Image credit Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images via The Baltimore Sun
The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.
At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.
The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.
The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy.
Although the PWV was instituted in 1981, it wasn’t awarded for a full decade. Then in June 1991, a dramatic battle at the gates to the Jaffna Peninsula captured the imagination of the country’s population. Elephant Pass. Arguably, no other battle in the Eelam Wars would ever attain the legendary status of that engagement, for it contained all the elements necessary to elevate a mere battle into a legend worthy not just of the history books but the story books as well — a memorable name, a brave and outnumbered group of warriors surrounded by a cruel enemy, ultimate victory against all odds and, finally, and perhaps most importantly, a tragic hero.
The road and rail routes onto the Jaffna Peninsula cross from the mainland via a causeway close to the small town of Elephant Pass, and by June 1991, a year after the outbreak of the Second Eelam War, it was held by a single infantry battalion — the 6th Sinha Rifles — some supporting arms, and a small Commando detachment; totally surrounded by enemy territory and dependent on resupply by helicopter from the airbase at Palaly. In early June, the 6th Sinha’s commanding officer was away on leave; the unit left in the hands of his second-in-command, Major (later Major General) Sanath Karunaratne. Strategically valuable for its control of the Jaffna Peninsula and its neighbouring lagoon, Elephant Pass was an important target for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and its leader, Velupillai Prabkharan, had vowed to capture it in “the mother of all battles”. As fighting raged across the Northern and Eastern Provinces, 5,000 Tigers launched a massive attack on the 800-man garrison at Elephant Pass, bringing in heavy ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannon that prevented air resupply. For the next three days, the 6th Sinha stood at their guns as the Tigers sent in human wave attacks again and again, trying to use their superior numbers to overrun the riflemen, failing each time, but causing heavy casualties among the defenders.
By the 13th, the Tigers had overrun the Rest House Camp — a strongpoint in the sector protecting the southern side of the causeway, and the riflemen had been forced to retreat to the second line of defence centred on the Saltern Siding strongpoint. At dusk, the Tigers tried a new tactic, sending an armoured fighting vehicle — a converted Caterpillar bulldozer — north up the main highway towards the Saltern Siding. Heavy weapons mounted on the AFV hammered the defenders and Tiger infantry moved up in its path. Flattening a bunker, the AFV broke through the perimeter. The fate of the southern perimeter hung in the balance. Another bunker further down the line was manned by Lance Corporal Gamini Kularatne and Rifleman Roel, and as they watched the AFV break through the defences, Kularatne slung his assault rifle and picked up a grenade in each hand. Ordering Roel to provide covering fire, the shy, rail-thin 26-year-old from the Kandyan farming village of Hasalaka, made for the AFV, running through the heavy crossfire between the next line of defenses and the attacking Tigers. Hit several times, Kularatne kept going until he reached the rear of the AFV and scaled its ladder. Hauling himself onto the AFV, Kularatne used his grenades to kill the four-man crew, falling to the ground with the explosions. The Sinha riflemen then counterattacked and secured the perimeter. Gamini Kularatne was found on the road by his comrades, dead of the gunshot and shrapnel injuries he had received. Although it would take a further eighteen days of fighting before the 6th Sinha would be reinforced after an amphibious landing 12km away, the moment of supreme danger had passed. Major Sanath Karunaratne, the acting-CO of the 6th Sinha recommended Kularatne be awarded the PWV, and four months later the award was approved. The Parama Weera Vibushanaya had its first recipient.
Over the next two years of ferocious fighting, no single act of courage was considered great enough to be awarded the PWV. Not until Poppy Day, 1993, and the Battle of Pooneryn. The 3rd Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment had been sent to Pooneryn primarily to help protect the nearby naval base at Nagathevanthurai which dominated the western part of the Jaffna Lagoon. SL Navy boats from this base were able to prevent the free movement of Tiger craft using the lagoon to resupply their troops on the peninsula, and particularly around the city of Jaffna itself. Like Elephant Pass, it was a thorn in the side of the Tigers and needed to be destroyed. Unlike at Elephant Pass, however, the Tiger attack was successful.
