Breaking LTTE's Defences - Napiers in Jaffna
By Brig (Dr) BK Khanna (Retd)
The 5th Battalion (Napiers), The Rajputana Rifles, one of the oldest battalion (Bn) of the Indian Army, in which I was commissioned after passing out from Officers Training School, Madras on April 24, 1966, and had the honour to command the same unit and take it to operations during Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka).
The battalion took part from the start of the operations against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. It brought laurels for India, the Indian Army, its regiment and for itself, with its credible performance during its 14 months stay on the island. The unit had the unique distinction of being the first unit to ‘link up’ with Jaffna Fort. The ‘paltan’ took part in innumerable operations in the Northern and Eastern parts of the Pearl Island, but the first and the most important of them was the ‘Link Up’ battle.
During the peacekeeping period (July 29-October 8 1987), 1 MARATHA Light Infantry was located in Jaffna Fort. When the hostilities started between Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and LTTE in the second week of October’87, the latter had besieged the Indian battalion inside the Jaffna Fort. One of the first tasks of IPKF was to link up with the battalion (hence the name ‘Link Up’) and then to flush out LTTE from its main stronghold – Jaffna Town.
LTTE had laid three eccentric rings of defence to siege the Jaffna Fort. The ‘core’ ring was around the Jaffna Fort in high rise buildings, like Veerasingha Hall and Hotel Ashok. The ‘inner ring was in the heart of the town along all the arteries leading to Jaffna viz along Kokuvil, Thirunelvely, Nullur Temple and Chivacheri and the outer ring was along Anaicottai, Manipay, Maruthananamadam, Urumpirai, Kopai and Navatkuli.
IPKF Outline Plan
IPKF launched three-pronged attacks with a brigade each along KKS Road, Palali Road and Colombo Road. LTTE was able to hold IPKF thrusts along the ‘outer’ ring itself.
At this juncture, 41 Infantry Brigade was inducted on the Island. 5 RAJ RIF (Napiers Rifles) was one of the three battalions of this Brigade.
41 Infantry Brigade Plan
41 Infantry Brigade was given the task of link up with 1 MARATHA LIGHT INFANTRY in Jaffna Fort along the coast from West and capture Jaffna, developing operations from South to North. The Brigade Commander planned to carry out the task in the following manner:-
- Move from Firm Base at Palaley Airport (Induction point) along road Mallakam – Maruthanamadam and contact 8MAHAR at Uduvil.
- Phase 1. ‘A’ Battalion to clear area along the western coast of Jaffna Lagoon and link up with 1 MARATHA LI.
- Phase 2. ‘B Battalion was to follow the advance of ‘A’ Battalion and after link up with Jaffna Fort, to carry out ‘flush out’ operations inside Jaffna Town from South to North.
- 5 RAJ RIF was earmarked as a reserve for the whole operation and was to be located at Maruthanamadam.
‘A’ Battalion led the advance of the Brigade at 1600 hours on October 17, skirting Manipai from North East. Going approximately one km, it was engaged by militants in a bowl and could not move further. ‘B’ Battalion was then ordered and given the choice to either link up with ‘A’ Battalion and then resume advance or go along Manipai – Suthumalai – Jaffna Road and link up with 8 MAHAR Company at Anaicottai, which had been airdropped there to establish a firm base and facilitate link up but were pinned down by the LTTE at dropping location itself. ‘B’ Battalion chose the first option. After link up with ‘A’ Battalion in the Bowl location, it could not make further progress. Hence, both battalions of the Brigade were stuck in the bowl approximately one km from Uduvil, the start point.
It was now 14 hours since ‘A’ Battalion had started operations. At this juncture, at 0400 hours on October 18, 5 RAJ RIF was released to 41 Infantry Brigade for its operations. It started from Maruthanamadam at 0430 hours and reached Uduvil by 0645 hours. At 0700 hours, Commanding Officer (CO) met the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Manjit Singh and was apprised of the latest operational situation.
