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David Blacker’s Blog

The Advance to Mullaitivu – Phase 2

When I posted the Advance to Mullaitivu on January 8th, the situation was roughly thus:

mullaitivu11

The 53rd Division had just taken the northern side of Elephant Pass, and the 55th was rolling down the northeast coast of the Jaffna Peninsula, squeezing the Tigers into the narrow Chundikilam spit. On the mainland, Task Force 1 — newly formalized as the 58th Division had sent a brigade up the A9 to secure the southern end of Elephant Pass before its other elements started pushing southeast down the A35 against the Tiger’s next line of defence. Further south, the 57th Division was pushing through Irananamadu and across the Old Kandy Road. This division was also in contact, as was elements of Task Force 3 on the 57th’s right flank. Task Force 2, between Karuppaddamuripu and Oddusuddan, lined up just north of the A34 was fairly static. On its right flank, Task Force 4 was in heavy contact in what looked like a probing or diversionary attack up the Oddusuddan – Puthukkudiyiruppu road. At the far right of the line, the 59th Division was fairly static as well, just south of Mullaitivu, though facing regular counterattacks.

My prediction at the time was that of a ‘left hook’ with the main thrust going down the A35, spearheaded by the 58th Division. It’s left flank would be protected by mechanized elements of the 55th, moving quickly across from Elephant Pass if the causeway was motorable. The four division-sized formations south of the 58th would apply pressure into the southern and western sides of the Tiger triangle, moving forward incrementally where possible to threaten the LTTE’s left flank as it defended the A35. The 59th, south of Mullaitivu, would apply maximum pressure against the tigers and act as a pivot for the entire line. However, Task Force 4 could still be used to punch up into the triangle’s underbelly, driving for Puthukkudiyiruppu if the 58th found its advance faltering. I predicted that the end of Phase 1 would look something like this:

mullaitivu21

Elements of the 55th would roll up the northeast coastline and capture the Sea Tiger bases while protecting the 58th’s northern flank as it fought its way to Puthukkudiyiruppu. Once the 58th had punched its way beyond Vishvamadu, Task Force 4 could commence its northward attack towards the Nandikadal Lagoon. Thus, Tiger units south of the A35 would either have to risk being cut off from Mullaitivu and the coast, or fight a desperate rearguard action as they withdrew to Puthukkudiyiruppu, sort of like Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units in the Falaise Gap in 1944. The latter action would have been costly, but would ensure at least some Tiger units in this area would survive to defend Mullaitivu. It would also be the short-term solution. The long-term solution would be to remain south of the A35 and attempt to fight on as a guerrilla force.

For the SL Army, there would have been advantages and disadavantages to such a strategy. On the positive side, they would have cut the Tiger forces in two, and weakened both pockets. It could then detach units to keep the Tigers south of the A35 occupied while it concentrated on cracking Mullaitivu. The SL Army would also have denied the Sea Tigers the use of the coastline northwest of Mullaitivu.

On the negative side, this unsecured area of jungle would pose a threat to the flanks of both TF4 and the 58th, while also threatening both divisions’ logistical tail. To contain such a pocket while simultaneously striking at Mullaitivu would require a high coordination of mobility, air power, and reconnaissance. Whether this capability is available to the SL Security Forces is arguable at best. It also didn’t solve the problem of the civilians in the LTTE-held areas. They would be squeezed in with the Tigers, especially around Mullaitivu.

Meantime, progress of the 58th down the A35 was slow, with the Tigers fighting ferociously and taking heavy casualties in the Tharmapuram area. While actual bodycounts are not readily available, it’s clear that a lightning drive by the 58th wasn’t going to happen. Also, mechanized units of the 53rd and 55th divisions were not moved onto the mainland via Elephant Pass. The earlier-mentioned possibility that the EPS causeway had been either heavily damaged or even destroyed by retreating Tigers is probably the reason for this. Elements of the 55th were therefore forced to take the long way round, down the Cundikulam spit. This lack of immediate flank security for the 58th would have added to its woes, forcing the division to spread itself out to anchor its left flank against the Chundikulam lagoon, and slowing it down further.

