Chapter 3 : Descent Into Danger - The Jaffna University Helidrop
- Category: The Sri Lankan Interlude 1987-90
- Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 November 2009 16:24
- Written by Jagan Pillarisetti
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”Details are now available of the action on the night of October 12th when 29 Indian soldiers were killed and one was taken prisoner in a Commando raid on Jaffna University. The raid was carried out by a group of Para Commandos ferried to a landing ground by Helicopters. While the first force of Para Commandos were dropped and carried out their mission successfully, a second force of 30 jawans from Sikh LI regiment were surrounded and fought valiantly to the last man before being overwhelmed”
---The Hindu, October 20th, 1987.
As the mandate of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) changed to enforcing peace by any means, The fighting centered around the capture of Jaffna Town. Jaffna had been in the hands of the LTTE for quite a number of years and its capture would be a psychological victory for the IPKF. At that time, there were about 6000 IPKF troops in the Jaffna Peninsula. Facing them were nearly 2500 LTTE guerillas who operated without uniforms, with public sympathy and full knowledge of the terrain and conditions. No wonder that the fighting was to soon get bogged down in bitter street-to-street fighting.
It was common knowledge that during the preceding Ceasefire, the LTTE had made a few buildings in the Jaffna University Campus as their Tactical Headquarters. As recent as October 7th, Lt Gen Depinder Singh flew down to the Campus to meet up with Prabhakaran, the LTTE Supremo to try and negotiate a peaceful settlement. The visit did not bear any fruit. Prabhakaran refused to give any commitments and moreover, as soon as Depinder Singh came off, the LTTE had started making attacks on Indian Troops. The Chief of Army Staff , General Sunderji had given orders to the IPKF to bring the LTTE to surrender its arms and make sure that peace is established in accordance to the Indo Sri Lankan Accord.
On October 10th, Intelligence inputs suggested that the LTTE leadership, which included not only Prabhakaran but also his deputies like Mahatiya and local military commanders were going to attend a meeting at their tactical HQ at Kokuvil in the Jaffna University campus on the night of October 11th. Not surprisingly the Army decided to utilize this opportunity of capturing them all and cut short the bitter fighting that lay ahead for the capture of Jaffna. A Special Helicopter Borne Operation (SHBO) was already planned earlier in which troops would be dropped in Jaffna University. The troops, would try to capture the LTTE Top leaders in a lightning strike and bring to end the resistance of the LTTE.
Jaffna had a very token presence of the Indian Air Force consisting of four Mil Mi-8 Helicopters. Group Captain MP Premi VrC, who was the Base Commander was in charge of the IAF Dettachment at Jaffna. The four Mi-8s at Jaffna were all that were available for the Heliborne Operation in the whole of Sri Lanka. Till then, they were engaged in the routine task of supplying forward troops, casualty evacuation and airlifting troops to forward areas. This motley force was from different Helicopter Units. Two were from 109HU from Sulur. One was from 112HU from Yelahanka. The last Mi-8 was from 107HU. In addition to the Mi-8s, a solitary Chetak from the Army’s Aviation Wing was stationed in Jaffna to provide the mobility to the GOC of 54 Infantry Division.
109HU had the largest component available in Jaffna. Initially based at Sulur’s 43 Wing, they were moved down to Tanjavur and finally to Jaffna. The Commanding Officer Wg Cdr VKN Sapre was the head of 109’s detachment which consisted of Sqn Ldr Duraiswami, Sqn Ldr VSN Nath and Flt Lt B Ramesh – all Mi-8 pilots.
112HU was a Mi-8 Conversion and Training Unit based at Yelahanka near Bangalore before the Sri Lankan Accord was signed. When the airlift into Jaffna began, the Unit started operating a detachment from Tanjavur from where it flew sorties to Jaffna. Soon afterwards the unit started maintaining one Helicopter and crew in Jaffna. At that time in Jaffna were Sqn Ldr TK Vinay Raj and Fg Offr Sanjay Bishnoi. Bishnoi was a young pilot fresh out of the Helicopter Training School at Hakimpet. He was originally a fighter pilot flying MiG-21s, and was one of the first batch of fighter pilots to be selected to be converted to the Mi-25 Combat helicopters under a special training scheme. He had joined 112HU for his conversion and had less than two solo sorties on the Mi-8s.
