?We?ve got it, we?ve physically occupied Tololing,? the artillery officer cried out from his camouflaged command post on the mountain?s midriff, victory signals still crackling on the radio behind him. It was a little past dawn and the officer?s eyes were bloodshot and bleary from directing artillery fire through the night, but a smile was spreading on his tired face. ?At last we?ve knocked those fellows out of there, perhaps we will soon have Height 5140 and Tiger Hill as well,? he said.
It was the first bit of good news jawans in this sector had had in a month ? and it had come after a night of stunning artillery and infantry assaults on enemy posts: 25 artillery units had pounded Tololing and Pakistani artillery positions further behind, with 15,000 shells from three sides ? Kaksar, Drass and Matayen.
Infantry batches, working in tandem with artillery commanders, had launched pincer raids on the peak and rained additional fire on entrenched infiltrators. They used renades, machine guns and Milan anti-tank missiles. By daybreak, Indian troops had reclaimed the crucial peak and the campaign to secure National Highway 1A from enemy fire had had its first breakthrough.
Nine soldiers, including an officer, died in the battle for Tololing but casualties on the other side are reported to be much higher; initial estimates said about 15 infiltrators had been killed and several injured.
Indian soldiers also seized a cache of Pakistani weapons in the raid besides supplies. And despite the casualties, the mood among soldiers was soaring.
?We have beaten the hell out of him,? said an artillery commander, able to afford a smile for the first time since operation flushout began.
?I shudder to think what must have happened to him with so much metal and gunpowder landing. In 25 years of shelling, I myself have not seen such concentrated use of firepower.?
The morning air was thick with pungent phosphorous from guns that had been blasting the last 12 hours and the mountainside was littered with the debris of a harsh night; brass shells scattered; fatigued, soot-ridden gunners sprawled in the pits; the earth under the guns scarred and dented. ?Even this looks like a battleground, imagine what it must look like where our fire landed,? the commander said.
Last night was the night of smoke on earth and fire in the sky. The first to go were the Bofors 155-mm howitzers, coughing simultaneously on targets from units spread as far wide as 50 miles on the Kaksar-Drass-Matayen road. As dusk dissipated into darkness, the Bofors barrels began to flash and thunder, their shells vaulting, mingling with the stars for a while and then plummeting to destroy. Then came a barrage of medium-range fire ? 130-mm and 105-mm guns booming one after the other from unit after unit. Then again the Bofors gun and thereafter, bursts of killer showers from the spectacular Russian-built multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs), which work like firespitting dragons exhaling.
As we arrived at a medium-range battery near Drass, guns had already begun to fire. The vicinity was shuddering, sound blasts rippled through our vehicle and the undercarriage rattled as if it was about to be torn asunder. The guns were shrouded in dust and fumes and gunners shuffled about, sinister shadows in the gathering pall, feeding the guns and firing. After every round came fresh orders on trajectories, barked out by the group commander. The gunners swivelled their barrels, loaded the charges and fired again.
There was intermittent counter-bombardment but the airspace last night was too choked with Indian iron and TNT to permit much from the other side. But there was another worry niggling at artillery commanders as they mounted their pounding: the threat of a ground attack by infiltrator parties. Patrol parties were out on the mountains and along the nullahs and even the gunners had their personal weapons loaded and at hand.
?Who knows, they might decide to push in a few men frustrated at the beating they are getting?? said the battery commander. ?This is a porous border and men can always sneak in by cover of darkness.? But would they dare engage such a huge troop presence in ground battle? The commander shook his head impatiently and said: ?In this situation it is not a question of numbers. Even if a couple of them manage to get past and throw a couple of grenades, they can destroy a whole battery of guns. Look at the amount of ammunition laid out on the ground.?
He himself had his pistol ready and somewhat nervously repeated his orders on vigilance against unknown movement on the ground. Save for the flash of guns, the torch flicker of patrol parties was the only light in the darkness.
After the first round of shelling, which lasted close to three hours, came a lull in the Drass Valley. But up along the treacherous ridges of Tololing, infantry troops were grinding closer to enemy positions.
Close to midnight, the radio in the command came to life again as infantry units demanded fresh fire on new positions they had been able to identify. Another round of helling tore the darkness and the silence of the night.
When the radio buzzed next, it was morning and the message was that Tololing had been won.