ERASING THE EELAM VICTORY Part 14 B
Posted on March 19th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Revised 24.3.20

This essay, which is a continuation of the previous essay, gives other reasons for the bungling of Eelam War II and III. One reason was the attitude of the army high command in Colombo.

The army high command of this period   was not interested in winning Eelam war II or III. They did not know how to fight it either. The high ups in the army HQ in Colombo did not know what was happening in the operations areas   of the war, said Kamal Gunaratne. Those who knew did not care.

There was a casual attitude at the time, he said. Soldiers were getting killed and wounded but the authorities still wanted us to fight.  When peace talks collapsed, they wanted us to commence military operations though we were short of infantry soldiers.

Army HQ had held an inquiry into Mankulam, because this defeat had created a huge uproar in the country.  Kamal was summoned to Colombo and asked, to his surprise, ‘why did you abandon camp.’ Colombo did not seem to know that an instruction had been given to do so. Joint Operations Commander Cyril Ranatunga, had   observed, during the inquiry, that if 40,000 rounds of ammunition had been used, ‘You must have killed at least 10,000’.  Kamal was surprised that a senior officer would make such a statement.  Kamal was told that there would be a high powered inquiry into Mankulam. This did not happen.

The staff officers of the army, who dealt with administrative, operational and logistical matters, were chosen not for knowledge of battle but for knowledge of English. Officers with a wealth of experience were overlooked if they lacked a command of stylish English. English was the medium of correspondence in the army at higher levels.

Promotions in the army were made on seniority, not merit or experience, said Kamal Gunaratne. Leadership also was given on seniority. This was practiced right down the line. Officers were appointed to command postings, based on their seniority, over more experienced, capable, soldiers. ‘If you were senior in service, you would be appointed a Division Commander, whether you were capable or not.’    Battlefield achievements and fighting capabilities were not taken into consideration. We lost battles because those who were capable of commanding the soldiers were not given the opportunity to do so.

Unsuitable appointments were made. A brigadier from the Engineering Corp was appointed to command the elite 53 division during Jaya Sikurui.  He was walking around with a broad smile and was playing games like ‘tak tik tuk’ with officers while his troops were engaged in battle, reported Kamal Gunaratne. The CO of 10VGW had gone on leave the day prior to the Mandativu attack o f 1995, saying he had a family emergency. His   deputy died in the attack the next day.

It was clearly evident In July 1996 that LTTE was planning to attack Mullaitivu. The day before the attack the Brigade commander and senior CO of 9SLSR left camp. According to regulations if the Brigade commander is away then all COs of all the battalions should be on duty. Also the most senior officers should be on site. In this case, the entire responsibility fell on the only other senior officer, Major Aliba.

 Major Aliba was originally from the General Service Corp which handled logistics. He lacked the required experience in actual fighting which an infantry officer would have. The troops were left to fight the terrorist onslaught on their own. The Brigade Commander and CO were ordered back but left as soon as they could on the helicopter which brought back reinforcements. Then they bragged about themselves in Colombo, said Kamal Gunaratne.

During Jayasikurui, the forces were informed that a battery of six pounder guns was about to be attacked and order was sent to the CO of an infantry battalion to immediately go to its rescue and secure it. But the CO just marked time without going forward. The artillery officer repeatedly informed that an attack was imminent but since the cowardly CO was not going forward he was asked to destroy the guns and retreat. Later they found that guns were intact, the Gun Position Officer had been so anxious to run away that he did not wait to even destroy the guns.

While making sure that the army would not win Jaya Sikurui, government news said that army had advanced   destroying terrorist camps   and that LTTE was having heavy losses.  This was false, said Kamal Gunaratne. Government gave much publicity to Operation Rivi Bala, but Rivi Bala had not inflicted any harm on the LTTE.

