Sunday, 31 March 2013

An unparalleled daring feat

War on terror revisited : Part 123

At the Kayts pier opposite the Karainagar navy camp: Officers and men of SLNS Pabbatha during Operation "Thrividha Balaya" to break the siege on Jaffna Fort, a few months later.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having fought a series of battles with the LTTE since the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the army and the navy under siege at Kankesanthurai habour were on the verge of running out of ammunition and water by the second week of July 1990. The morale of the majority of those under siege had been rather low, though some officers remained confident of resisting the LTTE onslaught until the reinforcements arrived. However, in the absence of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR), sea as well as supplies by air for almost a month, those defending KKS faced the daunting task of holding out in the face of a fierce offensive.

The air force lacked the wherewithal to replenish isolated Jaffna bases. Even if it had moved some ammunition to Palaly airfield, the army wouldn’t have been able to move them overland to Kankesanthurai. The armed forces deployed in the Jaffna peninsula were in a pathetic situation. Palaly, too, was also continually under fire.

The then UNP government chose to keep mum on the situation for political reasons. Although the then main opposition party, the SLFP, lambasted the government for failing to neutralise the LTTE threat, it wasn’t aware of the actual ground situation!

At the onset of hostilities, the LTTE had established control of the area west of the entrance to the harbour, including Keerimalai, hence the navy refrained from sending ships and any other craft into the harbour. The air force, too, didn’t want to risk trying to land helicopters at Kankesanthurai.

LTTE takes upper hand

Thanks to peace talks between President Premadasa and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), the latter was in a commanding position in all northern and eastern districts. On the other hand, the army, which hadn’t been engaged in combat operations since June 1987, was in dire straits. The navy and the air force, too, experienced severe difficulties in operating in a new environment. In fact, they had never experienced a similar situation during eelam war (1983-June 1987).

Although the LTTE had been on the offensive since June 11, 1990, army detachments at Kokavil, Mankulam and Kilinochchi situated north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna MSR were still intact. The army lost Kokavil, Kilinochchi and Mankulam during the second week of July, last week of July and the last week of Nov. 1990, respectively. Daring amphibious and heli-landings on first of Sept. 1990 saved the isolated Mullaitivu detachment. The LTTE had remained confident of overrunning Kankesanthurai before going all out against under strength detachments in the Vanni mainland. Had the Kankesanthurai defences collapsed in early July 1990, the armed forces would have suffered an irreparable loss. In fact, the army would never have been able to build up forces required for a major offensive in the Jaffna peninsula during eelam war II without the Kankesanthurai lifeline.

An uphill task

The daunting task of replenishing those under siege at Kankesanthurai was assigned to the navy. The navy picked ‘Pabbatha’, one of the two Landing Craft Medium (LCM) acquired from Singapore in late Oct. 1985 to undertake the operation. The navy had no previous experience in carrying out such an operation.

The then Lt. Commander, S. U. Lanka Prasada, Commanding Officer of ‘Pabbatha’ accepted the challenge. Prasada as the best cadet from the fifth intake was the proud winner of the ‘Sword of Honour.’ Having served the navy for 20 years, Prasada retired with the rank of Commander, RSP (MBA, PDGM, PDGIR, and EDBA).

‘Pabbatha’ was tasked to move supplies from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai during the first week of July 1990. Commander Prasada recollected the unprecedented operation to replenish Kankesanthurai harbour base comprising an army detachment situated close to the pier and a large vessel (A -526) which had been permanently anchored there and secured to the breakwater on the eastern side of the harbour. The navy used A 526 to accommodate personnel in the absence of better facilities.

Although the army wanted to expand the perimeter of the camp to give some depth to defences urgently, it lacked the required equipment, hence ‘Pabbatha’ was tasked to ferry one frontend loader and two road rollers along with a large consignment of ammunition and rations.

A floating bomb

‘Pabbatha’ left the strategic naval base of Trincomalee on the night of July 5, 1990. According to Commander Prasada, his cargo included over 20 tons of ammunition, including mortar shells stocked up on the open vehicle deck. Had the LTTE managed to score just one direct hit on the ammunition on the deck, it would have caused a major fireworks display, Prasada said. Although the navy realized the risk, ‘Pabbatha’ was taking, it didn’t have another viable option. The navy top brass ordered Pabbatha to go ahead with the operation. Had the navy lost the vessel along with heavy vehicles as well as ammunition, it would have been only a matter of weeks if not days before the LTTE overwhelmed troops at Kankesanthurai. The loss of one of the two available LCMs would have caused a devastating setback to the overall war effort.

Having reached the northern naval area on the evening of the following day, Prasada received a warning from the then Lt. B.C.M. Mendis, Officer-in-Command of A 526 of an impending LTTE attack on his vessel. According to Prasada, Mendis quoted army intelligence at Palaly as having said that ethuledi salakanna balagena innawa (the ship would be taken care of inside the harbour.) The warning was based on a monitored LTTE transmission in the Jaffna peninsula. The then Northern Naval Area Commander, Captain A. H. M. Razeek, too, had got in touch with Prasada, having received an intelligence warning of the impending attack.

After consultations between Razeek and Prasada, the latter assigned a Fast Gun Boat (FGB) to facilitate the unloading operation. ‘Pabbatha’ was to enter the harbour at midnight on July 6, 1990. Prasada said that he was 100 per cent confident in his second-in-command, the then Lt. S. M. D. K. Samaraweera (currently Commodore attached to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) outfit) to ensure the success of the operation. "I couldn’t have asked for a better crew. We worked as a team and were confident of each other, though we knew the operation could go wrong. One enemy mortar round could have had disastrous consequences," he said.

Stationary target

At the onset of eelam war II, there had been only one location in the Kankesanthurai harbour where an LCM could berth and lower the ramp of the vessel to drive out vehicles. As the LTTE was aware of the facility, those on the ship as well as troops on the ground knew the risk the ship was taking. LTTE mortars and .50 weapons could have easily targeted the vessel. The LTTE also had the advantage of spotting the vessel easily, as the harbour had one entrance and target the vessel from its positions from the western edge.

‘Pabbatha’ entered the harbour in the night with personnel manning all gun positions. Prasada said: "We were ready to confront the LTTE, with main weapons onboard the ship; 20 mm and 0.5 guns, and all other gun positions manned. Fire hoses were rigged on the vehicle deck in view of over 20 tons of ammunition being carried there. All lights onboard were switched-off. SLNS Sooraya (FGB), commanded by the then Lt Commander Susisth Weerasekara (during this period he was the Commanding Officer of SLNS ‘Rakshaka’, as well as acting C.O. of SLNS ‘Soorya’) provided naval gunfire support. His vessel was deployed off the western edge of KKS harbour. SLNS ‘Pabbatha’, took advantage of the total darkness in the vicinity and entered KKS harbour, keeping the ship as close as possible to the buoy on the eastern side of the harbour. Then the ship approached the landing point, dropped kedge anchor (anchor at the astern of the ship, which is used in landings and withdrawals), proceeded up to the landing point and lowered the front ramp to the pier to facilitate the unloading of vehicles, ammunition and stores. Army and navy personnel were ready at the pier for unloading. Army personnel drove off the frontend loader first, followed by two road rollers."

Susith Weerasekara retired after having risen to the rank of Rear Admiral, though many felt he could have commanded the navy, if he had not been wrongly held responsible for a post-war incident in the Mullaitivu seas.

LTTE opens fire

Soon after army personnel drove off heavy vehicles across the ramp, the LTTE launched a three-pronged attack using mortars and .50 weapons. Mortars had started exploding all around the ship. Amidst intense LTTE fire, the commanding officer of troops at Kankesanthurai asked Prasada whether he intended to withdraw the vessel or continue unloading. Prasada had the option of continuing the operation at the risk of the ship, its crew and the cargo or fight its way out of the harbour, leaving those under siege at Kankesanthurai without ammunition. Prasada said: "I asked the commanding officer of the Kankesanthurai army camp (my apologies to the brave SLA officer for my inability to recollect his good name) whether he was willing to continue unloading amidst heavy fire from the LTTE, and he said that he was willing. As the C.O. of ‘Pabbatha’, I took the crucial decision which I thought was correct; to take up the challenge and continue unloading, amidst LTTE fire, boosting the moral of men in SLA and A-526."

Combined counter attack

Having decided to go ahead with the operation, ‘Pabbatha’, SLNS ‘Sooraya’, A-526 and Kankesanthurai army camp simultaneously opened fire at LTTE positions. The army fired mortars and .50 weapons, while A 526 engaged the enemy with 20 mm and .50 weapons. Most importantly, Lt. Commander Weerasekara’s vessel fired 37 mm and 20 mm guns at LTTE gun positions on the western side. The security forces’ combined firepower overwhelmed the LTTE. While Prasada concentrated on unloading the ammunition, Samaraweera was co-ordinating counter-fire from the ship, not an easy task during a high intensity confrontation.

Prasada recalled one of the sailors manning a .50 weapon on the right side of the vessel firing at the enemy non-stop. He had been without a helmet in spite of regulations that those manning weapons during action should wear a helmet. The man without a helmet was one of the four personnel firing .50 and 20 mm guns at the enemy. Prasada, along with the then Lt. Commander Saman Molligoda, who was standing next to him on the bridge of the vessel had been closely monitoring the ongoing battle. Molligoda hadn’t been part of the crew. In the absence of any other transport, Molligoda had boarded the vessel in Trincomalee to reach the Karaunagar naval base. Prasada stepped out of the bridge and walked up to the man without a helmet and offered his protective gear to the sailor in the midst of the battle.

Prasada recollected with admiration how the army personnel attached to the Kankesanthurai detachment had completed the unloading of 40 tons of ammunition and rations within 45 minutes! It had been an extraordinary feat, Prasada said, "The army just continued with unloading while mortars were exploding all around the vessel. As soon as the army completed the operation, the ship was ready to leave Kankesanthurai. Amidst the fire those brave men who had achieved an unbelievable task of unloading 40 tons within 45 minutes waved at the ship as Lt. Samaraweera operated the lever to take the vehicle ramp in and Prasada signalled Engine Room Artificer (ERA) who was at the controls of the kedge anchor, to heave the anchor in, which took a few minutes to complete. The operation couldn’t be done in a hurry as if the ship moved astern too fast there was the possibility of the anchor cable getting entangled with the propellers. Once the kedge anchor was fully recovered and secured, the ship headed for the harbour mouth to leave the harbour, under co-ordinated counter-fire from several directions. Lieutenant Commander Susith Weerasekara had brought SLNS ‘Sooraya’, very close to the western harbour entrance, and was well within the LTTE firing range. SLNS ‘Sooraya’ provided effective gunfire support to neutralize the LTTE firing positions on the western side of the harbour entrance to facilitate ‘Pabbatha’ leaving the harbour. Prasada praised the officers and men of ‘Sooraya’, who at the risk of their lives, fought a battle to protect SLNS ‘Pabbatha’ leaving the harbour.

