The Exceptional Courage Of Mere Mortals…
Parama Weera Vibushanaya
In last week’s article the writer had erroneously referred to Maj. Gen Sanath Karunaratne as the Acting Commander of the 6th Sinha Rifles. However Maj. Gen. Sanath Karunaratne was the Commanding Officer of 6/SR at Elephant Pass in 1991. The writer apologizes for this error.
By David Blacker
(Continued from last week)
By late 1999, Jayasikurui had stalled and the Tigers were on the offensive with their own Operation Oyatha Alaikal (Unceasing Waves) III. Kilinochchi fell, and Paranthan was under heavy attack. Tiger troops were also moving against Elephant Pass to prevent reinforcements being sent. On December 17th, Tiger units were moving up by boat against the SL Army lines at Thammilamadam, close to Elephant Pass, and the soldiers called for air support. Based at Palaly, was No 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron, and Squadron Leader Tyron Silvapulle led a pair of Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters on the mission. With him was Flying Officer Chinthaka de Soyza as copilot, the youngest officer in the squadron, and two door gunners. Arriving over the target area, Silvapulle analyzed the situation. The Sea Tiger boats were heavily armed and known to possibly carry anti-aircraft missiles. It was also the middle of the northeast monsoon, and the weather was bad. Nevertheless, Silvapulle ordered his wingman to remain on station, out of range of the Tiger boats, and he himself dove into the attack.
The Mi-24 possessed massive fire power, and Silvapulle and de Soyza unloaded on the Tiger boats in repeated passes, coming in dangerously low to make their fire count. Eventually, the Sea Tigers had enough and began to retreat, heading their boats down the coast. Not content with letting them escape to fight another day, Silvapulle pressed home his attack and his chopper was almost immediately hit by what is suspected to have been an anti-aircraft missile fired from the boats or the nearby shore. The Mi-24 went down in the shallow waters of the Vettilaikerni lagoon, killing its four-man crew. Although Silvapulle was recommended for the PWV, it took over twelve years for it to be approved, being awarded last week, along with fourteen others from the last few years of the war.
In 2002, the LTTE and the government signed a ceasefire agreement, and for the next four years, an uneasy peace reigned; the war relegated to acts of terrorism, assassination, and sabotage, carried out by shadowy terrorists and intelligence operatives. In mid-2006, open warfare broke out again in the Eastern Province, followed almost immediately by a Tiger offensive in the north against Jaffna in August. Just before the 2002 ceasefire, the Tigers had captured Elephant Pass, and with it the eastern half of the Jaffna Peninsula, eventually squaring off against the SL Army along a line of fortifications and trenches between Muhamalai and Nagarkovil, dubbed the National Front by the government. During the years of the ceasefire, both sides built up their defenses, and when fighting broke out in the East, the SL Army launched several probing sorties against the Tiger lines, giving the impression that an offensive to recapture Elephant Pass was being planned. The Tigers in turn beefed up their troop strength and, on August 11th, after a heavy preparatory artillery bombardment, launched a pre-emptive attack overland and amphibiously, overrunning the Muhamalai-Nagarkovil line. It would take the SL Army’s 53rd Division ten hours of heavy fighting to throw the Tigers back and retake the captured forward defense lines.
The 53rd’s ready reserve was the Airmobile Brigade, and it was this formation that counterattacked once the Tiger advance had been halted. One of the Airmobile’s two teeth battalions was the 1st Vijayabahu Infantry, and its assault on the captured bunker line was under a hail of RPG fire launched by grenadiers such as Corporal P. N. Suranga. The young NCO’s accurate rocket fire was key to his unit’s assault on the bunkers and the subsequent defense against Tiger counterattacks. The Tigers momentarily abandoned their infantry assaults and both sides exchanged artillery and mortar fire for the next two days. On the 14th, the Tigers attacked again in large numbers, at night, charging in to close range in spite of heavy fire from the Vijayabahu infantrymen. Corporal Suranga’s platoon was heavily engaged and he used his RPG rockets to good effect until he finally ran out of the 120-mm projectiles. Helplessly, he watched a Tiger machine-gun team set up their weapon mere yards from his position and begin to pour devastating fire into Suranga’s comrades. His RPG-7 launcher useless, Suranga picked up a grenade and charged the enemy, scrambling into the midst of the machine-gun team before detonating the grenade and killing them, along with himself. The destruction of the machine-gun broke the Tiger assault and allowed the Vijayabas to survive the night. Suranga was recommended for the PWV, and received it in May 2012.
