Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Muhamalai debacles and Elephant Pass triumph



by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Oct. 2006 battle for the LTTE front-line at Muhamalai, initiated by the Army had caused devastating losses among Jaffna-based security forces fighting formations, with the Armour, particularly the Fourth Regiment suffering staggering losses. Undoubtedly, it had been the single worst defeat experienced by the Armour in the entire eelam war.Gajaba Regiment veteran Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne (KG), in his memoirs, ‘Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal’ (Road to Nanthikadal) discussed the humiliating defeat experienced on the Muhamalai front leading to him (the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) 55 Division), Brigadier Samantha Sooriyabandara (GOC, 53 Division), Brigadier Nandana Udawatte (Brigade Commander, Armour) and Colonel Shavendra Silva (Brigade Commander, Air Mobile Brigade) being summoned to Temple Trees on Oct 17, 2006. In addition to members of the National Security Council (NSC), the then Brigadier Udaya Perera, Director of Operations at Army headquarters had been there to receive a first hand briefing from those who spearheaded the disastrous offensive. Both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been present.

Perera had been Air Mobile Brigade Commander before KG replaced him in March 2005 in the run up to presidential polls in Nov, 2005. By the time the Army suffered the shocking Muhamalai defeat, KG had received appointment as GOC, 55 Division and another experienced Gajaba officer, Colonel Shavendra Silva had taken over the Air Mobile Brigade comprising 3 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry), 5 battalion Gemunu Watch and 6 battalion Gajaba Regiment. In fact, Shavendra Silva had been shifted from the Diyatalawa Military Academy to take over the Air Mobile Brigade immediately after the LTTE mounted a successful assault on the Army front line on August 11/12, 2006. The LTTE smashed through the Army line though it couldn’t hold onto the newly captured area. Having regained the area given up at the onset of the LTTE offensive by late August, 2006, the Air Mobile Brigade under Shavendra Silva’s command spearheaded a successful operation to capture the first line of LTTE defences. It was quite an achievement.

According to KG, the abortive bid in Oct 2006 had caused severe turmoil with a section of the media unjustifiably castigating the 53 Division Commander and the Air Mobile Brigade Commander for the humiliating defeat. The situation had improved in the wake of the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, accepting responsibility for the failed offensive.

The writer had an opportunity to meet Lt. Gen. Fonseka at Army Headquarters in the wake of the Muhamalai debacle. The then Military Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara on the instructions of the Army Chief arranged for a selected group of journalists to receive a briefing from Lt. Gen. Fonseka, who explained the circumstances under which the Army made a bid to evict the enemy from the LTTE front-line. Castigating those who had been critical of the offensive, the Army Chief asserted that had the Army succeeded even at a great loss of men and material, the situation would have been different. The Army, the Sinha Regiment veteran asserted had no option but to exploit the situation soon after the eviction of the LTTE from its first line of defences in Sept. 2006.

MBRL fire on T 55 tanks

KG comprehensively dealt with the Oct, 2006 battle, the last major offensive action on the Muhamalai front until April 2008. KG revealed the loss of main battle tanks under controversial circumstances due to negligence and shortcomings on the part of the Armour Regiment as well as 40 rounds of rockets being fired at own tanks and troops trapped in LTTE territory at a crucial stage of the battle. KG dealt with various stages of the ambitious offensive meant to pave the way for the Army to conduct large scale offensive action on the northern front. In hindsight, had the Army succeeded in Oct 2006 on the northern front, the overall military strategy would have been different. In the wake of the crushing defeat suffered by the 53 Division and losses experienced by the 55 Division, the Army put major offensive action on the northern front on hold. The author asserted that the Army shouldn’t have undertaken large scale offensive action soon after the capture of the LTTE’s first line of defence on Sept 9, 2006 on the Muhamalai front.

The Gajaba veteran gave a superb description of troops regaining their first line of defence by August 26, 2006 from which they had been evicted on the night of Aug 11/12, 2006, extremely difficult conditions experienced on the front, sacrifices made by fighting troops, the role played by the then GOC, 55 Division Maj. Gen. Sanath Karunaratne, capture of the first line of LTTE defence on September 9, 2006, Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s intervention during subsequent action also on the Muhamalai front to appoint the author as GOC, 55 Division before the abortive bid made on Oct 11/12, 2006 night. KG revealed how Lt. Gen. Fonseka constantly kept him (Fonseka) abreast of the battlefield developments. The retired Maj. Gen. also discussed with him being promoted to the rank of Brigadier and appointed as GOC, 55 Division in place of Sinha Regiment veteran Maj. Gen. Karunaratne. Appreciating services rendered by his predecessor, KG, in his memoirs recollected Karunaratne defending the strategic Elephant Pass base in 1991, when the LTTE laid siege to it.

