Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Army loses hero of Kokilai battle

* War on terror revisited : Part 154


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) lost Captain Shantha Wijesinghe of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) in late May 1987 just hours after troops had secured the nerve centre of LTTE operations at Valvettiturai on the Vadamaratchchy coast.

The success at Valvettiturai was the highlight of Operation Liberation launched on the morning of May 26, 1987 to clear the Vadamaratchchy division in the Jaffna administrative district. The operation to bring Valvettiturai under SLA control was launched by the IGR under the then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s command.

Some believed that the LTTE had sniped Wijesinghe when he climbed onto a parapet wall to survey the area still under enemy control. The killing took place as the SLA was preparing to advance on Point Pedro after having evicted the LTTE from Valvettiturai. Others asserted that Wijesinghe had been hit by a 40 mm grenade round fired by a colleague.

Uncertainty over incident

One-time Army Commander, General Gerry de Silva in his memoirs titled, A Most Nobel Profession: Memories That Linger, has claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity. De Silva, who was based in the Jaffna peninsula during the capture of Valvettiturai, is of the view that Captain Wijesinghe was targeted with a 40 mm grenade round while rushing to assist troops whom he believed were under attack by the LTTE. According to de Silva, Wijesinghe had intervened in a firefight between troops attached to then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s Brigade and Colonel Wimalaratne’s Brigade. De Silva has faulted the troops of the southern flank for the tragedy due to exceeding what he calls boundaries of exploitation.

The then Second Lieutenant Shantha Dissanayake was with Captain Wijesinghe at the time the latter succumbed to his injuries caused by either mortar fire or a grenade attack. Dissanayake, now in charge of the 14 Division deployed in the Western Province, Ratnapura and the Southern Province excluding Hambantota, shed light on the incident. Brigadier Dissanayake said: "There shouldn’t be any ambiguity as regards Captain Wijesinghe’s death. As a Second Lieutenant I fought under him. He commanded the Alpha Company. We reached Valvettiturai after crossing the Thondamannar lagoon and capturing an LTTE mortar factory. Having secured Valvettiturai in the night, the Alpha Company Commander wanted to survey the area before the launch of the next phase of the offensive."

On Captain Wijesinghe’s orders, Second Lieutenant Dissanayake accompanied the Alpha Company Commander in a reconnaissance mission. The two officers were accompanied by five soldiers. Dissanayake said: "In the absence of the sound of gunfire, we were relaxed. Although we realized the possibility of enemy pockets within the area under our control, we were confident of facing a surprise attack. Suddenly, a mortar exploded close to us. It could be even a 40 mm grenade round. Captain Wijesinghe immediately sat on the ground. He was holding his chest. I looked around to see the soldiers accompanying us. They had escaped without a scratch. I too, survived the blast without injury. It was just one round. There was no subsequent fire. However, the blast could have wiped out all of us as we were walking together."

Captain Wijesinghe had suffered a shrapnel wound in his chest. Had he had his flak jacket buttoned up he would have survived. Unfortunately, in spite of having body armour, Captain Wijesinghe wasn’t properly wearing it. Second Lieutenant Dissanayake with the help of those men at the scene of the blast carried the bleeding officer to a large shop which was situated perhaps about 100 metres away. Captain Wijesinghe had muttered the name of his girlfriend.

Captain Wijesinghe succumbed to his injuries and was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major.

Brigadier Dissanayake said that as there hadn’t been any other firing he couldn’t even think of the direction from which the attack had come.

Hero of Kokilai battle

Army headquarters posted the IGR to Weli Oya in February 1985 in the wake of the LTTE stepping up operations in the region. In accordance with the overall security plan for Weli Oya, the IGR established new detachments at Kokilai and Kokkuthuduwai among other places vulnerable to LTTE attacks. The then Lt. Colonel Janaka Perera was the senior officer in charge of Weli Oya, though he was not in the sector when the LTTE made an attempt to overrun the newly established detachment at Kokilai.

The then President JRJ’s government was under heavy pressure to secure the Weli Oya region following the Kent and Dollar farms massacres. The LTTE killed about 140 Sinhalese during raids on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1984. At the time of the attack there were two platoons at Kokilai, though one platoon commander was away. The then Second Lieutenant Shantha Wijesinghe was the detachment commander at Kokilai, home to two platoons of IGR troops. In spite of being heavily outnumbered, those under Second Lieutenant Wijesinghe’s command fought courageously. The total strength at the isolated detachment was about 60 personnel. Much to the delight of the SLA, the LTTE called off the attack after losing about 15 men. Although the attackers had been armed with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and 40 mm grenade launchers, they couldn’t overwhelm the defenders. Had the LTTE succeeded, Kokilai would have been the first SLA detachment to either surrender or be overrun in the eelam conflict. The destruction of Kokilai would have had a catastrophic impact on the SLA.

The LTTE had the benefit of Indian military instructors and a range of new weapons. The LTTE introduced the Rocket Propelled Grenade, 40 mm Grenade Launcher as well as the 60 mm mortar. The SLA was yet to embark on the large scale Pakistani military training project at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. The Saliyapura project got underway in early 1986.

