Thursday, 18 July 2013

Mandaitivu build-up

* War on terror revisited : Part 156 


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Upon completion of transferring all military equipment and troops from Milidy to Kayts Isand, SLNS Pabbatha crew at the Kayts landing point.

The then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne flew in to Mandaitivu Island as a highly demoralised army abandoned the Jaffna fort during the last week of September 1990. Addressing the troops in the island, a visibly agitated Minister Wijeratne assured the officers and men that Jaffna would be regained in five years. Minister Wijeratne reiterated his commitment to capture Jaffna, though Operation Thrivida Balaya had ended in a failure.

Thrivida Balaya was meant to swiftly liberate Jaffna town and then bring in additional battalions to exploit the situation.

The then Sub Lieutenant, H. R. P. Gunawardena was among those present on Mandaitivu Island when Minister Wijeratne flew in. Gunawardena, now a serving Captain, recollected Minister Wijeratne explaining the circumstances leading to the pullout from Jaffna fort. The then General Officer Commanding (GOC) Army’s II Division, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the then Lt. Colonels, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, Commanding Officers of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) and the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment ( I SLSR), respectively were also present. Both battalions suffered substantial losses during the abortive bid to push towards Jaffna town on September 13, 1990, after having secured the fort. Apart from those two battalions, the then Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekera’s fourth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (4 GR), too, was deployed on Mandaitivu Island. In addition to the infantry, the army also deployed the elite Special Forces for the largest operation launched against the LTTE since the outbreak of eelam war II on the night of June 10, 1990.

Captain Gunawardena said: "In hindsight, we obviously underestimated the firepower of the enemy. In spite of a one hour barrage to either side of the Jaffna fort to facilitate the lagoon borne assault, those defending the peninsula fought ferociously. The enemy had a steady supply of ammunition as well as experienced cadres on the front."

The then Sub Lieutenant Noyel Kalubowila (currently Sri Lanka’s defence attaché in New Delhi, Kalubowila holds the rank of Commodore) asserted that the LTTE had the wherewithal to engage the combined security forces in a high intensity confrontation.

Unprecedented supply run

The trying conditions under which the navy toiled for several weeks to move urgently needed supplies from the port of Trincomalee to the north in preparation of Operation Thrivida Balaya need to be examined. For want of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR) from the south to the strategic Palaly base, the army could never have built up the required strength for an offensive in the north, without the navy undertaking the unenviable task of moving supplies from the port of Trincomalee to Karaitivu Island. Although the Kankesanthurai harbour was under government control, it was also under siege by the LTTE, hence it couldn’t be used as a supply base for the army. In fact, the army couldn’t even ensure uninterrupted overland movements between Kankesanthurai harbour and Palaly air base as well as the adjoining army base.

The navy undertook a special mission ahead of Operation Thrivida Balaya to build-up the required firepower on the Islands of Karaitivu, Kayts and Mandaitivu. Although the combined security forces failed in their primary objective in liberating Jaffna town, the navy could be proud of its role. Thrivida Balaya wouldn’t have been a reality, if not for the laudable efforts of those expressly tasked with sustaining a major supply run between Trincomalee and Karainagar. It was undoubtedly the biggest supply mission undertaken by the navy up to that time.

Lanka Prasada speaks out

Lieutenant Commander, S.U. Lanka Prasada, Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha, one of the two Landing Craft of the navy is the best person to speak of the supply mission. (He retired in April 1996 with the rank of Commander).

Since the eruption of fighting during the second week of June 1990, after 14 months of peace talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE, SLNS Pabbatha and its sister ship, SLNS Kandula, commanded by the then Lieutenant Commander Lakshman Illangakoon (Illangakoon retired recently having attained the rank of Rear Admiral), had been involved in a series of operations. The army bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as at Mullaitivu and Silavaturai, too, could have fallen to the enemy if the landing craft failed in their classic role. The writer had previously discussed LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) operations undertaken in support of the army at Batticaloa (June 1990) Mullaitivu (September 1990), Silavaturai (March 1991), though the project in support of Operation Thrivida Balaya could be considered the most important mission carried out in 1990.

Commander Prasada recalled the navy being asked to ensure the speedy transportation of all military equipment, including arms, ammunition and heavy vehicles as well as troops from Trincomalee to the North. Once the navy completed the initial task, it was to undertake sea landing at Kayts to pave the way for an assault on the LTTE-held Mandaitivu Island which was to be the springboard for the lagoon borne offensive on the Jaffna peninsula. According to him, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa issued the directives at a top level conference chaired by him in Palaly. At the conclusion of the meeting, the then Commander, Prasanna Rajaratne, Command Operations Officer (COPO), told Lt. Commander Prasada of the pivotal importance of LCMs (Rajaratne retired in 1996 with the rank of Captain). During the first phase, the two LCMs were to move men and material from Trincomalee to Milady, Palaly. The second stage envisaged the swift transfer of troops from Milady to Kayts, for the launch of the operation. Commander Prasada quoted COPO Rajaratne as having told him: "As per the calculations, two LCMs together need to carry out 25-30 trips between Trincomalee and Milady (Palaly) continuously without any break in harbour, and once the operation got underway all the troops, vehicles and equipment had to be transferred again from Milady to Kayts without a break. It was an extremely difficult task, though we were confident of tackling it."

