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.