Sunday, 28 July 2013

More on heli ops

*War on terror revisited : Part 159

Vavuniya airbase Dec 18, 1986: The then Flying Officer Gagan Bulathsinghala stands next to a badly damaged Bell 412. Bulathsinghala, now Director Operations, with the rank of Air Vice Marshal, survived an unprecedented rocket propelled grenade attack on the Bell 412 over Poovarasankulam. It was on a flight from Talladi to Vavuniya. The previous article dealt with the incident.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Flight Lieutenant Harsha Abeywickrema was flying a Cessna 337 Skymaster when he spotted a fast moving LTTE craft powered by several outboard motors (OBMs). The Skymaster which was based at Palaly airbase, the nerve centre of air operations in the northern theatre, was on a routine mission. Abeywickrema’s colleagues, Shirantha Goonetileke (killed in a missile attack on April 29, 1995 over the Jaffna peninsula) and Ranjan Pakyanathan, too, (killed in a crash) were based in Palaly. They took turns in patrolling the northern seas at the early stage of the conflict. All three were junior instructors. Unfortunately, the Skymaster was wholly inadequate to meet the challenging task. However, the SLAF strove to maintain regular air patrols to curb LTTE movements across the Palk Straits. At that time, Tamil Nadu remained the key supply base not only for the LTTE but a half a dozen other armed groups as well.

The air patrols were carried out with the help of the SLN vessels deployed off the northern coast to detect and intercept LTTE boat movements. SLAF chief, Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrema recollected seeing the enemy craft as he flew over the northern seas. "Once I met the SLN’s Daya Sandagiri (retired as Commander of the navy with the rank of Admiral) when he arrived in Palaly airbse on his way to Ratmalana. I took that chance meeting to inquire about the usual routes used by those operating boats across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. He explained clandestine operations undertaken by terrorists. In accordance with advice given by the senior navy officer, I was on an air patrol when I came across the enemy craft carrying several persons."

The Skymaster carried several personnel armed with automatic weapons, as it lacked the forward firing guns or any other weapons operated by the pilot or the co-pilot. On that fateful day, Navin Silva (retired and currently with the national carrier) functioned as Abeywickrema’s co-pilot.

The young Abeywickrema flew on as if he hadn’t seen the boat which was perhaps operating about 20 nautical miles away from land. Abeywickrema had observed about 15 persons on the boat before alerting the Palaly air base. The then Commanding Officer of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron, Squadron Leader Ananda Jayasinghe was based in Palaly.

Abortive operation

Alerted by the Skymaster, Squadron Leader Jayasinghe dispatched one Bell 212 piloted by Roger Weerasinghe (killed in a missile attack on April 28, 1995) to destroy the boat. Unfortunately, the Bell 212 failed in its task, promoting No 4 Squadron Leader to deploy another Bell piloted by Roshan Goonetileke (outgoing Chief of Defence Staff), as well as a Jet ranger piloted by Tennyson Gunawardena (retired and currently with the national carrier). In spite of the Bell 212s, the Jet Ranger as well as the Skymaster firing at the enemy boat, it managed to maintain its course towards the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. Much to the disappointment of those chasing the boat, two rockets fired by Gunawardena too, missed the target. The Jet Ranger gunship was one of the two acquired from Singapore during 1984 along with six rockets. The then SLAF Commander, Air Vice Marshal DC Perera who had been on the mission to acquire Jet Rangers was confident that the introduction of rockets would make a major difference. But, the confrontation off the Jaffna peninsula exposed the weaknesses of the SLAF strategy.

ACM Goonetileke recalled a young Daya Ratnayake––currently Army Chief of Staff, Major General Ratnayake is scheduled to succeed Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya on August 1, 2013––firing from the Bell 212 captained by him. Goonetileke joined the battle following a routine logistical movement to the army base at Point Pedro. Romesh Mendis (retired) was Goonetileke’s co-pilot. Goonetileke recollected seeing smoke from the Kankesanthurai cement factory as he turned back towards the Jaffna peninsula.

Harsha Abeywickrema had fired his T-56 assault rifle at the boat while flying low. Those on the boat fired back, causing damage to the Skymaster’s radio set. Still, the helicopters and the Skymaster pursued the boat, rapidly moving towards Indian waters, prompting Squadron Leader Jayasinghe to order them to turn back. AM Abeywickrema said that he felt really disappointed that they couldn’t intercept the boat in spite of timely detection. The SLAF Commander said: "Later we were told that one person on the boat had been killed and some five wounded due to SLAF action. But it would have been much better if we could have stopped the boat."

Mi 17s undertake night missions

The government’s failure to adopt an effective strategy to intercept clandestine boat movements across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary remained a major weakness during the first and second eelam wars. Although the government greatly enhanced its naval capacity at a later stage with the deployment of Fast Attack Craft (FAC), the enemy sustained operations across the Indo-Lanka seas.

In a recent interview with the writer, ACM Goonetileke explained the gradual expansion of helicopter operations with the No 4 Squadron elevated to a Wing. The Helicopter Wing comprised four Squadrons. ACM Goonetileke recalled the extremely difficult conditions under which the squadrons had to operate with the introduction of missiles in April 1995. Commenting on Mi 17 operations, he said that the squadron had been compelled to operate at odd times under the cover of darkness to move supplies to isolated bases. According to him, landing at Pooneryn base on the Vanni mainland was a nightmare. ACM Goonetileke said: "Silavaturai on the northwestern coast was another base which had to be supplied by air. The Mi-17 squadron played a pivotal role in supplying the bases. In fact, none of those isolated bases could have survived without the Mi 17 squadron."

The SLAF acquired AN 32s in the wake of missile attacks on two consecutive days during the month of April 1995, to strengthen the transport capability. In April, LTTE attacks destroyed two British built Avros killing almost 100 officers and men over the Jaffna peninsula. With the rapid expansion of army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni mainland, the SLAF needed additional fixed wing transport aircraft and bigger helicopters than Bell 212s, which kept the bases supplied since the army lost control of the overland road network during the 1984/1985 period. The SLAF acquired Mi 17s against the backdrop of a rapid increase in the workload. Those going on leave as well as officers and men returning to bases had no option but to wait for a night chopper ride to bases which were under siege. ACM Goonetileke acknowledged that it was a pathetic situation. The SLAF lost several Mi 17s due to missile attacks and anti-aircraft fire. The loss of aircraft had a demoralising impact on the military, which was struggling on all fronts.

Mi 24 shot down over Jaffna lagoon

Two years after the acquisition of Mi 17 transport helicopters, the SLAF took delivery of Mi 24s also from Russia, which made a significant change in the overall performance of the service. The SLAF out of desperation went to the extent of leasing some machines before those acquired were delivered. But, the LTTE countered the SLAF by firing heat seeking missiles. The LTTE also enhanced its anti-aircraft fire.

ACM Goonetileke recalled the loss of a Mi 24 helicopter during Eelam War III east of the strategic Elephant Pass base at a crucial phase of the conflict. Silvapulle, who was in command of the ‘flying tank’ died in the attack. The former SLAF commander is of the view that a heat seeking missile brought down the gunship. The ill-fated chopper and another of its type were on a mission to destroy several LTTE boats operating in the Jaffna lagoon, which the army believed posed a threat to the Elephant Pass base. Silvapulle had swung into action, having instructed the other chopper, to stay behind. The LTTE swiftly brought down the chopper killing those onboard.

However, the possibility of Silvapulle’s machine being hit by anti-aircraft fire couldn’t be ruled out. A veteran helicopter pilot said that the pair of Mi 24 deployed on that particular day was on a specific mission having being called by the army. According to him, the pair of choppers was launched from Palaly in support of the besieged Elephant Pass base. Both helicopters weren’t equipped with automatic anti-missile systems, though they had an in-built manual mechanism. Without an effective digital anti-missile system, Mi 24 squadron struggled to accomplish difficult missions. In spite of reaching an understanding with the Israeli government for the supply of anti-missile systems for helicopter and transport squadrons, the completion of the project took time. The Mi 24 squadron was perhaps the last to be equipped with the Israeli system during 2002-2003. The Israelis had to create a sophisticated system to meet the SLAF requirement, taking into account various threat factors. ACM Goonetileke said: "What they delivered to us was good though expensive. Perhaps, it was the first time Russian flying tanks were equipped with an Israeli anti-missile system. When Eelam war IV broke out in August 2006, Mi 24 squadron confidently went into battle. The fact that the Mi 24s were equipped to operate in a missile environment made a significant impact on its overall performance, hence giving a lot of confidence to the army."

