The Vanni military offensive launched in March 2007 was undoubtedly the single most difficult mission undertaken by the Sri Lankan military during the eelam war. The failure on the part of one fighting formation either east or west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road could have easily caused irrevocable damage to the entire war effort.
The 57 Division advanced on the central front, west of A9, whereas Task Force I (TF) was on the western flank. Having launched operations in March 2007 and Sept 2008, respectively, the two fighting formations continued to encounter strong enemy resistance in late July/early Aug. 2008, in spite of their linking up on June 30, 2008 to form the widest ever frontline against the LTTE.
The going was extremely tough, particularly due to the Tigers exploiting ground conditions to their advantage.
East of A9, the 59 Division tasked with destroying LTTE fortifications in the Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves, which stood as natural defences for Mullaitivu, too, was facing extreme difficulties. The 59 Division had been on the move since Jan 2008.
Task Force II (TFII) given the responsibility of clearing enemy positions along the west-east axis, too, didn’t find its task easy, though it secured Navvi on July 11, 2008. TF II used south of Palamoddai as a springboard to launch offensive action in June 2008.
SLA on four fronts
By the end of July, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had four fighting formations deployed on the Vanni front-three west and one east of the A9 road. On the northern front, two fighting formations, namely the 53 and 55 were in the defensive mode. The then Brig. Kamal Gunaratne commanded the 53 Division deployed south of A9. The 55 was under the Brig. Prasanna Silva. It was deployed north of A9. Both formations remained in defensive posture until Nov. 2008.
In spite of losing some territory on all four flanks, the LTTE still remained strong. It had the capacity to resist troops on all fronts and cause a battlefield defeat, which could have had a devastating impact not only on that particular theatre but also the entire war effort. The Army Chief was mindful of the emerging threat, though he remained supremely confident of defeating the LTTE.
Battle for Vellankulam
Having liberated Adampan (May 9, 2008), Mullikkandai, Mannar ‘rice bowl’ (June 29, 2008), Vidattaltivu (July 16, 2008) and Illuppaikkadavai (Aug 2, 2008), TF I launched the battle for Vellankulam. TF I commander, the then Brig. Shavendra Silva deployed all three Brigades for the offensive. In spite of having superior firepower, the Gajaba Regiment veteran faced an extremely difficult situation. The LTTE defences at Vellankulam interconnected with strong units deployed in adjoining Mullankavil and Pallavarayankadu.
Adampan Aug. 2008: Brig. Shavendra Silva (right) speaks with an officer
TF I couldn’t even think of targeting Nachchikudah, one of its main objectives unless it regained control of Vellankulam, Mullankavil and Pallavarayankadu. The LTTE brought in additional forces to halt TF I. Prabhakaran obviously felt if he could deliver a crippling blow to TF I, all four fighting formations deployed on the Vanni front would be demoralised.
Brig. Silva tasked 583 Brigade to clear enemy positions west of A-32 (Mannar-Pooneryn road), whereas 582 was deployed east of A-9. The remaining 581 Brigade was deployed to thwart sea borne LTTE attacks.
The advancing 582 Brigade struggled to cope with heavy LTTE resistance causing many casualties. Defenders had gun and grenade points atop two earth bunds which extended two kilometres and 500 meters to east and west of A9, respectively. Troops of 9GW (Gemunu Watch) and 12 GW fought courageously in spite of rising casualties to overcome enemy resistance. While bloody fighting was continuing, the LTTE erected another earth bund about two kilometres south of Vellankulam to halt TF I. But 9GW and 9 GR (Gajaba Regiment) cleared the second earth bund. As the LTTE retreated, 9GW troops moved into Vellankulam on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2008 to liberate the entire Mannar administrative district from the LTTE. It was a major milestone in the battle against the LTTE.
By the end of Aug second week, TF I captured Mulankavil and Pallavarayankaddu.
Shavendra Silva speaks out
Shavendra Silva, now Sri Lanka’s No 2 in New York, says Mulankavil posed a major challenge, though TF I had the ability to take on the enemy in one of the major strongholds. The LTTE strongly defended Mulankavil as it was their second major administrative base in the Vanni region. In fact, Mulankavil was the most important civilian centre north of Mannar, Maj. Gen. Silva, who now holds ambassadorial rank asserts. The area was the home for thousands of MAHAVEER families, those who contributed their children to the LTTE. The Tigers obviously realised that the failure on its part to prevent TF I from moving into Mulankavil could demoralise the population, Ambassador Silva says. The LTTE forced the entire population to join its fighting cadre on the run, whereas the international community looked the other way, he says. Had there been a choice for the Mulankavil population, they would have definitely surrendered to TF I to save their lives, the Maj. Gen. says. Instead, they ended up providing cover to the LTTE combatants trapped on the Vanni east front in April-May 2009.
