By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
The month of August 2006, 15 years ago, was a very eventful month for the Sri Lanka Navy. I was the Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy (NMA) and Flag Officer Naval Fleet (FOCNF) based in Trincomalee, both were busy appointments.
The NMA routine suited me. NMA starts work at 0730 hrs and goes up to 1330 hrs. The afternoon and evening were allocated for sports and water related activities. So, I was able to have my lunch at 1330 hrs and spend my afternoon till 1700 at the FOCNF office. As Commandant, I enjoyed teaching swimming and sailing to young cadets. It was always delightful to see young cadets learning to swim and become good swimmers.
The LTTE was very active in the Eastern sea in 2006. They had their grand strategy very well laid out with plans to capture the Trincomalee harbour and thereby cutting off the lifeline to the North, Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). As there was no land route to the North, (Vanni was under LTTE Control then), Trincomalee was vital to keep our ships and craft to carry men and material to the North by sea.
The LTTE strategy came to light when it ordered civilians living closer to the naval base to vacate their homes. We were very aware of the impending danger. The Trincomalee Naval Base was developed by the Royal Navy during World War II to station and repair a large allied fleet. The naval base is huge. It has a land area of 850 acres. It has quarters for married personnel and families, bachelor accommodations, training institutes, workshops and slipways and accommodates a large number of naval personnel and their families.
The British captured the Trincomalee harbour on 01 January, 1782, taking it from the Dutch during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. Trincomalee was the only place in Sri Lanka the French occupied during their colonial rule. The ownership of Trincomalee changed from the Dutch to the French and to the British on the same day! Even after we won our Independence on 04 February, 1948, the British continued to occupy the Trincomalee Naval Base (then expanded to China Bay air field and the oil tank farm) and Katunayake airfield as per a Defence agreement signed with the British. On 15 October, 1957, the Trincomalee Naval Base was taken over under the leadership of late Prime Minister S. W. R. D Bandaranaike. The British had ruled this beautiful and strategically important deep-water harbour and its facilities for 175 years.
Coming back to our main story, in my assessment, closing off the Mavil Aru water distribution point in the Eastern Province (south of the Trincomalee) and the attack on the Trincomalee Naval Base with long-range artillery guns were the biggest mistakes the LTTE made, pushing the government to declare war.
Anticipating an imminent LTTE attack on the Trincomalee Naval Base and in order to detect LTTE suicide boats waiting to ambush at Trincomalee harbour mouth, we fixed the old Chapel Hill naval communication centre with radar and a thermal camera. With this arrangement, we could surveil the harbour mouth and the LTTE occupied Sampoor area quite well, day and night. (Please read my article Rexy and Chappella – Canines War Veterans article on The Island dated 22 September 22, 2020.) When the temperature difference was significant at night, we could even detect a dog walking along the Sampoor beach, which is eight kilometres away, thanks to our thermal camera fixed on top of Chapel Hill.
The first artillery attack by the enemy was made on the naval base on 01 August 2006 around 1230 hrs, killing one instructor and four sailors at NMA. The enemy simultaneously targeted the Jetliner ship returning from the northern area, carrying 700 military personnel. The Jetliner escaped due to the vigilance of the OIC and fast attack craft that escorted her.
That evening the enemy attacked both the Muttur Naval Detachment and Kattaparichhan Army camp, two outposts to the south of Trincomalee harbour. The Army and Navy personnel in these two detachments, fought valiantly and held their positions. Army and Navy reinforcements were rushed immediately. Both Captain UI Serasinghe (at present, the Deputy Director General of Civil Security Department, holding the rank of Rear Admiral) and Lt Cdr Roy Raymond (currently a Captain serving as Naval Officer in Charge Trincomalee South) from the Naval Patrolmen branch (Naval Infantry) volunteered to lead the reinforcement troops to the besieged Muttur Naval Detachment. Raymond was on his honeymoon at the time! Leaving his wife at the Trincomalee Naval Base he boarded the inshore patrol craft to go to Muttur under enemy attack. The leadership, valour and bravery exhibited by these senior officers of the naval patrolmen branch in leading their men into battle was unbelievable. Such was the tradition of our ‘silent force’, the Sri Lanka Navy.
Another officer volunteered to go with reinforcement troops to Muttur. He was Lieutenant Indika Wijeratne also from the Naval Patrolmen Branch. Wijeratne joined the Navy as a Direct Entry Sub Lieutenant after completing his degree from the University of Colombo. He came under my radar in 1999, in Oddusuddan. He led a small group of sailors from our Navy bunker line to enemy lines, killed four LTTE cadres and seized their weapons. His bravery was well known in the Naval Patrolmen branch.
When our reinforcements reached Muttur, they found that the Bravo sector of the detachment was already occupied by the terrorists. The elite SL Army Commandos led by then Major Ravindra Hadunpathirana (who died in a vehicle accident later) and the SLN Special Boat Squadron (SBS) personnel were holding the enemy at bay. Things were really bad the following day (03 August). Lt Cdr (SBS) Anura Weerasinghe, second in Command of the SBS was injured and five SBS men made the supreme sacrifice.
When things went from bad to worse on 04 August, Lt Indika Wijeratne, who was tasked with holding on to the Bravo sector with reinforcement naval troops, decided to carry out an assault on enemy positions and retake the entire Bravo sector. This is the first and last time in Sri Lanka Navy history an assault on enemy lines over land was performed. Indika’s buddy, Leading Patrolman Premalal XP 23303 died during this assault. The brave sailor followed his senior officer until death.
Indika and his troops recaptured the Bravo sector. The enemy withdrew with their casualties. Indika positioned two snipers, one from SBS and one from Army Commandos with their 7.62×51 mm sniper weapons overlooking the Kattaparichchan Aru to target enemy fighters crossing the waterway with their casualties.
Once the conflict was over in May 2009, the Patrolmen branch, or Naval Infantry branch, lost their significance. As they were trained only to fight on land, these officers and sailors could not be assigned to Navy ships and craft.
When I was the Commander of the Navy in 2015, the Navy’s Board of Management decided to convert this branch into Naval Marines. During my visit to San Diego, California, US, for the US Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium in 2016, I had discussions with US Marine Commanders and the US 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit was tasked with training volunteer Patrolmen officers and sailors of the Naval Patrolmen branch, to raise the first battalion of Sri Lanka Marines.
Under the watchful eyes of US Marines instructors, after vigorous training exercises, 164 marines, consisting of six officers and 158 sailors, were inducted into the first battalion of SL Marines on February 27, 2017 at Mullikulam, with then President Maithripala Sirisena as the Chief Guest. Our hero Indika Wijeratne was given the badge as the first qualified Marine of Sri Lanka and Commanding Officer of the First Battalion of SL Marines. Rear Admiral UI Serasinghe became the first Director of Marines.
US Marines were very impressed with our boys. An invitation was extended to one SL Marines platoon to take part in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Multinational Naval Exercise 2018. RIMPAC is the biggest Military/Naval exercise in the World. Australian helicopter carrier HMHS Canberra carried our Marines platoon onboard during the two months long exercise. They were very well trained to respond to Natural Disasters and returned home keeping Sri Lanka Marines flag flying high.
The SL Marine base was established in Sampoor, the same area where Indika led his assault on the enemy. Today, SL Marines do periodic training exercises with US and Australian Marines and are first responders to any natural disaster.
Vigour, Valour, Victory – motto of SL Marines. Long live SL Marines!
(The writer is the former Chief of Defence Staff, retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Courtesy: Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne