the pass was further increased after an old but disused route connecting Poonch to Shopian in Kashmir was activated. In earlier times, the route was used by Mughals to travel to Kashmir. It passed through Jammu, Rajauri, Poonch and terminated in Shopian in Kashmir. The new road, formally named as Mughal Road was less than 1 hours drive from the pass and the side controlling it had a very easy route to reach both Kashmir as well as Jammu in a short amount of time.

One of the first things that Lt. Shubharanjan had noticed about the peak was the time required for travel to the post on the mountain top from army base camp just on the foot-hills. First time he traveled, it took him more than 5 hours to climb the nearly 6000m high mountain. At many places the path was no more than a small mule trail, that afforded barely enough foot-hold for a loaded mule to pass through. Iron chains and ropes were nailed in at many places to provide a hand hold for the men. Any body slipping at any such place was sure to die a quick yet gruesome death on hard rocks hundreds of meters below. Getting down from the top was as difficult as going up, in some places more difficult due to the loose rock and gravel. Mules and porters carried much of the supplies above, with an occasional chopper pitching in whenever available.
Conditions on Pakistani side were much easier though. The peak was more like a gentle slope albeit littered with large rocks, that extended many km down in to the Pakistani side. It also took much less time to travel and getting men and supplies on the top was much easier and safer. They could have very well constructed a road if it was not for Indians controlling the peak.

He had staggered on to the peak tired, cold and out of breath in spite of the excellent physical condition he was in. His CO, a jolly Major Baljit Singh Randhwa had laughed on seeing his condition and immediately offered him a drink of brandy which Lt Shubhranjan gratefully accepted. He was filled in on the history and importance of the post by the Major himself. But it was Subedar Sonam Stobbdhan who taught him about life on top of the mountain. Among all men, he had spent the most time on the post and was the senior most NCO. He was also the leader of artillery spotter team and had taught many soldiers tricks of bringing accurate artillery fire in mountains.

Lt Shubhranjan had shown good marksmanship in NCC as well as IMA training and was given charge of the machine gun posts. There were 2 INSAS LMGs (Light Machine Gun) and 2 MGA1 HMGs (Heavy Machine Gun) placed in fortified concrete bunkers spread around the top. 2 mortar teams, each armed with 81mm mortars were usually positioned in the middle. They could move to a different position when required.
Heavier fire power was provided with M-46 130mm field guns. Although old, these Soviet manufactured artillery guns were in good condition and had fair range and accuracy for their caliber. These were placed in dug in positions shielded by the rocks and sand bags to protect them from counter-artillery fire and to hide the muzzle flash. Although in theory these guns could be moved around, there was no place to do so on the mountain top. The guns were carried up in completely knocked down condition by helicopters and mules and then assembled on top. Ammunition was transported in the same laborious way, 2-3 shells on a single mule at a time.
Close in fire support was provided by 6 more riflemen armed with standard 5.56mm INSAS rifles.

Soldiers wished for more fire power and men, it was almost impossible to do so using mule-porter system and already scarce Chetak and Cheetah light helicopters. Dhruvs with their higher carrying capacity were beginning to share some of the work load, but they were in short supply too. Even if they could move in more supplies and men, there was little space for either on top.

Part XIV

17:45 Hours
Point 6431
Poonch, Jammu

Joining army was more of an accident than a conscious career choice for Shubharanjan. As a 11 years old kid, he had seen the Kargil war on TV and like every other kid of his age, he too watched the events unfolding on TV with rapt attention then forgot about it afterwards as pressure of studies and other stuff associated with growing up took all of his time. As an average student, he did alright in school and joined a fairly well reputed college. There, he joined NCC just for the extra grades it offered and completed level C. As the time of graduation approached, he too started applying for jobs with various private sector companies and government agencies, hoping to grab a well paying job like all of his classmates.

He was not entirely successful in his endeavours, managing only a clerical job in a small start up company that didn’t pay enough to justify the long hours his boss demanded. He got bored of the job within weeks and started looking for change. Most of his classmate were doing comparatively well, but a lot were stuck in jobs that they hated, just like him. One day he received a letter containing his admit card for the SSB exam. He had filled up the form on the NCC counter in his college months ago without really giving it a thought and had forgotten all about it. Although he enjoyed his stint with NCC, he had never given a serious thought to idea of joining armed forces as a career choice or even as a way to serve the nation. Nobody in his family had been in armed forces, except one of the cousins of his mother and he too was in police.

“Well, what the hell! What’s the harm in trying ? ” He said to himself and attended the exam, then again promptly forgot about it until the day he received the letter informing him that he had passed the written and was required to attend the second round for face to face interviews and physical tests. In good physical condition, he cleared the physicals easily but was shown the door in one of face to face interviews. Piqued and puzzled by his disqualification at almost the last round, he discussed the matter with one of his college mates whose elder brother was a Colonel in the army. The Colonel was gracious enough to listen and give him as much guidance as he could in his limited time. Although in meanwhile, he had managed to land another job that paid better than the previous one, he applied again for the SSB. Even though he still had doubts about clearing the exam, much to his own surprise he did so in second attempt.

His father was both proud and slightly amused while his mother showed more of a horrified surprise than pride. Both had been in government service their whole lives and idea of their only son joining the army had never crossed their mind. They had expected him to complete his studies, get a job somewhere , preferably in government sector and start his own family within a few years of job, just like rest of the extended family. He was even well on the expected path and now this army thing ! What with it’s risks and postings to remote places that no one even heard about.

The very concept was alien to them, but they had to give in to his wishes. Sure there was a little danger but it’s not that everybody died. Private sector job was ok but was boring as hell and he had loved the NCC. He even won 2 awards, didn’t he ? Additionally, even army was paying a competitive salary after the 6th Pay Commission. Who else in the whole family had the honour of wearing the olive green uniform ? And most importantly, finding a girl for marriage wouldn’t be hard now.

He resigned from the job next day and joined IMA for his training which he passed respectably. His first tour of duty in Punjab was peaceful and routine in every aspect and lasted 4 months. After which he was transferred to J&K;, which everybody rightly expected to be his first brush with real action. He had arrived at his post known only by Point 6431 in two weeks ago as an almost fresh Lieutenant still learning the ropes.