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Sri Lanka – The Last Phase in the Eelam War IV

An Amphibious War

The sky arches above our heads, a sea of brilliant blue merging into an expanse of shining sand. On one side, the waters of the lagoon ripple gently on the sand; on the other, rolling breakers crash against the shore. A blazing haze of blue and yellow, it is a deceptively beautiful picture.

Eelam War IV was fought across several theatres, in the dense jungles of Mullaitivu and Madhu, in the rolling paddy lands of Mannar’s rice bowl, amidst the savannah and scrub of Vanni and across the dry, arid areas of the northern peninsula. What is not known is that it was also fought across a series of beaches and lagoons. Stretching from Chundikulam to Pudumattalan, this bleached and burning landscape of sand and water represents one of the most unusual theatres of the whole conflict.

This theatre was entrusted to the 55th Division under the command of Brigadier Prasanna Silva. Alongside the 53rd Division under Major General Kamal Gunaratne, the 55th had been part of the force which had broken out of the Jaffna Peninsula. Whereas the 53rd Division attacked across the land, the 55th hugged the coast. This area had always been sparsely populated, inhabited by a straggle of fishing villages, which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had converted into a string of Sea Tiger bases. The objective was to deprive the guerrillas of their access to the sea and the division’s task was to work its way down the shore. It was tasked to fight on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the sea and a series of lagoons.

This campaign was part of the multi-pronged strategy adopted by Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, against the LTTE. In previous wars, the Sri Lanka armed forces had attacked only from one direction. This time, several operations were launched simultaneously on various fronts, something the Tigers never thought the army was capable of. While the 55th would work its way down the coast, two other divisions, the 53rd and 58th Divisions, advanced eastwards, across the land towards Puthukudiyiruppu, the last town on the coast. Once they had taken, their objective was to link up with the 55th. Meanwhile, another infantry division, the 59th, advanced through the jungles of Mullaitivu and Oddusuddan, stopping on the edge of the Nanthi Kadal Lagoon.

Pinning the guerrillas down on many fronts, this strategy denied them the breathing space they needed to gather their resources and build up their reserves. Not only was the LTTE committed everywhere, it was always on the defensive. In the past, the Tigers had always been able to rest and regroup and they had used this opportunity to counter attack. This time, however, the momentum was never allowed to slacken. Executed with a clear vision, an overriding sense of purpose and a driving will, this approach served to drive the guerrillas back, pinning them to a tiny strip of land, with the sea at their backs.

Operating in this environment required a very different way of thinking and fighting. The Tamil Tigers had cleared the area of its fishing population; so the land was completely empty. In one way, this made the business of fighting much simpler. There were no buildings, no fields, and no people to complicate the picture. There was also scarcely any cover, just long stretches of burning sand which grew hotter and hotter as the day wore on. Dotted here and there were a few stumpy palmyrahs and taller, more slender coconut palms. Further away towards the land were patches of scrub and bushes. These clumps of vegetation, however, were full of thorny thickets and bristled with sharp and vicious needles.

A test of physical endurance, thirst was a constant factor. So was exhaustion. Everybody drank more than twice his ration of water every day, depending on what he had to do. There were no wells and every drop of drinking water had to be brought up from the rear. When the vehicles could go no further, it was carried up to the line. The sand was soft and your feet sunk in with every step. Every step became an effort, requiring more and more energy. The heavier the load, the more effort it took and the more tiring it became. Sweat was always pouring down your face and the helmet became a weight, pressing down on your head, your body armour a stifling, suffocating prison. You were constantly tired.

Fighting in this terrain required a much greater level of endurance and fitness. I wondered how one could maintain concentration and sharpness of mind when all one could think of was fatigue, thirst and growing exhaustion. It required a different mentality and a very different kind of soldier . I was told that in the jungle you can move much faster. It was also far less draining, for there was much more shade and you were not exposed to the same degree of heat.2 Fighting on the sand was ideally suited to the troops from Jaffna, who had by now become accustomed to living and fighting in conditions which were very similar. However, a soldier who had fought in a different theatre could not immediately be expected to function as well and took at least a month to acclimatise.

It was an infantry theatre, involving sand and water. Tracked and transport vehicles tended to plough into the sand and were constantly getting stuck. Even the tractors and their trolleys could only travel along lines of tin sheets laid out across the sand. These sheets had been cut from tin water barrels and used to create an impromptu road over the dunes.