To the 58th’s south, the 57th Division was also advancing against heavy LTTE defences. The 57th had two objectives — tactically, it needed to provide flank security to the 58th while strategically it needed to overrun the LTTE airfields and other secure areas east of Iranamadu. Both the 57th and 58th had brigades in heavy contact. The 57th was further slowed down when the Tigers blew up a section of the Kalamadukulam tank bund south of Tharmapuram. The ensuing flooding of the terrain was also used by Tiger commandos to counterattack the 574th Brigade of the 57th using flat-bottomed boats! Tiger artillery fire added to the confusion.

It’s at this point that the SL Army’s superior numbers and newly-acquired battlefield flexibility becomes apparent. Gone are the days of pedestrian thinking, when battlefield commanders hesitated to use their reserves decisively. With LTTE defences concentrated against the 57th, 58th, and 55th divisions, the smaller TF3, TF2, and TF4 advanced rapidly from the south, with TF4 striking in the direction of Puthukkudiyiruppu. The LTTE had to choose. If it withdrew down the A35 — thus losing Vishvamadu and Theravikulam rapidly to the 57th and 58th divisions — it would also lose much of the coast between Mullaitivu and Chundikulam, along with its Sea Tiger bases. If it withdrew from the southern part of the triangle, its defences on the A35 would be soon outflanked. In the event, it looks like the LTTE chose the latter option. TF3, TF2, and TF4 advanced rapidly towards Puthukkudiyiruppu and the A35. The Tigers had chosen to hold the coast instead of the jungle.

While the LTTE was thus diverted, the 59th Division on the far right went into action, in a two-pronged advance. Leaving the 15th Light Infantry facing the Tigers at Chilawatta, Brig Nandana Udawatte, commander of the 59th, sent two brigades up the Thanniyuttu – Puthukkudiyiruppu road that follows the inland edge of the Nandikadal lagoon. As these brigades pushed the Tigers back, the 593rd Brigade under Lt Col Jayantha Gunaratne struck across the shallow southern tip of the lagoon, outflanking Chilawatte and storming Mullaitivu town. The 7th Gemunu watch under Lt Col Chaminda Lamahewa was the first SL Army unit into Mullaitivu in sixteen years. The situation at the time of writing is thus:

mullaitivu3

It is now likely that the LTTE will try to hold a line along the A35 between the Nandikadal lagoon and Vishvamadu, thus retaining a portion of the coast for a while longer. This will not be an easy task with the 55th Division approaching along the coast and the 58th along the A35. It is possible the Tigers might counterattack against Mullaitivu, but they’ll be facing the very same problems the SL army once faced — a narrow easily defended front. Add to this SLAF airpower, and it becomes a no hoper.

For the SL Army, the capture of Mullaitivu is a brilliant stroke — simultaneously depriving the Tigers of a last symbolic stronghold as well as making it impossible for the LTTE to trap civilians in a tiny area. The LTTE — with its civilian shield — will now have to fight it out on the coastal belt, where the SL Security forces superior mobility and firepower will come into play. In such a mobile environment it is hoped that civilians will have a better opportunity to reach safe areas.

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January 26, 2009 - Posted by | War | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

20 Comments »

  1. nice analysis with grate maps. let’s hope the civis will be alright and we’ll win the war! :)

    Comment by sesaonsaw | January 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. Excellent analysis and great writing on the rest of your blog. Tried to buy your book through Amazon UK, but its sold out! Look: http://tinyurl.com/an8sf4 Get your publisher to start sending more copies to the UK:) Cheers.

    Comment by Mango | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks, Mango. If you’re in the UK or Europe, you can order the book online from Off the Shelf in Geneva , or if you like from Vijitha Yapa here in Colombo.