As the SL Armed Forces pushed the Tigers out of the Eastern Province and the western Wanni over the next two years, the PWV went unawarded, in spite of some heavy fighting and much bravery, particularly in the fighting around Mannar. It wasn’t until the SL Army formations were approaching the A9 Highway once more that four more PWVs would be recommended for great acts of bravery; two by infantrymen and two by men of the Special Forces. What would be unique about the PWVs awarded over the next year – the final one of this long war – was that often multiple medals were won by soldiers fighting a particular battle, several of them in the same battalion, indicating the intensity of the combat, as well as the personal dedication of many of these soldiers.
The first of these units was the 8th Light Infantry, one of the teeth battalions of 574 Brigade, part of Major General Jagath Dias’ 57th Division, and tasked with the capture of Thunukkai in June, 2008. Each of the battalion’s companies had a special assault section similar to the German storm troopers of WW1, given the dangerous mission of storming the heavily fortified Tiger line west of the A9 Highway.
In one of these assault sections was Lance Corporal A. M. M. P. Abeysinghe, a grenadier armed with the deadly RPG-7 bunker-busting rocket launcher. In the pre-dawn darkness of 25th June, Abeysinghe’s section crept up close to the Tiger defenses before launching a surprise assault. Within minutes, the assault troops broke into the Tiger line in a storm of grenades and rockets, and the 8th Light Infantry poured through this and other gaps, overrunning the first line of bunkers.
As specialist assault troops, Abeysinghe’s section didn’t have time to pause, moving quickly on to take the next line of defenses, which by now were fully alert to the SL Army attack. In the point position for his section, the young Abeysinghe spotted a group of Tiger bunkers set up immediately behind the first line, camouflaged so that they could lay down enfilading fire on troops moving forward to the second line. Realizing the danger that this strongpoint posed, Abeysinghe didn’t wait for the rest of his section; instead attacking immediately. Single-handedly, he flanked the bunkers and got in behind them. He then used his RPG rockets to destroy each bunker in turn, killing the Tigers holding them. He was, however, severely wounded in the attempt.
Not content with this feat, Abeysinghe then spotted a second similar strongpoint and, still not waiting for his section to catch up, stormed it alone. By now, out of rockets for his RPG launcher, Abeysinghe instead used hand grenades to break into the strongpoint and kill its defenders, himself dying in the explosions. His PWV was awarded in 2012 in the Victory Day ceremonies, three years after the war.
The second PWV awarded to the 8th Light Infantry, came three months later, as the battalion attacked the Kilinochchi-Akkarayankulam Road in September. Taking the road on the 16th, the infantrymen continued their advance the next day, hoping to push the Tigers back away from the road and secure it from counterattack. Within hours, however, the 8th Light Infantry had been halted by fortified Tiger defensive positions to the east; and as dusk fell, the Tigers counterattacked, pushing the tired infantrymen back towards the road. Trying to take their casualties with them, the infantrymen were being swarmed by the Tigers, dangerously close to being overrun and routed.
One of the 8th Light Infantry’s machine-gunners was Private E. G. D. R. Dayananda, and he had been using his 7.62-mm PKM general-purpose machine-gun for hours to try and stem the waves of Tigers. Now, with his comrades low on ammunition and exhausted by the two days of attack and counterattack, Dayananda knew that he had to buy them some time to withdraw with the wounded. Setting up his GPMG, Dayananda then proceeded to hold off the Tigers single-handedly, laying down accurate fire until he ran out of ammunition and was overrun and killed.
The 3rd Special Forces was the next unit to be honoured with two PWVs in quick succession that year. Specializing in reconnaissance and assassination missions behind the Tiger lines, the long-range recce patrols (LRRP) of the 3rd SF had had a lot of success at locating high-ranking Tigers and killing them, or identifying their locations for air strikes. Colonel Shankar, commander of the Tiger air wing, and Lieutenant Colonel Kangai Amaran, the second-in-command of the Sea Tigers, had both been ambushed and killed by LRRPs in 2001, just before the ceasefire, and Colonel Charles, the head of Tiger military intelligence had been killed in early 2008. In addition, Tamilchelvam, the deputy leader of the Tigers had been killed in an airstrike after his location was identified by LRRPs.
