Yuva - India

IPKF -3: The Curates Egg-Turn of the Tide (Jaffna Medical University Helidrop)

In the third of the IPKF series, GoaChronicle interviewed Col RS Bhadauria, a Veteran of 10 Para Commando (Now 10 SF) who participated in the near-suicidal helidrop mission against LTTE on 10th Oct 87, with a view to destroying their headquarters/leadership supposedly hiding in the three-story Jaffna Medical University building. The bravery of the men of 13 Sikh Light Infantry and 10 SF was of the highest order, with large casualties (29 Killed including One Officer and 6 Killed respectively), but unfortunately, the establishment has conspired to relegate operation Pawan to the dustbin, with no public acknowledgment or dedicated commemoration to this tough overseas venture performed at very short notice with limited intelligence. Only the Units commemorate the occasion quietly which fittingly deserves wider honors and greater respect. With hands tied behind their back, Units in this difficult operation had to make do with limited intelligence and poor weaponry notably the single-shot SLR which would face its nemesis the ubiquitous AK 47. Though gallantry awards were given, the collective honor deserved by the brave Units of 13 Sikh Light Infantry and 10 PARA COMMANDO was never notified for reasons best known to the military top brass. In his book “IPKF in Sri Lanka” the then Southern Army Commander, Lt Gen Depinder Singh admitted that the “last man last round stand” of the SIKH LIGHT platoon in Jaffna was perhaps in the league as the stand of the valiant Sikhs in Saragarhi harking back to 1897.

“Valiant were their deeds, Undying be their memories” reads the IPKF memorial at Colombo. “Perhaps forgotten by the Nation” could be suffixed to this epitaph. The IPKF memorial was constructed by SL in 2008 at Colombo, much before the Indian nation decided to do likewise on our soil!! Numerous unmarked graves of Indian Soldiers still dot the coastal Northern SL landscape and no one really bothers to trace them or inter them afresh in India. It needs to be remembered that for a soldier “Home is where the grave is”.

To read the Curates Egg part 1, visit:

https://goachronicle.com/the-indian-peace-keeping-force-in-sri-lanka-a-curates-egg/

& part 2, visit:

https://goachronicle.com/the-curates-egg-ipkf-and-indo-sri-lanka-accord-of-29-july-1987-part-2/

 Goa Chronicle: Can you briefly retrace the main events when LTTE became hostile to IPKF in first and second week of Oct 87, leading to the subsequent heliborne ops by the IPKF near Jaffna medical University.

Col RS Bhadauria: In Aug 87, the entire top leadership of LTTE, was called to Delhi for talks which went on for a couple of days in a bid to settle on a limited autonomy model for the Tamilians followed by-elections to the North-East Provinces. Prabhakaran who was a member of the Team tried to move out of the Hotel where he was lodged, it was then that he realized that he was practically under arrest. In their perception, the LTTE felt that the Indian govt was playing a double game, whereas it tried to act as a guarantor /honest broker to revive a democratic process of franchise and representation of Tamils. The LTTE reluctantly agreed to the ceasefire with the Sri Lankan Army and signed the Indo SL peace accord.  They also agreed to surrender their arms to the IPKF, which was to monitor the process. However, they only surrendered their weapons that were given by the Indian Govt and not the weapons that they had acquired from other nations such as Pakistan or China via Singapore. (About which the Indian Government was clueless). Indian Army had no credible information about the quantum or type of weapons held by the LTTE or other Groups fighting for the independence of the Tamil Homeland. Even though the handling and training of LTTE Cadres were done by India!! As per the ISL Accord, autonomy was to be granted to Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka i.e. Jaffna Peninsula and the Area of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, being predominantly Tamil dominated Areas.

However, the final nail in the coffin was the proposed handing over of the 18 LTTE cadres, by India to SL, which included the Northern Area Commander Kumarappa and the Eastern Area Commander Pulendran. Both were wanted men in Sri Lanka for their crimes. Kumarappa for having masterminded a suicide attack on the Army Camp in Jaffna and Pulendran for massacring over 300 Sinhala train passengers including women and children between Trinco and Batticaloa. These cadres were actually captured by the Sri Lankan Navy on 02 Oct 87, while they were ferrying weapons from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna on the high seas. Prabhakaran then spoke to GOC IPKF, to ensure that the detained LTTE Cadres were not airlifted and sought to avoid hand over to the SL government in Colombo. Since we were located on the Airfield (Palaly), one troop was tasked to prevent the Sri Lankan aircraft from taking off for Colombo. So 18 of these LTTE prisoners were detained at the ATC (Air traffic control) area. Our guard was also present in the inner ring, there along with the Sri Lankan Army Guard.

While the peace accord talks were still on in Delhi, Thileepan, an LTTE cadre went on a hunger strike on 15 Sep, demanding independence of Tamil Home land in Jaffna. He died on 26 Sep 87. Riots broke out but were controlled. In a sharp turn of events at this stage the public sentiments running high against both protagonists India and Sri Lanka.

Goa Chronicle: Could you briefly cover the circumstances of suicide by the LTTE militants and ramifications of the same for IPKF and India?

Col RS Bhadauria: There was pressure by President Jayawardane on the Indian Govt to hand over all the 18 prisoners initially detained by SL Navy in high seas, back to them. The SL plea was that the Indian Army had come for peacekeeping and hence could not release these “Gunrunners /smugglers” back to the Tamil militants for such illegal activities. They had been captured on the high seas by the Sri-Lanka Navy and hence were to be in the rightful custody of the Sri-Lanka Navy. The leaders captured were on the much-wanted list of criminals in Sri Lanka. Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontier organizations too had stepped in duly monitoring the situation. The threat of being handed over back to the Sri-Lanka Govt, who in turn would have got a lot of information out from them, would have further weakened the LTTE organization. Two of their main leaders Kumarappa and Pulendran took two cyanide tablets. Thereby the leftover two were to share their tablets with two other militants.

Even as this grisly scene was being played out, I got orders from HQ 54 Div around 3.45 pm, to permit the handover of cyanide tablets smuggled inside the food packets, as the prisoners were requesting us to let them consume cyanide, if we were to hand them over to the Sri-Lanka Army which was in readiness to take over. The fear of inhuman torture by the Sri-Lanka forces played upon the minds of the LTTE and they pleaded with us not to hand them over to SL Army. However, this did not happen and 12 of the LTTE died in a suicide attempt, with some others being revived or rescued. This turned the tide of events resulting in open hostility by LTTE and the killing of five para commandos, besides several hostile actions against the Indian Army in violation of the Indo SL Accord.

Sketch of Palaly Airfield where LTTE cadre were detained under watch of 10 PARA COMMANDO (Pic Courtesy Col RS Bhadauria)

Goa Chronicle: When you were asked to launch helidrop operations, what was the quantum of Force envisaged to be launched and could this be achieved in terms of helicopter effort, troops, and weapons, etc?

Col RS Bhadauria: The warning order (brief preparatory instructions) was received on 10 Oct 87 and the Operational order (executive order) issued on 11th Oct 87. One Para Commando team was tasked to secure a helicopter LZ or “Landing Zone” (secure area) for 13 Sikh Light Infantry followed by the release of the Para Commandos for a raid on the LTTE Political Headquarters, or any other target in the vicinity. Subsequently linking up with 18 Infantry Brigade at Jaffna Bus Stand by first light, or establishing a commando Base till link up by 72 Infantry Brigade was planned.

There was a total lack of information available on the LTTE, weapons, equipment, and their fighting capability. Except for the reliable and versatile 84mm Rocket launcher (Karl Gustav), a couple of passive night sights, and Bergen Rucksacks, the rest of the weapon and equipment was of vintage and posed us at a serious tactical disadvantage compared to LTTE.

The total own force/Para Commandos that was planned to land was 100 personnel. Subsequently, a company strength of 13 Sikh Light Infantry (120 troops) also was to be dropped on the LZ, after being marked and secured by us. The rest of the 3 companies of 13 Sikh Light Infantry were to move on foot under their CO, Lt Col Sethi, and link up with the company at the Helipad.

The Helicopter effort allotted to us was totally inadequate for successful mission accomplishment. There were only two MI-8 Helicopters (total capacity of carrying 50 battle-ready troops) available for the operations, which had a lesser load-carrying capacity than the later powerful version i.e. MI-17. Due to this shortfall ferry was resorted to. In such operations one cannot resort to the “ferry system” of dropping troops on the landing zone, thereby giving away the element of surprise available to the Heliborne or Air-borne troops and making them a sitting duck on the Landing Zone. This would be compounded by the subsequent damage to LTTE fire, sustained by the two helicopters which carried out the actual troop /load ferry.

Goa Chronicle: It is believed that the LTTE was aware of the planned heliborne ops? If so then what were the options if any considering that contingency planning is usually built-in these operations?

