The Advance to Mullaitivu – Phase 2
When I posted the Advance to Mullaitivu on January 8th, the situation was roughly thus:
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:
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:
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.