    Comment by David Blacker | January 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. why all the fuss about continued gurrila type war?… they have no forest cover north of A35….. how can hit & run be done in open land with no cover at all… they made the choice because the only chance of escape is by sea route.. if not they would have held the jungle south of A35

    Comment by Mahesh | January 28, 2009 | Reply

  5. Mahesh, the fuss about continued guerrilla warfare isn’t a short-term one. No one is suggesting that the Tigers are gonna carry out guerrilla warfare from north of the A35! But there are several factors that must be noted — none of the LTTE’s top leadership has been killed or captured, none of their heavy support weapons (like arty) has been captured or destroyed, and kills haven’t been coming in large numbers (as far as we can see). So are we to assume that all these individuals, weapons, and troops are crammed in north of the A35? I’m not so sure about that. And if that isn’t the case, what has happened to them? Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that some of the Tiger troops in the heavy jungle between the A34 and A35 have dispersed and exfilterated into cleared areas, and that the LTTE is clinging to the coastline in order to evacuate other valuable assets?

    The SL Army has been expecting a ‘final battle’ for some time now — at Killinochchi, at Mullaitivu — and it hasn’t happened. Isn’t it possible that the Tigers are fighting rearguard actions, delaying the Army advance for as long as possible, while they reposition themselves for Eelam War V?

    Comment by David Blacker | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  6. if they have dispersed in to the jungle south of A35 why are they trying to hold ground they have & by doing so they all ready have lost many men.. arty is useless in jungle warfare
    it’ll be a logistical nightmare just to keep the guns moving… & they will find it impossible to fight as a cohesive force… ya they may try hit and run but if they try to amass a big enough force it will be detected because coordinating a attack will need some sort of communication and jungle south of A35 is to small for the LTTE leadership to hide… if the final counter attack is gonna take place it must be now otherwise it’s to late.. if my thinking is right it’s already to late.. is kills in a large number necessary in a single blow to deplete a force i think not.. they lost small number of men per battle.. but there were lot of battles.. in the past lankan army used to fight in a single front and the tiger counter attack was against that front resulting large number killed… army has lost 3700 men during the last 3 years about 10000 removed from battlefield due to injuries that’s roughly 15000 men.. LTTE must have lost many more.. so can they fight as a conventional force? and the question about long drawn out guerrilla warfare.. is the jungles south of A35 provide the environment capable of sustaning such a war?

    Comment by Mahesh | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  7. i don’t think army ever intended a left hook.. that’s why i said the task forces will do the most of the work because army realized that jungle will create the problem not the LTTE.. even now some of the brigades in 58 57 are in reserve as well as the entire 53 division and they are clearing the jungle… LTTE miscalculated they thought army will do things the conventional way and in the process left there underbelly exposed.

    Comment by Mahesh | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  8. Am I reading General Sarath Fonseka’s blog? :-P

    Comment by Voice in Colombo | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  9. Mahesh, you need to step back and look at the bigger picture. You’re still talking about fighting a guerrilla war from either north or south of the A35 — I’m not. If the Tigers plan to continue a low intensity conflict, why restrict themselves to remaining in close proximity to such big divisional sized units? The LTTE was able to evacuate large numbers of men from the Jaffna Peninsula in spite of the SL Navy’s presence, it was also able to remove its arty pieces from Pooneryn and EPS. I doubt they did that just to have them all destroyed north of the A35. If the Tigers were gonna make a last stand, Mullaitivu was the best place to commit suicide — along with their human shields. The fact that they didn’t, may mean that they’re moving assets out of the trap, and might have been doing so for awhile. If so, they would’ve slipped out into areas beyond the A9 and A34

    To say arty is useless in jungle warfare is nonsense — you just have to use it intelligently, like the Chindits in Burma, the Viet Minh in Vietnam, and the Tigers in SL.

    You’re right that coordinating and launching big offensives will be impossible for the LTTE for awhile for the reasons you’ve given. However, what makes you think that a unit like the Imran Pandiyan or Charles Anthony needs to operate as platoons or companies? If the SL Army can operate in sections and 4-man teams, the LTTE certainly will.

    As for casualties, yes you’re right that a slow bleed can be as damaging as a big wound, but for a total collapse, a big wound is needed. I don’t agree that the LTTE would have necessarily lost more personnel KIA and WIA than the Army — usually the attackers will take more casualties numerically than the defenders.

