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How Eelam War IV was Won 1 - The Northern Offensive

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How Eelam War IV was Won 1
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The Northern Offensive
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The Northern Offensive

General Mehta’s account of the northern offensive is once again informative and clear cut.25 Beginning in July 2007 and ending in April 2009, this was a critical operation of immense complexity and enormous difficulty. Far more prolonged than the eastern campaign, it was also far more uncertain. What was so important about this theatre was that the Sri Lankan army was going into these areas for the very first time, after almost seventeen years. Unlike the East, they were operating in territory which was completely unfamiliar and totally hostile. However, General’s Mehta’s narrative is all too brief, at times sketchy and at others, almost skeletal. Most of his attention is focused on The Last Battle and the rest of the campaign occupies a relatively brief section; in fact, it takes up less than half the space devoted to the eastern campaign.

In his narrative of military operations, it would have been helpful if General Mehta had been able look more closely at the nature of the environment in each theatre. Each formation found itself operating under different conditions in different terrains. As the lay of the land changed, so did the way that the enemy used it. This meant that almost every division found itself fighting a different type of battle, sometimes several different battles, during the course of one campaign.

In the north, both the 53 Division and the 55 Division had to fight in the arid, semi desert conditions of the Jaffna peninsula. Temperatures rose to 40 C, water was scarce and shade limited. After the breakthrough had been made, the 55 Division under General Prasanna Silva, found itself fighting along the sands, beaches and lagoons of the North Eastern shoreline.26

Along with the 58, the 53 Division under General Kamal Guneratne was then caught up in bitter semi-urban warfare in the areas around Dharmapuram and Pudukudirrippu. This was a relatively builtup area, closely settled with small towns and villages. The obstacles here were many and varied, the challenge far more complex and the fighting much more intense.27 One of the specific problems was that the buildings were smaller and the spaces between them were larger, which made the guerillas lines of observation clearer and it was easier for them to use artillery. They were also able to deploy their machines guns to maximum effect, creating areas where the advancing troops were channeled into killing zones.

A key part of the campaign was the role which was given to the 57 Division under General Jagath Dias. This formation spearheaded the crucial thrust which opened the route to Kilinochchi. The LTTE considered Kilinochchi to be their stronghold and they had surrounded it with a network of defences. It is significant that this task was entrusted to Jagath Dias. Dias was an immensely experienced infantry officer who had spent more time in the field than in staff commands. He had seen the war from the position of a platoon commander to general and understood the soldier’s mind, his needs and concerns.

However, instead of a launching a frontal assault, the army attacked through the Madhu jungles, outflanking the defences which the LTTE had prepared. This turned out to be one of the most difficult operations, a prolonged and painstaking effort, which inched its way through the forest. These were mostly secondary jungles, full of little trees and scrub with dense, tangled undergrowth. These small trees made it much more difficult to see and the thick undergrowth made the going very difficult. Interspersed with the stretches of jungle were paddy fields, patches of chena cultivation, marshy land and scrub. All of these different natural features posed their own challenges as the defenders had prepared each one to their own advantage. It was the transition from one to another which proved the most dangerous for the advancing troops.

The terrain was made even more difficult by the weather. The campaign was fought during the monsoon, often in pouring rain and oceans of mud. Constantly wet and never dry, colds, fever and foot rot played havoc with the advancing troops.28 Lieutenant Colonel Liyanage remembers that a lot of the time they had to walk without boots because their feet were rotting.29 When they finally reached Kilinochchi, it was the first time in months that he was able to sleep under a roof.30

The importance of this theatre has yet to be fully realised. By coming through the jungles, the army caught the guerillas by surprise.31 They had not expected the enemy to take this route so they had not mined these areas as heavily.32 It stretched the LTTE, forcing them to fight far from their base in Kilinochchi.33 They had to transport their troops, their supplies, their armament and their wounded long distances along narrow jungle tracks.34 Prabharakan was compelled to deploy many of his best troops here, using up many of his most experienced cadres and middle level leaders.35 Such was the level of attrition that by the time the 57 Division reached Kilinochchi, it was estimated that Prabharakan had lost 65 percent of his best cadres.36 The Madhu campaign so weakened the LTTE that it opened up many of the other fronts. Reaching Kilinochchi.was really the key; as such its treatment in the paper could have been far more substantial.

It was the success of the Madhu offensive which made the western route taken by Brigadier Shavendra de Silva possible. This spectacular campaign was conducted at great speed, with the aid of armour and mechanised forces. Turning the LTTE’s entire western defences, this operation eliminated the satellite camps in the vicinity of the Western coastline and cut off the logistics bases connecting the coast to the hinterland.

To the west of Giant’s Tank was the Mannar District. Described as the Rice Bowl of Sri Lanka, this was flat, open terrain, abounding in many small tanks and lush paddyfields. During the monsoon, it became waterlogged and marshy.37 To enable his infantry to approach the enemy lines, de Silva dug ditches and entrenchments across open plains.38 The rains flooded many of these entrenchments, causing severe loss of life. "The water level sometimes rose to six feet, while the average Sri Lankan soldier was five foot five or five foot six."39 Many of them were swept away and some even drowned. In these conditions, the armoured and mechanised forces found the going particularly difficult and de Silva’s progress was excruciatingly slow. General Mehta notes that in eight months, the troops barely advanced eight kilometres.40

Once the 58 Division had fought its way through the LTTE defences, it proceeded rapidly up the coast, overrunning the sea bases which had existed all along the western coast. This severed the links and the routes which the LTTE had cultivated with Tamil Nadu, depriving them of much needed supplies. It also deprived the Tigers of a vital casualty evacuation route, which they had used ever since the deployment of the IPKF.

~ ~ Reviewed by Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda