History bears evidence that the consolidation of a security arm of any country has its origins in a crisis.
In Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, it fell on the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, to face an insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna better idenfified as the JVP. Through attacks on Police Stations that began on April 5, 1971, their abortive attempt to overthrow a lawfully elected government began with an attempt to seize weapons.
Using shotguns, locally turned-out Gal Kattas and other improvised weapons they attacked the Wellawaya Police Station pre-dawn. Whether this launch was the result of mixed up communications or not, it did alert both the Police and the Armed Forces
Whether this group received wrong information regarding the date of the attack is arguable. Whatever the case, the JVP’s overall strategy and tactics utilized failed to overthrow the government. Unlike the present day, the Armed Forces of the 70s were miniscule in comparison. The Police Force was the main bastion of the state. To overcome future eventualities, Mrs. Bandaranaike took the crucial decision to expand the then Ceylon Army. As a result, 30 officer cadets, the largest contingent since the inception of the Ceylon Army, were recruited on April 26, 1971. It was to be Officer Cadet Intake 4. Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was among them.
I was fortunate to join 29 other school leavers to embark on an epic journey. Having reported to the Army Recruiting Officer at Army Head Quarters on Lower Lake Road (later Baladasksha Mawatha), we went through the enlistment procedure. We were now officially Officer Cadets with Cadet number C/51183 assigned to me including a princely monthly salary of SLR 430.00.
After being accommodated in a billet at the Headquarter Company of the Army HQ, we were served dinner. On the following day all of us were bundled into a rickety old Army bus for the journey to the Army Training Centre (ATC) in Diyatalawa. We were escorted all the way to the ATC by a dashing young Captain. We never saw him again until we passed out as officers and joined our respective regiments. (Later we recognised this dashing Captain as the “Aide-de Camp” to the then Army Commander, Major General Sepala Attygalle.
The bus ride to Diyatalawa was of course the time for dreams. A smart jungle green uniform with umpteen pips on the shoulders, sitting rigidly in an Army jeep being driven around was a favourite scene for all of us. Talk about pies in the sky! Instead of jeeps, we were carted around in a WW II era 4T transporter in which the tailgate was never lowered. Getting in and out of this vehicle was therefore a challenge. Cursing and swearing during this high risk manoeuvre was a regular norm for us in addition to being ingrained with the military term “debussing”!
Diyatalawa was a different kettle of fish to what we were used to where the weather was concerned. If it was shock tactics we were supposed to be subjected to, then it worked perfectly. It was freezing cold during nights. The blankets, probably of World War I vintage, did little to keep us warm. The next day after the attendance being noted, we were issued with the Universal Army Kit Bag, better know as the “Ali Kakula” and the AFQ-1 items issued to a recruit. These consisted of basic items such as an aluminium plate, a mug, a mess tin etc. Various types of uniforms were also issued including berets, cap badges, collar badges and the likes.
Once the “kit issue” parade was concluded and the newly acquired items packed inside the “Ali Kakula“, it weighed at least 20 kg. The fun had just begun! We were then taken on a “camp visit” with strict orders for the “Ali Kakula” to be held over our heads. It was however not a walk in the park but a camp tour “on the double”, a medium paced jogging speed. The “Ali Kakula” was not allowed to be kept on the ground at any time during the “Observation tour”. What a spectacle we would have made; dressed formally in shirt, formal trousers and neck-tie carrying the Universal Kit Bag over our heads.
Ten minutes were allocated for us thereafter to change into out PT kits and report. There we were, punctually, in white shorts, white T shirt, white socks and white canvas PT shoes for the next round of manoeuvres. Frog-jumps, Forward rolls and the likes were thereafter executed under the hawk eyes of the Under Officer from Intake 3. The initial briefing in the Cadets’ Café by the Chief Instructor, Major SP De Silva of the CLI, still echoes in the writer’s mind. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Ceylon Army” he said. “We will break you and re-make you in such a manner that nobody, repeat nobody, will be able to break you ever again!”
For three long months thereafter it was being “ground into the ground”. Gruelling lessons, drill, parades and the deadly billet and uniform inspections. We spent most nights in a foxhole (two-man trench) defending the camp with rain and freezing cold as team members. It was a miracle that nobody lost teeth due to the constant chattering. There was no respite in the mornings thereafter. Roll call was once again at 0530h. The camp buglers ensured that we were up prior to the rooster’s call.
