19th December 1999

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Pages of bravery

By Hiranthi Fernando

A comprehensive history of the Sri Lanka Army was officially brought out on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee in October this year. This publication of some 900 pages provides a wealth of information and complete with documentation and photographs gives an interesting insight into the formation and working of the Army.

In addition to old black and white photographs of historic value, extracts of articles and anecdotes by people who have been involved in the formation and various stages of its development, make fascinating reading.

A team of Army officers and retired officers headed by Lt. Gen. Denis Perera worked on the book from January 1997.Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, Army Commander at the time, had requested Lt. Gen. Perera to head a committee to undertake the task of compiling the history of the first fifty years of the Army.

With the Golden Jubilee, two years ahead, the need to have an authentic documented history was felt.

Lt. Gen. Denis Perera, a retired Army commander, joined the Army as an officer cadet on the day the Sri Lanka Army was formed. He was the first Sandhurst trained officer to command the Army from 1977 to 1981.

Being familiar with the growth and development of the army, he was eminently suited to undertake the important task of compiling its history.

He was assisted by Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya as coordinator and several other serving officers and retired officers. When Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya was Overall Operations Commander in the North and East, successive military secretaries acted as coordinators."

"When we set about this task, we found that unfortunately all archives had been lost or destroyed when the Army Headquarters moved from the old building to the new one," Gen. Denis Perera said.

"At the Ministry of Defence, it was the same story. So we had to scout around for information from individual sources and rely a lot on memory."

Gen. Perera explained that Chapters 1 to 10 of the book covered fifty years in five-year periods. Each commander gave his account of what took place during his spell of command.

"Three of the commanders, Majors General Wijeykoon, Udugama and Heyn, have passed away." They were all former officers of the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) and that unit has a good museum at Panagoda.

"Fortunately, their work has been recorded and catalogued," Gen. Perera said. "Two British Commanders are also dead, but we managed to dig out two Army journals published at that time, so all the periods of command were covered."

"We fortunately managed to trace civilians like Colin de Silva, who made a special contribution to the book and articles written by him and Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan gave valuable information on the early formative years," Gen. Perera said.

"We also found that D.S. Senanayake took a tremendous interest in setting up the Army. He was the country's first Sri Lankan Minister of Defence and followed the progress of the Army closely, visiting the officer cadets training at Sandhurst and also the training centres in Sri Lanka."

According to Gen. Perera, the book touched on Army operations only briefly since that will be dealt with in detail in separate campaign histories.

A brief introduction has been given on various regiments and corps of the Army. They too have their own history, which needs to be catalogued.

A special chapter has been devoted to sports. "The Army has done particularly well in sports and it is an important aspect," Gen. Perera commented.

"Some prominence has also been given to medals and decorations instituted over the years, especially those awarded for acts of bravery."

Five soldiers who were awarded the Army's highest decoration 'Parama Weera Vibushana' have been featured. Lt. S.U. Aladeniya of the Sinha Regiment, was honoured for his bravery at Kokuvil, where he fought till the end. He is declared missing in action.

The other four were killed in action. Cpl. Y.G.G. Kularatne also of the Sinha Regiment, was in the action at Elephant Pass in 1991 flinging himself on to an improvised tank of the LTTE and exploding a grenade. He was killed in the blast.

Second Lieutenant K.W.T. Nissanka of the Gajaba Regiment died in the defence of Pooneryn, initially preventing the enemy from killing his men, by hurling a grenade at them.

Warrant Officer M.B.P. Gunasekera, also of the Gajaba Regiment, prevented the movement of Sea Tiger boats in the lagoon, having established a firebase to engage the terrorist boats.

He helped the Army to capture Jaffna town in 1995. Lance Cpl. Y.I.M. Seneviratne of the Light Infantry, saved Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva in Jaffna when he jumped in the way of a grenade thrown at the Minister. He died in the explosion.

An important part of the publication is the Roll of Honour of all those in the Sri Lanka Army, who have been killed in action. The names of 10,688 soldiers and officers, who have been confirmed as having been killed in action up to the time of the publication of the book, will be enshrined in the history of the Army.

Their next of kin will be gifted a copy of The History of the Sri Lanka Army, along with a note of appreciation from the Army Commander.

The entire organisation of the Army throughout the fifty years is recorded in the publication. It is interesting to find details of the strength of the Army and the funds allocated by the Treasury for defence expenditure, together with percentages relative to the National Budget. The strengths of the Army in the early years however are not available since these details have been destroyed.

"The national development work done by the Army is worth billions of rupees," Gen. Perera said. "141 major construction and earth moving operations have been carried out by the Engineers Unit." Details of national development work have been covered in the history, as has been the food production drive the Army has been involved in.The Army has engaged in paddy cultivation and farming in places like Kantalai, Padaviya and Udawalawe. "Apart from feeding ourselves, the Army engaged in food production for the nation. Both national development and food production are part of national security," Gen. Perera said.

The period when the Army was employed in anti-illicit immigration is also given with interesting details.

Over the years, there have also been disaster relief operations in times of floods and cyclone. Two bad air crashes also had to be dealt with.

"There were always upheavals, where the Army had to aid civil power," Gen. Perera remarked. "That is why we get annoyed when the media talks of a ceremonial Army."

"The reason for highlighting the 1962 coup and quoting National Law Reports is in the hope that any over-ambitious officer would realise the implications of staging a coup," Gen. Perera explained.

The book was printed in Singapore by Aitken Spence in collaboration with APP Printers. Copies are being distributed among Army officers at present and the book is expected to be out for sale in the bookshops within the month.

A Sinhala translation is also being prepared.

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