Lalin’s Column: Obrigado (Thank you) Portugal –
When Ceylonese Sandhurst Officer Cadets marched down Lisbon’s Avenue Liberade with a drawn sword and fixed bayonets - Dec 1960
Winter training in Portugal
The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1960 had decided that the final winter training exercise would for the first time be held abroad to give the Officer Cadets of Intakes 26 (seniors) and 28 (third term) the novel experience of training in a foreign environment. It would also save them from the numbing cold, dripping wet and slush of an English winter. Portugal, Britain’s oldest ally bound by the nearly 550 year’s old treaty of Windsor, was selected for the foray.
Ceylonese Officer Cadets
The Ceylonese at Sandhurst knew Portugal only as a former colonial power. The officer cadets from Ceylon in the senior term were K Guneratne, I Novello, Sena de Sylva and the writer (last two Major Generals later) and from the third term Y Balaratnarajah (later Major General), SJ Weerasena, late Vijitha Wijesekera and Siri Wijegunewardene.
Scenario –UN Mission
We were to be on stand by at short notice as an ‘UN force’ to quell ‘troubles’ in a foreign country, a scenario in which the British Army used to deploy world wide. Eight years later Devinda Kalupahana, Udena Gunewardene, Janaka Perera and Neil Dias (all less Colonel Gunewardene, Major Generals later) went over to Cyprus with other cadets from Sandhurst on a similar training in winter. A real conflict did break out between the Greeks and the Turks then. The Cadets were immediately deployed to maintain the peace, exchanging their rifle ‘blanks’ for live ammo until relieved by regular troops. Libya was next. Portugal however was different. It had high drama but posed no danger.
Warm up with the First Battalion Parachute Regiment
In the warm up phase the Senior Division was exercised under the command of a battalion of the Parachute regiment, the famous Red Devils with the maroon berets whose motto is ‘Utrinque Paratus’ (Ready for anything). The exercise climaxed with a deliberate ‘attack’ on an ‘enemy’ position. We were made to sweat hard being led by some of the toughest soldiers in the world. They may have been a bit sceptical about officer cadets’ skills and endurance. Their 3 inch mortars brought down a huge swirling smoke screen the extent and density of which we had never before experienced. It completely obliterated the ‘enemy’ position. When we attacked, the ‘enemy’ were bewildered as to the direction of the assault. As the smoke cleared we too were surprised to see that we had closed in right on top of the ‘enemy’ mutually unnoticed. They didn’t stand a chance. The Paras grudging compliment was that we were not ‘too bad’.
Standby to move
We were put on standby to move as in a real case conflict scenario. The readiness period became progressively shorter from 24 to 12 to 2 hours to 30 minutes. As the time to move became shorter our freedom to move around lessened until we were confined to the Academy grounds (all 645 acres of it) and then to our Company areas. Normal work routines continued. When it was 30 minutes to move we changed from working uniform to combat order. We picked up our rifles when we were at 10 minutes notice. We waited like that for what seemed hours (purposely as this could be so in a real situation) when suddenly we were told we were ‘off’. We got into coaches lined up as on parade and made for Heathrow airport, one hour away, and took flight to Lisbon, 1500 kms away.
Lisbon to Santa Margarida
We arrived at Lisbon airport in the evening and were driven out to Santa Margarida about 132 kms distant where the Portuguese army had its training areas. The land on the way was flat with open stretches amidst cork and olive trees mainly. The village houses with their red tile roofs and verandas (istopuwa) were very similar to ours. The parlours for receiving guests were called ‘sala’. The ladies, who appeared to outnumber the men, were dressed in familiar long skirts and frilled blouses. I seem to recall they were carrying pots of water on their waists as in our villages. It revived memories. We had been away from home for nearly two years.
We deployed around Santa Margarida immediately that evening and many were the fighting patrols that were sent out to gather information on the ‘insurgents’. Our ambush position was by a well. Inconveniently the locals found out too and came to have a closer look, together with their priest. The ambush lasted until morning but made no contact. The next night despite light rain we were more successful in a wooded valley. In the final morning sweeps of suspected ‘insurgent’ areas were done to drive in the ‘insurgents’ who ‘surrendered’ quickly. We had done well.
