ERASING THE EELAM VICTORY Part 14 E
Posted on March 30th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

In Eelam War IV the Sri Lanka army fought using military strategy. There was an operations room, where battle strategies were planned. In Eelam war II and III, the government had fought only on one front. In Eelam War IV, the army opened three fronts simultaneously, Eastern, Northern, and Wanni. 

The army made sure, in its battle plans, that there were enough soldiers for the three fronts.  The army had the numbers needed. For the Northern front alone, the numbers were increased from 27,000 to 34,000 with two reserve divisions.

The army started the attack in the Eastern Province and cleared out the LTTE who were there. This was always the preferred plan and it was suggested to President Chandrika as well. Starting north of Trincomalee, the army steadily went down to Batticaloa and Ampara, capturing Kanjikudichchiaru,   Tharavikulam, and Thoppigala.  The Eastern Province fell to the army in July 2007.

Sri Lanka had in 1983, created a Special Task Force (STF) of handpicked police officers who received paramilitary training. This is the only paramilitary organization in the world with police powers. They operated in teams of eight or less and could fight in a variety of situations such as built-up areas, and close quarter battle. STF was used for fighting in the eastern theatre. STF destroyed 24 LTTE bases in Kanchikudichchi Aru jungle while the army went into Thoppigala. This combined campaign continued till Thoppigala fell in 2007. In 2009, STF went after the LTTE in Yala.

While the eastern war was going on, the army hopefully opened up a northern front at Muhamalai. This was expected to come barreling down past Elephant Pass into the Wanni. Instead, this campaign got stalled at Muhamalai itself. LTTE opposition was too strong. Most of the LTTE reserve cadres were also at Muhamalai. The northern front was then instructed to keep the LTTE tied up in the North till the Wanni was taken. LTTE was kept occupied with short attacks.

Since the Northern front was not active, it was decided in March 2007, to open up the Wanni front. For Wanni seven new fighting formations were created,   the 57  Division (Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias), the 59 (Brig. Nandana Udawatte),  Task Force I (Brig. Shavendra Silva), Task Force II (Brig. Rohana Bandara), Task Force III (Brig. Sathyapriya Liyanage), Task Force IV (Col.Nishantha Wanniarachchi) and Task Force VIII (Col. G.V. Ravipriya) . They advanced in different directions, covering the Northern Province,  in an ‘unprecedented multi-pronged Vanni offensive’.

For the final push, these formations were joined by the longstanding 53 Division (Brig. Kamal Gunaratne) and 55 Division (Brig. Prasanna Silva) deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The 53rd division, stuck for so long at Muhamalai, used its mechanized infantry to reach Elephant Pass at a speed faster than the LTTE had anticipated. The Vanni offensive ended successfully in May 2009.  It brought the Eelam war to an end

Eelam war IV had certain praiseworthy qualities. Previously we fought as battalions, brigades, divisions.   In Eelam War IV we fought as one team, said Kamal Gunaratne  It was a combined effort.  ‘People were not worried about taking credit,’ he said. 

Efficiency was given priority over seniority in the promotion and capable officers were appointed to new leadership positions regardless of their seniority and rank.      Junior leaders, including lesser ranks, were given the opportunity of taking charge and issuing commands and showing initiative. That produced results.  

The army had complete operational freedom to launch the offensive, using the best men for each task. In Eelam war II and III whenever we faced a major attack we blindly sent in commando and SF troops and it ended in disaster.  In Eelam War IV, we sent in the correct team. We sent infantry for close-range combat, commando for deep ops, having done reconnaissance first.

It was necessary for war, to have reinforcements ready, ‘to fill as they fall’. This was not done in Eelam wars II and III, but for Eelam War IV we were able to get more than the required number of fresh recruits to replace and reinforce the troops, said Kamal Gunaratne.