Prasada said that had just one LTTE mortar landed on the ship during the unloading operation, none of the crew would have survived to retell what happened on that fateful day.


More on suicide attack 0n ‘Abeetha’

Apropos Sea Tigers open new front with suicide attacks at sea published on March 27, 2013, the Commander of the Navy at the time of the first suicide attack on a ship was Vice Admiral H. Ananda Silva (Nov 1, 1986 to Oct 31, 1991) not Vice Admiral Asoka H.A. De Silva as mentioned. The latter was in command from June 1, 1983 to Oct 31, 1986.

At the time of the incident, two Fast Attack Craft (FAC) had been deployed close to SLNS ‘Abeetha’ positioned 10 nautical miles north of Point Pedro. P 453 had been positioned eight nautical miles north of SLNS ‘Abeetha’, whereas as P 454 patrolled the sea between the surveillance command ship and the land towards Thondamannar in the Jaffna peninsula. ‘Abeetha’ had been under the command of Captain A.H.M. Razeek (retired in 2002 having risen to the rank of Chief of Staff. He held the rank of Rear Admiral), while the then Lieutenants, Rohan Amarasekera (currently Western Commander holds the rank of Rear Admiral) and Manoj Jayasuriya (retired with the rank of Commander employed in the private sector) were the Officers-in-Charge of P 453 and P 454, respectively. Their second-in-command were Sub Lieutenants, Y.M. Jayaratne (currently Commodore) and Pradeep Ratnayake (currently Captain), respectively. Having detected a cluster of boats moving in the direction of ‘Abeetha’, P 454 swung into action. During the battle, the P 454 crew had observed one of the craft moving away from the cluster. It was heading in the direction of ‘Abeetha’. Lieutenant Jayasuriya had immediately warned SLNS ‘Abeetha’ over the set of the threat posed by the approaching enemy craft. He urged immediate action. Meanwhile, P 453, too, had approached SLNS ‘Abeetha’, in the wake of the confrontation between P 454 and a cluster of enemy boats. In spite of the warning by the FAC, ‘Abeetha’ didn’t react until it was too late. Although someone on board the ill-fated vessel had directed small arms fire at the last moment, the explosive-laden enemy craft collided with the vessel, causing a gaping hole. As the damage was over the waterline, the vessel remained afloat until immediate repairs could be carried out. Had ‘Abeetha’ reacted in time, perhaps the suicide attack could have been thwarted.

Having being hit by a suicide attack, SLNS ‘Abeetha’ crew fired with its main armaments in the direction of P 454, prompting Lt. Jayasuriya to turn back, having identified himself. Subsequently, the two FAC approached the vessel to evacuate the dead and the wounded. The blast claimed the lives of nine personnel not 17 as mentioned in the previous articles. The 17 included both dead and the wounded. Several hours after the attacks, SLNS ‘Edithara’, positioned off Kankesanthurai, reached ‘Abeetha’ to help the latter to safely arrive at Trincomalee for urgent repairs.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sea tigers open new front, with suicide attacks at sea

War on terror revisited : Part 122


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Maintaining a lifeline to troops based in the Jaffna peninsula during three phases of the eelam conflict was unarguably the single most difficult task undertaken by the security forces during this period. Had the navy failed in its challenging task, the army would have had no option but to quit Jaffna at the onset of eelam war II (June 1990 to Aug. 1994), thereby giving the LTTE control over the entire Northern Province. The navy struggled to meet the growing requirement for arms, ammunition and equipment as well as food in the Jaffna peninsula as the army gradually expanded its deployment there. Convoys moving from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai sometimes had to fight their way into Kankesanthurai. Even unloading of armaments at the main northern port at Kankesanthurai had to be carried out under mortar fire. At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE had gun positions close to Kankesanthurai as well as Palaly to engage the harbour and the airfield. During the third week of Oct 1990, over four months after the outbreak of eelam war II, the army launched Operation Jayashakthi to expand the area under its control to give some depth to the Palaly and Kankesanthurai bases. Soon after the conclusion of the operation, President Ranasinghe Premadasa flew to Palaly along with the service chiefs, for an on-the-spot assessment. At the height of the conflict in Nov. 2008, the army had four divisions deployed in the peninsula comprising over 40,000 troops. Although the air force played a vital role in maintaining an air bridge, the navy had to bear the major burden.
SLN’S Edithara was positioned a few nautical miles north of Kankesanthurai on the night of July 16, 1990. Onboard the vessel were some midshipmen on a training mission. The then Lt. Commander Sarath Weerasekara was the Commanding Officer of the vessel, engaged in almost a week-long patrol in northern waters.

Although the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, there hadn’t been major attacks on the navy, though the ‘silent service remained ready to face any eventuality. Weerasekara, who retired several years ago with the rank of Rear Admiral, having served the navy for over three decades, was one of those involved in a spate of high risk operations, including the daring amphibious landings in Nov. 1993, to rescue troops under siege at Pooneryn.

Rear Admiral Asoka Silva was at the helm of the navy, while Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe and Air vice Marshal M. J. Terrance Gunawardana commanded the army and the air force, respectively. The navy had only one officer of the rank of Rear Admiral at that time.

Weerasekara, now a member of the ruling UPFA representing the Ampara district, told the writer that at the onset of eelam war II security forces had never realised the possibility of the LTTE opening up a new front, namely suicide attacks at sea. "We exchanged fire with LTTE terrorists positioned at a hotel situated along the coastal road. During the fire fight, we moved closer to land and fired at LTTE positions with our main armaments. Around 8.30 p.m., a cluster of boats approached us. We quickly realised that the pattern of deployment of enemy craft was different, hence the crew acted swiftly and decisively. Those manning 14.5 mm main armaments successfully engaged one of the fast moving craft about 75 metres away from its target causing a massive blast. It was only then that we knew that SLNS ‘Edithara’ was facing a suicide attack. The boat rushing towards us was blown up about 50 metres away from our ship. But, the third got away when the main armament jammed. Those manning 7.62 weapons successfully engaged the third vessel when it was about 10 metres away from the ship. The shock waves caused by the massive blast caused minor damages to the vessel, killing one midshipman."

The front of the ship had been spattered with human flesh. Weerasekera recalled finding a section of a suicide cadre’s jaws on his ship. The naval veteran described it as an eerie experience.

MP Weerasekara believed that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been in Kankesanthurai at the time the LTTE mounted its first suicide attack on the navy. As Edithara blew up all three explosive-laden suicide boats, two attack craft in the cluster of boats withdrew towards Kankesanthurai. "Had one suicide craft hit the ship, the remaining two would have smashed into it, leaving two attack craft to kill those struggling in choppy waters."

A smiling Weerasekara said that as enemy craft advanced towards his ship, he directed the crew to prepare to face enemy cluster. "We turned towards them instead of turning away. The attack on my ship completely changed the scene," MP Weerasekera said, recalling the presence of an LCM and another vessel in the area. "I directed them to move northwards, while I engaged the enemy. Those serving under my command fought courageously until the remaining enemy craft withdrew."

In hindsight, it was nothing but a miracle that the SLNS Edithara crew managed to hit all three explosive-laden craft within a matter of a few minutes. Weerasekera though that Sea Tigers must have been prepared for the operation for many months. They couldn’t have developed such a plan overnight, MP Weerasekera said, adding that he was thrilled to overcome the LTTE challenge. "It was really a surprise attack. We had never thought of developing a strategy to meet such a threat at that time. We quickly adopted tangible measures to face the new threat, an unprecedented challenge faced by a tiny navy. Until the US navy experienced the devastating impact of a suicide boat attack in late 2000 in Yemen, we were the only navy to regularly face suicide packs. Although we lost many ships during confrontations with suicide boats, we never allowed them to overwhelm us. We fought, developed new tactics until Prabhakaran breathed his last. "

MP Weerasekera was referring to the attack on the USS Cole by alleged Al Qaeda operatives. The attack on the US navy changed the whole character of naval operations.

Another ship targeted

The navy sustained the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route under extremely difficult circumstances, though it lacked the required wherewithal to engage in such a gigantic task. Although the SLAF operated regular flights to Palaly airfield it couldn’t meet the growing demand for arms, ammunition and equipment required by forces deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road (section between north of Vavuniya and Elephant Pass) at the onset of eelam war II meant that troops deployed in the peninsula totally relied on the navy and the air force. The army couldn’t have sustained major offensive action in the Jaffna peninsula unless the navy had maintained a continuous supply line. Transport of heavy equipment remained a daunting task, though four landing craft had been in service by the middle of 1991, including two acquired in late Oct. 1985 from a Singaporean company.

Having taken the upper hand in the northern theatre of operations, the LTTE stepped up pressure on the navy with a second devastating suicide attack in the northern waters in the early hours of May 4, 1991.

There had never been suicide attacks on any navy during World War II or any other conflict thereafter, with explosive packed craft. The suicide attacks sent shock waves through the navy as battle for superiority at the sea took a new turn. Maintaining the vital Trincomalee- Kankesanthurai sea supply route became an uphill task.

Simultaneously, the LTTE action jeopardised ongoing operations undertaken by the navy to intercept LTTE boats operating across the Palk Straits.

The navy positioned three merchant vessels, namely Abeetha, Edithara and Wickrema to direct Fast Attack Craft (FAC) to thwart Sea Tiger movements. The vessels fitted with powerful radar were strategically positioned to provide food, water and ammunition to FACs deployed in northern waters. Occasionally, the navy utilised the vessels to move heavy equipment and vehicles when landing craft couldn’t meet the requirement. The LTTE targeted Abeetha in the early hours of May 4, 1991 off the Jaffna peninsula (LTTE suicide squad rams Navy command ship-The Island May 6, 1991). The then Captain A. H. M. Razeek was the Commanding Officer of the ill-fated vessel, one of the surveillance command ships deployed in accordance with the overall naval strategy at that time. (Razeek retired in March 2002 having risen to the rank of Rear Admiral. At the time of retirement, Razeek was Chief of Staff of the Navy. He served the Navy for 32 years.) Rear Admiral Razeek recollected the attack in a brief interview with The Island: "We were positioned about 10 nautical miles north of Point Pedro. Three or four FACs had been attached to my ship. On the day of the incident, we spotted a boat speeding towards Abeetha. Although we were suspicious about the approaching vessel, we didn’t open fire as it could have been one of our own fast attack craft’. When we realised the approaching craft wasn’t one of ours, nothing could be done. It was an attack carried out by a single explosive-laden vessel. Contrary to previous reports, there hadn’t been a confrontation between the navy and the approaching vessel before the blast."