The last available Mi-8 crew were Flt Lt Viswanath Prakash and Sqn Ldr AD Sonpar, both were from 107 HU. Sonpar had recently been posted to 107HU and was still converting to full Ops. Vijay Prakash was more experienced among the two and was the captain of the 107’s Mi-8.
The GOC, 54 Division, Maj Gen Harkirat Singh and his Colonel General Staff, Hoshiar Singh, gave the briefing of the SHBO plan to the IAF Pilots. The SHBO would be carried out on the night of Oct 11/12 , when the Helicopter force would have to helidrop IPKF Troops in the football ground in the Jaffna University Campus. The Troops allocated for the mission were 120 Commandos from 10 th Para Commando and about 360 Troops from 13th Sikh LI . At that time 13th SikhLI was still under induction, with troops arriving into Jaffna airport by flights.
Normally SHBOs would entail either the troops rappelling out of the choppers or the choppers landing on a suitable field and disgorging troops. Rappelling troops out of the choppers was not considered, for it would entail that the helicopter would have to spend considerable time over the Landing Ground (LG). To minimize the time spent over the landing ground and also to cut down the time the helicopters were exposed to any ground fire that might be encountered, it was decided to identify a suitable place and carry out heli-landings.
|Jaffna University : The scene of the murderous fighting in days to come.|
Each Mi-8 can carry a stick of 20 troops. And all the four aircraft in one wave can heli land 80 troops at a time. This meant that the Helicopters would have to fly 24 sorties in six shuttles to finish the task of flying in 480 troops to the landing ground. Considering the limited availability of the Mi-8s, the army put in a request for 20 sorties in five shuttles. Eighty Para Commandos would be dropped in the first wave, followed by forty more Para Commandos and another forty Infantry troops from the Sikh LI in the second wave. The first wave of Paras would secure the Landing ground and sanitise it. The subsequent three waves would be dedicated solely to dropping the Sikh LI troops. The rest of the Sikh LI troops would link up in a ground offensive along with the regular troops.
The next day morning on October 11th, the army Chetak was to fly all the four Helicopter pilots over the battle zone to recce. However since Sqn Ldrs Vinayraj and Duraiswami were flying on some Supply sorties, Only Wg Cdr Sapre and Flt Lt Prakash could go on the recce mission. They got a look at the landing zone selected by 54 Division for the mission, It was an oval shaped ground for track and field events – it was bounded by running tracks. The LG was about four minutes flying time from Palaly airfield.
The pilots noticed that the landing ground could take only two Mi-8s at a time. This would mean that in each mission, two of the choppers would have to hold off while the first two would land and unload the troops. Holding off over areas where hostile fire was expected is considered to be too risky and an arrangement was worked out where the second pair of Helicopters would take off only after the first pair had disembarked the load and started their return leg to Palaly.
The first load of Para Commandos to land on the ground would also act as pathfinders. They will secure and light up the ground for subsequent landings. This was briefed by the IAF detachment to the Para Commandos. Taking all the factors into account the whole airlift was estimated to take about One hour and thirty minutes. The first wave would take off at 0100 Hours on October 12th, the Met forecast indicating that the weather conditions and moonlight would be adequate for navigation and landing. The Army was sure that the possibility of ground fire was remote. The Helicopters would face no opposition at all.
Even though there were a significant number of rocket pods available to be fitted to the Mi-8s, The small number of choppers would have to skip using these pods to save weight. The Internal 900 liter fuel tank was also removed from the cargo compartment. The objective was to keep the helicopters as light as possible to carry the maximum human cargo. This would enable them to do the whole airlift in the minimum number of sorties. The only fire support would be provided by an SLAF gunship -- A Sri Lankan Air Force Bell 212 Helicopter was tasked to carry out a diversionary air strike west of the landing ground across the railway track during the period of the mission. The IAF pilots were briefed strictly not to cross over the railway track and go to the west.
On October 11th, the fighting around Jaffna , the Indian Army got involved in some minor skirmishes with the LTTE. Nearly 150 militants were either captured or killed by that point of time. The IPKF had about 10 troops killed in all. A CRPF convoy of two vehicles was fired upon by the LTTE and two jawans killed. Another IPKF vehicle went over a mine causing two more casualties. The skirmishes and the losses offered no clue at all to the battle that was to come later in the night or the casualties that would come up.
