Jaffna University Helidrop
The Jaffna University Helidrop was the first of the operations launched by the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) aimed at disarming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by force and capturing the town of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in the opening stages of Operation Pawan during the active Indian mediation in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Mounted on the midnight of 12 October 1987, the operation was planned as a fast heliborne assault involving Mi-8's of the No.109 HU, the 10th Para Commandos and a contingent of the 13th Sikh LI. The aim of the operation was to capture the LTTE leadership at Jaffna University building which served as the Tactical Headquarters of the LTTE, which was expected to shorten Operation Pawan, the battle for Jaffna. However, the operation ended disastrously, failing to capture its objectives due to intelligence and planning failures. The helidropped force suffered significant casualties, with nearly the entire Sikh LI detachment of twenty-nine troops, along with six paracommandos, falling in battle.
An uneasy truce
The signing of the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord on 29 July 1987 brought a temporary truce to the Sri Lankan Civil War. Under the terms of the agreement, Colombo agreed to a devolution of power to the provinces the Sri Lankan troops were to withdraw to their barracks in the north, the Tamil rebels were to disarm. Also, on the request of President J. R. Jayewardene, India was to send a contingent, the IPKF, to Northern Sri Lanka as a peacekeeping force.
The LTTE, who had enjoyed support from India till then however, agreed to the truce only reluctantly. The Tigers had rejected the Provincial Council framework as inadequate and Prabhakaran had protested against the Indian military intervention. The Tigers resisted the spread of what was deemed India's self-serving aim of binding Sri Lanka into India's geo political sphere of Influence, as well as a sympathy for Sri Lanka's ruling Sinhala community in India outside the support-base in Tamil Nadu. With the induction of the Indian troops, the Tigers initially complied by surrendering arms along the terms of the truce. However, the LTTE boycotted the elections that were held in October and November 1988 along the lines outlined in the accord. The opposition to the induction of Indian troops soon flared into active confrontation. The Indian administration had not expected opposition from the Tigers and was initially taken unaware. The support for Tamil Nationalism in India also raised the spectre to the Indian Govt. of a possible situation of Tamil secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu However, faced with growing diligence from her erstwhile partner, India adopted a strategy of aiding alternative Tamil power bases, including the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, which had emerged strongly in the November 1988 elections, and at the same time continue negotiations with the LTTE.
Peace by any means
The incident that marked the turning point of Indo-LTTE relationship occurred in early October. On 4 October 1987, the Sri Lankan Navy captured an LTTE boat off Point Pedro with seventeen Tigers, including some high-profile leaders of the movement, on board. The Colombo govt alleged the boat was involved in smuggling arms across the Palk Straits and on the grounds denied immunity to these captured Tiger rebels. The LTTE denied this claiming the rebels movement were in accordance with the truce, being in the process of transferring documents for shifting the Tigers Headquarters from Madras to Jaffna. The Sinhalese government intended to bring a number of the rebels captured, including Pulendran, Kumarappa and others, to trial in Colombo for allegedly masterminding the massacre of a hundred and fifty civilians. The Tigers, who were at the time still in negotiation with the Indian authorities, appealed for enforcement of protection by the IPKF. The rebels were at this time in IPKF custody at Palali Airbase pending transfer to Sinhalese authorities. Although the Indian authorities insist that they had explained the possible repercussions of such an action on the fragile truce and exerted considerable pressure on the Sinhalese authorities to desist from proceeding, ultimately the IPKF withdrew allowing the Sri Lankan forces to proceed with transferring the captured rebels to Colombo. The detainees however, attempted mass suicide by swallowing cyanide- a common LTTE practice when faced imminent capture. The night of 5 October saw large scale slaughter of Sinhalese people who had returned to Jaffna, including eight troops of the Sri Lankan Army who were at the time being held hostages by the LTTE. These coincided by armed confrontations between the Tiger Cadres and the Indian Troops in and around Jaffna. On 8 October, the LTTE carried out a number of mortar attacks and ambushes on the IPKF. The deterioration of the situation put the Indian government into a position of having to enforce peace in Jaffna by force. The Indian government had already been accused of inaction in the face of a failing accord. It was declared on 9 October that the IPKF was to launch a terminal campaign against the LTTE.