Col RS Bhadauria: Yes, LTTE was aware of the pending heliborne operations, which we learned later from Nirmala, the LTTE girl who had surrendered to 41 Brigade HQ under late Brig Manjit Singh, MVC. She had been part of the operation in the University on the night of 10/11 Oct 87 and had moved with a batch of LTTE girls as reinforcements from Kopai to the University ground on that fateful night of 10/11 Oct 87, approximately around 2:30 am. The Divisional HQ, probably underestimate the intelligence network of the LTTE and so was unaware of the fact that the LTTE was knowledgeable of the pending Heliborne Operations. Their assessment was that the entire operation would wind up by 0700 am, the next day in the morning.

We as heliborne troops had an alternate task to destroy any other target of value to the LTTE and subsequently link up with the 18 Infantry Brigade at Jaffna Bus stand by first light or establish a Commando Base till link up by 72 Infantry Brigade took place. However, the advance of the 72 Infantry Brigade was held up. Finally, my CO Col Dalvir Singh linked up with a troop of Tanks (T-72) ex 65 Armed Regiment and the company of 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry, in the early hours of 13 Oct 87.

Col RS Bhadauria stands near his old hunting grounds in a later revisit to Jaffna. The Helicopter landing area is seen on the left, then a football field, now a racing track. On the right is the Medical College Building.

(Pic courtesy Col RS Bhadauria)

Goa Chronicle: Were you aware of the type of opposition and weapons you would face on landing?

Col RS Bhadauria: No, we were just not aware of the type of opposition as per the sketchy briefing given at the Div HQs. However, we had prepared ourselves for the worst, so much so that we had carried no mandatory rations other than tea so that we could carry more Ammunition on our own. Our own assessment was that the militants who besides being locals, had been fighting the Sri-Lankan Army since 1984 tenaciously, would certainly not be pushovers.

Goa Chronicle: In the book on the heliborne operations in Jaffna, by Sushant Singh “Mission Overseas” it was discussed that the initial “on landing” command and control of the Sikh Light Infantry platoon which was to hold the helipad after the Para Commando landings were ill-defined and could have been better exercised. Could you comment on that? What actually happened to the troops at Jaffna University on that day?

Col RS Bhadauria: The complete Sikh Light Infantry Company of Maj Virender Singh which had to be ferried by the helicopters had to secure the Landing zone after relieving the Special Forces Team for the latter’s operations against LTTE HQ, till further link up by the Battalion HQ, of 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry, which was expected before first light on 12 Oct 87 as per the ambitious Divisional plan.

Yes, it certainly would have been better if the 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry Company with Maj Virender Singh (who was later awarded VrC, posthumously was incidentally nephew of late EAM Natwar Singh) had joined us further in our search for the LTTE. As a matter of fact, Maj Rajiv Nair asked him to accompany the commando team further for operations, when it was clear that no subsequent helicopter sorties could be undertaken due to damage sustained by one Helicopter. Maj Virender radioed his CO for confirmation, who in turn asked him to stay put there and assured a speedy link up, shortly before dawn /first light without realizing that covering even a short distance would take a lot of time, as every road bend or a house had to be cleared of any militant sitting in an opportunity ambush or a sniper on a rooftop/trees ( which were ample and well-sited) This could hold up the advance for days together more so as we were avoiding the use of Artillery and attack helicopters en masse to reduce collateral damage.

Situations in battle or close quarter combat change frequently, and often man at the spot can make the best decision. If Maj Virender before first light on a subsequent day had moved to occupy any concrete building behind the Landing Ground, it would have given him enough defense potential to fight till the link up with the Battalion HQ. Unfortunately, that did not happen with grievous results. He had by now decided to stay put there at the Landing Zone and made a valiant effort to dig in the ground making shallow trenches (two and a half feet deep) with whatever tools they had. With the break of daylight, they were sitting ducks from a range of 150 meters, i.e. from the medical college triple story building dominating the Helipad.

Meanwhile, of the two helicopters, One MI-8, aircraft was hit & one engine was rendered unserviceable, and the rest of the troops of this company could not be ferried. The Pilot however could fly back on one engine as he had offloaded the troops. The Air Force had refused to send one serviceable MI-8 alone. Notwithstanding these limitations both pilots i.e. Gp Captains Sapre and Vinay Kumar did a wonderful job in providing us the lift capability against damaging /hostile enemy fire. Both pilots were awarded Vr C later.