KG hadn’t hesitated to discuss two issues hitherto avoided by the top Army leadership. KG castigated those responsible for producing a spate of Sinhala movies such as Sulanga Enu Pinisa, Sudu Kalu Saha Alu and Mage Sandai for demeaning the military at the time of war. Having praised the then Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera for strongly campaigning against such films, KG revealed that the then government forced the navy officer to give up his campaign.

The writer dealt with the despicable campaign directed at the military at that time. Undermining the military had been almost fashionable at that time with the cinema being cleverly used to discourage the Army. The cinema also targeted the families of military men depicting them in bad light.

KG examined the way the police targeted the Army over the years much to the disappointment of the armed forces. Anyone wanting to know the bitter truth about the war and matters such as shoddy treatment of fighting men, failure on the part of successive governments to provide even basic facilities to the Army and special status given to the Air Force and the Navy at the expense of the Army should peruse KG’s memoirs. The author explained how an Air Force man went to the extent of pulling the then Colonel KG’s underwear from his travelling bag and difficulties experienced by thousands of men going on leave via Palaly air base and those struggling to return to Palaly from Ratmalana.

KG hadn’t sought to deceive the public. In fact those who bought Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal had been forced to learn the actual ground situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the time a reluctant Army launched counter offensive in response to the LTTE declaring eelam war IV in second week of Aug 2006. Mavil aru, the writer believes is only a diversionary tactic meant to achieve total surprise on the northern front. Army headquarters had been so confident at that time (in Aug 2006) that it went ahead making plans to conduct joint training exercises with the US and KG was in Colombo to finalize plans. KG had been at a popular Indian restaurant in Colombo with his family and some close friends when Army Headquarters had directed him to rush back to Palaly which he did the same day.

A relentless campaign

The military brought Eelam War IV to an end within two years and ten months with the 53 Division under KG’s command killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the morning of May 19, 2009. The vast majority of those who had bought KG’s memoirs first read the section that dealt with Eelam War IV before perusing other chapters.

The author explained the Army leadership deciding against re-launching of large scale offensive action on the northern front due to a variety of reasons. Although the author repeatedly asserted that 55 Division under his command and Brigadier Samantha Sooriyabandara’s 53 Division as the only offensive formations in the Army, the military leadership felt the Divisions couldn’t achieve required progress primarily for two reasons.

A large scale offensive would have been severely undermined by lack of space for two divisions to conduct operations simultaneously. The twelve km wide Muhamalai front had prevented effective deployment of armour due to space constraints. Against the backdrop of the humiliating Muhamalai defeat in Oct 2008, the Army wouldn’t have wanted to gamble on the same front. Faced with the daunting task of meeting the LTTE challenge in the northern theater, the Army leadership had raised 57 Division (third offensive formation) for large scale operations on the Vanni front. KG dealt with the then Brigadier Udaya Perera’s role in the formation of the third offensive division though he faulted Army headquarters for appointing Sumith Manawadu whom he described as a weak GoC. Subsequently, Lt. Gen. Fonseka had replaced the first GoC of 57 Division with Brigadier Jagath Dias, another Gajaba Regiment veteran. The author examined the formation of the 57 Division against the backdrop of the Army leadership deciding against shifting both 53 and 55 Divisions or one of them from the Jaffna peninsula to the Vanni. KG asserted that had the divisions described by him as the two most powerful formations moved out of the peninsula, the Army couldn’t have thwarted LTTE plans on the northern front.

KG explained relentless efforts made by 55 and 53 Divisions to tie up the LTTE on the Muhamalai front.

Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal discussed gradual progress made by the 57 Division (launched operations in March 2007), deployment of the newly created Task Force I (September 2007) under the then Brigadier Chagi Gallage, formation and deployment of 59 Division (January 2008) under the then Brigadier Nandana Udawatte. However, Gallage, who had played a significant role in the East and other theatres was replaced after he suffered a heart attack, by the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva. At the time, Shavendra Silva received a directive from Army headquarters to take over Task Force I, he had been the Air Mobile Brigade Commander, one of the formations attached to 53 Division.

However, KG’s explanation in respect of a disasterous operation undertaken by the Army in April 2008 on the northern front revealed that the Army believed that the LTTE defences could be overwhelmed. In the prelude to the operation, the 53 Division had been deployed south of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road towards Kilali. The 55 Division had been deployed east of the A9. Revelation that KG hadn’t even been in Jaffna at the time of the launch of the offensive highlighted the crisis on the northern front. However, in the wake of April 2008 debacle, Lt. Gen. Fonseka placed the 53 Division under KG’s command. While KG had received the command of the division which he described as the life of the Army, Brigadier Prasanna Silva succeeded KG as the 55 Division GOC.

