ERASING THE EELAM VICTORY Part 13 C
Posted on January 22nd, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

There were many instances where small military units fought the LTTE courageously, despite all odds. Here is one example.

This essay presents an edited version of A personal account by the CO 1 GW of events in Batticaloa during the siege in 1990” by Brigadier Hiran N. Halangoda (Retd) of Gemunu Watch published in Sunday Island 27.12. 2015. ( http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=137686)

  This is a personal account by the CO 1 GW of events in Batticaloa during the siege in 1990 and the courageous performance of duties by troops under his command, amidst unprecedented odds faced by them is recounted here for posterity,  said Halangoda.

I dedicate this article to all those valiant officers and men of the First Battalion the Gemunu Watch (1 GW) who served under my command from December 1, 1988 to January 31, 1991. They served with me loyally, with dedication and commitment in Hambantota, Moneragala, Ampara and Batticaloa [BCO] districts against all odds.

With the departure of the IPKF at the end of March 1990, the LTTE gradually took control of the North-East, which had been vacated under the terms of the Indo Sri Lanka  Agreement 1987 or occupied these lands illegally. They positioned their cadres in vital areas that enabled them to exert pressure on the Police who maintained law and order and on the Army who were very thinly deployed in the Northeast to counter them. In the Eastern province just one Infantry Battalion each was deployed in each of the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

In Batticaloa district, five Army detachments were established at Wellawadi, Kiran, Kalawanchikudy, Kalmunai and Kallady. Of these detachments, Kalmunai [in the Ampara district] and Kalawanchikudy detachments belonged to 6th Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI), which was raised in late May 1990.

The Infantry Battalions were handicapped as they had to transfer one Rifle Company and composite platoons to the newly raised Infantry Battalions in late May 1990. The troops had to re-orientate themselves from a limited engagement environment in the South to an all out COIN [Counter Insurgency] Operations environment in the North and East.

1 GW was re-deployed in Batticaloa district on May 18, 1990. By then the situation was very tense in the Batticaloa district. The LTTE obstructed the movement of the security forces, provoked the Army and interfered with the Police in maintaining law and order. There were around 30-40 outposts with bunkers manned by 150-300 LTTE cadres in the BCO town and vicinity.

A large bunker covered the approach into the Batticaloa town under the clock tower across the lagoon facing the Police station. LTTE permission was required to visit most areas in town, where a concentration of more than 30 LTTE outposts had come up. They reserved the use of certain garages and service stations exclusively for themselves.

This situation was brought to the notice of the military higher command and the civilian bureaucracy negotiating peace with the LTTE at that time. But the Security Forces were explicitly told to co-operate with the LTTE to bring about a peaceful settlement to the conflict as the country couldn’t afford another battle with the LTTE.

The President and the civilian bureaucracy did not know the ground situation despite negotiating for peace with the LTTE, whilst the military higher command did not put across the difficulties faced by the security forces on the ground  as they wished to continue in office.

On June 11, 1990, hostilities started in Batticaloa with the LTTE taking the Security Forces by complete surprise. They took over Batticaloa Police Station with its armoury, communications, gold and money which had been kept for safe custody.

I was the Commanding Officer of 1 GW and the Coordinating Officer of the Batticaloa district, located at the Kallady Camp (approximately 2 kms away from the Batticaloa Police Station). I had been in Ampara immediately before taking up duties in Batticaloa. The Police did not inform me about the developing situation. The owner of “L H Bakery”, one of my school friends informed me by telephone at 0620 hrs, on June 11, 1990, that all the Sinhalese in the town were ordered by the LTTE to vacate within five minutes.

At around 7.30 am, I was told a vehicle sent out from Kalawanchikudy Army camp (6 SLLI troops) had been ambushed at Kalmunai and all ten soldiers in the vehicle had been killed. Kalawanchikudy Army Camp, (to whom these soldiers belonged), had only 48 troops excluding the three officers. There was no way of moving out to Kalmunai to recover the dead of the patrol as the main road was blocked by the LTTE.

The LTTE had taken up a position by then around the Kalawanchikudy Camp and the Police Station opposite it. Having surrounded the camp and the Police Station they demanded their surrender, and also announced that they will not be harmed and will be handed over to the Sri Lankan Government at the Batticaloa airfield. Ten Sinhalese policemen escaped the deadly fate of the other policemen by jumping into to the adjoining Army Camp with their weapons and ammunition.

