One of Murphy’s laws in combat states that no ops plan survived the initial contact. Nature of war is fundamentally uncertain and multiplicity of fog and friction is bound to hinder the execution of the battle plan. Carl Von Clausewitz christened this immutable nature of war as fog and friction, which ensures that the battle plan is the first casualty of the war.
Last week, fog and friction ruled the northern forward defence lines when 53 and 55 Divisions of the army fought a bloody battle ahead of their forward defence lines, just after the dawn of Tuesday. Troops who planned to storm the secondary defence lines of the Tigers were faced with the unexpected. Stormy rains and flooded marshlands meant a nightmare for evacuating the wounded. Then rains lashed. And when they took up assault positions, troops noticed that the initial estimates of the Tiger strength in the forward defence lines were seriously underestimated . There was a larger presence. One military division opted to abort the mission, while the other decided to fight, but only to pull back a few hours later, with a heavy toll.
At midnight Monday, the 53 and 55 Divisions deployed in the northern forward defence line in Muhamalai, Nagar Kovil and Killali broke ahead from there defence localities.
Troops of these two divisions on November 20 dislodged the Tigers from their primary forward defence line. On Monday, their mission was to capture Tiger positions were a mere 800 meters. Under the cover of darkness, troops sneaked ahead of their positions.
The 55 Division advanced west of the A 9 road while the 53 Division manoeuvered east of the A 9 road.
They crossed a flooded marshland, called Kadolana, filled with rain water. In addition to their personal weapons, some troops carried Palmyrah blocks ( thal kota) and sand filled sacks on their shoulders to make bunkers immediately after the capture of the enemy bunker line. The coordinates of these bunkers are marked in the LTTE’s grid maps, enabling it to shell these positions pin point, in case they fall to the troops. Therefore, troops are compelled to build new bunkers away from the original positions in order to avoid indirect fire from the Tigers. By 3 am , they took assault positions and were awaiting orders for the assault.
At this moment, the General Officer Commander of the 55 Division, Brigadier Prasanna Silva instructed his field commanders to visit the frontline and inspect the enemy build up. Brigadier Prasanna Silva was the former Brigade Commander of the Special Forces touted for the capture of Vakarai, the former Eastern enclave of the Tigers.
The field commanders noticed a more than expected presence of the Tigers holding bunker positions. Flooded terrain, they noted, would impede the evacuation of casualties. It was almost daybreak and the evacuation across open land would be hazardous in daylight.
By this time, four soldiers were wounded in fighting and one was dead. The 55 Division commanders decided against launching the attack. Troops decided to pull back to their original positions without major combat.
However, the 53 Division decided to go ahead of the attack. The General Officer Command, Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne was confident of the battle plan.
The 53 Division attacked the enemy position and heavy fighting flared up ahead of the forward defence lines east of the A 9 road. The Tigers put up stiff resistance. When casualties kept rising, the troops decided to pull back to their original positions. The withdrawal of 800 meters was a perilous march in daylight. Some military officers said the greater number of casualties occurred during the pull back. Many soldiers fell victim to enemy fire when they tried to salvage fallen comrades.
At the end of the deadly encounter, 26 soldiers were killed – including eight soldiers who were initially counted as missing in action. Eighty nine were wounded.
These figures include P3 injuries known as walking wounds. These are minor injuries where the injured could return to the battlefront in a few days time. Faced with enemy fire and stuck in flooded marshland, troops were compelled to leave the bodies of some fallen comrades. Later the LTTE announced it had recovered eight bodies of soldiers.
At 6 am on Tuesday morning, as a treacherous battle in the northern defence lines drawing to an end, the 57 and 58 Divisions attacked a well fortified L shaped earthbund built to halt military advance into the administrative headquarters of the Tigers, Kilinochchi.
This earth bund, 12 km in length, runs from the Jaffna lagoon in the north of the Pooneryn-Paranthan Road to the South of Iranamadu.
The 58 Division, formally known as Task Force One attacked the earth bund from the direction of the Pooneryn-Paranthan B 59 Road. The 57 division attacked it from the west of Kilinochchi.
Faced with stiff Tiger resistance and flooded waterways, the manoeuverability of the 58 Division was undermined. The troops aborted the mission. Meanwhile, sea Tigers launched boats in the Kilalli lagoon sending reinforcement for the Tigers fighting the 58 Division. Attack helicopters were called in to target Sea Tiger movements. No details of damage are available.
The 57 Division went ahead with the attack. Three Brigades were assigned for the mission.