Lady Chatterley’s lover and Mike Scott
We got back to the training camp to clean up, have some hot meals and found out that there was no water for drinking. All they had was Port wine in hundreds of bottles. The Cadets never drank so much ever. The mess tables were creaking with the compliments of the Portuguese army. We even washed our mess plates with wine! We also found out that Senior Cadet Michael Scott, the irrepressible and immensely popular boxing captain from Belfast had been ‘ambushed’ by a reporter at Heathrow airport. When asked what he was going to do in Portugal. Scott who had just bought DH Lawrence’s book, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, banned since 1929, displayed it and shot back saying he was going to read it. Scott’s photograph was splashed in the papers the next day under banner headlines ‘Sandhurst Cadet Scott to read Lady C’s lover in Portugal’. He was reprimanded (for the nth time) for his flippancy.
Lines of Torres Vedras
“I could lick those fellows any day, but it would cost me 10,000 men, and as it is the last army that England has, we must take care of it”. Wellington at Torres Vedras 1810
The next day we toured the famous lines of Torres Vedras, the corner stone of Duke of Wellington’s strategy in the peninsular war. Our guide was Brig Desmond Young, Sandhurst military historian of repute. The Lines were constructed to defend Lisbon, 32 kms away. Wellington’s 79,665 men held off 61,000 French of Napoleon’s ‘Army of Portugal ‘ under Marshal Massena in a war zone that also saw the best of Napoleon’s famous Generals including Ney and Soult fight, struggle and quit, drained by the well matched fighting qualities of the allies and the guerrillas of Spain and Portugal.
Wellington had mastered the art of positioning his forces on reverse slopes (civilian: dead ground) so that not only was he screened from enemy artillery but when the enemy attacked it was the enemy who was taken by surprise and devastated by the volleys of the British at short range. These same tactics also paid dividends 140 years later in Korea (1949-53). The French whenever they knew Wellington had prepared the defences preferred not to do battle. Their experience of the sharp shooters of the Light Brigade dressed in green and not in red coats as the rest of the British, the sharp end of British bayonets and the Portuguese guerrillas when they retreated, had been painful.
Even so the French were completely surprised when they came upon the lines of Torres Vedras after storming Sobral and being repulsed at Bucaco. It had been built secretly in just over a year. So secretly that even the British Government did not know about it until Wellington mentioned it in his despatches to say he had retreated to it. When Massena asked his officers how knowledge of such formidable defence works had been kept away from him, they, like the Pathans of Afghanistan who when stuck for an answer as to who exactly had built an ancient edifice would say ’Iskander’ (Alexander-the Great)’ said ’Wellington built it’. Massena retorted ’to hell with Wellington. Did he build the mountains too?
There were four lines of redoubts (151) and forts (108), detached artillery batteries (1067 guns) on top of hills. They covered the roads to Lisbon using natural hazards. They stretched from the Atlantic to the river Tagus (Tejo). The first line was 46 kms long, the second 39 kms and 13 kms to the rear, the 3rd, 27 kms south and the forth covering a southern invasion approach from the sea towards Lisbon. There were a total of 79,665 troops, mainly British and Portuguese and 8,000 Spanish. The redoubts were manned wholly by the Portuguese leaving the British to manoeuvre.
Two of the lines were completed using Portuguese labour by September 1810 when Massena came upon them. Ironically it was the French General Junot in 1807 that first identified the excellent defensive capabilities in the region near Lisbon. Whereas the ground to the North was rolling plains and olive trees, there were hills and mounds around Torres Vedras. The fortifications cost sterling pounds 100,000 only, the ‘least expensive and most remunerative military investment in history’. Massena being nonplussed waited out till mid November and retreated to Spain never to return, having lost 25,000 men. He also had to face an extra ordinarily cold winter which also killed 50,000 Portuguese civilians.
