Monday, 12 August 2013

More on No 4 Helicopter Squadron

*War on terror revisited : Part 162


Flying officer Romesh Mendis receiving the gallantry award, RWP, from President Ranasinghe Premadasa, for his role in an operation at Elephant Pass on Jan 17, 1987.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The operational record of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing in the northern and eastern provinces is legendary. It played a critically important role, in both defensive and offensive missions until the change of its functions with the acquisition of Mi 17 transport helicopters and Mi 24/Mi 35 helicopter gunships in 1993 and 1995 respectively. Until then, the No 4 Squadron/Wing excelled in a range of tasks, including close air support to ground forces, air assault, heli-drops as well as air reconnaissance.

The formation rendered invaluable support to ground forces in the Jaffna peninsula, particularly during eelam war I (July 1983 to July 1987) and in the Vanni during the first phase of eelam war II (June 1990 to Aug 1994). However, its role in the northern theatre of operations comprising both the Jaffna and Vanni districts gradually diminished in the wake of the army losing most of its isolated bases during eelam war II. In fact, at an early stage of eelam war I, the army lost overland road access to isolated camps in the northern theatre due to the LTTE as well as other terrorist groups sponsored by India, conducting a highly successful mine warfare campaign. The Palaly air base in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vavuniya air base situated north of Anuradhapura remained the nerve centers for helicopter operations throughout eelam war I and II.

Romesh Mendis had been among those who immensely contributed to helicopter operations at the risk of their lives during the early years of the conflict, before being transferred to the No 2 Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana. Mendis continued to fly helicopters assigned for the transportation of VIPs while still being with the No 2 Squadron responsible for operating fixed wing aircraft. The shift from No 4 formation to No 2 took place in 1992.

Having joined the SLAF in 1982, Mendis had an opportunity to fly missions against terrorists as an Officer Cadet during the early stages of the conflict. Kapila Jayampathy, who had been involved in many daring missions, was another. Mendis retired in 1994 with the rank of Squadron Leader. "At the initial stage of the conflict, we probably had more helicopters than pilots. In spite of difficulties, the Squadron gradually achieved expertise. Over the years, as the SLAF expanded, the No 4 formation achieved celebrity status. As the SLAF acquired more helicopters, the Squadron was categorized as a Wing and placed under Wing Commander Oliver Ranasinghe (Commander of the SLAF Feb 17, 1994 to March 5, 1998). Ranasinghe succeeded the late Ana Jayasinghe."

Mendis asserted that the success of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing largely depended on team work, though some individual feats attracted media attention. Team work meant that those assigned for a particular task worked as a unit to achieve the objectives to the best of their ability, even at the risk of their lives, Mendis said.

Mendis said: "Often we operated under extremely difficult conditions. Perhaps there had never been a genuine assessment of the role played by those who served the No 4 formation during the conflict. For want of overland access, helicopter crews spearheaded by pilots had to risk their lives on a daily basis to ensure supplies to isolated camps. Officers and men going on leave as well as those returning to their camps had to depend on helicopters. Almost all camps were under siege. The army suspended foot patrols, as the enemy expanded its influence in the northern theatre."

The situation took a turn for the worse in the wake of the collapse of the Indian sponsored direct negotiations in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu between President JRJ and terrorists groups, including the LTTE and the TULF, in July and Aug 1985. President JRJ was represented by a delegation led by his brother, HW Jayewardene. The LTTE took advantage of a three-month long truce which came into operation on June 18, 1985, to consolidate its position in the Jaffna peninsula. The truce was declared in consultation with India to facilitate the Thimpu talks. When fighting erupted after the collapse of the Thimpu talks, the armed forces found themselves under siege in the Jaffna peninsula. The army had to pay a very heavy price for politico and military miscalculations.

A chance encounter at Elephant Pass

The then Flying Officer Mendis recollected a chance encounter with the LTTE during day time on January 17, 1987 close to the Elephant Pass base. As Elephant Pass had been under siege for some time, the No 4 formation had been the only line of communications between Elephant Pass and the main military base at Palaly. The choppers operated from the Palaly air base. On that day, Mendis had flown a Bell 212 in to Elephant Pass with Cadet Officer K.P. Weeraman as his co-pilot (Weeraman was killed on Jan 22, 1997). There had been two air gunners, the then Leading aircraftsman (LAC) S. D.R. Ariyaratne and LAC W. Sooriyadasa on board the Bell 212. Mendis landed just outside the Elephant Pass camp. As soon as those returning to Elephant Pass after leave got off the chopper, the LTTE had fired one mortar round. Although Mendis hadn’t heard the launch of the locally built mortar, he saw the blast over 50 meters away. Immediately after the first explosion, Mendis had taken off the ground to avoid being targeted again. As Mendis climbed, he observed two terrorists running away. They were on the nearby islet. Mendis said: "As air gunners engaged them, I got in touch with the senior officer on the ground, Boniface Perera (Now Major General). Having quickly discussed the situation, we agreed to engage a group of terrorists positioned at a nearly house. As I provided close air support, troops moved out of Elephant Pass to engage the enemy grouping taking cover in the house. As the battle continued, Palaly sent another Bell 212 captained by the then Flying Officer Kasun Kumaratunga in support of the operation (Kumaratunga was killed in an accident on the night of June 3, 1988, at Kimbulapitiya)".