That same year, a six-man LRRP from the 3rd SF sneaked through the Tiger lines and headed northeast towards Mankulam. Marching for 30-km on a route that would allow them to flank the town from the west, they then turned east and set up an ambush on the A9 Highway between Mankulam and Kilinochchi, the Tiger capital since the fall of Jaffna in 1995. The ambush was a success, and two senior Tiger officers were killed. The patrol then began its long withdrawal back to their own lines. However, crossing the Mankulam-Thunukkai Road, the patrol itself was ambushed. One SF trooper was immediately wounded, and the patrol commander, a sergeant, and Lance-Corporal K. Chandana began to provide cover so that three other unwounded troopers could carry the injured man to safety. Outnumbered and outgunned, the two SF men held off the Tigers, both being wounded in the process. Once the rest of the patrol had crossed the road, it was the turn of Chandana and his sergeant to make a run for it. But Chandana was too badly wounded to move on his own, and knew that to allow his wounded sergeant to assist him would result in both their deaths or – even worse – their capture. Chandana insisted that the sergeant withdraw while he himself covered him, knowing full well that to stay behind was to face certain death. With no other choice, the sergeant crossed the road in the wake of his team, while Chandana continued to hold off the Tigers until he was killed. He received the PWV four years later at the 2012 Victory Day celebrations.
While Corporal Chandana was a junior NCO, later that same year, another member of the 3rd SF would be selected for a PWV – its commanding officer, Major Lalith Jayasinghe. The son of a tea estate clerk, Jayasinghe had played rugby for his school before joining the 6th Gemunu Watch, later applying for the Special Forces. As a captain, he had been hand-picked for training at Ft. Benning in the USA. By November 1998, Jayasinghe was 34 years old, married and expecting to be a father; he had also twice won the Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya (WWV), the second-highest award for individual bravery in combat. He had also planned many of the ambushes that had already cost the Tigers some of their high-ranking officers, and had personally led several of them.
In late November, Major Jayasinghe led an eight-man team on yet another mission, marching forty kilometres through heavy rain and over terrain that was often swept by raging flood waters, into enemy territory to lay an ambush on the A34 Highway between Mankulam and Oddusudan. Taken ill on the long march, Jayasinghe was forced to remain with the rearguard at the ambush site so as not to give away the LRRP team’s position. His men soon sprang the ambush, but the Tigers, on the alert after many such LRRP attacks, had the area under constant surveillance, and the small patrol soon found themselves under attack. The patrol had to move fast to avoid being surrounded and, despite his illness, Jayasinghe led his men in a fighting withdrawal during which he was wounded by enemy fire. In a running firefight, the SF patrol had a second man wounded, and were slowed down enough to be cut off and surrounded by the Tigers. With his patrol pinned down and in danger of being overrun, Jayasinghe – weak from illness and wounds – led an assault on the enemy positions to blast a way through for his team. Hit again, this time in the head, Jayasinghe was killed, but his team broke through, taking their wounded comrade with them, as well as the body of their dead officer. Still pursued by the Tigers, the patrol was found by Mi-24 attack helicopters of the SLAF which soon beat the Tigers back with repeated rocket and gun runs. The respite allowed a transport chopper to then land and pick up the surviving troopers. Lalith Jayasinghe was the second Special Forces battalion commander to be awarded the PWV – after Fazly Lafir, killed at Mullaitivu in 1996; both officers were killed while leading their men in desperate combat against overwhelming odds.
While the ground offensive against the Tigers crept inexorably closer to the rebel capital of Kilinochchi, another war was raging along the country’s northeastern coast and out to sea. Sea Tiger boats were ferrying supplies, ammunition, and men up and down the coast; and these were particularly vital to the Tigers fighting on the Jaffna Peninsula, now almost cut off from the mainland since the recapture of Pooneryn by the SL Army. These boats were constantly harried by inshore patrol craft (IPCs) and Arrow Boats of the SL Navy’s Rapid Action Boat Squadrons (RABS) and Special Boat Squadron (SBS). The Sea Tiger gun and suicide boats were also trying to get through the cordon of the 3rd Fast Gun Boat Squadron and 4th Fast Attack Flotilla to resupply ships further out to sea. It was in these battles that a sailor would be awarded the SL Navy’s second PWV.