The Indian intelligence reports received on 10 October indicated that the a Tigers' meeting was to be held at Kokuvil in the Jaffna University campus on the night of the 11 October. Intelligence further indicated the meeting was to be attended by a number of high-profile Tiger leaders, including Velupillai Prabhakaran, Gopalaswamy Mahendraraja (alias Mahattaya), as well as the LTTE local commanders. The Indian Army was aware even before this that the LTTE had been using the University as their operational headquarters. The Indian Forces had already prepared for a Special Helicopter Borne Operation against Jaffna University. With these reports, Gen Harikat Singh- GOC 54 Division, took the decision to use the window offered by this meeting to capture the LTTE leadership—a move that was expected to leave the rebel movement directionless in the face of the impending assault on the LTTE strongholds by the IPKF.
The final plan tasked a hundred and twenty commandos from the 10th Paracommando group and three hundred and sixty troops from the 13th Sikh LI for the mission. The Para Commandos and the delta company of 13 Sikh LI were to be helidropped into the University Football ground in three waves of four helicopters. The rest of the Sikh LI contingent was to advance on the ground to link up with the heliborne troops. To minimise exposure to ground-fire, fast-roping was ruled out and the decision was made to assign the first wave of the Paras with the additional responsibility as pathfinders to mark the drop-zone. The operation was to use four Mi-8s flying from Palay airfield, two from the No.109 HU, and one each from the No.107 HU and the No.112 HU. The Mi-8s had provisions for fitting rocket pods; this was deemed not necessary since the IPKF did not anticipate any significant resistance from the ground. A Sri Lankan Air Force Bell gunship was detailed to carry out a diversionary strike west of the drop-zone across the railway tracks, which the Indian troops were under strict orders not to exceed.
On the morning of 11 October, a reconnaissance flight over the University however revealed that the football field- the designated drop-zone- may be unable to accommodate four helicopters in a single wave. Holding off outside the dropzone in the face of expected hostile fire was ruled out and a change in the plans saw the decision made to divide each wave into two flights of a pair of Mi-8s. The second flight was to leave Palay Airfield- about four minutes flying time from the drop zone- only after the first flights had started on their return leg after disembarkation of their contingent. The whole operation was expected to last for ninety minutes.
Unknown to the Indian intelligence, the Tigers had intercepted Indian radio communications, had advanced knowledge of the operation, and had correctly identified the landing ground. Jaffna University had been turned into a fortress. Several 0.50 calibre machineguns had been moved to the north of the football field, and Tiger cadres had laid an ambush for the Indian troops.
The operation H-Hour was set at midnight of the 11th. Led by Maj Sheonan Singh, the first stick of forty Paras were inserted in the first flight of two Mi-8s. The formation, led by Wg Cdr Sapre and Sqn Ldr Vinayraj as number two, approached the drop zone in low visibility observing complete black-out. The flights had only their formation lights—situated on top of the tail boom—switched on. These were turned off as the flight entered its short finals. Because of this complete blackout, the direction of approach of the first flights was missed by the Tigers. The two helicopters therefore entered the landing ground unopposed. However, as the commandos disgorged and moved to take defensive positions, they were pinned down by sustained fire from the Tiger positions. Both Sapre and Vinayraj's flight came under fire as they took off on full power, but did not suffer any hits. Under heavy fire, the paras were unable to mark the drop-zone in time for the next stick. As the second flight approached the dropzone, the pilots Flt Lt V Prakash and Sqn Ldr Duraiswami could identify the flashes of small arms fire and grenades. However, added to this, the tracers from the SLAF gunship detailed for the diversionary attack were also identified as groundfire. The pilots, unable to identify the dropzone after considerable efforts, aborted the mission. The paras on the ground were by this time nearly completely encircled by the Tigers.