When H-Hour loomed towards the midnight of October 11th, the first stick of forty Para Commandos from 10 Para got ready to board the Mi-8s. Maj Sheonan Singh was the leader of the Para Commando detachment. The Mi-8s took off on scheduled time carrying their load. Wg Cdr Sapre was leading the formation with Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj as the number two. The next pair of helicopters would take off keeping an allowance to allow the first pair to disembark their troops. Both helicopters flew at around 200 meters altitude. The original VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) briefing to fly at 300 meters altitude could not be carried out due to low drifting clouds and poor visibility.
The Helicopters observed a complete black out, i.e. all lights were switched, off, the Navigation, lights, the Landing Lights, Anti Collision etc. The Mi-8 also has ‘blade tracking’ lights in the wing tips, to enable the pilots to maneuver in confined airspaces. Even these were switched off. The only visible cue for the Vinay Raj to maintain the correct formation with Sapre’s Helicopter was the single formation light on top of the tail boom of the lead helicopter. The formation lights were to be switched off as the choppers entered the short finals. Inspite of the lower altitude and decreased visibility (due to the dispersion of moon light by the low clouds), the Mi-8s located the landing ground and executed a landing.
It seemed that the direction of the Helicopters in the first landing took the LTTE completely by surprise. They had picked up the information on the incoming raid by VHF Radio interception, and they had taken sufficient preparations for the raid. The Jaffna University area was bristling with LTTE fighters and weapons. The LTTE had moved several machine guns to the building north of the landing ground and lay expectantly waiting for the choppers. But because of the black out, they missed spotting the helicopters swoop down in the dark of the night.
The Para commandos under Major Sheonan wasted no time in streaming out of back of the Mi-8s and taking up defensive positions around the landing ground. As soon as they disembarked, the Para Commandos came under heavy small arms fire and got pinned down. Sapre and Vinayraj took off using full power within minutes of landing down. As the Mi-8s took off, they came under ground fire from the LTTE positions. However neither aircraft was hit. As the Mi-8s circled and turned over Navatkuli Lagoon, Sapre radioed Palaly to send in the second pair of Mi-8s.
The second pair of Mi-8s was led by Flt Lt V Prakash with Sqn Ldr Duraiswami as the No.2 When they approached the general area, they noticed that the entire area was enveloped in the flashes of small arms fire and grenade blasts. To the west was the Sri Lankan Air Force gunship strafing targets on the ground with its machine guns. The tracers used by the gunship resembled heavy gunfire coming from the ground in reverse. The Para Commandos who were dropped earlier had not been able to light up the landing ground with markers . By that time, there was a pitched battle going on between the LTTE forces which had almost surrounded the Para Commandos. Both Prakash and Duraiswamy tried their best to locate the landing ground but could failed to do so. They decided to abort the mission and fly back to Palaly with their complement of 40 commandos still on board.
The Second drop
Meanwhile both Sapre and Vinay Raj landed back at Palaly with no apparent damage inspite of the ground fire during the take off phase. A fresh stick of forty more commandos boarded the Mi-8s and both took off for the landing ground again.
By this time, the LTTE had moved figured out the direction from which the Helicopters had come in during the first drop. There was a building to the north of the landing ground that covered the approach. A number of LTTE Militants took position on this building, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and anti aircraft capable Heavy Machine Guns.
As Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj flew his helicopter to carry out the second landing, he heard the sudden increase in the intensity of gunfire. Only it was not from the fighting taking place on the ground, but from the northern building aimed at him! The crew felt the helicopter taking hits, with the distinctive thumps as gunfire pierced the Mi-8’s outer skin. A significant portion of the gunfire was directed towards the cargo compartment and a number of bullets went through. One of the bullets hit a Para Commando and wounding him badly.
As soon as Vinay Raj landed the Mi-8 in the ground, the Commandos disembarked from the rear. Vinay Raj instructed the Para Commandos to leave the wounded jawan within the helicopter so that he could be evacuated back to base. However the jawan refused to be evacuated and told the crew that he will go out with the rest of his team for the fight. Somewhat reluctantly and with admiration, the Pilots and the crew let him disembark and join his team. With this drop the number of troops dropped at the LG now numbered 80, though both Sapre and Vinayraj were under the impression that they numbered 120. They were not aware that Prakash and Duraiswami had aborted their earlier landing.
All this time the Helicopters were still on the ground with rotors and engine running at Max Power. Takeoff was made again amidst the thumps and thuds made by the gunfire hitting the helicopters. Compared to the earlier take off, this intensity of the gunfire could be distinctly felt.