2nd Lieutenant KWT Nissanka was a platoon commander in the 3rd Gajabas when the Tigers sprang a massive land- and seaborne assault on the Nagathevanthurai naval base and the SL Army positions close to Pooneryn late on November 10th, the eve of Poppy Day. Along with the main assaults, Tiger commandos who had earlier infiltrated the perimeter overran the strongpoints within the base as well as many of the bunkers housing the heavy support weapons. Taken by surprise, the Gajaba defenses collapsed under the intense attack. With Tiger troops inside the perimeter lines, an organised resistance was impossible, and the defenders grouped together in small squads and sections and fought back as best they could, hoping to survive. Lieutenant Nissanka’s platoon, deployed as part of the battalion perimeter, was just outside Pooneryn, and facing the town, when around 0130 hours on November 11th, a Tiger assault hit them. Nissanka’s platoon fought back with small arms and RPG fire, holding the Tigers off; however, they regrouped and mounted a second assault which, along with another assault by Tigers already inside the defense lines, began to take its toll on the platoon. As the situation worsened, the young lieutenant braved enemy fire to move from bunker to bunker, encouraging his men, and with his lines being overrun and more Tigers pouring into the attack, he radioed his battalion HQ for reinforcements. However, there were no reinforcements available as the whole perimeter was under attack, including the battalion HQ. The fighting continued through the dark hours, and as dawn approached, Nissanka’s continued disregard for his own safety resulted in a bullet in his thigh. Badly wounded and in great pain, Nissanka still stayed in command of his platoon, though the majority of his men were now killed or injured, and those unhurt were unable to evacuate the wounded under the intense Tiger fire. Finally, with yet another Tiger assault forming, Nissanka knew that his platoon’s position was hopeless. He then ordered his few remaining uninjured men to try and withdraw the wounded to a safer position, while he held off the Tigers. Nissanka then pulled the pins of two grenades, and with one in each fist, rushed the approaching Tigers. Hit several more times, Nissanka still managed to reach the Tigers and detonate the grenades, killing and wounding a number of them instantly, and dying in the attempt. The disruption he caused the assault enabled some of his men to withdraw from their position.
However, unlike with Lance Corporal Kularatne’s sacrifice at Elephant Pass, Nissanka’s couldn’t save his battalion from the ferocious onslaught. Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai fell with heavy casualties amongst both the Gajabas and the SL Navy troops. Colonel Daulagala, commander of the 3rd Gajabas, recommended Nissanka for the PWV, and it was approved in 1996.
But before Lieutenant Nissanka’s PWV was approved, one was awarded to another young lieutenant, for an act of courage that preceded even Gamini Kularatne’s, making this new recipient technically the first of the PWV heroes, even though the recommendation wasn’t approved until four years after the man’s death. This recipient was 2nd Lieutenant Saliya Aldeniya – a part-time officer in the 3rd (Volunteer) Sinha Rifles. Lieutenant Aldeniya had barely completed a year as a commissioned officer when the Tigers broke the ceasefire agreed with President Ranasinghe Premadasa and launched attacks all across the Northern and Eastern Provinces in the middle of 1990, announcing the outbreak of the Second Eelam War.
Based in Nuwara Eliya in the Central Highlands, Colonel Abey Weerakoon’s 3rd Sinha was ordered to the Northern Province as war broke out. A rifle company was sent to defend Mankulam in late May, and a platoon of two officers and fifty-eight men of that company were detached to secure the nearby Rupavahini television relay station at Kokavil. Lieutenant Aldeniya was this platoon’s second-in-command, deemed too junior for the responsibility of command. On June 5th, Mankulam was attacked by the Tigers, but they were repulsed with heavy casualties, and by the 16th a temporary ceasefire was negotiated. By then, however, both Mankulam and Kokavil were surrounded by the Tigers. In spite of the danger of an imminent attack, the commander of the Kokavil detachment and fifteen men went on leave, leaving the 26-year-old Lieutenant Aldeniya in command of forty-three men. Shortly afterwards, the Tigers attacked and attempted to overrun the detachment.