By the time the first flight of the second wave—flown again by Sapre and Vinayraj—took off from Palali airbase however, the Tigers had been able to identify the approach route and moved troops and heavy machine guns to the rooftop of a building north of the field. As Sapre and Vinayraj approached their target zone, the Tigers directed heavy and sustained machinegun fire to the choppers, aiming at the cargo-hold. As the heavy machine gun fire pierced the metal skin of the helicopters, at least one commando on Vinayraj's flight was hit and wounded badly. The pilots however, were able to land and drop their load. Under increasingly intense ground fire, they took off to head back to Palali.
As the paras tried to hold their ground, waiting for the rest of the detail to reinforce, however, they came under sniper fire. The LTTE had already moved in snipers armed with telescopic sights, and as the battle raged, they were able to inflict casualties on the paras trying to hold their ground.
However, Duraiswamy and Prakash, unable to identify the LG, had not commenced on their second flight. By the time the first flight of the second wave landed back at Palali, the paras numbered eighty instead of the preplanned hundred and twenty. The decision was made for the two flights to exchange pilots, with Sapre and Vinayraj as the flight leaders of both the flights.
Delayed insertion of Delta Company
As the pilots prepared to insert the first troops of the Delta company, 13th Sikh Light Infantry, the operation was delayed by twenty minutes. Later analysis would show this may have been due to the Sikh LI troops, who were infantrymen, not being aware of the embarkation routine of heliborne operations. Furthermore, the troop load of twenty had to be reduced to fifteen to accommodate the ammunition boxes for the troops.
The third shuttle departed with Wg Cdr Sapre leading and Sqn Ldr Duraiswami as No.2. Under intense fire from LTTE positions, the load of 40 paras and 15 Sikh LI along with the ammunition boxes unloaded. Sapre’s Mi-8 was heavily damaged.
As the second shuttle came in for their insertion, however, they faced a new threat as the Tigers brought RPG fire to bear against the helicopters. Heavy machine gun fire also hit the helicopters.
Vinayraj's load of forty paratroopers quickly disembarked; however, although the Sikh LI troops from Prakash's flight disembarked without any problems, it seems that there was some delay in dislodging the ammunition boxes, which further delayed the return flight Under heavy ground fire, the Mi-8s limped home to Palali.
Aborting further insertions
As the heavily damaged choppers returned to Palali airbase, it became clear that further missions might be impossible. Sqn Ldr Vinayraj's helicopter had sustained significant damage. The undercarriage had been hit, the portside battery compartment cover was missing and the whole fuselage was peppered with bullet holes. Wg Cdr Sapre’s Mi-8 returned with its hydraulic system damaged.
It was also evident that the Tigers had improved the organisation and accuracy of ground fire during the third run. The Indian helicopters also faced a possible situation of RPG fire. Although Duraiswami’s and Prakash’s Mi-8s were still serviceable, it would have been very risky to fly directly over LTTE battlements in order to drop another 30 more troops.
After great deliberation, the decision was made by the IAF Commander, Gp Capt. M.P Premi, to abort further drops by the helicopters. GOC 54 Div, Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, was informed by Gp Capt Premi about the situation, and told the Mi-8s were not in a position to carry out further troop insertions. As Maj Sheonan Singh, leading the Para Commandos, was informed that no more support was available, Sheonan asked the GOC for the plan of action. By this time, although the hundred and twenty para commandos were in position, only thirty of the intended three hundred and sixty Sikh LI troops had been inserted. and sniper fire had picked off the Sikh LI radio man. All messages that received were relayed via the Para Commandos through hand-held short range walkie-talkies. At the landing ground, the battle was so intense that in many cases the Indian troops were not able to see the LTTE snipers and attackers. Under heavy fire from all sides, and coming under sniper fire, the troops were under orders not to use heavy weapons. The Sikh LI, as well as the commandos, were in danger of getting bogged down.