The Commander was reasonably upset when he briefed the CO as nothing was working as per plan. He informed that he had recommended to the Division that Napier’s Rifles should be landed at Mandaitivu Island (one kilometre South of Jaffna Fort) and link up with 1 MARATHA LI via the causeway. The other plan discussed was to advance with one rifle company from 5 RAJ RIF with four recoilless guns (anti-tank guns) and two BMPs (infantry fighting vehicle) under the Deputy Brigade Commander, to go along Road Manipai – Jaffna axis and link up with 8 MAHAR firm base company at Anaicottai. Briefing of the unit jawans was carried out accordingly to prepare for any of the two eventualities. Half loads were quickly finalized.
At about 1230 hours, the Commander informed the CO that the move via Mandaitivu Island was off due to paucity of helicopters.
Instead of one company moving along Road Manipai – Jaffna under Deputy Brigade Commander, the whole battalion was tasked to link up under command of the CO.
Battle of Manipai
The task given to the unit was to move along axis Manipai – Jaffna and linking up with 8 MAHAR company at Anaicottai which had been surrounded by LTTE and who were causing casualties by the hour, to progress its operations towards Jaffna and link up with 1 MARATHA LI, as early as possible.
For carrying out the task, additional troops allocated to 5 RAJ RIF were two BMPs, two sections of engineers (they also acted interpreters) and two additional recoilless guns from the other two battalions (besides two of unit own). Commander 41 Infantry Brigade desired to accompany the unit along with his ‘R’ group.
I ordered ‘A’ Company to advance along the main axis with one platoon each going off the axis and one platoon and section engineers moving along the main road.
This was done to counter the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which enemy had laid on the road and exploded with remote control from about 80-100 yards off the road. ‘A’ company was given two recoilless.
BMPs were to ordered to follow the leading company.
One platoon ex ‘C’ company, the follow-up company was earmarked to protect the BMPs (BMPs were without the communications and no night vision devices). Brigade Commander moved in one of the APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) and suggested to CO to ride the other one, which was politely declined as his unit was moving on foot and he preferred to be with his men. CO with his ‘R’ group moved with ‘C’ Company. Battalion HQ, ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies were ordered to follow ‘C’ company in that order.
After link up with 8 MAHAR company, the move to Jaffna Fort would continue. The vanguard (leading) company was to change after each encounter with the enemy, otherwise, it would continue till enemy opposition was faced. Personnel from Intelligence and Surveillance Section were distributed among the Companies for navigation.
Battalion mortars were merged with the brigade mortars and they were to give fire support from Uduvil itself. (Range of 81 mm Mortars is 4500-5000 meters). Support of two artillery guns was available from Palaley, but no Fire Observation Officer was allotted.
Officiating GOC, 54Infantry Division with staff moved from Palaley and located itself at Uduvil, to monitor the all-important operations and provide divisional support, if and when required.
The move started at 1330 hours on October 18 with ‘A’ company leading. All platoons of ‘A’ company were given ANPRC (Radio) sets, as the road was having built-up areas on both sides of the road. As the Company Commander was riding on BMP, he could not communicate with his platoons.
The CO had to control their operations for about one hour before the company commander got down from the BMP and resumed his command. Manipai, about one km from Uduvil, was a strongly held locality of the enemy. He had laid extensive Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and was covering the axis with automatic and Small Arms fire.
When the centre platoon of ‘A’ company reached Manipai, a heavy volume of automatic fire coupled with the blasting of IEDs halted their advance. ‘A’ company suffered one JCO and 13 Other Ranks (OR) wounded within 30 minutes of contact.
The operation seemed to be a nonstarter due to heavy casualties and little progress. Firing by BMPs also did not ease up the matter. Small probes proved futile.
After gauging the situation for half an hour, the CO decided to out-flank the enemy’s defences in Manipai from South West and cut him off. ‘B’ company followed by Battalion HQ and ‘D’ company comprised the manoeuvring element. This move proved to be the turning point of the ‘Link-up’ battle. Pressure on ‘A’ and ‘C’ Company’s in contact with the enemy at Manipai was reduced.
‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies met with stiff resistance but ultimately cleared Manipai by 1530 hours. Due to navigational error, the Commander along with ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies instead of taking the southern axis to Suthumalai continued to advance towards Sandilipai. Before the last light when the column checked its present position, it was revealed that they were at Sandilipai. The column halted, took Westward, turn and continued advance. After going about a kilometre, one of the BMPs went over an IED and was blown off. The BMP was lifted approximately 30 feet in the air (incredible but true) because of a large quantity of explosives (estimated to be between 200 and 250 kgs) in it.
Immediately the column commander cleared the enemy, took a diversion to the southwest and started advancing towards the Coastal Road.
En route help of locals as guides and engineers section jawans acting as interpreters helped in navigation (no proper maps were provided). The advance was frequently interrupted by militants firing from the built-up area.
Going along Coastal Road, this column contacted 8 MAHAR company at Mile 3 around 0245 hours the next day.
They were first asked by Division, to provide a secure helipad at Mile 3 for MAHAR company’s casualties (14 of them) to be evacuated, but later on, at about 0430 hours, were ordered to resume advance and effect the link up with Jaffna Fort. The column progressed steadily and reached Navanturai (Mile 1.5) at 1030 hours despite severe opposition at three places en route.
At this juncture Major RK Chaturvedi, ‘C’ Company Commander moving after the two leading scouts was hit by a machine-gun burst.
Despite getting wounded, he kept leading his company till they had negotiated the crucial blind curve along the lagoon embankment. Thereafter due to excessive bleeding, he breathed his last.
Two jawans lost their lives retrieving the body of their Company Commander but did not allow LTTE to take away his body.
The column moved ahead and advanced some distance. ‘A’ company was being commanded by Major PS Sandhu and ‘C’ Coy had been taken over by Subedar Khajan Singh, Senior JCO, after the death of the Company Commander.
The column was by now left with very meagre ammunition.
The personnel example of leadership, bravery and courage shown by Sub Madan Lal and Nk Nunda Ram of ‘C’ Coy and Sub Ranjit Singh Rathore and L/Nk Rajbir Singh of ‘A’ Company saved the day for the Napiers Rifles. On request by the Commander, two BMPs from Jaffna Fort were rushed with ammunition and linked up with advancing column at 1515 hrs. ‘A’ Company Commander was injured in the face while advancing between Navanturai and Jaffna Fort and had to be evacuated.
The link-up with 1 MARATHA LI was effected at 1545 hrs on the same day. Thus, Napiers Rifles became the first IPKF battalion to effect the ‘link up’, achieving the first priority task of IPKF. In this column, one officer and four OR were killed and one officer, 2 JCOs and 10 OR were injured. On link up, the companies were given the task to hold the area between Cremation Ground and Burial Ground ahead of CTO Tower along Hospital Road, which they occupied by 1700 hours.
The other column consisting of ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies and Battalion HQ bypassed Manipai from the southwest as described earlier.
It encountered heavy opposition from defences on the right flank of Manipai, but by this move, the pressure on the ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies column was reduced as the enemy had to readjust his defences and divide attention and forces. 15 LTTE militants were killed, including 10 with weapons.
After bypassing Manipai, the column hit Manipai – Jaffna Road and waited for the other column to link up. When they did not come for two hours and there was no radio link also with them, this column proceeded further informing Officiating GOC who was at Uduvil, monitoring the move.
At Suthumalai, the column encountered yet another major enemy opposition. Possibly enemy from Manipai had withdrawn and was holding a layback position. By a mix of outflanking moves and charging through the enemy defences, the advance was resumed. We contacted MAHAR Company at Anaicottai, on a radio set, at about 0230 hours on October 19. At this time enemy possibly came on the column’s radio net and posing as Major Ganpathy, 8 MAHAR Company Commander guided the column (remember Battalion was without maps) to an area where his heavy machine gun (HMG) was fixed. It was a quick reaction on the part of the leading Company Commander that the whole column escaped annihilation.