The blast claimed the lives of 17 personnel. The LTTE obviously closely studied the movement of FAC attached to each surveillance command ship as well as the movement of smugglers and fishermen’s boats, before mounting the surprise attack on Abeetha.

Razeek made this revelation dismissing as baseless claims that LTTE suicide cadres had triggered the blast after the navy apprehended it and brought it alongside the ship to be searched. Some claimed that those on board the explosive-laden vessel pretended to be smugglers to convince the SLNS Abeetha crew that they didn’t pose a threat.

The navy brought the badly damaged ship to Trincomalee for repairs, before being sent for comprehensive patch up the Colombo Dockyard Limited, a joint Japanese–Sri Lanka venture.

Razeek had the opportunity to command Edithara, one of two other surveillance command ships in the 1980s, in the rank of Commander.

According to Rear Admiral Razeek, the naval deployment comprised surveillance command ships, FAC, Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) and fibreglass dinghies. The suicide attack meant that surveillance command ships couldn’t be deployed on their own due to the threat posed by suicide craft. The very basis of what the navy called mother ship concept was in jeopardy. The mother ship concept meant to sustain continuous FAC operations in northern waters.

Rear Admirals Razeek and Weerasekera experienced a suicide attack each. Both Abeetha and Wickrema served the nation for many more years before being removed from service.

Years later, Edithara was destroyed in an LTTE under water attack at the Kankesanthurai harbour.

The navy had been engaged in transferring arms, ammunition and equipment needed by troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula since the outbreak of major hostilities in the early 1980s. Although the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road main overland supply route had been available at that time, men and material needed for the then largest ground offensive were moved by sea. It was the navy’s first real experience in facilitating a major build-up for an operation involving three Brigades, two on an offensive role and the other basically on a holding role.

The then Lieutenant S. U. Lanka Prasada was among the contingent assigned for the transfer of two LCMs acquired from a Singaporean company in late Oct. 1985. He said he had been chosen as a member of the ‘taking over crew’. Each ship had a crew of three officers and about 15 sailors and FNQ Wickramaratne was the Senior Officer of the voyage. Wickramaratne held the rank of either Captain or Commodore. "We sailed from Singapore and arrived in Colombo after a voyage of about seven days."

The new acquisitions were named SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula. The first Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha had been Lt. Commander Mohan Mendis, while Lt. Commander Kolitha Chandrasekara was the first Commanding Officer of SLNS Kandula. Both of them had been in the group sent to Singapore to take over of the vessels.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A ding-dong battle

War on terror revisited : Part 121

Sept. 1, 1990 three miles north of Mullaitivu light house: The then Lt. Commander S. U. Lanka Prasada, commanding officer of SLNS Pabbatha with the ship crew immediately after the landing of troops, vehicles and ammunition. The deployment was in accordance with Operation Sea Breeze to break the siege on Mullaitivu detachment.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having suffered a spate of battlefield setbacks in the Jaffna peninsula, in the Vanni region and the Eastern Province, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in late March 1991, appointed Army Chief of Staff Major General Cecil Waidyaratne as the Overall Operations Commander for the Eastern Province comprising the administrative districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. He directed Army’s No 2 to bring the Eastern Province under government control in time for local government elections. The hotheaded Waidyaratne received his appointment on March 29, 1990.

Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe remained the Commander of the army (Aug 16, 1988-Nov 15, 1991). Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne felt confident that he could tackle the situation only to realise that fighting the LTTE was vastly different from conducting counter insurgency operations against the JVP. He had been in the limelight for his role in crushing the JVP. President Premadasa and State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne praised Waidyaratne’s role as the Commander of Operation Combine, established in early August 1989 to deal with the JVP. As the senior officer in charge of the outfit, Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne had authority over the Navy, Air Force and the police. In fact, the public hardly knew of the secretive unit until Minister Wijeratne on the morning of March 8, 1990 announced the winding up of operations undertaken by the Operations Combine.

Close on the heels of the change of command, death squads launched operations in Batticaloa, the hotbed of terrorism in the Eastern Province. An armed gang abducted senior LTTE cadre S. Karikalan’s brother, Sivagnanam Sathgunanadan on April 24, 1991. The victim was an employee of the Telecommunication Department in Batticaloa. His headless body was found about three days later. The torso was in a gunny bag. A note left near the body declared that Sathgunanadan had been killed because his brother was engaged in terrorism.

The LTTE didn’t react to counter-insurgency operations in Batticaloa. Instead, the group concentrated on operations in the Mannar district.

On the Vanni front

On Feb. 17, 1991, the LTTE wiped out two platoons returning to their base at Silavaturai, killing 50 personnel, including two junior officers. They were ambushed at Kondachchi. On March 16, 1991, the LTTE attacked another patrol sent out from Silavaturai killing one and wounding eight. On the both occasions, the LTTE targeted the sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR).

A few days after the second attack on 6 GR, the LTTE suffered its first major setback during eelam war II when an operation directed at troops manning Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan detachments went awry. The then Major Kamal Gunaratne of the Gajaba Regiment, who had survived the Mankulam battle in November 1990, was at Silavaturai at the time of the LTTE attack. (Gunaratne commanded the 53 Division during eelam war IV. Presently, he is currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Ambassador in Brazil). In spite of suffering substantial losses, the army held Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan until the navy brought in reinforcements. Siai Marchettis and Bell 212s launched from nearby air bases targeted attackers, while mortar teams, too, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The then Flying Officer, Kapila Rathnaseka, (Bell helicopter pilot) recounted hearing over his set Maj. Kamal Gunaratne rejecting an LTTE offer to surrender. Rathnasekara retired before the outbreak of eelam war IV in Aug 2006 having risen to the rank of Squadron Leader. Rathnaseka said that Siai Marchettis and Bell 212s operating from Anuradhapura and Vavuniya air bases carried out attacks until the LTTE withdrew leaving over 100 bodies and a range of small arms. Operations continued throughout the night, Rathnasekara said, adding, "At first light, while flying over Silavaturai, we saw the LTTE preparing to fire locally made ‘baba’ mortars. Subsequently, Siai Marchettis bombed the location. Having suffered heavy losses, the LTTE withdrew. During the battle, Bell 212s landed a short distance away from the main camp to evacuate the wounded. After the army reestablished control over the area, the then senior officer in charge of operations in the Vanni region, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa flew to Silavaturai with several other senior officers. LTTE bodies were scattered all over the place. I have never seen so many LTTE bodies in one place. There was a heap of LTTE bodies at one place. The LTTE obviously suffered substantial losses, though it seemed to be in command, during the first 24 hours of the battle." Squadron Leader Rathnasekara said that Bell pilots had to return to Vavuniya every two and half hours for refueling.

Italian built Siai Marchettis (SF 260 TP) and (SF 260 W) acquired in 1985 and 1990, respectively, remained the most powerful attack aircraft until the acquisition of Chinese FT 7 and F 7 in early 1991. The SLAF used Siai Marchettis for both training and ground attacks even after the acquisition of Chinese jets.

Reinforcements by sea

The then Lt. Commander, S. U. Lanka Prasada, the Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha, a Landing Craft Medium (LCM) recalled the operation conducted in support of troops under siege at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan. Prasada, who had retired with the rank of Commander said: "I have a faint memory of this operation. ‘Pabbtaha’s’ role was to take troops to reinforce camps under fire. As the sea area north of Kudiramalai point is shallow no other SLN commissioned ship had gone close to the Silavathurai camp, before as it was a navigational risk. I myself had not taken even a boat into that area, since there was an operational requirement, I took the navigational risk and took Pabbatha carrying reinforcements and logistic supplies. Since the water depth was insufficient to beach the LCM near the camp, the craft remained about 1.5 cables away from the beach and fibreglass dinghies were used to ferry the troops and logistics supplies. If I remember correctly, one gun boat had been stationed north of Kudiramalai point, a fair distance away from the location due to the navigational risks, leaving dinghies and Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) to facilitate the operation."

During the battle for supremacy in Silavaturai, the then Brigadier, Sri Lal Weerasooriya was the senior officer in charge of the Mannar administrative district. (The soft-spoken officer retired having commanded the army during its worst battlefield defeat in April 2000 at Elephant Pass when the LTTE defeated 54 Division. It was the only defeat experienced by a Division during the entire conflict. Weerasooriya commanded the army from Dec. 16, 1998-Aug 24, 2000).

The battle for Silavaturai killed 25 soldiers, while about 60 suffered injuries. But the outcome of the Silavaturai battle, thanks to the navy and the air force throwing their full weight behind the army, boosted the morale of the army. It was the second successful defence of an army base by combined forces since the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. The first was the breaking of the siege on the Mullaitivu detachment in the first week of Sept. 1990. The Mullaitivu operation involved landings by ‘Pabbatha’ and ‘Kandula’, whereas Silavaturai involved only the former. Had the LTTE succeeded in overrunning Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan, the base at Thalladi would have been vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught.

In spite of experiencing a major setback, the LTTE stepped up attacks in the Mannar district. On March 29, 1991, just over a week after the conclusion of the Silavaturai battle, the LTTE killed 25 Gemunu Watch soldiers at Veppankulam, a village situated close to Silavaturai. The SLAF evacuated about 25 wounded personnel to the Anuradhapura hospital before being shifted to Colombo for further treatment (Heavy casualty toll in battle at Veppankulam—The Island April 1, 1991).

On the morning of April 29, 1991, the LTTE wiped out two platoons moving from Nanattan to Talladi, killing 50 personnel, including two officers. The LTTE removed their arms, ammunition and equipment before reinforcements could move in. It was a humiliating defeat.

During the early part of 1991, the army conducted limited operations in the Jaffna peninsula in accordance with the overall security objective to expand the area under its control. Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne was in charge of operations in the Jaffna peninsula, whereas Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa conducted an offensive in the Mannar-Vavuniya region. Jaffna forces also engaged LTTE groups in Jaffna islands. The LTTE responded with a major assault on northern navy headquarters at Karainagar in the Karaitivu Island on April 1, 1991. The navy repulsed the attack with the support of the army and the air force. During the battle, Lieutenant Kokwewa of the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) was killed in action. He was hit during an assault on a machine gun point. He was among 15 personnel killed. Brig. Wimalaratne received minor injuries during the action. The Gajaba veteran was among some 40 personnel wounded on Karaitivu Island.

