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CAPTURE OF ZOJILA PASS



It was in 1971 when the Indian Army pulled off the unimaginable — deploying tanks at 11,553 feet in Ladakh — which took the Pakistan military by surprise and set aback their evil plans to capture the region. The battle field was the Zojila pass — Pass of Blizzard


At the time of Partition, Ladakh was heavily guarded by the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces. Pakistan launched an offensive with an aim to capture entire territory of Jammu & Kashmir. Within days, Pakistan managed to take over Gilgit and Baltistan. Most of the State forces fell back to Skardu where Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa held up the Pakistani attack till 14 August 1948. Skadru after falling gave way to the approach to Leh. Consequently, Kargil and Drass towns were captured by end of May 1948. Pakistan forces had also captured the crucial Zojila Pass. The importance of Zojila pass was the fact that it provided a direct all weather approach to Leh and Kargil from Giligit and Skardu. Once Zojila closed in winter, Srinagar and Leh were disconnected.


By March 1948, Leh was under threat from both North and the South. The enemy had occupied Zojila, Drass and Kargil. Only two State Forces platoons, guarding the bridge at Khaltse between Kargil and Leh, stood in the way of the enemy. The Leh detachment was ordered by the higher headquarters to build an airstrip in these difficult conditions, a task which they somehow managed to execute by May 1948. As enemy approached Khaltse, the State Forces demolished the bridge, thereby halting the enemy immediately.


On 1st June 1948, a company of 2/4 Gorkha Rifles was flown to Leh from Srinagar, to reinforce the Leh garrison and keep the enemy at bay. Leh was still isolated due to a non-existing regular logistic support system. The route from Srinagar was blocked with enemy occupying Zojila, Drass and Kargil. General K S Thimayya then decided to clear Zojila, Drass and Kargil and entrusted Brig K L Atal, 77 (Para) Brigade commander for capturing Zojila in September 1948. This brigade of Chindits and Burma fame comprised three infantry units, a platoon of brave engineers, a platoon of machine gunners and few ancillary units. 1 Patiala, was put under command of the brigade for this mission. The Brigade launched action on September 3, but the mission did not succeed due to difficult terrain and snow conditions on the Zojila heights. The enemy sat at a dominating height, which denied any headway to the soldiers attacking Zojila from the front, despite adequate artillery support and air support by the IAF. A second attempt made on September 13, too, failed.


Gen Thimayya had a bold and unthinkable plan. The general decided to use light armour to dislodge the enemy from Zojila, and then move ahead to Drass and Kargil. Tanks had never operated at such heights ever. Within a month, the Madras Sappers were able to build a track for the Stuart tanks to tread and reach the Pass from Baltal base. Move of a tank squadron (located at Akhnoor) across the Pir Panjal Range was also planned. The troops needed Engineer support at each crossing of the dusty Jammu-Srinagar road which had weak wooden bridges. In order to ensure secrecy and surprise, tank turrets were removed and were transported by vehicles. Turretless armoured vehicles, heavily camouflaged, moved under the cover of darkness. The tanks had to be crossed over across many bridges. After nearly a month, the Stuarts finally arrived in the vicinity of Srinagar. A curfew was imposed to ensure the secrecy of direction of the tanks’ movement. Due to the heavy snowfall that began on 20 October and ‘Operation Bison’ had to be postponed. 1st November was declared as the next “D Day” — irrespective of the weather conditions. Lt Col Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’, the Comdt of 7 Cavalry did not hesitate a bit to accept this seemingly impossible mission. Tanks were led by Gen Thimayya and were closely followed by infantry soldiers with bared bayonets. Leh and Laddakh would have been lost, had there been any hesitation to take back Zojila at this juncture.


The tanks reached the Ghumri basin on 1 November 1948, at 1440 hours after negotiating the tough slippery terrain. The tank column followed by 1/5 (Royal) Gorkhas continued across the Pass, while 1 Patiala and 4 Rajput charged and made the enemy lose their strongholds. The appearance of tanks came as a shock and surprise to the enemy. Heavily bombarded by artillery fire and blinded by the snow, the enemy fled for his life. Gen Thimayya ordered the Commander to press on to Machoi, a few kilometres ahead. The surprised enemy had to once again flee, this time leaving a howitzer behind. An assault to the enemy position with tanks, at minus 20 degrees with blowing blizzards, with no snow clothing or equipment, had never been achieved anywhere else in the world before this. Exploiting this success, the Indian Army pushed further, and 4 Rajput captured Matyan on 4 November. However, the advance was momentarily held up by a strong enemy position on dominating grounds, which the tanks dislodged once again. By 15-16 November, Drass, the second-coldest inhabited place in the world, was captured. The advance was resumed on 17-18 November with Kargil as the main objective and by the night of 22-23 November, all enemy positions on the way to Kargil were neutralised. A company of 5 Gorkhas took a long detour, climbed as high as 4000 metres and contacted the Kargil defences at dawn. Another company crossed the Shingo River and delivered a blow to the enemy from another direction. Later that day, a column from Leh effected the link-up at Kargil, which was finally cleared of enemy, and the direct link from Leh to Srinagar was finally restored.

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