Confusion and Delay
When Sapre and Vinay Raj landed back at Palaly they were in for a series of shocks. First they found out that Doraiswami and Prakash were not able to find the Landing ground and had returned back without dropping their first load of commandos. Till that point of time, both Sapre and Vinayraj were under the impression that the second pair of Mi-8s would have carried out their second load of troops – which would have been the first stick from Sikh LI. Now they found out that this had not happened and in place of the four landings, not even one landing was completed by the second pair till then.
Since they second pair had difficulty in finding the LG, It was decided that the second pair would split up and accompany the Mi-8s of the first pair. In effect, Duraiswamy of the second pair became the No.2 to Sapre and Vinay Raj of the first pair became the No.1 of the second pair with Prakash as his No.2. Both Sapre and Vinay Raj would now embark the first stick of troops from the Sikh LI for their third landing of the night.
A second shock awaited them to find out that the Sikh LI troops were no were to be seen. Unlike the Para Commandos who were trained specially in Heli borne Operations, the Sikh LI troops were general Infantry troops. They had just arrived in Jaffna from Gwalior and they received orders to induct themselves for this particular mission. No one had informed them that they should collect themselves at the ramp for embarkation and the Mi-8 pilots were flabbergasted to see that not a single jawan from Sikh LI was to be seen. Sapre contacted the ATC which in turn contacted the Dett Commander Gp Capt Premi. Premi did his best to locate the Sikh LI troops and went around chasing the concerned officers. Finally the Sikh LI troops collected themselves for embarkation. This caused considerable delay.
When the Sikh LI troops arrived and started boarding the Mi-8s, Vinay Raj saw that they were trying to load huge boxes into the Mi-8s. On enquiry he came to know that the boxes carried ammunition for the jawans. Normally, The Para commandos would usually carry all their ammunition and supplies on a Man-pack basis, but the Sikh LI were carrying these huge crates of Ammo that weighted as much as 500Kgs.
The loading of the boxes on the Mi-8s also meant that the usual stick of 20 troops could not be carried. The stick was now reduced to 15 men each in the helicopters along with the load. Their leader, Major Birendra Singh, ‘C’ Company Commander of Sikh LI boarded Sapre’s helicopter. Birendra Singh was the scion of the royal family of Bharatpur and a relative of the External affairs minister Shri Natwar Singh. Well liked and loved , this would be the last time that the IAF crew or others from Jaffna saw him alive.
The entire delay of getting the troops onboard amounted to around 20 minutes. Meanwhile back at the Jaffna University, the 80 Paras were embroiled in a hectic fire fight with the LTTE. The LTTE had surrounded the place with snipers with telescopic sights and were trying to pick off the Paras . Some casualties were suffered during this stage.
The Third Drop
Wg Cdr Sapre carried out the first landing of the third shuttle with Sqn Ldr Duraiswami as his No.2. Both helicopters faced intense fire from the LTTE gun positions. Both managed to get their load of 40 paras and 15 Sikh LI off the helicopter along with the ammo boxes. Sapre’s Mi-8 bore the brunt of the firing as his was the lead helicopter in all the three consecutive landings till that time. His hydraulics seemed to have been shot off as they once again got into the air. They radioed the second formation at Palaly to take off and carry out the drop.
Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj took the usual approach to the Landing ground, with Prakash as his No.2. The LTTE as usual massed firepower near the building near the approach. As the choppers came into the short finals, all hell broke loose. There was machine gun firing everywhere and the crew felt the Helicopter getting hit by the small arms fire. One burst went into the battery compartment just behind the cockpit section, while another bullet shattered the cockpit side windscreen. Luckily the bullet did not go anywhere near the pilots or crew. Another bullet entered the cockpit right from the floor passing thru the point where the Flight Gunner would have been sitting between the pilots. Another bullet came in thru the port side window and severed the HP cock cable. At this point of time Vinay Raj observed two streaks of flame shoot up ahead of the chopper. These were RPG-7s fired from the ground, but luckily the grenades had missed the Mi-8 by quite a distance. Probably more RPGs were fired, but none came close.
Both Vinay Raj and Prakash landed their choppers onto the field and started disembarking their troops. While the Paratroopers in Prakash’s Mi-8 wasted no time in getting out of the cargo compartment, it turned out to be a different story with the Sikh LI troops. As they scurried out the helicopter they came under fire from all sides. Immediately they hit the ground and started firing off blindly into the dark. The Jawans took some time to adjust to the sudden change in battle conditions. They were not properly battle inoculated – perhaps the change from the serene atmosphere in Gwalior to the gunfire infested Jaffna area was too sudden a change.
