The battle for Brachil Pass

Brig Jagbir S Grewal (Retd)

DURING the afternoon of December 3, 1971, as we played baseball in the open area at Drass, our Commanding Officer, Lt Col BS Joshi, was called over to the Brigade Headquarters. He smiled, taking long strides as he walked past us to his jeep. Eruption of a war was imminent, but that could not deter our festivities. Drass is the second coldest inhabited place after Siberia, and located at a height of 10,500 ft. The icy breeze could not dampen our spirits; it could only redden Gulshi Bhola’s cheeks. Holding the baseball bat like a hockey stick, Balkar Singh Gill’s shots tore into the opposing team, making them pant for breath while chasing the ball in the uneven high altitude area. Major Sarjit Singh Sahota roared with laughter, putting the overhanging roaring clouds to shame. The sheer weight of our hefty coat parkas impeded our running, so everyone awaited his turn to hold the bat and hit the ball. The game ended abruptly when the Quarter Master, Pritam Singh, whizzed away as if he was chasing the devil on its tail. For us there could be no sleep that night. Packing, fastening the weapons and equipment, we took off time to sit up, with legs tucked in our sleeping bags to listen to Indira Gandhi’s midnight address to the nation over radio. She had announced, ‘We are at war with Pakistan.’

My battalion, 18 Punjab, was tasked to capture Brachil Pass at a height of 13,990 ft. We concentrated astride the Srinagar-Kargil highway at Kala Pahar, which had a sparse growth of rhododendron bushes. These bushes could be lit up to ward off the extreme unbearable cold, but tiny sparkles were thrown up from these fires and a ‘khad-khad’ type of sound emanated, but all this was ignored, because the fires provided the much-needed soothing warmth. Some men would sit in semi-circles around these small fires, with their palms and feet extended towards the bush fires, while others held up their socks to dry. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds, appearing momentarily, soon to be covered by the clouds, till it finally went down beyond the surrounding high mountains. The russet sky turned grey as shades of twilight spread across the valleys. The mountains around Kala Pahar became gloomy high walls. There was no inhabitation on the neighbouring mountain slopes, except for enemy posts that dotted the surrounding peaks. At last light on December 6, we stealthily descended from Kala Pahar into Pakistani territory. Later the valleys had reverberated with the echo of unabated firing of multitudinous weapons and shouts of our war cry, ‘Har Maidan Fateh’, which had reached a crescendo. Brachil Pass was captured after an arduous battle, through sheer grit and determination. This opened the passage for further operations and earned the Battle Honour — Brachil and Wali Malik — for 18 Punjab.

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