Kaalkut Chapter 32 – Excerpt

Fuk Che and Demchok

Day 1, 11:00 Hours

Indian positions in Fuk Che and Demchok held by 70th Infantry and 79th Mountain Infantry brigades were faring slightly better than those in DBO. PLA had attacked these two positions with two Combined Arms Brigades (CABs), 12th and 182nd supported by elements of 76th Artillery Brigade belonging to 76th Group Army. Combined with the organic artillery of the other two CABs, the Indian troops were facing a withering amount of artillery fire from multiple directions. The handful of Indian counter-artillery units assigned to this sector that had survived the first attack were still trying to regroup and retaliate. In the meanwhile, Indians could only shell the Chinese positions with two batteries of 155 mm howitzers.  

G-219 passed within 34 km of the easternmost Indian positions and the PLA had constructed two connecting roads from the highway to their positions. The only thing between them was Charding Nullah which formed the de-facto border between the two belligerents. If PLA managed to overrun the two Indian positions, they could easily strike Indian defenders at Chushul and Pangong Tso from the south-east while keeping the pressure from the east which offered only limited room for military manoeuvres. 

Major Raghunath’s company defending Fuk Che airstrip had suffered eleven dead and five others too seriously injured to fight. They had six T-90 tanks out of which two were already knocked out and the remaining four had been moved a km back to take shelter behind a small hill. It wasn’t much, but it was offering some protection of artillery shells following a ballistic trajectory. 

 His team of forward observers tasked with calling artillery strikes on advancing PLA troops had crossed Charding and lost contact soon after. He had called for UAV support two hours back but it still had not finished refuelling and repairs. They had lost a  mid-sized UAV earlier and the small drones they had left were unsuitable for long ranged operations in rarefied air of the high-altitude region. On the other hand, it seemed like the enemy was using his own drones well and directing accurate long range artillery strikes at will. They were hoping for some air support but that was delayed too.    

A forward platoon had reported movement of multiple ZBDs near the river but they had not attempted crossing it.  For a moment he wished that they’d cross the river. The artillery barrage would stop then and they could have a proper battle with the enemy rather than cowering in bunkers and trenches. He used his binocular to peek out of the bunker’s windows where the movement was reported but could see nothing. The smokescreen and dust clouds kicked up by the enemy’s artillery barrage were too thick. Another shell landed very close to the bunker and he ducked down immediately. The reinforced structure had received a direct hit already and had managed to shrug it off. He wondered if it could withstand another direct hit which seemed inevitable at this point.

He leaned against the wall and looked to his radioman, “Tell me at least the gunners have managed to get off their asses.”

“Sir HQ is saying that they can only shell the road parallel to the river right now. They still need eyes on the ground or UAV to direct fire beyond the hills.”

“Any luck with the FOs yet?”

Radioman shook his head, “No update yet, sir.”

“Two more casualties and we can only wait. Great!” Raghunath thought to himself.

Just then the steel door of the bunker opened and Subedar Ranga entered, dragging a seriously injured and unconscious soldier with him. He nearly collapsed on the floor trying to catch his breath, “Sir, 1st platoon is taking heavy direct fire from Chinese ZBDs and comms are gone.”

Raghunath ordered first aid and evacuation for the injured soldiers and grabbed the radio, “Hunter-Actual, this is Alpha Company requesting immediate fire support. The enemy is about to cross the river and we have imminent contact!.”

“Copy Alpha. Send coordinates, fire support is on its way.”

By this time, the remaining tanks had rumbled out of their shelter and engaged the first wave of ZBDs south of Fuk Che airstrip. Three of them had already entered the water and were almost on the Indian side. T-90s acquired their targets via thermal imagers which showed the hot ZBDs clear as day even behind clouds of dust and smoke. First two vehicles were hit squarely on the sides and staggered to a halt even as red smoky flames began to pour out of their chassis. 

The remaining ZBD was in an awkward position. It was in the middle of the shallow yet fast flowing river and was protected from direct fire from the Indian tanks by some rocks and terrain. It tried to move back to a better cover but got stuck in the river bed which forced the soldiers to abandon and retreat a bit further. 

Fearing a directed artillery strike, T-90s immediately changed positions and redeployed elsewhere. It was a good decision as a bunch of 122 mm mortars landed on their old location only a few seconds later.  PLA had a bunch of them in self-propelled mode which could provide integral heavy firepower to advancing infantry.