The HQ had an odd attitude to secret operations. We need to maintain secrecy about our identities and what we do, announced the  Navy Special Boat Squadron, the Navy’s equivalent of commandos in the Army. We have remained in obscurity over the years. After saying this,   the squadron had a demonstration in Trincomalee for the media in 2004. The squadron showed how they attacked a land based target. They said that they had blasted bridges and causeways in Jaya Sikurui.

 The army was given a novel task to carry out in the north. In 1994 army was asked to carry out an offensive operation south of Palaly and conduct the general election in the same area at the same time.  The plan was for army to launch an offensive operation  from Thelippalai area advance about one kilometer, and leave the ballot boxes out for a few hours  then return with the ballot boxes.  This was to show that elections were held in the north while ensuring that no votes would be cast. 

There were appalling battle defeats and withdrawals, resulting in huge loss of manpower. Over 1200 soldiers were killed at Mullaitivu (1996) and many more wounded and missing. This was one of the most painful and humiliating defeats, said Kamal Gunaratne.  

In Mutur, the navy managed to land a contingent of commandos close to Brown Rock point, east of Muttur in the early hours of June 14, 1990. Having allowed the commandos to come ashore, the LTTE ambushed them. Commandos lost over 40 men in this single ambush.

At Mankulam, the HQ had plenty of warning. HQ was told many times that LTTE was getting ready to attack. There was an increase in their radio transmissions, there was continuous training of cadres at night and LTTE   senior leaders had come to Mankulam.   LTTE was also seen building a huge structure for launching Pasilan mortars. The army HQ sent a measly reinforcement of 500 soldiers, reported Kamal Gunaratne.    Six helicopters did leave Vavuniya for Mankulam, with ammunition, defenses, and stores but only the first could land.  LTTE   attacked and killed the gunner.

Once the attack started, the forces at Mankulam begged for ammunition, over and over again. They also said fresh troops were needed by nightfall.  Vanni HQ did not respond.   Then when it was obvious that Mankulam was going to fall to the LTTE, the   Vanni HQ  ordered  the forces  to abandon Mankulam and withdraw into the jungles, saying that Vanni HQ  had no way of helping.  This was a shock to the army. It was a painful withdrawal into the jungle. Kamal Gunaratne described this withdrawal at length in his book ‘Road to Nandikadal’

The order given to abandon Mankulam and withdraw into the jungle was a totally unexpected order, he said. Leaving the camp unnoticed was difficult. It had to be done secretly. Also they had to destroy mortars that had helped them a lot. They were sad to do so. All left camp safely, with the more experienced soldier going last. They did not eat for a long while.

It was difficult to walk in the jungle in the dark carrying the wounded on stretchers, said Kamal Gunaratne. The wounds would get scratched by thorny bushes and their agonized cries were painful to hear. The group also had to make sure that the rear did not get lost. They were surrounded on 3 sides by LTTE. The helicopter rescue had to be aborted as LTTE had got at the network and were mocking them. They were finally rescued by a Bell helicopter where the pilot bravely swooped down and took them in.

At Elephant Pass, it was obvious that LTTE was preparing for a massive assault. Palaly instructed that the forces should take Tamilamadam, to expand the area and increase security. HQ promised to send fresh troops to guard the new territory, but did not do so. 90 soldiers died.  Then came the order ‘withdraw’. They should not give false promises like this, said Kamal.

Helicopters containing soldiers had been sent, but when the helicopters attempted to land, they were pummeled with a new LTTE weapon, a sort of 23mm cannon.  The helicopters gave up and returned to base. There were more than 10,000 troops and only 5,000 LTTE at Elephant Pass, but army was a demoralized force by that time, said Kamal Gunaratne. 

 LTTE attacked Pooneryn in 1993. The army fought back and Pooneryn was saved. Those who were wounded also fought. But the damage was on a scale never before experienced, said Kamal.  8 officers, 225 other ranks were killed in action. 17 officers, 544 other ranks, were wounded and 302 missing in action. Army lost equipment worth over LKR 50 million.  A large stockpile of arms   fell in to the hands of   the LTTE.  They got small arms, machine guns, RPGs, mortars, and the MBT (Main battle tank).  Thecaptured MBT was used against the army till the end of the war.