Captain Sarath Embowa of the 6 SLLI was the Officer Commanding the Kalawanchikudy Camp. He decided to fight the terrorists. The LTTE who were in touch with the SLAF Batticaloa (Air Force) base informed them that if the Police surrendered without resistance, they would hand them over to the Government. The Police, who were not prepared mentally and physically, and had no confidence to fight a ruthless guerrilla organization without military (air and artillery) support, agreed to surrender to the LTTE. By this time the LTTE had surrounded most of the 13 Police Stations in Batticaloa and Ampara Districts and had captured the Policemen who surrendered with their weapons without a fight.

All of them were taken to selected locations close by, asked to dig their own graves and brutally murdered in cold blood. The tragic fate of 677 Sinhalese and Muslim policemen who surrendered should be a constant and unforgettable reminder to all concerned of the LTTE atrocities committed in this conflict. Local and international Human Rights activists did not care to investigate this cold blooded tragedy

At 3.30 pm on June 11, Army Commander Lt. Gen. H. Wanasinghe, the Inspector General of Police, a senior officer from the Air Force and Director Operations of the Army, Brig. Vijaya Wimalaratne  arrived at Batticaloa Air Force base by air. The Senior Superintendent of Police, an ASP (living within Kallady camp) and I were heli-lifted from Kallady camp to join them for an urgent conference.

We had our meeting and returned to Kallady camp. The possibilities of reinforcing the Police stations were discussed. At that moment there was no way of reinforcing the police stations as the Army too were very thin on ground. The army camps too were in great danger due to them being under strength and, deployed far apart lacking mutual support. No artillery was available in Batticaloa district and the only available Bell 212 helicopter was not fitted with guns. (To fit the guns it would have taken between one to two hours).

An extremely dangerous situation existed. Our lack of preparation and abject appeasement of the LTTE could have led to the total loss of the East. On returning to camp from the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Batticaloa around 6.00 pm on June 11, 1990, the LTTE contacted me at Kallady and told me to inform Kiran (Kumburumulla) camp to surrender in five minutes and if it was disregarded, they were going to launch an all out attack on the camp. The LTTE had started their attack on Kiran and Wellawadi at 4.30 pm. In order to buy more time and avoid being found fault with for starting the war, I said that I would inform them of instructions after contacting the President.

I then contacted the 2 Division Commander Major General J. R. S. De Silva at Anuradhapura. He insisted that the Army should fight to the last man and the last round and that the entire country was depending on our performance in Batticaloa. I requested him for immediate assistance to evacuate the camps at Wellawadi and Kalmunai since they had only depleted platoons in each of them.

Meanwhile, all the four camps in the Batticaloa district and Kalmunai Camp in the Ampara district were under prolonged and severe attack. Wellawadi camp was established to provide protection to the Sinhala fishing community (about 200 fishermen, women and children) who had been living there for generations. 2/Lt RMCC Ranaweera   and 22 men fought for more than 36 hours supported by two 81mm Mortars (from Kiran detachment) against more than 300-400 LTTE cadres throughout the night with 90 rounds of ammunition (first line scale).

The troops were able to protect the fisher families and evacuate them by sea with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy, in a gunboat commanded by Cdr Thisara Samarasinghe [Admiral and ex Navy Commander] on June 12, 1990. It must be mentioned that there was not a single civilian conflict related casualty in the entire evacuation at Wellawadi except for a mother and a child who drowned while boarding the naval craft.

The troops were provided ammunition from Kallady, which was delivered by helicopter, before they withdrew in a Navy gunboat. This took them to Trincomalee and safety. They suffered only one minor injury to a soldier due to LTTE fire, during the entire 36 hour crisis.

The situation at Kalmunai too was similar; the platoon under 2/Lt KASH Karunatillake SLLI was under tremendous pressure as intense fire was brought down on them by the LTTE. However on June 13, 1990 the Navy under the command of Cdr. Daya Dharmapriya [retired Rear Admiral] in his gunboat and support vessels, evacuated them after an agonizing battle whilst being supported by artillery fire from the Malwatte Army camp. However, the SLLI suffered several casualties as the evacuation was done whilst in contact with the LTTE.

The LTTE unleashed salvos of mortar, small arms and 84 mm rocket launcher fire at the Kiran Camp. LTTE  also  used chlorine gas against the troops in Kiran on June 13, 1990.The Officer Commanding the camp, Captain Sumith Perera GW and his second in command Lieutenant Chinthaka Munasinghe GW (both officers were killed in action in subsequent operations conducted against the LTTE in Jaffna in 1995 and Mannar in 1991, respectively) with their men valiantly held the camp against all odds. The only surviving officer was 2/Lt Suminda Jayasundera GW who was a Young Officer (YO) with less than one year’s service with the Battalion at the time.