Debating over the choice to scrub the mission and extract the troops, and the possibility of capturing the LTTE high command, and in particular, hunt down Prabhakaran, the decision was taken by Harikat Singh to instruct the Para Commandos to stick to the operational plans already set. The Para Commandos would leave the landing ground and hunt for the place where the LTTE leaders were supposed to be hiding, while the Sikh LI troops would be left behind to hold the landing ground.
Although under intense fire and with few troops, Birendra Singh, leading the Sikh LI, had earlier communicated to Sheonan Singh that he would prefer to hold the landing ground and wait for the rest of his company to come. As the battle progressed the Commandos informed the Sikh LI of the turn of events. By this time, Para Commandos had already set off for the task in hand and had separated from the Sikh LI troops. Maj Gen Harkirat Singh would later claim that Birendra Singh had not dug with his troops at the landing ground, nor taken cover in the nearby buildings despite Para Commando advice. Over the course of their search, the Para Commandoes ran into a local LTTE sympathiser who claimed to know the location of the Commandos' targets. Following the man, the commandos were waylaid and were soon lost. By daybreak, they had retreated to a couple of houses in the area and fortified themselves in the premises.
With all radio contact with the Sikh LI platoon lost and their fate unknown, the Para Commandos' situation now became the major concern for all those in HQ 54 Div. As the morning progressed, GOC Maj Gen Harkirat Singh arrived in an Army Chetak to carry out a personal reconnaissance of the situation, drawing heavy small fire from the ground. One bullet went clean through the floor and into the space between where Harkirat was sitting and the pilot.
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With the commandos still holding out, plans were put in place at the 54 Division to extricate them. Lt. Col. Dalbir Singh, leading a relief force of the 10 Para CO, along with three T-72 tanks from the 65 Armoured Regiment, mobillised to rescue the holed-up commandos. However, the Tigers had laid an IED minefield on the approach roads, through which the 10 Paras simply could not proceed. The 10 Paras considered abandoning the rescue attempt in order to avoid another nightmare.
It was at this point that the commander of the tank troop, Major Anil Kaul, devised an alternate route. Kaul was aware that the railway tracks of the Palaly-Jaffna rail line passed behind Jaffna university. Kaul took the decision to drive his tanks on the rail tracks. However, as the tanks fought their way in, passing through the narrow lanes, RPG fire hit his tank in the turret. The explosion sprayed splinters over his eye and arm and severed his wedding ring finger. He was put on morphine by his men. Kaul would live to fight another day. The 4/5 Gorkhas and ground detachment of the 13 Sikh LI had linked up by this time. The besieged Paracommandos were successfully extricated. It was nearly eighteen hours since the beleaugured Para Commando company first landed at the University grounds.
Delta Company, 13 Sikh LI
Although the Paracommandos were successfully extricated, the fate of the Sikh LI remained largely unknown until recounted by Sepoy Gora Singh, who had been taken prisoner, and was later released. Through the night, the Sikh LI had progressively been annihilated. Birendra Singh and his Platoon Commander Subedar Sampuran Singh fell to enemy fire sometime in the morning. By 11:30 am on 12 October, Delta company was down to three Jawans surviving. When they ran out of ammunition, the three survivors attempted a bayonet charge. Two were killed by LTTE gunfire and the last man, Sepoy Gora Singh, was taken prisoner. When the Indian army finally reached the area after a week of heavy fighting, they found the battlefield littered with pieces of Sikh LI's uniforms and equipment, along with thousands of .50 MG shells.
According to Singh, the dead Sikhs were stripped of their weapons, uniforms and equipment and their bare bodies laid out in a row at the nearby Buddhist Nagaraja Vihar temple. The corpses were burnt with a barrel of oil. The LTTE claimed to have tried to get in touch with the IPKF HQ at Palaly, but their efforts to get them collect the dead bodies were in vain. The bodies had started to decompose, and they had no option but to cremate them.
In total the Delta company lost 29 men killed in action, accounting for almost all of the Sikh LI casualties. The Para Commandos lost six men in the battle.
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