Jaffna University Helidrop was a mission launched by the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka to capture the top leadership of LTTE, particularly Prabhakaran in 1987. I read about it a while back and found the mission interesting at many levels. First of all it was an Indian army mission in a non-native scenario, that is, they were not defending their motherland. Second, it was one of those incidents where an important person (Prabhakaran, here) escaped and had a huge impact on world history. Prabhakaran led the LTTE for 23 more years in one of the bloodiest civil wars in South East Asia. Had Prabhakaran been captured that October in 1987, the war would have taken a, well, different turn for he was an influential leader. Thirdly, it was one of those few missions I know about, which ended disastrously for Indian Armed Forces. Not only Prabhakaran and all of the other LTTE commanders escaped unharmed, the LTTE having prior information about the Indian Army’s operation, were ready, and as a result the Indian troops lost 35 of their brave soldiers while one was captured.
I was reminded of it when I recently saw Madras Café. I went to the theater hoping they would cover this incident in detail but the movie mentioned it for a few minutes and that too rather obliquely.
So Jaffna peninsula is the north most tip of Sri Lanka and Jaffna city is its capital. It was an LTTE stronghold. In the city is the Jaffna University whose campus was used by the LTTE as one of their headquarters in those days. Indian intelligence reports in October 1987 suggested that an LTTE meeting was to be held in the campus and Prabhakaran was to attend it together with some other top commanders. Decision was taken to use this opportunity to catch Prabhakaran and render the rebel movement directionless as the Indian forces planned an all-out offensive to disarm the LTTE. The plan was to drop troops through helicopters around and in the campus who would take Prabhakaran and others. The final plan was made. 120 commandos of the 10th Paracommando group and 360 troops from Sikh Light Infantry were to be heli-dropped in all. The helicopters were Mi-8s, each of which could carry 20 soldiers at a time. Mi-8s have the provision for fitting rocket pods, but it was either considered not necessary because Indians did not anticipate much ground resistance or to accommodate maximum human cargo. Either way, the helicopters were not fitted with rocket pods. 4 helicopters were designated for the mission, which were to fly in twos at a time: two helicopters at a time (2 Mi-8s at a time * 20 guys in each = 40 soldiers in each landing). It was a 4 min flight from helipad to the university. All the 120 paras were to be dropped first, with the infantry troops to follow in later flights. Also the first wave of the paras was tasked to mark the landing zone, so that the subsequent flights were easier.
But unknown to Indian Intelligence, the Tigers had prior knowledge of the impending raid, having intercepted Indian radio communication. The Tigers were heavily armed in anticipation of the Indian raid and the university was turned into a fortress. The Indians were to walk straight into a big ambush.
The Indians started the operation at the midnight of 11th October. The first 40 paras boarded the two helicopters and approached the drop zone observing complete black out. It seems that the LTTE missed this first insertion or were not sure of the direction of approach of the Mi-8s, and so, the troops disembarked unopposed. But the firefight started soon and the Mi-8s barely managed to take-off unharmed. Under heavy fire, the first paras could not mark the drop zone for the coming flights. The pilots of the second flight, when they approached the landing site, could see small arms fire and grenades on the ground but could not see the drop site, so they aborted their mission and their cargo of 40 paras did not disembark.
But the pilots of the original first flight returned to drop their second cargo, and they did it successfully, taking heavy damage to their helicopters in the process because by this time, the LTTE had a clear idea of where the aircraft were coming from and directed their firepower in the incoming Mi-8s’ direction. Now, there were 80 paras on ground instead of planned 120 and they were taking very heavy fire from the hostile LTTE. Meanwhile, the Indians made the decision to exchange one pilot each from the two flights so that two waves could be flown, because the latter two pilots could not identify the drop zone. This way, at least one pilot in both the two waves knew of the drop zone.
The third wave was to consist of 40 remaining paras and the first batch of 40 of the Light Infantry soldiers. But there was delay. Firstly, the soldiers of the Light Infantry not being trained for specialized heliborne operations, were not aware of the embarkation routine and hence were not assembled. Secondly, when they did assemble, they started loading huge boxes of ammunition in the aircraft. The Light Infantry troops, unlike the paras who carried their ammo and supplies on a Man-pack basis, carried their ammo in boxes. This loading of boxes not only caused further delay, it also reduced the carrying capacity of the helicopters from 20 to 15 persons each. Anyway, the third flight took off and managed to drop its cargo but not without more drama. While on drop zone, the paras were prompt in getting out and taking position, but there was confusion among the LI troops. They were freshly transferred to Jaffna from Gwalior and were not properly battle-inoculated. Sudden insertion into a hot battle field probably overwhelmed them. They forgot to unload their ammunition box and the helicopter had to spend more time than required on the ground to unload it. This caused the aircrafts to take extensive fire from LTTE rendering them incapable of further return flights. All the helicopters barely managed to return back but there were not to be any more flights. No more additional troops. The helicopters in very bad shape and the India commanders took the hard decision that no more sorties were to fly.
120 paras and 360 LI troops were to be inserted, as originally planned. While all the 120 paras were in position, only 30 of the 360 LI troops were inserted. With the situation in hand, it was time to decide the new course of action. The commanders on base decided that though the Indian troops were short, Prabhakaran was too high value a target. So the para commandos were instructed to carry out their plan of leaving the drop zone and searching for LTTE leaders while the LI soldiers were to hang back and hold the landing ground. Though it is highly debatable as to how the 20 odd remaining soldiers of the Li were supposed to hold the ground against a superior placed enemy but it seems the commander of the LI troops expressed willingness to do so in anticipation of further insertion of LI troops and by the time he came to know that no more drops were coming, the paras were already on their way to hunt for Prabhakaran. In any case, the 20-something Li troops were left on the drop zone holding off the LTTE while the paras moved forward to hunt for Prabhakaran.
Over the course of the search, the paras met a man who claimed to know the whereabouts of the LTTE leader. The man was in fact an LTTE sympathizer who misled the soldiers who soon lost their way. By the morning, the paras had retreated to couple of houses in the campus and fortified themselves.
Back at the base, with all radio contact gone and no word from the troops on ground, plans were being made to extract the troops. Three T-72 tanks and additional paras were tasked to bring the guys back. But the tanks could not make a lot of progress because the LTTE had laid mines on the ground. Then the tanks tried an alternate route through the railway lines which passed near the University campus, but as they fought their way through, they got bogged down by RPG fire and took some damage. Meanwhile, additional ground troops had managed to link up with the beleaguered commandos. They were rescued successfully. It was 18 hours since they landed at the campus the previous night. They had lost 6 of their men.
The fate of the Sikh LI troops was later reported by Sepoy Gora Singh who was taken prisoner by the LTTE and later released. He was the lone survivor. Greatly outnumbered against a largely hidden and well entrenched enemy, the soldiers of the LI gradually fell man by man. By 11:30 in the morning, the company was down to the last three members who, when they ran out of ammunition, attempted a bayonet charge. Two fell to gunfire while Sepoy Gora Singh was taken prisoner.
It was one of the most poignant battles fought by the Indian Army.
It is not conclusively known as to how close the LTTE leadership came to being captured that day, but some radio intercepts suggested that at one stage during the raid, Prabhakaran had sent ‘Goodbye’ message to other LTTE stations, telling that he may not get out of the battle. It was that close.