23 years may have passed by, but memories of the exemplary valour exhibited and sacrifices made by the Indian armed forces during ‘Operation Vijay’ are as fresh in everyone’s mind just as they were in 1999. While names of many relatively unknown mountain peaks like Tololing, Tiger Hill and several other barren features from where the brave Indian soldiers evicted Pakistan army intruders, became famous overnight, bravehearts like Captains Vikram Batra and Manoj Pandey, Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav and Rifleman Sanjay Kumar have become household names.
As the main battles during ‘Operation Vijay’ were fought in the Kargil sector of J&K [currently Union Territory of Ladakh], this military campaign is also referred to as the ‘Kargil War’, and due to media presence here, for the first time in India people were able to follow the war on TV. However, while the Kargil Sector bore the main brunt of this war, Siachen Glacier too was the scene of a spectacular military action, in which a handful of brave men overcame tremendous odds and captured what was considered to be an unassailable Pakistani army post- ‘Point 5770’!
This peak on Saltaro Range of Siachen Glacier derives its name from its height [5770 meters] mentioned in military maps, which works out to be a whopping 18,930 feet. Point 5770 is located in Chamunda/ Turtuk Sector bordering NJ 9842, the place from where the area of ‘Operation Meghdoot’ technically starts. Highlighting the tactical importance of this imposing feature, former Indian army chief Gen VP Malik admits that “By occupying Point 5770, they [Pakistan army] would have been able to choke off our Bahadur complex and facilitate the capture of Chulung La.”
So, to pre-empt any such eventuality, several attempts were made by our troops to occupy this feature. Unfortunately, due to the existence of permanent ice overhangs with falling icicles enroute and effective firing from a Pakistani post called ‘Pimple’ located just below Point 5770, the Indian army was unable to secure this formidable feature.
On the other hand, approach to Point 5770 from the Pakistani side, though quite daunting, was comparatively easier. Taking advantage of the same, the Pakistanis were able to secure this feature and establish a defensive position, naming it ‘Bilal Post’. As ‘Pimple Post’ effectively covered the approach to Point 5770, even when unoccupied, any attempt by Indian army to reach this peak was nothing less than a suicidal act. Needless to say, that with Pakistan army personnel physically present on Point 5770, to attempt scaling it was tantamount to inviting certain death.
The Pakistanis too knew this and considering the near vertical one-kilometer-long climb which any Indian army assault team would have to negotiate before reaching Point 5770, their appreciation that a detachment of 10 soldiers under an officer, equipped with an array of automatic weapons would be able to thwart any Indian attempt to capture ‘Bilal Post’, was neither over-optimistic nor misplaced. However, while carrying out their ‘threat analysis’, the Pakistani army commanders made the fatal mistake of grossly underestimating the grit, determination and courage of their Indian counterparts.
When an enemy is well entrenched and enjoys protection of field fortifications, the assaulting troops need to have both numerical superiority as well as preponderance of artillery fire support in order to downgrade a defender’s ability to fight or bring down effective fire on them. While the minimum recommended attacker to defender ratio is 3:1, in mountainous terrain it may go up to 6:1, or even 9:1. As far as artillery fire to support the attack is concerned, it’s undertaken as ‘preparatory bombardment’ before the attack commences to destroy or degrade enemy field fortifications and thereafter as ‘covering/suppressive fire’ to reduce the defender’s ability to bring down effective fire on the attacking echelons moving in the open while they are closing up with the enemy position.
However, as terrain and climatic conditions precluded launching a textbook type conventional attack to capture ‘Bilal Post’, the commanding officer of 27 Rajput Col [later Lt Gen] Konsam Himalay Singh made an audacious attack plan. Dispensing cardinal conventional planning parameters like numerical superiority as well as artillery support in terms of preparatory and covering/suppressive fire, he instead relied on four key battle winning factors – physical fitness and mental robustness, motivation and most importantly, surprise.
Two hand-picked assault teams of eight well-trained soldiers each under Maj Navdep Singh Cheema and Capt Shyamal Sinha were tasked to capture Point 5770. The only way to reach ‘Bilal Top’ undetected was by taking the most unexpected approach and hence the route selected for the assault teams was the most difficult. An avid mountaineer who was member of the Indian Army 1987 Mount Kanchenjunga expedition, Col Konsam took upon himself the onerous task of reconnoitering an almost untraversable route involving a perilous one kilometre near-perpendicular ascent.
However, this route was so treacherous that fixing of ropes to facilitate movement of the assault teams to reach Point 5770 became indispensable. So, to maintain the element of surprise, which was crucial for success of the attack plan, Col Konsam took advantage of extremely bad weather conditions and personally supervised rope-fixing over two consecutive nights under blizzard-like conditions. Adequate resources in terms of fire support [both artillery and infantry] were allocated, but in order to maintain surprise, these were to be used only when safety of the assault teams was imperilled.
