The 58 was Sri Lanka’s most successful fighting Division during the conflict. It was not only the best but the youngest Division which fought alongside eight other formations on the Vanni front during eelam war IV to pave the way for the final battle on May 18, 2009 at Vellamullivaikkal adjoining the Nanthikadal lagoon.
The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched seven new fighting formations, namely the 57 (Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias), Task Force I (Brig. Shavendra Silva), the 59 (Brig. Nandana Udawatte), Task Force II (Brig. Rohana Bandara), Task Force III (Brig. Sathyapriya Liyanage), Task Force IV (Col.Nishantha Wanniarachchi) and Task Force VIII (Col. G.V. Ravipriya) exclusively for an unprecedented multi-pronged Vanni offensive (March 2007 to May 2009). The newly formed formations were joined by the longstanding 53 (Brig. Kamal Gunaratne) and 55 (Brig. Prasanna Silva) Divisions, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.
Lt. Gen. Fonseka upgraded Task Force I (TF I) to the status of a Division immediately after the liberation of Paranthan and the southern part of the Kilinochchi town by Jan 1, 2009. It would be pertinent to mention that TF I had the strength of a Division at the onset of the offensive on the western flank. A TF comprises two Brigades (six infantry battalions) whereas a Division consisted of three Brigades (nine infantry battalions). Each Brigade comprises three infantry battalions. During the last phase of the offensive, Brig. Silva had nearly two dozen battalions under his command.
Brig. Chagi Gallage, who was Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s first choice as TF I commander had to leave the battlefield to undergo heart surgery, though he returned to the field later. Although he commanded 53 briefly during the absence of its commander and subsequently led 59 in the wake of the Feb. 2009 debacle south of Puthukudirippu, Brig. Prasanna Silva succeeded him just ahead of the final battle. The change of command took place in early May 2009.
The 53 was the most senior formation involved in the offensive. Established in early 1990, the 53 consisting Commandos, Special Forces and Air Mobile Brigade played important roles in major operations including Riviresa in late 1995 to liberate the Jaffna peninsula. The army raised the 55 Division in 1996 for the disastrous Jayasikuru offensive. Although 53 and 55 Divisions changed their mode of operations from defensive to offensive in Nov, 2008, they undertook major offensive operations in the second week of Jan. 2009.
The 51 and 52 Divisions which spearheaded the Riviresa offensive, remained in the Jaffna peninsula.
Three major tasks
Of the nine fighting formations, the 57 launched in March 2007, TF II (Sept 2007) and the 59 (Jan 2008) were given the daunting task of liberating Kilinochchi, Pooneryn and Mullaitivu, respectively. Kilinochchi was liberated on Jan 1, 2009, Pooneryn on Nov 15, 2008 and Mullaitivu on Jan 25, 2009. In the case of Kilinochchi, the northern part of the town was liberated by TF I, whereas the 57 captured the southern section. All nine fighting formations contributed to the crushing defeat of the LTTE, with Task Force VIII killing Prabhakaran and a group of his trusted bodyguards on the morning of May 19, 2009, almost 24 hours after the 58 Division finished off the LTTE conventional fighting forces in a bloody battle at Vellamullivaikkal. The battle for the last patch of LTTE held territory was led by Brig. Shavendra Silva, one of the Gajaba Regiment veterans handpicked by Lt. Gen. Fonseka for the Vanni offensive. It was the finest hour for Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s over the 200,000 strong army. Over 80,000 of them were recruited during eelam war IV subsequent to a decision taken by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the advice of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, another Gajaba Regiment veteran. If the Rajapaksa brothers didn’t provide the wherewithal, the army would never have achieved its battlefield objectives.
Brig. Shavendra Silva commanded Task Force I/58 Division throughout the offensive, though he was once given the opportunity to join the Haiti bound Sri Lankan peacekeepers. But Silva felt it would be a mistake on his part to leave the battlefield at the height of operations. Although many expected Lt. Gen. Fonseka to suspend the Haiti mission, he sustained the deployment much to the surprise of the UN. The army maintained over a battalion of troops in Haiti throughout the campaign. The Sri Lankan military still maintains a contingent of 1,000 officers and men under UN command in Haiti. Since the conclusion of the conflict, the army deployed another peacekeeping contingent in Southern Lebanon. Ironically, Maj. Gen. Silva, in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, now oversees Sri Lankan peacekeepers deployed under the UN command.
The 58 Division lost 30 officers and 1,353 soldiers during the campaign (Sept 1, 2007 to May 18, 2009). The Division estimated the number of LTTE cadres killed in combat with its troops at 7,014 and thousands wounded. Col. Suraj Bansajayah (58.1 Brigade), Col. Wanigasekera (58.2 Brigade) and Col. Deshapriya Gunawardena (58.3) functioned as Brigade Commanders, while the 2 Commando, too, was attached to the 58. Depending on ground requirements, Lt. Gen. Fonseka authorized the deployment of 1 Special Forces in support of operations undertaken by the 58 Division. Interestingly, all three Brigade Commanders of the now famous 58 Division are Gemunu Watch veterans. Although all five infantry regiments contributed to Brig. Shavendra Silva’s success, the majority of the infantry comprised Gemunu Watch, Gajaba Regiment and the Sri Lanka Light Infantry.