ACM Goonetileke asserted that it was a perfect system.

During Eelam War IV, No 9 Mi 24 squadron played a crucial role under the command of Wing Commander Sampath Thuyacontha. The squadron carried out almost 400 missions, mostly in the Vanni mainland during the Aug 2006-May 2009 period. Although the anti-aircraft fire hit attack helicopters on about 35 occasions during the fourth phase of the conflict and in some instances made emergency landings in areas where fighting was raging, the squadron sustained offensive action. Under Thuyacontha, the squadron comprised about 35 officers and 375 men. The squadron inflicted heavy damage on the enemy with pinpoint attacks from the north-western coast to the north-eastern coast throughout the campaign. In an interview with the writer in early June 2009, Thuyacontha appreciated the excellent support given by the engineering section, particularly during emergencies.

The squadron mounted four missions to evacuate LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) teams deployed behind enemy lines deep inside both east and west of the A9. On four occasions, the army called for swift evacuation of LRRP teams and the No 09 squadron met the challenging task. Thuyacontha himself had been involved in about 60 missions during eelam war IV, including one mission to evacuate an LRRP north of Thunukai. "We flew away under LTTE fire," Thuyacontha said, adding that they were thrilled to be of assistance to the elite troops. He also recalled Mi 24 landing in the LTTE-held area (Vanni east) to evacuate LRRP personnel returning from a secret mission which claimed the life of Major. Lalith Jayasinghe.

The then Mi 24 chief said that during the army-led operations in the East, the squadron had come under a missile attack over Vakarai.

Wing Commanders, Senaka Dharmawardena and Kapila Wanigasooriya showed their class in Mi 24 operations, sometime flying alone due to the non-availability of serviceable machines. ACM Goonetileke recollected their courageous action at the height of the battle.

Squadron Leader Chandana Liyanage, chief engineer of the No 09 squadron told The Island that they managed to save a badly hit Mi 24 after it landed in the Iranamadu area in the midst of a ground battle. "Had our technicians failed to fly it again within hours, we would have been forced to destroy it", he said, adding that his section had performed exceptionally well under trying conditions. Liyanage’s section comprised six officers and 250 men.

The Squadron Leader said that they had flown the damaged chopper to the Vavuniya air base.

Out of 14 fighting machines, six had been fully committed to Eelam War IV.

The No 9 squadron established on November 23, 1995 with three choppers acquired on a wet lease basis from Ukraine, subsequently grew to 14 machines over the years.

According to Liyanage, the squadron, during Eelam War, IV fired 19,762 80 mm rockets. Among the weapons available to the squadron were the 23 mm twin barrel system and 12.7 mm Gatlin and 30 mm cannon, he said, adding that they also had 250 kg bombs. "We couldn’t have used them all together", he said. "The armaments were selected depending on the target to be taken", he said. A combination of the available weapons gave tremendous firepower. Two pairs of Mi 24s could have caused massive devastation, he said.

Wing Commander Thuycontha said that the squadron had also caused considerable damage to the Sea Tigers. He said that engaging LTTE targets close to our own troops had been an extremely difficult task. He said that there had been many heavy battles involving the squadron, but the battle for Puthukudirippu area during the early part of 2009 was undoubtedly the fiercest. "We flew many sorties day and night targeting the enemy," he said. "It was like 31st night––full of fireworks", he said, referring to the battle for Puthukudirippu, one of the major LTTE bastions.

He said that the 80 mm rockets with a three km range had had a devastating impact on the LTTE. An Mi 24 crew is manned by a Captain, co-pilot and two door gunners.

The electronic specialists of the squadron, too, under the guidance of Director Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Air Commodore Rohan Pathirage kept the avionics systems in shape, in the midst of logistical maintenance challenges.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Operating under missile threat…

*War on terror revisited : Part 158


Palaly Air Base late 1980s: (L-R) Flight Lt. Lasantha Waidyaratne, Flight Lt. Roshan Goonetileke, Pilot Officer Romesh Mendis and Pilot Officer Kapila Jayampathy. Waidyaratne is a celebrated flyer remembered for his exploits, particularly the daring landing outside the Jaffna fort during the first week of July 1990 to evacuate casualties. The SLAF conducted the operation under intense LTTE fire. Waidyaratne was a Squadron Leader at that time, while the co-pilot was Flight Lt. Avindra Mirando. The operation codenamed ‘Eagle’ was conducted by the then Northern Zonal Commander Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, who had been the instructor to many helicopter pilots, including Roger Weerasinghe and Roshan Goonetileke. AVM Goonetileke remembered Cabral, then a Flight Lt and Squadron Leader Mahesh Gunatilleke, CO of the No 4 helicopter squadron for their role in building up the squadron’s capacity.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Squadron Leader Roshan Goonetileke was at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, when SLAF Commander Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe informed him of his brother, Wing Commander (WC) Shirantha Goonetileke’s death on the morning of April 29, 1995, due to a missile attack.

It was a special Avro flight to Palaly from Ratmalana via Anuradhapura carrying 49 security forces personnel and three journalists.

WC Goonetileke was heading a team on its way to investigate the shooting down of a British built Avro on the evening of the previous day as it took off from Palaly air base. Forty security forces officers and men were killed in the attack. Among those dead was the then Northern Zonal Commander WC Roger Weerasinghe. The second Avro was targeted as it was approaching Palaly. Obviously, the SLAF would never have dispatched the second Avro if it suspected a surface-to-air missile had brought down the first one.

Outgoing Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Goonetileke said that his brother was to succeed WC Weerasinghe as the Northern Zonal Commander at a crucial stage of the conflict. "As the first Avro crashed within the security forces held area, the SLAF was in a position to examine the wreckage to determine the possible cause for the tragedy. But, the second Avro crashed beyond the area held by the security forces, hence nothing could be done. Shooting down of two Avros killing 100 officers and men on two consecutive days sent shock waves through the defence establishment. The military faced a catastrophic situation with the LTTE making a determined bid to cut off the Jaffna peninsula."

Shocking failure to take precautions

Although the Indian army as well as intelligence services had conclusive evidence that the LTTE had acquired heat seeking missiles of Soviet origin as confirmed by one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Nerupam Sen during the deployment of the Indian army here, the April 1995 attacks revealed that the country hadn’t been ready to face a possible escalation of the conflict with the introduction of missiles.

ACM Goonetileke grudgingly admitted that the failure to sustain a lifeline between Ratmalana and Palaly would have had a devastating impact on the security forces, particularly those stationed in the Jaffna peninsula. The entire security forces deployment in the peninsula would have been vulnerable for want of continuous supply by air. Those at the Elephant Pass base wouldn’t have been able to survive if the SLAF had failed to sustain air operations over the northern theatre of operations, ACM Goonetileke said.

In hindsight, the sinking of two gunboats at Trincomalee at the onset of Eelam War III and the shooting down of two Avros a week later in April 1995 was calculated to isolate the Jaffna peninsula. For want of an effective anti-missile system, the SLAF struggled to sustain both fixed wing flights to Palaly as well as helicopter operations. Since losing the Kandy-Jaffna overland Main Supply Route (MSR) beyond Vavuniya at the onset of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, the SLAF and the SLN had to meet the growing demands of the army.

ACM Goonetileke admitted that the deployment of missiles had taken the conflict to a new level overnight. "Obviously, the shocking loss of two valuable transport aircraft, the biggest in the SLAF’s inventory at that time, had a demoralising effect not only on the SLAF, but the entire country. For want of large fixed wing aircraft, we faced the daunting task of sustaining an air bridge. The SLAF inventory included four Avros, including two obtained from the then Air Ceylon."

Avros aka Hawker Siddley 748 Avro powered by two Rolls Royce engines had been in service with the SLAF since 1979 and was undoubtedly the best in its inventory. Unfortunately, the SLAF lost its latest additions to missiles. By then, the SLAF had lost both its Y12 fixed wing aircraft of Chinese origin, leaving it with several Y12s capable of carrying about 16 passengers each. ACM Goonetileke explained the extremely difficult circumstances under which the No 2 Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana as well as the No 4 helicopter squadron had to operate in the immediate aftermath of missile attacks.

ACM Goonetileke recalled meeting SLAF chief, Air Vice Marshal and Director Operations Air Commodore Jayalath Weerakkody at the headquarters soon after returning from the US course to take over the northern command. When Goonetileke had inquired from the Director Operations how he was supposed to fly from Anuradhapura, where the Northern Zonal Command was situated to Palaly, Air Commodore Weerakkody bluntly told him to motivate the pilot. The remark was made in the wake of the SLAF failing to sustain regular operations following the late April missile attacks.

