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.