After daylight, the LTTE surrounded the SIKH LIGHT Infantry Platoon from all sides. Each man fought to the last man last round. We could hear their gunfire till approximately 1130 AM, the next day, when their ammunition had expended, Rifleman Gora Singh picked up the 84 mm Rocket launcher without knowing how to fire it!! LTTE, having captured him alive, wanted him to teach them its usage. He showed his ignorance for which he was beaten up badly, so he agreed to teach them how to fire it. A round was loaded and Gora Singh pressed the trigger, one LTTE cadre standing behind was blown off due to the backblast area (the area behind the Rocket launcher has to be cleared of all humans /objects as it is subject to flame/blast which can incinerate) Gora Singh was beaten up again and kept as good for nothing prisoner. The Rocket launcher was broken and dug in there itself, as they considered it a useless weapon due to its weight of 14.2 Kgs as compared to their own RPG-7V, of Russian origin which they had few in numbers.

Gora Singh and the Kumaon Regiment prisoners (who were in 1×3 ton Shaktiman vehicle and had mistakenly driven inside the LTTE camp during the initial advance of IPKF to Jaffna Fort) were exchanged with the LTTE prisoners like Kittu and about ten others with him, captured by our Navy. The swap was coordinated between Mahattaya of LTTE and Lt Gen AS Kalkat from the Indian Army.

Goa Chronicle: It has been suggested in Sushant Singh’s book “Mission Accomplished” that it would have been better to have moved on foot till the University against such an enemy rather than the helidrop mode which was adopted. Any comments?

Col RS Bhadauria: Yes, if the Div HQ had correctly assessed the enemy strength, this option of moving by foot to the University could have been exercised, but that would not have achieved a quick surprise in capturing their top leadership in one stroke. Moreover, the foot column would have faced heavy resistance in advancing which actually happened the next day delaying the link-up.

The mistake was that our own military intelligence had failed and was clueless of the enemy’s intent, even after the suicide of the captured LTTE militants. This subsequently led to the faulty planning of the operations with respect to the employment of appropriate force level and misreading other battle indicators.

Attack Helicopters though available at Palaly airfield were not pressed in service for this operation.

The Jaffna Medical College building from which the SIKH LIGHT Infantry and SF were subjected to murderous fire on landing (The First floor was used for this)

Pic courtesy Col RS Bhadauria

Goa Chronicle: What were the key operational and tactical failures of IPKF in the University Operations?

Col RS Bhadauria:

  •         Total lack of information on the LTTE weapons equipment and method of operations.
  •         Lack of Air effort available both for launching a team strength of Special Forces and an infantry company in terms of aircraft for transportation and fire support by Attack helicopters at the Landing Zone.
  •         The cardinal mistake of 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry, not having loaded the ammunition, Mortar, and troops in a composite load /manner so that even if one heliload was not able to deliver its tonnages on the Landing Zone, the rest of the troops would have been able to carry out the mission successfully with effective fighting component even if less. The presence of the reliable and robust 81 mm Mortar would have enhanced the staying power of the ill-fated SIKH LIGHT Infantry platoon which perished.
  •         Wrong assessment of the time plan in moving against a determined LTTE resistance, who were locals in a built-up area as also their own lack of training and experience in fighting in this environment.
  •         Further, the SIKH LIGHT Infantry Company did not move out from the Landing Zone before the first light and occupied the secure buildings behind and along the periphery. The Landing Zone was dominated by the triple story Jaffna Medical University building which was used by LTTE to direct Heavy Machine Guns of .50-inch caliber thereby offering easy targets to the enemy after the break out of dawn/ first light.
  •         Carriage of fewer numbers of the radio set batteries by the Sikh Light Infantry Company, as their communication with their own HQ s had failed by daylight.

Above all the inability of the remainder of 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry and the Div HQ s in not ensuring linking up and advancing to contact by first light with this platoon at the Landing Zone with troops were left to fend on their own without ammunition resulting in its decimation.

Goa Chronicle: Many valiant men died during fighting in this critical initial operation, also the Air Force Helicopters sustained severe damage to their airframe. Any vivid recollections of the operations and your men at arms on the night of 10th to 12th Oct 87, considering the exceptionally tense atmosphere and opposition encountered?

