At the beginning of the year 591 was positioned along the MULLATIVU coast at CHILAWATTA held back by two earth bunds connecting the sea front from the East to the lagoon at the West. Unlike the massive ditch cum bunds 57 and 58 has to contend with at AKKARAYANKULAM or PARANTHAN-IRANAMADU areas, these bunds were not so formidable. Primary reason can be attributed to the soft sandy soil of the area. Another reason is the disruptions to the fortifications caused by the forward exploitation forces of 59.
593 meanwhile had overcome the defensive earth bunds north of MULLIYAWALI and TANNIYUTTU and have positioned themselves in the woodlands just South of PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU buildup area. To their flank west 592 and TFIV are stationed.
The PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU buildup roughly spans 5Km West to East and runs towards the Northern edge of the NANTHIKADAL lagoon. This hampered the 593's initial plan of circumventing the MULLATIVU town altogether and cutting the A35 thereby isolating the entire MULLATIVU coastal strip from the North of the lagoon. A similar strategy was successfully employed in capturing NACHCHIKUDA, Devil's point and ALAMPIL. The difference this time was the civilian buildup. As briefed earlier, in spite of a great build up of force it is always a very difficult sort of operation to achieve success in an urban or semi urban environment particularly when many civilians are present in the vicinity. Urban warfare is still the most vicious form of warfare. It demands great tenacity, great precision, great courage and above all demands that individual soldiers to conduct operations with little support fire in the most dangerous of situations. Therefore battle planners must be absolutely clear on why they are getting locked into this particularly risky type of operation and how the target fits to the overall battleplan. It is therefore important to the commander who is considering putting his troops into a city to have a clear idea what he is trying to accomplish.
With 593 unable to cut off the A35 from the North, battleplanners set to work. Emulating Operation Trudy Jackson led by Lieutenant Eugene Clark that relayed detailed intelligence on enemy defences, sea tide ranges, whether the beach could hold assault vehicles back to General Douglas Mcarthur during the Battle of Incheon, amphibious reconnaissance teams were dispatched particularly to map out the lagoon for a successful penetration corridor and for advanced surveillance of the MULLATIVU town defences. Such reconnaissance missions were carried out extensively for roughly a week before D-day. The reason being unlike the UPPARU lagoon at VAHARAI, the NANTHIKADAL lagoon is much deeper in some areas and the target length to cross was much wider. Further vital intelligence were gathered with SLAF's recon aircraft. Thanks to shrinking territory the recon assets of the SLAF have been able to keep tabs on most locations on a consistent basis when larger swathes of territory during the initial stages somewhat overstretched the SLAF's recon capability. With these scouting the battleplanners were creating a flank. Flank attack is ideal since it allows the commander to appear where the enemy least expects you to. The idea is not to hit the enemy head on but hit him in the side where he might be weak. If a formation comes from the front towards 100 men, all 100 can shoot at it, but if it comes from the side and if the defence line is only 3 deep, then only 3 can engage the incoming formation. Hence it can literally roll down the flank and crush the defender 3 at a time.
On D-day as planned exploitation forces were poured into the MULLATIVU town bypassing the two sand bunds that lay South of the town and cut off the A35 and A34 from some points while 591 made a head on assault on the bunds. By 25th January the town had fallen.
Another reason for this manoeuvre was the narrow frontage of 2Km that was available for 591 to exploit. Further that hampered any forward advance was the open land that provided scant cover and concealment for attacking squads and their buddy teams. The multiple bunds also meant that any Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) that ferried squads across open land were not able to provide any more close support beyond the first defence line which was again open ground which is easily visible for the defenders' forward observers.
A similar predicament was faced by the 553 brigade that was inching South towards the Sea Tiger base CHALAI from CHUNDIKULAM. The thin isthmus of land meant this brigade too had to conduct its assault on a narrow frontage with a width of roughly 1Km. Further was the fact heavily mined beachfronts and four sand bunds that lay ahead. In some instances engineers reported to have cleared a deadly gourmet of nearly 800 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines within a 200m stretch. Knowing the tough route ahead 55 commanders decided to induct 552 brigade later towards the assault. Securing their flank from further inland was 581 brigade. This augmented the security of the 55 divisional thrust because moving ahead on a 1km corridor presents inherent risks of being easily cutoff since any Tiger counterattacks either from the seafront via boats or from inland requires a penetration of a mere 1km to cutoff forward operating units of 55.