Elephant pass camp was a large base which included almost all the buildings, the salterns and school.    Paranthan and Kilinochchi were thereafter linked to Elephant Pass.  Satellite camps were established at Vettilaikerny, Kattikadu and Pullaveli and a safe supply route by sea and land was ensured.  The Kilinochchi –Elephant Pass- Vettilaikerny base became a sprawling complex that housed the entire     54 division. It was considered impregnable. 

But this complex fell easily to the LTTE.  To win Kilinochchi, LTTE first took over the wells at Iyakachchi, which was the army’s source of drinking water. Due to this, the troops died a sad death from dehydration due to the extreme heat and lack of water.  At Elephant Pass too,   there was a lack of drinking water and many died due to acute dehydration. The camp had a machine for desalination of water but it had broken down and was not repaired.   The Chandrika government was unfazed, observed Kamal Gunaratne  

Army high command was slow to obtain the modern weapons the army needed. It was only after LTTE deployed shoulder fired heat seeking missiles that the government bought anti missile equipment. Army was initially using obsolete 76 mm and 85 pounder guns and 25 pounders.   122 mm howitzers were obtained later from China.

When they did make purchases, the government bought the wrong items.   In 1998, they bought a hovercraft at a staggering cost of Rs. 250 million. It was never used in war. The government wanted to get rid of it  in 2007, but was unable to find a buyer.

 Battle tanks were usually bought from Russia but for Jaya Sikurui they were bought from China. The tanks did not match the Russian guns the army was using.  When the tanks were operated, the guns got destroyed. The army purchased unsuitable armored personnel carriers, with thin weak body. They were called ice cream vans.

The MiG combat aircraft the Air Force had bought in 2000 were not operational by 2003 as their guarantees had expired and they needed to be overhauled. The government bought Chinese F7 fighter   jets when they needed   fighter ground aircraft. The F7 is an interceptor, not suited to fight a ground battle.

Fighter pilots were handicapped in identifying targets. The government hadn’t felt the need to acquire jets, dedicated helicopter gunships or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to facilitate a complicated operation. LTTE simply went underground and emerged cheering when the planes had gone.

We did not use the correct tactics in Eelam War II and III   said Kamal Gunaratne. Our main objective should have been to weaken and destroy LTTE and not capture ground.   Jaya Sikurui for instance, was capturing    areas which had no LTTE. We were taking useless ground.

In a war the army is expected to conduct ‘deep operations’ going deep inside the enemy territory. Our ‘deep ops’ were pathetic or non existence. Instead the army went in for ‘limited operations’ where they advanced a few kilometers and retreated carrying their wounded and dead and then boasted in the news about their success.

The government   set up military camps without planning in advance for reinforcements, replenishment of ammunition and evacuation well in advance said Kamal Gunaratne. There must be plans for reinforcements and they must also be rehearsed so that when they go, they know exactly what to do. Instead, there were no plans in place for contingencies and there was no high level of preparedness. We did not keep a battalion in reserve for an emergency but deployed all battalions on ground. There was a lack of reserve troops.

Battle plans were calculated to lead to defeat. There was no secrecy in the battle plans either.  The decision to move northward on A9 was clearly visible to LTTE.  In Jaya Sikurui our weaknesses were observed by LTTE, as they got ready for a major attack. In Jaffna, LTTE had had ample time to study and prepared a counterattack on Jaffna Fort.

We over extended ourselves, said Kamal Gunaratne. army failed to secure the newly captured areas. It was imprudent to encircle jungles, because we were unable to secure them. Our weak defense lines in Jaya Sikurui and large expanses of empty jungle were easy for LTTE to penetrate.