The army also innovated. It created small-group operations. Small groups penetrated LTTE defenses in the jungles, gathered information, then scattered in four directions and returned separately.  Once strategic enemy positions and camps were identified, infantry and commandos went in.  They sprang deadly surprise attacks on enemy patrols too.  Using the information provided, the air force engaged in highly accurate and successful airstrikes. LTTE had no counter-strategies to match the small team ops and the Special Forces.

It was necessary to hold territory after taking it. Non-army service personnel was sent, after training, to hold territory taken by the army,  leaving the army free to go forward.   The air force was sent into the jungles, the navy to the coastal belt along Trincomalee.   STF took over the A9 road from Omanthai.  Civil Defence Force was sent to several places including Mavil Aru and also to Nanthikadal lagoon to take over as the troops moved ahead.

Eelam War IV battles are forgotten today. Only the glorious victory is remembered. That is unwise. The battles must be kept in mind because they indicate some very important matters.

Firstly, there is the contrasting position of the LTTE and the army. The LTTE was fighting on home ground, they knew the terrain intimately, and were acclimatized to the environment. The Sri Lanka army did not live in the North. They came mainly from Panagoda or Anuradhapura. They were airlifted or shipped into battle, like outsiders, to face the LTTE who were resident there. They did not know the northern terrain and probably had not rehearsed specifically for these battles.

Some battles, such as the shootout in the Nanthikadal lagoon, could not, in any case, have prepared for. Fighting in muddy brackish waters of mangrove is a nightmare, said Kamal Gunaratne. A flight of birds could betray us. One must be specially trained to fight in a mangrove. It calls for a different set of tactics. We did not have such training.

Secondly, during the Ceasefire, the LTTE had plenty of time to dig in. They mined all potential battlefield areas,  such as  Pallai.  They also built huge bunds and trenches. They had smuggled in an enormous amount of arms and buried them. They constructed two FDLs at the northern boundary at Muhamalai.

The FDL at Muhamalai had been decided in such a way that the advantage lay with the LTTE and not the government. The government FDL was very vulnerable. It ran from Kilaly and Muhamalai to Nagarkovil. Nagarkovil was separated from the mainland FDL by the sea.

LTTE FDL was on higher ground. LTTE could observe and monitor our movements and were able to accurately target our troops, with artillery, mortar and sniper fire. We were constantly attacked, said Kamal Gunaratne. LTTE had two FDL with protective bunkers.

When it came to battle, LTTE again had the advantage The ground between government FDL and   LTTE FDL was also higher than the rest. It was an area that took most of our troops, said Kamal Gunaratne.  During the Ceasefire, LTTE had mined the area extensively, introducing also mines to blow up tanks. Muhamalai was heavily mined. Our soldiers lost the greatest number of legs at Muhamalai. over 500 soldiers lost legs there, said Kamal Gunaratne.  LTTE  had also dug trenches and large pits and camouflaged them so that troops and vehicles would fall into them.

LTTE FDL was at the head of the narrow 12 km wide neck which linked Jaffna to the mainland. This space was unsuitable for tanks and it was difficult to maneuver infantry and tanks in the space. The army had lost a large number of tanks to anti-tank fire.  It was very arduous, dangerous and fearful to advance in this area, said Kamal Gunaratne, also suicidal.  LTTE could cover the army easily. LTTE had battle-ready reserve fighters at Pallai, Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Kilinochchi, to defend the Northern FDL.

LTTE did not hesitate to hit the government FDL whenever possible. LTTE  hit the FDL bunker close to Kilali lagoon. They sent accurate, deadly fire on to the bunker, said Kamal Gunaratne with deep feeling.  In another instance, LTTE had allowed them to get into a cul-de-sac and then attacked them on three sides.  On a third occasion, the well-entrenched LTTE destroyed or damaged six armored vehicles, four T-55 tanks, and two BMPs, and killed 130 SLA soldiers.

At Muhamalai, the casualties were very high. Usually, an operation would end with around 200 or so dead and injured. In Muhamalai, the total was 440 officers and soldiers dead, 1986 injured, of which 280 were critically injured.

