SONAM NORBU who saved Ladakh in 1948

  • Sonam Norbu made a makeshift airstrip in Leh in 1948. This allowed Indian troops to land at Leh and regain control of the region from Pakistan. Read about the numerous contributions of this Ladakhi.   

Celebrating 110th Birth Anniversary of Sonam Norbu, Distinguish Engineer who saved Ladakh in 1948. 


Ladakh International Centre (LIC) makes sure that India and the people of Ladakh do not forget the gems who have contributed to the nation building.


Sonam Norbu, a Padma Shri recipient (1961) was one such hero who had contributed immensely to the defence and development of the country.


Norbu was born in Leh (in Nyachu family) on May 27, 1909. Norbu passed away at the age of 70 on February 2, 1980. His birth anniversary falls today on May 27, 2019.


Sonam Norbu was a graduate of the University of Punjab and later completed his engineering degree at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) in the 1930s.


In 1947, when India got independence, Sonam Norbu had reached the peak of his engineering career for him to contribute to the defence of the nation.


While in December 1947, Skardu had already fallen into Pakistani control, the advance of tribal raiders towards Leh was held back through the winter months by the State Forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jang Thapa.


Ladakh was then vulnerable as the garrison in Leh was defended by a platoon of 33 men.


The story of defending Ladakh began when a company of 2nd Battalion of Dogra Regiment crossed over Zojila on foot from Srinagar on February 16, 1948. They were accompanied by most distinguished engineer Sonam Norbu who was trained by the British at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) in the 1930s.


Sonam Norbu took up the most challenging task of constructing a makeshift airstrip at Leh without any engineering and technological support. He came with just Rs 13,000/- to complete the task.


Norbu along with the 2nd Dogra Company arrived in Leh on March 8, 1948 and soon started the project on March 4, 1948.


In an outstanding achievement, he completed construction of a 2300 yards long airstrip in a shortest time of 3 weeks on April 6, 1948. The runway was built solely through manual labour with no help of mechanical tools. It seems, among other Babu Dorji of Chute-Rantak played a key role in mobilizing local resources.


According to a write up by Lt Gen NS Brar, Sonam Norbu (being a true honest Ladakhi) had spent Rs 10891/- for preparing the airport and remaining balance amount of Rs 2109/- was deposited in the treasury.


Following the runway completion, Sonam Norbu had immediately sent a wireless message requesting for a quick dispatch of aircraft and reinforcements. However, the Dakota transport aircraft piloted by Air Commodore Mehar Singh, co-pilot by Flight Lieutenant SD Singh along with General Thimayya on board landed in Leh only on May 24, 1948.


May 24, 1948, therefore, marked a watershed in the history of modern Ladakh – the day when Sonam Norbu prepared the ground for getting Aeroplane to Ladakh before even a bicycle could be seen by the people. Thanks to him, we bypassed the entire agrarian and industrial age and directly started enjoying the fruits of modernity. Everything was innocent and divine then – everyone flocked to the airport with choonpo fodder for the ‘flying horses’! 


Meanwhile, Pakistani raiders by May 22, 1948 had already reached up to Ladakh-Konka (near Nimu and Taru). Since entire route from Zojila, Kargil and Khaltsi and Nimu had been occupied by the raiders, Leh could be saved only by air reinforcements.


Bad weather however prevented the reinforcement reaching Leh not before a week later when a flight of six Dakotas dropped a company of 2/4 Gurkha Rifles along with arms and ammunition at Leh airport on June 1, 1948.


Left Sonam Stobdan, right is Col Chewang Rinchen. Displayed at Hall of Fame Leh.

Subsequently, more reinforcement of troops reached Leh by surface through Rohtang Pass as well as by air. Leh was saved and the enemy forces were pushed back by July/August that year.


Indian Forces regained Zojila and Kargil by November 1948 under the Operation Bison and the cease fire followed on January 1, 1949. Of course, the raising of 7 J&K Militia and heroic deeds Major Chewang Rinchen and others is a separate story which will be covered later.


Clearly, the contribution of the first British trained engineer from Ladakh Sonam Norbu cannot be forgotten. Among others who saved Ladakh from falling into Pakistan included Air Commodore Mehar Singh who was awarded with the Maha Vir Chakra.


General Thimayya who planned the mission became the Chief of the Army Staff.


Lt Col Sher Jang Thapa, Major Hari Chand and Captain Khusal Chand were awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for their gallant actions in Skardu and to keep Leh secured. Major Rinchen was also awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for saving the Shyok Valley.


Sonam Norbu later joined the J&K PWD and also became Chief Engineer with the Border Roads Organization. He was instrumental in completing both the survey and construction of the Srinagar – Leh road through the Zojila Pass in 1950s. For his distinguished service to the nation Sonam Norbu was awarded by the Indian government with the national civilian award the Padma Shri in 1961.


Sonam Norbu continued to play pioneering role in the defence, development and administration of Ladakh. He had served as the Development Commissioner in Ladakh. Later Norbu was appointed as the first Indian Ambassador to the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1971. 


In 1975, Sonam Norbu was inducted as Minister of Works and Power as well as Ladakh Affairs in Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s Cabinet. Sheikh Abdullah reposed so much trust in him that portfolios entrusted him had comprised over 70 per cent of State’s budget. 


All the developmental works in Ladakh were undertaken during his tenure as Cabinet Minister. It was again Sonam Norbu who opened up Ladakh for international tourism and got Leh connected with air service in 1977. He continued to serve as Minister until his death in 1980.


A memorial Chorten (Stupa) is being built in his memory located near Sketsak in Leh. The main hospital in Leh Sonam Norbu Memorial Hospital (SNMS) is being dedicated in his memory.


Ladakh International Centre (LIC) in past few years has been trying to curve a space for Ladakh identity while resurrecting some of the past glories and achievements of our people. We are trying to be creative and exploratory in revitalizing and reshaping the future destiny of Ladakh. In 2016, the Centre had conceptualized the idea of celebrating the 400th anniversary of King Sengge Namgyal and Lama Stag-san-respa.


First published here. eSamskriti has obtained permission from the author to share.


Author is President Ladakh International Centre.


To know about the various battles in Ladakh starting 1948 to Siachen Glacier and beyond visit the Hall of Fame Leh. To see pictures of Hall of Fame

To read The Men Who Saved Ladakh 

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