A scorched earth policy that burnt hid or removed everything including trees that might give cover and anything that an invading army might need. The relocation of 200,000 Portuguese civilians, a semaphore system organized by the Royal Navy that was able to get messages sent around the lines in seven minutes and from HQ to any point in four minutes using five signalling stations in addition to the secrecy that stunned the French who believed the Allies had fallen back to embark to England, the availability of military roads to aid movements in the rear and the extra ordinary mobilising of forces were the contributing factors to this success.
It is of interest that the Duke of Wellington then Colonel Arthur Wellesley was in Trincomalie in 1800.The house he lived in, called ‘Wellesley Lodge’ at Fort Frederick) was renovated in the 1990s. It is now the air conditioned Officer’s Mess of the Second (Volunteer) battalion of the Gajaba Regiment. The original fort was built by the Portuguese (1623) and was captured by the Dutch (who dismantled it and built a new fort-1658), British and French in turns and finally again by the British in 1795.
While the majority toured the Lines, a few Brit cadets (there were Dukes, Lords, and hereditary knights amongst us plebes!) took the opportunity to visit Estoril, the Portuguese Rivera and family vineyards.
Final Exercise- Cork tree warfare
We had our final exercise amongst the cork trees of Santa Margarida. Sandhurst advanced to contact and when pressed dug in and prepared defensive positions. Some of us acted as ‘enemy’. We had to probe the defences and generally make life uncomfortable to the defenders throughout the night, the next morning and then the next night too. All this in unseasonal cold rain. I was attached to the Portuguese Armour (Tanks) as a liaison officer because someone thought that as I had a Portuguese name I spoke the language too. I was given a jeep with a driver Silva who told the other drivers I was an ‘alferes’ (Lieutenant) which I was not (yet!). We made contact with the Portuguese tank troops who were also ‘enemy’. My main job was to see that the Portuguese, who had a cavalier attitude to exercise safety, did not over run the trenches of the Cadets when they attacked in the final morning. Silva who invited me to visit his village and was disappointed that I did not, introduced me to the Portuguese officers. They were pleasantly surprised that I was from Ceylon (which they pronounced as Seilan) and still had a Portuguese name. They wanted to know a lot about the Portuguese connection to Ceylon. I told them. The exercise ended with an ‘enemy’ attack supported by tanks. The Cadets ‘won’. The tanks kept their distance from the trenches more because of the slush and mud that prevailed than due to any ‘fala' (speak) Portuguese’ liaison efforts of mine. I gifted Silva, who had none, with my woollen gloves. My children carry the ancestral surname Kalupahana.If ever they visit Portugal they would not be hard pressed ‘liaison’ officers too!
Salt in the food
We got back to base camp, cleaned our weapons and equipment, showered, and had dinner and a good night’s sleep before embossing next morning bound for Lisbon. It was rumoured that salt was added liberally to our food as it was supposed to have a distilling effect on our libidos. Such are the travails of officer cadets in foreign lands.
We were going to take part in a march past with the Portuguese Military Academy which having been in existence since the 17th Century had re-established itself in 1959. The Portuguese army, established in the 12th century is one of the oldest in the world. Sandhurst traced its origins to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich established in 1741 and was first established separately as the Royal Military College in 1799.
Lisbon- March down the Avenue Liberade
The officer cadets of Sandhurst were given the freedom of the city of Lisbon and invited together with the Portuguese cadets to march down the Avenue Liberade with drums beating, bands playing, colours flying, swords drawn and bayonets fixed. Large cheering crowds lined the route. We were constantly if curiously reminded the President of Portugal Rear Admiral Americo Tomas and the British Ambassador would be on the saluting dais to our right. This was as expected. As we reached it with the band playing the lilting Sandhurst quick march ’British Grenadiers’ the order ‘eyes right’ was given. The Sandhurst under officers carrying swords and the rest of the cadets shouldering their rifles gave a smart and brisk eyes right salute. Immediately after we saw to the left, an imposing mounted array of Portuguese Generals in striking ceremonial dress. The Portuguese cadets (the word cadet comes from the French for ‘younger sons of a noble family’) all carrying swords, marched behind. They totally ignored their President. Instead they gave a cracking ‘eyes left’ salute to the Portuguese Army Commander and his staff. News of this drama reached us after the parade ended.