Sooriyabandara removed

Brigadier Sooriyabanda, who had given leadership to the 53 Division during high intensity battles in Aug, Sept and Oct 2006 as well as in April 2008 on the Muhamalai front was moved out of Jaffna unceremoniously. Sooriyabandara left the peninsula a deeply disappointed and broken man. He never had an opportunity to command a fighting formation again.

It would be pertinent to mention that the 53 Division and 55 Division though KG repeatedly declared as the best offensive formation the Army had, couldn’t defeat the powerful LTTE forces deployed along the northern front. The author seemed to have overestimated the capabilities of the two divisions while comparing them with 57 Division (on the Central front), Task Force I (Mannar front) and 59 Division (Weli Oya front) at the time of the disasterous April 2008 offensive.

The bottom line is that the LTTE forces on the northern front commanded by Theepan had the wherewithal to withstand two formidable divisions which included the Mechanized Infantry Brigade comprising over 150 light tanks. In addition to the Mechanized Infantry, the 53 Division included the Infantry Brigade Infantry and Air Mobile Brigade.

KG dealt with the passing away of Kandiah Balasegaran alias "Brigadier Balraj on May 20, 2008 due to a heart attack at Puthukudirippu. Considered the best among the experienced field commanders, Balraj’s departure certainly affected the LTTE’s morale.

Progress on all fronts had been extremely slow with the LTE offering fierce resistance with the 57 Division and Task Force I advancing west of the A9 road and the 59 fighting on the Weli Oya front. In support of the overall ground forces effort, Lt. Gen. Fonseka launched Task Force III under Brigadier Satyapriya Liyanage to move across the A9 road from the west to the east. By Sept/Oct 2008, the LTTE faced certain defeat on the Vanni west front due to Task Force I making significant progress. Although, Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal made no reference to LTTE deployment, Prabhakaran had no option but to withdraw some of his battle hardened units deployed across the Muhamalai front and re-deploy them to halt Task Force I and 57 Division.

KG expertly dealt with the Task Force I seizing Pooneryn and turning towards Paranthan on the A9 road, 57 Division entering Kilinochchi and major developments in the northern theatre. However, contrary to Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal, 57 Division had captured the southern part of Kilinochchi, while Task Force I had entered the town from the northern side.

Having suffered heavy losses during previous attempts to advance on the Muhamalai front, the 53 Division and the 55 Division finally succeeded in evicting Theepan’s forces from their first line of defence. According to KG, fighting had lasted for a week from Oct 15, 2008 onwards.

KG dealt with the Jaffna based divisions resuming major assaults on the next line of LTTE defence on January 5, 2009 and him delaying the 53 Division push southwards towards Elephant Pass on a request made by the 55 Division. The 55 Division leadership, according to KG expressed the opinion that it would be unfair by them if the 53 Division deployed its Mechanized Infantry Brigade for a rapid push towards Elephant Pass. The 55 Division had opposed them being left out of the honour in regaining Elephant Pass and. KG had given up his intention to rush towards Elephant Pass. By the time, 53 Division and 55 Division reached Elephant Pass after having passed Iyakachchi, there hadn’t been any LTTE presence. The LTTE had been convincingly defeated there by Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s Task Force I.

Having captured Pooneryn on Nov 15, 2008 following a fierce battle, Shavendra Silva’s troops turned eastwards and rushed towards Paranthan. The writer in War on Terror revisited series dealt with Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s formation achieving the unthinkable. Having captured Pooneryn on Nov 15, 2008, Brigadier Silva cut across Vanni west, regained Paranthan on the A9 road on Dec 31 and then brought a large section of Kilinochchi town (Southern part) under government control. Then, he turned towards Elephant Pass forcing the LTTE to quit Elephant Pass, hence the absence of terrorists in Elephant Pass when 53 Division and 55 Division reached the strategic point on January 9, 2009.

The positioning of the Task Force I north of Paranthan led to the swift collapse of the LTTE’s northern defence line. In fact, by Dec 31, 2008, Task Force I had reached the Kandy-Jaffna road and was in a position to simultaneously threaten both Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. Having set up elaborate defences to face an Army advance from northwards across the Muhamalai front-line, the LTTE lacked the wherewithal to counter a rapid advance from the South. The LTTE would never have anticipated an offensive formation fighting its way northwards from Mannar (along the coast line) to the strategic Pooneryn area, turn eastwards and take Paranthan, rush southwards and take a large part of Kilinochchi, and then proceed to Elephant Pass.

The Army lost Elephant Pass in April 2000. There hadn’t been another instance of a fully fledged Division (54 Div) comprising four brigades collapsing in spite of having continuous overland main supply routes to Palaly and Kankesanthurai.

(The writer dealt with Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal on Oct 5, 13, 19, 26. The fifth part on Nov 2 and the final piece on Nov 9).