SPECIAL REPORT : Part 145October 25, 2016, 12:00 pm
The 31st chapter of the 845-page book comprehensively dealt with the gradual transformation of large scale Vanni offensive to defensive posture in the wake of the Army bringing large territory under its control, both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The deployment of additional troops, in the Vanni theatre, had been at the expense of overall security in the Eastern Province. The LTTE had allowed the Army to move in to Vanni jungles, unopposed, thereby paving the way for the government to make some grandiose claims. The shortage of troops, particularly experienced battalions, had been so severe, that the 20th battalion of the Sri Lanka National Guard was deployed on the Mankulam front to face the enemy.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Recovery of six artillery pieces by troops led by Special Forces Brigade Commander Colonel Jayavi Fernando, in the general area north of Thandikulam, in the aftermath of the first LTTE counter-attack on troops, engaged in Operation Jayasikurui, on June 10, 1997, was never meant to be revealed.
Special Forces had been to the area, a day after the senior artillery officer in charge of the long range guns claimed that he destroyed them to prevent the weapons from being captured by the LTTE. The then Overall Operations Commander, Maj. Gen. Asoka Jayawardena, had authorized the destruction of the artillery pieces due to the inordinate delay, on the part of the battalion commander, issuing orders to protect the gun position and, thus failing in his duty. Having received approval to destroy the guns, the commanding officer had retreated towards Thandilulam, believing the LTTE would recover them, hence his treacherous act would never be known. What he didn’t know was that the Army would regain the area the following day.
The then Lt. Colonel Kamal Gunaratne (KG) had been on the Joint Operations Command staff and was aware of the incident.
LTTE strikes back
The Gajaba Regiment veteran, in his memoirs Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal (Road to Nanthikadal), dealt with the first devastating LTTE counter attack on the headquarters of the 55 Division, at Thandikulam, and adjoining areas, exceptional leadership given by Maj Nandana Senadeera (10 battalion Gajaba Regiment) and Maj Manoj Peiris (8 battalion Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) in rescuing those who had been trapped at the 55 Division headquarters, as well as those who lacked courage to face the enemy.
The writer has already examined Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal on Oct 5, Oct 12 and Oct 19, 2016. Today’s piece is the fourth, with focus on Jayasikurui. The final piece on KG’s work will be carried next Wednesday (Nov 2).
The 53 Division was the second Division engaged in the offensive with the initial primary objective of securing Puliyankulam.
Among those who had been trapped there were Brigadier Shantha Kottegoda, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 55 Division, Brigadier Nihal Marambe, Colonel G. A. Chandrasiri and Lt. Colonel Mendaka Samarasinghe.
KG recollected, with sadness, Maj. Senadeera receiving gunshot injury to his face while leading 10 GR troops from the front. Senadeera had been KG’s deputy during his tenure as the 6 GR Commanding Officer.
In spite of taking heavy losses, the Army had been able to regain the lost territory within two days.
The Army repulsed the second LTTE counter attack, on Jayasikurui troops, deployed at Periyamadu, on June 24, 1997.
Failures on Vanni front
KG dealt with the formation of the 56 Division to hold territory, captured by Jayasikurui troops. In addition to the newly established Division, the Defence Ministry directed the Navy, Air Force, as well as the police, to provide personnel for the same purpose. They had been tasked to deploy Brigade strength groups in support of the Army.
KG explained the extreme difficulty in having required the number of troops due to reluctance on the part of the youth to join the Army, especially its infantry. The Army had been able to recruit less than 1,500 youth when the requirement was for 10,000 men during the time of Jayasikurui. Those who had joined the Army, at the height of the war, were from families living in abject poverty. They had no option but to join the Army. Many recruits had believed that even if they died in combat their parents and siblings could benefit from the compensation paid by the Army. In spite of extreme difficulties, the Army had to somehow restore the overland Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, to ensure supplies to about 500,000 civilians living in the Jaffna peninsula as well as over 30,000 security forces and police personnel.
Govt, Army mislead country
The war veteran revealed that the then government, and the Army, perpetrated a despicable fraud on the youth to quickly enhance the strength on the Jayasikurui front. As the youth had been reluctant to join the Army, they were recruited to the Navy and the Air Force and deployed on the Vanni front, following basic training. For want of a cohesive plan, and required instructors, they hadn’t been properly trained before being deployed. The Navy and the Air Force hadn’t given any indication to them that they were recruited especially for deployment on the Jayasikurui front. The Army had deceived the youth by recruiting them especially for the Armour and Artillery Regiments as well as the Military Police and then attaching them to infantry formations. The infantry hadn’t attracted youth due to heavy losses on the front, hence the project to deceive them. KG also revealed that the Special Forces and Commando Regiments directed to take in youth in large numbers, select the best and send the rest to infantry formations. The then government had no option but to deceive the country to obtain the required number of youth. The Army prevented those who had completed 12 years of service from leaving, deserters were forcibly brought in and deployed on the front and general amnesty offered to deserters to re-join the Army. Their re-deployment caused low morale among fighting formations resulting in severe problems. However, there had been a section that served the nation faithfully after having returned to the front taking advantage of the general amnesty.