On November 1st, 2008, a flotilla of Sea Tiger boats attacked the SL Navy cordon off Point Pedro; suicide boats escorted by gun boats. The Sea Tiger tactic was to use superior numbers to “swarm” the larger Dvora-, Shaldag-, and Colombo-Class fast attack craft of the SL Navy, getting into close range where the fast attack craft’s heavier weapons were less useful against the highly maneuverable Muraj-, Thrikka-, and Sudai-Class gun boats of the Sea Tigers. To counter this tactic, the SL Navy’s RABS and SBS used similar small boats which fought almost like light cavalry units on land, attacking and defending in tight formations. As the Sea Tigers swept in, they were met by the IPCs and smaller Arrow Boats, and a large running gun battle ensued. Z-142, one of the SBS Arrow Boats, was commanded by Petty Officer K. G. Shantha, and he steered his sleek, fast craft with skill, cutting in and out of the Sea Tiger boats, his 23-mm gunner and two machine-gunners using their weapons to maximum effect and destroying several enemy craft. Shantha’s Arrow Boat always seemed to be in the place of maximum danger, and this disregard for personal safety gradually took its toll on the crew of the light and unarmoured boat. Soon, all three gunners had been killed or wounded. Finally, the Sea Tigers were close enough to strike at the larger FACs of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla. With his gunners out of action, Shantha saw a suicide boat charge out of the Sea Tiger formation, aiming for P-164, one of the Colombo-Class FACs. Knowing the only weapon left to him was his boat itself, Shantha swung Z-142 around and raced for the speeding suicide boat. Shantha’s Arrow Boat slammed headlong into the suicide boat, stopping it before it could hit P-164 and its crew of twelve, killing himself in a thunderous detonation. Like the rest of the PWVs awarded for the last year of the war, Shantha’s too was received at the 2012 Victory Day ceremonies.
On New Year’s Day, 2009, Paranthan fell; and the next day, it was Kilinochchi, the Tiger capital, abandoned as the LTTE was driven back over the A9 Highway. And with the new year, the PWVs came thick and fast. There was no respite for either side, and the SL Army formations immediately began to push the Tigers back away from the A9 Highway, while the rebels fought like trapped animals from behind earthen bunds, trenches, and fortified bunkers. Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s 58th Division was making slow progress along the A35, trying take Vishvamadu. For three days, the 58th’s brigades hurled themselves at the Tigers, losing over 300 men before grinding to a halt at the Nethali Aru bridge on the 19th of January, pinned down by heavy Tiger fire. Unable to take a direct route to the objective, Brigadier Silva sent his reserve 584 Brigade round the right flank to attack Vishvamadu from the west. One of the battalions in this reserve brigade struggling to overcome Tiger resistance was the 21st Sinha Rifles. By the 29th, the unit was close to Vishvamadu but facing heavy resistance.
In the early hours of darkness, the 21st Sinha Rifles sent eight-man assault sections to knock out strongpoints in the Tiger lines before the final attack. In one of these assault teams was nineteen-year-old Rifleman Abeyrathne Banda who had finished basic training just in time to join his battalion as it crossed the A9 on New Year’s Day. The ground in front of the Tiger strongpoint had been strewn with anti-personnel mines and hidden booby traps, and it took Abeyrathne’s section hours of careful stalking in near total darkness before they were crouched in the water-filled ditch beneath the strongpoint. The bunker had to be stormed before daylight so that the rest of the battalion could assault the defenses under cover of darkness, and as soon as Abeyrathne’s section had caught their collective breath, they scaled the earthen bund and attacked the defenders with grenades and rifle fire, using surprise to overwhelm them quickly. The same feat was being carried out up and down the line as the other assault sections took the strongpoints, and the game was soon up. Tigers in other bunkers on both sides began to attack the captured strongpoints, desperate to recapture them before the inevitable main assault by the SL Army engulfed them. In addition, heavy fire from the second line of Tiger defenses began to hit the less well protected rear of the bunkers. Abeyrathne’s section was pinned down, fighting for their lives and the lives of the men of the attacking companies who were depending on the strongpoints being held. Several of the riflemen were seriously wounded, including Abeyrathne himself, but he continued to fight, ignoring his wounds. It was, however, clear to Abeyrathne that it was a losing battle; their combat-effective numbers dwindling, there was no way they could hold off the ever-approaching Tigers before reinforcements arrived. Taking out a hand grenade, Abeyrathne dived out of the strongpoint and into the trench that connected it to the next bunker. Wounded and in pain, the teenaged rifleman rushed down the trench and into the Tigers before detonating the hand grenade and killing himself. This sacrifice was enough to hold back the Tigers long enough for the rest of the 21st Sinha to storm the line and take it. Vishvamadu fell later that day. The Sinha Rifles had given the PWV its first recipient nineteen years before; now this legendary regiment had given it its youngest recipient.
