History’s High Altitude Battles

High altitude doesn’t present difficulties to just mountaineers. For centuries, armies have fought on mountain passes across the world, adapting their tactics to the alpine environment. As Wikipedia ominously describes, soldiers fighting in mountains have to survive, “not only combat with the enemy but also the extreme weather and dangerous terrain”.

As a rule, many people avoid mountains. In both civilian and military life, mountains generally have nothing to offer aside from exhaustion, cold, danger and — if the mountain is high enough — dangerous cold. But sometimes you just can’t help where the war god’s caprice will fall.

Kargil War
The first — and so far, only — armed conflict between two nuclear states occurred in a part of  the Himalaya that divides India and Pakistan, and is probably the highest fought battle in history. The sovereignty of the battleground, known as the Kargil district, was in dispute. After both nations tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the belligerence between both nations reached a flashpoint.

Pakistani soldiers, disguised as Mujahidin, surreptitiously entered Indian-controlled territory, and took control of several peaks, some of them as high as 18,000 feet. They chose this craggy terrain partly dude to its tactical advantage. Take it away Wikipedia:

With tactically vital features and well-prepared defensive posts atop the peaks, a defender of the high ground would enjoy advantages akin to a fortress. Any attack to dislodge a defender from high ground in mountain warfare requires a far higher ratio of attackers to defenders, and the difficulties would be exacerbated by the high altitude and freezing temperatures.

kw2The Pakistani troops were practically immune from artillery and air attacks, because on the tops of the peaks they were outside of visible range. This forced the Indian soldiers to uproot the Pakistanis, peak by peak.

Once more, Wikipedia:

Since any daylight attack would be suicidal, all the advances had to be made under the cover of darkness, escalating the risk of freezing. Accounting for the wind chill factor, the temperatures were often as low as −15 °C to −11 °C (12 °F to 5 °F) near the mountain tops.

That’s why armies avoid mountains when they can. When you’re killing other human beings, you want to be comfortable, preferably in a temperate zone.

Battle of San Matteo
Until the Kargil War, the Battle of San Matteo, fought in WWI, was the battle fought at the highest altitude in history. The top of Punta San Matteo, located in Northern Italy, is over 12,000 feet tall, the ascent of which requires a four hour ice climb.

wrOne side of the war had placed some artillery cannons on top of Punta San Matteo, which were in firing range of the other side’s supply lines. The side with the harassed supply lines didn’t appreciate this, so they sent some soldiers to make the four hour ice climb and take control of the Punta. And they did, but before long the side originally in control took control of the Punta again.

One side fired artillery onto the top of the Punta, killing soldiers on both sides.

Twenty-seven people died in the battle, which is nothing compared to the horrors both sides inflicted on the other. Aside from being the war’s highest elevation battle, it’s also notable as being the last victory of one of the sides, before the Armistice of Villa Giusti ended hostilities in the area.

Sino-Indian War
The boundaries between nations that were drawn after WWII stirred up a lot of shit. The boundaries between India and Pakistan, drawn in 1947, resulted in incessant conflict for half a century. It also led to the conflict between India and China in 1962.

The Himalayas effectively demarcates India’s borders. So necessarily, India’s battles are fought at high altitudes. That’s why it opened its prestigious High Altitude Warfare school in 1948: to train its soldiers for high altitude combat and to develop techniques for fighting in the mountains. They seem to be doing a good job. Check out this video:

I wouldn’t want to mess with anyone rappelling like that!

During some battles of the Sino-Indian War, more casualties were caused by the Himalaya’s extreme weather than by warfare. Especially because soldiers died if they didn’t reach shelter when night fell.