The Sikh LI jawans in their scramble to get out of the Mi-8 had left the Ammunition boxes behind. The flight engineer came to the cockpit and informed Vinayraj about the boxes left behind by the troops. Leaving Bishnoi to stay at the controls, Vinayraj scrambled out of the cockpit and into the cargo compartment. He took the help of the Flight gunner and threw the 500kg heavy boxes out of the helicopter. The flight engineer in the meantime was able to rustle up a couple of Sikh LI jawans from nearby to take charge of the ammunition.
By this time the Mi-8s have spent a longer time than necessary on the landing ground and had been the target to more gunfire. Even though Prakash had disembarked the Para Commandos much earlier, in order to reduce confusion of the formations, he stayed back on the landing zone waiting to take off in formation along with Vinay Raj. During this entire time, both the Mi-8s became the target for the small arms fire. The crews had lost count of the sound of hits they heard. Finally the Mi-8s took off once again. Once safely out of gunfire range over the Lagoon, Vinay Raj radioed Sapre about the confusion on ammunition boxes and advised him to unload the boxes along with the troops if they were coming in for the next round of landings. But as it turned out there were to be no further landings.
Stock taking at Palaly
As soon as Vinay Raj put his Mi-8 down at Palaly he knew something was wrong. He wanted to taxi the chopper to the ramp but the Mi-8 refused to budge!. Moroever the chopper had settled down in an odd attitude. It was slightly tilted to one side . The Flight Engineer got off the helicopter to find out what has happened and found that the port mainwheel was shot off as was the nosewheel tyre. The portside Battery compartment cover was missing and the whole fuselage was peppered with bullet holes. The pilots and the crew later counted nearly 17 bullet holes!
Wg Cdr Sapre’s Mi-8, which had landed earlier, fared no better. The hydraulic system of the Mi-8 was damaged in the firing and it was with great skill that the Mi-8 was flown back by Sapre. It was now clear that neither of the Mi-8s were in a position to fly further missions. It was also evident that the fury of the LTTE ground fires during the third run seem to have been better organized and had improved over the earlier drops. The next mission if flown might result in greater damage than what was evident in this one.
After great deliberation, the Detachment Commander took the decision to stop further drops by the Choppers. Only Doraiswami’s and Prakash’s Mi-8s were serviceable and it would have been a very high risk trying to fly them again into the hornets nest to drop another 30 more troops. The LTTE’s aim was getting better with each run of the Mi-8s and there was a fairly good chance the next round of RPGs and MG fire will find their mark. With the decision to stop further sorties the heli lift came to a stop with the transfer of 120 Para Commandos and just 30 out of the intended 360 Sikh LI troops to be dropped!
Table showing the sorties carried out by the IAF Helicopter detachment in Jaffna
|Landings at Jaffna University|
|Shuttle 1||Wg Cdr Sapre, Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj||Successful||40 Para Commandos dropped|
|Shuttle 2||Flt Lt V Prakash, Sqn Ldr Duraiswami||Aborted||No troops landed|
|Shuttle 3||Wg Cdr Sapre, Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj||Successful||40 Para Commandos dropped|
|Shuttle 4||Wg Cdr Sapre, Sqn Ldr Duraiswami||Successful||15 SikhLI and 20 Para Cdos dropped|
|Shuttle 5||Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj, Flt Lt V Prakash||Successful||15 SikhLI and 20 Para Cdos dropped|
Stirring the Hornets Nest.
At the landing ground, in Jaffna University, the heli-landing of the troops had stirred a hornets nest. The Battle was so intense that in many cases the Indian troops were not able to see the LTTE Snipers and attackers. Para Commando Lok Ram recounted, "We thought everything was fine but as we were sliding out of the helicopter we came under heavy fire from all sides. It was an impossible situation, as people would come out of the houses fire at us and disappear right back. There were gunmen on tree tops including coconut trees. Since we were ordered not to use heavy weapons it was impossible to advance. We were fighting an enemy we could not even see."
The Sikh LI contingent had their radio man picked out and shot by a sniper soon after landing. All Messages that they received were relayed thru the Para Commandos thru hand held short range walkie-talkies. The Task for the assignment was for the Sikh LI to hold the landing ground, while the Para Commandos went for the Top brass of the LTTE.
