Tuesday, 8 November 2016

TRIUMPH following massive DEBACLE on Vanni front



By Shamindra Ferdinando
The 59 Division, raised at Weli Oya, had been tasked with achieving one of the most difficult objectives in ground operations in the Vanni. Then Brigadier Nandana Udawatta of the Armoured Corps, having received the appointment as the first General Officer Commanding (GoC), of the 59 Division, faced the daunting task of liberating the LTTE stronghold, Mullaitivu, on the northern coast. Presently, Udawatta functions as the Adjutant General. The old Royalist now holds the rank of Major General.

The Army vacated Mulllaitivu, in June, 1996, following a humiliating defeat, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency.

The 59 Division troops had to fight through unbelievably difficult terrain since it commenced operations, in January, 2008. Udawatta’s formation had to fight on the Vanni front, east of the A9 alone, whereas the 57 Division (GOC Brig. Jagath Dias/retired recently) and Task Force I, aka TF I (Colonel Shavendra Silva/ presently Maj. Gen. Commanding 53 Division) fought west of the A9. At the time the 59 launched operations, both the 57 Division and TF I had been struggling on the Central, and Mannar fronts, respectively.

The then Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, repeatedly brought the Divisions Commanders under heavy pressure. Brigadier Udawatte had been under tremendous pressure to sustain the offensive, in the Mullaitivu jungles, regardless of losses. The Sinha Regiment veteran wanted all formations deployed on the Vanni front to pursue specific objectives with the 59 Division tasked to take on some of the toughest enemy units, deployed in the Vanni.

The Division comprised (1) 59-1 Brigade consisting of 1SR, 11 GW, 14 VIR, (2) 59-2 Brigade consisting of 12 SLLI, 14 SR, 14 (V) GR, and (3) 59-3 consisting of 15 SLLI, 9 VIR and 7 GW.

The 59 Division overran the Muhagam LTTE base (May 30, 2008), Michael base (July 4, 2008), Suganthan base (July 27, 2008), Jeevan base (August 16, 2008). The 59 Division secured the western part of the Nayaru lagoon, on August 21, 2008. The 59 Division regained Kumalamunai and Othiyamalai, on November 11, and Nov 29, 2008, respectively. LTTE abandoned Mullayaveli, on Dec 16, 2008. The 59 Division took Kumalamunai and this success was followed by the seizure of Othiyamalai (November 29, 2008) and Mulliyaveli (December 16, 2008).

The 59 Division achieved its primary objective, on January 25, 2009, with the capture of Mullaitivu.

The Division received the backing of both armour and artillery. The elite Special Forces, and Commandos, threw their weight behind the 59 Division, depending on battlefield requirements.

Liberation of Mullaitivu is certainly one of the most significant achievements during the war and all those who had contributed to that accomplishment could be proud of their role.

Tigers overwhelm 59 Div

In the wake of Mullaitivu’s fall, the LTTE mustered all available units to mount its last major offensive, action in the general area of Puthukudirippu, on Feb 1, 2009 (West of Mullaitivu lagoon). Although Army formations, deployed there, seemed to have had the strength to face any eventuality, the LTTE quickly took the upper hand. The LTTE’s final offensive, at one point, overwhelmed the entire 59 Division.

A deeply worried Army Chief Lt. Gen. Fonseka ordered the then 53, GOC, Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s (KG), to deploy his formation, in support of the 59 Division.

KG, in his memoirs, "Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal" (Road to Nanthikadal) extensively dealt with an almost week long LTTE final offensive. KG had taken four days leave, since January 31, 2009, and was away in Colombo, when the LTTE struck. Before going on leave, KG had rescued Brigadier Sathyapriya Liyanage’s Task Force III fighting east of the A9 road, off Mankulam. The 53 Division and TF III had taken two weeks to stabilize the situation there. KG explained that Brig. Liyanage’s troops had been deployed in such a difficult terrain that it took five hours for a wounded man to be carried, to reach a helicopter landing site, to evacuate him.

