A transformative force | Daily News
Sri Lanka Marines

A transformative force

Sri Lankan Marines interact with Australian Navy personnel
Sri Lankan Marines interact with Australian Navy personnel

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 LTTE was very active in the Eastern area in 2006. They had their grand strategy very well laid, with plans to capture the Trincomalee Harbour, 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 other seacraft to carry men and material to the North by sea.

The telltale of the LTTE’s grand strategy was felt when the LTTE ordered civilians living close to the Naval base to vacate their houses. We were very clear about the forthcoming danger. The Trincomalee Naval Base was developed by the Royal Navy during the Second World War to station and repair large allied fleet.

Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne
Rear Admiral U.I. Serasinghe 
 

The Naval Base was huge. It had a land area of 850 acres. It had married quarters, bachelor accommodations, training institutes, workshops, slipways and home for a large amount of Naval personnel and their families.

The British occupied the Trincomalee Harbour in January 1782, having wrested its control from the Dutch during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. Trincomalee was the only place in Sri Lanka the French had occupied during their colonial conquest.

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 the Trincomalee Naval Base (then expanded to the China Bay airfield and oil tank farm) and the Katunayake airfield as per a defence agreement signed with British.

It was on October 15, 1957, that we took over the Trincomalee Naval Base under the leadership of late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. So, the British ruled this beautiful and strategically important deep-water harbour and its facilities for 175 years.

My own assessment was that closing the Mavil Aru water distribution point in the Eastern Province (south of Trincomalee) and attacking the Trincomalee Naval Base with their long-range artillery guns were the biggest mistakes the LTTE made.

On anticipation of an imminent LTTE attack on the Trincomalee Naval Base and to detect LTTE suicide boats waiting in ambush at the mouth of the Trincomalee Harbour, we fixed the Old Chapel Hill Naval communication centre with radar and thermal cameras.

With this arrangement, we could carry out surveillance day and night on the mouth of the harbour and the 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 camera fixed on top of Chapel Hill.

The first artillery attack of the enemy came to the Naval Base on August 1, 2006, around 12:30 pm, killing one instructor and four sailors at the NMA. The enemy simultaneously targeted the Jetliner ship returning from the Northern area carrying 700 military personnel. The Jetliner miraculously escaped attack due to the alertness of the OIC and Navy Fast Attack Craft escorted her.

That evening the enemy attacked both the Muttur Naval Detachment and the Kattaparichhan Army camp, the two outposts we had on the south side of the 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 U.I. Serasinghe (presently Deputy Director General of the Civil Security Department and holding the rank of Rear Admiral) and Lt. Cdr. Roy Raymond (presently a Captain now serving as Naval Officer in Charge of Trincomalee South), both from the Naval Patrolmen branch (Naval Infantry) volunteered to lead the reinforcement troops to the besieged Muttur Naval Detachment.

Ironically Roy was on his honeymoon. Leaving his wife at the Trincomalee Naval Base he boarded the Inshore Patrol Craft to go to Muttur under enemy attack. Leadership, valour, and bravery showed by these senior officers of the Naval Patrolmen branch to lead their men into battle was unbelievable. These were the traditions of the ‘silent force’ of the Navy.

Another officer volunteered to go with reinforcement troops to Muttur. He was Lieutenant Indika Wijeratne, also from the Naval Patrolmen branch. Indika joined the Navy as a direct entry Sub-Lieutenant after completing his degree at 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 the Naval Patrolmen branch.

When our reinforcements reached Muttur, they found the Bravo sector of the detachment already occupied by enemy fighters. The elite Sri Lanka Army Commandos led by Major Ravindra Hadunpathirana (he died in a vehicle accident later) and Sri Lanka Navy Special Boat Squadron (SBS) personnel were holding on, preventing further advancement by the enemy. Things were bad the next day (August 3). Lt. Cdr. (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 the next day (August 4) Lt. Indika Wijeratne, who was tasked to hold onto the Bravo sector with reinforcement naval troops, decided to carry out an assault on enemy positions and re-take the entire Bravo sector.

During a training exercise with US Marines
 

This was the first and last time in the history of the Sri Lanka Navy that an assault on enemy lines on land was performed. Indika’s buddy, Leading Patrolman Premalal died during this assault. The brave sailor followed his senior officer until his last breath. It was a great comradeship.

Indika and his troops were successful in re-taking the Bravo sector. The enemy withdrew with casualties. Indika positioned two snipers, one from the SBS and one from Army Commandoes with their Accuracy International 7.62x51 mm sniper weapons overlooking the Kattaparichchan Aru to target enemy fighters crossing this waterway with their casualties.

The LTTE was humiliated by gallant Sri Lankan Military forces. Holding on to Muttur and Kattaparichchan by the Navy and Army gave a firm foothold to our forces to attack Sampoor and clear all dangers to the 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 Navy Commander 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 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 to train patrolmen officers and sailors who had volunteered from the Naval Patrolmen branch to raise the 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 at the US Marines Training School, in Continuo, Virginia, was appointed by me as the first Marines’ Training Commander. He was given a very efficient and experienced SBS and NPM training team.

They started the training for cadres from the NPM branch and a few from the Engineering, Electrical and Supply branches at Mullikulam, adjoining the Modaragam Aru. Daminda’s first task was to change ‘land oriented’ NPM officers and sailors to the ‘amphibious role’ with long swims and mud walks carrying heavy backpacks. Daminda did a commendable job conditioning the trainees to required standards prior to the arrival of the US Marine Instructors.

Admiral Wijegunaratne with US Marines

Under the watchful eyes of the US Marines instructors, after vigorous training exercises, 164 Marines, consisting of six officers and 158 sailors, were inducted into the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Marines on February 27, 2017, at Mullikulam, where then President Maithripala Sirisena was the chief guest. Our hero Indika Wijeratne was badged as the first qualified Marine of Sri Lanka and Commanding Officer of the First Battalion of Sri Lanka Marines. Rear Admiral U.I. Serasinghe became the first Director of Marines.

The US Marines were very impressed with our boys. An invitation was extended to one Sri Lanka Marines platoon to take part in RIMPAC Multinational Naval Exercise in 2018. RIMPAC is the biggest Military/Naval exercise in the world.

The Australian helicopter carrier HMHS Canberra carried our Marines platoon onboard for the two-month-long exercise. They were very well trained to respond to natural disasters and returned home keeping the Sri Lanka Marines flag flying high at RIMPAC.

The Sri Lanka Marine Base was established in Sampoor, the same area where Indika led his historic assault on the enemy. Today Sri Lanka Marines do periodic training exercises with US and Australian Marines and are the first responders to natural disasters.

(IDN – In-depth News) 

(The writer is a former Chief of Defence Staff and a former Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy)

 


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