During the time, HQ 54 Division was informed by Gp Capt Premi about the condition of the Mi-8s and the inability to carry out further troops. GOC 54 Div, Maj Gen Harkirat Singh then spoke to Maj Sheonan Singh the Para Commando’s leader and informed him that no more troops were coming. Sheonan asked the GOC as to what the plan of action now is to be.
It was a tough and an unenviable decision. Should the mission be scrubbed ? or should the risk be taken and send the Para Commandos to hunt Prabhakaran and capture him? Weighing all possibilities, the GOC replied ‘You got your operational plan, Stick to it’. The Operational Plan specified that the Para Commandos would leave the Landing ground and hunt for the place where the LTTE leaders were supposed to be hiding. This also meant that the Sikh LI troops would be left behind to guard the landing ground.
It was a matter of debate if the 20 odd surviving troops would be able to ‘hold’ the landing ground successfully or not. Birendra Singh earlier communicated to Sheonan that he would prefer to hold the Landing ground and wait for the rest of his company to come. He was not to know that the Helicopters would stop their helilift in view of the ground fire.
Now Sheonan had the unpleasant task of communicating to the Sikh LI Commander that further reinforcements are not coming. By this time, it is believed that the Para Commandos had already set off for the task in hand and have got separated from the Sikh LI troops. Maj Gen Harkirat Singh would later say in an intervew on Rediff that Birendra Singh failed to get his troops to dig down and take cover in nearby buildings even though the Para Commandos advised him on it.
Whatever may be the reason, daybreak saw the Para Commandos trying to hunt the LTTE leadership on their own, while the Sikh LI jawans got separated and holed up at another location. Faced with attacks and snipers, the platoon lost men over a period of time. Somewhere along the battle , Maj Birendra Singh as well as the Platoon Commander Subedar Sampuran Singh were killed. By 11:30 a.m. on October 12th, there were only three jawans surviving. When they ran out of ammunition, the three survivors put in a blind bayonet charge . Two were cut down by LTTE gunfire and the last man , Sepoy Gora Singh, was taken POW . It was only after his release that Gora Singh helped to reconstruct one of the most poignant battles in the history of the Indian Army. For the LTTE this was a morale booster. The Sikhs were stripped of their weapons, uniform and equipment. Their bare bodies were laid out in a row at the nearby Buddhist Nagaraja Vihar temple. Later the LTTE burnt all the bodies with a barrel of oil, they claimed that their efforts to contact the IPKF HQ at Palaly to get them collect the dead bodies were in vain. Since the bodies have started to decompose , they had no option but to cremate them. When after a week the army finally reached the area, they found the battlefield was littered with pieces of Sikh LI's uniforms and equipment along with thousands of .50 MG shells.
The Para Commandos in the mean time went ahead with their mission to find the building where the LTTE leaders were supposed to be staying. During this search, they ran into a local who stated that he knew where the LTTE men were lodged and that he would lead the Para Commandos to the building. Needless to say, the man took the commandos on a wild goose chase. The Commandos went astray and soon got lost. Daybreak saw them retreating to a couple of houses in the area and fortifying themselves in the premises. The Para Commandos superior training saved the day. They conserved ammo and even picked up all their dead and weapons.
|Bravo Company of 10 Para retreated into the above houses and held out for nearly 18 hours against attacking LTTE guerillas under Maj Sheonan Singh.|
With all radio contact with the Sikh LI platoon being lost, the fate of the Para Commando Company now became the major concern for all those in HQ 54 Div. Maj Sheonan Singh was able to inform the 54 Div HQ of their predicament. As the morning progressed, the GOC Maj Gen Harkirat Singh flew in the Army Chetak in the area to carry out a recce in the area on the situation. During the recce sortie, the Chetak came under Small Arms fire. One bullet went clean thru the floor and into the space between where Harkirat was sitting and the pilot. It was a close shave for the General.
With the commandos still holding out, 54 Divison put into action a ‘rescue’ plan to extricate them. A relief force under the 10 Para CO, Lt. Col. Dalbir Singh, was sent along with three T-72 tanks from the 65 Armoured Regiment. This was given up when they found that the approach roads were hopelessly booby trapped with IED Mines.