The inherent disadvantages of a narrow frontage are manifold. One particular operation during World War II highlights the disadvantages of a narrow frontage. After the D-day landing on June 6th 1944 Allied Commander Bernard Montgomery conceived two major operations; Goodwood and Cobra to breach the German defences and initiate a swift breakout of the lodgement phase of the assault beach landing. The first of the two operations, Goodwood was to be commanded by Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey with the objective to drive the Germans from the banks of the river Orne and Southern Caen. Despite an overall frontage of over 15Kms to exploit, Monty and Dempsey had planned the primary thrust using a narrow frontage of only 2km. Hence the three tank divisions of Miles Dempsey's allied forces were concentrated on this very narrow 2Km stretch of an overall front which spanned over 15Kms. This way Montgomery intended to provide maximum preponderance with a high local Force to Force Ratio (FFR) head on at this point to achieve a breakthrough while rest of the frontage was expected to conduct supporting attacks with a lesser numerical edge.
Because the frontage was narrow the resulting traffic congestion delayed the 8th corps to mobilise all 3 tank divisions into action on the first day as planned. Even during second day of battle the 7th armoured core saw little combat. Due to this immobility the actual initial local FFR at the point of attack was a much lower figure than what Monty calculated to be at the planning phase. Even though Monty had his reserves they are usually excluded from local FFR calculations precisely because their mobility makes it possible for them to fight in many possible places rather than on any particular frontage. The Germans however had anticipated and were preparing for a British offensive in the vicinity of Caen and had placed their reserves nearby to facilitate rapid commitment should such an offensive occur.
In theory this narrow frontage may have ensured a high local FFR but in exchange it posed a number of important problems. The front was so narrow that enfilading fire from German positions on either flank had the ability to sweep the entire penetration corridor thus interfering with British resupply and reducing the freedom to manoeuvre. The narrow frontage forced the British to form the three divisions one behind the other rather than bringing all three into action simultaneously. Perhaps more important, it created serious congestion in the British rear where assembly areas and approach routes were located. This made combined arms integration much harder since it is common practice to position artillery to the rear. In principle combined arms fire and movement should have been employed to maintain suppression while the attackers made first contact with the enemy. However it was not to be. The attack by then had moved beyond the reach of the British batteries and the congestion in the march columns had kept the artillery from moving forward into supporting range to sustain the creeping barrage. With no artillery support forthcoming an attempt was made for a second saturation bombing later during the day, but the massive air effort earlier during the day had left the air forces unable to respond quickly to a new mission. Despite small scale CAS type sorties the failure of a breakthrough was inevitable because sustained suppressive fires of the kind needed to screen an extended advance in massed formations over open ground were unavailable.
Moving forward through a narrow penetrative corridor means that there are fewer smaller routes of access for supplies. Fewer smaller routes of supplies means the troops that poured in through will move slower with slower commitment hence the forces can only sustain a smaller exploitation force. Further such a narrow frontage increases the vulnerability of a potential counterattack for, the counterattacking Tigers require only to advance a short distance to cut the supply route. Therefore movement along a narrow penetrative corridor is always inherently risky. For this reason it can be expected that 552/553 will not move further South of CHALAI without the flanking support of the 58 Division moving parallel to them. What the parallel coordinated movement of these two divisions does is, it expands the frontage.
Even though MULLATIVU was captured it did not make the NANTHIKADAL lagoon any safer. The Northern and North Eastern segment of the lagoon still lay in Tiger hands giving them the opportunity to outflank the 59 division via the lagoon in anyway they want. Outboard motors of sea tiger boats also meant the outflanking could be achieved in one swift stroke either to the East to cut off MULLATIVU or to the West to cut off PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU South. The lagoon stretching 10Km further South towards MULLIYAWALI and TANNIYUTTU also meant they could reach this area via boats in a small matter of 10 to 15 minutes. A similar situation was faced by troops operating at the KILALY FDLs before hence as 53 Division had done MBTs were positioned overlooking the lagoon. Tanks are direct fire weapons hence can provide a firing solution quicker than artillery which lacks a direct LOS. Time in instances like these is the key since in a small matter of minutes the Sea Tigers are capable of reaching a secure shore and disembark.
