*War on terror revisited : Part 153July 7, 2013, 12:00 pm
Sinhapura, Weli Oya in mid 80s: Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (L) pins medal on Lt. Shantha Dissanayake
by Shamindra Ferdinando
President Ranasinghe Premadasa gave his consent to the launch of Thrivida Balaya, the first combined security forces offensive aimed at regaining the Jaffna town since the outbreak of hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990.
The then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa proceeded to make preparations for the operation. At that time, the SLA’s Division II headquartered at Anuradhapura had been responsible for operations in the northern theatre. The Northern Zonal headquarters of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), too, had been situated next to the Division II headquarters. The then Wing Commander, Sunil Cabral, a veteran helicopter gunship pilot, was the senior officer responsible for operations in the north.
The offensive was meant to break the siege on the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort manned by troops of the Sixth Battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment ( 6 SLSR) commanded by Captain Jayantha Fernando and then swiftly proceed to capture Jaffna town. Thrivida Balaya had been the second operation aimed at liberating Jaffna town since the LTTE took the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula in the mid 80s. India intervened in early June 1987 to prevent the SLA from marching on the Jaffna town after the highly successful conclusion of the first phase of Operation Liberation brought Point Pedro under its control.
Thrivida Balaya got underway with heli and sea-borne Sri Lankan Army (SLA) securing Kayts Island in late August, 1990. In spite of heavy LTTE resistance, the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) and the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment ( I SLSR) commanded by the then Lieutenant Colonels, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, respectively, cleared the Mandaitivu Island. The I GR had also been involved in Operation Liberation. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, then a Major, commanded the I GR during Operation Liberation.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, had served the I SLSR with Fonseka for a while in the run-up to the outbreak of eelam war I with the annihilation of a mobile patrol comprising two vehicles on the night of July 23, 1983 close to Jaffna. The ill-fated patrol belonged to the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI).
Soon after the SLA brought the clearing operations on the Mandaitivu Island to a successful conclusion, the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne flew in to congratulate those involved in the operation. The loss of Kayts and Mandaitivu sent shock waves through the LTTE. Mandaitivu was the perfect launching pad for the first phase of the offensive.
Ex-IGR platoon commander speaks out
Brigadier Shantha Dissanayake says that breaking the siege on the Jaffna Fort was to the success of Thrivida Balaya. In fact, the SLA couldn’t have planned a ground offensive to regain Jaffna at that time without consolidating its positions at the Jaffna Fort, he said. Dissanayake is now in command of 14 Division deployed in the Districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Gampaha, Ratnapura, Galle and Matara.
In an interview with The Island at his headquarters situated close to Janadhipathi Mandiraya, Brigadier Dissanayake discussed the Thrivida Balaya operation executed at a critical stage of the then government’s counter-attack. Dissanayake had been a platoon commander with the then Captain Udaya Perera’s Alpha Company of the I GR (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi, Perera holds the rank of Major General). The then Major Sumedha Perera was the second-in-command of the IGR. The Alpha Company consisted of four platoons led by Lieutenants, Shantha Dissanayake, Ranjan Lamahewa and Chandima Fernando and Second Lieutenant Sanath Samaratunga. (Sumedha Perera is currently at the National Defence College of China). Both Chandima Fernando and Sanath Samaratunga died during the operation. Lamaheva, now a Colonel, is the Centre Commandant of the Gajaba Regiment at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura.
Major General Perera, Brigadier Dissanayake and Colonel Lamahewa explained the role played by the IGR in the operation.
While the IGR and ISLSR was tasked by Major General Kobbekaduwa to cross the lagoon, secure the Jaffna Fort and then quickly break out from there to capture the Pannai police quarters complex and the Jaffna Telecommunication building. The IGR had the unenviable task of evicting terrorists from the Pannai police quarters, whereas I SLSR was to capture the Telecommunications building. Both battalions failed in their tasks, though they were successful in breaking the siege on the Jaffna Fort.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the SLA would have succeeded in its efforts if troops had crossed the lagoon immediately after securing Mandaitivu Island. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "Unfortunately, we delayed the crossing by perhaps over two weeks and thereby failed to exploit an opportunity to our advantage. We knew those defending Jaffna were in total disarray in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mandaitivu."