The LTTE had an elaborate administrative set up in Mulankavil. Thamileelam police maintained a strong presence in the area, with three police stations in place to manage the population. The LTTE used Mulankavil and Pallawarayankaddu to sustain clandestine sea line of communications between Vanni and Tamil Nadu. The LTTE Intelligence, too, operated in the area to prevent infiltration by government operatives. As Prabhakaran was confident of repulsing government offensive to liberate the area, it established the largest LTTE cemetery in the area. Bodies of those laying down their lives for the LTTE’s cause were buried there. During the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the cemetery attracted thousands of visitors, including many foreigners. Expatriates working for UN and other INGOs as well as members of the then Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) visited the place. In fact, Prabhakaran’s heroes’ week celebrations took place at Mulankavil Maha Vidyalaya and the nearby Mahaveer stadium. Such events were used to attract more children to the organisation.
While TF I evicted the LTTE from Mulankavil and Pallawarayankaddu, the 57 Division regained Kalvilan. Another Gajaba Regiment veteran, Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias was spearheading the 57 Division, the first offensive formation raised by Lt. Gen. Fonseka. The Division was tasked with liberating Kilinochchi, the main LTTE administrative centre following the fall of Jaffna in Dec. 1995 to troops of Operation Riviresa. The two fighting formations relied on each other. The combined forces of TF I and the 57 Division threatened LTTE bastions west of A 9. By the second week of Aug. 2008, forward elements of TF I were far ahead of the 57 Division, which having captured Kalvilan on Aug 13, 2008, faced the daunting task of liberating strategically situated Thunukai along the Vellankulam-Mankulam road. TF I was poised to move against Nachchikudah. The Army observed rapid deployment of additional LTTE forces as well as assets to defend Nachchikudah and Thunnukai. The elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ confronted the 57 Division. The Army top brass realised that the LTTE was making a determined effort to halt TF I and the 57 Division. Major battlefield defeats at Nachchikudah and Thunnukai would have helped the LTTE turn the tables on the Army.
Massive earth bund
Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operated by the SLAF provided real time intelligence on what was going behind the enemy lines. The footage was available to senior battlefield commanders as well as headquarters of three services in Colombo. UAV footage underscored the difficulty in the mission given to TF I and the 57 Division. Troops faced the longest earth bund erected in the Vanni. The LTTE defence line extended from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam through Vannerikulam. South of the defence line was heavily mined, whereas LTTE units manned strong points atop the earth bund. It was a formidable target. TF I and the 57 Division faced the prospect of a long and bloody battle across the Vanni west. The earth bund effectively thwarted TF I push towards Nachchikudah, a town situated about eight kilometres north of Vellankulam along the A-32 road.
The LTTE thwarted a series of attempts by TF I and the 57 Division to make a breakthrough. The Tigers held out in spite of air strikes. Both formations took many casualties. Having realised that existing strategy adopted to overcome the earth bund was ineffective, the Army modified the battle plan. It feared its failure to overcome the obstacle could help the LTTE launch a major counter attack.
The LTTE could have transferred a section of the forces deployed on the northern front to thwart a possible attempt by the 53 Division and the 55 Division could have been deployed for an all out assault on TF I and the 57 Division. Had the LTTE succeeded in breaking through the combined defences of the two formations, there would have been disaster.
Army compelled to modify battle drill
Ambassador Silva says that bund crossing drill had to be amended and modified, quickly to meet the challenging task. “We deprived them of an opportunity to seize the initiative again.”
In the end the LTTE’s strategy on the Vanni west front hasten the collapse of the organisation. As Prabhakaran felt that the advancing Army could be stopped at the earth bund, the organisation didn’t bother to establish elaborate defences beyond the defence line extending from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam.
Addressing the annual symposium 2011 ‘Challenges of post conflict Sri Lanka’ of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU), Maj. Gen. Dias explained the circumstances under which his Division and TF I had mounted offensive action to overcome the earth bund. Maj. Gen. Dias said that troops had adopted a new battle drill, which proved successful. Veteran of many battles, Maj. Gen. Dias declared that the capture of the earth bund was one of the major achievements during eelam war IV.