The commander of the tank troop, Major Anil Kaul, came upon a brilliant idea. Knowing the rail tracks passed behind Jaffna University, he drove his tanks on the Palaly-Jaffna rail line. Passing through the narrow lanes, an RPG-7 fired on him, hitting the turret. The explosion severed his wedding ring finger. Splinters hit him in the eye and arm. His men put him on morphine and they fought their way to the Para Commandos. A little later the 4/5 Gorkhas and remainder of the 13 Sikh LI linked up. It was nearly eighteen hours since the beleaugured Para Commando company first landed at the University grounds.
With the extrication of the Para Commando Company, the tragic saga of the the Jaffna University raid came to an end. The Sikh LI lost 29 men killed in action -- almost 100% casualities. The Para Commandos lost six men during the fighting. Questions were immediately asked as to why the raid turned out to be such a fiasco.
It is never known as to how close the LTTE Leadership came close to being captured or eliminated during the raid, But radio intercepts supplied by the Sri Lankan intercept stations suggested that at one stage the LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran sent a ‘good bye’ message to other LTTE stations elsewhere. Prabhakran had said in his message that he may not get out of the battle and asked other LTTE commanders to act on their own. The LTTE Deputy Mahataya was known to have been in the same area trying to organize the LTTE counter attacks.
What went wrong?
· An inaccurate estimate at the opposition the helicopters would face is one thing. No one had a clue to the ferocity of the LTTE opposition at the Landing ground – instead of the unopposed landings, it turned out to be a desperate battle for survival.
· The Sikh LI troops were inadequately trained or equipped for the SHBO. SHBOs required troops familiar with embarking and disembarking the Helicopter in quick time. All equipment ammunition would have to be carried on a manpack basis. The Sikh LI troops were unfamiliar with the SHBOs as well as got bogged down with the 500Kg heavy ammunition boxes. It is considered highly probable that the ammunition could not be passed onto the Sikh soldiers in time.
· The Sikh LI troops were also not given enough time to get battle innoculated. They had just then arrived from Gwalior and were pushed into battle within a day. The sudden exposure to battle was a jolt to them. On the other hand, the Para Commandos were at their peak. They carried all ammunition and equipment on a manpack basis and their battle drill was very efficient.
· The four Mi-8s available for the operations was insufficient – The helidrop to land the 480 troops needed much more higher air support – but the outbreak of hostilities was not forecasted – and the operation could not be delayed till more air support could come in. Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, GOC 54 Div, in the interview with rediff.com mentions that he had put in a request for nine helicopters which was bought down four just before the raid. He mentions that he had communicated this requirement to the GOC in C Southern Command, Lt Gen Depinder Singh and he received a confirmation from Maj Gen AS Kalkat, CoS of the IPKF HQ in Madras that the airlift capability had been sanctioned. When and where this was failed to be communicated to the IAF has not been clear.
Lt Gen Depinder Singh, GOC in C Southern Command at that time and Overall Force Commander of the IPKF writes in his memoirs that It was an acceptable risk to launch the mission – The prize of getting the LTTE leadership was too valuable and a successful mission would have cut short the slogging match going on elsewhere in the Jaffna Peninsula. Depinder states in his book that given adequate resources and communication facilities, he would have gone ahead with the raid if such a situation occurred once again. Maj Gen Harkirat Singh is also of the same view. He had stated that casualties were expected, and if Prabharakan had been captured, it would have been well worth it.
The first reports of this mission trickled into the countries newspapers on October 13th. Though till that point of time, the entire IPKF Casualities mounted to no more than 23 killed, reports came in where the LTTE claimed that they had surrounded a group of 200 ‘Commandos’. The next day after the Para Commando team was extricated, a spokesman confirmed the casualties of the Sikh LI- stating that ‘30 troops declared as missing from the previous day’s operations are now classified as having been killed’. Suddenly the nation saw the casualty list jumping by 100% in a day.