PT, ablutions and breakfast thereafter was the routine. Half a loaf of bread, pol sambol and gravy with a banana thrown in; was the gourmet breakfast menu, day in day out. We ate fast as the small amount of gravy in the plate might otherwise have evaporated. All movements during this time within the camp were “on the double”. The entire batch of officer cadets would be moving “on the double” from the billet to the mess hall, from the mess hall to the training area, from the training area to the lecture hall etc. Dozing off during lectures was a norm for some due to physical fatigue. The Spartans from the days of yore would have been proud of our training regime.
By the third week of this “breaking us” (prior to remaking us), we had hit an extreme situation where morale was concerned. “Decamping” was a common topic of discussion amongst us. One cadet threw in the towel during the first week; he could not take it anymore. The initial financial bond which we all had to sign at “A” Branch of Army HQ, compelling us to pay a proportionate amount to the Army in the event we resigned, might have been psychological balm that motivated some cadets to carry on. By and by, we gradually got used to the training whereas rules allowed us to “march” instead of moving “on the double” between venues after the first month.
Teachers form an integral part of anything taught. A teacher could make the training interesting and absorbing or make it lacklustre for the student not to learn at all. We had a batch of disciplined instructors of sterling quality who ensured that we learnt all that was supposed to be learnt. Discipline in parallel was ingrained into us from day one. The Commandant of the then Army Training Centre (ATC), was none other than Lt. Col. Denis Perera (later the Army Commander), a stickler for discipline. No slack was tolerated at any time. He would occasionally visit us during our theory classes held at that time in the Cadets’ Café. You could hear a pin drop during the silence that followed.
The military lecturer, after obtaining permission, would carry on with the lecture. Any cadet dozing off, would suddenly be jolted back to life when his name was fired after a question was posed by the Commandant himself. He was omniprescent, his rough and commanding voice unmistakable. He would drive around the cantonment in his personal vehicle. The Mercedes Benz with its registration number 5 Sri 111, is still etched in this writer’s mind.
We learnt tactics, fieldcraft, map reading and current affairs. Leadership studies of course overarched all courses. Military tactics such as defilading, enfilading and reverse slope manoeuvres began to haunt us thereafter in our dreams. WO 2 Peris of the Armoured Corps, as the “Cadet Wing” Se argent Major, equipped with the pace stick, taught us drill. Corporal Dassanayake of the Signal Corps was the specialist teacher on signals theory and practices. Corporal Cyril the PT Instructor made us physically fit and robust. Gymnastics, “horse work” and rope climbing were to become a norm during this time. Corporal Cyril also took us on walks and runs up to the Diyatalawa City Marker in the direction of Haputale. Corporal Wreeves, the explosives expert from the Engineers taught us the use of minor explosive devices. He also had the dubious honour of checking us inside the foxholes at night and meting out punishment to whoever was caught sleeping.
Corporal Thusiman, the perpetual disciplinarian, was ever ready to mete out extra punishments. Corporal Boyagoda was the compassionate one checking on our wellbeing at all times. While we were busy during military drill at the Parade Square, our billets were inspected by the Under Officer or Course Commander for orderliness and cleanliness. Anything “out of line, balance and sheen” was rewarded with “pack-drill” during afternoons and night.
Weapon training was another adventure. We were issued the 22 during the first term and trained to shoot at indoor targets at 50y meters. Later we used the legendary Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle (known as the “Smellie” during WW II), better known as the 303, with five rounds in the magazine. Natural sense prevailed when adjusting the sights. It was “click-up” or “click-down” for elevation during sighting. We developed a healthy respect for the weapon. Woe betide anybody having a space between the rifle butt and “anterior deltoid” during prone firing exercises. The 303’s recoil was so powerful that a mule kick, in comparison, could have been considered a pleasant experience.
It was a miracle there were no broken shoulder blades. The bayonet and the 303 were also a deadly combination. We were mighty careful during rifle drill, especially during “slope arms” with the bayonet fitted. The bayonet would have pierced the right cheek had we not been careful. We used the 303 even as officers in the various units till the advent of the “self-loading rifle” era. The 303 was used for Inter Unit Firing Competitions where we had to hit the “bull” on a 10’ x 10’ target at 1000 yards. The “click-up” and “click-down” adjustments came in handy during these extreme distances.
We were allowed to leave the camp for a day out after our first term of training. Terms and conditions still applied. We could only go out in pairs. We had to keep step when walking and walk abreast. Polished shoes, smart trousers, pressed long sleeved shirt, neck tie and blazer were a must. The writer remembers getting “Seiyathu” the tailor, to sew his blazer. It was a matter of undertaking a couple of fittings before the blazer was ready. The day out was of course memorable. We would make a dash to Bandarawela by bus; a one way ticket cost 30 cents. The Chinese Restaurant operated by Mr. Lee was one of our favourite haunts. A bottle of beer was Rs 6.00 whereas a sumptuous meal was Rs. 9.00. The Hidaya Bakery was another restaurant we used to frequent. We would walk the entire length of the Main Road from the Bus stand, past the Market building down to Cyril Studio and back to get on the bus for the return to the Camp.