The 571 Brigade attacked from the direction of Adampan village, capturing a stretch of the earth bund in the west of Kilinochchi.
The Nine Gajaba Regiment and the12 Singha regiment operating under the 571Brigade captured one km stretch of earth bund each while the Seven Ceylon Light Infantry captured an 800 m of the earth bund.
Troops and Tigers exchanged heavy artillery and a mortar dual and Air Force was called in for close air support. Fighter jets and attack helicopters raided Tiger positions. The 572 Division attacked the earth bund from the direction of Iranamadu, while the 574 Brigade attacked Tiger positions on the Iranamadu tank.
The Tigers launched wave after wave counter- attacks to recapture lost ground. The Twelve Singha Regiment was to receive the brunt of the attack. It came under eight counter attacks by Tigers during the day. The 12 SR was in control of a strategically important position with a short distance to Kilinochchi town.
The troops withstood the attacks. But as casualties were rising, they decided to pull back. By that time, 17 soldiers were killed and 15 others were unaccounted for.
During the fierce battle the valour of the troops was on display. During the initial attack, troops of the 12 SR captured 18 bunkers, but the Tigers put up fierce resistance from three bunkers. At this moment, the late Cpl Namal Udawatta who was killed in action recently ,volunteered to seize these three entrenched positions. He and his team succeeded in neutralizing the Tigers and capturing the three bunkers. Soon after the battle, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. The 572 brigade was also confronted by stiff resistance; they vacated a part of the earth bund, but held on to a 1 km long stretch. The 574 Brigade seized a 2.4 km long stretch on the earth bund in Iranamadu. Later in the day, the Tigers launched 12 counter attacks against the troops of this brigade, who withstood the waves after waves of Tiger counter attack. According to a military official, there had been 22 strong points in this 2.4 km long stretch. The Tigers had put up bunkers at every 100 meter distance.
Fighting which flared up in Kilinochchi is unmatched in ferocity, which is understood given that the battle has reached the doorstep of the de-facto headquarters of the Tigers. The Tigers mobilized their full strength, waging a series of counter attacks and finally succeeded in dislodging the troops from at least some positions initially captured by them. Adverse terrain conditions, aggravated by torrential rain stood against the troops.
According to a final toll, 80 soldiers were killed in fighting, this included the figures which were initially classified as missing in action. The pro-Tiger websites flashed pictures of slain soldiers, reporting that the Tigers had seized 36 bodies of soldiers, including eight seized from the Kilalli front. Evacuation of the dead became a problem as troops had to brave the waterways. Over 250 soldiers wounded, many of them had sustained P 3 injuries.
Military officials claim that at least 140 Tiger cadres were killed in the attack, including Adampan Tiger leader Nelawan.
Later in the week, the 58 Division was compelled to halt the march, having advanced 1 km on the B 69 Pooneryn-Paranthan Road, when heavy rains lashed and a marshland ahead of them began to overflow.
Meanwhile, troops attached to the 59 Division last week captured Mulliyaweli village, which was a few months back a major hub for Internationally Displaced Persons.
IDPs have fled further inland towards Pudikudirippu as fighting reached their settlements. The 59 Division has consolidated the control of the 6 km stretch of the A 34 Mankulam-Mullaitivu road. Troops have also taken control of the 10 km stretch of Oddusudan- Nedunkerny Road. With the latest posture by the security force, the Defence Ministry has proposed an alternative route for relief supplies heading for Mullaitivu.
Accordingly, relief vehicles are expected to take the route from Puliyankulam, Nedunkerny, Oddusudan and from there to Pudikudiruppu.
The military strategy is to isolate Mullaitivu, by cutting off supply routes and thereby forcing the Tigers to vacate the town. The strategy aims to force the Tigers towards Pudikudiruppu. How successful this strategy is could be seen in the coming months. Meanwhile, Task Force 3 last week captured the Ampakamam village in Mullaitivu.
Pitched battles last week are signs that the Wanni front is becoming bloodier as the battle for Kilinochchi itself comes closer. Dogged resistance put up by the Tigers is an indication that the LTTE would commit cadres to save Kilinochchi rather than keep them for future combat.
The heavily entrenched positions, adverse weather and terrain stand to the advantage of the defending Tigers . However, battles along trench lines as well as the northern forward defence lines last week were full of anecdotes of individual valour.
That itself is evidence that to the Sri Lankan Forces have come a full circle from mass desertions and low morale in the late nineties to near success now.