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.