Two other T-90s further south had to face three Type-99A tanks backed by four ZBDs. Indian tanks were in a hull-down protected position and fired Armor Piercing, Fin Stabilized, Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds first. The hardened tungsten sabot hit the lead Chinese tank’s turret and successfully penetrated it. There was no explosion but the crew was decimated by the shrapnel which bounced around in the cramped interior. A ZBD was also destroyed similarly, but Indians didn’t have much time to celebrate. Even as one T-90 managed to fire off one more round at another Chinese tank, both Indian tanks were hit by retaliatory fire and caught fire. The second Type-99 was hit on its tracks and the sabot didn’t penetrate the armour. But it lost mobility and the remaining Type-99 and ZBDs left it behind to cross the water. 

A single MILAN (wire guided anti-tank missile) crew had the formation within its sights from their trenches as soon as ZBDs climbed up the river bank while the heavier tank struggled to find enough traction to climb through.  ZBD crews spotted the slow-moving missile heading towards the vehicle and they deployed smoke screens and started firing their 30 mm cannons. If they had located and fired upon the crew, they could have had better luck. But the missile scored a clean hit on ZBD’s flanks and the thin armour crumpled like tin sheet. Three soldiers who had already exited the vehicles escaped with minor injuries but the rest were not so lucky. 

Milan crew was trying to reload and fire off another missile at the Type-99 or remaining ZBDs. The Chinese spotted them and fired off a volley of cannon rounds on them. The fire was not very accurate from the distance, but a few rounds injured the loader who slumped back into the trench with a severely injured shoulder and chest. 

By this time, Indian troops had started mortar and 155 mm gunfire of their own and the shells were landing on the narrow route that the PLA vehicles were taking.  A few ZBDs were crippled by near hits and shrapnel but the volume of fire was not enough to stop the whole wave. As the besieged  Indian defenders watched in tense silence, nearly half a battalion worth of infantry backed by three more Type-99s and ten plus ZBDs started advancing towards Indian positions. The Indian company had only 3 BMPs by this time and they weaved through the battlefield trying to slow the advance with their 30 mm cannons. The Milan launcher was made active again and it was able to score a direct hit on another Type-99. But it was too little and too late as PLA was pushing in nearly a full CAB on a really small sector defended by a single battalion plus some armour in order to have a toehold inside Indian held territory.   

Brigadier Rajinder Singh in the 12th Brigade HQ was receiving multiple distress calls from his forward commanders who were fighting tooth and nail against swarms of heavily armed enemy troops. A battalion deployed for the defence of Demchok had lost all armour apart from two BMPs and one T-90. Personnel losses were almost a third and approaching half of the total deployed troops for some companies.  Fuk Che had no armour left and was fast running out of ATGMs even as the Chinese were pumping in waves of fresh armoured vehicles and infantry to replace their losses. 

Only Chushul sector was stable because the terrain didn’t allow much room for massed armour and infantry attacks.  Indian infantry had been able to actually push back Chinese from a few positions on the hills but had taken heavy casualties in the process. Reinforcements were being rushed in at all sectors, yet he was not happy about being forced to use reserves even before they had the chance to counter-attack. 

Someone shouted over the noise of dozens of people, radios and explosions, “Sir, a Heron is over the sector. Patching the feed to our terminals.”

Singh rushed to the screens and scowled in anger. A large swarm of Chinese infantry and ZBDs were advancing on the remaining Indian positions under the cover of heavy mortar and artillery fire near Fuk Che. The ground around Indian positions was being churned by falling shells and was nearly invisible due to dust clouds being kicked up. The Indian positions were about to be completely overrun in a matter of minutes.

Raghunath had reported the loss of all armour under his command and reports of enemy massing near his positions a few minutes back. Even with the firepower of a whole 155 mm artillery battery pounding them, the Chinese had been able to push past the first line of defence and were on the verge of destroying all Indian ground troops in the sector. He noticed as two streaks of smoke originated from Indian trenches and a ZBD stopped with trails of black smoke rising from its turret. Raghunath’s company had taken huge losses and was dishing out a lot more in return. They needed reinforcements, yet the nearest ones were still 30-40 minutes away. A landslide had blocked the road and the Indian troops were working feverishly to clear it for vehicles to pass even as infantry rushed on foot carrying whatever weapons they could.