On June 27, Maj Navdeep and Capt Shyamlal alongwith their teams set off on the assigned mission. Despite fixed ropes being available, the going was really tough due to the difficult terrain and rarefied air. While the oxygen content in the air at sea level is about 30 percent, at an altitude of 17,000-18,000 feet it reduces to the region of only 11-12 percent. So, with only about one-third of the mean sea level oxygen content present in Siachen Glacier’s rarefied atmosphere, physical efficiency is drastically impaired due to a physiological condition referred to as ‘hypoxia’.
Weighed down by the heavy load of weapons, ammunition and rations, it took this well trained and physically fit team seven gruelling hours to reach Point 5770. The decision to take the most difficult route paid off as the Pakistanis deployed at ‘Bilal Post’ were blissfully unaware that two assault teams of 27 Rajput had reached within an earshot, and so the oblivious Pakistanis continued with what they were doing. While some were engaged in constructing a ‘sangar’ [protective stone wall], two were writing letters, and the others were resting in a prefabricated fibreglass hut.
Even though the assault teams were completely exhausted by the arduous seven-hour traverse, Maj Navdeep knew that any time spent to rest or even catch their breath could alert the sentry and jeopardise the mission. So, Maj Navdeep alongwith Captain Shyamlal led their assault team’s charge and the Pakistani sentry manning the machine gun was quickly despatched.
Using the dead sentry’s machine gun as well as their own weapons, the assault teams killed all 11 defenders, and one amongst the dead was ‘Bilal Post’ commander Captain Taimur Malik. So swift and ferocious was the attack that the defenders couldn’t inflict any casualties on the 27 Rajput assault teams.
On hearing the sound of gunfire, the enemy realised that ‘Bilal Post’ had been attacked and the Pakistanis brought down heavy fire on the assault team, but failed to dislodge the determined attackers from Point 5770. The Indian army had now gained control of this strategic height and effectively thwarted enemy designs to cut-off the Bahadur Complex thanks to an unconventional plan executed to perfection by a determined and dedicated team that had implicit faith in their bold leaders and Commanding Officer!
Capture of ‘Bilal Post’ by a small team of Indian army daredevils proved to be such a humongous embarrassment for Pakistan army that it refused to accept the dead bodies of its own soldiers and instead ensured that news about loss of ‘Bilal Post’ and death of one officer and 10 soldiers was completely blacked out by their media. On the other hand, in keeping with its exemplary military ethos of respecting the supreme sacrifice made by every soldier in the line of duty, irrespective of which side he belonged to, the dead Pakistani officer and soldiers were buried in situ with military honours.
Bilal Post was renamed ‘Navdeep Top’– a befitting tribute to the daring leader of the assault group, who by personal example motivated his team to accomplish the near impossible task assigned, without incurring any casualty.
While the defenders of ‘Bilal Post’ were unfortunate to have lost their lives, yet they were luckier than many of their comrades killed during the Kargil War whose dead bodies the Pakistan army had refused to accept. While Pakistan army initially disowned those killed on ‘Bilal Post’, eventually their mortal remains did make their way back home- thanks to the Indian army’s characteristic humane gesture of respecting the sentiments of an elderly person and honouring his personal request.
It so happened that after the Kargil War ended, the aged grandfather of Late Captain Taimur Malik who was living in London, approached the Indian Defence Attaché there. Revealing that the deceased Captain’s father was also a former Pakistan army officer, he requested repatriation of his grandson’s mortal remains. The Indian army agreed to do so but on the condition that along with Captain Malik’s mortal remains, Pakistan army should also accept all the other dead bodies of its soldiers killed on ‘Navdeep Top’.
Since Pakistan army’s brazen lie that the ‘intruders’ in Kargil were ‘mujahideen’ and not its soldiers had already been exposed and Rawalpindi was facing heavy flak at home for abandoning its dead soldiers during the Kargil War, it had no other choice but to accept all the mortal remains of those killed on Point 5770. So, it was the Indian army’s noble gesture of forcing the Pakistan army to take back the mortal remains of soldiers whom it had forsaken that brought a final closure for their distraught family members!
Why Recount Capture of Point 5770?
While capture of Point 5770 went largely unnoticed due to lack of media coverage, but in the annals of military history, this operation stands out as a towering example of audacious military planning and its resolute execution that enabled capture of an enemy defended post in glaciated terrain by a small team of highly motivated officers and men.
The fact that this is the only operation during the entire Kargil War in which a post held by the enemy was captured in broad daylight without any artillery or any other form of fire support and without the assault echelons suffering any casualties, is definitely a class apart.
This achievement is so astounding that in his book ‘From Surprise to Victory’, former Indian army Chief Gen VP Malik has mentioned that capture of Point 5770 “was one of the toughest and most audacious operations, at par with the capture of Bana Top in 1987 in the northern [Siachen] Glacier.” Not only this, the US Naval War College in its study of ‘Operation Vijay’ cites three turning points in the Kargil War- Tololing, Tiger Hill and Point 5770 [Navdeep Top’], and so, this stupendous achievement is something about which, not only every Indian, but all students of military history must know about.