Kumaratunga was flying in the night with the Bell 212’s powerful light on to deter possible violence involving supporters of the ruling party and the opposition. General Cyril Ranatunga was believed to have ordered the flight.

The deployment of a second chopper had been necessary due to the Bell 212, captained by Mendis having to return to Palaly for refueling. Kumaratunga’s crew included cadet officer Kapila Ratnasekera as co-pilot, as well as two LACs, S. M. Bandara and H. G. Fonseka.

Mendis recalled with gratitude members of his team as well as those in the second chopper pursing the enemy. "It was one of the major confrontations at that time. We operated in an extremely hostile environment. The confrontation continued till about 4 p.m. Subsequently, we heard that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran too, planned to join the battle though he eventuality didn’t turn up".

Mendis asserted that he promptly responded to the threat posed by the LTTE due to his faith in Boniface Perera. The army swiftly moved out of Elephant Pass to take on a strong LTTE grouping, resulting in a major confrontation which lasted several hours.

Mendis was recommended a field promotion from the rank of Flying Officer to Flight Lieutenant for spearheading the air assault. However, Mendis had to be satisfied with a gallantry medal, his second during the SLAF career. Mendis recalled Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna replacing him in Palaly for him to fly to Colombo to receive the field promotion though it never materialized (Waidyaratna achieved celebrity status in July 3, 1990 when he landed outside the besieged Jaffna Fort to evacuate seven wounded personnel).

Mendis received another gallantry medal for his role in the early March 1991 defence of the Silavaturai army base. Under the leadership of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, the SLAF conducted an intense counter attack on the LTTE, causing substantial losses until sea borne troops fought their way into the beleaguered base.

A mission to hinder LTTE movements

Mendis secured another gallantry medal for a joint operation conducted during day time on November 11, 1986 in the Jaffna peninsula. The mission involved four helicopters and a small group of army engineers led by the then Captain, Mahesh Samaraweera, a first cousin of Mendis (retired with the rank of Major General). Samaraweera’s group included five engineer NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) and the then Lt. Jagath Dias (Presently holds the rank of Major General. Dias led the 57 Division during eelam war IV) and a Sergeant. The foray was launched in support of a ground operation. The heli borne group was to thwart LTTE reinforcements by destroying the Vallai causeway, which connected Thonadamannar with Atchuveli. Mendis said: " Before the launch of the mission involving four helicopters, the then Squadron Leader S. J. Jayasekera landed at the Vallai causeway to drop personnel who used some large hume pipes left on the side of the road to block the causeway. But the LTTE removed the obstacles soon after Squadron Leader Jayasekera returned to Palaly. Thereafter, the mission involving four helicopters was launched. May be it was the first of its kind launched against the LTTE. Of the four choppers, two were to circle overhead to face any eventuality, while two landed to disgorge engineer troops who blew up the causeway."

Helicopters captained by Mendis and the then Flying Officer Kapila Jayampathy had been positioned over the targeted area, while Squadron Leader Jayasekera and Captain David Butler landed at the Vallai causeway to carry out the operation. Four-man SLAF crews involved in the operation included Mendis, Officer cadet P.D.K.T. Jayasinghe, LAC S.M.W Sooriyadasa and LAC G.L. Perera (chopper Captained by Mendis), Flying Officer Kapila Jayampathy, K.P. Weeraman, LAC S.D.R. Ariyaratna and LAC R. Fernando (chopper captained by Jayampathy), Squadron Leader SJ Jayasekera, Captain C. Willings, LAC W.A. Fernando (chopper Captained by Jayasekera) and lastly, Captain David Butler, S.R. Gunaratna, LAC Delkandura and LAC Senaratne (chopper captained by Butler).

Captains Butler and Willings were among foreign military experts who took part in SLAF operations.

Mendis evacuates

Shavendra Silva

Mendis is also credit with evacuating the then second Lieutenant Shavendra Silva when he was wounded in a grenade attack in early June 1987. The timely evacuation of the young platoon commander of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) saved his life. Silva suffered life threatening injuries during Operation Liberation, the first Brigade Level ground offensive conducted against the LTTE. In fact, Mendis hadn’t been aware of Silva being among those evacuated on that particular day by him until Major General Shavendra Silva, who commanded the celebrated Task Force I/58 Division during eelam war IV recently, recollected him being evacuated by Romesh Mendis. Maj. Gen. Silva, who is now Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, was responding to a query by the writer. During Operation Liberation, Lasantha Waidyaratna and Romesh Mendis commanded the two Bell 212 helicopter gunships assigned for the operation. The No 4 formation altogether deployed 11 Bell 212s and 412s for Operation Liberation, the only brigade-level operation conducted during eelam war I.

Mendis said that that No 4 formation had to face far more dangerous situations during eelam war II. At the conclusion of Operation Liberation in early June 1987, the Sri Lankan military suspended operations. In accordance with the Indo Lanka peace accord, the Sri Lankan military was confined to barracks, whereas the Indian army took over security in the northern and eastern districts. Romesh Mendis said: "We were quickly overwhelmed when fighting erupted in June 1990 with a series of lightning strikes. The LTTE quickly took the upper hand in the Vanni region where isolated army camps had to solely depend on the SLAF for supplies. Evacuation of the wounded from camps under siege was nothing but a nightmare. We had to land at the risk of our lives".