Heli squadron upgraded

Air crews operated at the risk of their lives until the then government acquired expensive anti-missile systems from Israel. Appreciating the assistance provided by Israel at the hour of Sri Lanka’s need, ACM Goonetileke said that in spite of setbacks, the SLAF had sustained helicopter operations, thereby paving the way for an unprecedented expansion. With the acquisition of Mi 17s and Mi 24s in 1993 and 1995, respectively, the helicopter operations underwent major changes with the helicopter assets being grouped under a Wing. The formation comprised No 4 squadron responsible for VVIP transport, No 7 assigned Bell 212 and jet rangers, No 6 given Mi 17s and No 9 the celebrated attack squadron consisted of Mi 24s. Although a Wing comprised three squadrons, the helicopter Wing had four squadrons, namely No 4, 6, 7 and 9.

ACM Goonetileke said that the deployment of Israeli anti-missile systems had saved many SLAF assets and given the much needed confidence to air crews, though there were some unfortunate incidents. Once, the LTTE fired a heat seeking missile at a chopper as it was taking off from Muhamalai in the Jaffna peninsula in spite of it being equipped with an anti-missile system. ACM Goonetileke said: "It was routine for pilots to switch off the system as when touching down. In this particular instance, the LTTE had targeted the helicopter before the pilot activated the anti-missile system. In spite of operating under threat, air crews displayed unprecedented courage. They gained valuable experience, though some of their colleagues perished in battle. In some cases, the SLAF couldn’t even locate the wreckage of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Sometimes, the LTTE displayed aircraft wreckage in Jaffna."

Measures taken by the SLAF to protect its assets from small arms fire, 5 zero fire as well as rocket propelled grenades would not have been enough in case the enemy missile targeted a chopper. The SLAF provided floorboard armour as well as armour plated seating to helicopter gunships, but that wouldn’t have been enough to thwart a missile attack. ACM Goonetileke said that Israel had come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at a crucial stage of the battle. A delay on the part of Israel to provide Sri Lanka with the required equipment would have compelled the country to suspend operations in the northern region. Such an eventuality would have placed troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula in jeopardy. The loss of the Ratmalana-Palaly Air Bridge at the commencement of eelam war II in April 1995, five years after losing the overland MSR would have compelled the government to reconsider the presence of troops in Jaffna. The SLN wouldn’t have been able to sustain the armed forces’ Jaffna presence on its own, as it did not have the capacity to undertake such a huge task at that time.

At that time the LTTE was in the process of expanding its operations at sea with more men and material support for Sea Tigers. The navy would have found it extremely difficult to launch regular supply convoys from Trincomalee due to the strong Sea Tiger presence in the Mullaitivu seas.

An unprecedented confrontation

A chance encounter between an SLAF Bell 412 piloted by the then Flying Officer Gagan Bulathsinghala and a small group of LTTE cadres at Poovarasankulam during day time on December 18, 1986 could have caused a major catastrophe. The then cadet Sagara Kotakadeniya had been the co-pilot. The 412 acquired for VIP travel was probably deployed on the northern front due to a dearth of helicopter gunships as well as troop carriers. The SLAF stationed choppers at Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa to ensure regular supplies to isolated detachments. In fact, those going on leave as well as returning to their detachments had to depend on the SLAF. By late 1986, mine warfare had greatly restricted the overland movements not only in the Jaffna peninsula but in the Vanni mainland as well. The SLAF had an unenviable task to play. Bulathsinghala stationed at Vavuniya was returning to base following a routine mission to Talladi, Mannar, when he swung into action after seeing a truck at Poovarasankulam. After having held several important positions, including the first Commanding Officer of the Mi 17 squadron during his career, AVM Bulathsinghala now functions as the Director Air Operations. AVM Bulathsinghala related what could be considered a freak incident.

On Bulathsinghala’s orders, door gunners engaged the truck triggering a brief but fierce exchange of fire with one of those in the vehicle firing a rocket propelled grenade. AVM Bulathsinghala said: "In fact, we observed the truck while it was on the way to Talladi and the confrontation took place on our way back. During the exchange, someone in the chopper shouted that we had been hit. In spite of losing one engine, we managed to reach Vavuniya and land there safely after having declared an emergency. A quick examination of the machine revealed that a rocket propelled grenade had caused severe damage to engine Number 2 before being embedded in the other engine. The enemy had fired the grenade without removing the ‘cap’ a hence there was no explosion though the firing was accurate."

Had the enemy got an opportunity to ‘arm’ the grenade there wouldn’t have been any survivors to tell the circumstances under which the chopper exploded, the AVM said. Of course, there would have been various theories, including the possibility of a missile attack, he said, adding that would have had a demoralising impact on the armed forces during eelam war I.

AVM Bulathsinghala recollected the presence of the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa in Vavuniya when he touched down in Vavuniya under emergency conditions. The soft-spoken officer recalled another instance also in the same theatre when he flew a Bell 212 to evacuate casualties in the wake of a bloody confrontation in the Adampan area. Bulathsinghala, though being certain that the then Colonel P. A. Karunatilleke had been based at Talladi from where he launched the daring rescue mission, could not recall whether it had taken place before or after the confrontation at Poovarasankulam. Flying a single pilot on a casualty evacuation mission could be deadly, particularly during an ongoing confrontation. However, Bulathsinghala had no option but to intervene in the wake of the enemy causing damage to the other helicopter providing close air support to troops engaged in action at Adampan.

ACM Goonetileke asserted that helicopter operations had been a pivotal element in the overall security strategy throughout the three decade long conflict. The gradual evolution of helicopter operations since the acquisition of two jet ranger helicopter gunships in 1984, the service took delivery of Mi 24s 11 years later during the then Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe tenure as commander. Dubbed the flying tank, the SLAF had never deployed a similar asset against the LTTE during the conflict. But, the LTTE had experienced the lethal firepower of Mi 24s when it battled the Indian army in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Vanni mainland. India deployed Mi 24s in support of its ground forces soon after fighting erupted in the north in the wake of a disastrous heli-borne assault on the Jaffna campus on the night of Oct 10/11 1987. The SLAF deployed Mi 24s a decade later. ACM Goonetileke said that Mi 24s carried an awesome array of armaments, including forward firing rocket pods, forward firing 23 mm cannon, 37 mm weapon, Gatlin 5 zero and one 250 kg bomb depending on the requirement. According to him, the Mi 24s could have carried missiles, but the SLAF had not felt the need for it.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

No 4 Helicopter Squadron to the fore

* War on terror revisited : Part 157


by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Squadron Leader Roshan Goonetileke had been at the controls of a US built Bell 212 tasked with airlifting a contingent of army commandos to a point beyond Point Pedro in late May 1987. With him in the chopper was Oliver M. Ranasinghe (Commander of the SLAF from Feb. 17, 1994 to March 5, 1998). Those who had been flown in by Goonetileke were part of a heli-borne commando group deployed to thwart a possible attempt by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to escape, in case the army succeeded in liberating Valvettiturai and Point Pedro. Each Bell 212 had carried about ten commandos. The unprecedented deployment was within the area dominated by the LTTE, though the SLAF was able to carry out the operation stealthily.

Outgoing Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke, recollected the deployment of about 90 commandos at a location close to Point Pedro, one of the major LTTE centers during eelam war I. That particular deployment of commandos was meant to trap Prabhakaran within the liberated area during the first phase of what could be called the first combined security forces offensive conducted at brigade level.

Having undergone training at the Ground Combat and Recruit Training Centre, Diyatalawa, Goonetilek passed out as a Pilot Officer in August 1979. The eldest son of Harry G, one-time Commander of the SLAF, had been among 20 young men in the fourth intake. However, they hadn’t been able to complete flying training due to a severe shortage of avgas (aviation fuel), hence the group received flying wings in February the following year, with Goonetileke being named the best flyer of that particular course.

When Eelam War I erupted in July 1983 with the devastating attack on the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI) in Jaffna, Goonetileke, having being promoted to the rank of Flying Officer had been based at the Katunayake air base, the home of No 4 Helicopter Squadron. Although the LTTE and several other terrorist groups had been active, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in some parts in the Vanni mainland, the armed forces weren’t ready for large scale counter-insurgency operations. Goonetileke acknowledged that the No 4 Squadron comprised just a few machines, including Jet Rangers, Dauphin as well as Westland Sikorsky Dragonfly. There had been one Bell 47- G also called Bubble, acquired immediately after the launch of the first JVP-led insurrection during the first week of April 1971.