Although Vishvamadu had fallen, the pressure on the SL Army units pinned down at the Nethali Aru bridge didn’t relent. Fearing a complete encirclement of their troops in the area, the Tigers attacked up the highway, hoping to push 581 Brigade back and allow some of the defenders of Vishvamadu to escape. One of the battalions holding the highway was the 7th Gemunu Watch, under intense Tiger assault and holding on grimly to the territory they had captured at high cost. But they were taking casualties steadily, and by February 1st, the situation was tense. Slowly, but surely, the Tigers seemed to be getting the upper hand. Among the Highlanders of the 7th Gemunu Watch was Corporal P. M. N. Pushpakumara, and most of the section under his command had been wounded and were now unable to stop the Tigers advancing on them. Knowing he couldn’t stop the enemy on his own, but unwilling to retreat and leave his wounded men to be killed, Pushpakumara then strapped a Claymore directional mine to his torso, clenched the detonator in one hand, and charged the Tigers. Taking them by surprise, he succeeded in getting right amongst the Tigers before detonating the Claymore and killing enough of them to halt the advance on his section. For his deliberate sacrifice of his life for his men, Corporal Pushpakumara was awarded the PWV in 2012.
Two days later, and on the far side of the cauldron that was the rapidly shrinking piece of territory held by the Tigers, the rebels launched another counterattack. The area around Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK), just west of the Nandikadal Lagoon was held by Tiger units under the command of Pottu Amman, the LTTE’s head of intelligence. Immediately south of him was the SL Army’s Task Force 4, and it was pushing north along the Oddusudan-PTK Road, having already taken Mulliavalai. On the 3rd, Pottu Amman counterattacked, relying on suicide bombers to spearhead his attack, and succeeding in throwing the Army back several kilometres. One of the units with TF4 was the 2nd Special Forces, two of its squadrons providing the division-sized formation with its ready reserve. Now, with troops falling back under the Tiger assault, the 2nd SF was sent in to stem the tide.
Going straight into action, the Special Forces came under immediate attack. With this fresh assault, the Tigers sent in a suicide attack in the form of an armour-plated truck, packed with explosives to punch a way through the defenses. The SF troops put down a ferocious barrage of small arms fire on the truck, but its armour resisted the 7.62-mm fire and kept coming. Corporal Chandrasiri Bandara, one of the SF troopers knew that the only way to stop the truck bomb was with rocket fire, and loading his RPG-7 launcher, he quickly stepped into its path. Taking careful aim, Bandara allowed the truck to close the distance, knowing that he might not get a second shot. Finally, Bandara fired, and the 120-mm rocket flashed across the intervening distance, detonating against the truck’s armour. Through the smoke charged the truck, damaged, but still functional, the suicide bomber at the wheel determined to carry out his mission. Tiger infantry following the truck had now seen Bandara and, realizing the threat the man’s rockets posed, sent a hail of bullets that whizzed past him and churned up the ground around him. The truck was dangerously close now, and Bandara realized that even if he blew it up he might not escape the explosion of its deadly cargo. His only chance was to dive for cover by the side of the road and allow the truck to race by, but instead, Bandara reloaded his rocket launcher and took aim again, dropping to one knee to steady himself. With the truck looming over him now, Bandara fired. With a whoosh the rocket penetrated the truck’s armour and, a fraction of a second later, detonated its explosives in a thunderous roar that destroyed the truck and killed Bandara instantly. For refusing to retreat in the face of fatal danger and preventing the deaths of countless numbers of his comrades, Corporal Chandrasiri Bandara was awarded the Special Forces’ fourth PWV. Before the war was over, this elite regiment would earn a fifth medal, making it the most decorated of the SL Army.
By the beginning of March, the 58th Division had fought its way down the A35 and was close to PTK Junction. The fighting was ferocious; both sides attacking and counterattacking, capturing ground that was soon lost a few hours later, all at the cost of hundreds of lives. On the 2nd, something unique happened in the annals of the Parama Weera Vibushanaya; it was awarded to two men of the same battalion for acts of heroism on the very same day. Captain U. G. A. S. Samaranayake and Captain H. G. M. K. I. Megawarna were both platoon commanders in the 9th Gemunu Watch, fighting to capture PTK Junction, and in almost identical acts of courage, both officers stayed in command of their platoons in spite of serious wounds, making sure their wounded subordinates were evacuated but refusing to be casevaced themselves. Both officers stayed in command, leading their platoons until they succumbed to their injuries.