A nightmare-run across the lagoon
In the run-up to the lagoon borne invasion, the SLAF carried out surveillance over the Jaffna Fort area. Brig. Dissanayake recollected Bell 212 choppers taking off from Mandaitivu with officers tasked with the operation. Dissanayake had been among those engaged in air surveillance, in preparation for the assault. Captain Udaya Perera’s Company was to spearhead the operation to capture the Pannai police quarters once the IGR and ISLSR had secured the Jaffna Fort, Dissanayake said. Crossing the lagoon under heavy fire had been a nightmare with the majority of fibre glass dinghies operated by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) taking multiple shots. Dissanayake said: "The operation got underway in the early hours of Sept. 13, 1990. I joined the first wave along with Lamaheva. Some of my men were hit during the crossing. Lamahewa’s boat, too, was hit during the crossing. SLN operated boats under extremely difficult conditions. Some boats were struck in the mud. In some instances, we had to drag boats and wade 100 meters through the mud to reach the banks of the lagoon. In spite of heavy enemy fire, troops crossed the lagoon and entered the Jaffna Fort with the help of ropes dangling from the ramparts against LTTE fire.
Dissanayake said: "We never had tried a similar assault before. It was nothing but suicidal but officers and men went ahead with the operation. Those fighting under us shielded us at the risk of their lives."
Major General Perera recalled troops climbing the ramparts under small arms and mortar fire. The LTTE fought ferociously to thwart the lagoon borne assault. Major General Perera said: "A large stock of food items which had been moved across the lagoon under fire and left outside the ramparts was destroyed in a fire caused by a locally built ‘gini baba’ mortar. We didn’t have time to move the food stock inside the Jaffna Fort, as troops were still battling enemy units. An LTTE mortar scored a direct hit and food meant for those under siege as well as men involved in Thrivida Balaya went up in flames."
The Major General recollected seeing a clean shaven Captain Fernando in spite of him and his contingent of troops being under siege for several months. The Kilinochchi Commander said: "I expected to see a man with a relatively long beard. Captain Fernando surprised me."
Fernando retired in the same rank about a decade later.
Alpha Company in action
Having secured the Jaffna Fort on the morning of Sept. 13, 1990, the Alpha Company launched an operation to secure the Pannai police quarters which had been situated about 250 m away from the Jaffna Fort. The LTTE had gun positions to engage troops moving out of the Jaffna Fort. Dissanayake’s platoon had been tasked to launch the operation. Brigadier Dissanayake said: "It was an open ground. There was no option but to move out of the exit point and then run across flat land under enemy fire in broad day light. It was a chilling experience. I felt confident of crossing enemy dominated terrain with just a few volunteers. When I called for volunteers, three men stepped forward. All of us were armed with T-56 assault rifles."
Dissanayake recalled with gratitude the training provided by the Israeli Army at Maduru Oya where the SLA received expertise in FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas). "Clutching weapons, four of us sprinted across flat land to reach the Pannai police quarters. I was leading the team. As I entered the dilapidated building, I fired at a group of four or five terrorists manning a gun position inside the compound. Although I was successful in causing injuries to them, one of them managed to fire several rounds at me. Two bullets pierced my left arm. As I was hit, I looked back at my men. All three were down. I was alone. Time was running out. I was about to be surrounded and could have been captured."
Dissanayake had decided to dash across the open terrain whatever the consequences. A bleeding Dissanayake had reached the entry/exit point amidst a hail of fire. He said: "The first raid on Pannai police quarters wouldn’t have lasted even 15 minutes." Brigadier Dissanayake said that he was still surprised how he dashed to the Pannai police quarters and back without stepping on anti-personnel mines. Apart from anti-personnel mines planted by the warring sides, there were other improvised explosive devices outside the Jaffna Fort.
