“Operation Dynamo” was the codename for the successful exercise that succeeded in evacuating trapped soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in France in May-June 1940 during world war two.
I don’t usually like to compare battles fought by the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) to those of world war one and two.
When comparisons were made between the fight for Kilinochchi and the siege of Stalingrad, I pointed out that the similarity was only superficial and that equating both amounted to the fallacy of false analogy.
It is with some reluctance therefore that I invoke “Dunkirk” to describe an event unfolding in the Jaffna peninsula right now. But then I do see shades of Dunkirk there!
[Dunkirk harbour wall at sunset-by Roland Ellison]
What happened in world war two was that the rapidly advancing German army had separated and cut off the Allied army confronting it in France and Belgium.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers from Britain, France and Canada retreated for three days and were trapped in a coastal strip of land extending from Dunkirk in France to Poperinge in Belgium.
It was then that the British launched the massive “Operation Dynamo” to evacuate trapped soldiers from Dunkirk across the English channel to British shores.
In a nine-day exercise from May 26th-June 4th , 42 British naval vessels and 860 other smaller ships and boats called the “Little ships” engaged in maritime evacuation.
The so-called “Little Ships” comprised fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and commercial vessels manned by civilian volunteers.
Together they made several trips back and forth facing great danger and brought back to safety 338, 226 soldiers.
These included 45,000 men of the elite British Expeditionary Force who later went on to accomplish many spectacular feats.
Earlier it was feared that the entirety of trapped soldiers would be killed or imprisoned by the Germans.
British Prime minister Winston Churchill warned the house of commons to expect” hard and heavy tidings”. Later he called it a “miracle of deliverance”
When the British press portrayed the Dunkirk evacuation as a “Disaster turned to Triumph” the realistic Churchill was to caution “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.Wars are not won by evacuations”.
The Dunkirk evacuation is now embedded in British national memory. The phrase “Dunkirk spirit” is descriptive of the British people’s ability to face up collectively to impending disaster and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
What is going on in the Jaffna peninsula now (I am writing this on Jan 6 th night) is also an evacuation exercise. It is nowhere near the scale and scope of Dunkirk. But in some ways it amounts to a “kutty” or “punchi” Dunkirk.
Why do I say this? Let me place evnts in perspective:
One of the strongest defence lines maintained by the LTTE is in Jaffna peninsula. This 12 mile long line extends from one coast of the peninsula to the other.
It is along the axis of Kilaly on the west, Muhamaalai in the middle and Nagar Kovil in the east. Soldiers of 53 and 55 divisions are stationed opposite the LTTE forward defence lines.
The 53 and 55 divisions have been conducting several operations in the past to break through LTTE defences. The LTTE has been resisting fiercely.
The tigers have attached tremendous importance to the need to retain their presence and hold in the peninsula. An elaborate system of trenches,bunds and bunkers have been constructed with three lines of defence.
The LTTE’s northern commander “Col” Theepan himself was until recently in the peninsula supervising defences personally.
The LTTE retains areas in the South-west, south, south-east and east of the peninsula. These include the Pachchilaippalli AGA division and parts of the Pallai and Vadamaratchy east AGA divisions.
Once during July-August 2006, the LTTE had deployed nearly 10,000 cadres to this front with ambitious plans of launching a peninsular invasion. This did not materialise.
Later the numbers dwindled to around 6,000 tiger cadres being in the peninsula.
With the tigers coming under increasing military pressure in the northern mainland of Wanni, cadres from the peninsula were transferred to augment fighting formations.
As a result there were only around 3,500 to 4,000 cadres within the peninsula as the year 2008 ended.
Earlier the tigers were able to resist a series of offensives and mini-offensives by the army inside the peninsula.
It was at this juncture that the military balance shifted rapidly in Paranthan-Kilinochchi.
Task Force One or 58 division commanded by Brig. Shavendra Silva succeeded in taking Paranthan on the eve of the new 2009 year.
With that success, the army was in a position to move north towards Elephant Pass.
This, the 58 division did and within a few days moved up to Kurinchatheevu adjacent to the Elephant Pass Isthmus.
As is well known the Elephant pass Isthmus linking Peninsula with mainland by land is of strategic importance and described as the “gateway to Jaffna”.
The LTTE had vacated positions in the mainland areas adjacent to Elephant pass after the fall of Paranthan.
[Elephant pass Lagoon on the A9-pic: by Parthiban Manoharan]
The army is now in Elephant pass at the southern end of the causeway. Troops are staying put as the tigers have established fresh positions in Northern Elephant pass and are capable of inflicting heavy losses on advancing soldiers.
