Col J P Singh, Retd
Gilgit and its principalities had been brought under their control by Dogra rulers in the 19th century. Gilgit controlled movement on mountain passes to the NWFP and Central Asia. Due to its strategic importance, it was administered by British Political Agent. When departure of British became imminent, lease was terminated and Gilgit Agency handed over to Maharaja in July 1947. Maharaja appointed Brig Ghansara Singh as Governor of Gilgit Wazarat which included Gurais, Skardu, Drass and Kargil. He took over on 01 August 1947. Civilian employees and Gilgit Scouts presented a long and unreasonable list of demands to Brig Ghansara Singh threatening enmasse departure to Pakistan, if demands not met. Local people and Raja’s except Mirs of Hunza and Nagar, welcomed return to Maharaja’s administration. Maharaja decided to retain Maj WA Brown and Capt Matheson of Gilgit Scouts. But they turned hostile and took leading part in capture of Gilgit. 6 JAK Infantry was responsible for the defence of Gilgit. Its HQ was far away at Bunji. At mid night of 31 Oct 1947, 100 men of Gilgit Scouts led by Maj Brown surrounded Governor’s house and made him prisoner, later repatriated from Suchetgarh on 15 January 1948. CO 6 J&K was also taken to custody. The entire Gilgit garrison was massacred except for a lone survivor who managed to cross icy Indus over a log of wood. On 3rd November 1947 Maj Brown hoisted Pakistan flag at Gilgit. The region passed into the hands of Pakistan. A provisional Govt was formed under Maj Brown. After a fortnight, Sardar Mohammad Alam, a Pathan from Peshawar, took over. Gilgit was lost not in a military defeat but by the treachery perpetrated by British through Maj Brown. Having captured Gilgit and Bunji, Pakistani attention was focused on Skardu.
Epic Siege of Skardu.
Maj Sher Jung Thapa, 2IC, 6 JAK, headquartered at Leh, was promoted and ordered to move to Skardu. He left Leh on 23 November and reached Skardu on 3rd December 1947 with 2 officers, 2 JCOs and 75 men.
Skardu, situated in a small valley at an altitude of 7,500 ft, was tehsil HQ of Ladakh district. It was divided by Indus. Wazir Amar Nath was the administrator of Skardu. It was first captured by Gen Zorawar Singh in 1834. On arrival at Skardu Col Thapa found the area un-defendable. He sited defences on both sides of Indus. Of the five Rajas of Skardu; Rondu, Khaplu, Shigar, Karmang, and Skardu, Raja of Rondu was totally pro Pakistan. Leaning of others was unclear.
Skardu received reinforcement on 10 February 1948 with which the garrison strength reached to 161. On 11 February, 600 raiders attacked the outpost ‘Tsari’ on the other side of Indus, 32 kms away from Skardu. The assault was beaten back. More reinforcements arrived on 13 and 15 February. Skardu was now held by 285 men. As the days passed enemy snipping, shelling and assaults increased. The perimeter of siege continued to shrink week after week. 280 civilian refugees were also sheltered at Skardu.
Responding to the dire need for reinforcements, Army HQ Srinagar dispatched a column of three Platoons with two machine guns, two 2 inch mortars and a radio set under the command of Brig Faqir Singh, Commander of Kashmir Brigade. He left Srinagar on 16 February 1948. On 17 March the column was ambushed enroute in the open far short of Skardu. Fighting continued throughout the day. 32 men got killed. 18 were seriously wounded. Brig Faqir Singh was wounded in the left shoulder and cheek. Radio set had become inoperative due to inclement weather. No message could be sent to Srinagar or Skardu. Unable to march ahead against determined resistance, the column retreated towards Kargil under the cover of darkness. On reaching Kargil, all wounded were evacuated to Srinagar and the survivors were reorganized for Skardu. (narrated by Maj Puran Dev Singh, grandson of Brig Faqir Singh. He possesses five and half pages hand written Brig’s account of this adventure).
Gratified with preventing reinforcement of the garrison, invaders intensified their attacks. On 9th April 1948, Col Thapa telegraphed to Srinagar, “Hostile pressure terrific. Key pickets cut off for 4 days and fighting without water. Its fall certain today and the fort can’t survive one hour after that. Only immediate air support can save us now”. Provisions were air dropped but were insufficient and some fell in the hands of enemy. By April 1948 Dras and Kargil also fell to the enemy. Skardu was thus completely isolated. While the provisions were running out, the attacks continued. On 16 May, Col Thapa was ordered to break out of Skardu to gather at Olthing Thang. Col Thapa felt that his weak and ill equipped troops could not walk 128 kms against strong enemy resistance. Moreover refugees could not be left behind at the mercy of raiders. Gen Thimayya was convinced to cancel the order. Few Air Force sorties struck raiders with their cannons and bombs. More supplies were dropped. They were too little under the circumstances. Another attempt to reinforce Skardu by Lt Col Kirpal Singh also failed. On 12 August 1948, raiders launched a determined attack after heavy shelling. Hand to hand fighting took place. The attack was repulsed but with high casualties on both sides. This was the last success of the garrison and the end looked imminent. On 13 August, the siege had lasted over 6 months. Men had fought like heroes. Refugees too had endured all the hardships of long siege. Knowing what was in store, survivors were asked to slip out in small groups of 2 to 3s instead of getting killed like sitting ducks. But Col Thapa stayed back with 4 officers, I JCO and 35 men. Scared refugees lay huddled in one corner. On 14 August, outnumbered five to one, last round fired, the garrison surrendered. Col Thapa’s last signal to Gen Thimayya at 8 AM on 14 August 1948 (Pak national day) read, “Skardu capitulated”. After the surrender, the officers, men and refugees of the garrison were murdered in cold blood. Col Thapa and his orderly kalyan Singh were the only survivors. The women were spared for a worst fate. Col Thapa was taken prisoner. He retired as Brigadier. He is fondly called the ‘Little Lion of the Hills’. He is the hero of epic siege of Skardu. Our ancestors were great. We must recall them time and again. His survival was miraculous. Gen Douglas Gracy, C-in-C, Pakistan Army had befriended lad Sher Jung Thapa at Dharmsala while playing hockey with him and had guided him to join army. He ordered ‘No harm to Col Thapa’. ‘Kismet’.
Skardu siege was an example, rather a record of superhuman endurance and indomitable courage that remains unsurpassed in the realms of military history. Col Thapa displayed the most outstanding leadership. Enemy made repeated luring offers for surrender which he turned down. For his inspiring leadership in one of the longest siege operation of recent times, he was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.
Col J P Singh, Retd