Colonel Lamahewa said: "As my platoon had been involved in action in Mandaitivu as well as the first wave of lagoon borne assault, I was placed on a reserve role for the operation to seize the Pannai police quarters. Lt. Dissanayake was to be followed by Second Lt. Sanath Samaratunga and Lt. Chandima Fernando. In the wake of Lt. Dissanayake being wounded in action, Captain Perera discussed the situation with all of us. As we were standing close to the entry/exit point, Second Lt. Samaratunga was sniped."
Major General Perera recalled: "Samaratunga was a tall chap. He was almost six feet tall and was the tallest among those standing there. He was standing just behind me. Lamahewa was also close by when a sniper shot Samaratunga in the head. I turned back when Samaratunga sort of leaned on me before falling onto the ground. The young officer was dead when he hit the ground. The sniper could have taken anyone among the Alpha Group Company, though he decided to go for the tallest among the targets."
A ride in ‘unicorn’
Subsequently, Lamahewa had volunteered to fight his way to the Pannai police quarters. Having discussed the situation, the Alpha Company decided to use a Unicorn armoured personnel carrier (APC) to cross the open land between the Jaffna Fort and the Pannai police quarters. Thirteen Alpha Company personnel had volunteered to join Lt. Lamahewa. Much to the dismay of the troops, the APC couldn’t be started. Colonel Lamahewa said: "It was a thallu start APC. We somehow managed to get it started. The driver was told to take the assault group to the Pannai police quarters. But halfway to the LTTE strongpoint, the driver received a gun short injury in his hand. The bullet had entered the APC through a small open space on the driver’s side of the armour plated vehicle. Although the driver lost control, the APC didn’t stop. Instead it moved forward and crashed onto a bunker within the compound."
Lt. Lamahewa’s group fought for several hours with those defending the complex. At the end of the battle, of those 14 men who went into battle in an APC, only four remained, including Lt. Lamahewa. Ten volunteers were either dead or seriously wounded. Lt. Fernando, the officer in charge of the remaining platoon also died in action. Finally, Major General Kobbekaduwa directed both I GR and I SLSR to return to the Jaffna Fort. More personnel died during the withdrawal. Among the victims were those who accidentally stepped on anti-personnel mines buried in the field.
Major General Perera recalled several courageous acts by officers and men. The former Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Malaysia had been really impressed by an act of valour by a Corporal of the Engineers, who volunteered to rescue one of his colleagues wounded due to an explosion caused by anti-personnel mine. Having obtained the then Captain Udaya Perera’s approval, the Corporal had dashed towards his fallen comrade even before the SLA could provide covering fire and then picked up him up and ran back to the Jaffna Fort. Major General Perera said that during the evacuation of those trapped at the Pannai police quarters, they had ropes tied to their waist in order to ensure in case they were wounded in gunfire or anti-personnel mine explosions, they could be dragged in to the Jaffna Fort.
Major General Perera asserted that the loss of Siai Marchetti ground attack aircraft during the operation caused a major setback. The incident deprived the SLA of much needed air support at a crucial time, the veteran said, adding that the battalions given the difficult task to capture the Pannai police quarters and the Telecommunications building could have done better if the air support was available on that day. "We were deprived of air support at a crucial stage of the battle," the Kilinochchi Commander said.
During Thrivida Balaya, the IGR and I SLSR lost about 100 personnel each, undoubtedly a heavy loss of life at that time.
By nightfall, the two formations abandoned the positions they briefly held during the day (Sept. 13, 19990) and pulled back to the Jaffna Fort where they remained for about two weeks before Army headquarters decided to call off Thrivida Balaya. Army headquarters also decided to abandon the Jaffna Fort. The two decisions meant that the SLA wouldn’t make a fresh bid to regain Jaffna town for the time being. The SLA also abandoned Mandaitivu Island leaving the LTTE in a commanding position in the northern theatre of operations.