Twenty years ago, over 50 days in the summer of 1999, the Indian Army fought some of the toughest battles in the annals of military history to evict the Pakistan army from the heights of Kargil.
The battle to recapture Tiger Hill was a major turning point in the Operation Vijay campaign, recalls Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd).
Twenty years ago, over 50 days in the summer of 1999, the Indian Army fought some of the toughest battles in the annals of military history to evict soldiers of the Pakistan army who had surreptitiously intruded into Indian territory in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The battle to recapture Tiger Hill was a major turning point in the Operation Vijay campaign.
Tiger Hill, a majestic mountain that is 5,307 metres high (17,410 feet), stands heads and shoulders above all other mountains and dominates the Drass bowl.
It had been realised that the capture of Tiger Hill would provide a major psychological boost to Indian operations and hurt the morale of Pakistani troops.
The task of recapturing Tiger Hill was given to the 18 Grenadiers by GOC, 8 Mountain Division.
8 Sikh had been in contact with the enemy for some time and had isolated Tiger Hill from three directions.
The battalion provided a firm base to 18 Grenadiers for the attack on Tiger Hill.
Simultaneously, 8 Sikh was tasked to simulate attacks from the southern and northern directions.
One company of the battalion was nominated as reserve.
8 Sikh was also given the task to capture the western spur, including Helmet and India Gate, so as to prevent the reinforcement of Tiger Hill Top.
Colonel Khushal Thakur, commanding officer, 18 Grenadiers, moved the firebases on the eastern and north-eastern ridges of Tiger Hill to a forward location from where they could pin the enemy down, allowing own troops to inch forward from boulder to boulder.
While the attack by 8 Sikh was in progress and the enemy’s attention was partly diverted, Captain Sachin Nimbalkar and Lieutenant Balwan Singh, with some men of ‘D’ Company and the Ghatak platoon stealthily approached Tiger Hill from the direction of a sheer cliff and took the enemy by surprise.
Havildar Madan Lal gallantly led his section and pressed forward against heavy odds with the help of mountaineering equipment.
After a strenuous climb of over seven hours in pitch darkness, Havildar Madan Lal approached and engaged Pakistani sangars on Tiger Hill Top from an unexpected direction.
This daring action cut off the enemy and they started withdrawing in panic.
Two intruders were trapped and killed.
During this firefight, Havildar Madan Lal sustained severe injuries but continued to press forward.
He was posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra.
By now Captain Nimbalkar’s men had joined the fight on Tiger Hill Top.
Though they had suffered many casualties, they were determined to evict the Pakistanis.
Finally, the tenacity of purpose and boldness of the attackers overwhelmed the tired defenders who had taken a severe beating over many days and after a fierce firefight, Tiger Hill Top was at last in Indian hands.
However, the enemy was not about to give up easily and launched several vicious counter attacks with fresh troops from the rear that lasted through the day on July 5, 1999.
The attacks were beaten back.
The sangars on Tiger Hill were found to have been heavily stocked for fighting a sustained battle.
A huge stockpile of weapons, ammunition, rations and other supplies was recovered.
By late evening on July 5, 1999 the situation had stabilised.
The Grenadiers now began the process of consolidating their hold on this prized objective.
Casualties were evacuated and the major weapons were re-sited, but there was more work ahead.
The enemy was still holding Area Reverse Slope, Collar, Rocky Knob and V Cut.
It was India’s first televised battle.
Barkha Dutt of the Star News channel brought the action live into the homes of millions of viewers.
From Srinagar to Kanyakumari and from Jaisalmer to Agartala, young and old alike clapped and cheered as the artillery lit up the night sky and each Bofors shell impacted on Tiger Hill.
In a move that was reminiscent of the Russian front during World War II, the artillery brigade commander had lined up 100 guns for the assault on Tiger Hill.
With close range observation now available to artillery OP officers with the Grenadiers, the remaining enemy localities were given a taste of the artillery’s bitter medicine that the survivors are unlikely to ever forget.
Preparations were made for the final assault on these remaining pockets of resistance and at 0030 hours on July 8, 1999, ‘B’ Company under Major Y S Tomar launched an assault on Area Reverse Slope from the eastern direction.
Besides the heavy toll taken by the artillery, five Pakistani soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand fighting.
The Grenadiers displayed their traditional determination and aggressiveness and the objectives at Reverse Slope and V Cut were soon taken.
The CO then decided to take advantage of the success gained and push ahead for the capture of Collar also that night.
Major R S Rathore’s ‘A’ Company was launched to assault and re-capture Area Collar.
With accurate supporting fire from the troops now at Tiger Hill Top, Reverse Slope and V Cut, ‘A’ Company succeeded in evicting the enemy from Collar before first light on 8 July 1999.
At 0800 hours that morning, the Indian Tricolour was ceremonially hoisted on Tiger Hill Top with the honour and respect that only soldiers are capable of.
There was no brass band to play the National Anthem but a hundred guns raining down lethal high explosive on distant Pakistani positions still inside Kashmir provided a special kind of martial music.
In that final act celebrating victory, the Grenadiers also paid homage to their gallant martyrs.
The Grenadiers had won the battle to re-capture Tiger Hill, but the war was still on and there was plenty of work ahead.
The entire Tiger Hill area had to be de-mined as the Pakistanis had indiscriminately laid anti-personnel (land) mines all over the complex and on the tracks leading to the nearby mountains.
Enemy bodies had been found scattered around the battleground; these were collected and buried with honour.
The success gained was exploited by taking the battle further towards the LoC.
‘C’ Company occupied Area Shivling and ‘A’ Company occupied Point 4965.
Direct observation of enemy defended localities at Sando Top, Trijunction and Zulu spur now became possible and artillery fire could be directed against these localities.
Subsequently, the Grenadiers provided a firm base for the successful assault of 9 Special Forces battalion on Sando Top.
In the first week of August 1999, the battalion was de-inducted from Drass Sector for some well-earned rest.
Throughout the nearly two-month campaign that 18 Grenadiers were called upon to fight, the battalion acquitted itself with honour.
Displaying unshakable determination and unparalleled collective valour, the Grenadiers covered themselves with glory and gave the Indian Army and the nation some of the finest victories ever won in military history.
That their feats were achieved against well-armed regular Pakistani soldiers at heights above 16,000 feet (5,000 metres) while assaulting up sheer escarpments, makes them even more remarkable.
The gallant soldiers of the battalion were awarded one PVC, two MVCs, six VrCs and a host of Sena Medals and other gallantry awards.
For their outstanding achievements in the battles of Tololing and Tiger Hill, 18 Grenadiers was awarded the Unit Citation by the COAS and honoured with the title ‘Bravest of the Brave’.
Long after images of the Kargil conflict have faded from memory, the name of 18 Grenadiers will remain a byword for courage.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.
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