According to Goonetileke, the SLAF had deployed a Bell 47-G I in Palaly in support of combined security forces operations to thwart illicit immigration before the July 1983 riots. With the outbreak of violence, the SLAF positioned a five seater-Jet Ranger at Palaly in 1983. Goonetileke recalled flying Tissa Weeratunga (subsequently Commander of the army from Oct. 14, 1981 to Feb. 11, 1985) from Palaly to various army detachments in the Jaffna peninsula.

Goonetileke recalled with gratitude those members of the KMS who provided invaluable training and expertise and the subsequent role played by Prasanna Ratnayake in enhancing the fighting capacity of the No 4 Squadron. Ratnayake had been one of the officers who worked closely with KMS at a critical stage of the conflict. The then President JRJ’s administration had no alternative but to secure the services of KMS, which employed ex-foreign military personnel to enhance the capabilities of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Boost for No 4 squadron

The then Flight Lieutenant Goonetileke accompanied Squadron Leader Tennyson Gunawardena to Singapore to take delivery of two Jet Ranger helicopter gunships and two Bell 212s in 1984. They had undergone training in flying Bell 212s in Singapore before the SLAF took delivery of the four machines. Although the Bell 212s had been initially deployed for VIP transport, with the gradual escalation of the conflict, they too were assigned for northern operations.

In 1985, the SLAF acquired eight more Bell 212s. ACM Goonetileke said: "Of them, the SLAF acquired five initially. The remaining three joined the service subsequently. Soon after the acquisition of the first five, they were deployed to airlift a contingent of troops for an operation north-west of the Ampara-Batticaloa jungles. It was a new experience for us and the beginning of many such operations. The then Squadron Leader Ana Jayasinghe was in charge of the airlift." The late Jayasinghe was the Commanding Officer of the No 4 helicopter squadron at that time. However, the No 4 squadron had a relatively small role to play, as the army could still move within the Jaffna peninsula as well as other parts of the Vanni mainland and in the Eastern Province.

Irrevocable loss

Unfortunately, the situation gradually continued to deteriorate with the army losing ground in the Jaffna peninsula. The situation took a turn for the worse in the wake of first direct negotiations between President JRJ’s government and Tamil terrorist groups in July and August 1985 in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu. The government declared a three-month long truce on June 18, 1985 to facilitate the Thimpu talks. When fighting resumed after the abortive Thimpu initiative, all bases in the peninsula had been under siege. President JRJ’s government had to launch Operation Liberation in May 1987 to overcome the LTTE threat. ACM Goonetileke said: "With the gradual expansion of mine warfare in the Jaffna peninsula, the army couldn’t keep the overland routes among bases situated in the Jaffna peninsula open. Overnight, all bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as detachments at Elephant Pass were under siege. Casualties couldn’t be moved overland. All Jaffna bases had to depend on No 4 squadron for their supplies, casualty evacuation and even to go on leave."

ACM Goonetileke recollected helicopter crews risking their lives to supply bases in Jaffna. No 4 squadron flew continuously from the main SLAF bases in the north in spite of growing LTTE threats. Although the then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR), Lieutenant Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne made a determined bid to restore the overland road between Palaly SLAL/army bases and Kankesanthurai harbour, it couldn’t be achieved due to heavy LTTE resistance. The then second-in-command of the IGR, Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa too, echoed Goonetileke. Goonetileke asserted that lack of required manpower had been a major problem. Manpower remained a contentious issue until President Mahinda Rajapaksa authorised a massive recruitment drive at the onset of Eelam War IV, in August 2006. For want of the required number of infantry battalions, the army hadn’t been able to sustain its presence in the Jaffna peninsula in the ‘80s, without having continuous SLAF support. Bell 212s operating from Palaly ensured personnel based at isolated bases received their supplies. Goonetileke recalled flying in to Valvettiturai amidst LTTE fire. Such firing had been a regular feature during that time.

Commenting on LTTE fire power, ACM Goonetileke said that at the onset of the conflict, terrorists had been reluctant to engage helicopters. Initially they fired small arms at helicopters. ACM Goonetileke said: "Later, pilots faced 5 zero fire and then rocket propelled grenades. The introduction of long range weapons compelled pilots to fly over 2,500 feet. But then the appearance of heat seeking missiles at the beginning of eelam war III in April 1995 changed the situation completely."

ACM Goonetileke is of the opinion that the LTTE may have acquired the missiles in the late ‘80s, though the supplier didn’t provide them with the required guidance system. The soft-spoken former SLAF Commander, who had been at the helm during eelam war IV regardless of the immense threat No 4 Helicopter Squadron, performed an unenviable task in support of the overall war effort. During Operation Liberation, the Helicopter Squadron had played a vital role in casualty evacuation under extremely difficult conditions. Seriously wounded Second Lt. Shavendra Silva (Formerly General Officer Commanding of the celebrated 58 Division and Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York) of the IGR, was one of those officers evacuated from the battlefield before India intervened on behalf of the LTTE. Timely evacuation saved I GR platoon commander’s life. The chopper was piloted by Romesh Mendis.

IPKF arrives in Palaly

Goonetileke had been based at Palaly when huge transport planes carrying Indian troops began touching down at Palaly in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. He had been at China bay, Trincomalee when a ship carrying the last contingent of Indian troops left the Trincomalee port. ACM Gooetileke said: "After having lost over 1,500 peacekeepers and almost double that amount wounded, the Indian army was glad to get out of Sri Lanka. What we didn’t realize in the run-up to the Indian withdrawal was that the LTTE was going to resume large scale operations again. The fighting was about to be started with unprecedented ferocity. Fourteen months of direct talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE had been nothing but a farce and the security forces were about to face a catastrophic situation."

At the time eelam war II erupted on the night of June 10, 1990, Goonetileke had been based at China Bay as the Commanding Officer of the Maritime Squadron after having taken over the responsibility in March 1990. The Maritime Squadron came into being during 1988 with the deployment of Cessna 337 Skymaster fixed wing aircraft from No 1 Flight Training Wing and one helicopter of the No 4 squadron.

Under the leadership of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing

Commander Sunil Cabral, helicopters faced a challenging situation at the commencement of eelam war II. As all army detachments situated along the Kandy-Jaffna road beyond Vavuniya had been under siege helicopters had to constantly provide gunfire support, evacuate the wounded, induct fresh troops, and carry out reconnaissance missions. Most importantly, helicopters had to drop urgently needed supplies, including ammunition. Italian built Siai Marchettis launched from SLAF bases in the region played a significant role in saving isolated army bases. Had the light ground attack aircraft and helicopters failed, the losses suffered by the army would have been much higher. Siai Marchettis and helicopter gunships also spearheaded counter attacks to save the army base at Silavathurai on the north-western coast as well as Mullaituvu, until sea borne troops fought their way onto the besieged bases. In fact, the LTTE could have probably wiped out those who had vacated the Mankulam base in November 1990 if not for timely intervention by the SLAF. In spite of the grave risk to their lives, pilots landed in the jungles to pick up almost 100 officers and men. Those saved included Lalith Daulagala (presently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Malaysia. Daulagala, who had been the Commanding Officer at Mankulam at that time, holds the rank of Major General) and Kamal Gunaratne (Currently, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Ambassador in Brazil).

Courageous men

ACM Goonetileke said that he was proud to have had an opportunity to serve with the helicopter squadron/wing during the conflict. The unit made heavy sacrifices in the battle against terrorism with some of those who had flown choppers making the supreme sacrifices and many suffering injuries. The outgoing CDS said that among those who had served with the squadron/wing were Oliver Ranasinghe, Sudarshana Manamperi, Ana Jayasinghe, Mohan Gunaratne, Tennyson Gunawardena, Sunil Cabral, Sujith Jayasekera, Rajan Gunaratne, Roger Weerasinghe (killed in missile attack), Prasanna Ratnayake, Lasantha Waidyaratne, Premachandra, Royce Gunaratne, Priyantha Gunasinghe, Gagan Bulathsinhala, Jagath Rodrigo (killed in missile attack), Sagara Kotakadeniya, Ravi Jayasinghe, Dhammika Wijesuriya, Priyantha Weeraman (killed in enemy fire), Thilina Kaluarrachchi (killed in missile attack), Tyronne Silvapulle (killed in missile attack), Kapila Ratnasekera, Namal Fernando, Ravi Jayasinghe, Faizal Casseer (killed in blast),Thuyakontha, Ajith Dabare (killed in an accidental crash of a Jet Ranger into the Jaffna lagoon), Lasantha Kodituwakku (killed in missile attack), Sumangala Dias, Rajiv Kularatne (killed in accident), Aruna Peiris (accident), Anuradha Malalasekera (killed), Danesh Gunasekera ( killed in missile attack), Pakeer (killed by enemy fire), MJM Aaqthik (killed in missile attack), Chintaka Soysa (killed), Chandika Wijesekera (killed in missile attack), Amila Mohotti (crashed off Anuradhapura. Believed to have been hit by ground fire), Dushan Edirisinghe (crashed ), Dodammaluwa (accident), Rehan Fernando (accident), Upul Tennakoon (crashed), Buddhika De Silva (crashed off Anuradhapura. Believed to have been killed by ground fire), Seevali Munasinghe (killed in missile attack), Ranil Gurusinghe and Upul Samarakoon. ACM Goonetileke said that he may have failed to mention some of those brave and courageous men by name hence his apology (The list of names is not according to the seniority list).