By mid-April, the 53rd and 58th Divisions of the SL Army were very close to the northwestern edge of the Nandikadal Lagoon. At this point, the A35 Highway entered the government-declared No-Fire Zone at Irattaivaykkal, and before the Army could enter it in pursuit of the Tigers, it was necessary to free more than 100,000 Tamil civilians who were being held by the Tigers as human shields. The best way to do this was via the A35, but the Tigers too knew this, and put up a fierce defense of the road route. Behind the earthen bunds, and in their waterlogged bunkers, the civilians too knew the Army was getting closer. For weeks they had been running the gauntlet of the Tigers to escape to Army lines, many of them being killed by Tiger gunfire. Now, the civilians waited in fear and anticipation for the Army to breach the bund and allow them to flee to safety. By the 18th, the 58th Division’s offensive along the A35 had stalled, unable to get past the Tiger defenses in spite of repeated air and artillery strikes, and instead the momentum was switched to the 53rd Division on the left flank. Units of this division would fight their way to the coastal road that entered the NFZ at Ampalavanpokkanai and advance into the NFZ from the north. It wasn’t the best option, but the only one available to the Army.
Just before midnight on the 19th, under the cover of darkness and driving rain, troops of the 1st Special Forces moved through Ampalavanpokkanai towards the earthen bund built across the coastal road and between the narrow lagoon and the coast. They were guided by some civilians who had escaped from the Tiger lines. Tiger strongpoints were on alert however, and firing blindly into the night, unaware that the SF troopers were creeping up under their noses. By 04:00 on the 20th, the SF was in position below the bund, and with the first glimmer of dawn at 05:00, they pitched grenades over the bund and stormed the Tiger positions. One of the officers leading them was Major K. A. Gamage, who then began to use his troops to overrun the Tiger bunkers and create a gap through which the thousands of civilians could escape. Women, children, and the elderly who had been crouched all night under shellfire in their flooded bunkers now braved the Tiger fire to wade through the lagoon towards the Army lines. Gamage’s orders were not to advance further because of the danger of Black Tiger suicide bombers, but to hold the bund and cover the civilians’ escape. This, however, was not possible. The Tigers beyond the bund kept up a steady stream of fire at the SF troops and the civilians, trying to prevent the latter from escaping. As the sun rose higher, Gamage led his men in repeated attacks against Tiger positions beyond the bund, trying to suppress their fire. By 07:00, Gamage’s men were exposing themselves to Tiger fire and waving white flags to attract the civilians’ attention to the route they should take. The civilians were starving and exhausted, carrying little children, some wounded, and many too weak to scale the bund, and the soldiers had to help them over, instructing them to crawl to avoid being hit by the steady enemy fire. Often, Tigers would advance under cover of the civilians to fire on the SF men, trying to draw retaliatory fire against the civilians, and Gamage and his men had to take extreme care to pick off the rebels and not harm the terrified civilians. Throughout the morning of the 20th, almost 100,000 civilians escaped to safety, while nearly a thousand were killed either by the Tigers or Army artillery that was trying to suppress the Tiger fire. To cover the civilians, Gamage and his men had to constantly expose themselves to enemy fire, and this took a deadly toll on them in dead and wounded. Amongst the dead was Major Gamage, killed at the head of his men. He was the fifth and final recipient of the PWV from the Special Forces.
