By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne*
The month of August 2006, fifteen years ago was a very eventful month for Sri Lanka Navy. I was the Commandant of Naval and Maritime Academy (NMA) and Flag Officer Naval Fleet (FOCNF) based in Trincomalee; both were busy appointments. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group, was very active in Eastern area in 2006. They had their Grand Strategy very well laid, with plans to capture Trincomalee harbour and thereby cutting off the lifeline to North, Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). As no land route to North, (Vanni was under LTTE Control then), Trincomalee was vital to keep our ships and craft to carry men and material to North by sea.
The telltale of LTTE Grand Strategy was felt when LTTE ordered civilian living closer to Naval base to vacate their houses. We were very clear of incoming danger. Trincomalee Naval Base was developed by Royal Navy during the Second World War to station and repair large allied fleet.
The Naval base was huge. It had land area of 850 acres. It had Married quarters, bachelor accommodations, training institutes, workshops, slipways and home for large amount of naval personnel and their families.
The British occupied Trincomalee harbour on in January 1782, from the Dutch during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. Trincomalee was the only place in Sri Lanka French had occupied during their colonial desires.
The ownership of Trincomalee changed from Dutch to French to British, on the same day. Even after we got our Independence from the British on February 4, 1948, they continued occupying Trincomalee Naval Base (then expanded to China bay airfield and oil tank farm) and Katunayake airfield as per a Defence agreement signed with British.
It was on October 15, 1957, we took over Trincomalee Naval Base back under leadership of late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. So, British ruled this beautiful and strategically important deep-water harbour and its facilities for 175 years.
My own assessment was that closing of the Mavil Aru water distribution point in Eastern province (South of Trincomalee) and to attack to Trincomalee Naval Base with their long-range artillery guns were the biggest mistakes the LTTE terrorists made.
On anticipation of imminent LTTE attack on Trincomalee Naval base and to detect LTTE Suicide boats waiting on ambush at Trincomalee harbour mouth, we fixed old Chapel hill naval communication center with radar and thermal cámara.
With this arrangement, we could surveillance day and night the harbour mouth and LTTE occupied Sampoor area very well. When temperatures were high at night, we could even detect a dog walking along the Sampoor beach (which is 8 Km away) with our thermal cámara fixed on top of the chapel hill.
First artillery attack of enemy came into Naval base on August 1, 2006 around 1230 hours, killing one instructor and four sailors at NMA. The enemy simultaneously targeted Jet liner ship returning from Notrhern area carrying 700 military personnel. Jetliner miraculously escaped from attack due to alertness of OIC and the Fast attack craft escorted her.
That evening the enemy attacked both Muttur Naval Detachment and Kattaparichhan Army camp, the two outposts we had in South side of Trincomalee harbour. Both the Army and Navy personnel in these two detachments fought valiantly and held on to their positions. Army and Navy reinforcements were sent immediately.
Captain UI Serasinghe (presently Deputy Director General of Civil Security Department and holding rank of Rear Admiral) and Lt Cdr Roy Raymond (presently a Captain now serving as Naval Officer in Charge Trincomalee South), both from Naval Patrolmen branch (Naval Infantry) volunteered to lead the reinforcement troops to besieged Muttur Naval Detachment.
Ironically Roy was on his honeymoon. Leaving his wife at Naval base, Trincomalee he boarded the Inshore Patrol craft to go to Muttur under enemy attack. Leadership, valor, and bravery showed by these senior officers of Naval patrolmen branch to lead their men into battle was unbelievable. These were the traditions of the “silent force” of Sri Lanka Navy.
Another officer volunteered to go with reinforcement troops to Muttur. He was Lieutenant Indika Wijeratne, also from the Naval Patrolmen Branch. Indika joined Navy as a direct entry sub-Lieutenant after his degree from the University of Colombo. He came to my horizon in 1999, in Odusudan. He led a small group of sailors from our Navy bunker line to the enemy lines and killed four LTTE Cadres and recovered their weapons. His bravery was well known in Naval Patrolmen branch.
When our reinforcements reached Muttur, they found the Bravo sector of the detachment, already occupied by enemy fighters. The elite SL Army Commandoes led by Major Ravindra Hadunpathirana (he died of a vehicle accident later) and SLN SBS personnel were holding on, avoiding further advancement by enemy. Things were bad next day (August 3). LtCdr (SBS) Anura Weerasinghe, second in Command of the SBS got injured and five SBS men paid the supreme sacrifice.
When things got from bad to worse, on next day (August 4) Lt Indika Wijeratne, who was tasked to hold on to Bravo sector with reinforcement naval troops, decided to carry out an assault on enemy positions and re-take entire Bravo sector.
This was the first and last time in Sri Lanka Navy history. The assault on enemy line on land was performed. Indika’s buddy, Leading Patrolman Premalal XP 23303, died during this assault. The brave sailor followed his senior officer until his last breath. Great comradeship.
Indika and his troops were successful in re-taking Bravo sector. The enemy withdrew with casualties. Indika positioned two snipers, one from SBS and one from Army Commandoes with their Accuracy International 7.62x51mm sniper weapons. overlooking the Kattaparichchan Aru to target enemy fighters crossing this waterway with their casualties.
They took their targets at will until water in Aru become red with enemy blood. The LTTE was humiliated by gallant Sri Lankan Military forces. Holding on to Muttur and Kattaparichchan by Navy and Army gave a firm foothold to our forces to attack Sampoor and clear all dangers to Trincomalee Naval Base later.
Once our conflict was over in May 2009, this Patrolmen branch, or Naval infantry branch lost their importance. As they were trained only to fight on land, these officers and sailors could not be attached to Navy ships and craft.
When I was Commander of the Navy in 2015, the Navy’s Board of Management decided to convert this branch into Naval Marines. This was happily welcomed by young officers and sailors of this branch who did not have a bright future.
During my visit to San Diego, California, USA for US Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium in 2016, I had discussions with US Marine Commanders and the US 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit was tasked to train patrolmen officers and sailors volunteered from Naval Patrolmen branch to raise first battalion of Sri Lanka Marines.
Commander (SBS) Thusitha T G Daminda, an excellent SBS officer who had done a six months-long US Marines Basic Officer’s Course in 2012 in US Marines Training School, Continuo, Virginia was appointed by me as first Marines Training Commander. He was given very efficient and experienced SBS and NPM training team.
They started training of new trainees volunteered from NPM branch and few from Engineering, Electrical and supply branches at Mullikulam, adjoining Modaragam Aru. Daminda’s first task was to change “land oriented“ NPM officers and sailors to “amphibious role” with long swims and mud walks carrying heavy backpacks. Daminda did a commendable job conditioning trainees to required standards prior to the arrival of US Marine Instructors.
Under watchful eyes of the US Marines instructors, after vigorous training exercises, 164 marines, consisting of six officers and 158 sailors, were inducted into first battalion of SL Marines on February 27, 2017, at Mullikulam, where the then President Maithripala Sirisena was the Chief Guest. Our hero Indika Wijeratne was badged as 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 RIMPAC Multinational Naval Exercise in 2018. RIMPAC is the biggest Military/Naval exercise in the World.
Australian helicopter carrier HMHS Canberra carried our Marines platoon onboard for the two months long exercise. They were very well trained to respond to natural disasters and returned home keeping Sri Lanka (SL) Marines flag flying high at RIMPAC.
The SL Marine base was established in Sampoor, the same area where Indika led his assault on enemy. Today SLMrines do periodic training exercise with US and Australian Marines and first responders to any natural disasters.
*The writer is former Chief of Defence Staff and Retired from the Sri Lanka Navy