According to KG, the initial assault, directed at forward positions, held by the 59 Division, had claimed the lives of over 200 personnel. Hundreds had been reported missing due to loss of radio contact with units. Troops had fled their positions, paving the way for the LTTE to exploit the situation. The Army leadership continued to insist they were in control, though chaos prevailed on the Vanni east front. Brig. Udawatta, too, had been on leave. With the 59 Division facing defeat, Lt. Gen. Fonseka had directed KG to join the battle.

KG recalled how an angry Lt. Gen. Fonseka warned him that people would spit on them if they failed the nation now. The situation had been so bad, the Army Chief asserted that they were facing a crisis, similar to that of Vanni, in 1999, where the entire front collapsed within days. While Udawatta had reached his rear headquarters, at Mulliyaweli, by air, KG flew to the front where the fighting was taking place. Gajaba veteran KG had stayed there as the Air force struggled to bring in reinforcements. KG had wanted Special Forces on the front as the 59 and 53 Divisions faced a determined enemy, hell-bent on destroying them.

The then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, told the writer, a day or two before the 61 Independence Day celebrations, in Colombo, that the Army was experiencing a major crisis on the Vanni east front. One-time Commanding Officer of 1 GR, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa, asserted that a major failure on the Vanni east front could have had a disastrous impact on the entire war. But, the Army had the wherewithal to suppress the enemy offensive and sustain the campaign until the war, against the LTTE, could be brought to a successful conclusion. The then Military Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara of the Engineers had an extremely difficult task to perform. Brig. Nanayakkara couldn’t have briefed the media, as regards the ground situation in the Vanni, as both political and Army leaderships believed it could undermine the overall war effort. But LTTE propaganda machine couldn’t be thwarted. The world knew what was happening on the Vanni east front. The LTTE probably felt that both the 59 and 53 Divisions could be annihilated. Had that happened, the entire Army effort could have collapsed. The LTTE realized that their 1999 achievement, on the Vanni, could be repeated.

Jeyaraj’s prediction

Had the LTTE succeeded, Canada-based veteran political and defence analyst D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s assertion, in the third week of Dec, 2008, would have been realized. Jeyaraj declared that the LTTE had the wherewithal to roll back the Army on the Vanni east front. In an article, titled WAR IN WANNI: WHY THE TIGERS ARE DOWN BUT NOT OUT, Jeyaraj maintained the circumstances under which the LTTE could inflict a massive defeat on the Army.

The situation had been so bad, the SLAF launched over a dozen missions, involving jets and No 09 Attack helicopter squadron, in support of the Army. Fighting continued, on a wide front, as Independence Day was celebrated in Colombo. Jets launched from Katunanayake air base attacked LTTE around 11.30 am as battles continued. It would be pertinent to mention that Tokyo Peace Co-Chairs, namely the US, EU, US and Norway called for an immediate ceasefire to stop fighting. Although, there hadn’t been any reference to the situation on the Vanni east front, the then Defence Secretary Rajapaksa quite rightly dismissed Co-Chairs move. Having participated at the Independence Day celebrations, Rajapaksa told the writer that the offensive wouldn’t be stopped and so-called no-fire period, proposed by Co-Chairs, to evacuate the sick and the wounded, was not acceptable. Nothing short of unconditional surrender of arms, and cadres, could bring an end to the offensive, Rajapaksa declared (Lanka rejects move to throw lifeline to LTTE-The Island, February 5, 2009). But, the Army faced a grim situation on the front.

KG recollected his efforts to boost the morale of the 59 Division, warning the formation that facing the enemy was its responsibility. KG insisted that the 53 Division had been brought in to face an emergency and the battle still remained the responsibility of the 59 Division. KG reproduced what he told officers and men of the depleted formation in a pathetic situation. "If you win no need to explain. If you lose, you shouldn’t be there to explain."

KG explained reasons for delaying the deployment of his Division. The 59 Division continued to man the first line of defence. A large scale assault, on the morning of Feb 2, 2009, led to the 59 Division losing approximately 5 kms territory. The LTTE maintained an offensive posture. However, KG expressed the belief that the Army could manage the ground situation as long as it didn’t lose control, though territory was lost.

KG explained the Army Chief’s repeated interventions to ensure the senior Army leadership, on the ground, took tangible measures to thwart the enemy offensive. Although, the Army Chief’s interventions, sometimes had interfered hectic efforts on the front, KG unreservedly admitted they greatly benefited from the war veteran’s advice. By Feb 2 evening, Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias (now retired), Special Forces Brigade Commander Colonel Nirmal Dharmaratne (presently GOC, 55 Division deployed in the Jaffna peninsula) and Artillery Brigade Commander Colonel Priyantha Napagoda (presently Director, Veterans Affairs) had joined KG as the Army explored ways and means of halting the enemy advance, paid a glowing tribute to the Army Chief for providing everything he requested for as the battle entered a crucial stage. By then, the LTTE had infiltrated the defended area and was engaged in directing artillery and long range mortar fire at specific targets within that area. Troops battled inside with small groups of infiltrators. On the following day, the Army recovered 15 LTTE bodies while preparing to face a fresh assault.

Fortunately, the 59 Division had the support of the Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs). Those mobile MBRLs, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, had been moved overland to the Vanni theatre in the wake of the restoration of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. In addition to MBRLs and various types of artillery pieces, newly acquired 122 mm Chinese artillery provided tremendous gunfire support during the battle. Special Forces scattered all over the Northern and Eastern regions had been swiftly airlifted to the north of Oddusudan in support of the 59 and 53 Divisions. The writer is of the opinion had the LTTE retained resources to mount a large scale simultaneous assault somewhere else, the Army couldn’t have thwarted the LTTE’s final offensive. Obviously, the LTTE lacked wherewithal to conduct large scale offensive action on two locations.

Tigers deploy T 55

KG described the deployment of T 55 Czechoslovakian built Main Battle Tank (MBT), the one the LTTE seized from the Army base, at Pooneryn, in early Nov 1993, on the afternoon of Feb 3. The Gajaba Regiment veteran gave a thrilling account of the battle involving the LTTE’s MBT, Corporal Chandrasiri Bandara of the Special Forces blowing up an explosives packed enemy double cab at the cost of his life, LTTE breaking through parts of Army front-line with troops simply running away from their positions. The Feb 3 battle, in the evening, at one point threatened to cause total collapse of Army lines with the LTTE pouring perhaps all available reinforcements. Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias had been with KG at the time the LTTE forced the breakthrough at two locations. At the first location, according to KG, one and half infantry battalions had fled causing widespread confusion on the entire font. In the wake of the LTTE breakthrough, senior officers present there, namely KG, Jagath Dias, Nirmal Dharmaratne, Priyantha Napagoda and Chandigarh Fernando struggled to contain the situation. They had been badly shaken and were in a dilemma as the LTTE stepped up the assault.

The daunting task of halting the LTTE advance fell on the Special Forces manning positions atop an LTTE built earth bund, about two kms behind the collapsed Army front line. There had been two squadrons of Special Forces who had managed to persuade the retreating infantry to stop there and to fight back. KG described the successful Army counter attack as a miracle.

The author recalled chaos on the front, and in Colombo, as the Army struggled to control the situation, on the Vanni east front, the day before the Feb 4, 2009, celebrations. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been with Sarath Fonseka at the Army headquarters’ Operations Room as fighting continued into the night. There had been fresh attacks on Feb 4. According to KG, the Army had fought one of the fiercest battles of the entire eelam war on the evening of Feb 4. In hindsight, the LTTE knew that its survival solely depended on defeating the 59 and 53 Divisions on the Puthukudirippu front. KG recalled a devastating LTTE assault on the point where the Army front lines, facing the north and east, met. Even the Special Forces had found it extremely difficult to hold the line as the LTTE threw everything it had against the Army’s elite. Special Forces officer, Kosala Wijekoon, fighting on the front, at one point, called for immediate MBRL fire. KG recollected top Artillery officer on the spot Napagoda declining that request as MBRL fire could have caused losses among own troops. However, Wijekoon had insisted that only MBRLs could stop the LTTE assault. Once the KG and Jagath Dias took responsibility for whatever possible consequences, Napagoda had ordered ten rounds of 122 mm rockets out of 40 mounted on a vehicle, directed at the enemy. When a jubilant Wijekoon reported devastating losses inflicted on the enemy, Napagoda ordered ten more rockets and followed by the remaining 20. Several Special Forces personnel died due to MBRL fire and some suffered injuries but the LTTE lost the initiative there. Gradually, the Army stabilized the situation on the front.