A fourteen course lunch
We were made very welcome (‘Bem vindo’) by the Portuguese cadets as we met for lunch in their Academy. My escort was an Officer Cadet Silva, an Engineering student. We sat down to what was to be a sumptuous 14 course lunch, laced liberally with wine. The two Academy Commandants and their officers sat at the high table. Every one was in high spirits. For once the more raucous Sandhurst cadets did not break into their favourite repertoire of racy songs as they were wont to in England, especially when the French St Cyr cadets came for the return Parachute Exercise to Sandhurst. The Portuguese cadets did not volunteer to dance the ‘bailarico’ either.
Toasts to Heads of State
At the end of the meal, the toast to the President of Portugal was proposed. As the Sandhurst cadets got up and stood rigidly to attention with their glasses raised, the Portuguese cadets tugged at the sleeves of our mess dress (called Blues) and tried to hold us down saying it was not necessary to drink that toast. We did. When the toast to the Queen of England was proposed, the Portuguese cadets shot out of their seats and stood ram rod straight as the Sandhurst cadets joined them. The loudest cry of ‘The Queen’ came from Portuguese as the toast was taken. There then followed so many toasts that it was a wonder that we could stagger out vertically or even recall the drama we had just witnessed. Some notes on what happened in Portugal later are given as an annex.
Free day in Lisbon
We visited places of interest in Lisbon afterwards. I bought some intricate filigree jewellery for my mother. The taxi drivers drove fast and recklessly using only one hand mostly. I ended up in a barber’s saloon to have my hair cut as my Commissioning (passing out) parade at Sandhurst was due in two weeks. When the people in the saloon found out that I was a Fernando from Ceylon, work stopped and everyone around, even from outside and mainly the women started speaking to me. They wanted to know how the ‘Provence de Portugal’ was doing. I told them that Ceylon had ceased to be its ‘Provence’ in 1688. Some one thought I was from Mozambique. (Amazingly -or was it?- in September2010 in Beijing a Chinese security guard also thought I was from Africa!). Their friendliness and good humour reminded us of the Irish in Dublin. The common factor may have been Catholicism and poverty.
We eight Ceylonese cadets at Sandhurst in 1960 were the first (and only) military men from our country to march down Lisbon’s Avenue Liberade with sword drawn and bayonets fixed. We had returned compliments elegantly to the Portuguese military after nearly 450 years!
We returned to a military airfield in England. Some cadets were still full of wine in their heads and stomachs and with combat reserves in their baggage. We had been inducted into a foreign country at short notice and conducted counter insurgency and conventional battle drills effectively. We had also learned a good deal of Portugal’s land and its hospitable people. The Portuguese in their own country were some of the nicest and friendliest people anywhere in the world. We realised that they were even then getting ready to set themselves free from a clever but harsh dictator who used the Catholic Church, the universities and the rich land owners and businessmen to keep the country under his control. It had been a valuable and memorable experience with some unforgettable drama for added good measure.
Adieus Lisbon, Obrigado (Thank you) Portugal.
After Note: The end of a regime
We did not know until then that Portuguese Prime Minister and dictator from 1932, Antonio Oliviera, a former brilliant professor of Economics and his appointee President Tomas, another professor, were no longer persona at the Academy. We learned that there were rumblings about the unpopular colonial wars in Africa (Mozambique, Angola), lack of personal freedom and fear of the vile PIDE,(secret police). PIDE in 1965 killed General (former Presidential candidate, retired and exiled) Humberto Delgado. The army was not willing to exercise any more tolerance. Few were surprised and almost all were happy when the ‘carnation’ (flower) revolt of the army after the death of Salazar who died of a stroke, led to a coup d’etat in 1974. Tomas was allowed to seek exile in Brazil. A new democratic regime followed. It gave independence to its remaining colonies (in Africa) where unlike in colonies of other powers, the indigenous people were assimilated into all state services. The army even had complete military units of them. Inter marriage was common. Racism was a cry not heard from the ‘Provences’ which were considered a part of Metropolitan Portugal. In 1990 Delgado was posthumously promoted the first Marshal of the Air Force.
- Asian Tribune -