The column stopped near a Kulam (Pond) and waited for ‘D’ Company which was still inside Thavadi village. ‘D’ Company which took position inside a double storied house was surrounded by militants who started firing at them from all sides.
At about 0400 hours, the ‘D’ Company Commander was told to break contact and join the rest of the column at Kulum.
Due to the daring action of Captain SS Chopra and the presence of mind of Major BS Bisht, ‘D’ Company Commander, the company not only broke contact but also inflicted casualties on the enemy.
At that time the column was approximately 800 yards from the 8 MAHAR company, but it took five hours to link up with them, as the column encountered two major enemy opposition interposing between the column and the MAHAR company.
After that, the column’s advance to Jaffna Fort was resumed in the evening and linked up with the other column by first light on October 20, not before it had an encounter with the enemy, 300 yards short of Cremation Ground, with the built-up area on one side and lagoon on the other.
In the ‘link up’ operation, the battalion suffered one officer and 8 OR killed and 4 Officers, 4 JCOs and 33 OR were injured. 36 LTTE cadres, including 3 self-styled officers were killed. It was later revealed that from LTTE, their Number 2 in the hierarchy, Mathaya was controlling the operations.
Appreciation telegrams and letters started pouring in from the Army chain of command and even from Defence Minister and the Prime Minister. 5 Officers/JCOs/OR were recommended for Mahavir Chakra (MVC), including CO, 8 for Vir Chakra (VrC) and 10 for Sena Medal(SM), by the Brigade Commander. In the unit’s stay of 14 months, it operated in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Trincomalee Provinces of Sri Lanka, under four Brigades of 54, 4 and 36 Infantry Divisions. Total casualties in OP PAWAN were 2 Officers and 33 OR killed and 4 Officers, 6 JCOs and 84 OR injured. We killed more than 195 LTTE cadres including 19 self-styled officers. The Battalion was conferred 23 gallantry awards – 1 MVC, 4 VrCs, 1 Yudh Seva Medal, 5 SMs, 4 Mention-in-Dispatches, 5 COAS Commendation and 3 Army Commander’s Commendation. I got SM (Gallantry) for the link-up operation and COAS Commendation for later operations.
It is often asked whether India’s involvement in Sri Lanka was justified. It is not for the soldiers to question the wisdom of the democratically elected Government of the day. Suffice to remember that we were given a legitimate task to perform, which we did with our utmost zeal and velour, despite many odds. The handicaps included no maps, no transport, no Regimental Medical Officer, no close air support, no food for the link-up operations, ( the jawans depended on the biscuits and juices which the air hostesses of Air India provided them on landing at Palaley from Lucknow), no forward observation officers for even limited 2 gun artillery support, mortars were out of range within first one hour of advance and BMPs without communication and night vision devices were like moving coffins.
Despite all this, the unit distinguished itself in all the tasks assigned to it. Trust of the Commanders was so complete that every time a fresh task was assigned to the Brigade, it fell on the Napiers to accomplish it and hand it over to other units for safeguarding. Even the General-Officer-in-Commanding of 4 Infantry Division called Napiers Rifles, an only infantry battalion, along with the Para Commando units, to surround Prabhakaran in the jungles of Mullaitivu, in a later operation.
The junior leadership as a whole and the company commanders in particular performed commendably well with professional skill.
Unorthodox methods were adopted to defeat the militants in their own game. I am happy that the training which I got from my Alma Mater, OTS, Madras and the mental endurance which was inculcated there helped me to remain cool even in adverse situations.
Author is an Indian Army veteran and was deployed in Sri Lanka with his unit 5th Rajputana Rifles as part of IPKF. Views Expressed here are personal.
Pic- Author’s collection
Editor’s Note – This article is part of series on Ops Pawan by its veterans.