Surrounded and outnumbered five to one, Aldeniya and his detachment held off the Tigers for fourteen days, and were running short of ammunition, medical supplies, food, and water. They had also taken a number of casualties. Reinforcements sent from Vavuniya to relieve Aldeniya’s detachment, couldn’t fight their way past the Tigers who held all the roads. By June 10th, the soldiers were down to 300 rounds of ammunition, and had only fifteen uninjured men. Resupply helicopters couldn’t get through the Tiger fire. In radio contact with his battalion commander, Aldeniya was ordered on June 11th to abandon the relay station and withdraw, but he was reluctant to leave behind his more seriously wounded men, who could not be moved. Ordering those who could walk to withdraw, Aldeniya elected to remain with the wounded. His last words to his CO, Colonel Weerakoon, before radio contact was lost at 2345 hours were “Don’t worry sir, I will fight till I die.” The Tigers then detonated an adjacent fuel dump and overran Aldeniya’s perimeter. He was 26 years old and married, and is listed as missing, believed killed. He was awarded the PWV four years later.
By late November 1995, Operation Riviresa (Sun Ray), the Sri Lankan military offensive to capture the city of Jaffna was at a very crucial stage, with the SL Army’s 53rd Division under Brigadier (later Major General) Janaka Perera on the outskirts of the city, three of its brigades — 531 Airmobile, 532 Infantry, and 534 Independent — pushing inwards, and the Tigers fighting desperately to keep them out. Being a coastal city on the edge of a peninsula surrounded by a maze of small islands, the Battle for Jaffna was also an amphibious one. In addition to the fighting for the city itself, SL Navy small boat units were tangling with Sea Tiger flotillas that were attempting to resupply and reinforce the Tigers in the city. SL Army infantry and Tiger units were also stationed on many of the small islands in an attempt to dominate the waters that the boats were using. One of these units was the 10th Gajabas, holding the island of Mandativu, just off Jaffna, to dominate both the Jaffna-Kayts causeway and the sea approaches to the city. Between the 10th Gajaba’s position and the city lay the tiny islet of Chiruthivu, manned by a small Tiger unit that was positioned to fire on the Gajabas and provide cover for Tiger boats resupplying Jaffna. The boats were operating by night, and as many as three-hundred sorties were run under cover of darkness, reinforcing and resupplying the Tigers in Jaffna. For the boat traffic to be stopped, Chiruthivu had to be taken and held.
Lieutenant Colonel NAJC Dias, commander of the 10th Gajabas, decided to send two sections to take Chiruthivu. Staff Sergeant Pasan Gunasekara, a veteran platoon sergeant with ten years of fighting under his belt, volunteered to lead the team. It was just three weeks after his 31st birthday. In the early hours of the 29th, Gunasekara and his sixteen men set off from Mandativu on small improvised rafts to cross the narrow channel to Chiruthivu. Landing at 0200, they drove off the Tigers and secured the islet. Gunasekara then set up a fire base and engaged the Tiger boats with rifle, machine-gun, and RPG fire. For almost forty-eight hours, Gunasekara and his men exchanged heavy fire with the Sea Tiger boats and successfully stopped the seaborne resupply of Jaffna. His detachment was finally relieved at 2100 on November 30th, but by then Pasan Gunasekara had died of wounds sustained in the firefight with the boats. On December 1st, the city fell to the 53rd Division. Gunasekara’s CO recommended him for the PWV, and it was awarded in 1998.