By April 1991, the army had deployed all its available fighting battalions as well as support units in operational areas. Formations which had been deployed against the JVP were positioned in Jaffna, Vanni and Eastern theatres. Still, the army lacked combat troops for simultaneous operations in different theatres. For want of troops, army headquarters regularly shifted experienced battalions to carry out operations. The same battalions had to be deployed at short notice to reinforce camps under threat. Unfortunately, President Premadasa and his advisors never realized the urgent need to double the strength of the army. Had President done that, the army could have taken the upper hand. Unfortunately, successive governments ignored the requirement to bolster fighting formations until President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the go ahead for doubling of the army’s strength. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as well as former army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka attributed Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE during eelam war IV to the doubling of the army’s strength (2006-2009). At the onset of eelam war IV in August 2006, the army comprised 116,000 personnel. At the end of the conflict in May 2009, the army had about 220,000 personnel. Another drawback experienced during eelam war II was the absence of required air and naval assets to sustain offensive action. The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road north of Vavuniya at the onset of eelam war II was a devastating setback. The navy and air force had no option but to deploy most of their assets in support of the army deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna Islands.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Role of the navy: Landing operations

War on terror revisited : Part 120


On the seas off Muttur on the afternoon of July 8, 1990: The then Maj. Ravi Silva, second-in-command of 1 GR, Major Sumedha Perera, Lt. Commander Lanka Prasada, Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapakshe and Captain Shavendra Silva.

At the height of the fighting during eelam war II, SLNS ‘Pabbatha’ and SLNS ‘Kandula’ were at sea for perhaps 23 to 24 days a month. In the absence of overland supply routes to the Jaffna peninsula and in view of isolated bases along the north-western and north-eastern coast, the two ships were continuously engaged in special operations and logistic runs. Commenting on those who had served under him, Prasada said: "The entire crew worked tirelessly as a well-knit team, with courage, determination and commitment. The then First Lieutenant of the ship, Lt. S. M. D. K. Samaraweera, with ‘a never say no’ attitude was a great asset and fitted into my way of risk-taking approach. Contributions made by Lt. Hemantha Wijayawardane, Petty Officer Fonseka, and engine room artificer Ediriweera and other members of the ship’s company, whose names I cannot remember now after 20 long years, stood the Navy in very good stead. They were not concerned about rest, leave etc and worked with great dedication to complete the tasks entrusted to us. If not for the courage, determination and commitment of the entire company, we would not have been able to achieve the intended objectives."

by Shamindra Ferdinando

SLN’s ‘Pabbatha’ was entrusted with the daunting task of evacuating the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (1 GR) from a point close to the beach off Foul Point lighthouse on the afternoon of July 8, 1990. The de-induction was to take place between Coral point and Brown Rock point at the conclusion of a large scale ground operation involving two battalions - 1 GR and the fourth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (4 GR). It was the first major de-induction of combat troops following an operation, since the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990.

Operation Sea Breeze on Sept 1, 1990: Landing of troops and vehicles three miles north off Mullaitivu Light (pics courtesy Commander (Retd) Lanka Prasada)

The then Lt. Commander S. U. Lanka Prasada had been in command of ‘Pabbatha’, one of two Landing Craft Medium (LCM) acquired from a Singaporean company in late Oct. 1985 in accordance with strategy to expand the silent service. Other LCM, SLNS ‘Kandula’, too, was deployed alongside SLNS ‘Pabbatha’ for the evacuation of troops. The then Lt. Commander, Lakshman Illangakoon was in command of SLNS ‘Kandula’. A Chinese gunboat was positioned a little distance away in the choppy seas.

(Prasada, RSP, MBA, PDGM, EDBA retired in 1996 having last served the navy in the rank of Commander. Illangakoon, now a Rear Admiral, is currently the Eastern Commander based in Trincomalee).

Due to the intervention of the then Director of Naval Operations (DNO) Commodore Mohan Jayamaha, the writer had the opportunity to go onboard SLNS ‘Kandula’ deployed for the evacuation. (Jayamaha was killed in a blast at Araly Point, Kayts on the morning of Aug 8, 1992. Jayamaha was the Northern Commander at the time of his death. The explosion claimed the lives of war veterans, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne). The de-induction of troops, their equipment and some armoured personnel carriers took 30 minutes.

Although the security forces anticipated an LTTE attack on troops on the beach and the two LCMs, the enemy didn’t interfere with the evacuation.

In fact, on the day before the evacuation, the then Eastern Naval Chief, Commodore F. N. Q. Wickremaratne asserted that they would probably have to call in air support in case the LTTE interfered with the evacuation. Although the SLAF had helicopter gunships as well as Italian built Siai Marchettis stood ready to face any eventuality, much to the relief of those involved in the operation, the operation was concluded without having to fight on the beaches.

While SLNS ‘Kandula’ was returning to Trincomalee having completed the evacuation, Lt. Commander Illangakoon explained the role played by the navy, particularly in the East since the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990 (Daring rescue operations by navy in East – The Island July 10, 1990).

‘Kandula’ carried out the evacuation of a contingent of troops belonging to the sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) out, under fire on June 13, 1990, two days after the outbreak of hostilities following peace talks between the then government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990). Having realized that the beleaguered Kalmunai detachment couldn’t be reinforced either by land or air, the army ordered the evacuation of troops manning the detachment. Lt. Commander Illangakoon was directed to evacuate 6 SLLI troops. Due to heavy fire, SLNS ‘Kandula’ couldn’t reach the beach. Instead, the crew of the vessel used dinghies to ferry soldiers, including those wounded from the shallow waters to the ship anchored a little distance away. Throughout the evacuation, the LTTE attacked the army. According to the then Lt. Col. Hiran N. Halangode, the commanding officer of the first battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW), deployed in Batticaloa, the evacuation was carried out with artillery support provided by troops based at the Malwatte army camp, in the neighbouring Ampara District.

During the same period, SLNS ‘Kandula’ carried out another evacuation of soldiers and civilians.

On the day before the evacuation of 6 SLLI troops, a Shanghai class Fast Gun Boat (FGB) ‘Sooraya’ evacuated a group of 1 GW troops and some migrant fishermen from Wellawadiya. The evacuation was carried out amidst heavy resistance by the LTTE.

The navy acquired ‘Sooraya’ and another FGB ‘Weeraya’ in 1972 from China; they were bigger than patrol craft though they couldn’t be categorized as major fleet units. The navy acquired five more similar FGBs in 1973 and 1980.

The Island, in a report headlined Daring rescue operations by Navy in East (July 10, 1990) filed from Trincomalee quoted Lt. Commander Prasada as having explained the circumstances under which his ship had delivered urgently required equipment to troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. Among the ferried vehicles were some needed for mine clearing operations in the Jaffna peninsula. The landing operation had to be carried out amidst heavy enemy fire, with the support of Fast Attack Craft (FAC). The LTTE engaged Lt. Commander Prasada’s ship with a .05 calibre weapon.

Ex-Pabbatha chief speaks out

Having retired in 1996 from the regular force of the navy with the rank of Commander, Prasada served the Sri Lanka Coast Guard for two years. According to him, those evacuated on the afternoon of July 8, 1990 had been inducted a few days back to clear the area in the wake of the killing of a group of army Commandos in the Muttur-Kattaparichanan area during the second week of June, 1990. In fact, the ill-fated commando contingent had been inducted close to a place called Brown Rock Point by SLNS ‘Kandula’, while the navy staged a mock attack close to the Muttur jetty. The LTTE allowed the group led by the then Major A. M. Azad to come ashore before mounting a fierce multi-pronged assault. Forty personnel perished in the attack, while six escaped in a boat and drifted for almost 50 days before being rescued in the waters of Thailand during the first week of Aug 1990 (Four commandos escape Tigers, land in Bangkok–The Island Aug. 9, 1990).

Prasada said: "‘Pabbatha’ was about to be taken for dry-docks to Colombo Dockyard Limited for annual docking when the then Western Naval Area Commander received a priority signal from navy headquarters instructing to send back the vessel to Trincomalee immediately. The directive was received on June 16, 1990, a few days after the outbreak of hostilities. We suspended all pending repair work and annual docking and left Colombo on the evening of June 16. We were joined by 10 officers and over 50 sailors returning to Trincomalee after leave. They were among those stranded in Colombo due to stoppage of all road transport to Trincomalee. We reached the Eastern Naval Area on June 18, 1990. Since the arrival in Trincomalee, we took part in many operational landings, combined amphibious operations and endless transfers of military equipment and vehicles between Northern and Eastern Naval Areas. In the absence of an overland Main Supply Route to the Jaffna peninsula during Eelam War II & III, the navy worked vigorously to sustain the movement of military supplies, military equipment, vehicles as well as personnel. The entire ship’s complement was unchanged during the period and worked as well-knit team for almost two years and completed all the tasks entrusted to her successfully."

Prasada said that the landing operations undertaken in early July 1990 had been ‘Pabbatha’s’ first major operational commitment since deployment in the east. He recalled a picture taken with the then Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Commanding Officer of the 1 GR, onboard his ship on their way back to Trincomalee. Among the group of officers pictured on the deck was the then Captain Shavendra Silva, a Company Commander of the 1 GR (currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, Maj. Gen. Silva holds ambassadorial rank). Others in the group were the then Maj. Ravi Silva, second-in-command of the 1 GR and Maj. Sumedha Perera, a Company Commander.

Maj. Gen. Silva said that the operation had been launched to clear Kattaparichchan in the wake of the devastating attack on the commandos. Silva commanded the Bravo Company. According to him, 1 GR continuously fought in different theatres, including Jaffna Fort, Kayts, Mandaitivu and Operation Balavegaya, to rescue those under siege at Elephant Pass, in July 1991.

Mullaitivu landing

Unlike the landing operations undertaken in the Trincomalee District during the month of June and July 1990, the rescue of about 63 personnel, including commandos under siege at the isolated Mullaitivu detachment posed an unprecedented challenge. The detachment had been under siege since the second week of August 1990 and more than half of the personnel were wounded, mainly due to mortar fire. According to Prasada, the rescue mission carried out on Sept. 1 involved simultaneous induction of troops through amphibious landings in unknown enemy held territory, by ‘Pabbatha’ and ‘Kandula’. Heli-borne troops were to join the battle.

Prasada said: "The landing of troops and vehicles took place at dawn on Sept. 1, 1990 and it was a simultaneous landing by sea and air. SLNS ‘Pabbatha’ and SLNS ‘Kandula’ beached at a location 3 nautical miles north of Mullaitivu Light to commence the operation while Fast Gun Boats, ‘Sooraya’ and ‘Weeraya’ provided naval gunfire support for the landing. ‘Pabbatha’ landed 300 troops, two South African built trucks, one SUV mounted with RCL and two tons of ammunition. The success of the operation heavily depended on the LCM landing in this unsecured territory held by LTTE, as artillery guns, mortar launchers and majority of troops were on-board LCMs. After the initial landing, SLA troops secured the beach front and LCMs continued to land more troops, vehicles and equipment to facilitate the advance towards the besieged camp. Subsequently the SLA reached the camp and rescued troops under siege and evacuated the wounded soldiers."