 We always used large numbers of troops in our offensive while LTTE used their sparingly. Also our FDLs (Forward Defence Line) were weak. The FDL at Nagar Kovil after the ceasefire was a very weak one with dilapidated sandbags, and deteriorating palmyrah logs. The authorities had ignored requests to improve the fortifications. The army presence at Nagar kovil FDL was a volunteer battalion which had been there a long time. They had no drinking water and unsanitary toilets.

The army lacked basic information. At Mullaitivu the rescue mission did not have enough maps, proper radio communication or artillery support when it took off to rescue those at Mullaitivu. There was misuse of equipment, as well, due to ignorance, and possibly the lack of suitable weapons.  The navy had used heavy machine guns which had an effective range of 3000 meters, to cover short ranges of around 300 meters. 

The army lacked intelligence on LTTE activities,   its strength and its fortifications.   We should have taken more serious note of the LTTE capability such as Sea Tigers and the ability to infiltrate from the beach end for reconnaissance, and ability to hide in scrub jungles within our camp premises. 

In a war, armies were expected to set up signboards   indicating gun positions, tanks and so on. They did so using military symbols, not words. During Jaya Sikurui, the army had erected large name boards, using language instead of military symbols. These boards were erected   where they could be easily seen by the enemy, indicating locations such as division, brigade, battalion, artillery, battery, squadron etc.  When the army objected, they were told the order had come from the top.

In Eelam wars II and III there was no plans to increase the fighting strength of the Army and also no continuous flow of weapons and ammunition for the Army.  The army had an acute shortage of the troops it needed to conduct operations and hold ground.

The soldiers who were there, were not equipped and trained adequately to conduct offensive operations. We did not train troops for night time combat. We attacked only  in broad day light. In Jaya Sikurui  the army would control the main road during the day and retreat to camp at sunset leaving the road free for LTTE to dominate at night.  

In Jaya Sikurui the three forces, army, navy, air force did not work together. There was no co-ordination between them. Each service worked under their own chain of command, so instructions had to go upwards within each force.  Navy and air force  refused to take orders from division  commanders unless ratified by their own HQ.

There was a serious  erosion of discipline and  morale, in the army, because of the failed campaigns and defeats in Eelam War II and III . In Jaya Sikurui  team spirit  vanished,   division commanders would not  look or  even speak to each other. On one occasion,  there were heated word between commanders of 55 and 56 divisions.

There was very low morale among the soldiers and desertions were extremely high. Morale of army  fell after Kokavil, said Kamal Gunaratne  for they knew that Mankulam was next. LTTE  had already constructed bunkers around Mankulam.  The  situation  at Mullaitivu camp  was dismal, morale was low and they had no proper food or leave, said Kamal Gunaratne .  Usually at the risk of their lives they would try to drag back the dead and wounded after a battle. Now they did not, he said.

There was a deliberate withdrawal of services which benefited the soldiers. The Vanni Sevaya radio broadcast  was providing a very useful service to the police and security forces. During the ceasefire, the Ranil Wickremesinghe government ordered the service closed.  SLBC  was directed to use the facilities to set up a Tamil commercial service.

The army retreated in great disorder  in Jaya Sikurui and the scale and speed surprised even the LTTE. Only one officer was successful in halting the retreat in Jaya Sikurui .Col Roshan Silva  of Gajaba  regiment held an FDL across Omanthai with his  air mobile brigade, This FDL remained  in the Wanni till Eelam war IV. Roshan was never recognized  for this.

There were other successes too. In 1995, there was a surprising win at   Weli oya under Janaka Perera.  The camps at Kokkuthuduwai, Kokilai, Jayasinha pura, Janakapura and Parakramapura were all under heavy attack. But they withstood it.  Brig Janaka Perera   emerged victorious at these battles. As a  result, there was renewed  faith in the army’s ability to win the war. This was surprise to the army  as well. They thought by then that the war was already lost, said Kamal Gunaratne .(Continued)

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