The tigers however were caught between a rock and a hard place.
It was only a matter of time before the 53 and 55 from the north and 58 from the south would move closer and link up in a pincer-like move called “double envelopement” in military parlance.
This had to happen and was inevitable. The only question was “When”?
Initially, the LTTE seemed to have other plans. Instead of withdrawing from the Peninsula well in advance the LTTE cadres continued to remain there. The tigers seemed determined to resist the army at both ends.
There may also have been contingency plans to move into areas east and south of the Jaffna-Kandy road or A-9 highway and hold on to the region. This would encompass a coastal strip from Thalaiaddy to Chundikulam lagoon.
Another possibility is that the LTTE in an unconventional gambit was thinking of a limited counter-offensive inside the peninsula.
Also a communication “gap” though highly unlikely cannot be ruled out entirely.
Whatever the reason the tiger cadres continued to remain in the peninsula despite the over hanging Damoclean sword .
Suddenly, a change of plan seems to have occurred. “Why” ? is yet an unknown.
[Cattle on Paranthan-Mullaitivu road in the morning-Feb 2005 more Pics: by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai]
A plausible reason may be the belated realisation that the army could move further east of the A-9 in a push parallel to the A-35 or Paranthan-Mullaitheevu road and seal off the coastal areas adjacent to the Chundikulam lagoon.
If and when that happened the existing supply route to the peninsula would be knocked out, rendering entrapped cadres in the peninsula vulnerable.
The series of ground-based drives by soldiers to reach the Kandawalai-Ooriyaan region along the lagoon complicated the situation further.
Meanwhile the 53 and 55 were “revving” up their engines to launch a multi-pronged assault.
Against this backdrop a late decision was probably taken to evacuate. Soon frantic efforts were underway to bring the boys back.
Unlike in Dunkirk there were no civilian volunteers to assist in the efforts. Besides the beleaguered Tamil civilians were in no shape to do so.
So the LTTE began its own “Dunkirk-type” evacuation. Two routes are being used.
One is for the cadres to move eastwards to the Vadamaratchy east coast where sea tiger boats transport them to the Mullaitheevu coast.
The other is for cadres to go to the south-eastern area to a place called Kombaatty and then go across the lagoon to Ooriyaan on the mainland.
There was a time in the nineties of the last century when the people of Jaffna used the Kombaatty-Ooriyaan route to go across and return to the peninsula.
Later another route across the lagoon between Kilaaly in the peninsula and Paranthan Nalloor on the mainland was used.
To strike a personal note there was an occasion in 1986 where I was stranded in Paranthan. I had to reach Jaffna but transport through Elephant Pass was suspended then because of an escalation in the fighting
So some of us went to the Ooriyaan area. Fortunately the waters in the lagoon were shallow. We got into a tractor-trailer. The driver charged 100 rupees per head to go across.
He navigated the vehicle through very shallow waters. At one stage it got bogged down in the mud and all males had to get down and push.
It is this very route which is being used now.
Apparently an LTTE commando unit is engaged in ferrying across trapped cadres in dingy boats and rafts.
Seeing that the withdrawal process had begun the army also began moving. After resisting for hours, the LTTE began retreating from positions along Kilaly and Muhamaalai.
The army moved at least 500 metres and took over vacated LTTE second line of defence positions.
The Army is likely to push forward further in the next few days.
Withdrawing tigers have established a new line of defence in areas north of Puthukkaadu junction on the A-9 highway. Tigers are also sniping from the Pallai area.
Cadres stationed along the Nagar Kovil front continue to remain for now.
Current LTTE resistance is not likely to be durable as it is only a matter of time before the tigers would have to completely withdraw from entrenched positions in the peninsula.
The countdown has begun.
Meanwhile the evacuation goes on like a caricature of Dunkirk.
The Armed forces are shelling the fleeing tigers. Aerial attacks are also on.
Still large numbers of tiger cadres have been evacuated. The remaining cadres would also be evacuated within a day or two.
The resistance being put up now amounts to delaying tactics by the LTTE until cadres are safely relocated.
Howlong the LTTE would try and hold on to positions in the peninsula is not very clear. But it certainly appears that the bulk of cadres stationed in Jaffna are evacuated or will be evacuated.
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Already the evacuation exercise is being glorified in pro-tiger media as a glorious victory.
The tigers and fellow travellers would do well to remember what Churchill said after the miracle of Dunkirk.
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.Wars are not won by evacuations”. – D. B. S.Jeyaraj
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be contacted on: email@example.com