Kamal Gunaratne says the Muhamalai battle (2008) was the most decisive battle in the entire history of the Eelam war. LTTE tried its best to win and if they had succeeded, it would have been the birth of Eelam.  But this defining battle has not received the prominence it should have.

Muhamalai saw two separate battle failures that deserve mention. Both were significant. After taking the first LTTE FDL at Muhamalai, HQ ordered the division to capture the 2nd FDL without giving the army time to recover. Kamal Gunaratne protested.

 A large number of officers and soldiers of 53 and 55 have died or been injured.  The fighting capability has been reduced and reinforcements were needed. We should have trained the next lot and integrated them before the next move. The army needed more time to plan and organize. This was not given.  Kamal Gunaratne said he was personally against the operation.

He had pointed out that there were thousands of minefields in front of the  2nd FDL. Also, LTTE had deadly accurate, well-positioned artillery and mortar as well as high powered machine guns. These would fully cover our path of advance. There was also the threat of ground assault by LTTE on our by then decimated troops. In addition, there was also the lack of any cover.  HQ was told of the dangers but they said to somehow manage.

The attack was a failure for the army and a triumph for the LTTE. Several tanks had lost direction and instead of stopping at the 1st LTTE FDL had gone on to the 2nd FDL, where the LTTE was waiting. The two platoons coming behind had blindly followed. They all died. This was a prize blunder.

There was a second disaster at Muhamalai.  The 53 Division had suddenly attacked the LTTE FDL without informing others. They had planned this secretly, keeping the others, including Kamal Gunaratne in the dark. But they could not hold the FDL and they retreated in disorder. Casualties were far worse than expected, said Kamal Gunaratne. One officer and 87 soldiers dead, 11 officers and 303 others injured. Analysts wanted to know, was this done deliberately and was it sabotage.

 The commander of the 53 Division was transferred, not dismissed. He left silently, dejected by the devastation he had caused.   Kamal Gunaratne was asked to take over as commander. Kamal Gunaratne had not wanted a ceremonial take over since LTTE was spying on them. But Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka arrived unexpectedly. He had heard the news and came to bless the commander and the campaign.

Eelam war IV took four years. We had to fight for every inch of land we captured, said Kamal Gunaratne. There were fierce battles and the army lost 8500 and 29,000 were injured. but LTTE could not stop the forward march of the army.

 In addition to the battles at Muhamalai, there were battles in the Wanni. there was a fierce battle at Odusuddan. LTTE was at its peak at Odusuddan said Kamal Gunaratne. Odusuddan was in a strategic position on the Mankulam- Mullaitivu highway.

There was also a protracted battle at Pudukuduirippu. Pudukuduirippu was on the Paranthan Mullaitivu highway. It took    2 ½ months to break the LTTE stranglehold on Pudukuduirippu. The battle of Pudukuduirippu was the most brutal of all battle I have ever commanded, saidKamalGunaratne. There were serious reversals during the battle. The army nearly lost, then the battle reversed and Pudukuduirippu fell. Pudukuduirippu was a valuable victory.  LTTE had held it for over two decades. Pudukuduirippu was won at a tremendous cost, many died.

LTTE had buried large caches of weapons, ammunition, and food in the jungles.  they could continue the war for 6 months more at least said Kamal Gunaratne. There were hundreds of weapons of every model. The number of machine guns, various types of weapons, and explosives was quite frightening. 

Thought we had achieved success after success, LTTE had the uncanny habit to hit back at the very end in a most unexpected manner, said Kamal Gunaratne.   One stunt that astounded the army was the suicide truck at the Pudukuduirippu battle.

 A  large truck fully covered with steel plates, came barreling toward our FDL at a terrific speed. Inside the truck were LTTE fighters, shooting in all directions through holes cut out in the steel plating. Nothing could stop the vehicle. Then, fortunately, some battle tanks belonging to the army drove in from the opposite direction, realized what was happening and shot at the truck. The truck burst into flames and crashed into a ditch.