Kapila Jayampathy was lucky to survive, in spite of receiving severe head injuries due to gun fire during a mission in the Eastern Province, whereas Sumangala Dias was wounded over Silavaturai.

ACM Goonetileke said that some incidents claimed the lives of two pilots. Until the acquisition of Chinese supersonic jets in the aftermath of eelam war II, Siai Marchettis and No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing had remained the main SLAF assets. Although Siai Marchettis which had been in service since 1985 were replaced by Argentine built Pucaras, the helicopter force remained a key asset.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Mandaitivu build-up

* War on terror revisited : Part 156 


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Upon completion of transferring all military equipment and troops from Milidy to Kayts Isand, SLNS Pabbatha crew at the Kayts landing point.

The then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne flew in to Mandaitivu Island as a highly demoralised army abandoned the Jaffna fort during the last week of September 1990. Addressing the troops in the island, a visibly agitated Minister Wijeratne assured the officers and men that Jaffna would be regained in five years. Minister Wijeratne reiterated his commitment to capture Jaffna, though Operation Thrivida Balaya had ended in a failure.

Thrivida Balaya was meant to swiftly liberate Jaffna town and then bring in additional battalions to exploit the situation.

The then Sub Lieutenant, H. R. P. Gunawardena was among those present on Mandaitivu Island when Minister Wijeratne flew in. Gunawardena, now a serving Captain, recollected Minister Wijeratne explaining the circumstances leading to the pullout from Jaffna fort. The then General Officer Commanding (GOC) Army’s II Division, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the then Lt. Colonels, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, Commanding Officers of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) and the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment ( I SLSR), respectively were also present. Both battalions suffered substantial losses during the abortive bid to push towards Jaffna town on September 13, 1990, after having secured the fort. Apart from those two battalions, the then Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekera’s fourth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (4 GR), too, was deployed on Mandaitivu Island. In addition to the infantry, the army also deployed the elite Special Forces for the largest operation launched against the LTTE since the outbreak of eelam war II on the night of June 10, 1990.

Captain Gunawardena said: "In hindsight, we obviously underestimated the firepower of the enemy. In spite of a one hour barrage to either side of the Jaffna fort to facilitate the lagoon borne assault, those defending the peninsula fought ferociously. The enemy had a steady supply of ammunition as well as experienced cadres on the front."

The then Sub Lieutenant Noyel Kalubowila (currently Sri Lanka’s defence attaché in New Delhi, Kalubowila holds the rank of Commodore) asserted that the LTTE had the wherewithal to engage the combined security forces in a high intensity confrontation.

Unprecedented supply run

The trying conditions under which the navy toiled for several weeks to move urgently needed supplies from the port of Trincomalee to the north in preparation of Operation Thrivida Balaya need to be examined. For want of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR) from the south to the strategic Palaly base, the army could never have built up the required strength for an offensive in the north, without the navy undertaking the unenviable task of moving supplies from the port of Trincomalee to Karaitivu Island. Although the Kankesanthurai harbour was under government control, it was also under siege by the LTTE, hence it couldn’t be used as a supply base for the army. In fact, the army couldn’t even ensure uninterrupted overland movements between Kankesanthurai harbour and Palaly air base as well as the adjoining army base.

The navy undertook a special mission ahead of Operation Thrivida Balaya to build-up the required firepower on the Islands of Karaitivu, Kayts and Mandaitivu. Although the combined security forces failed in their primary objective in liberating Jaffna town, the navy could be proud of its role. Thrivida Balaya wouldn’t have been a reality, if not for the laudable efforts of those expressly tasked with sustaining a major supply run between Trincomalee and Karainagar. It was undoubtedly the biggest supply mission undertaken by the navy up to that time.

Lanka Prasada speaks out

Lieutenant Commander, S.U. Lanka Prasada, Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha, one of the two Landing Craft of the navy is the best person to speak of the supply mission. (He retired in April 1996 with the rank of Commander).

Since the eruption of fighting during the second week of June 1990, after 14 months of peace talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE, SLNS Pabbatha and its sister ship, SLNS Kandula, commanded by the then Lieutenant Commander Lakshman Illangakoon (Illangakoon retired recently having attained the rank of Rear Admiral), had been involved in a series of operations. The army bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as at Mullaitivu and Silavaturai, too, could have fallen to the enemy if the landing craft failed in their classic role. The writer had previously discussed LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) operations undertaken in support of the army at Batticaloa (June 1990) Mullaitivu (September 1990), Silavaturai (March 1991), though the project in support of Operation Thrivida Balaya could be considered the most important mission carried out in 1990.

Commander Prasada recalled the navy being asked to ensure the speedy transportation of all military equipment, including arms, ammunition and heavy vehicles as well as troops from Trincomalee to the North. Once the navy completed the initial task, it was to undertake sea landing at Kayts to pave the way for an assault on the LTTE-held Mandaitivu Island which was to be the springboard for the lagoon borne offensive on the Jaffna peninsula. According to him, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa issued the directives at a top level conference chaired by him in Palaly. At the conclusion of the meeting, the then Commander, Prasanna Rajaratne, Command Operations Officer (COPO), told Lt. Commander Prasada of the pivotal importance of LCMs (Rajaratne retired in 1996 with the rank of Captain). During the first phase, the two LCMs were to move men and material from Trincomalee to Milady, Palaly. The second stage envisaged the swift transfer of troops from Milady to Kayts, for the launch of the operation. Commander Prasada quoted COPO Rajaratne as having told him: "As per the calculations, two LCMs together need to carry out 25-30 trips between Trincomalee and Milady (Palaly) continuously without any break in harbour, and once the operation got underway all the troops, vehicles and equipment had to be transferred again from Milady to Kayts without a break. It was an extremely difficult task, though we were confident of tackling it."

Proceeding on aft steering

However, SLNS Pabbatha hadn’t been in a position to undertake the mission due to a major problem with its steering system. For want of a some spares, the navy couldn’t fully restore the steering system, hence the deployment of the vessel posed a problem. It had been categorized as non-operational at the time Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa directed the navy to get on with its task. Commander Prasada recalled with affection the untiring efforts by those at the SLN Dockyard, spearheaded by electrical engineers to rectify the problem albeit in vain. The failure to deploy both LCMs simultaneously was going to jeopardise the entire operation. SLNS Kandula couldn’t have undertaken the mission on its own.

Lt. Commander Prasada declared his readiness to go ahead with the operation in spite of the faulty steering system.

Commander Prasada said: "I didn’t think twice before deciding on the emergency steering position at the stern of the vessel during the operation. Those officers and men attached to SLNS Pabbatha didn’t want to disappoint the Northern Commander, as well as the senior command of the navy in the north. The absence of one of the two LCMs could have had a devastating impact on the planned offensive, hence we didn’t want to be responsible for a setback."

Commenting on the ship’s crew, Commander Prasada emphasised the role played by his second-in-command, the then Lieutenant SMDK Samaraweera (presently attached to the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff, Samaraweera holds the rank of Commodore and functions as Director General Coordinating), Engine Room Artificer Ediriweera and the rest of the crew, during eelam war II. "The crew had remained unchanged for almost two years. Nothing would have been impossible with officers and men like them." In spite of extremely difficult conditions, the vessel operated entirely on the emergency system during the operation, Commander Prasada said, while recalling the operational landings and maneuvering in navigationally restricted locations such as the Karainagar channel in the night. Samaraweera had been the second-in-command of an Israeli built Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) P 454 based in Trincomalee when he was moved to SLNS Pabbatha.