By the 11th of May, the SL Army had taken the Irattaivaykkal bund as well as a series of bunds southeast of Ampalavanpokkanai, and was advancing on a two-division front down the spit of land that divided the Nandikadal Lagoon from the sea, towards Vellamullivaikkal. There were still tens of thousands of civilians crowded in with the Tigers who were stubbornly resisting the advance and brutally killing any civilians who tried to flee. The advance of the 55th Division down the coast through Challai had deprived the Sea Tigers of many of their bases, and in their retreat they had brought along some of their lightest boats, hiding them along the Mullivaikal coast and the shores of the Nandikadal Lagoon. Now, they would use them as suicide craft against the infantry advancing through the shallows of the lagoon. The 6th Light Infantry was anchoring the right flank of the advance, its soldiers wading and using improvised rafts to advance along the northern shore of the lagoon. Private R. M. D. M. Ratnayake had advanced for three-hundred metres through the mud and water of the lagoon when he saw Tiger suicide boats moving ahead. One of these craft turned towards the infantrymen and began a rapid approach. Exposed in the shallow water, most of the soldiers started to fall back, trying to get to higher ground before the boat caught them. Instead of following his comrades, however, Private Ratnayake, a recent replacement fresh from training, stood his ground and opened fire on the suicide boat. Eventually, it was clear that neither the Tiger nor Ratnayake was going to back down and as the suicide boat raced into close range, it was hit again and again and exploded in a ball of fire that killed the young infantryman, and earned him the PWV.
As the SL Army divisions moving in from north and south squeezed the Tigers into the middle of the Mullivaikal spit, other units set up a blocking screen on the western side of the lagoon. Several of these units set up machine-gun, sniper, and rocket teams on small islets in the lagoon itself, supporting the advance and providing an early warning system for any attempted breakout by the Tigers. One of these outposts was manned by eight men of the 4th Vijayabahu Infantry, and led by Sergeant H. G. S. Bandara. The expected breakout came on the night of the 17th, and the small outpost found itself in the path of an advancing Tiger unit of over 150 rebels. The infantrymen didn’t know it, but this was part of a doomed attempt to get Prabhakaran, his family, and several Tiger high-rankers away to safety. Outnumbered almost twenty to one, Sergeant Bandara gave the order to fire, and his small team poured fire into the Tigers. Caught in the open and taken by surprise, the Tigers were taking heavy casualties; but they quickly recovered and replied in kind, their fire slashing into the islet. Outgunned and outnumbered, the eight infantrymen were all hit; some of them, including Bandara, quite severely. Undaunted, Bandara continued to lead his team, directing their fire and encouraging them in the face of overwhelming odds. In spite of his own wounds, Bandara also carried or dragged the more severely wounded men of his team to better cover on the far side of the islet, returning each time to continue the fight. Incredibly, the small team, through sheer bravery and tenacity, was able to repulse the larger enemy unit and drive it back to the Mullivaikal side of the lagoon. At this point, weak from loss of blood, Sergeant Bandara succumbed to his wounds. The PWV he was awarded was the last of the war. A few days later, Prabhakaran’s body was found on the banks of the lagoon, and the fighting finally ended after almost thirty long years.
“Many brave men lived before Agamemnon: but they are all bound, unknown and unwept, in the long night, for there was no one to sing of them in sacred verse.”
As with all subjective awards for excellence, there will always be questions as to why a particular individual was honoured, and why another wasn’t. The criteria for receipt of the PWV is clear, and yet the recommendation lies firstly with the hero-elect’s commanding officer, and then with a special awards panel that decides the eligibility of many such recommendations before forwarding their decision to the President for final approval. There will be many who will point cynically to the fact that as many as half the PWVs awarded were to individuals killed in the last two years of the war, proof of a political motivation behind these last awards. But to read the accounts of individual bravery, of selfless sacrifice, is to understand that, whatever the political motivation, the recipients – and the families they left behind – deserved more than just a medal. It could also be an indication of the ferocity of the fighting to defeat the Tigers, and the determination of the servicemen to pay any necessary cost not just for victory, but in defense of their friends and comrades. As I said before, as many PWVs have been awarded in defeat as in victory. Readers should also not attempt to keep score – tempting as that is – between the different units and services whose members have received the PWV. The awarding of this medal isn’t necessarily an indication of the fighting prowess of those formations. For example, the Special Forces have received five PWVs to the Commandos’ one; but there is no one in his right mind who will take that as an indication that the SF is five times as good as the Commandos. For every PWV awarded, it is possible that a dozen similar acts went unrecognized.
Sri Lankan servicemen killed in action are often promoted a rank posthumously, but this elevated rank isn’t always noted in the media and even official reports. To avoid confusion, I have referred to the PWV recipients by the rank they held when they were killed. Finally, this article is not meant to be a commentary on the war. If I have not mentioned certain things, or seem to have stressed on others, it is not because I am trying to make a point of it, or to show one side better than the other; but simply to present a backdrop to the feats of the twenty-three servicemen who have received the PWV. And from the bottom of my heart, I hope that it will never again be necessary to award even one more Parama Weera Vibushanaya.