The war veteran also found fault with the government and the Army leadership, for recruitment of members of rival Tamil groups to the Army. A desperate Army, struggling to find troops for the Jayasikurui campaign, had gone to the extent of deploying a National Guard battalion, especially raised to protect the Sri Maha Bodhiya, in case of a fresh LTTE raid in Mankulam. According to KG, the 20th battalion of SLNG had comprised those who had re-joined the service following retirement.
Ill-fated Vanni strategy
KG dealt with the deployment of heavy guns by the Navy, without taking into consideration the actual ground situation, the failure on the part of the Army leadership to brief the then de facto Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, regarding the precarious situation on the ground, a section of the officers bypassing the chain of command to keep in touch with Ratwatte, and the difficulty experienced by Overall Operations Commander in receiving situation reports from Brigadier Wasantha Perera’s 53 Division.
KG mercilessly criticized the overall strategy adopted by the Army engaged in Jayasikuri with the focus on ill-fated strategy vis-a-vis the LTTE tactics which caused maximum possible losses on the advancing Army. The Gajaba veteran had been disappointed and expressed his frustrations, in no uncertain terms, that during the time of Jayasikurui, the Army lacked the wherewithal to conduct operations behind enemy lines, while the LTTE achieved tremendous success in such operations, repeatedly.
Shocking seizure of mortars
KG highlighted the unprecedented LTTE operation, leading to the group seizing 38,000 rounds of 81 mm medium mortars, ordered by the Army from Zimbabwe and the Jayasikurui troops having had to experience the Zimbabwean mortars. The irate soldier also revealed the crisis caused by ordering Chinese ammunition for 100 mm main weapon mounted on Soviet era T 55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). The entire stock of Chinese ammunition had to be discarded due to them being built for Chinese specifications and certainly not suitable for Soviet barrels. The Fourth Armoured Regiment, deployed in support of Jayasikurui troops, suffered due to the foolish decision to order Chinese ammunition.
Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal dealt with the controversial issue of acquiring low quality arms, ammunition and equipment, and also obtaining ammunition not being compatible with guns, as in the case of 100 mm barrels mounted on T 55 MBTs. KG highlighted the acquisition of Chinese built T 63-2 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) at a massive cost to the taxpayer in spite of them not being able to withstand even small arms fire. They had to be subsequently used to move wounded soldiers as well as ammunition and other equipment. KG recalled the Armoured Regiment troops referring to APCs as worthless ice cream vans.
Recalling the third LTTE counter attack on Jayasikurui troops, mounted on Aug 1, 1997, KG discussed the swift collapse of defences, west of Omanthai, within minutes, and the Army successfully repulsing fierce assault on 55.1 Brigade Headquarters. KG credited the 55.1 Brigade Commander Colonel Tissa Jayawardena and Commanding Officer of the 8th battalion, Gajaba Regiment Maj. Prasanna Wickremasuriya for repulsing the attack.
Those at the Omanthai Army camp repulsed four attacks on that day while troops regained the territory lost on the previous day.
KG gave a superb account of the then Maj. Chagi Gallage, Commanding Officer of the 6 GR, spearheading an assault to capture Puliyankulam following several failed attempts by the 53 Division. KG suggested that Gallage’s expertise should be made available to those studying at military schools.
KG acknowledged that the government and the Army leadership repeatedly deceived the public through false media statements as regards the battlefield situation. KG discussed the capture of Puliyankulam and the two Divisions, advancing northwards towards Kanagarayankulam, along the Kandy-Jaffna road, rapid progress against the backdrop of Colonel Jayavi Fernando’s Special Forces making significant territorial gains. The veteran dealt with the devastating LTTE assault on the 53 Division, positioned at Karappakutti, as he predicted 24 hours before in response to a query posed to him by the then most senior staff officer, attached to the Joint Operations Command, Brigadier Susil Chandrapala. KG admitted that he didn’t know whether Brig. Chandrapala alerted the 53 Division as regards the possibility of an LTTE assault on Karappakutti.
LTTE stuns 53 Div
Having overrun Karappakutti within hours, the LTTE removed arms, ammunition, equipment, heavy vehicles, et al. They also seized Brig. Wasantha Perera’s brand new caravan along with eight bulldozers belonging to the Engineering Regiment. By the time the Army had regained Karappakutti, three days later, the LTTE had removed everything.
KG asserted that the Army had suffered due to most senior officers, in charge of various operational headquarters entirely depending on those who could converse in English and prepare reports in the same language. KG speculated whether the then 53 Brigade Commander Brig. Wasantha Perera decided on positioning troops at Karappakutti or his staff officers did.
KG also examined the debacle suffered by the Second Commando Regiment in an abortive operation to capture Mannakulam, west of Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The veteran infantryman asserted that the Commando Regiment had been assigned a task normally given to the infantry, thereby inflicting crippling losses on the elite formation. The Second Commando Regiment had run into the LTTE trap soon after the Army captured Mankulam junction.
