‘Never to relax, maximum attrition 24 hours, 365 days, to keep the enemy on the run, always’, was the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s motto. All fighting formations on the Vanni front, namely the 57 Division, Task Force I (TF I) and Task Force II (TF II) west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road and the 59 Division east of the road did as the Sinha Regiment war veteran directed.
Karambakulam earth bund breached
The 57 Division and TF I struggled in the face of well organised LTTE resistance. An earth bund extending from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam, prevented its progress on the Central and Western flanks. Both formations fought under extremely difficult conditions, though they adopted new tactics. The 57 Division, deployed on the Central front, was tasked to regain Akkarayankulam, whereas TF I, on the western flank, targeted Nachchikudah and Vannerikulam. The LTTE successfully resisted their attempts to breach the bund. Amidst mounting casualties, Lt. Gen. Fonseka ordered those commanding troops on the combined western front to breach the earth bund at any cost. The Army Chief declared that an LTTE earth bund wouldn’t be allowed to derail the ongoing offensive. Although troops intensified their efforts, the LTTE held on to its fortifications. Experienced enemy units manning gun positions along the earth bund, thwarted spirited efforts by the infantry. The troops, however, didn’t give up their offensive action until TF I made a breakthrough, at Karambakulam, to pave the way for the 57 Division to wrest control of Akkarayankulam. The much anticipated success at Karambakulam and Akkarayankulam boosted the morale of the frontline combat forces. It brought relief to those spearheading the offensive. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s TF I had given a fresh impetus to Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The offensive was on track.
Special SLAF operation launched
Having breached the Karamakulam earth bund, TF I expanded its operations. Their next priority was severing the LTTE line of communications between Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam. It was an unenviable task. Brig. Silva assigned the 581 Brigade to liberate Nachchikudah, whereas the 582 Brigade’s task was to seize Vannereikulam.
The 581 Brigade was positioned south of Nachchikudah. They made several abortive attempts to overrun Nachchikudah. The LTTE remained in control at Nachchikudah, though Kfir and MiG 27 jet squadrons, as well as the artillery, carried out a series of attacks on the town.
For the first time since the launch of operations on the Central and Western fronts, low flying jets targeted LTTE strong points atop the Karambakulam tank bund. Kfirs and MiG 27 launched from the Katunayake air base bombed enemy fortifications. On the instructions of Lt. Gen. Fonseke, jet pilots along with the then Director of Operations, Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF Chief), were brought to TF headquarters to finalise the joint operation. It was one of the most successful joint operations during the eelam war IV. A devastating air strike forced the LTTE to abandon some of its fortifications, hence paving the way for the infantry to regain territory.
The 582 Brigade, tasked with liberating Vannerikulam, also, experienced stiff resistance for about a period of six weeks (Sept-Oct 2008). The LTTE thwarted several attempts by the 582 Brigade to penetrate the earth bund south of Vannerikulam. Subsequently, TF I changed the direction of its operation in a last ditch attempt to breach the enemy defences. TF I battalions launched operations to test LTTE defences before making a fresh attempt to breach enemy fortifications.
The Gemunu Watch (9GW) succeeded in its attempt. In a daring operation, 9GW troops seized a 300 metre section of the earth bund prompting the LTTE to launch 18 counter attacks. The enemy couldn’t dislodge troops, who fought for five days continuously to help the Gajaba Regiment (10 GR) evict the LTTE from another 300-meter segment of the bund. The stage was set for 6 GW and 12 GW, to seize sections of the earth bund. The 582 Brigade brought Vennerikulam under its control on Oct. 20, 2008. The LTTE suffered heavy losses in its attempts to thwart the 582 Brigade. The success at Vannerikulam eased pressure on the 57 Division. Although the LTTE used a chemical weapon against 12 GW troops, it couldn’t derail the assault on Vannerikulam. Contrary to speculation, that was the only occasion the LTTE carried out a chemical attack targeting TF I troops. Those admitted to field hospitals recovered quickly. However during operations at Iranapalai in Puthukudirippu area in March 2009, TF I troops again experienced respiratory problems due to explosions caused by ‘chemical devices’ which the army believed was still at experimental stage.
Close on the heels of the Vannerikulam battle of the 583 Brigade, also of TF I, captured an earth bund at Pandieddikulam, situated two kilometres northwest of Vannerikulam. The army top brass believed that the LTTE would quit Nachchikudah in the wake of Vannerikulam debacle. But, much to the surprise of the army, the LTTE held onto its positions at the coastal town, the launching pad of many Sea Tiger operations in the Gulf of Mannar.
