Conversations around the India-China war in 1961-62 revolve around the strategic failures of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his team of ministers. There is no way of sugar-coating how a superior Chinese military pummelled the Indian forces across many segments of this battle.
Nonetheless, India had her moments, particularly in the Chushul sector of Ladakh, where Indian soldiers bravely blunted a massive Chinese offensive. If Indian forces had lost Chushul, it would have given the China unhindered access to the roads and valleys leading up to Leh.
In other words, losing Chushul would have meant losing Ladakh to China.
Supporting the Chinese offensive into Chushul were their tanks, and in response to their firepower, the Indian Army had demanded the airlifting of six AMX-13 tanks of the 20 Lancers regiment to Chushul in south-eastern Ladakh. India needed these tanks to “secure the flat approaches from Tibet towards India’s crucial defences at Chushul,” according to senior defence analyst Ajai Shukla. And the biggest opening for the Chinese into Chushul was through the two kilometre-wide Spanggur Gap mountain pass along the Line of Actual Control. With road networks into Ladakh from the Indian mainland largely non-existent, airlifting these tanks was the only option available.
However, at the Indian Air Force base in Chandigarh, armed forces personnel had serious logistical problems on their hands in loading these tanks into the IAF’s transport aircrafts—the AN-12.
“However sturdy the aircraft, the possibility existed that the tracks of the tanks might tear up the [aluminium] flooring,” writes Air Chief Marshal PC Lal in his book ‘My Years with the IAF.’
Fortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Gurbachan Singh, the Army officer in-charge, found a way to overcome both this problem and whether “the tail wheel area of the aircraft would stand up to the weight of the tank as it was driven in,” writes Air Chief Marshal Lal.
For the first problem, Lt Colonel Singh employed carpenters to “construct a floor covering with wooden planking cut to fit the shape of the floor exactly so that the planks would not move,” thus allowing tanks to enter without slipping. For the second problem, “a big, strong wooden arc was constructed to give support from below, and sand bags were piled between the wooden support and the body of the aircraft to act as shock absorbers.”
Meanwhile, the IAF was compelled to reduce the load within the aircraft, which could carry up to a limit of 10 tonnes. Conversations between the IAF and the Army, resulted in a solution in the form of detaching non-essential items and “unloading some ammunition and reducing fuel” according to this Swarajya account of events.
Regarding the question of fuel, the IAF decided to carry the bare minimum required to make the Chandigarh-Chushul-Chandigarh flight.
The next challenge was driving these massive tanks into the aircraft. Each tank had a three-man team dedicated to loading it into the aircraft. One would drive it while the other two would give directions and supervise. After a final demonstration on October 24, 1962, the Air Force was satisfied that everything was in place.
Unfortunately, at the very last minute, one of the drivers received news that his wife would shortly deliver their first-born child, and requested his superiors for leave.
This was an extremely frustrating situation for the Army and IAF personnel who had trained meticulously to ensure these tanks were delicately loaded into these AN-12 aircrafts.
Fortunately, Lt Colonel Singh had the answers and sent an Army doctor to the tank driver’s home in a nearby village to oversee his wife’s delivery. The doctor returned with a photo of the child and thankfully, the process of lifting these tanks into the aircraft commenced. That tank driver was given leave on his return from Chushul. Finally, on the intervening night of October 24 and 25, the first batch of tanks were loaded and landed in Chushul on the morning of October 25. The second batch was loaded the following night and arrived at Chushul on the morning on October 26.
The final obstacle was landing, offloading and returning to the base. The AN-12 barely had enough fuel for the trip back and thus soldiers at Chushul had just 15 minutes to unload each aircraft.
These tanks were critical in stopping the Chinese advance, and fortunately this task was performed with no real hiccups. In fact, for the very first time in Indian military history tanks had been airlifted into combat under the very breath of the enemy Chinese forces. In other words, thanks to one soldier’s ‘jugaad,’ Ladakh was prevented from being snatched away by the Chinese.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)