Exploiting the geographical advantage of the lagoon which they had used to train for decades, sea tigers infiltrated under the cover of darkness on the 1st of February. Their primary infiltration points were muddy/soggy stretches of the lagoon where MBTs/IFVs have limited mobility. These areas helped the boats to beach further inland. Once the boats were beached a hail of artillery fire began to land on or around the vicinity of ammo dumps, MBTs, known troop concentrations, brigade HQ etc to disrupt the rear support of the 59 Division. The intelligence the Tigers had at hand raises the question if the Tigers too had carried out a Trudy Jackson type recon operation days before the attack. Amidst the chaos more boats had begun beaching with some infiltrating even further South of the VATTAPPALAI Amman kovil. Radar plots were providing vital intelligence of the locations of the Tiger support fire batteries. Not surprisingly the sustained fire of 130mm/122mm/152mm were plotted to be originating from the Civilian Safety Zone. The CFFZ being located within a densely populated area made the commanders to act with restraint with regards to long range artillery and instead had to resort mainly to heavy mortar fire that pose less potential for collateral damage from 58/57 Division that was operating closest to the CFFZ.
Using fluid defence tactics described in detail later in this brief, commanders inducted the available reserves while withdrawing frontline troops that risked being isolated by the flanking Tiger manoeuvres. This move also meant the flank the Tigers had planned to exploit was minimised. In order to do this commanders must have the defence in depth factor. Depth is an invaluable tradeoff for any defender. Deeper the defence the lower the risk of breakthrough. However, deeper the defence, lighter the defence becomes at the front and thus more ground an attacker can gain before being halted by counterconcentrating reserves. Further was the fact of the superior training of the squad leaders. At training level they are trained to observe vital indicators such as number of enemy automatic weapons, presence of any vehicles, the number of vehicles and the concentration of indirect fires that might give away the extent of the attack they are facing. Depending on the extent of the attack they are trained to either react to contact or to break contact with the enemy.
The Tamil Tiger offensive to recapture lost territory is quite similar to General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s Tet Offensive in 1968 since it was conducted days before the Sri Lankan 61st Independence day celebrations. The celebratory event at Colombo had mustered many foreign media personnel and any territorial gain by the Tigers no matter how temporarily it is, would have raised serious question marks over Colombo’s military offensive against the Tigers. It is in this light one must consider General Giap’s objectives in his 1968 Tet Offensive. With his South Vietnamese Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces losing militarily due to aggressive tactics of General William Westmooreland, General Giap's only hope was to win a political rather than a military victory. In the US anti war demonstrators were already marching on the streets and Giap was aware of it. Giap hoped his new plan will deal enough of a defeat to the Americans to put pressure on President Lyndon Johnson to end the war or withdraw his troops. Up to 1968 Giap's campaign centred around small to medium sized attacks and daily small skirmishes to harass his American and South Vietnamese enemies. General Giap decided to change his tactics totally and to use his forces to attack urban targets including Saigon and 36 other provincial capitals and towns which were perceived to be safe from the VC. In Saigon his forces were to target six primary objectives; the HQ of the South Vietnamese joint chief of staff, The independence palace where South Vietnamese President has his office, Tan Son Nhat airbase, Vietnamese Navy HQ and the national broadcasting station. His sixth target had no military value whatsoever but was key in terms of his political objective - the American embassy in Saigon. Despite the VC unable to break into the embassy itself, the initial press reports suggested that the embassy compound was under siege which made immediate headlines in the US. At first light the US killed the surviving VC. General Westmooreland gave a press conference from the newly secured compound to exude confidence and explained the embassy itself was never penetrated. But what Americans saw on TV was a scene of carnage. Dead VC were broadcast on TV but within the embassy compound grounds. With this General Giap was achieving his political objective. In almost every VC attack during the offensive American forces retook the targets as easily as the VC seized them. The VC suffered a decisive military defeat with massive losses with some 45000 dead and nearly 7000 captured. Even if failed miserably to tilt the military balance, it tilted the political pressure in favour of the Giap.
Previously the Tamil Tigers conducted their counterattacks/offensives in a limited manner with the main objective of recapturing their lost strongpoints and bunkers along the earthbunds. They very well knew their limitations in such scenarios since any ambitious counterattack plans runs the risk of overstretching itself and running a long line of communications and supplies. With an overstretched supply lines they also risk a counterstrike by the Sri Lankan armed forces themselves, for during the current theatre of operations the far sighted battleplanners have made sure the forces have employed the fluid defence tactics in addition to the defence in depth factor with the swathes of territory already under armed forces control.