Squadron Leader Kapila Rathnasekara Apropos previous piece titled A debilitating setback, Kapila Rathnasekara, who had rescued a group of soldiers, including the then Majors, Lalith Daulagala and Kamal Gunaratne in late Nov 1990, retired in 2005 with the rank of Squadron Leader, not as Wing Commander, as mistakenly mentioned. At the time of that particular rescue mission, Rathnasekara had been a Flying Officer. The officer who had carried out air reconnaissance to ascertain the threat on the Mankulam detachment during the month of Nov 1990 was the then Major G. A. Chandrasiri, not Maj. Kamal Gunaratne, who was on the ground at Mankulam at the time of the air reconnaissance. Chandrasiri retired in 2009 having served the army as its Chief of Staff during Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as the Commander of the Army. In fact, Gen. Fonseka went to the extent of recommending Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri as his successor. Currently, he is the Governor of the Northern Province. The army abandoned the Kilinochchi detachment on July 27, 1990, not in the last week of November 1990 as mentioned. At the time of the evacuation, the then Maj. Maithree Dias had been in command of the detachment and the evacuation was facilitated by the sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6GR) and the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW). Finally Wing Commander Shirantha Goonetilleke was the younger brother of former SLAF Commander and present Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Air Chief Marshal Roshan G and not the elder brother as mentioned. Shirantha G perished due to an LTTE missile attack on an Avro approaching the Palaly air field, in late April 1995.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A debilitating Setback


War on terror revisited : Part 119


 The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna Main Supply Route (MSR) beyond Vavuniya sent shock waves through the defence establishment. The army never recovered from the setback caused by negligence on the part of its top brass and President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had simply played in to the hands of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Debacles at Kokavil (July, 1990) and Mankulam (Nov, 1990) and the vacation of Kilinochchi (Nov, 1990) demoralised the entire army, leaving detachments at Mullaitivu, Elephant Pass as well as Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan situated south of Mannar, vulnerable to LTTE attacks. Troops at Silavaturai, Kokkupadayan, Elephant Pass and Mullaitivu were under siege. None of them could be accessed overland; the navy and the air force had to be called in to move supplies under trying conditions. Successive government/military leaders never examined the adverse impact the loss of the MSR had on the country’s overall military strategy as well as the national economy. At the conclusion of the conflict, the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe explained the difficulty and the cost of moving a single convoy from Trincomalee to Kankenanthurai at the height of the conflict. The vice admiral was making a presentation before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LTTE threat to ship movements had been so high that the SLN had to receive the support of both the SLA and the SLAF to protect its convoys. At the height of the conflict, the SLN had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 Fast Attack Craft, twenty-two Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned to protect a single Trinco-KKS convoy. The army had to place artillery units deployed along the coast on alert to provide gun fire support, in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then newly promoted Maj. S.W. Lalith Daulagala of the third battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (3 GR) was the senior officer in charge of troops at Mankulam under siege when he received a directive from his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Y.N. Palipana to abandon the camp. The order was received in the third week of Nov. 1990 in the wake of the LTTE stepping up attacks on the detachment. Daulagala had one company of 3 GR troops under his command. The total strength at the beleaguered base comprised about 200 to 210 personnel, including one company of 3 GR, two platoons of Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) and a mortar team.

Daulagala, now a serving Maj. Gen is Sri Lanka’s Acting High Commissioner in Malaysia. In a brief interview with the writer, Daulagala recollected the circumstances that had led to the vacation of Mankulam in the fourth week of Nov. 1990.

Having overrun the isolated Kokavil detachment manned by the third battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (3 SLSR) during the second week of July 1990, the LTTE stepped up attacks on Mankulam, which was also held by two platoons of 3 SLSR. 3 SLSR was a volunteer battalion. The army lost about 60 personnel at Kokavil. Mankulam was under the command of Major Nihal Weerasooriya.

The army deployment at Kilinochchi comprised one platoon of sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6SR), another platoon of 3 SLSR as well as support personnel. There were altogether about 90 personnel. The then Maj. Maithri Dias of the 6SR was in charge of troops at Kilinochchi in the absence of Lt. Colonel H. R. Stephen, the then Coordinating Officer for the Kilinochchi District. Dias, now a Brigadier, functions as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the 54 Division, deployed in Mannar.

Mankulam was situated between Kokavil and Kilinochchi north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna road A9. Both places came under attack during the last week of Nov. 1990.

In the absence of 3 GR battalion commander Lt. Col. Palipana, Maj. Daulagala was placed in command of the besieged camp. (Both Lt. Colonel, Stephen and Palipana were killed in a blast at Araly Point, Kayts, on the morning of Aug 8, 1992).

Due to the negligence on the part of the defence top brass, the army didn’t have a contingency plan to face the LTTE threat during eelam war II.

According to Maj. Gen. Daulagala, 3 GR received a directive from army headquarters to shift from Matale to Vavuniya immediately. The battalion was to spearhead an operation to rescue those trapped in Kokavil. Unfortunately, the LTTE overran Kokavil before 3 GR could mount a heli-borne mission to save 3 SLSR troops. In the meantime, 3 GR was deployed to clear Vavuniya town and its suburbs before being tasked to break the siege on Mankulam. Having lost Kokavil, the army decided to vacate KIlinochchi, though a final decision on Mankulam was delayed.

Heli-borne rescue mission

After meticulous planning, the army launched its heli-borne rescue mission to save troops under siege at Mankulam. The rescue party comprised 3 GR and commandos. Having landed several kilometres away from Mankulam, they fought their way into the besieged detachment. Lt. Col. Palipana was on the ground. Majors, N.G. Chandrasena and Nissanka Senadhipathi were among the Commando Officers. Having secured Mankulam, the army swiftly expanded the camp to facilitate SLAF efforts to drop food and evacuate the wounded. Fortunately, Mankulam did have its own supply of water. Daulagala said: "Sometimes, supplies dropped from air fell outside our defences hence expansion of the area under our control was necessary. However, about one and a half months later, of the three 3 GR companies involved in the rescue mission, two returned to Vavuniya with the battalion commander leaving Daulagala in charge. The 3 SLSR troops, too, left Mankulam and were replaced by two platoons of 2 VIR troops."

After consultations among the top brass, Commandos based at Mankulam, with the backing of 3 GR made an abortive attempt to further expand the area under army control. A section of the army felt that Mankulam could be consolidated by bringing the Mankulam built-up area. In the immediate aftermath of the failed mission to capture the Mankulam built up area, army headquarters withdrew Commandos from Mankulam leaving one Company of 3 GR, two platoons of VIR and a mortar team to meet any eventuality. They LTTE mounted a major attack on Mankulam on Nov 22, 1990. Although, the army fought back, the LTTE made rapid progress.

Daulagala is of the opinion that they could have resisted the attack successfully if the two companies of 3 GR and Commandos had been there in Mankulam. Daulagala said: "Amidst exchange of fire between us and the terrorists, we managed to move out of the camp discreetly. An LTTE cadre holding the rank of ‘Lt. Colonel’ carried out a suicide attack, using an explosive-laden vehicle shortly after we had moved out of the camp and were pushing southwards towards Vavuniya. There were about 90 officers and men in my group. Among the officers was the then Maj. Kamal Gunaratne, now a serving Maj. Gen. Having spotted the group close to the Puliyankulam-Mullaitivu road, the SLAF rescued us." (Maj. Gen. Gunaratne commanded the 53 Division during eelam war IV. Under his command, the 53 played a crucial role in the offensive, which brought the LTTE to its knees in May 2009).

According to Daulagala, Gunaratne had been engaged in a special reconnaissance mission to identify LTTE fortifications, particularly mortar positions. "They were about to mount a major attack on us. Gunaratne was directed to remain at Mankulam due to increasing threats."

Another large group of soldiers reached Mamaduwa, much to the relief of the top brass, though at least 50 to 60 personnel attached to Mankulam perished during attacks as well as during evacuation.

SLAF in daring rescue missions

Daulagala recollected with gratitude the role played by the SLAF under extremely difficult conditions. "Some of us may not have survived if the SLAF had failed to evacuate us. They landed well within enemy territory at the risk of their lives. I was rescued by the then Wing Commander, Kapila Rathnasekara, who flew a Bell 212."

Retired Wing Commander Rathnasekara explained the circumstances under which the rescue mission had been launched. Having retired in 2005 after serving the SLAF for 20 years, Rathnasekara is currently employed in the private sector. Rathnasekera said: "We were directed to look for those walking through the jungles. Two or three Bell helicopters were involved in the rescue mission. Both Daulagala and Gunaratne boarded my helicopter. After three days in the jungle, they were in very bad shape. Group Capt. Jagath Rodrigo, too, was involved in the rescue mission. We airlifted them in batches. Rodrigo, who was my batch mate, was killed in an LTTE missile attack in Trincomalee in late 2000."

At the time of the Group Captain’s death, he was the Commanding Officer of the Mi-24 attack helicopter squadron. His machine was targeted with a shoulder fired surface to air missile during deployment of a pair of Mi 24s in support of a ground operation.
Wing Commander Kapila Rathnasekara with his chopper in Vavuniya

According to Rathnasekara, the SLAF primarily deployed Bell 212s for missions, though Bell 412s, too, were available. "We flew continuously in support of the army, inducting and de-inducting troops, evacuating the sick and the wounded and providing aerial support."

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa visited the Jaffna peninsula in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation of Mankulam (In the midst of fighting President visits Jaffna-The Island Nov 25, 1990). It was the President’s first visit to Jaffna after the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. He undertook the visit in the wake of Operation Jayashakthi to expand the area under its control in Palaly to thwart anti-aircraft fire being directed at the airbase. The operation conducted in the third week of Oct. 1990 paved the way for the army to accommodate Palaly and Kankesanthurai under a combined security plan. But, the failure on the part of the army top brass to send in required reinforcements to Mankulam caused a debilitating setback.

Within a week after the Mankulam debacle, the army launched an assault to break the siege on Kilinochchi, where troops under the command of Maj. Maithri Dias were engaged in a desperate battle. The rescue mission involved the sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6GR) and fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW). With the vacation of Mankulam and Kilinochchi in quick succession, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe’s army lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna. The loss of the MSR gave the LTTE the upper hand not only in the Vanni region, comprising the administrative districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi but also in the entire temporarily merged North-East Province.

A daunting task

In spite of several attempts, including the disastrous operation Jayasikuru, the army couldn’t restore the overland route and, therefore, the navy and the air force had to maintain uninterrupted supply routes for almost 20 years until the army under the command of Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army re-established the MSR in Jan. 2009.