Major task for two vessels

Except for a very few officers, the majority of those involved in hectic preparations hadn’t been aware of the overall objective of the mission. Many believed the army was planning to save those trapped in the Jaffna lagoon and evacuate them, whereas some felt the military wanted to reinforce its presence at the Jaffna fort. Even senior officers believed that the I GR and I SLSR were engaged in some bloody fighting outside the Jaffna fort to consolidate the army presence. But huge amount of arms, ammunition, equipment as well as vehicles brought to Trincomalee for transfer to Milady revealed that the planned operation could be something bigger than a rescue mission. The vehicles and equipment included armour-plated bulldozers, armoured personnel carriers, trucks, bowsers, dismantled bridges, armoured cars, heavy artillery pieces, artillery trucks, weapons and ammunition of varying types.

Commander Prasada acknowledged that he hadn’t been aware of what was going on, though being continuously engaged in a large scale logistical operation. Commander Prasada said: "I reserved the officers’ holiday bungalow for a few weeks and brought my wife and my four-year old son to Trincomalee for a holiday. During their six weeks stay in Trincomalee, we spent two hours together between two transits during the first 12 days and did not meet at all, during the rest of the period, until the operation was completed."

As the navy couldn’t use Kankesanthurai harbour as it was within the range of LTTE long range guns, the army had to construct a makeshift landing point in Milady within the Palaly military zone to accommodate SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula. According to Commander Prasada, the SLNS Pabbatha, in spite of having trouble with its steering mechanism, had no option but to use the new 150 m-long landing point. Before undertaking the risky mission, Lt. Commander Prasada had called for deployment of navy divers to carry out an underwater survey. The Captain of the ship went to the extent of joining the men in a Fibre Glass Dinghy (FGD), to personally monitor the survey. Although the divers declared that the path to the landing point was clear, they found two underwater rocks about five meters on either side of the landing point parallel to the vehicle deck when the vessel is berthed. In spite of the dangers, the navy went ahead with the operation, with SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula transferring a range of arms, ammunition and equipment.

Captain Prasada said: "The first landing was crucial, because once the engines were in neutral position, it was difficult to predict the sideways movements of the ship at the landing point. During the first landing, everything progressed smoothly and the ship was brought in line with the landing point between the two rocks and the ramp of the ship was lowered to the landing point to keep ship stationary, but as soon as the engines were brought to neutral position the bows of the ship started to move towards the rock on the port side, which was just about five metres away. Since there were no bollards on other permanent structure at the landing point, there was no way of securing the ship to the pier. One of the army bulldozers, which had been brought to level the landing point, was parked at the edge of the landing point and a sailor at the bow of the ship, realizing the danger took the initiative and jumped on to the pier, ran towards the bulldozer and secured the rope on it. His timely action stopped the sideways movement of the ship and firmly secured the ship to the landing point. This became the permanent ships’ securing system during the entire operation and the army kept the bulldozer parked at the edge of the pier for that purpose."

The army had a sizeable contingent ready at Milady to unload cargo. They always managed to unload a shipload in just 30 minutes.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Suicide express

War on terror revisited : Part 155


by Shamindra Ferdinando

A combined security forces operation codenamed Thrivida Balaya launched on the morning of Sept. 13, 1990 was meant to break the siege on the Dutch-built Jaffna fort. However, breaking the four-month long siege had been one of the major objectives of the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who was killed in a mine blast on Aug. 8, 1992 at Araly point, Kayts. In fact, the ultimate objective was to bring the Jaffna town under government control, after having consolidated the area surrounding the Jaffna fort.

Operation Thrivida Balaya was the first attempt to bring the Jaffna town under government control since Operation Liberation launched in May 1987 for the same purpose. The then President JRJ had to call off the offensive at India’s behest.

At the onset of Operation Thrivida Balaya, the army envisaged a possible launch of a lagoon borne assault from Mandaitivu Island to break the siege on the Jaffna fort. Although a causeway linked Mandaitivu with the Jaffna peninsula, security forces top brass favoured an assault via the lagoon using fibre glass dinghies as they realized the causeway could be heavily mined.

Kobbekaduwa at the helm

As the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Army II Division headquartered at Anuradhapura, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa was in overall command of the offensive intended to save a contingent of the Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) and over 100 police personnel trapped in the Jaffna fort before launching the First battalion of the Sinha Regiment (I SR) and the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) to clear the way to take control of Jaffna. Although the ISR and IGR had succeeded in breaking the siege on the Jaffna Fort, they failed in their primary task. The heroic efforts of the two infantry battalions have been dealt with in previous articles. It would be pertinent to examine the role played by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and the SLAF in the operation. The I SR and I GR had been commanded by Lt. Colonels, Sarath Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Having secured Kayts and Mandaitivu, the infantry planned to swiftly cross the lagoon. The army had no option but to use boats to cross the lagoon after a withdrawing enemy group destroyed the Sapaththu palama between Mandaitivu and Jaffna fort.

Maj Gen Kobbekaduwa turned to the SLN for assistance. SLN headquarters directed Commander North, the then Captain A. H. M. Razeek (retired in March 2002 as Chief of Staff with the rank of Rear Admiral) to intervene. But, the then Commander Prasanna Rajaratne, who had been the Command Operations Officer was given the responsibility of executing the operation (Rajaratne retired in 1996 with the rank of Captain). The then Northern Zonal SLAF Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, a veteran helicopter pilot had been in charge of air operations (Cabral retired in Dec 1993 having served as the Northern Zonal Commander during the April 2, 1990-Dec 14, 1993 period).

Lieutenant Commander MRU Siriwardana had been the Officer in Charge of the Mandaitivu Navy detachment (Rear Admiral Siriwardana recently retired after the having served the Navy as Chief of Staff).

At the onset of the operation in the early hours of Sept. 13, 1990, the SLN had 28 fiber glass dinghies (FGDs) to move troops across the Jaffna lagoon.

Sub Lt. survives five zero fire

The SLN contingent initially assigned for the operation comprised five officers and 60 sailors. Some of the officers assigned for the operation were wounded during the lagoon crossings. Of them, the then Sub Lieutenant, Noyel Kalubowila was lucky to escape without injury. He is currently Sri Lanka’s Defence Advisor in New Delhi.} Kalubowila holds the rank of Commodore. During the last phase of eelam war IV, the then Captain Kalubowila spearheaded Fast Attack Craft (FAC) operations). But some of his colleagues were not so lucky. The then Sub Lieutenant USR Perera (now Commandant at the Naval Maritime Academy, Trincomalee) was critically wounded due to five zero fire. The other officers assigned for the operation were the then Sub Lieutenant HRP Gunawardena (Gunawardana, in charge of SLN deployment at Akuregoda now holds the rank of Captain), Sub Lieutenant WDEM Sudarshana (Provost Marshal at SLN headquarters. Sudarshana holds the rank of Commodore), the then Sub Lieutenant Pujitha Vithana (Vithana is the Commanding Officer at Parakrama Navy base in Colombo. Vithana holds the rank of Captain), Sub Lieutenant ASL Gamage (Base Commander, Welisara. Now holds the rank of Captain) and Midshipmen Weththamuni (retired with the rank of Lieutenant).

Obstacles placed in the Jaffna lagoon during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Jaffna (July 1987-March 1990) impeded naval operations. Although the IPKF had never envisaged such security measures at the time of its deployment here in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord, it took tangible action to face any eventuality soon after fighting erupted on the night of Oct. 10, 1987.

A herculean task

The navy at that time lacked experience in major amphibious assaults using small boats under high intensity fire in spite of being conversant with LCM (Landing Craft Medium) operations. ‘SLNS Pabbatha’ and ‘SLNS Kandula’, commanded by Lt. Commanders, S.U. Lanka Prasada and Lakshman Illangakoon carried out successful landings close to the Mullaitivu army base on Sept. 1, 1990 in support of another rescue effort.

Obviously, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had to delay Operation Thrivida Balaya until the army could stabilize the situation at Mullaitivu. The LTTE almost succeeded in overrunning Mullaitivu before sea borne troops fought their way in to the isolated Mullaitivu base manned by about 60 personnel.

At the time, Operation Thrivida Balaya got underway, the LTTE had the upper hand in the northern theatre of operations comprising the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Vanni mainland. Having fought its way to the edge of Mandaitivu Island, the army turned to the navy for swift crossing of the lagoon. The then Sub Lieutenant USR Perera had been in charge of the naval detachment at Talaimannar at the time he was directed to join the navy contingent tasked with the herculean task. Perera was given the new task in the wake of those under his command at Talaimannar repulsing a three-hour long LTTE attack on the detachment at the onset of eelam war II. At that time, the Talaimannar detachment had been placed under the Elara base, situated at Karanaigar on Karaitivu Island. The LTTE had been fairly confident of overrunning the navy detachment at Talamannar, in the wake of a spate of successful attacks in the Mannar district.