We were taken to Lahugala for a thirty-three day “Jungle Training” during our final term of training. Captain Wijaya Wimalaratne (posthumously promoted to Major General in 1992) who had returned from Malaysia after having followed the Malayan Jungle Course was to be our instructor. The then Malayan Army having fought a long drawn jungle warfare campaign had managed to defeat communist insurgents. This experience had been condensed into a few jungle warfare books and pamphlets and published. These publications would initially serve as basic theory for us.
Captain Wimalaratne was to conduct the practical training for us. He had designed and built a “Jungle Base” consisting of a billet for thirty officer cadets, accommodation for the officer instructors, other rank Instructors and cook house etc. The base was located adjacent to the ‘Heda Oya’, thereby ensuring a regular supply of clean water.
The cadets divided into three sections were taken into elephant infested jungle, progressively penetrating deeper and deeper into the dense foliage where the jungle canopy did not even allow the sun to penetrate and where advancing even a metre required the use of machetes. Ambushing the enemy, counter ambushing drills, Immediate Action drills (IA Drills) etc. were the norms during this time. It was 33 days of hell. The conditions were exacerbated due to real life scenarios. There was no possibility of bathing for up to five days. Drinking water was limited and carried in our water canteens. The only food allowed was “meal ready to eat” (MRE), where the quantities consisted of no more than two to three tablespoons.
The Jungle Warfare Training started during the Intake 4 era, morphed from the initial embryo stage into a fully functional streamlined, professional training in later years. The credit for organizing and streamlining this training goes to the late Major General Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was known as “Jungle Wimale” amongst our batch mates.
We started rehearsals for the “Passing out Parade” (POP) exactly two months prior to the event. This was to be the hightpoint of our training and subsequent graduation. We were eager to become commissioned officers. All rehearsals included the sword and the scabbard. The sword of course symbolised “the commission” presented by the Governor General of Ceylon. Full dress rehearsals were held two to three weeks prior to the event again so that we were fully versed with the process and utilization of full regalia. The Hon. Lakshman Jayakody (Deputy Minister of Defence) was the Chief Guest at the POP. Nineteen cadets passed out in 1972 as Second Lieutenants. We were officers of the Ceylon Army. Our pride knew no bounds! The commissioning dinner was thereafter held at the Ceylinco House (opposite the Central Bank) in Colombo which at that time was the tallest building in the country.
As new commissioned officers, we had the option of joining a unit of our choice. This of course was based on the number of vacancies in that particular unit and our aptitude for the unit’s speciality. Most got their chosen unit whereas some did not. However all batchmates settled in where they were posted to develop a professional military career. The writer was posted to the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI), an ambition fulfilled. This would be the start once again of other specialised training for us, the freshly baked Second Lieutenants. The training in Diyatalawa was a foundation at the beginning of a career. It broke us in a way and remoulded us to fit a specific role. We were taught never to give up and to find options and solutions. Now, light years away from the gruelling training we can look back at those days with nostalgia.
Us batchmates, were many and we definitely were different. Some were physically strong, some mentally. Each had his own strengths and weaknesses. We managed to amalgamate into a strong group and exploit our strengths, which were to prove crucial in later years. We managed to provide moral strength to each other. Whatever was thrown at us, good or bad, was accepted with courage and purpose. We never looked down on our colleagues until unless it was, literally, to give them a helping hand.
Our batch accepted all challenges that came our way in life. Some of us rose to the highest ranks in the military. We served our country and proved ourselves in combat with heads held high. Let us also bow our heads for a moment in silence to remember the batchmates not with us today. Some of us upon retirement from our “employer” went on to accept other challenges. “The batch” produced Secretaries of various Ministries, Directors-General of Departments and Ambassadors who represented the country. Intake 4 should also be the proudest batch of Officer Cadets.
Officer Cadet C/51185, our batchmate of Intake 4, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, went on to become the nation’s Defence Secretary and subsequently the incumbent Executive President! Allow me, on behalf of the entire Intake 4, to wish His Excellency, the best in fulfilling his duties. Thus a saga undertaken in 1971 has continued to this day. Strong foundations laid 50 years back have enabled us to build even stronger structures throughout our journeys in life.