The truck had two steel plates welded together, covering the entire vehicle, with gaps packed with sand. It had been designed to withstand RPG7s. Small holes had been bored to facilitate shooting and there was an opening for the driver to see where he was going. This truck was targeting the headquarters, where all the senior officers had congregated. It was a gigantic attempt to destroy the command Headquarters, and the commander and thus bring the war to a halt.

LTTE fought to the finish. At the last stage of the war, they sent 30-40 boats at lightning speed across the lagoon to the western bank. LTTE fighters scrambled out and the boats turned around and left. 7 suicide boats came as they left,  also at high speed, crashed into the bunker at different places, and blew up. The earlier boats returned with more fighters. There was a brutal fight between the two sides.

In the meantime, Charles  Anthony, son of Prabhakaran, was trying to escape. He had got on the A35  with 11 others. They were killed there.  He was accompanied by well-built bodyguards, carrying state of the art weapons.  Army took in a large haul of weapons and bundles of money. Charles Anthony had Rs 2.3 million with him.

 700 LTTE  were gathered together at Vellamullivaikal, at the final stage of the Eelam Iv war. They had divided into three groups. The first group stayed back at Vellamullivaikal as a decoy. They walked up to the army saying they were civilians, but when the army fired a weapon,  the second group hiding in the background opened fire.

The third group containing Prabhakaran and the top leaders, including and Soosai, Pottu Amman had entered the Nanthikadal lagoon, planning to escape to Mullaitivu jungles through the bunker gaps created by suicide boats, Instead, this group somehow got pushed into the mangroves in the north of the lagoon.

Kamal Gunaratne had stationed soldiers in the mangroves. They noticed movement. At the same time  an informant had said Soosai was hiding there.  So troops went in. There was ferocious fighting. The army killed 52 persons.  This included all the leaders, who, it appears,  had grouped together there. They all died. We also found 150 bodies of sturdily built terrorists. They were LTTE’s best fighters, well built, muscular, said Kamal Gunaratne.

Prabha was in uniform, with his dog tag saying 001” and also his Identity card, intact in his upper shirt pocket. The identity card he been  Issued on 1.1.2007. These items were probably there to show his US rescuers that he was really and truly, their very own Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The army had killed all the  LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran without even knowing that they were doing so.  They were delighted when they found out.   About   5000  soldiers had gathered to see Prabha’s body brought in, cheering loudly.. Solders bringing the body in were also cheering Body was still warm when I saw it said Kamal Gunaratne. The much-criticized  Sinhala triumphalism did not begin with Kiribat and raban  on the streets of Colombo. It started the moment the soldiers heard that Prabhakaran was killed.

Formal identification of Prabhakaran’s body was needed. Prabhakaran’s body was identified by Karuna. Later Prabhakaran was undressed on the order of the Army  Commander and shown bare-bodied. Army commander had ordered this, saying only the head of a standing army was entitled to wear a uniform.   The army cremated Prabhakaran as soon as possible.

On 18 May 2009, The 58 Division of the Sri Lankan Army led by Brig. Shavendra Silva, 59 Division led by Brig. Prasanna de Silva and the 53 Division commanded by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne,  defeated the LTTE  at  Vellamullivaikal, a small town on the A35 road, near Nanthikadal lagoon,    and brought Eelam War IV to an end. Television news showed the two teams coming in from opposite sides and greeting each other. On 20 May 2009  Sri Lanka army ceremonially silenced its guns.

Since the LTTE  leadership was dead, on 19 May 2009 Kumaran Pathmanathan,  head of international relations, stated on the LTTE  website that “This battle has reached its bitter end. We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer”

LTTE would have been hoping to drag on the battle, till a truce was declared. Then with the help of foreign countries, the island would be divided into two, with the coastline going to Tamils and the Sinhalese left landlocked.  (Continued)

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