Sub. Lieutenant Noel Kalubowila had been second-in-command of P 241 built by the Colombo Dockyard attached to the Elara base.

Commodores Perera and Kalubowila recollected the circumstances under which the navy had to ferry troops from Mandaitivu to Jaffna fort. LTTE resistance had been extremely heavy with attacks on boats crossing the lagoon from several directions. The LTTE also confronted the navy in the lagoon.

In a bid to divert the attention of the LTTE, the navy deployed several vessels south of Gurunagar in apparent preparation of a large scale sea landing. The deployment was meant to mislead the LTTE as to the point of landing. Regardless of the diversionary tactics, the LTTE had a strong deployment of assets, to face any eventuality.

Sub Lieutenant Sudarshana had been attached to the Chinese built gunboat ‘Sooraya’, based in Trincomalee at the time he was picked to join the contingent assigned for the operation dubbed the ‘Suicide Express’, whereas Sub Lieutenant Gunawardana was based at Elara.

SLAF loses Siai Marchetti

In spite of intense enemy fire, the navy managed to sustain the operation for two weeks, until the army decided to call off Thrivida Balaya due to mounting losses on the Jaffna front. Commodore Perera recollected a Siai Marchetti SF 260 light attack aircraft crashing into the Jaffna lagoon in the afternoon after being hit by LTTE fire. Perera had been in the lagoon when the plane hit the water. Commodore Kalubowila too, had been in the lagoon. Kalubowila said: "I was in a boat a little distance away from the aircraft. The pilot engaged LTTE targets from a distance. He was hit when he dived while firing at targets. Later, we found that the LTTE had shot down the aircraft with a 50 gun tied to a tree."

Flying Officer Priyadarshana Abeyweeragunawardana was killed in the attack. Posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, Abeyweeragunawardana had been on his first mission during a high intensity battle. Having joined the SLAF on May 18, 1986, Abeyweeragunawardana had been promoted to the rank of Flying Officer on May 18, 1987.

The LTTE International Secretariat issued a statement claiming that the plane was brought down by a shoulder fired SAM-7 heat seeking missile. The SLAF denied the LTTE claim at that time. Both Commodores Perera and Kalubowila asserted that anti-aircraft fire had brought down the aircraft.

The then Lt. Ranjith Walisundara of the I SR had observed the pilot losing control after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. (Walisundera holds the rank of Colonel and is currently stationed at the Panagoda cantonment. The Siai Marchetti had been taking LTTE targets in support of the I SR battling for the control of the Telecommunication building at the time of the tragedy. Walisundara felt the stricken aircraft could crash in an LTTE-held area).

Wing Commander Cabral and Captain Rajaratne had been on Mandaitivu Island at the time of the incident. WC Cabral told the writer that the loss of the aircraft could be due to enemy action or the pilot being disoriented at a crucial point. Cabral said that his assessment was based on discussions he had with the then Squadron Leader, Shirantha Goonetileke, an experienced Siai Marchetti pilot (Wing Commander Goonetileke was killed along with about 50 security forces officers and men when the LTTE shot down an Avro approaching the Palaly airfield in late April 1995 at the onset of eelam war III. Goonetileke, the brother of outgoing Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, was posthumously promoted to the rank of Group Captain). Goonetileke had been in charge of the attack aircraft assigned for the operation. The Italian-built Siai Marchettis entered service in 1985. They remained the main offensive weapon until the acquisition of Chinese jets in 1991.

The then Captain Udaya Perera (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi), asserted that the loss of the Siai Marchetti had resulted in an irrevocable setback to the ground offensive. Perera’s company had been engaged in a bloody battle with the LTTE for control of Pannai police quarters and adjoining buildings.

Captain Gunawardana recalled the Siai Marchetti crashing into the lagoon between his boat and one carrying the then Lt. Perera. According to him, a series of rehearsals in the run-up to the operation strengthened the capacity to go ahead with the challenging task. Gunawardana recollected Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa joining navy officers tasked with leading the operation in a night air reconnaissance mission.

Amidst the battle on land, the navy continued to ferry men and material across the lagoon.

Special mission goes awry

While returning from a special mission on the third day of the operation, after having moved rations from Mandaitivu for those in the Jaffna fort, Sub Lieutenant Perera was ravaged by a 5 zero round. The then Major Fazly Laphir had been on Perera’s boat at the time (Laphir was killed during an abortive rescue mission at Mullaitivu in July 1996). Amidst an intense fire fight, the navy managed to get a bleeding Perera to Mandaitivu Island before being evacuated by air. Altogether, Perera’s last mission had involved five boats. Perera had taken one boat while Kalubowila was in another. Three other boats were loaded with rations. They had braved heavy LTTE fire to reach the Jaffna peninsula, but were not lucky on the return journey.

The then Lieutenant Amarasinghe, currently Eastern Commander was in charge of RFD (rubber floating dinghies), while Lieutenant Chanaka Rupasingha was in charge of the diving team. Rupasingha retired with the rank of Captain.

Midshipman Wettimuni and Petty Officer R.S. Perera, too, was involved in the action.

Against tremendous odds, the navy ferried over 800 officers and men from Mandaitivu to the Jaffna peninsula. Due to heavy enemy resistance, the navy had to carry out the transfer at night, throughout the operation, though daytime missions were undertaken on the first day.

Commodore Kalubowila recalled how a sailor under his command had died in a mortar attack on the Jaffna Fort in the early hours of September 16. Unable to return to Mandaitivu due to heavy LTTE fire, Kalubowila slept under a tree. Veteran Jayavi Fernando, too, was there (Fernando, who was at the forefront of many battles and distinguished himself as Special Forces Commander, quit the service over a disagreement with the government during President CBK’s tenure).

Kalubowila and Gunawardana were among those officers involved with ‘Suicide Express’ until the army called off the offensive.

Sub. Lieutenant Perera was among six personnel awarded gallantry medals on recommendations of Captain Rajaratne.

The military top brass decided to call off Operation Thrivida Balaya on September 22, 1990. According to the then Sub Lieutenant Noyel Kalubowila, the decision was announced at a meeting chaired by Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa on Mandaitivu Island. Having consulted the officers present, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa directed the navy to make arrangements for the evacuation of troops from the Jaffna fort. The following day, Sub Lieutenant Kalubowila and three navy divers examined a possible route for withdrawal and the navy opted for shallow waters to help soldiers to walk through waters to reach the causeway. Kalubowila recalled positioning navy personnel along the selected route in the waters from Mandaitivu to the Jaffna fort to facilitate the night movement of army personnel. Kalubowila said that the army had left the Jaffna fort through its seaside gate which was opened after many years. He recalled speaking with Special Forces veteran Gamini Hettiarachchi before the opening of the gate and then leading the way across the waters with the then Captain Boniface Perera (currently, Wanni Security Forces Commander. Perera holds the rank of Major General).

Army loses hero of Kokilai battle

* War on terror revisited : Part 154


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) lost Captain Shantha Wijesinghe of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) in late May 1987 just hours after troops had secured the nerve centre of LTTE operations at Valvettiturai on the Vadamaratchchy coast.

The success at Valvettiturai was the highlight of Operation Liberation launched on the morning of May 26, 1987 to clear the Vadamaratchchy division in the Jaffna administrative district. The operation to bring Valvettiturai under SLA control was launched by the IGR under the then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s command.

Some believed that the LTTE had sniped Wijesinghe when he climbed onto a parapet wall to survey the area still under enemy control. The killing took place as the SLA was preparing to advance on Point Pedro after having evicted the LTTE from Valvettiturai. Others asserted that Wijesinghe had been hit by a 40 mm grenade round fired by a colleague.

Uncertainty over incident

One-time Army Commander, General Gerry de Silva in his memoirs titled, A Most Nobel Profession: Memories That Linger, has claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity. De Silva, who was based in the Jaffna peninsula during the capture of Valvettiturai, is of the view that Captain Wijesinghe was targeted with a 40 mm grenade round while rushing to assist troops whom he believed were under attack by the LTTE. According to de Silva, Wijesinghe had intervened in a firefight between troops attached to then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s Brigade and Colonel Wimalaratne’s Brigade. De Silva has faulted the troops of the southern flank for the tragedy due to exceeding what he calls boundaries of exploitation.