A rare picture taken immediately after some of the rescued officers and men reached Vavuniya in an overloaded Bell 212 chopper. Their hands and legs had turned white after walking in the jungles in heavy rain for several days. The Bell was piloted by Wing Commander Kapila Rathnasekara with Wing Commander Dushantha Edirisinghe as his deputy. Edirisinghe was killed during a casualty evacuation mission north of Vavuniya during operation ‘Jayasikuru’. Rathnasekara, who was the first SLAF pilot to complete 5,000 helicopter hours, now flies for Deccan Aviation Pvt. Limited.(Pics courtesy WC Kapila R)

That would never have been possible without the required manpower. Massive expansion of the army as well as sister services were made possible by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, one-time Commanding Officer of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (1GR) giving the armed forces the go ahead for a recruitment drive. At the height of the Vanni offensive, the army had nine fighting formations deployed, both east and west of the Jaffna-Kandy MSR. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa during the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009) told the writer that the decision to expand the armed forces had been political and that the service chiefs could never have contemplated such a manpower boost without approval from the President.

At the height of the conflict, security forces and police maintained almost 50,000 personnel in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. The army alone had four infantry divisions, including the elite 53 deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. Keeping them supplied was a daunting task due to limitations experienced by the navy and the air force. Both the navy and the air force lacked the resources. The Navy’s limited resources available for offensive action had to be continuously deployed to escort supply ships to Kankesanthurai. Navy convoys had to fight their way through Sea Tiger forces operating in north-eastern waters, while the air force faced powerful anti-aircraft fire directed at planes landing and taking off from Palaly. The situation further deteriorated after the LTTE introduced shoulder fired heat seeking missiles to the Jaffna theatre in April 1995. It short down two SLAF Avros over Palaly. The strikes claimed the lives of 100 officers and men. Among the dead was Wing Commander Shirantha Goonetilleke, the elder brother of former SLAF Commander and present Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Roshan Goonetilleke. At the time of his death, Shirantha, the eldest son of one-time SLAF Commander Air vice Marshal Harry Goonetilleke, was the commanding officer of the No 2 squadron.

Monday, 18 March 2013

President fails to capitalize on victory over JVP

War on terror revisited : Part 118


The Island photographer T.C. Perera captured a smiling State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, announcing the death of JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera,on the afternoon of November 13, 1989.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

A jubilant State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne announced the arrest of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera on Nov. 12, 1989 on an estate in Ulapone and his death the following day itself. Wijeweera was 47 years at the time of his demise. The announcement was made at a hastily arranged press conference at the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry on the afternoon of Nov. 13, 1989.

National List MP Wijeratne, who also held the plantations portfolio and functioned as the UNP Chairman, was flanked by the then IGP Ernest Perera, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, State Minister for Foreign Affairs John Amaratunga, Presidential Security Advisor and Defence Secretary General Cyril Ranatunga and former Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle. Except Amaratunga, others on the head table had been deeply involved in President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s peace initiative with the LTTE.

Minister Wijeratne claimed that troops guarding Wijeweera and JVP politburo member H. B. Herath had no option but to open fire in self defence when the latter suddenly pulled out a pistol and fired in the direction of the JVP leader. Minister Wijeratne declared that the incident had taken place at the military and propaganda headquarters of the JVP situated in the suburbs of Colombo in the early hours of Nov. 13, 1989. According to the minister, Wijeweera had been taken there after being flown in on the night of Nov. 12 to Colombo. The writer had the opportunity to cover the media briefing. Asked whether Minister Wijeratne considered the elimination of Wijeweera a victory for the government, the outspoken politician declared, "We got to do a job and we got to complete it."

Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe said that they had videoed Wijeweera on his own appealing to those fighting for the JVP’s cause to surrender to government forces immediately, before being taken to JVP headquarters (Rohana Wijeweera killed and cremated yesterday – The Island Nov 14, 1989).

During Nov. 1989, security forces, the police and government sponsored vigilantes caused heavy losses to the JVP. Among the dead was Udaya Jagath Shantha Deva Helakumara Seneviratne alias Attanayake. Popularly known as Shantha Bandara, the hardcore JVPer was killed several days before the capture of Wijeweera and his deputy Upatissa Gamanayake (In 2 weeks: 25 key JVP men killed or taken—The Island Nov. 26, 1989).

In spite of a debilitating setback, the JVP sustained operations, though by early Feb. 1990 the group was on the verge of collapse. It could no longer conduct operations due to complete breakdown in the command and control structure. The JVP was in total disarray. The government quite rightly asserted that existing security measures could be relaxed as the JVP no longer posed a formidable threat to either the government or the public. The political and military leaders felt that changes could be made to the security apparatus as early as the first week of March 1990. The annihilation of the JVP, ceasefire with the LTTE and India’s assurance that its army would be withdrawn as scheduled strengthened the hands of President Premadasa or at least he thought so.

Operation Combine disbanded

Having taken into consideration the ground situation in Feb. 1990, Minister Wijeratne on March 8, 1990 disbanded the Operation Combine headed by the then army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne. Gemunu Watch veteran Brig. Lakshman Algama functioned as Waidyaratne’s deputy. Minister Wijeratne announced the decision to disband the outfit, which spearheaded operations against the JVP. Wijeratne formed the unit on Aug. 4, 1989 in accordance with his overall plan to destroy the JVP. The conclusion of operations undertaken by Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne’s outfit meant that thousands of troops deployed in support of the police to quell the insurgency could be re-deployed. Similarly, the Air Force, the Navy as well as the elite Special Task Force (STF) could have re-deployed their personnel. Unfortunately, President Premadasa and his security advisors conveniently turned a blind eye to the urgent need for reappraisal of security forces deployment. No one dared to suggest to the President that isolated bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces could now be reinforced to meet any eventuality.

Instead of reinforcing detachments, the Defence Ministry abandoned some positions to pave the way for the LTTE to further expand the area under its control. About a week after the disbanding of the Operation Combine, the army abandoned Karadiyanaru and Pullu Mallai.

LTTE representatives praised President Premadasa at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March 1990. They commended President Premadasa for bringing peace and restoring normalcy in the northern and eastern districts. The LTTE support undermined the then campaign by Opposition MPs, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara to highlight in Geneva atrocities committed by government forces in their battle against the JVP.

Due to failure on the part of the UNP administration, the army was spread thin on the ground when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. The situation at the isolated Mullaitivu detachment was a case in point. According to Colonel (retd) M.B.J. Mahipala, who had been in charge of the Mullaitivu detachment in his capacity as the Coordinating Officer of the district, there had been 63 personnel at the time he took over the base shortly before the resumption of hostilities. In spite of a heavy LTTE build-up, the army top brass had not cared to reinforce Mullaitivu. The Armoured Corps officer said that some of those under his command were volunteers. The then Lt. Colonel Mahipala had been transferred from Badulla to Mullaituvu at short notice due to his predecessor Lt. Colonel Shantha Dharmaratne of the Gemunu Watch deserting the post with the outbreak of hostilities in June 1990. In hindsight, some would have considered Dharmaratne’s decision sensible due to the ground situation at that time. Who would have volunteered to command a camp vulnerable to a devastating assault when the government of the day and the army top brass totally ignored the enemy threat and did not care to assign sufficient troops for the Mullaitivu base?

Having heard evidence, a four-member military tribunal headed by the then Brig. Siri Peiris sentenced the Lt. Colonel for six months rigorous imprisonment. The tribunal ordered the termination of his commission and dismissal from the army without pension. He was the first senior officer sentenced to serve a term in prison for failing to carry out orders (Lt. Colonel sentenced to six months RI-The Island March 13, 1991).

UNP negligence

At the onset of the conflict, the army deployment at Kilinochchi comprised 93 personnel, whereas Mankulam and Kokavil detachments, situated south of Kilinochchi along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, too, were not given sufficient troops. There had been 60 soldiers at Kokavil at the time the LTTE overran it in July 1990. Although Mankulam base comprised about 200 personnel, it, too, couldn’t be held. Of them about 60 perished during the siege and the withdrawal during late Nov. 1990. In fact, the government had planned to withdraw troops from Kilinochchi even before the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. Perhaps the vacation of Kilinochchi, too, had been in accordance with the secret understanding between President Premadasa and the LTTE. Although the army had managed to repulse a series of attacks on Kilinochchi during the last two weeks of June 1990, the government vacated the base, though ground forces managed to break the siege on the strategic town in late June 1990.

During the latter part of 1989, President Premadasa ordered the army to give up Point Pedro and Valvettiturai to facilitate the peace process.

Total strength at the Jaffna Fort was 60 personnel.

In the entire eastern province, the army deployment comprised three under strength infantry battalions plus an additional contingent of about 120 personnel deployed in the Batticaloa District at the onset of eelam war II.

The conclusion of counter insurgency operations in the South in Feb/March 1990 gave the army some flexibility to strengthen isolated detachments in the northern and eastern districts. In hindsight, President Premadasa’s irresponsible attitude towards national security and the failure on the part of the military top brass to take tangible measures against the LTTE build-up may have encouraged Prabhakaran to envisage a swift and decisive battlefield victory. Those who had been near and dear to President Premadasa had conveniently blamed the UNP leader for giving a free hand to the LTTE.

One-time Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. A. M.U. Seneviratne asserted that security forces had had to pay an extremely heavy price for their failure to be prepared to face any eventuality. Obviously, the thinking of those in charge of security forces had been influenced by President Premadasa’s handling of the so-called peace process. When State Defence Minister directed the then Brigadier Seneviratne in June 1990 to lead troops on one flank to save troops under siege at Kiran and Kallady, he was in command of three Brigades deployed in the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota. Seneviratne was Security Forces Commander South when he was given the daunting task of launching a rescue mission.

Minister Wijeratne’s intervention

Minister Wijeratne constantly interfered with the deployment of troops much to the discomfort of those who were averse to political interference. Minister Wijeratne ordered the the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) to move from Moneragala to Ampara as he felt the formation had failed in anti-insurgency operations directed against the JVP. Minister Wijeratne was of the notion that the IGW was useless because it didn’t carry out political directives. Fortunately, army headquarters shifted 1GW from Ampara to neighbouring Batticaloa District a few weeks before the outbreak of eelam war II. But I GW fared extremely well under the able leadership of the then Lt. Colonel Hiran N. Halangode during the June 1990 battles for supremacy in Batticaloa. Although 1GW troops abandoned Wellawadi, they held both Kiran and Kalawanchikudy until reinforcements reached them. Had the government deployed adequate troops in the northern and eastern districts, the army wouldn’t have found itself in an extremely difficult situation at the beginning of eelam war II.