The 58 Division fought its way from the Mannar rice bowl to Vellamullivaikkal on the north-eastern coast-a distance of 201 kms. No other fighting formation had even come close to challenging the 58 Division’s record, though the battlefield success was due to the combined efforts of the armed forces. Had the navy and the air force failed to deliver, ground forces would never have been able to eradicate the LTTE’s conventional fighting power. In spite of limitations, the navy and the air force caused immense battlefield damage in line with the overall military strategy, while taking targets on their own.
Having liberated Adampan on May 9, 2008, the then TF I linked-up with the 57 Division south-west of Periyamadu on June 30, 2008. The 58 captured Vidattaltivu (July, 2008), Illuppaikkadavai (Aug. 2008), Vellankulam (Aug. 2008), Nachchikudah (Aug. 2008), Maniyankulam (Oct. 2008), Vannerikkulam (Oct. 2008), Nochchimoddai (Oc.t 2008), Kiranchi (Nov. 2008), Devil’s Point and Vallaipadu (Nov. 2008), Pooneryn (Nov. 2008), Sinna Paranthan (Dec. 2008), Paranthan (Jan. 2009), Murasumoddai (Jan. 2009), Dharmapuram (Jan. 2009), Vishvamadhu (Jan. 2009), Thevipuram (Feb. 2008), Iranapalai (March 2009), Anandapuram (April 2009), Puthukudirippu (April 2009) and Vellamullivaikkal (May 2009).
Brig. Shavendra Silva achieved his primary objective when his troops liberated the Pooneryn-Sangupiddy area on Nov. 15, 2008, thereby denying the northwestern shoreline to the LTTE. The sea route between the Vanni mainland and Tamil Nadu caused a debilitating setback to the LTTE. Having secured Pooneryn, victorious troops turned eastwards on the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. They liberated Paranthan situated on the A9 and rapidly advanced along the Paranthan –Mullaitivu road destroying LTTE fortifications, before changing course as the army chief paved the way for Brig. Silva’s troops to wage the final battle.
Unfortunately, soon after the conclusion of the war, once strong relationship between the army chief and the 58 Division commander turned sour as the Sinha Regiment veteran eyed the Office of President. The situation deteriorated rapidly with the army chief accusing once his favoutite commander of executing surrendering LTTE cadres on a directive given by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Many felt that the Defence Secretary, himself a one-time commanding officer of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, too, was supportive of Brig. Silva.
Those who accused the Defence Secretary of throwing his weight behind a fellow Gajaba Regiment officer conveniently forgot how he influenced President Mahinda Rajapaksa to elevate Sarath Fonseka to the rank of Lt. Gen. at the expense of the then Army chief Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda. Had Gotabhaya Rajapaksa not intervened, Fonseka would never have received an opportunity to command the army. But at the same time, the LTTE couldn’t have been militarily defeated without the tough talking Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s leadership. In fact, it would be pertinent to mention that the Defence Secretary, Army Commander and the 58 Division Commander exploited the media to the hilt throughout the campaign. All three used the media as a tool to undermine the enemy and consolidate the government’s position. Actually, their use of the media was very similar to the LTTE strategy.
The 58 Division’s raid on the LTTE held Puthumathalan was undoubtedly the world’s largest civilian rescue operation. But perhaps the 58 Division’s biggest achievement was the unprecedented operation at Anandapuram, where it killed over 600 LTTE cadres, including the most experienced LTTE commanders. The operation conducted in the first week of April, with the active participation of the 53 Division, enabled the army to hasten the collapse of the LTTE.
US report on Sri Lankan military
Sri Lanka’s battlefield success should be viewed against a US study, which dealt with the status of government forces during the premiership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The US Department of State undertook the study subsequent to Wickremesinghe’s appeal to President George W. Bush in July 2002, a couple of months after the signing of the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). US experts examined operations, doctrine, procurement, training and professional military education before releasing a bulky report, which the then government didn’t want to be discussed. The report pointed out that in spite of having the advantage of manpower and equipment in relation to the LTTE, the army couldn’t defeat the terrorists DUE TO THE ARMY’S LEADERSHIP FAILING TO APPLY ANY OF THE TENETS OF COMBAT OPERATIONS. The US warned, due to shortcomings on the part of the leadership, the government faced ‘probable defeat in the Northern Province and possible defeat in the Eastern Province’ in case of eelam war IV.
The US report highlighted the strength of the fighting forces. Pointing out that training and institutional base is marginal, the US stressed that the quality of soldiers is not an issue. “In fact, the major strength of the army is their impressive soldiers who endure tremendous hardship, while maintaining a fighting spirit that has prevented more drastic defeats.”