It must also be mentioned that Pte Dharmasiri K.A., the radio operator of ‘A’ Company 1 GW maintained communication with Battalion Headquarters (HQ) at Kallady and rear HQ at Diyatalawa throughout the entire period during day and night. When the antenna was damaged due to intense mortar fire, he fixed it at night by climbing a Palmyra tree. On the night of June 11, the Air Force helicopter fitted with machine guns became airborne to provide close air support.

 It should be noted here that the services provided by Flying Officer Thilana Kaluarachchi. (This officer was later killed when a missile hit the MI 24 he was flying in over Kokilai Lagoon in 1997).He relentlessly and gallantly flew the entire night and continued every night until the detachment was relieved. He gave much needed air support, which kept the LTTE at bay and was a tremendous morale booster to the besieged troops. The ground to air communications was closely coordinated through Cpl. Gamini GW of 1 GW stationed at the SLAF base at BCO, during this period.

On June 16, 1990, during the battle, a cease-fire was requested by the LTTE through the Bishop of Batticaloa for both sides could attend to their respective casualties. However, the LTTE leaders refused to disarm and stay put in the SLAF base in Batticaloa, but wanted to accompany the Bishop to Kiran with me or my representative. I refused to their terms which were clearly to take us hostage and over-power the detachment by holding us at gunpoint.

The LTTE stooped to such cunning low levels and proved their perfidy, deceit and treachery throughout the conflict. They continued to bombard the troops psychologically by making announcements through a loud hailer asking the troops repeatedly to give up and surrender without fighting a losing battle. Troops returned fire and fought steadfastly and resolutely, to deny the LTTE any opportunity to break into the camp.

Troops in all camps lived on liquids, raw papaws, Palmyra fruits and the odd animal that strayed during the siege. They were collected during the night or when there was a lull in the fighting. Since the well, which supplied fresh water to the Kiran camp was exposed to LTTE fire, troops tunneled into it at night to get drinking water for their survival. Troops in Kiran survived for seven nights in trenches, clad only in one uniform throughout the regular attacks by the LTTE.

Only one soldier was killed in action throughout the eight days of fighting. However, one officer and 60 soldiers of the 3×79 personnel in the camp suffered injuries and evacuated when reinforcements arrived. The alertness of the sentry at night enabled him to wipe out an entire group of nine LTTE guerrillas crawling into the camp by cutting the perimeter wire fence.

A rescue operation was finally launched under the command of GOC 1 Division Major General Denzil L. Kobbekaduwa. Before the rescue, he spoke to me over the radio on June 15, 1990. The voice of the GOC was a great morale-booster to me as we were all desperate about our survival. Until then the response from the military higher command was negative at best and very little encouragement was given to continue fighting.

The reinforcement operations were launched from the North of Batticaloa to relieve the Kiran Camp. 3 Brigade Group was commanded by Brigadier A. M. U. Seneviratne [retired Major General and Chief of Staff]. Fourth Battalion the Gemunu Watch and the Fifth Battalion the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment had to fight their way and reached Batticaloa by June 19. Similarly, 1 Brigade Group commanded by Brigadier A. K. Jayawardhana

[retired Major General and a one time Secretary of Defence]

with First Sinha Regiment and First Special Forces Regiment fought their way from Ampara across country through Wellaveli to relieve Kalwanchikudy detachment in the South of Batticaloa. Both Brigade groups reached their objectives on June 18 despite heavy resistance from the LTTE.

The success of the 1 GW troops in the defence of their camps in the Batticaloa district was due to their courage, regimental espirit de corps, comradeship, belief in their leadership and their steely determination to survive amidst the death and wounding of their colleagues, along with the ensuing confusion and chaos of battle.

The effort taken to send the remains (cremated at night with the help of Palmyra branches amidst LTTE small arms fire) of the dead soldier [Sergeant Karunadasa E.A.D.] at Kiran to his next-of-kin was appreciated by his parents and was a great morale booster to the rest of the troops.

Let the courageous stand taken by all those valiant and gallant men of Gemunu in BCO in June 1990 in general, and especially Kiran in particular, be a defining and bold moment and tradition for all those who have served, continue to serve and are to serve in the Gemunu Watch to follow. This tradition must be upheld with pride.[1] ( continued)


[1] http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=137686)

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