Capt. Lalin Fernando’s platoon of the First Battalion, Gemunu Watch was rushed to Wellawaya when the JVP insurrection broke out 50 years ago. Here he recounts his experience I arrived at the Wellawaya Police Station in the afternoon of April 5, 1971 with two platoons of my Company (Bravo) of the First Battalion, Gemunu Watch [...]

Sunday Times 2

“The longest night for all of us”


Capt. Lalin Fernando’s platoon of the First Battalion, Gemunu Watch was rushed to Wellawaya when the JVP insurrection broke out 50 years ago. Here he recounts his experience

I arrived at the Wellawaya Police Station in the afternoon of April 5, 1971 with two platoons of my Company (Bravo) of the First Battalion, Gemunu Watch that had finished a tour of Mannar on illicit immigration duties six weeks before. One platoon was ordered to debus and provide immediate all-round protection to the Police Station. The other platoon under command of Lt. Gibbrey Muthalib (who I had trained as an officer cadet) was sent off to Monaragala.

He had been there two weeks before on ammo and weapon searches with the Police. Unfortunately he suffered a gunshot injury to his head shortly thereafter but survived and made Major General in time. The 3rd platoon under Lt. Sunil Peiris, also trained by me (who later founded and commanded the Army Commandos) was later deployed to Balangoda.

An Internal Security platoon of 4 Regiment Artillery under later Captain F R A B (Bashoor) Musafer (now an Australian) was already there having come that morning. Bashoor and I had played rugby together for the Army and against each other in the regimental competitions. They (Gunners) were all in the  four ton truck they had come in, ready to move back to Wirawila.

I reported to Major (later Major General) Gratian Silva (Grade 2 Operations Officer) who had just arrived by helicopter from Army HQ with DIG Rudra Rajasingham (later IGP). Major Silva briefed me and said that two policemen had been killed in the attack that took place at dawn. The Police and their OiC Donald Jayasekera looked demoralized and shell shocked. They said that about 500 JVP insurgents had attacked that morning. This number was broadcast on radio worldwide but the correct figure was 25.

I did a walk about of the Police Station to observe how the attack had been made. The insurgents had come along a stream that ran between the Police Sation and the post office on the east side and lined up in the rear where the policemen’s sleeping quarters were. The leader, wearing a coat had gone round the west side and taken a position in front of the hospital.

The OiC’s wife said she observed every movement with gut wrenching fear from their quarters from the time her husband came in with the night mobile patrol. During the attack the OiC’s tin house was riddled with shot gun pellets, all fired at waist height. His wife lay motionless on the cement floor with her Alsatian dog. The ‘reserve’ Policeman who stepped out on the verandah to have a smoke after the night mobile patrol had come in, was shot by this leader. The constable was the first  to die in the 1971 insurgency. The insurgent leader was the son of a  long dead fisherman  from Ambalangoda. It signalled the start of the shooting war in the very short 1971 insurgency. The insurgent leader was later killed by the Police under controversial circumstances as was another insurgent Appuhamy.

The other Policeman to die, Gunesekera, a very popular man, was unarmed and hurrying to the Police Station in uniform from his home, when he was killed by the retreating insurgents. His wife was a nurse in the Wellawaya hospital that was on the other side of the road from the Police sation.

The Police sleeping quarters were attacked with petrol bombs and a small fire had broken out which had been put out. During the attack PC Banda had run across the stream to the post office and opened fire from a flank with a .303 rifle. He probably saved the Police that day. The .303 rifle explains the gaping exit wound in the back of the only attacker killed. This turned the tide. The JVP fled.

PC Banda was awarded a bravery medal by the  Police.

Another insurgent had been shot in the face with a Sterling sub machine gun by intrepid Police Sergeant Seneviratne. The Sergeant used to come with me on every patrol. When this wounded insurgent surrendered when an amnesty was announced later, he was an advertisement for Boric powder which a kind dispenser at Koslanda had applied to his festering mouth to help him recover completely. His scars on either side of his cheeks were hidden by a beard.

The evening before (April 4) a volleyball match had been played with the local team. The Police lost. The best local players had taken part in the attack. It was a betrayal of fellowship the Police found difficult to forgive.

I observed a fence at the rear of the police station. Behind it was a vast  paddy field. I climbed over the fence and saw two very young lads lying down by the side of the ‘niyara’ (bund) of the paddy field. At first, I mistook them for villagers and asked them to scram. They wouldn’t move. I then drew my .38  revolver and aimed it at them. This was the first time I had ever confronted anyone with a drawn weapon. It did not make me feel good as these were native sons of the soil and not foreign enemy we trained to fight. I asked them to stand up.They were frightened and  hesitant. I then yelled at them  and they stood up.

Immediately Constable Amugoda (from my village Ambalangoda it turned out to be) jumped over the fence and aimed a kick at one of them. However he missed and fell down into the paddy field as he had dislocated a knee when jumping over the fence. Then an Artillery soldier (gunner)   swung mightily with his rifle (.303 British WW One – standard issue in the Army) and also missed. I yelled at him to get out.

The two stood up slowly. I was unnerved. They must have been about 14-15 years old. They were unarmed and came up to me in great fear. I called the Platoon Sergeant Punchi Banda and asked him to give them a ‘ducking’ at the station well and bring them back to me. This was the only ’3rd degree’ we resorted to on exercises in Diyatalawa, where we had come from. The water there was icy cold. I warned the Policemen baying for revenge that the ‘captives’ were not to be harmed in anyway.

After the ‘ducking in warm water, which the two boys had apparently relished after a whole day in the sun, they were separated and each given a piece of paper and a pencil and asked to write down the names of those who came with them to attack the police station. Sergeant Punchi Banda supervised them.

We had 25 (not 500) identical names. This was passed on to the Battalion HQ. We had cracked the Wellawaya gang. The two captives and all prisoners taken thereafter by us (Gemunu Watch) were handed over to the prisons, remanded, tried by the courts, imprisoned and later released.

One ‘insurgent’ we caught later was Sirisena. He was 12 years old. He was an orphan being looked after by his grandmother. His job had been to carry the boxes of matches to light the petrol bombs. He soon became the mascot of the platoon, eating and sleeping with them and helping in doing odd jobs. Concerned by the possible  Police response, I released him on the day we pulled out of the Police Station. Most, if not all, of the surviving Wellawaya JVP  like the tall Milton, teacher Dissanayake and of course Sirisena did not join in the 1988-9 JVP  terrorism that killed 60,000 people in 13 months.

Major Gratian Silva gave me some useful  tips, wished me luck and left for Colombo by helicopter with DIG Rajasingham. Capt Musafer left for Wirawila with his men.

I took out a clearing patrol of the surrounding area. There wasn’t a person in any of the houses in the vicinity which however had pictures of Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike.

We then received information of insurgents in the wooded, rocky hills close by. I left with a section(8 men) with the help of a guide but we were unable to  make any contact. It was after all  nearly 10 hours after the attack. Later as dusk fell we searched each of the homes of the individuals listed by the two captives. The suspects had long vanished. Their families were in great fear of Police retaliation but were comforted I think by the presence of the soldiers.

That first night was the longest night in life for all of us as we awaited a response from the JVP. There was none.

In the first week of May 1971, the Prime Minister announced an amnesty and made a surrender offer. The response was excellent. It saved many hundreds if not thousands of lives of many poor and misled youth that an unforgiving JVP leadership was ready to sacrifice to satisfy their ends.

( The writer retired as a Major General in 1994)


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