Col RS Bhadauria: The first panic that I experienced was, as it was decided that we would be slithering down from 10 meters, the length of the rope is always kept longer than the physical hover height distance required because often error in judgment by the pilot at night occurs. Being Number 1, to slither down, I threw the rope down and landed holding the rope tight for the next commando to slither down, when to my horror I found the Helicopter hovering on the ground, with the downdraft of the rotor the loose end of the rope got entangled on my legs. Meanwhile, the enemy had opened automatic fire from the Medical College building. As I could see the last man rushing out of the Helicopter, I was desperately trying to free myself from this entanglement, as I knew the only option with me was to either jump back in the Helicopter or go hanging below the aircraft, carrying that 18-20 kgs of the pack on the back with the carbine 9mm SAF, slung over the shoulder and subsequently come back with the next sortie, provided I survived a couple of minutes flight to the airfield, without being hit by the militants’ fire, or having a free drop on my journey to the airfield due to the arms getting tired or the downdraft of the wind by the rotor blades of the Helicopter. However, my going back would only have been construed as; “I wet my pants the moment the fire started so I had jumped back in the aircraft”. No amount of explanation could have washed away this “act” of mine. So I desperately tried to get out of that entanglement and it was only by God’s grace that I successfully managed to free myself from the slithering rope thus facilitating the exit of the paratroopers successfully.

The next day around 11.30 am, when I was in active contact with the LTTE militants in their camp area, of the 9 commandos including me, three had been wounded, and we were practically running out of ammunition as the follow-on ammunition party, behind at 100 meters from the Team was under intense fire. Twice they tried to replenish us and failed, taking a casualty. So, the team Commander, Maj Rajiv Nair asked me to fall back. With each casualty, I sent the paired “buddy” back first. My own Buddy Commando Arvind Kumar and another Commando were busy breaking the Ammunition belt of the 7.62mm Medium machine gun to fill the Light machine gun (LMG), which I was manning. These Commandos moved back approximately 75 meters behind and occupied a house while I covered their move with the fire of the two filling magazines for the LMG, only my Buddy Arvind Kumar an Adivasi Tribal from Jharkhand was left behind, I asked him to move, but he refused to budge even a step back without me. Ultimately I moved back carrying the LMG and as I was crossing the barbed wire fence (where all the houses here in the locality either had a barbed-wire fence or a 4 1/2 feet wall all around their compound), I got stuck in the fence with the LMG. Arvind Kumar had crossed over and was 10 yds. ahead but the moment he turned back and as he saw me struggling to free myself in the fence while in the open, he turned back to help me untangle and got behind me, covering me from direct enemy fire. I haven’t forgotten this act of selfless courage under observed fire to date.

Another act which I recollect very well is of 12/13 Oct Night when my CO, Col Dalvir Singh had entered Kokuvil with a Troop of tanks (3) escorting a company of 13 SIKH LIGHT Infantry and was not able to reach us in the bye lanes of Kokuvil as the rendezvous for link-up was not visible. Maj Rajiv Nair asked me to fire a Verey light, a pyrotechnic signaling device. It was the last one left in our kitty then and sure enough, he could not see the signal. He then asked me to make some fire that would be visible for a longer period of time. The only option left was to burn one of the houses. Most of the houses in the locality were made of brick and cement so that option was ruled out. I then remembered having spotted a hut close by during the day so I asked for a volunteer who would accompany me among the NCOs. There was a pin drop silence however Hav Jogi Ram got up to move with me. As it had rained a lot that at night the intermittent fire from the militants and our troops was still on. Furthermore, it was still drizzling, so we made our way to the hut 50 mts away. All attempts at trying to light it failed. The situation was getting desperate when it struck me that PEK (plastic explosive) was the only explosive which would burn even deep down in water. Luckily, he had this in his pack as the upper layer of the hut was totally wet, we had to put it well below the surface, which made a huge fire which subsequently guided the tanks to our location.

Col RS BHADAURIA is a Veteran settled in Sitapur where he now does charity work in a Hospital. He can be contacted at email id: [email protected]   

Interested readers may also watch STRIVE- WEBINAR Sr- 7 (IPKF-1 ‘OP PAWAN’) “POLITICO – MILITARY IMPERATIVES LEADING TO IPKF INTERVENTION IN SRI LANKA “Link https://strive.webex.com/strive/j.php?MTID=me310f7d2928da6e1f329b05d28664859

Password- 1234, Webex needs to be installed, Date – 04 Jul 2021(Sunday) Time -17.30h (Gate Open 17.00h)

An appeal to the government of India- ‘The government must honour and restore the legacy of the 1258 IPKF warriors killed in action during OP PAWAN and commemorate their memory suitably’

Shefali Kochhar,

Journalist, Goa Chronicle .

I am an entrepreneur who has tried her hands on various ventures like Electric Vehicle Charging Station , Online Retail Store / Trading and few more ventures. I have done my entrepreneurship from Amity University Noida.

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DISCLAIMER: This article reflects author’s view point. Goa Chronicle may or may not subscribe to views of the author.

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