STF Small Teams that made a major difference-by Dishan Joseph

STF Small Teams


When we talk of the evolution of the Small Team concept in the theatre of jungle warfare, we have to recall its founder Major General Charles Wingate. An officer of the British Royal Artillery, he was an exponent of unconventional warfare.

Initially, his superior officers didn’t appreciate his suggestions as they were used to conventional attacks on the enemy. However, with time Wingate was able to obtain permission and train his troops in the jungles of India. These men were the pioneers of long range patrols and deep penetration attacks. Wingate named them the Chindits (after a mythical Burmese lion). The Chindits consisted of British soldiers and Indian soldiers, including the formidable Gurkhas. They trained in the mosquito-infested jungles. By 1943 the Chindits infiltrated the jungles of Burma and began raiding Japanese Army positions. The Chindits carried their own supplies and were the first to operate far away from base camp. The courage and tactics of these pioneers would soon be adopted by armies all over the world.

In the Sri Lankan theatre of combat, the need for Small Teams was envisaged during the JVP insurgency of 1988/1989. The initial STF teams were trained for surveillance. Later they were trained to operate in the jungles. In the Eastern Province, during the years of conflict, the LTTE adopted a tactic of sending two or three combatants on foot, to intimidate border villages. Most of the farmers were frightened and a fear psychosis spread among them. The Police Special Task Force was already deployed in some areas of the Eastern Province. The challenge of mitigating this new threat was boldly taken up by ASP Upali Sahabandu (who later became DIG). This unassuming officer along with some others would transform the concept of jungle warfare in Sri Lanka with the introduction of Small Teams.

In order to trace their formative years I spoke to retired DIG K.H. Perera, who was an Inspector at that time in the late 1980s. He recalled “The concept of Small Team attacks was new. We were fortunate to have a dynamic officer like the late ASP Sahabandu. Together we trained our selected STF men to operate in a five-man team.

These teams were trained in jungle survival. They were able to deploy from a base camp, entering the forest covering 25–30km. They were armed with M-16 assault rifles, grenades and side chargers (explosives). They were able to identify LTTE camps.

They laid in ambush and shot and killed the combatants who went out on these attacks against border villages. The enemy didn’t expect this countermeasure and after a while this kind of attacks reduced.”

The pioneer Small Teams had to learn and adapt. One of the operational benefits of these teams was that they were almost invisible. Nothing was thrown after a meal. They never left any trace of their presence. Usually, large team STF operations involved the movement of men and vehicles. Certain civilians used to observe this and inform the LTTE of such movements, and an impending attack. However with the Small Teams, there was secrecy, they moved out unnoticed. This gave them the element of surprise. Besides larger teams required supplies like food. Again this movement gave the enemy some advance information. The STF Small Teams took their own rations. The team included an explosives ‘master’ and a lead scout who always carried a shotgun. One of their main tasks was to gather intelligence of enemy build-up and locate supply lines. When required, a STF sniper was attached to the team, to take out a target.

Reminiscing further, DIG Jayaweera added “We went to the extent of getting the expert advice of the Veddah community. We mastered the art of tracking and recognizing animal prints. Our men learnt how to find water and food in the jungle. In some cases, we followed bees to their beehives to obtain honey. Snake bites were a threat to our men. We learnt about anti-venom. Some anti-venom bottles had to be kept cool. Obviously, there was no fridge in the forest areas, so we kept these bottles tied on a rope at the bottom of a well. We encountered dangerous lone elephants. These are the sacrifices we made to defend our Motherland.”

Many of these pioneer warriors have retired and some died in action. The teams bonded strongly. Each team was given leave on the same days, so that they would bond together with each other’s families, enhancing their camaraderie. This paid off as the Small Teams worked well displaying high levels of confidence.

Another pioneer, SSP Faizal Hadgie (Deputy Commandant – Operations) recalled his days as an Inspector, and said: “The Small Teams were operating to dominate the jungle areas. We operated in Kokkadicholai (Batticaloa) and Pottuvil (Ampara). I was the OIC of the Pottuvil area. We operated in teams of six or eight as per requirement. We were able to keep the enemy on the run. We carried military-grade precooked food sachets. Our teams would remain in the jungle for eight to 10 days. Our teams gathered vital information to facilitate large group assaults on the enemy.”

SSP Athula Daulugala (Deputy Commandant) is an officer well versed in jungle tracking and trapping. He reminisced, “Tracking is about close observation. When we went on five-day missions into dense jungles we looked for small signs of enemy presence. This is the craft of tracking. We once found a tiny wrapper of a medicine capsule, and located a tree where medical supplies were hidden. Another of my men picked up a few drops of water in the sand, and we followed the enemy, until we ambushed them on the third day. Trapping is done to secure our position at night. We used booby traps and small mines at night. We also used sharp hard bamboo, and planted them as protection along paths where the enemy may advance. Our men carried the 60mm Commando Mortar and the 40mm multi grenade launcher. We ate from the MR8 ration packs. Our bodies were adapted to operate on minimum levels of water. Our patrols lasted six days.”

Once in the jungle, teams are alone. Communication was kept at a strict minimum, with radio messages going out every two hours on predetermined channels, in this way the battery strength was also preserved. Another major achievement by SSP Daulugala and his team was the creation of a 6km road through the dense jungle of Kanchikudichiaru (Eastern Province). This ‘recovery’ road was cleared inside the forest using bulldozers. The road was used to quickly transport any injured STF men for treatment.

Inspector Karunaratne, Inspector Narangoda and Inspector Liyanage were a few of the officers involved in this mission. The Small Team concept was further refined and took on the new name of Cheetah Team. This change was implemented by ASP R.M. Wimalaratne. The teams still train at the STF Academy, Katukurunda. Its Director Training SSP Rathnayake explained, “We continue to train our teams with present-day requirements. The jungle training phase is carried out in Nurawa Eliya and Ampara – two extreme weather conditions. The men learn tracking and trapping techniques. Quick reaction, stealth and endurance are the core competencies of these teams, just like the cheetah. The men are taught to swim, to survive the jungle by day and night. We take the best out of the best and create very formidable warriors.” The present course instructor is Inspector Kaluarachchi, and a batch is under training at Katukurunda. 

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