The 31 chapter of the 845-page book comprehensively dealt with the gradual transformation of large scale Vanni offensive to defensive posture in the wake of the Army bringing large territory under its control, both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The deployment of additional troops, in the Vanni theatre, had been at the expense of overall security in the Eastern Province. The LTTE had allowed the Army to move in to Vanni jungles, unopposed, thereby paving the way for the government to make some grandiose claims. The shortage of troops, particularly experienced battalions, had been so severe, that the 20th battalion of the Sri Lanka National Guard was deployed on the Mankulam front to face the enemy. The Army went to the extent of closing down training facilities and deploying unprepared youth in support of Jayasikurui. The war veteran underscored the folly in the Army leadership throwing all formations under its command to achieve the then government’s primary objective - to restore overland Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.
The same chapter discussed the LTTE forcing the Army to rapidly retreat on all fronts in the northern theatre, killing of Vadamaratchchy Brigade Commander (52.4 Brigade) Brigadier Larry Wijeratne, the Army bringing in more territory under its control and finally the worst defeat experienced by the Army during the conflict. There hadn’t been a worse defeat than the humiliating downfall at Elephant Pass, in April, 2000.
The writer covered a hastily arranged media conference, at Army headquarters, where the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya and Chief of Staff Lionel Balagalle explained the crisis on the front (New strategy needed after Elephant Pass loss, says Army chief-The Island, April 26, 2000). Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, while strongly defending the decision to quit Elephant Pass, during the third week of April, 2000, asserted that a delay in vacating the base would have caused debilitating losses (Pass withdrawal purely military, says Army Chief-The Island, April 24, 2000). Censorship prevented the media from reporting the pathetic ground situation. The Army faced humiliating defeat in the Jaffna peninsula with the LTTE poised to clear the entire Vanni region of military presence.
Hostility among senior officers, at various levels, including that of Divisions, undermined the overall war effort. KG revealed exchange of words between the General Officers Commanding 55 and 56 Divisions engaged in Jayasikurui in the presence of Overall Operations Commander. The Army suffered for want of team effort against the backdrop of deaths, casualties and desertions in formations. The infantry had been in dire straits with the battlefront crisis threatening to overwhelm the military leadership. According to KG, the situation had been worsened by officers receiving command appointments purely on the basis of seniority. KG cited the appointment of a senior artillery officer holding the rank of a Brigadier as the GOC of the elite 53 Division to prove his allegation.
LTTE exploit Norway peace effort
KG expertly dealt with the Norway-led peace effort, the LTTE exploiting the situation to consolidate its power, exposure of Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) run operation leading to the deaths of covert operatives, LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham arriving in the Vanni, in a Maldivian Air Taxi, accompanied by his Australian-born wife, Adele, split caused by Karuna, efforts made by the then Eastern Commander Rear Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda to face the growing LTTE challenge and the then UNP administration working overtime to discredit the navy officer.
KG recalled him being given the command of the Air Mobile Brigade (53.1) attached to the 53 Division. Having served as the Brigade Commander of 55.2 Brigade, deployed at Nagarkovil, at the onset of Norwegian spearheaded peace process, Air Mobile command was KG’s second appointment as a Brigade Commander. KG asserted the Air Mobile Brigade as an elite formation credited with excellent battlefield performances. The Gajaba veteran remembered the formation of the Brigade under the able leadership of Gemunu Watch veteran Brigadier Hiran Halangode. The writer dealt with the leadership provided by Halangode especially during the eelam War II in the Batticaloa theatre. The Air Mobile Brigade had been ready to face any eventuality as it was in continuous training at a special facility set up at Eluththumaduwal by the then Colonel Udaya Perera. The Muhamalai based Brigade accommodated troops from other fighting formations at what was called Air Mobile Training enclave.
KG also examined fighting between the LTTE and its breakaway Batticaloa-Ampara faction with the military struggling to come to terms with the situation.
However, the writer believes that KG’s assertion that a statement made by a top UNPer (Milinda Moragoda) regarding UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s role in the LTTE split prompted Velupillai Prabhakaran to deprive Wickremesinghe of the Tamil vote does not hold water. Although there was no doubt that Moragoda had irked the LTTE, the polls boycott needed to be examined meticulously against the backdrop of allegations that there had been an understanding between the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Camp and the LTTE. The LTTE seemed to have felt confident in dealing with Rajapaksa than Wickremesinghe and believed in its capability to overwhelm President Rajapaksa. Obviously, Prabhakaran hadn’t taken into consideration the return of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, formerly of the Gajaba Regiment to Sri Lanka. KG recalled the Sinha Regiment veteran Sarath Fonseka receiving the appointment as Commander of the Army, on Dec 6, 2005, resumption of claymore attacks in the northern theatre, on the same day and the then Defence Secretary, retired Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa, accompanied by Army Chief Lt. Gen. Fonseka, visiting headquarters of the 4th battalion of the Gemunu Watch at Muhamalai front-line. KG recalled him meeting Rajapaksa, who had been his Commanding Officer years ago, for the first time after Rajapaksa quit the Army.