The then Second Lieutenant Shantha Dissanayake was with Captain Wijesinghe at the time the latter succumbed to his injuries caused by either mortar fire or a grenade attack. Dissanayake, now in charge of the 14 Division deployed in the Western Province, Ratnapura and the Southern Province excluding Hambantota, shed light on the incident. Brigadier Dissanayake said: "There shouldn’t be any ambiguity as regards Captain Wijesinghe’s death. As a Second Lieutenant I fought under him. He commanded the Alpha Company. We reached Valvettiturai after crossing the Thondamannar lagoon and capturing an LTTE mortar factory. Having secured Valvettiturai in the night, the Alpha Company Commander wanted to survey the area before the launch of the next phase of the offensive."

On Captain Wijesinghe’s orders, Second Lieutenant Dissanayake accompanied the Alpha Company Commander in a reconnaissance mission. The two officers were accompanied by five soldiers. Dissanayake said: "In the absence of the sound of gunfire, we were relaxed. Although we realized the possibility of enemy pockets within the area under our control, we were confident of facing a surprise attack. Suddenly, a mortar exploded close to us. It could be even a 40 mm grenade round. Captain Wijesinghe immediately sat on the ground. He was holding his chest. I looked around to see the soldiers accompanying us. They had escaped without a scratch. I too, survived the blast without injury. It was just one round. There was no subsequent fire. However, the blast could have wiped out all of us as we were walking together."

Captain Wijesinghe had suffered a shrapnel wound in his chest. Had he had his flak jacket buttoned up he would have survived. Unfortunately, in spite of having body armour, Captain Wijesinghe wasn’t properly wearing it. Second Lieutenant Dissanayake with the help of those men at the scene of the blast carried the bleeding officer to a large shop which was situated perhaps about 100 metres away. Captain Wijesinghe had muttered the name of his girlfriend.

Captain Wijesinghe succumbed to his injuries and was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major.

Brigadier Dissanayake said that as there hadn’t been any other firing he couldn’t even think of the direction from which the attack had come.

Hero of Kokilai battle

Army headquarters posted the IGR to Weli Oya in February 1985 in the wake of the LTTE stepping up operations in the region. In accordance with the overall security plan for Weli Oya, the IGR established new detachments at Kokilai and Kokkuthuduwai among other places vulnerable to LTTE attacks. The then Lt. Colonel Janaka Perera was the senior officer in charge of Weli Oya, though he was not in the sector when the LTTE made an attempt to overrun the newly established detachment at Kokilai.

The then President JRJ’s government was under heavy pressure to secure the Weli Oya region following the Kent and Dollar farms massacres. The LTTE killed about 140 Sinhalese during raids on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1984. At the time of the attack there were two platoons at Kokilai, though one platoon commander was away. The then Second Lieutenant Shantha Wijesinghe was the detachment commander at Kokilai, home to two platoons of IGR troops. In spite of being heavily outnumbered, those under Second Lieutenant Wijesinghe’s command fought courageously. The total strength at the isolated detachment was about 60 personnel. Much to the delight of the SLA, the LTTE called off the attack after losing about 15 men. Although the attackers had been armed with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and 40 mm grenade launchers, they couldn’t overwhelm the defenders. Had the LTTE succeeded, Kokilai would have been the first SLA detachment to either surrender or be overrun in the eelam conflict. The destruction of Kokilai would have had a catastrophic impact on the SLA.

The LTTE had the benefit of Indian military instructors and a range of new weapons. The LTTE introduced the Rocket Propelled Grenade, 40 mm Grenade Launcher as well as the 60 mm mortar. The SLA was yet to embark on the large scale Pakistani military training project at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. The Saliyapura project got underway in early 1986.

Wijesinghe earned the respect as well as the admiration of both men and officers. The then Lieutenant Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, the first Commanding officer of the IGR, had been among those admiring officers. Wimalaratne recognized Wijesinghe as one of those gifted warriors who could make a difference on the battlefield. Due to Wimalaratne’s intervention, Wijesinghe had received command of Alpha Company of IGR in time for Operation Liberation.

In an interview with the writer some time ago, General Gerry de Silva said that Wijesinghe had been a major asset. His loss deprived the SLA of a brilliant field commander. In his memoirs, General Gerry de Silva recalled war veteran Wimalaratne quoting Lieutenant Wijesinghe as having told him to shut up when he inquired about the ongoing battle at Kokilai. Wijesinghe had told Wimalaratne to leave him alone until he could repulse the attack. At the time of the attack, Wimalaratne had been away at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura.

Wimalaratne on Wijesinghe’s heroism

The following citation forwarded by Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne recommending the highest gallantry award, Parama Weera Vibhushanaya was evidence of the respect the IGR Commanding Officer had for his subordinate: "Major Wijesinghe had a record of being one of the bravest officers in the army since his extraordinary defeat of the terrorist attack on the Kokilai army camp. He was in the forefront of almost every major action undertaken by the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) and IGR. His actions are almost legendary. His tragic death was a great loss to our army. Major Wijesinghe displayed gallantry, courage and conspicuous bravery of an exceptional order throughout the campaign, in the face of the enemy. He acted instinctively and voluntarily with no regard to the risk of life and personal security, with the aim of safeguarding the lives of his comrades and facilitating the operational aim of his force."

Wijesinghe was awarded the Weera Wickrema Vibhushanaya.

Ex-Rajarata Rifles man to the fore

Wijesinghe, too, was with the Rajarata Rifles (RR) for several months before Army headquarters amalgamated the RR officers and men with the Vijayaba Infantry (VR) on Oct. 14, 1983 to form IGR, which became one of the foremost infantry fighting units.

Then Second Lieutenant Udaya Perera (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi. Udaya Perera holds the rank of Major General) recollected the circumstances under which his colleague, Second Lieutenant Wijesinghe had repulsed the attack. Major General Perera said that it had been the first major attack on a base manned by two platoons. Wijesinghe had been in command of the detachment as the other platoon commander was on leave. The Kokilai detachment consisted of two school buildings and was one of those isolated bases which were under severe threat at that time. The detachments at Pulmoddai and Sinhapura was the closest to Kokilai, whereas the IGR headquarters was at Saliyapura. Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne had been based at Saliyapura.

Major General Perera said: "Wijesinghe had heard some noise when he went out to the toilet situated a little distance away from the main buildings. Having quickly realised there was an LTTE build-up, Wijesinghe had returned to the base and alerted those under his command. Although the enemy had a range of weapons, including 40 mm grenade launchers, those under Wijesinghe’s command fought back. It was pertinent to mention that the Kokilai detachment had to face the attack on its own or face the consequences."

The SLA couldn’t have sent in reinforcements to Kokilai even if they had wanted to save those under siege at an isolated base. The LTTE would have had strong units to intercept, in case the SLA dared to move in from Pulmoddai and Sinhapura. But, the LTTE would have quite rightly asserted that the Pulmoddai and Sinhapura couldn’t have sent reinforcements under any circumstances as they too were vulnerable. Those at Kokilai had realised there wouldn’t be any help from outside and they were on their own. In early 1985, the SLAF lacked the wherewithal to intervene.

Major General Perera said: "On the following day, two platoons from IGR moved overland from Saliyapura to Kokilai. I was in command of one platoon and the other was under Second Lieutenant Jagath Alwis. We relieved those who had been there and were successful in scoring a significant victory over the LTTE." He pointed out that the LTTE had used 40 mm grenade launchers during the Kokilai battle, believing they could play a decisive role in that operation. The war veteran mentioned several occasions when the LTTE had introduced new armaments into battle, whereas the security forces struggled to adopt counter measures. The situation had remained unchanged until eelam war IV, the Gajaba veteran said, adding that the failure on the part of the establishment to adopt preemptive measures had contributed to the LTTE’s success.

Shantha Wijesinghe, who hailed from Balangoda, had been one of those who excelled in war. It wouldn’t have been an easy task to earn the respect of Wimalaratne, who brought a set of fine young men together to transform the amalgamated Rajarata Rifles and Vijayaba Infantry into one of the finest fighting formations.

Both Udaya Perera and Lalith Daulagala served at Kokilai from March to Sept. 1985. The period covered a ceasefire declared by the government and the LTTE to facilitate two rounds of talks in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, under the auspices of India. In spite of the ceasefire coming into operation on June 17, 1985, violence continued unabated. The LTTE massacred 150 men, women and children on May 14, 1985 in raid near Sri Maha Bodhi. The LTTE declared that the attack was in retaliation for a massacre by the army of some 70 civilians in the Jaffna peninsula.

Monday, 8 July 2013

More on Thrivida Balaya

*War on terror revisited : Part 153

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.