The Indian Army’s Official War History tersely states that Lt Col D A Taylor and 192 men perished in the cold in November 1962. I tried to reconstruct his last two days on earth from available sources. This is what I found.
November 1962. The remnants of the 2nd Battalion 8th Gorkha Rifles, 2 Madras and Assam Rifles detachments started pulling out of Menchuka and commenced their withdrawal to Along. Orders were received over crackling radio from 2 Division Command by the Area Commander Lt Col D A Taylor.
Menchuka is about 30 miles from the McMahon Line, the disputed frontier on the North East between China and India. Its a tiny little town, more a village, that lies in a valley, on the road to the nearest town called Along. At that time this was not so much a road but a bridle path, clinging to the valley as it zigzags between peaks on both sides, heavily wooded with pine. Quite beautiful on any other day but no one has eyes for it on this day. A number of small villages mark the road – you cannot call them villages really, more like small agglomerations of habitations. It heads to the South East, determined not to be distracted or diverted by the big peaks on both sides. It winds forward and backwards, in hairpin bends, hugging the hillsides, not much wider than a cart at some places.
About 8-9 kilometers down, the road crosses a small stream called Sen Chu over a causeway. Towards the South West at that crossing point, lies a spot called Rego. Another few kilometres down towards the South East the road reaches a town called Payum. There it bends sharply to the South and another 15 kilometres down is the larger town of Along.
Col Taylor instructed his men to travel light. There were no porters or mules to carry anything heavier than a Heavy Machine Gun. Heavy winter clothing had not yet been issued – there were a number of plainsmen like the Madrasis who were clearly not used to the weather. Everyone was going to find it difficult but there was no choice.
The Siang Front shown on the map below is the broad green line near Menchuka. Five battalions of the PLA were ranged against the Siang Front. It was divided into three sectors, Menchuka being at the centre.
The Chinese attacks had commenced on October 20, all along the NEFA front. The attacks were simultaneous. They had obviously been months in preparation and overwhelmed the thin Indian defences.
India’s Forward Policy, put in place in July 1962, required the Army to operate very close to, and sometimes across, the McMahon line. The terrain was heavily wooded and mountainous. A distance of two kilometres on the map between two points could take up to three hours to traverse. Across the border the Chinese built up troop and supply strength. Good roads had been constructed leading right up to the McMahon Line.
Skirmishes between Indian and Chinese patrols turned serious. As Chinese forces pushed in they encountered lightly armed Indian patrols, who sometimes engaged vastly superior forces. At Lamang the Assam Rifles patrol fought the Chinese for three hours until 9pm, until Chinese Verey lights revealed they were surrounded. They withdrew towards Menchuka.
To the right of Menchuka, towards Manigong, the results were similar. Chinese advance parties engaged Indian patrols and pushed them back to local headquarters. The Dogras posted at Manigong retreated under pressure from the Chinese, delaying them as much as possible. Under Major Pandarinath Rege, the Dogras beat back four attacks by the Chinese, causing casualties, until they retreated due to shortage of ammunition.
At Tuting, the Assam Rifles detachment just managed to delay the Chinese. Lance Naik Hasta Bahadur Gurung and Rifleman Baji Ram Thapa displayed significant heroism under fire.
The GOC of 2 Division was Maj Gen M S Pathania – cousin of the more famous Maj Gen A S Pathania who was GOC 4 Division that operated towards the left of 2 Division, upto the Bhutan border. The Division was a brand new formation, raised on October 24, to create the command structure to focus the defence of Walong (see map). It was raised just after the disaster of the battle of Nam Ka Chu, near the Bhutan frontier – in the very first battles that took place on October 20, the Chinese destroyed 7 Brigade and took the Brigade commander Brigadier John Dalvi prisoner.
The disaster forced the Army to remove the erstwhile GOC 4 Div Maj Gen Narayan Prasad and bring in Maj Gen A S Pathania to command 4 Division.
Both first cousins were now responsible for the defence of the Brahmaputra Valley.
By November 9th it became apparent that the Chinese were going to outflank Menchuka by cutting off its road link to Along near a place called Tato. Nevertheless, Maj Gen M S Pathania asked the Siang Front to hold at all costs.
By mid November, repeated Chinese probes convinced the Command that Menchuka risked being cut off. The Menchuka sub area was told to be ready to pull out towards Along. Two days later they were told it had to be a fighting withdrawal. Col Taylor was in touch with the Brigade Major of 192 Brigade, his direct superior. They tried to get more men from Along to Menchuka but the weather was turning and no mule transport was available. It would have taken days to get there by foot.
Lt Col Taylor and the garrison stood their ground for another day. On 18th November the 2 Madras positions came under sustained Chinese artillery attack. The Madrasis replied with their mortars. Col Taylor and 192 Brigade conferred on wireless. They assumed that the Chinese had managed to cut the road to Along and determined to use hill paths to make their way back. With that Lt Col Taylor broke off wireless contact.
Lt Col Taylor and a party of 35 men started out in the early hours of the 20th, looking for a jungle track to conceal their withdrawal. Along with them went the Adjutant 2/8 GR Capt Ghosh, the Medical Officer 2/8 GR Lt Sharma, and Maj Pimple of 2 Madras. They carried no rations and wore their regular uniforms – not winter clothing, because they had none. They traveled mostly in the dark. The main party, led by Major Dar of 2/8 GR, followed a little while later.
The path Col Taylor took was little used by locals and hard to find. It started to rain and snow quite heavily, and movement became difficult.
Major Dar and his party followed Lt Col Taylor after a few hours but on the more conventional path, lower down in altitude and closer to the road to Along. They were met by a Chinese ambush. The men scattered and decided to take the more hazardous route over the snow. Some of them decided to trudge on to Dapori Jo, due south about 23 kilometres as the crow flies. Others decided to go towards Tato, about 8 kilometres on the road to Along towards the South East.
Conditions must have been terrible. The snow was steady and visibility was close to zero. The men must have had to make their way very slowly to avoid going over the hillside. Men began to fall by the wayside with severe frostbite and exhaustion. Those who could not move had to be left behind.
The party that tried to reach Tato ran into the Chinese, who had blocked the track to Along. After a brief firefight, they were taken prisoner. They were released in May 1963.
But not Lt Col Taylor. He and his men, hearing the gunfire, must have decided to get off the path going South East to Along, and to cross the mountains, going due south to get to the Brahmaputra Valley, when they had reached Rego. They must have been joined by other stragglers from 2/8 Gurkha Rifles. There were now 190 men, making their way across a snow covered path, 14000 feet high, with nothing more than autumn clothes and no rations.
In the assessment of Brigade, the invading Chinese parties were well-equipped but did not number more than two hundred. The Menchuka garrison alone had 800 men. Beffore setting out on this hazardous journey, Col Taylor must have received confusing orders and heard the traffic of contradictory orders that had flowed up and down between the Corps, the Division and the Brigade. The tone of the messages was pessimistic and confused. They inspired no confidence in Lt Col Taylor that the Division will find a way to support him in case it came to battle. And so he set out on this retreat.
The men who started towards Daporijo reached their destination after a month, enduring severe hardship on the way.
Lt Col Taylor and his men never reached their destination. He and a hundred and ninety two officers and other ranks must have died of exhaustion and frostbite. Their bodies were never found.
Who was Lt Col Taylor? What are the stories of Captain Ghosh, Lt Sharma and Maj. Pimple, and of the other 190 who perished. We will never know.
The least we can do is to remember them in gratitude. Rest In Peace.