With the capture of Jaffna and the securing of the peninsula by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, the Tigers had lost their capital city, the symbolic heart of their struggle for Tamil independence. Forced to retreat into the Wanni jungles, the Tigers reverted once more to guerrilla warfare for the next half-year, rearming and retraining in preparation for a new offensive. They continued to operate at sea as well from bases on the mainland, often attacking SL Navy convoys resupplying the Jaffna Peninsula. On March 30th 1996, the Sea Tigers attacked a south-bound SL Navy transport carrying troops home on leave, escorted by Dvora fast attack craft (FACS) of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla. The Dvoras had fought off several nighttime attacks, trading casualties with the Sea Tigers, and had taken some damage to their own craft. One of these was P458, commanded by Lieutenant Jude Wijethunge, with a twelve-man crew. P458 had damage to its engines and was under tow.
When daylight arrived, the Sea Tigers tried a new tactic; they sent in two suicide boats escorted by Muraj gunboats, in two flanking attacks. As the northernmost attack came in, Lieutenant Wijethunge ordered his tow line dropped and turned into the Sea Tiger attack. Commanding his Dvora from its open bridge rather than the closed bridge radar station used for longer range engagements, Wijethunge intercepted the flanking maneuver and tried to destroy the suicide boat. Alone, and almost without engine power, several of its crew killed and badly wounded, P458 continued to fight, engaging the Muraj gunboats until it was rammed by the suicide boat and sunk. Only two of Jude Wijethunge’s crewmen survived to be picked up by the other Dvoras, and the skipper of P458 was not among them. He was the first sailor to receive the PWV.
As part of this guerrilla warfare, the Tigers launched a multitude of terrorist attacks across the country, including assassinations and a train bombing close to Colombo. One attempted assassination was of a cabinet minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Minister of Housing and Public Utilities who, in his capacity as the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Northern Rehabilitation, was visiting Jaffna in early July 1996.
On July 6th, Minister de Silva was having a busy morning in the Tamil capital; arriving at 0900, he had conducted a discussion on the reconstruction of the City of Jaffna, damaged the previous year in the fighting to capture it from the Tigers, and had then helped hand out free books to students at a convent. He then headed to Stanley Road to officially open the new Building Materials Corporation outlet. After the ceremony, Minister de Silva left the building and walked to the Mitsubishi Pajero SUV that was to transport him to the Jaffna Kachcheri for talks with military and civil officers involved in rehabilitation work. With the minister was Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda, commander of the 512 Brigade that held Jaffna, Ranjit Godamudune, the chairman of Lanka Cement, and a police bodyguard, PC Banda. Brigadier Hamangoda was going to personally drive Minister de Silva to his next appointment, escorted by armed troops of the 51st Division’s Quick Reaction Team (QRT) mounted in Land Rovers and on motorcycles. A large crowd had gathered to watch the proceedings.
On one QRT bike was Lance Corporal WIM Seneviratne of the 7th Light Infantry. A 28-year-old veteran, thrice wounded in combat, he had been seconded from his battalion to the division QRT after the capture of Jaffna. A son of Kurunegala paddy farmers, Seneviratne had almost ten years in the SL Army and had fought in two wars. On the pillion of his bike was Private Pushpakumara, and they were stationed twenty metres behind the minister’s SUV, engine ticking over, ready to escort the convoy.