Proceeding on aft steering

However, SLNS Pabbatha hadn’t been in a position to undertake the mission due to a major problem with its steering system. For want of a some spares, the navy couldn’t fully restore the steering system, hence the deployment of the vessel posed a problem. It had been categorized as non-operational at the time Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa directed the navy to get on with its task. Commander Prasada recalled with affection the untiring efforts by those at the SLN Dockyard, spearheaded by electrical engineers to rectify the problem albeit in vain. The failure to deploy both LCMs simultaneously was going to jeopardise the entire operation. SLNS Kandula couldn’t have undertaken the mission on its own.

Lt. Commander Prasada declared his readiness to go ahead with the operation in spite of the faulty steering system.

Commander Prasada said: "I didn’t think twice before deciding on the emergency steering position at the stern of the vessel during the operation. Those officers and men attached to SLNS Pabbatha didn’t want to disappoint the Northern Commander, as well as the senior command of the navy in the north. The absence of one of the two LCMs could have had a devastating impact on the planned offensive, hence we didn’t want to be responsible for a setback."

Commenting on the ship’s crew, Commander Prasada emphasised the role played by his second-in-command, the then Lieutenant SMDK Samaraweera (presently attached to the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff, Samaraweera holds the rank of Commodore and functions as Director General Coordinating), Engine Room Artificer Ediriweera and the rest of the crew, during eelam war II. "The crew had remained unchanged for almost two years. Nothing would have been impossible with officers and men like them." In spite of extremely difficult conditions, the vessel operated entirely on the emergency system during the operation, Commander Prasada said, while recalling the operational landings and maneuvering in navigationally restricted locations such as the Karainagar channel in the night. Samaraweera had been the second-in-command of an Israeli built Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) P 454 based in Trincomalee when he was moved to SLNS Pabbatha.

Major task for two vessels

Except for a very few officers, the majority of those involved in hectic preparations hadn’t been aware of the overall objective of the mission. Many believed the army was planning to save those trapped in the Jaffna lagoon and evacuate them, whereas some felt the military wanted to reinforce its presence at the Jaffna fort. Even senior officers believed that the I GR and I SLSR were engaged in some bloody fighting outside the Jaffna fort to consolidate the army presence. But huge amount of arms, ammunition, equipment as well as vehicles brought to Trincomalee for transfer to Milady revealed that the planned operation could be something bigger than a rescue mission. The vehicles and equipment included armour-plated bulldozers, armoured personnel carriers, trucks, bowsers, dismantled bridges, armoured cars, heavy artillery pieces, artillery trucks, weapons and ammunition of varying types.

Commander Prasada acknowledged that he hadn’t been aware of what was going on, though being continuously engaged in a large scale logistical operation. Commander Prasada said: "I reserved the officers’ holiday bungalow for a few weeks and brought my wife and my four-year old son to Trincomalee for a holiday. During their six weeks stay in Trincomalee, we spent two hours together between two transits during the first 12 days and did not meet at all, during the rest of the period, until the operation was completed."

As the navy couldn’t use Kankesanthurai harbour as it was within the range of LTTE long range guns, the army had to construct a makeshift landing point in Milady within the Palaly military zone to accommodate SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula. According to Commander Prasada, the SLNS Pabbatha, in spite of having trouble with its steering mechanism, had no option but to use the new 150 m-long landing point. Before undertaking the risky mission, Lt. Commander Prasada had called for deployment of navy divers to carry out an underwater survey. The Captain of the ship went to the extent of joining the men in a Fibre Glass Dinghy (FGD), to personally monitor the survey. Although the divers declared that the path to the landing point was clear, they found two underwater rocks about five meters on either side of the landing point parallel to the vehicle deck when the vessel is berthed. In spite of the dangers, the navy went ahead with the operation, with SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula transferring a range of arms, ammunition and equipment.

Captain Prasada said: "The first landing was crucial, because once the engines were in neutral position, it was difficult to predict the sideways movements of the ship at the landing point. During the first landing, everything progressed smoothly and the ship was brought in line with the landing point between the two rocks and the ramp of the ship was lowered to the landing point to keep ship stationary, but as soon as the engines were brought to neutral position the bows of the ship started to move towards the rock on the port side, which was just about five metres away. Since there were no bollards on other permanent structure at the landing point, there was no way of securing the ship to the pier. One of the army bulldozers, which had been brought to level the landing point, was parked at the edge of the landing point and a sailor at the bow of the ship, realizing the danger took the initiative and jumped on to the pier, ran towards the bulldozer and secured the rope on it. His timely action stopped the sideways movement of the ship and firmly secured the ship to the landing point. This became the permanent ships’ securing system during the entire operation and the army kept the bulldozer parked at the edge of the pier for that purpose."

The army had a sizeable contingent ready at Milady to unload cargo. They always managed to unload a shipload in just 30 minutes.