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Sri Lanka –The Last Phase in the Eelam War IV

This process also had the effect of devolving the command process. In the past, the emphasis had been on the platoon, a unit of about 30 men. As a result, everything had revolved around the platoon commander. A new system – Advanced Infantry Platoon Training (AIPT) – encouraged officers and men to work together. Training was now done section-wise. As more and more emphasis was placed on the section, it was the section leader who took the responsibility. This was a break with the traditions inherited from the British. Previously, it had been the officers who had made all the decisions. Now everyone was involved, both men and officers. Fostering a sense of participation at every level, it encouraged initiative and innovation all the way down the ranks.

As the capability of the ordinary infantrymen gradually expanded, they began to train to do things which the Sri Lankan Army had never done before. One of these was to fight at night. One of the hallmarks of this theatre was that nearly all the major operations were carried out at night. From its previous experience, the LTTE had never expected Sri Lankan soldiers to fight in the dark and when they did, they were taken by surprise. In the past, it had been the LTTE who had struck at night and they had come to take the army’s vulnerability for granted. Now, as darkness fell, it was the guerrillas who found themselves on the defensive.

Another practice which the LTTE had come to take for granted was that any army operation would only last for a fixed period of time. However, new levels of training and endurance enabled the infantrymen to sustain hostilities for much longer than before. Previously, the army had only conducted operations for a limited period; now they were able to continue for five or six days at a time. This served to maintain a constant level of attrition. Wearing the guerrillas down and exhausting them, it denied them the time they needed to rest and regain their strength.

Commander

Like most of the senior commanders in the Sri Lanka Army, Brigadier Prasanna Silva was still in his mid-forties. Calm and composed, he had a reputation as a thinker. As a former special forces commander, his approach was sometimes quite unconventional. As part of his philosophy, he tried to involve everyone in his plan of operations. Determined to see things from the ground up, he made it a policy to consult with the company commanders, going right down to the section commanders when necessary.

As part of his way of working, each battalion was asked to maintain a model of its own area of operations. This model was updated on a daily basis as each section leader gave his input. As it changed, the section leader himself could see how important his role was for the whole battalion. The effect of this was radical, completely transforming the chain of command on the ground. From being merely a component in the whole process, the section leader became a vital part of it — its eyes, its ears and, sometimes, its brains.

This served to enhance the overall knowledge and combat power of the entire division. As a result of the section leader’s involvement, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) knew exactly what was happening on the ground. He had a specific idea of the main factors leading up to the attack on a particular area or a particular bunker, how to increase fire support, for example, when and where. The GOC’s involvement meant that the section leader had the maximum support and firepower behind him. This enabled the GOC to deploy all the firepower, intelligence and technology at his disposal in support of the men on the ground. According to Brigadier Silva, what really mattered was not the volume of fire which he was able to command, but how accurate it was. Only then was it really effective.

This way of working completely changed the mentality of the Division. Giving rise to a much more unconventional and far more decentralised method of making decisions, it heightened the GOC’s ability to read the battle. Not only did this prove effective in military terms, it also saw a sharp reduction in the rate of casualties, with the number of dead and wounded declining by as much as 60 per cent.

Chundikulam

The Chundikulam Lagoon was the first of the lagoons which the 55th Division had to cross. A broad stretch of water more than two hundred feet across, it was one of the places where the sea flowed into the land. Cutting into the golden sands, it looked calm and tranquil in the afternoon sun. The mouth of the lagoon, however, concealed strong surging currents and, in some places, it was between 15 to 25 feet deep. Seen from one side, it was almost like a moat, guarding the LTTE defences on the other side.

The LTTE had expected an attack on a wide front, going down the side of the lagoon, where the waters were calmer and shallower. As a result, their bunkers and trenches stretched inland along the lagoon shore. To protect this line, they laid claymore mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Known as "trapping," these were booby traps consisting of anti-personnel mines, bits of shrapnel, unexploded artillery and mortar rounds, all wired together with yards of fishing line. These lines could hardly be seen and a faulty touch or a foot misplaced was enough to set off a whole series of explosions. Living up to their name, they were veritable deathtraps, causing the largest number of casualties. Secure behind these natural and man-made defences, the LTTE sat and waited for the conventional attack which they felt had to come.

Instead of attacking on a wide front, the assault was launched across the narrowest and deepest part of the lagoon, the weakest point of the LTTE defences. As a result of their night training, the troops felt confident enough to attack in the dark and the operation started at around 6.30 p.m., the moment the light faded.

Using teppan, the light dug out canoes favoured by the fishermen, the government troops began building a bridge across the mouth of the lagoon. The assault was spearheaded by the special forces, who crossed in boats. Landing on the other side, they provided cover to the men behind them. Two engineers with T-56 rifles went first, getting down into the current. Two teppans at a time were placed in the water, then another two. With the waves swirling around their shoulders, the engineers carried on lashing the sections together, two by two. As they extended the bridge further and further out into the lagoon, the current surged and eddied about them, becoming deep and shallow at turns. One of the biggest challenges was anchoring the sections securely, so that they were not swept away by the tides.