President Premadasa as well as his advisors never acknowledged shortcomings in their strategy. He felt that a fresh agreement could be worked out with the LTTE, though Minister Wijeratne strongly opposed such a notion.

The LTTE assassinated Minister Wijeratne on the morning of March 2, 1991 on his way to the Defence Ministry. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with Wijeratne’s assassination and his successor Dingiri Banda Wijetunga offering a fresh opportunity for the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The shocking move was made just five days after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination. The LTTE ignored the offer. The LTTE was in an extremely strong position and realized it could make further headway on the battlefront.

SLN, SLAF to the rescue

The LTTE struck in Silavaturai killing four soldiers and wounding eight immediately after Wijetunga in his capacity as State Minister for Defence had toured the Mannar and Vavuniya regions on March 16, 1991. The victims were members of the Sixth Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) returning to their base at Silavathurai on the northwestern coast. The same battalion lost 50 personnel, including two officers during confrontations at the nearby Kondachchi village. On the night of March 19, the LTTE launched simultaneous attacks on army detachments at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan manned by the 6 GR. The battalion suffered heavy losses and had to be reinforced by the Gemunu Watch, Sri Lanka Light Infantry and Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment. The LTTE was confident of seizing both bases. International wire services quoted Paris based LTTE leader Lawrence Thilagar as having said that the LTTE had captured Kokkupadayan detachment and Silavaturai was about to fall. However, the army managed to save the detachments after four days of fierce confrontation. The Argentine built light aircraft launched from the Anuradhapura air base played a vital role in the defence of isolated Kokkupadayan and Silavaturai bases. Having suffered over 200 dead and many wounded, the LTTE called off the offensive, leaving behind about 125 bodies scattered on the battlefield.

The army could never have held Kokkupadayan and Silavaturai without the support of the navy and the air force. Despite severe constrains, the navy and air force provided the naval gunfire support and air support respectively, evacuated the wounded, inducted fresh troops, arms, ammunition and military equipment. The army felt somehow comfortable having bases on the coast as the navy could have intervened to induct reinforcements or evacuate troops. Those who vacated Wellawadi and Kalmunai couldn’t have been evacuated if the navy failed in daring rescue missions.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Saving troops under siege at M’tivu

War on terror revisited : Part 117


 The army gradually expanded the Mullaitivu base over the years. By 1996, Mullaitivu was home to army’s 25 Brigade. The deployment included a small detachment of navy personnel and police. The main deployment comprised Sinha Regiment and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment troops. The LTTE overran the base within eight hours killing nearly 1,400 personnel. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the overrunning of Mullaitivu by the LTTE in July 1996 and the liberation of the town by the army in January 2009.  

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

The rescue of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) and a company plus troops of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) under siege in the Batticaloa district at the onset of eelam war II boosted the morale of the army.

In spite of an initial delay in launching the first large scale rescue mission of the conflict, the army, advancing on two flanks, succeeded in smashing through LTTE positions to reach those trapped in isolated bases at Kiran, Kallady and Kalawanchikudy by the end of the third week of June 1990.

However, by the time the army had intervened, the 1 GW and 6 SLSR abandoned two isolated camps at Wellawadi and Kalmunai, respectively. They were evacuated within 72 hours after the outbreak of hostilities.

Then Brigadier A.M.U. Seneviratne of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), who had led one of the Brigade Groups responsible for breaking the siege on Batticaloa was appointed Security Forces Commander, Batticaloa, with wide powers to deal with the threat posed by the LTTE.  The appointment was made in the immediate aftermath of the Batticaloa success. Army headquarters allocated additional troops for the Batticaloa sector to dominate the district, which Maj. Gen. Seneviratne, now in retirement asserted was of critical importance to the overall strategy to beat back the LTTE.

Commenting on the post-war situation, Seneviratne emphasised that the military should continuously dominate the coastal line from Pottuvil to Vakarai as well as the jungles. "A strong hold of the Batticaloa district is of pivotal importance. Regardless of criticism, conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 shouldn’t prompt those responsible for security to lower their guard. Seneviratne recalled the deployment of a second Brigade in the Batticaloa district during the tail end of his tenure as SF Commander, Batticaloa. The second Brigade was headquartered at the Valaichchenai Paper Mill in accordance with the then strategy to enhance military presence in the Batticaloa district. During the latter part of 1991, Seneviratne was appointed the Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), which was later upgraded to the status of a university.

Having served in Batticaloa during a critically important period of the conflict, the retired officer pointed out that Batticaloa had been the main recruiting base for the LTTE throughout the war until Karuna’s devastating split from the organisation. Batticaloa had been major funding source by way of illegal taxes imposed on Tamil speaking people and the involvement of an influential section of the Roman Catholic clergy with the LTTE made matters difficult, Major General Seneviratne asserted.

 LTTE takes upper

hand in Vanni

Although the army managed to save Batticaloa, the situation in the Northern Province remained extremely dicey, with the LTTE stepping up attacks on Kokavil, Mankulam, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass detachments, which had been inaccessible overland along with the Mullaitivu detachment since the onset of eelam war II. The LTTE had the wherewithal to engage all five detachments simultaneously as it commanded the freedom of movement in the Northern Region. As the army had been confined to isolated detachments, the LTTE was easily able to shift its units depending on the requirement. The Air Force lacked the power to intercept LTTE movements, though it had managed to drop some arms, ammunition and medical supplies to troops under siege and evacuate bodies under extremely difficult conditions. Air Force was deprived of jets, helicopter gunships as well as air surveillance capability.

‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the Kokavil debacle (July 1990) and evacuation of Kilinochchi (Nov 1990). The army abandoned its base at Mankulam shortly before the evacuation of Kilinochchi. The loss of Kokavil, Mankulam and Kilinochchi situated north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna overland main supply route gave the LTTE unimpeded access across the A9 road. It would be pertinent to discuss LTTE attempt to overrun the army detachment at Mullaitivu in early August. The LTTE would have easily succeeded if not for a sea borne rescue mission launched by the army.

Operation ‘Sea Breeze’

The then Lieutenant Commander Lakshman Illangakoon, Commanding officer of the SLNS Kandula (Landing Craft Medium) had been tasked with landing troops required for the rescue mission. Illangakoon, currently navy’s eastern commander recalled the circumstances under which the rescue mission was launched. Having arrived in Trincomalee to take stock of the situation, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa had summoned a meeting at the Plantain Point, Trincomalee to explore ways and means of launching a rescue mission. The navy had been represented at the conference by the then eastern commander Rear Admiral F. N. Q. Wickremaratne and Lieutenant Commander Illangakoon. Dashing Illangakoon was there in his capacity as the Commanding Officer of the Landing Craft. Illangakoon said: "As we had never attempted a large scale sea borne assault under similar conditions, Major General Kobbekaduwa wanted to engage close air reconnaissance of the targeted area before the troops moved in."

Having excused himself from air surveillance mission, Rear Admiral Wickremaratne instructed Illangakoon to accompany Major General Kobbekaduwa on the reconnaissance mission. Shortly thereafter they were airborne from the nearby China Bay airfield. Having flown over the besieged Mullaitivu base in the afternoon, those conducting the operation had decided on a spot south of Mullaitivu to land troops. The army had agreed with Illangakoon’s suggestion to carry out a mock landing north of Mullaitivu to facilitate the actual landing at first light. The navy had been seriously concerned about the operation as it lacked any experience in conducting amphibious assault on the Mullaitivu beach. Illangakoon said: "I felt a mock landing could give us the much required time and space to secure a beachhead. We monitored LTTE units, particularly those equipped with rocket propelled grenades rushing towards the beach when the ship deployed to carry out the mock attack advanced towards the beach. But soon they realised it was nothing but a deceptive maneuver and turned towards the direction of Kandula carrying troops. We were soon being fired upon. On the instructions of the army, navy gunners opened fire, though initially the navy was reluctant. The navy felt that the battle between the raiding party and the LTTE was too close for comfort. But the army insisted we fired at those resisting the beach landing."

The sea borne troops comprised Special Forces and Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). The senior officer in charge of the operation was Major General Kobbekaduwa. Some of the country’s elite officers and veterans of many battles throughout the war, namely Gamini Hettiarachchi and Jayavi Fernando were on the ground. They were joined by Major General Kobbekaduwa and Janaka Perera. Special Forces and SLLI fought a series of battles before they reached those under siege at Mullaitivu.

Col. Mahipala

speaks out

At the time of the first siege on Mullaitivu in 1990, the then Lieutenant Colonel M.B.J. Mahipala, RWP, USP, RSP of the Armoured Corps had been the senior officer in charge of the Mullaitivu detachment. Mahipala retired in 1998 in the rank of Colonel having joined the army as a recruit way back in 1955. Col. Mahipala recalled the attack on his camp in a brief interview with the writer. At the time the LTTE mounted the attack, there had been about 70 personnel, including some commandos. The full contingent comprised Armoured Corps personnel, volunteers as well as police. The army had been deployed very thinly on the ground. Lack of troops and fire power had caused debilitating setbacks. Although the army realised the pathetic situation on the ground, the top brass were reluctant to take it up with the political leadership. An increased number of desertions, too, caused a major problem. In fact, Lt. Col. Mahipala had been compelled to take over the base at Mullaitivu at short notice after the Coordinating officer vacated his post. The officer who had held the rank of Colonel at that time was attached to the Gemunu Watch. Major trouble had erupted soon after Mahipala flew in to Mullaitivu. Mahipala said: "I was based in Badulla when Army Commander Lt. General Hamilton Wanasinghe directed me to take over Mullaitivu. As I have been stationed in the area, I felt confident in taking up the new assignment, though the LTTE almost succeeded in overwhelming us. We were short of food, water and other supplies. On many occasions, food dropped from air ended up in the area beyond the army control. We saw dogs dragging away chicken. I heard angry soldiers talking among themselves whether they should kill dogs for their consumption. We were in a desperate situation. Surprisingly, there was plenty of ammunition. Although there were less than 70 personnel stationed at the base, army headquarters maintained a stock of 400,000 rounds of ammunition. At one point, I got troops under my command to divide ammunition stocks and bury them at different places. Unfortunately a locally built LTTE mortar round landed exactly on the spot where a stock of 40,000 rounds of ammunition  was buried. It caused the destruction of the entire stock of 40,000. But it could have been worse."

The attack on Mullaitivu interfered with a planned army build up in Jaffna hence causing a major setback to the overall planning.

Col. Mahipala recollected Air Force conducting a series of successful attacks to save his detachment from the LTTE. Italian built SF 260s carried out several successful attacks, including one directed at a group of LTTE cadres taking shelter under a big tamarind tree. According to Colonel Mahipala, that particular group had been mounting mortar attacks on the Mullaitivu detachment. Once the sea borne force had cleared the area and reinforced the beleaguered base, army headquarters moved him out paving the way for Shantha Kottegoda of the SLLI to take over Mullaitivu command.