Battle for Nachchikudah
In a bid to intensify pressure on the LTTE, TF I mounted operations on multiple fronts targeting Nachchikudah. The 583 Brigade brought Madam, situated 12 km northeast of Nachchikudah along the Mannar-Pooneryn A 32 road, and Jayapuram, under its control. The LTTE offered fierce resistance in and around Jayapuram, though finally TF I neutralised the enemy positions there. While the LTTE thwarted attacks on Jayapuram, 8 GW and 11 SLLI (Sri Lankan Light Infantry) troops moved across jungle to liberate Madam. By Oct 28, 2008, 8 GW and 11 SLLI blocked A 32 to increase pressure on those defending the town. The liberation of Madam automatically made LTTE presence at Jayapuram irrelevant. The LTTE abandoned Nachchikudah as the 581 Brigade pushed Northwards of its positions to link up with 583 Brigade south of Madam. TF I liberated Nachchikudah on Oct 28, 2008. As jubilant TF I consolidated its positions at Nachchikudah, the 57 Division captured Akkarayankulam tank bund.
TF I now threatened all LTTE fortifications north of Nachchikudah as the LTTE regrouped in a bid to defend Pooneryn, its last coastal bastion north of Mannar.
Sea route to TN severed
TF I brought Devils Point under its control by Nov. 11, 2008. Although the LTTE resisted TF I troops at Nallur, situated about eight kilometres southeast of Pooneryn, it didn’t have the wherewithal to prevent the fall of Pooneryn, where Prabhakaran inflicted a massive loss on the Army way back in Nov. 1993. In fact, with the fall of Nallur, LTTE defences collapsed on the western flank. The LTTE was no longer capable of implementing a cohesive battle plan on the western flank, though it still battled the 57 Division on the Central front. The LTTE had strong forces deployed on the eastern front, where the 59 Division was making a determined effort to overcome enemy resistance. The 59 Division was tasked with liberating Mullaitivu, the LTTE’s main stronghold on the eastern coast. Having achieved a series of stunning victories, TF I entered Pooneryn without a major fight. In fact, 11 SLLI, 8 GW and 9GW advanced seven kilometres on a single day to liberate Pooneryn on Nov. 15, 2008.
TF I completed the mission with troops taking Sangupiddy and Nagathevanthurai. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops achieved what many felt was beyond the conventional capability of the army. Having secured Pooneryn, TF I cleared Kalmunai point on Nov 17, 2008. The LTTE used Kalmunai point as a launching pad for artillery strikes targeting vital military installations deep in the Jaffna peninsula. For the first time since the conflict erupted in 1983, the army controlled the entire coast north of Mannar hence cutting LTTE sea supply routes to and from Tamil Nadu. It dealt a massive blow to the LTTE. It could no longer depend on sea access to Tamil Nadu, one of the two major supply routes. With that, Sea Tigers ceased to operate in the Mannar waters. The army was now able to cross the Jaffna lagoon. The LTTE never recovered from losing the battle on the western flank. Operations on the western flank (Sept. 2007-Nov 2008) caused irreparable losses to the LTTE. But nothing could have been worse than losing the entire sea frontage on the western flank. The debacle eroded confidence among the fighting cadre. Long before TF I regained Pooneryn, civilians had fled across the A9 road towards Vanni east. In the immediate aftermath of the Pooneryn debacle, large groups of fighting cadres deserted the organisations, though Prabhakaran still believed he could stop the army. He hoped that India and Western powers would intervene in Sri Lanka. The LTTE waited for an international lifeline. Having achieved its primary target, TF I turned eastwards to open a new phase of operations, which would hasten the disintegration of LTTE defences on the northern front.
Tigers face three fighting formations on Jaffna front
At the onset of the government offensive in March 2007, the LTTE would never have anticipated the army to advance from Vavuniya-Mannar defence line up to Kalmunai point and the turn eastwards. The LTTE now faced three fighting formations, namely TF I, the 53 division and 55 Divisions commanded by Brigadiers, Kamal Gunaratne and Prasanna Silva, respectively. The 53 Division was deployed south of A9 whereas 55 based north of A9. A demoralised LTTE faced the powerful grouping. LTTE forces on the northern front were demoralised. They lacked the arms and ammunition to face a confident army backed by the political leadership, which vowed to keep the offensive on track regardless of international pressure.
In mid Nov. 2008, both 53 and 55 Divisions changed their mode of operations from defensive to offensive. The army chief wanted at the onset of the campaign to open up Jaffna front, though the LTTE thwarted his plans by causing heavy losses on the army. A foray by 53 and 55 Divisions ended up disastrously. The debacle forced the army to suspend the offensive. Since then the two divisions remained on a defensive posture until TF I regained Pooneryn.