These activities were cloaked by the darkness and masked by heavy fire support. Mortars lining the army side of the shore opened fire. They were supported by tanks in the rear and the newly introduced multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL). The MBRL made a huge difference in firepower, giving the Sri Lankan Army an advantage which it had not possessed before.

Planks were then laid across the floats, creating a heaving, swaying and occasionally sinking bridge across the water. By midnight, they were ready to cross. It was an act of total improvisation, done under fire and executed in total darkness. With the engineers taking the lead once more, they gradually worked their way up the heavily mined beachfront. The Tiger cadres held on for 6 hours, from 8 at night until 2 in the morning before abandoning their positions. Bold, imaginative and risky, the whole operation had taken the Tigers by surprise.

Within a few days, the surging current had swept away the teppan bridge and a new one had to be constructed. This time, they used fishing boats, but this too was washed away and another pontoon bridge was constructed. This structure, however, managed to survive.

Chalai

At Chalai too, the lagoon ran deep into the land. Although it was heavily mined, the narrowest front was chosen yet again. Once again, the crossing was made under fire and at night. Although the current here was even stronger and the water choppy, the 55th Division made the passage by foot and by boat. The whole area was heavily defended, with bunkers and trenches that they could hardly see. It was also covered with "trapping".

This time, two eight-men teams were sent forward. They were led by the team leader, who was also the section leader. Before the assault, indirect fire was called in from artillery and mortars in the rear and as they went forward, they were supported by heavy machine guns. With an eight-men team, four men usually went ahead while the other four remained behind. Acting as a reserve, their task was to supply ammunition and deal with any casualties. The first two men were usually charged with the job of scouting and clearing the area. The leader carried a T-56, the second a machine gun, while the remaining two fired rocket-propelled grenades. As they came closer, they hurled the grenades by hand.

Advancing along an area only 20-30 metres wide, they felt their way with their hands, clearing a path in the dark. Relying purely on their instincts, they moved slowly forward. It was an act of sheer resolution and immense will. By morning, they had established themselves near the mouth of the lagoon, outflanking the line of defences which had been built along the shore.

The speed of the action and its boldness had succeeded. Once more, they had caught the guerrillas unawares. The roles, it seems, were reversing. In the previous Eelam War, it had been the army that had put to faith in fixed defences. Now it was the LTTE who believed in fortifications, which they never thought could be taken.

Here there was no bridge of boats. The tide was too deep and too strong and every attempt to construct one had been washed away. As a result, the troops were ferried to and fro in boats. All the vehicles and heavy equipment, ho1wever, were transported in makeshift rafts or ferries made up of planks, barrels and iron girders. These rafts became a lifeline, linking up the various components. As the division advanced, everything – vehicles, supplies, men, munitions, even ambulances – had to be ferried across one stretch of water after another.

Civilians

As it advanced further and further forward, the 55th found itself having to deal with escaping non-combatants. In this theatre, people fled by sea, coming across in small boats, which put out from Tiger-controlled areas at night. The majority of these flotillas headed south towards Mullaitivu and Pulmoddai, where they were picked up by the navy boats patrolling those waters. A small number, however, turned north towards Chundikulam and Chalai.

Distinguishing between escaping civilian vessels and Sea Tiger squadrons was one of the challenges which faced the troops along the sea shore. The fact that it took place at night made this task even more difficult and dangerous. The lack of visibility, the uncertainty and the ever present threat of infiltration made the consequences of a wrong decision even more dire.

The use of radar, however, allowed the army detachments to observe the speed of the oncoming vessels. This was crucial as it enabled them to decide whether the oncoming boats were Sea Tigers or civilians. Most civilian vessels had engines whose capacity was between 9-12 horsepower. As a result, their average speed was relatively slow and steady. The Sea Tiger boats, on the other hand, had engines which ranged up to 40 horsepower. This meant that they could travel at a much greater speed, almost four times faster than the average civilian boat.

As the boats approached the beach, flares were sent up. Together with the use of night vision aids, these helped establish who the occupants were. A separate unit composed of military police, intelligence personnel and women soldiers met the boats as they landed. Their task was to screen the arrivals, to talk to them, to see who they were and to find out if they were carrying any equipment.

The most urgent task was meeting the needs of these refugees. The majority were exhausted, hungry and terribly dehydrated. Many had small children with them and some were wounded and in need of medical attention. Everyone was given water or tea and the division’s supplies were used to provide a hot meal on the spot. All the injured who could be treated then and there were attended to by army medical officers. Military vehicles of all kinds were brought right down to the beach to carry the refugees inland and buses were then procured from somewhere to take them towards Jaffna.

At the same time, as fighting a battle, the 55th Division found itself conducting a quite separate security, logistic and administrative operation to cope with the civilian influx. As with the 58th and the 53rd Divisions, this became an essential part of their progress and perhaps, an indicator of their success.

MANEKSHAW PAPER No.13,2009

Contintued next week

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