Fluid defence is a defence that comprises depth and reserves. Depth compels the attacker to penetrate many kilometres before achieving a breakthrough but the density of the forward defence the attacker will face at any point is light. Hence it is quite common for the attacker to gain ground initially. As attacking formations dig deeper through the defence, formations begin to break down, attacking units begin to enter unscouted terrain and begin to face obstacles unknown to pre-battle reconnaissance. Hence a further an attack travels, progressively the power of the attack erodes. This entropic effect of depth, thus sets up the SLA reserves' ability for a successful counterattack. The fluidity to the defence is added by defensive reserves positioned well to the rear which the attacker finds hard to pin down into one position hence are readily available to counterconcentrate at any point where it is needed. The increased manpower of the Sri Lankan armed forces has allowed the battleplanners to allow certain brigades and at times entire divisions to be kept on reserve such as the 571 attached to 57 Division or the entire 53 Division. The presence of the Air Mobile Brigade in this division also makes it an ideal reserve force since it allows the battleplanners to deploy the reserves on short notice. In a nutshell depth of a defence provides time for the defence to muster its defensive reserves at the rear to counterconcentrate against the attacker and counterattack. This is fluid defence or elasticity of defence.
With these factors in mind, it is highly questionable if the Tamil Tigers were indeed capable of holding the grounds of MULLATIVU/MULLIYAWALI/TANNIYUTTU upto ODDUSUDAN they recaptured if they really had succeeded. According to tactical intelligence reports it was the very reserves that was meant to conduct limited counterattacks to augment their own fluid defence manoeuvres, the Tigers had used in this failed offensive. This was clearly evident when 552/553 broke through four sand bunds along the thin isthmus of land North of CHALAI and move into the base on 5th of February. Usually once a defence line falls it was quite normal for the Tigers to conduct a limited counterattack attempting to regain the lost defensive positions. However on this occasion it was not to be. In other words the commanders were extremely clever and shrewd to exploit the already mobilised reserves. This is something the Tigers did not anticipate.
As mentioned in an earlier brief if the Tigers are to conduct a counterstrike it has to do so in a sustainable manner where it can replenish its lost cadre as well as the ammunition. If it opted for a region in the Wanni as it did recently and launches a counterstrike with all its reserves to regain a region of the Wanni it may succeed temporarily. However, whether it will be the Gordian knot for its woes is the million dollar question. MULLATIVU area holds no population base hence the Tamil Tigers will not be in a position to recruit its lost cadre. It may manage to replenish a small fraction of its supplies across the oceans barring naval interception but still it will fail to meet the requirement since annihilating 59 Division alone will not mean the Tigers have seen the back of the Sri Lankan armed forces. By having mobilised its entire reserve cadre to regain land means it would have lost whatever it had barring MULLATIVU and will be staring down the barrel of the rest of the offensive divisions.
Therefore if the Tigers are to launch a successful counterattack, it has to be a region that holds a sizeable population base for new recruits and an area that is close enough to smuggle in vital supplies. Out of the entire Northern theatre of operations only the Jaffna peninsula brings forth such rich dividends. Jaffna peninsula holds a population base of over 650000 compared to the sparsely populated Wanni which estimates are thought to hold less than 100000. And it is in close proximity to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where many Tamil Tiger safe houses are known to exist. With the entire peninsula under its control it will have plenty of coastal belts to continue its smuggling operations with impunity. But since 53/55 Divisions have been mobilised it completely negates the Tamil Tigers' ability to launch ANY counterstrike to get a foothold on the Jaffna peninsula - the cultural centre of the Eelam ethos. This is why earlier I briefed my avid readers that any counterstrike by the Tamil Tigers after 53/55 have been mobilised may come too little too late.
The failure of this counterattack to retake MULLATIVU and its suburbs even before it began and the timing of the offensive to coincide with the 61st Independence day celebrations which was attracting national and international media attention allows it to be compared to 1968's Tet offensive which was again doomed to fail in a military perspective. Unlike Giap's VC which held towns like HUE for a month before being annihilated, the Tiger offensive was grounded to a halt in a matter of days without achieving any of its objectives. Unrealistic military objectives, cadres initiating burial of its assets and over 10000 civilians crossing over to Government territory over the last week, signals the end game for the Tigers. From here on the politicians of the Government as well as the opposition will have to shoot out of the blocks for it is not long before the baton will exchange hands from the military.