The details of the mission appeared in the press in a matter of days. A report published in The Hindu, October 21st edition by a ‘Special Correspondent’ mentioned some details of the battle for the first time. An excerpt had been used at the beginning of this article. The report went on to state:
"Unfortunately in the darkness, the Sikh LI jawans were put down in a clear ground some 2 km away from the intended Landing Zone. The Para Commandos disembarked successfully but the Sikh LI jawans were trapped in a heavily built up area though surrounded fought valiantly for 24 hours before being overwhelmed”
The same details were repeated in a story by Mr. Shekhar Gupta that appeared in ‘India Today’ Magazine’s February 1988 edition. Mr Gupta visited Jaffna peninsula and flew over the battle area towards the end of 1987. He had interviewed some of the Army commanders in field and bought out a boxed item in the magazine. The report detailed the whole murderous battle in great detail for the first time for the Indian Public – something that was not done before. However the report repeated the same points as the earlier Hindu news report, mainly that
1. The Sikh LI troops were dropped at a different location from where the main force of the Para Commandos were. Further the India Today article carried a Photograph accompanying the general area shows a small ground to the south of the main football ground. An accompanying legend suggested that the Sikh LI troops were dropped separately at this smaller ground.
2. Both reports suggested that the Sikh LI troops were heli dropped “right on top of LTTE battlements”.
The above two points appeared to be the general consensus among the top brass of the army. Unfairly the version puts the blame on the IAF for the loss of valuable lives of the Sikh LI Soldiers by mentioning they were dropped away from the main force.
The aircrew involved in the airdrop are categorical that the troops were dropped in the same ground where the Para Commandos were dropped earlier. The alleged landing ground indicated in the photograph where the SikhLI troops were supposed to have been dropped is too small to even accommodate an Army Chetak, let alone two Mi-8s. Besides the Sikh LI jawans were not dropped in a single wave, but in two different shuttles along with Para Commandos. There was no question of the Sikh LI jawans getting separated or being dropped separately.
An Interservices Joint Court of Inquiry was conducted into the event. All the major participants were interviewed. Maj Sheonan Singh, the only surviving officer on the ground who took part in the battle minced no words in defending the Air Force's pilots. The Air Force had done a fine job, he said. The Sikh LI troops were dropped exactly where the Army wanted them to be dropped. Ultimately the Joint Court of Inquiry came to the conclusion that the IAF pilots had not made any mistakes in landing the troops.
January 88 saw many gallantry awards being announced for actions in the Siachen Glacier as well as the IPKF Operations in Sri Lanka. The Para Commando leader, Major Sheonan as well as the deceased Company commander of the Sikh LI dettachment, Major Birendra Singh were given the Vir Chakra. Lt Col Dalvir Singh who led the rescue operation as well as Major Anil Kaul, the Armoured corps officer were other officers who earned the Vir Chakra. Three Sikh LI soldiers received the Vir Chakra posthumously and two Para Commandos involved in the Operations too got the Vir Chakra.
At first none of the award citations put forward by the IAF were cleared, but with the clouds of doubts lifting over the operation, the army forwarded the citations for the IAF pilots. In recognition of their role and participation, All the four pilots of the Mi-8s, Wg Cdr VKN Sapre, Sqn Ldr TK Vinay Raj, Sqn Ldr DR Duraiswamy and Flt Lt V Prakash were awarded the Vir Chakra. The four co-pilots to the above, Sqn Ldr VSN Nath, Fg Offr Sanjay Bishnoi (by then a Flt Lt), Flt Lt B Ramesh and Sqn Ldr AD Sonpar were given the Vayusena Medal (Gallantry). Other crewmembers were given commendations by the Chief of Air Staff or by the Air Officer Commanding in Chief. This operation marked one of the few missions in the IAF combat history that resulted in a huge cache of awards to the personnel involved.
109 HU was the longest serving unit in the IPKF Operations, remaining there till withdrawal. Today they are still flying from Sulur. Most of the pilots who flew in that mission have now retired. Gp Capt VKN Sapre retired as the Station Commander, Mohanbari and is now flying for a private operator in Pune. Gp Capt Vinay Raj retired as COO, Hakimpet and had settled down in Hyderabad. Wg Cdr DR Duraiswamy too retired in the late 90s. Flt Lt Sanjay Bishnoi retired as a Wing Commander in the late 90s. Last heard Flt Lt V Prakash was still serving as were half of the Co-Pilots and crew members.
The Paras dont talk about their special operations much, keeping in line with the 'hush hush' nature of the Para commando battalions. Major Sheonan Singh, was serving as a Brigadier with the Parachute Regiment in late 2001.
The 13 Sikh LI now holds a special Ardas & Akhand Panth on October 12th every year to honour their 30 lonely and gusty comrades on the brutal killing fields of Jaffna University. No official publication has been bought out by the Armed forces in connection with the ‘forgotten war’ that the IPKF had fought a long time back, some fifteen years ago in a not so far off land called Jaffna.