Lt. M. D. K. Wijewardana was based at Trincomalee Naval Base when the Commander Eastern Naval Area gave the order for four FACs to be deployed to Mullaithivu as reinforcements for the three FACs that were already engaged in combat with the LTTE, on March 21, 2001.
Lt. Wijewardana had to assume temporary command of P 480 - an American built TMG Fast Attack Craft - on this mission, though he was the OIC of P 460, under normal circumstances. Lt. Wijewardana belonged to the tenth intake of the KDA (Kotelawala Defence Academy). He started his career at the FAC squadron as the Second in Command and gradually excelled to the rank of OIC of an FAC, dedicating over eight years of his service in the Navy, to the FAC squadron. He has enormous experience fighting with sea Tigers and suicide boats. Married to a lady officer, also in the Navy his whole life seems to be tied up with the Navy.
Date: March 21, 2001 Time: 0930 hours Location: Off Mullaithivu
"By the time we got to the location there were nearly 10 LTTE boats encircling P 495. It was under heavy fire and the two other FACs were attempting to rescue the crew."
The task of the FACs deployed by the Eastern Naval Command, included P 480 commanded by Lt. Wijewardana, six FACs deployed by the Northern Naval Command, KKS (Kankesanthurai), that were also on the scene by that time - was to fight with the enemy and boost the rescue operation, fighting with around 15 armed enemy boats.
The FACs deployed by both Northern and the Eastern Naval Commands launched a coordinated attack - the Northern deployment acting as the Northern flank and the Eastern as the Southern flank, operating in two by two teams.
The objective of both the Northern and Southern flanks was to isolate P 495 - in order to rescue her - by driving the LTTE fleet landward. P 480 commanded by Lt. Wijewardana and P 462 were fighting it out with five to six LTTE craft.
By around 1015 hours they were carrying out what is referred to as an 'Attack run'. The two FACs - P 480 and P 462 - fired, turned and headed seaward to reload. "While we were heading towards the sea, I got the message that P 462 was marooned due to engine failure."
By now P 462 was drifting dangerously close to the LTTE fleet. Since she was in the process of heading towards the sea for reloading, her ammunition was in short supply and all weapons were turned away from the enemy, leaving her in a very vulnerable position.
One or two of the LTTE craft observing the discomfort she was in, was heading her way and another cluster of around six LTTE craft were also fast approaching. P 462 called for immediate assistance, but all other teams were too far away to be of any help.
"Mine was the only FAC close enough to be of any immediate assistance," recalled Lt. Wijewardana. He was the one left with, to make the crucial decision that decide the fate of the sister craft. He decided to make a go for it....
The first round of attacks by P 480 were close-bridge attacks - commanded by the OIC, from within the wheel house. But when Lt. Wijewardana made the decision to save P 462, he decided to command the rescue mission from the open-bridge. "I decided it was easier devising a rescue operation in broad day light rather than keep monitoring the radar."
Lt. Wijewardana told his crew to get his craft ready to tow P 462, and headed towards the sister craft. By this time P 462 was under heavy attack by the approaching LTTE boats. And all the weapons of nearly eight LTTE craft were now redirected towards P 480, as she approached the sister craft.
"But the LTTE fleet was momentarily confused because they couldn't make out what was going on. But within few minutes they realized what we were trying to do and started attacking." In spite of the danger, P 480 positioned itself parallel P 462. P 480 was hit quite a few times but not enough to do major damage.
The crew members of P 480 was preparing to pay out the ropes to P 462. Both the crafts were now under continuous attack.
The whole process of throwing ropes and towing the FAC required P 480 to literally halt, endangering the lives of all on board. Frankly they were like sitting ducks. But the crew of P 480 was relentless and never stopped firing, consequently the LTTE boats were reluctant to get too close.
The crew on the right side of P 480 was focused on passing the rope, while the crew on the left side of the craft was focused on firing. The AGL (Automatic Grenade Launcher) was effectively used by the crew to delay the cluster of LTTE boats from closing in.
Situations like these called for - from the OIC - immense courage to literally halt the craft in the face of the enemy, and the confidence in his crew to believe that they can pull off the near impossible.
The Second In Command, Sub Lieutenant Dharmawickrama, and all the sailors of P 480 were the kind of crew who proved that they were worthy of their OIC's confidence.
"Though I was in temporary command of the craft, her crew knew my combat requirements, they knew exactly what I wanted from them." It all now depended on team work.
"We started to tow P 462, but the rope suddenly snapped. We had no choice but to make a second attempt. But that meant positioning my craft parallel to P 462, throwing out another sling and the whole nine yards, which was extremely risky for all involved."
It was a race against time, but he had to take that chance if he wanted to save the sister craft. They made a second attempt, which also failed when the rope got loosened. It was not tied properly.
"It was an extreme situation. People were shot, some of the guns were jammed, alarms were going off and some controls were badly hit. It's easy to get excited and lose your focus." A control box just above Lt. Wijewardana's head got hit. "The next one could have been me."
This was the time the training, experience, discipline and their will to fight paid off. Lt. Wijewardana didn't want to leave P 462 and its crew thinking that they didn't make an attempt to save them. He decided to go for the nearly impossible - a third attempt.
The line of loose rope had got entangled in the P 480s water jet and had trouble in throttling ahead. Consequently Lt. Wijewardana had to decide on a bow to bow towing, with the P 480 moving backwards, tugging P 462 along in a dangerously slow pace.
But by then the crew of P 495 - the FAC that they were initially called upon to rescue - were saved from the clutches of the LTTE fleet and the other FACs were able to assist P 480 in the rescue of P 462. "The other FACs created a barrier between us and the cluster of LTTE boats."
It was around 1030 hours when the P 462 was finally secured. Three sailors of P 480 sustained minor injuries. There were more than 20 bullet holes in the craft. "P 462 actually looked like a strainer."
Few of the personnel on board P 462 were in serious condition but no one on board was killed. Due to the persistence and courage of the crew of P 480 one of the most significant rescues of the kind was made possible. "In any battle there is a momentum, either in your favour or the enemies. It's in your hands to turn things around."
It was a race against time and the personnel on board P 480 were able to fulfil the required task in the least amount of time available. Although in reality the battle lasted a very short time, in the minds of those who were engaged in the battle it progressed for hours.
The battle that killed approximately 15 LTTE cadres and injured many more earned the Second in Command of P 480, Sub Lt. Dharmawickrama a Rana Wickrama Medal and some of the sailors Rana Wickrama Medals as well while some others were presented with Rana Soorya Medals.
Lt. Wijewardana - who had been awarded a Rana Wickrama as well as two Rana Soorya Gallantry Medals for previous acts of bravery - was awarded a Weera Wickrama Vibhushana for his display of courage, focus and accurate judgement during this particular rescue. He is now a Lieutenant Commander.
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