Shocking lapse

KG dealt with the formation of Task Force Eight in the immediate aftermath of the February 1 week battle. A Task Force comprised two Brigades whereas a Division consisted of three Brigades. Each brigade comprised three battalions. Having appointed Colonel G.V. Ravipriya as the senior officer in charge of Task Force Eight, Lt. Col Lalantha Gamage and Lt. Col. S. Welikala had received appointment as Brigade Commanders of Task Force Eight. The 4 VIR (Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) of Lt. Col. Gamage’s Brigade had received the credit for killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, on the morning of May 19, 2009.

KG explained the failure on the part of those who had been under his command to take sufficient counter measures to thwart a LTTE suicide attack. Lt. Gen. Fonseka, too, had specially warned of the possibility of a suicide attack across the Oddusudan-Puthukudirippu road. Although, those who had been responsible for effectively blocking the likely entry point for LTTE suicide vehicle or vehicles, had repeatedly assured KG that defences and obstacles were in place, the LTTE easily breached the line. A locally modified armour plated truck had easily broken through the Army lines and rapidly advanced towards KG’s headquarters. Having failed to stop the advancing monstrous vehicle with several Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attacks, KG directed armour to thwart the LTTE attack. Three T 55 tanks led by Maj. Venura Dissanayake engaged the enemy vehicle. KG credited Corporal Dissanayake of Maj. Dissanayake’s T 55 tank for stopping the armour plated LTTE vehicle with five rounds of 100 mm ammunition. There had been 18 LTTE cadres in the toppled vehicle. Troops shot dead all 18 terrorists who had been firing from the vehicle as it advanced towards KG’s headquarters, where in addition to the author, Jagath Dias, Nirmal Dharmaratne, Priyantha Napagoda, Sudath Perera, G.V. Ravipriya and Nishantha Wanniarachchi were in.

Having castigated KG for the lapse on the part of officers under his command, the Army Chief ordered two senior officers removed immediately.

KG also dealt with the Army Chief making available 10 brand new T 55 MBTs in support of infantry under his command and soldiers accidentally recovering two brand new Chinese manufactured 130 mm artillery pieces, the recovered guns first fired at the enemy as well as the support provided by jet and helicopter squadrons.

Final battle The Army marked the official opening of the Kandy-Jaffna road with the movement of 20 buses, carrying 600 troops, from Anuradhapura to Jaffna. KG discussed the liberation of Puthukudirippu, following a two and half month bloody battle, involving the 53 and 58 Divisions, and the final large scale confrontation between the Army and the LTTE, in early April, 2009. That battle, too, involved 53 and 58 Divisions. The April battle caused nearly 600 deaths among LTTE units. The dead included several top cadres, including one-time northern commander ‘Colonel’ Theepan. KG castigated the ITN for crediting the 58 Division with Theepan’s killing. The Gajaba veteran insisted that Theepan had been killed by 6 GR attached to the Air Mobile Brigade. In the wake of the early April, 2009, defeat, the LTTE lost its wherewithal to effectively resist the Army. The collapse was just weeks away. KG dealt with the efforts made by the Army to prevent Prabhakaran from fleeing the land to be captured dead or alive by the Navy. That effort had to be examined against the backdrop of enmity between Lt. Gen. Fonseka and the then Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, undoubtedly most successful Army and Navy chiefs ever.

The Army brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009 when 4 VIR troops recovered Prabhakaran’s body with a gaping hole on his head.

(Comment on Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal concluded)