The army gradually expanded the Mullaitivu base over the years. By 1996, Mullaitivu was home to army’s 25 Brigade. The deployment included a small detachment of navy personnel and police. The main deployment comprised Sinha Regiment and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment troops. The LTTE overran the base within eight hours killing nearly 1,400 personnel. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the overrunning of Mullaitivu by the LTTE in July 1996 and the liberation of the town by the army in January 2009. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

LTTE plan goes awry

War on terror revisited : Part 116


 By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the army top brass ignored rapid LTTE preparations for war in the immediate aftermath of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), pullout in March 1990. Army chief Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe and presidential security advisor Gen. Cyril Ranatunga remained passive onlookers, though they knew what was going on. In fact, none of those responsible for security, including State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne dared to push for tangible counter measures to meet the growing LTTE threat. Had they bothered to examine the situation on the ground, there would have been an immediate re-deployment of troops deployed to quell the JVP-led insurgency in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The government miserably failed to take advantage of the annihilation of the JVP by Jan 1990 to reinforce bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Unfortunately, army headquarters didn’t bother to prepare a contingency plan until the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990.

In the absence of a cohesive strategy to defend isolated bases in the Eastern Province, in the Jaffna peninsula as well as detachments north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, the LTTE swiftly took the upper hand in the battle at the onset of eelam war II.

At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE engaged all isolated bases, though Batticaloa remained its main target. The First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) and a section of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) deployed in the Batticaloa district fought an extremely difficult battle with limited air support and artillery support until reinforcements moved in. By the time they had fought their way into Batticaloa, the LTTE managed to evict troops from two of the five detachments, namely Wellawadi and Kalmunai, manned by 1 GW and 6 SLSR, respectively. The army abandoned Wellawadi on June 12, 1990 and Kalmunai the following day.

 A call from
Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa

According to the then Commanding Officer of the 1 GW, Lt. Colonel Hiran N. Halangode he had first heard of an impending rescue mission when Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the 1 Division reached him over radio on June 15, 1990. Halangode said: "The voice of the GOC was a great morale booster as we were in a desperate situation. Until then the response from the army top brass was negative at best and very little encouragement was given to continue fighting. Soldiers fight for their survival first, then for their comrades, their Regiment, the Army and for their country, in that order of priority."

Interestingly, the rescue mission got underway amidst President Premadasa and his chief negotiator Minister A.C. S. Hameed making a desperate attempt to work out a fresh ceasefire. In hindsight, State Defence Minister Wijeratne and an influential section of the military had opposed President Premadasa’s plan.

 At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE blocked the three main overland routes to Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa – Valachchinai – Batticaloa road, Mahaoya – Chenkalladi, Batticaloa road and Ampara – Battialoa Road by felling trees across the roads. Minor access roads from the mainland, too, were cut off by blasting the bridges and setting up machine guns points at strategic locations. Soon after the fighting erupted, the government directed the army, too, to surrender. Those at the helm of the decision making process ignored the fact that hundreds of policemen who gave themselves up to the LTTE along with their weapons were shot after they were forced to dig up their own graves. The practice was similar to that of German forces employed in captured Eastern European territories during the Second World War. The Batticaloa district remained the LTTE’s main source for manpower during all four phases of the conflict. In fact, an unprecedented split between Karuna Amman and Prabhakaran in March 2004, during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement caused the downfall of the organization. Retired Maj. Gen. Seneviratne is of the opinion that the LTTE’s Batticaloa cadre had been responsible for the massacre of policemen in the Batticaloa district and Karuna Amman, now a Minister in the UPFA administration, too, was involved. In his submissions to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) retired SSP Tassie Seneviratne, too, accused Karuna Amman of carrying out the massacre, a charge vehemently denied by the minister.

Rescue mission

The army launched a two-pronged counter offensive to save 1 GW and 6 SLSR troops under siege at Kallady (150 personnel), Kiran (90 personnel) and Kalawanchikudy (70 personnel). Three Brigade Group was launched from Punani to rescue about 240 officers and men under siege at Kiran and Kallady detachments. The then Brigadier, A.M.U. Seneviratne was in command on 3 Brigade Group comprising Lt. Colonel K.B. Egodawela’s Fourth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (4GW) and the newly formed Fifth battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (5 VIR). The battalion, which was formed and equipped on the move, included a batch of newly passed out recruits. The then Lt. Col. Percy Fernando, formerly of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), was in command of 5 VIR. (Egodawela retired with the rank of Major General, and was in command of the 54 Division at the time of the Elephant Pass debacle in April 2002. Second-in-command of the 54 Division, Brigadier Percy of the Commandos was killed during the withdrawal from Elephant Pass).

Brig. A.K. Jayawardena led the second Brigade, tasked to rescue 6 SLSR troops under siege at Kalawanchikudy. 1 Brigade Group comprised the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (1 SLSR), and the First Special Forces Regiment. Brig. Jayawardena’s troops overcame heavy resistance to reach Kalawanchikudy by June 18, 1990.

Although armour and artillery (two pieces of 25 pounders) support was provided, foot soldiers had to fight their way through a series of LTTE strong points. Both formations suffered losses. The SLAF had a few Italian built light aircraft ready to support the rescue mission, though a pair was called in only once to engage a target. In the absence of dedicated fighter aircraft or helicopter gunships, the SLAF couldn’t provide close air support needed by ground forces.

Brigadier Seneviratne had been based at Boossa, Galle, at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities with the massacre of several hundred policemen during the second week of June 1990. Brig. Seneviratne of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), had been the senior officer in command of three Brigades deployed in the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota. Minister Wijeratne had directed Brig. Seneviratne to lead troops on one flank (on the Polonnaruwa-Valachchenai-Batticaloa axis). The SLAF flew him to Punani, where 4 GW and 5 VIR assembled to undertake the first major rescue mission involving two Brigade Groups, though both were under strength.

Although there were officers senior to Brig. Seneviratne, they had been reluctant to take the challenging task. The army had to move arms, ammunition and equipment from the Panagoda cantonment, to equip troops under Brig. Seneviratne’s command. Strong LTTE units engaged troops pushing along the Punani road towards Batticaloa on the first day of the operations, causing many casualties. However, troops advanced about three kms on the first day and on the following day, they brought Valachchenai under government control, following a series of confrontations. "We crossed the Valachchenai Bridge as the enemy withdrew towards Thoppigala. Muslims were very much relieved to see troops taking over the area," retired Maj. Gen. Seneviratne told the writer (the SLLI veteran retired in early Dec 1996 having served as Army Chief of Staff for about one and half years. Seneviratne, during his tenure as the Anuradhapura based Overall Operations Commander, earned the wrath of de facto defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte over differences of opinion on the execution of operations in the Northern region in 1995)

Having reached the besieged Kiran detachment, reinforcements evacuated the wounded for medical treatment at the government hospital at Polonnaruwa. "Despite severe shortage of troops, we maintained an overland supply route between Punani and Kiran, hence evacuation of the wounded overland was possible. The seriously wounded were evacuated by air. We pushed towards Vantharamoolai, gradually overcoming LTTE resistance and reached Kallady on the morning of June 19, 1990. We felt so proud and were delighted to observe some 1 GW troops, including their gritty battalion commander Lt. Col. Halangode on the Kallady Bridge. We subsequently cleared Batticaloa town." (Having served the army for almost 28 years, Halangode retired in mid July 2000 with the rank of Brigadier. At the time of his early retirement, he had been the area commander, Mannar, while being the Deputy General Officer Commanding of the 21 Division. Halangode had the honour of being the first commanding officer of the Air Mobile Brigade as well as serving the army in operational areas during most of his career)

The Batticaloa rescue mission came to a conclusion after troops under the command of Seneviratne and Jayawardena linked up after having evicted strong LTTE forces operating in the area. Brig. Seneviratne remained in Batticaloa as SF Commander, Batticaloa until 1991. During Seneviratne’s tenure as senior officer in charge of Batticaloa, the army strengthened its presence with additional detachments as well as bigger bases.

With the stabilization of the ground situation in the Batticaloa district by the end of the third week of June 1990, the situation in Ampara and Trincomalee districts, too, improved, though the LTTE retained the capability to strike in any part of the Eastern Province. Strong LTTE presence in the jungles posed a severe threat on the army, though the town and access roads to Batticaloa remained firmly under government control.

At the time of the June 1990 battles, the Fourth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (4 SLSR) had been deployed in the Ampara district under the command of the then Lt. Col. G. H. Ariyaratne (Ariyaratne was killed in a mine explosion at Araly point, Kayts on the morning of Aug. 8, 1992. The blast also claimed the lives of Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne and several others, including Northern naval area commander Rear admiral Mohan Jayamaha). The 4 SLSR manned about eight detachments in the districts, with the total deployment comprising about 500 personnel.

The then Lt. Col. C.J. Ranaweera was the commanding officer of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), deployed in the Trincomalee district (retired years later with the rank of Maj. General)

Although army headquarters realized as early as April/May 1990 that the LTTE was getting ready for war, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe remained hopeful of settling their differences amicably. Although those commanding troops in areas dominated by the LTTE, particularly in the Eastern Province, warned of a heavy LTTE build-up targeting army detachments as well as the police, army headquarters turned a blind eye to what was happening. Much to the surprise of those wary of the LTTE’s intentions, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe allocated just three under strength infantry battalions (1 GW, 4 SLSR and 1 SLLI) for the entire Eastern Province, whereas the LTTE maintained strong well experienced combat units. Having fought the IPKF and rival Tamil groups continuously since Oct 1987, the LTTE remained in good shape, whereas the army wasn’t engaged in actual ground combat since June 1987. During the deployment of the IPKF and the peace negotiations with the LTTE (July 1987- June 1990), the army took a rest from combat operations, though being involved in anti-insurgency operations against the JVP.

Had the rescue mission undertaken by Brigadiers, Seneviratne and Jayawardena failed, the LTTE could have gained control of the entire district, thereby undermined both Trincomalee and Ampara administrative districts situated either side of Batticaloa. Such an eventuality could have caused an irreparable setback to the overall military strategy. Unfortunately, those who had been involved in the Batticaloa rescue mission never received the credit they deserved. In fact, those who had been responsible for causing the security crisis played down the Batticaloa rescue mission. A delay could have been advantageous to the LTTE as all three remaining detachments, namely Kiran, Kalawanchikudy and Kalldy remained inaccessible, overland. They had to be supplied by air under intense enemy fire, but the SLAF’s failure to evacuate the wounded demoralized those under siege.