The radio crackled with Raghunath’s voice, “Jackknife-Actual, Bravo Shield requesting immediate fire support. We are fast running out of ammunition and need artillery strikes at grid reference three-two-easy slash seven-nine-foxtrot right now.”

The HQ staff within earshot was stunned and all looked at their CO at once. The coordinates supplied were barely a hundred meters from Bravo Shield’s own positions. This type of danger close artillery strike was a means of last resort which could inflict as much damage on the friendlies as it’d on the enemy.

Singh clenched his jaw and grabbed the radio, “Are you absolutely sure Bravo?” 

There were sounds of rapid gunfire and screams in the background, “Yes, absolutely sure about danger close fire. Please hurry.”

“Roger Bravo Shield. Incoming fire at supplied coordinates in 90 seconds. Take cover and good luck.”

“No time to waste,” Singh instructed the new targets to be passed on to the gunners who started adjusting their guns for the new targets without any hesitation.

A few seconds later, a barrage of shells was crashing over advancing Chinese troops, some of them just 10s of meters away from Indian trenches. The airburst shells exploded a few meters above the ground and peppered everyone and everything around them with red hot shrapnel. Everything was covered in thick layers of smoke and dust soon after making visual reconnaissance impossible. 

A radio operator was trying to contact Raghunath without success. He slammed the radio set in frustration, looked at Singh and shook his head. They had managed to break the Chinese offensive for the moment but had suffered heavy losses themselves too. 

“What’s the status of reinforcements?” Singh asked while staring at the screen.

“The landslide is cleared, sir. Trucks have started moving again.”

The two platoons of infantry led by Captain Khajuria arrived at the battlefield facing a considerably lighter volume of artillery fire than before. They were unable to contact Gurunath or anyone else on the radio and the lead section approached Indian positions carefully from the back.  There were dead bodies lying in front of the trenches as well as in them. Khajuria approached the bunker and peeked in through the window carefully. He could see hundreds of bullet casings spread all over the floor and three men lying on the ground.  

“Sir, we have survivors.” a soldier shouted from the trenches.

“Give them some medical aid and get them evacuated.” He shouted and entered the bunker carefully.  A soldier leaning by the wall raised his head and tried to lift his rifle. Khajuria shouted that they were friendlies and moved in with his hands in the air. The man rolled off to his side and laid still. Khajuria and the other soldiers noticed a pile of dead and injured soldiers lying on a side of the bunker. There were two injured who could still talk and they told him that Raghunath had gone to the trenches before the Indian artillery barrage had started.

Khajuria called for more reinforcement and evacuation of the dead and injured. One whole company was wiped out with every single soldier was either dead or seriously hurt. He walked to the trenches with a pounding heart and a lump in his throat. The Indian soldiers were carrying bodies of the dead to a truck and administering first aid to a few who were still alive. He noticed with dismay that the second group was much much smaller than the other. There was another big line of bodies that wore PLA uniforms. Three ZBDs were standing within walking distance from the Indian trenches in various stages of damage. 

His attention was diverted to a whooshing sound as another barrage of Chinese artillery opened up again. The soldiers dropped everything they were doing and rushed for cover. The Chinese were not done yet.

“Delta Shield, be advised that we are seeing enemy troops heading your way from Demochok.” Khajuria’s troops within earshot jerked their heads towards the southeast along the road.

Khajuria grabbed the radio immediately, “What do you mean? What about Alpha?”

There was a slight pause on the radio, then the voice of Brig Singh came on the radio, “Delta, this is Jackknife. The enemy has overrun our positions there and is advancing towards you. We are diverting some heavy artillery and airpower to your aid.”

“What about reinforcements? I have just two platoons.”

“Reinforcements ETA is 15 minutes. Once the first enemy wave is broken, you’ll stage a counter-attack and capture Demchok.”

Khajuria looked at his radioman who was looking at him with raised eyebrows, “Might as well capture Lhasa while we are at it.”

Khajuria grinned in spite of the tense situation. “Just be thankful that they are sending in some support and reinforcements.”

A forward AT team deployed on a high ridge reported the movement of a large group of vehicles running in at full speed towards their direction. “Seven ZBDs enroute, supported by five tanks.”

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