Water was the other feature. The whole campaign was conducted across one body of water after another. It was not only a military factor, but a logistic and engineering challenge.

Here, the Tigers found themselves fighting a desperate, delaying war. Their defences were constructed so that they could be held by a minimum number of men. Commanded by Soosai, the leader of the Sea Tigers, the LTTE strategy was to slow down the army’s advance and make it pay a tremendous human cost. Putting their faith in the environment and their defences, they had calculated that anyone advancing on such a narrow front could do so only at the risk of enormous casualties.

Across this narrow strip of land, from the seashore to the edge of the lagoon, the Tigers constructed a series of embankments guarded by wide ditches and swathes of mines. For the most part, however, it was a killing ground, with little cover and even less shade. The ditches were between 8-10 feet deep, while the bunds were at least 12-15 feet high. Together, they made an effective obstacle. Anyone approaching had to first come across a bare expanse of sand, where they were open targets for those who held the bund. Upon reaching the ditch, they had to go down several feet and then climb back up in full view of the defenders. At the top of the embankment was a screen of palmyrah fronds, at least five feet high. Making sure that the attackers did not have a clear view, these screens also afforded a degree of protection to the defenders.

Crowning each bund were several bunkers made from palmyrah logs. Many were so covered with bushes, branches and sand that in the glaring sun, they seemed to merge into the landscape. Acting as defence points, they anchored the whole position, commanding the line of fire. Despite the emptiness of the terrain, visibility was not always clear and it was difficult to spot movement and make out forms.

Here, across the dunes, the Tigers erected embankment after embankment. Crossing one lagoon after another, the 55th Division found itself waging an amphibious war, attacking line after line of defences on a heavily mined front, fighting off counter-attacks at night from the sea and across the lagoon. From Chundikulam to Pudumattalan, the LTTE put up as many as 14 bunds, each with a supporting series of trenches and other defences. Each one of them was taken by the 55th Division.

Mentality

Most of the men and nearly all of the officers in the 55th Division were veterans, many of them with long years of service in the Eelam War. A seasoned force, the Sri Lankan Army had gained from their previous experiences. Not only was morale consistently high, the mentality was now very different. Previously hesitant, hidebound and beleaguered, they were now confident, self-reliant and resourceful; this was the new Sri Lankan Army. It had been a remarkable transformation.

As we speeded through the Vanni, rattling along in a Buffel armoured personnel carrier, I asked my escort about the change. Although he was only 26 years old, the lance corporal in charge of the Buffel was also a veteran of the Eelam War. In his eyes, the biggest difference of all was the leadership. "Now there is a proper leadership, we have confidence."5 This was the foundation. This belief in the leadership, both political and military, ran all the way through the ranks. Breeding a sense of confidence and trust, it revolutionised the whole atmosphere. "Earlier, we did not know where we were or what we were doing. Now we know what we are doing."

The other crucial factor was training. This was the general consensus amongst nearly all the senior officers spoken to. The army commander himself was a seasoned campaigner, who had fought in almost every theatre. Learning from the failures of the previous conflict, he completely overhauled the training. "He was determined to fight differently, to do something which the guerrillas could not face." Instead of the large formations which they had used in the past, General Fonseka adopted the idea of fighting in small groups. The four-men and eight-men teams became the core of his new strategy. "Those days, we always advanced in battalion strength. We would advance for about two kilometres and then wait for artillery support. Now, we got used to going much further forward by ourselves; sometimes we would go out more than eight kilometres in a day, sometimes twelve. The enemy didn’t know where we would be or what we would do."

Introducing a concept known as Special Infantry Operations (SIO), General Fonseka concentrated on enhancing the skills of the ordinary infantryman and building up his confidence. The infantryman was now trained in marksmanship, first aid, handling high explosives, calling in artillery support and air strikes. By developing the capability of the infantryman, SIO made him more assured and self-reliant. "We do everything to build up confidence. If you are confident, you feel you can win." Making the ordinary soldier fitter and stronger, it also gave him new levels of endurance. This brought with it new thinking and a new way of fighting. In the past, they had relied heavily on the special forces, depending on them for reconnaissance and looking to them to make the breakthrough . Now the infantry became used to going forward on its own.

MANEKSHAW PAPER No.13,2009

Contintued nest week

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