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The lost offensive

A look down from the glazed cockpit of the IAF'S Chetak helicopter tells more than the hundreds of rumours about what happened to the commando operation to capture the LTTE leadership on the evening of October 11 that brought, instead of quick, surgical success, a bloody disaster.

November 21, 2013 | UPDATED 15:03 IST
A look down from the glazed cockpit of the IAF's Chetak helicopter tells more than the hundreds of rumours about what happened to the commando operation to capture the LTTE leadership on the evening of October 11 that brought, instead of quick, surgical success, a bloody disaster.

On a cityscape packed with the red and green of palm trees and tiled roofs, two open patches, an oval football field and a smaller playground, standout. No commander could have ignored them. Particularly since the IPKF had often picked up LTTE leaders for talks from buildings in the same area.

The football pitch offered a larger opening with fewer built-up areas around it and was selected as the drop zone. The troops were to land by Mi-8 helicopters for a lightning operation to prise out the LTTE headquarters. No parachutes were to be used.

A company (about 70 men) of the 10 Paracommando battalion was to land first and secure the pitch. A second wave of choppers was to follow, with a company of 13 Sikh Light Infantry (LI), flown in just a few hours earlier from Gwalior, to build on the paracommandos' foothold. If things had gone right, the main bodies of troops would then have linked up by land with these heliborne pioneers and finished the LTTE.

But the choppers had just begun to disgorge the paracommandos when they came under fire, some of it from high calibre (up to .5 inch) machine - guns. "They had everything right: range, position, and above all their appreciation of the situation. They knew this was their most crucial battle," said an officer.

For two months now, analysts are trying to figure out how the LTTE was able to pre-empt effectively what was meant to be a surprise attack. It is now believed that the Tigers intercepted the army's radio communication on the plans for the night. "Till then our estimation of their communication equipment was even poorer than our appreciation of their firepower and motivation," says a senior officer.

For the commandos it was a baptism by fire as they searched the nearby buildings for the LTTE leaders who had already escaped. Six commandos were killed and nine were wounded.

Worse followed and that is the most painful untold story of the battle of Jaffna. In the dark of the night and under heavy machine - gun fire, the helicopters bringing the 30 - strong platoon of Sikh LI landed in the other, smaller playground. This area was barely a few hundred yards away but was separated by several lanes of buildings, each a booby - trapped snakepit of the Tamil Tigers' defenders.

The doughty mazhabi Sikhs found something was amiss as they landed right on top of the LTTE battlements. Bullets rained on them and three helicopters were hit. The pilots barely managed to nurse their limping machines back to Palaly and brought the grim news: the platoon was likely to be wiped out, as would reinforcements. The commanders made the devil's choice: leaving the platoon to its own fate.

But for the platoon and its young commander, Major Birendra Singh, the scion of a well - known political family in Bharatpur and a relative of Minister of State for External Affairs K. Natwar Singh, fate was hopelessly cruel. It seems that his radioman was one of the first to be hit, breaking his contact with Palaly. He could reach the paracommandos only on short - range walkie - talkies.

But while the commandos asked him to join he, like a good infantryman, waited for the rest of his company. He did not know it was not coming. And by the time he did, he was encircled.

The first assault came at dawn. And though the troops fought valiantly, each assault left them with less men and bullets. At 11.30 a.m. on October 12, with the last bullet fired, the troops led a bayonet charge. They were cut down to the last man but one, Sepoy Gora Singh: he was taken prisoner and later released by the LTTE. It is his account that details the story of one of the most poignant battles in the history of the Indian Army.

For the LTTE, besides a morale - boosting success, this also brought all the platoon's weapons, uniforms and equipment. The bare bodies of the troops were left on public display in the nearby Nagaraja Vihar temple and then burnt with just a barrel of oil poured over the whole heap. The evidence of the crazy plunder still lies scattered in a nearby building, a former LTTE stronghold. Pieces of the Sikh LI's battle - fatigues, cross - belts, boots, water - bottles and epaulettes still lie mixed with thousands of empty 50 - inch machine - gun shells.

Even as the Sikh LI fought their last battle, a major rescue operation was on to retrieve the commandos. Lieutenant Colonel Dalbir Singh, commandant of the paracommando battalion, led the mission himself with the help of three T - 72 tanks which, at that time, were all the tanks the IPKF had in Sri Lanka.

The roads were hopelessly booby - trapped. So the commander of the tank troupe, Major Anil Kaul, whose father had first raised the regiment (65 Cavalry) decided on an innovation: to drive tanks on the Palaly - Jaffna railway line which passed right next to the campus. Kaul himself was hit by machine - gun fire in his eye and right arm as he merely peeped out to find his way to the railway line.

But his men put him on morphine and fought their way to the campus. And by the time the tanks and paracommandos broke out of the encirclement, two other infantry battalions, the 4/5 Gorkhas and the main body of 13 Sikh LI, had linked up as well.

The paracommandos perhaps survived total disaster thanks to their better training. They conserved ammunition, took cover in the buildings and even succeeded in picking up all of their dead, wounded and the weapons. But even now they talk about the operation with palpable pain.

"For those 18 hours we just prayed and fought. Everything hung by a slender thread," said an officer. How grave the situation was is evident from the fact that directing the rescue operation was none other than Major General Harkirat Singh himself. He was aboard a Chetak helicopter that flew so low as to have a machine - gun bullet go clean through the three - inch space between the seats to which the pilot and the general were harnessed.

The night is now an inseparable part of military history. It has also left painful memories for the desperate men close to the action, particularly the remaining men of 13 Sikh LI, who will now hold special ardas and akhand path on October 12 every year, to remember their 30 lonely and gutsy comrades on the killing fields of Jaffna University.


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