    My prediction of the left hook was a guesstimate, and it was dependent on many factors, such as the ability of the 55th Division to move in quickly. Once that became impossible, a left hook was not feasible, and so the Army switched the pressure point to the south. I don’t think the LTTE was outthought strategically — the Tigers just don’t have the numbers to hold back all fronts, and something’s gonna give — and it did.

    All the divisions and task forces have had a brigade in reserve from the start, it’s nothing new, as you can see here. That’s normal tactics — a two- or three-brigade front with one in reserve. Within each brigade it’s a two-battalion front with one in reserve. Task Force 3 was the battlefield reserve until the 57th and 58th slowed down in the Tharmapuram-Visvamadu area. TF3 was then committed and the reserve role switched to the new Task Force 5, not the 53rd. The latter cannot really be a reserve force because it has no way of quickly moving onto the mainland. However, the 53rd’s special forces probably have been moved south as a fire force.

    Comment by David Blacker | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  10. Another nice read,DB!!!.

    Just some pointers,which i also posted on sf-3 blog:

    -How did the SLA deploy an MBRL launcher to fire almost horizontally,at the Tigers at a range of 400m!! according to lakbimanews defence

    -Have the Sea Tigers abandoned(almost totally) their attack craft and other vessels to join their land-based cadres?

    -How come the Tigers are still able to deploy armour,like BMP’s and a T-55(or 2?)..

    -The SLA has greatly developed its jungle fighting tactics,agreed, but do they know the terrain as well as the Terra’s?..and why cant the SLAF just napalm some forest areas,so that the Terra’s have no hiding place..

    -DW has posted a conspiracy theory that RAW has rescued Prabha & Co under pressure from Tamilnadu.how feasible and realistic do you feel this is?

    Thanks:)

    Comment by Renegade! | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  11. I haven’t heard the MBRL story, but if it’s true, maybe it was parked on a slope. Tanks sometimes do this when they need to depress their guns.

    I doubt the Sea Tigers have abandoned anything they haven’t been forced to.

    What Tiger BMPs and T-55s are you talking about?

    Use of napalm violates the Geneva Conventions.

    I see no reason RAW would be interested in rescuing VP. They might want to have him stand trial in India, but I doubt they’d risk aggravating the GoSL over this. There are often rumours that have no real basis in truth or evidence — sort of like the story about white mercenaries flying for the TAF.

    Comment by David Blacker | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  12. ya i agree with u about the divisional reserve but at the moment only few battalion size units are actually fighting… most of the 53 infantry units have been moved to mankulam… they have lost a arty gun already.. my point is vietminh had a constant supply chain was supported by the communist block and a land route to get supplies by.. but the tigers have only one supply route,The sea.. this war will be very low level one after the main fighting is over.. some people tried to compare siege of killinochi to battle of stalingrad but the demensions of this war is much smaller and the geography is no way supportive of hit and run raids around highly mobile army units.. what ever the final plans of the LTTE is with out leadership coordination and massive attacks to boast about LTTE will die out like most rebel groups have done over the years and 400 meter MBRL fire is impossibe.. tank gun i would agree but not from a T55… and tigers haven’t got a mechanized unit.. it’s just a load of you know what

    Comment by Mahesh | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  13. Great analysis mate. what do you think happend to the crop dusters of taf. do you think the top leaders will be hunted down or will they escape. do you think the naval blockade is not doig what it was suposed to do, can the ltte leadership escape through that. why din’t the 55th Div march to chalai and finish the ltte navel block. how valuable are the submarine and the arti found yesterday.

    Comment by russ | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  14. Mahesh – you’re right that the intensity of the war will be very low after the conventional phase. And the LTTE will not be planning to use any arty for awhile. They will cache them and try to build up an ammo stockpile for later use if they are able to once more control an area. Also, the LTTE will not be doing hit & run raids around Army units — think early ’80s. They’ll be hitting police stations and the civil infrastructure — basically a guerrilla/terror campaign. So far, large numbers of LTTE small arms and ammo haven’t been captured by the Army. Where are they? Also, the Navy cannot seal the coast — they couldn’t even prevent the Tiger evacuation of the EPS area. And to say that the LTTE has no leadership coordination is premature — we haven’t got their leadership as yet.

