This is the first of a series of articles revisiting the most decisive battles of the Eelam Wars.
As most of you know, Operation Balavegaya was not an operation that was aimed at capturing new territory. It's main objective was to save the lives of 800 army personnel who were trapped in army's Elephant Pass Base Complex (EPS), under siege by LTTE formations.
Unlike in the early 2000s, EPS garrison did not include thousands of army soldiers. It only had 800 men from the Sinha Regiment (SR). On the 10th of July 1991, a 5000 strong LTTE force (approximate number) launched a large scale attack on EPS base complex. Not only was the invasion force massive in numbers, LTTE had planned the attack to perfection. Anti aircraft guns were strategically placed so that no helicopter could land in supplies nor evacuate casualties from the base. Armor plated bulldozers fitted with machine guns and armor plated tractors were used break through the army lines with LTTE minimum casualties. Not only did they broke through SLA defenses but the sinister looking bulldozers sent the morale of the defenders to an all time low.
Image: Armor plated Bulldozer used by LTTE in EPS battle. Corporal Gamini Kularathne (PWV) destroyed the machine using two hand grenades when it tried to break into the inner part of the base. Corporal Kularathne succumbed to injuries suffered during the incident.
Unlike today, the army did not have a clear answer to LTTE's 'human waves' strategy back then. Wave after wave of LTTE cadres pounded the camp's southern defence lines while LTTE mortars rained into the base premises. LTTE forces which outnumbered the garrison in EPS 6 to 1, were meeting with unexpected resistance from the SR soldiers defending the base. Although the soldiers were holding off the LTTE in the southern front, the situation was looking grim for SLA in the long term due to lack of supplies and inability to transport casualties.
During the second day of fighting, the smaller 'Rest House Camp' to the south of the base complex fell the the LTTE. By this time, Major Lalith Buddhadasa who was the second in command of the base had also died due to shrapnel injuries received from an LTTE mortar. Due to the strategic placement of LTTE's AA cannons, SLAF could not land in any helicopters. The only help SLAF could offer the defending soldiers was to air drop supplies into the base. Although majority of the supplies fell into the base as planned, some were retrieved by the LTTE.
After four days of bitter fighting, LTTE forces showed no signs of slowing down. This was when (14th of July) Major General Densil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalarathna launched operation Balavegaya. Operation Balavegaya, which involved 10000 SLA troops, was the largest army operation at he time since Operation Vimukthi. 1 Sinha Regiment (SR), 3,4 Gajaba Regiment (GR) and 3 Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), Sri Lanka Artillery and Armored corps were the formations that took part in the operation.
Since there was no clear land route to EPS from government controlled territory, it was decided that an amphibious landing was necessary. A location some 10km to the east of EPS (Vettilakarni) was chosen as the landing point. LTTE which had early information on the army's move, resisted the amphibious landing fiercely. The first attempt to land troops failed as a consequence. However it was a matter of time till the army secured Vettilakarni under the command of Major General Vijaya Wimalarathna. Vettilakarni was then used as a launching pad for the march towards EPS.
The LTTE which had the territorial advantage continued to resist the army advance. This however eased the pressure on EPS, although the base was still in danger of being overrun. Fighting continued for 17 more days in this fashion, with LTTE put on the defence and SLA backed by SLAF trying to reach EPS. Finally, on the 3rd of August at approximately 5PM, vanguard of Operation Balavegaya reached Elephant Pass Base premises. A combined effort of the relief force and the SR soldiers in EPS garrison saw the LTTE retreat their fighters and thus siege which the LTTE leader had nicknamed 'Mother of All Battles" was broken. This was considered as the best victory by the armed forces until the capture of Jaffna.
Although the battle was won, it wasn't without casualties; a total of 200 soldiers had given their lives for the motherland during the entire battle. More than 500 others were injured. LTTE casualties on the other hand were much higher. According to LTTE released figures the number of LTTE deaths was 573 (450 male and 123 female). But well informed sources suggested that number of LTTE fighters killed was well over 800. A similar number was said to be injured.
EPS remained under SLA control for 9 more years after the initial incident. In 2000, the poorly lead and demoralized 54th division in EPS made a tactical withdrawal in the face of another LTTE siege and the base has since been under LTTE control. According to MI, LTTE does not maintain one major base at EPS but have built a series of smaller bases to better face an army advance. Army's 55th and 53rd division, which are now lead by true veterans, are currently probing rebel defence lines in the north showing the signs of an advance into Wanni in near future.