Wijesinghe earned the respect as well as the admiration of both men and officers. The then Lieutenant Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, the first Commanding officer of the IGR, had been among those admiring officers. Wimalaratne recognized Wijesinghe as one of those gifted warriors who could make a difference on the battlefield. Due to Wimalaratne’s intervention, Wijesinghe had received command of Alpha Company of IGR in time for Operation Liberation.

In an interview with the writer some time ago, General Gerry de Silva said that Wijesinghe had been a major asset. His loss deprived the SLA of a brilliant field commander. In his memoirs, General Gerry de Silva recalled war veteran Wimalaratne quoting Lieutenant Wijesinghe as having told him to shut up when he inquired about the ongoing battle at Kokilai. Wijesinghe had told Wimalaratne to leave him alone until he could repulse the attack. At the time of the attack, Wimalaratne had been away at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura.

Wimalaratne on Wijesinghe’s heroism

The following citation forwarded by Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne recommending the highest gallantry award, Parama Weera Vibhushanaya was evidence of the respect the IGR Commanding Officer had for his subordinate: "Major Wijesinghe had a record of being one of the bravest officers in the army since his extraordinary defeat of the terrorist attack on the Kokilai army camp. He was in the forefront of almost every major action undertaken by the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) and IGR. His actions are almost legendary. His tragic death was a great loss to our army. Major Wijesinghe displayed gallantry, courage and conspicuous bravery of an exceptional order throughout the campaign, in the face of the enemy. He acted instinctively and voluntarily with no regard to the risk of life and personal security, with the aim of safeguarding the lives of his comrades and facilitating the operational aim of his force."

Wijesinghe was awarded the Weera Wickrema Vibhushanaya.

Ex-Rajarata Rifles man to the fore

Wijesinghe, too, was with the Rajarata Rifles (RR) for several months before Army headquarters amalgamated the RR officers and men with the Vijayaba Infantry (VR) on Oct. 14, 1983 to form IGR, which became one of the foremost infantry fighting units.

Then Second Lieutenant Udaya Perera (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi. Udaya Perera holds the rank of Major General) recollected the circumstances under which his colleague, Second Lieutenant Wijesinghe had repulsed the attack. Major General Perera said that it had been the first major attack on a base manned by two platoons. Wijesinghe had been in command of the detachment as the other platoon commander was on leave. The Kokilai detachment consisted of two school buildings and was one of those isolated bases which were under severe threat at that time. The detachments at Pulmoddai and Sinhapura was the closest to Kokilai, whereas the IGR headquarters was at Saliyapura. Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne had been based at Saliyapura.

Major General Perera said: "Wijesinghe had heard some noise when he went out to the toilet situated a little distance away from the main buildings. Having quickly realised there was an LTTE build-up, Wijesinghe had returned to the base and alerted those under his command. Although the enemy had a range of weapons, including 40 mm grenade launchers, those under Wijesinghe’s command fought back. It was pertinent to mention that the Kokilai detachment had to face the attack on its own or face the consequences."

The SLA couldn’t have sent in reinforcements to Kokilai even if they had wanted to save those under siege at an isolated base. The LTTE would have had strong units to intercept, in case the SLA dared to move in from Pulmoddai and Sinhapura. But, the LTTE would have quite rightly asserted that the Pulmoddai and Sinhapura couldn’t have sent reinforcements under any circumstances as they too were vulnerable. Those at Kokilai had realised there wouldn’t be any help from outside and they were on their own. In early 1985, the SLAF lacked the wherewithal to intervene.

Major General Perera said: "On the following day, two platoons from IGR moved overland from Saliyapura to Kokilai. I was in command of one platoon and the other was under Second Lieutenant Jagath Alwis. We relieved those who had been there and were successful in scoring a significant victory over the LTTE." He pointed out that the LTTE had used 40 mm grenade launchers during the Kokilai battle, believing they could play a decisive role in that operation. The war veteran mentioned several occasions when the LTTE had introduced new armaments into battle, whereas the security forces struggled to adopt counter measures. The situation had remained unchanged until eelam war IV, the Gajaba veteran said, adding that the failure on the part of the establishment to adopt preemptive measures had contributed to the LTTE’s success.

Shantha Wijesinghe, who hailed from Balangoda, had been one of those who excelled in war. It wouldn’t have been an easy task to earn the respect of Wimalaratne, who brought a set of fine young men together to transform the amalgamated Rajarata Rifles and Vijayaba Infantry into one of the finest fighting formations.

Both Udaya Perera and Lalith Daulagala served at Kokilai from March to Sept. 1985. The period covered a ceasefire declared by the government and the LTTE to facilitate two rounds of talks in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, under the auspices of India. In spite of the ceasefire coming into operation on June 17, 1985, violence continued unabated. The LTTE massacred 150 men, women and children on May 14, 1985 in raid near Sri Maha Bodhi. The LTTE declared that the attack was in retaliation for a massacre by the army of some 70 civilians in the Jaffna peninsula.