Minister de Silva started to get into the front passenger seat of the SUV at 1245, to take his place next to Brig Hamangoda in the driving seat. At that moment, Lance Corporal Seneviratne noticed a young woman move out of the crowd and start to walk quickly towards the minister’s vehicle. She seemed to be pregnant, and was carrying two bags in her hands. Immediately deciding that she could be a suicide bomber, Seneviratne snapped a warning to Pushpakumara and gunned the big XT250 forward towards the woman. Cutting diagonally across the road, Seneviratne braked to a halt in front of the woman, placing his motorcycle between her and the SUV. A second later, the woman detonated the explosives strapped to her body, killing herself, Seneviratne, and Pushpakumara instantly, and sending the charred bodies of the two QRT riders and their mangled bike sprawling across Stanley Road. Being in the passenger seat on the left side of the Pajero, Minister de Silva was only slightly wounded in the face and forehead; but the others in the SUV, Brigadier Hamangoda, Ranjit Godamudune, and PC Banda were all killed. Along with them died 20 others, 11 of them civilians, and 59 more were wounded. Lance Corporal Seneviratne’s selfless act of literally shielding the minister with his own body and preventing the suicide bomber getting any closer undoubtedly contributed to Minister de Silva’s survival. He was recommended for the PWV by his CO, Lieutenat Colonel KADA Karunasekara, and it was awarded two years later, in October 1998.
After almost eight months of preparations, the Tiger offensive finally came in July 1996, with a massive assault on the 215 Brigade HQ at Mullaitivu on the northeastern coast. In addition to the brigade staff and support arms, the base was held by two battalions of infantry — the 6th Vijayabahu Infantry and the 9th Sinha Rifles — a total strength of just over 1,400 men. The Tiger forces numbered approximately 4,000. And, just like at Kokavil and Elephant Pass, the base’s senior officers were not present. The brigade commander, Colonel (later Major General) Lawrence Fernando, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Gunaratne were both in Colombo on leave. The base had no road link to any other garrisons in the area, and could only be resupplied by air or sea.
In the early hours of 18th July, the Tigers launched Operation Oyatha Alaikal (Unceasing Waves) and, in eight hours of ferocious fighting overran the 6th Vijayabahu and 9th Sinha defence lines and destroyed most of the strongpoints in the base complex. They then concentrated on assaulting the artillery positions and armouries within the base. The decimated SL Army infantry retreated into small enclaves and attempted to hold out until reinforcements arrived. Most of the Army resistance was centered around what was left of the Vijayabahu battalion HQ. It was now full daylight, and the Tiger unit commanders were ordered to regroup and wait for nightfall before renewing the assault.
Seaborne reinforcements on the Jaffna Peninsula which were to relieve 215 Brigade weren’t ready to embark, and it took the rest of the day to get them on board a merchant vessel that would transport them to a rendezvous with naval landing craft that would make the final assault on the Mullaitivu coast. A beachhead needed to be established first, however, at the designated landing beach, Alampil, five kilometers south of the besieged 215 Brigade. This objective was assigned to two squadrons of the 1st Special Forces, and the first wave of 137 elite soldiers were helicoptered in, led by their battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Fazly Lafir, a 37-year-old veteran special operations soldier and one of the founding members of the Special Forces. Lafir and the first wave of SF landed under heavy fire on the exposed beach. The pilots of the SLAF’s No 6 Helicopter Squadron brought their Mi-17 transports suicidally close to the Tiger positions, one landing his SF “stick” practically on top of a Tiger .50-in heavy machine-gun, so close that the Tiger crew couldn’t bring their weapon to bear in time. Led by Fazly Lafir, who was by now in radio contact with 215 Brigade, the SF fought through the rest of the day and, after being reinforced by a second wave of SF at dusk, into the night to secure the beachhead, making repeated assaults on the Tiger positions that surrounded them, and losing thirty-six men killed and sixty wounded. Already shot several times, Lafir continued to lead his men until finally killed by shrapnel early on the 19th. At one point during the night, surrounded by battle and the continuous mortar fire of the Tigers, he was heard to say, “This is the most beautiful night of my life.” Lieutenant Colonel Fazly Lafir is the highest ranking member of the Armed Forces to receive the PWV.
By the next day, the Tigers had reinforced their positions at Alampil, and the helicopters could land no more troops. The Special Forces squadrons then fought on alone for two days to hold the beachhead until the landing craft could get in on the 21st. One Mi-17 was forced down by Tiger fire and SLNS Ranaviru, a Shanghai-class fast gun boat was sunk by a Sea Tiger suicide boat. Delayed by the Tigers at the beachhead, and by planning and logistical issues, the relief column didn’t reach Mullaitivu until July 23rd, by which time the base had fallen. 215 Brigade had been practically wiped out, with over 1,200 men killed, including at least 200 taken prisoner and subsequently murdered, and many killed in the act of surrendering.