    Russ – the TAF aircraft could well have been moved down the coast to safer areas. These are small enough to be transported in a truck, so they can definitely be shipped. I don’t think the Navy blockade is watertight — probably they’re concentrating on blocking escape out to sea, but not close to shore. Also, the discovery of Tiger submarines are worrying — this is the first real proof of this. The MoD hasn’t said whether the captured submarines were operational or still under development. We don’t know if there were more, and if some of them were used to get the Tiger brass out. The 55th is on a very narrow front that prevents a fast advance, so I don’t know how long it’ll take them to close the coast.

    Comment by David Blacker | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  15. about the submarines they lack a rudder from the pictures i saw they are nothing more than point in one direction and propel kind… it’s difficult to develop guided torpedo technology having pressurized firing mechanisms and underwater navigation systems and cram them all in to 35 feet. ya i agree they will try to hit soft targets but will it do any good to there cause? for example take chechniya now.. it’s like east of lanka and dimensions are similar to lankan conflict.. & the methods employed is similar by both governments people get a chance to vote and there is a rapid development plan put forward and is ruled by there own local politicians and for a post conflict scenario east is calm..

    Comment by Mahesh | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  16. DB

    Thanks

    The tigers used to operate around 18 armoured vehicles(maybe more) consisting of captured T-55′s,BMP’s and Buffel APC’s..have all these been neutralized or are we yet to encounter a dug-in fully camofladged T-55 used as a fixed arti-gun or something like the israeli MF’s did in ’67,73?

    Why dint the SLA publish pix of the recently recovered 152mm howitzer gun to substantiate its claims?.and like you said where indeed have all the tiger heavy weapons disappeared to?..most probably packed and stored in underground bunkers?..

    Are we still using the older F-7B’s,after receiving the new F-7G’s?..and i strongly feel the SLAF should standardise its combat aircraft fom the current 4 types to 1 or 2,due to logistical and maintennce issues.

    Comment by Renegade! | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  17. Mahesh – We don’t know if those are the only subs the Tigers have/had. While developing a sub for torpedo firing may be complex, one that can be used for transport and smuggling is another matter. The east isn’t really stable, and whatever situ it’s in presently is also ‘cos the Tigers are occupied in the north. I’m not trying to be full of gloom and doom, but at the same time it’s premature to declare the war won.

    Renegade – I’m a bit skeptical about the numbers you’ve quoted for Tiger armour. One Tiger MBT was recently destroyed by the SLAF. Maybe you should ask these questions on DefenceWire and DefenceNet as well and someone might give you an answer.

    Comment by David Blacker | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  18. Hey David, I love your blog… Have you got any news about Chalai?

    Comment by JC | February 3, 2009 | Reply

  19. 400 meter MBRL fire is impossible

    If you say so, but as the Commandos say, “Nothing is Impossible”. Like using a howitzer as an individual weapon. Lol.

    Comment by David Blacker | February 6, 2009 | Reply

  20. DB…ya making some good points as for 2 of your commentators asked SLA has basically recovered most or all the ltte 130mm & 122mm guns from buried sites in past few weeks also,sea tiger craft mostly destroyed or weapons removed and dumped by fleeing ltte units.Have ya seen images of the ltte MBT & BMP 1 ? So, having said that what the heck happened to VP,Pottu,Soosai & Theepan ? Listen bubba, I dying to know given the fact, they are cornered so badly ?

    With regards to the subs now, it makes perfect sense sea tigers provided midget sub technical knowhow to the Colombian drug cartels as seen in the captured cartel sub off Puerto Rico with Tamil dude ! They bear similiar resemblense to captured sub facility in Mullaitivu wow ?
    Who are these dudes ? Amazing !

    Also Db, Can ya describe the missle like contraption SLA captured north of Mullaitivu ? It’s on defence.lk.

    Thanks mate.

    Comment by Rajarataaurfer | March 4, 2009 | Reply


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