It has been 21 years since the conflict took place at the icy heights of Kargil and history was written with the blood of more than 534 men of the Indian armed forces.
After the first week of May 1999, it became clear that the Pakistani irregulars along with its soldiers had captured vantage posts in Kargil left by the Indian army in the winters. It was then the troops were moved to Kargil Drass sector.
On May 16, the troops were ordered to move to Kargil Drass sector and instructions were not clear. Brigadier Khushal Thakur was then a Colonel commanding 18 grenadiers.
“We were told that only 5-6 mujahideens have occupied the posts. Our target was to capture Tololing and were informed that there were four-five Mujahideens but what we saw was a company of 120 men of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry,” he states.
The 18 Grenadiers had launched three unsuccessful attacks on Tololing. On June 2, Thakur himself led the attack and his second-in-command Lt Col R Vishwanathan volunteered to go.
Meanwhile, the troops were trying to retrieve the body of Major Rajesh Adhikari (Maha Vir Chakra) and in the ensuing battle Lt Col Vishwanathan (Vir Chakra) was also hit.
“I ordered my men to get Vishwanathan. When I pulled my radio operator towards me he was hit and the Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) right beside me was also hit. When they got Vishwanathan to me I kept his head on my lap and he passed away. He was my friend and it was a great loss for the battalion but at the end of the day, despite losses we had to continue because the country is above everything else,” he remembers.
Twenty five soldiers from the unit were killed in action before Tololing was captured.
The next task of 18 Grenadiers was to capture Tiger Hill that was captured between July 3-July 4, 1999. Brig Thakur was awarded the Yudh Sewa Medal.
The Indian Air Force launches Operation Safed Sagar
After dilly dallying over the use of Indian Air Force (IAF), the government gave a go-ahead for the operations to commence on May 26, 1999 but the orders were clear-Line of Control (LoC) should not be crossed.
Air Commodore Rohit Verma, then a Wing Commander was posted as a staff officer with Air Headquarters states that the Pakistanis had planned for everything but the air attack.
“The initial requirement for us was to support the army in three sectors- Drass, Mushkoh and Muntho Dhalo. We used to get airborne from Adampur and deliver weapons. One of the biggest challenges was to find the targets in the desolate landscape. The critical thing was the imagery that was provided to us by the Air Headquarters. We were looking for the valley that looked like the pictures given to us. Fortunately, one pilot who had gone for a laser designator pod mission got the pictures on his film which looked exactly like the pictures we have got. After that we got the coordinates,” Verma recalls.
“We had gone for a target recce before the operation and while coming back we provided casualty evacuation for two injured Indian soldiers. The morale of the soldiers was extremely high. Initially it was difficult to locate the targets but once we zeroed in we made the life of the intruders very difficult!” he says.
The staff officer to the then chief of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur recalls that during the initial stages of the conflict helicopters were planned to be used as the primary strike weapons against intruders housed at fortifications made of rocks and boulders that could only be damaged by a direct hit.
It was known that Pakistan had shoulder-fired surface-to-air-missiles (SAM). The IAF had only five kits OF Counter Measures Dispensing System (CMDS) to be strapped to the helicopters. An infra-red seeking SAM would go after the flares fired by the (CMDS) rather than the helicopter.
“It was decided that the first helicopter would have both CMDS kit and armour plates, while others would have to do with some deficiency. A plan was drawn that a fighter strike would closely precede a helicopter mission so that their heavy ordnance delivery would force Pakistani intruders to keep their heads down while the helicopters came in for their attack run,” Bahadur says.
“There were 1,343 Indian Army personnel who were hurt out of which 700 or so, were flown out to safety by IAF helicopters,” Bahadur states.
Operation Talwar- Indian navy's offensive posture constrained Pakistan from escalation
The Indian Navy christened Operation Talwar and deployed submarines, combatant ships closer to the Pakistan coast. The Indian Navy was made ready for conflict quite early on because submarines and the ships needed to be deployed at considerable distances. The covert placing of the submarines and the potential firepower of the fleets constrained Pakistan from escalation.
“I imagine that a few missing submarines from Mumbai would have greatly concerned the Pakistan Navy. As Executive Officer of INS Delhi, I can say that our ship and crew were ready as part of the Western fleet. We remained at sea for several days at a time. Our crew was absolutely gung ho to give battle to the enemy whenever the order to hoist the battle ensign came. I feel so proud of them,” Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande recalls....