After losing large bases like Pooneryn and Mullaitivu in 1995 and 1996, the Government of Sri Lanka needed to re-establish a main supply route from the south to the Jaffna Peninsula. Regular Tiger attacks and periodic bad weather on the sea and air routes had proven them too unreliable to sustain Jaffna. The most practical such supply route was the A9 Highway that connected central Sri Lanka to Jaffna, and in May 1997, the SL Army launched its biggest offensive, a multi-division thrust named Operation Jayasikurui (Victory Assured).
By December that year, the offensive had reached Mankulam, at the cost of heavy casualties. On the 4th, the elite 53rd Division, veterans of the Battle of Jaffna, pushed north of Mankulam in a pincer movement out of which most of the Tiger units quickly withdrew. Before the division could consolidate, however, they were hit by a massive Tiger artillery bombardment that was obviously preparatory fire before a counterattack. The enemy artillery had to be taken out, and the 2nd Commandos were sent in. Leading one squadron-sized group was Captain GS Jayanath. The artillery positions that were his objective however proved to be a fake, and when Jayanath’s group assaulted it, the waiting Tigers sprang a massive ambush, pinning the commandos down. Under heavy machine-gun, rocket, and mortar fire, and taking casualties, Jayanath led a team of volunteers forward in an attempt to draw the Tiger fire and allow the remainder of his men to escape. In spite of his efforts, Jayanath’s group had taken too many casualties to break out with their wounded, and the captain ordered them to form a perimeter in the thick jungle while the Tigers kept up a continuous fire on them, periodically assaulting Jayanath’s perimeter in an effort to overrun his lines. In radio contact with his commanding officer, Jayanath said that he believed he could hold his position until reinforcements arrived. This proved no easy task, however, and the reinforcing troops, fighting their way through to Jayanath were faced with heavy Tiger resistance and began to take too many casualties themselves. Jayanath was told that he couldn’t be reinforced and told to break out with his men and withdraw. Knowing that this would mean abandoning his wounded, Jayanath, like Lieutenant Aldeniya at Kokavil and Lieutenant Nissanka at Pooneryn, refused. His CO heard him say that he wouldn’t leave as long as there was even a single one of his men left alive to take his orders. He also said that he was determined not to surrender, and would hold his position as long as he could. The Tiger assaults were too strong, however, and eventually Jayanath was hit in the head and killed, his group overrun and destroyed almost to a man. For his courage in refusing to abandon his wounded, and for leading by example until he was killed, Captain Jayanath was awarded the PWV, and remains the only commando to have received the medal to date.
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 PN 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 AMMP 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 EGDR 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, holding them back with accurate fire until he 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-Thunnukai 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 Oddusuddan. 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 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 in to 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 KG 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 PMN 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 Nadikadal 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 UGAS Samaranayake and Captain HGMKI Meghawarne 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 casevacced 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 0400 on the 20th, the SF was in position below the bund, and with the first glimmer of dawn at 0500, they pitched grenades over the bund and stormed the Tiger positions. One of the officers leading them was Major KA 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 escape. As the sun rose higher, Gamage led his men in repeated attacks against Tiger positions beyond the bund, trying to suppress their fire. By 0700, 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 were advancing on a two-division front down the spit of land that divided the Nandikadal Lagoon from the sea, towards Vellamullivaikal. 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 RMDM 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 in to 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 HGS 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 Prabakharan, 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, Prabakharan’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.
– Horace Odes
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 who’s 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.
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.
Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy, The New Yorker and the New York Times. This section, inspired by Longreads, offers more in-depth deliberation on key issues covered on Groundviews