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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2827

Lalin’s Column: The General Udugama I knew

By Major General (Retd) Lalin Fernando

Everyone in the Ceylon Army knew the tough and rugged, formidable, straight and fierce Maj Gen Richard Udugama MBE long before he became its Commander in 1964.

Malcontents and shirkers feared him. He had during WW2 served with the later famous XIV British army in Burma on secondment from the Ceylon Defence Force.He had seen action in the Arakan in the desperate if not disastrous 1942-43 battles. That was old fashioned fighting almost always man to man at bayonet range which was also his way of dealing with military life.

Udugama was the 3rd Ceylonese to command the independent Army of Ceylon (1 Jan 1964- 10 Nov 1966) and the first with battle experience until the mid 1990s. He was from a line of proud Kandyan chiefs whose ancestors had battled the British until the betrayal led by an Indian descended informant from Colombo in 1815. He was educated at Trinity where he was awarded the prized Trinity Lion for rugby. He also had, like all good men, a superb sense of humour.

Unfortunately for the Army, the promise of Udugama could not be realized. He was in 1966 wickedly and unjustly accused of attempting to overthrow the government in a coup. He was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1969, without the defence being called, during the very time of the Government that arrested and charged him.

The people in 1966 were asked to believe that a plot had been hatched in army lavatories of all places and that too by an Army Commander, who was reputed to be fierce and aloof, with an absolutely insignificant and motley collection of soldiers. A single officer from the Ordnance Corps (procurement unit) given to gossip was included. No officers from any teeth arm (close fighting like infantry or armour) or support regiments (Artillery, Engieers) were accused. It was deservedly and derisively called a lavatory coup. It only served to permanently weaken and divide the army for a very long time.

The Nation paper of 17 Nov 2013 carried an article on Gen Udugama by Maj Gen Henry Athukorale VSV who served under the General in the Ceylon Light Infantry. The Daily News of 12 Feb 2010 too carried one by Gen Udugama’s daughter Kshanika poignantly refuting an earlier article in which reference was made to accusations of alleged anti state activities of her father. A very detailed account was written by Dilini Algama in the Daily Mirror of 2 Aug 2010.

Major Clinton(Tuk Tuk) Labrooy, a press ganged Army HQ key witness for the prosecution wrote on 21 October 1971 from UK thanking the General then an MP for ‘everything you did for me when you were Army Commander” and that he was “unwillingly cajoled and coerced into standing on the wrong side of the box in the infamous trial. I was trapped and coerced to stand where I did by veiled and direct threats of suspension. I was determined that my integrity and yours were not to be prejudiced”. This was read out in Parliament. Major Labrooy’s son Keith captained S Thomas Mt Lavinia at cricket in the early 1960s.

DPIS Siriwardene, later Secretary Ministry of Public Administration and an icon amongst public servants was a former Assistant Secretary of the MOD/EA. He was to be a star witness for the prosecution but was not called. Obviously he would not have supported the Attorney General’s case and probably gone against it.

The dice was loaded against Udugama. He was the first Buddhist to make Army Commander. Deliberate lies with a communal slant, including caste and even Kandyan and low country divisions were spread to blacken his image, moralize and justify the accusations. One was that he was promoted Commander over 13 others senior to him. Only imbeciles still think seniority alone qualifies one for Command of the Army. The Army is a meritocracy and only the best man should lead. Where it was otherwise, disaster followed as seen with some frequency in SL for many long years.

Another canard also trawled by DBS Jeyrajah was that in the 1960s the ‘tradition’ to include a Tamil/Christian in every intake of 4/3 officer cadets to Sandhurst was stopped and all were Buddhists. In fact that there was a Tamil/Christian in 6 consecutive intakes at Sandhurst in 1959-61 being Rex Fernando a nephew of Artillery Major Loyola and Tissa Jayatunge (later Maj Gen) in intake 24 in which there were only 3 cadets ,late John Bala Francis in intake 25 which also had Careem Zavahir , Ivor Novello a brother of Loyola (intake 26), JRS Ratnasabapathy(later Lt Col) (intake 27) and Y Balaratnarajah (later Maj Gen) (intake 28), GH de Silva (later General) (intake 29). Loyola was the Commanding Officer of 3rd Field Regiment (Artillery) that played a major role in the aborted 1962 Coup. His nephew and brother by then also Artillery officers. were not suspects.

It was also said that Lt Col Udugama was the Commanding Officer of the Sinha Regiment giving a absolutely false and unhealthy connotation between Udugama (Buddhist) and Sinha (race) . Udugama commanded the CLI and Lt Col RD Jayathileke was the founder commander of the Sinha Regiment

It was also said that Lt Col Udugama was the Commanding Officer of the Sinha Regiment giving a absolutely false and unhealthy connotation between Udugama (Buddhist) and Sinha (race) . Udugama commanded the CLI and Lt Col RD Jayathileke was the founder commander of the Sinha Regiment.

It appeared to many that JR Jayewardene, the leader of the House at the time had been maneuvered to settle scores for the uncovering of the 1962 coup which was almost totally led by scheming and frustrated serving and retired officers of the army, navy and police who happened to be mainly Catholic and one civil servant, all with unhealthy political and possibly communal leanings. They included the Chief of Staff AHQ and Commandant of the Army reserve (Volunteer Force), his brother an ex disgraced Navy Commander and one Senior DIG and 2 commanding officers of regiments. One was the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment (it had 4.2 mortars and was disbanded).TDSA Dissanayake son of the accused very popular senior DIG consistently maintains in his books and discourses from his knowledge of extremely bloody Middle East coups, that artillery is a must for success in coups. In Chile though, aircraft bombed Allende’s Presidential palace.

Lt Col DS Attygalle’s second in command of the Reconnaissance Regiment Major Victor Joseph was an accused in the coup. Attygalle apparently knew nothing of the coup. To be fair by Attygalle few people, except obviously for politicians, but including WW2 soldiers of the CLI, ever trusted him. He was nick named ‘Smarty’ .
It was the same Attygalle, then at the Imperial Defence College (now Royal College of Defence Studies) UK who came over from London to give evidence on the alleged 1966 Coup which preceded Gen Udugama’s arrest , incarceration, and indictment.

Several other officers, all of them Buddhists, including then Lieutenant (later posthumously Lt Gen) Denzil Kobbekaduwa were sent on ‘compulsory leave’. However Major (later Brigadier) SD (Denis) Hapugalle, Kobbekaduwa’s Commanding Officer stood up for Kobbekaduwa and boldly stated that he was innocent. He also referred to Gen Udugama as “Richard the Lion heart” and “a lion in every sense of the word”. Hapugalle never commented on Attygalle his former commanding officer’s reluctance to speak out. Attygalle, also called the ‘father’ of the Armoured Corps, remained mute.

The accused, all undoubtedly politically and not professionally motivated officers could not countenance a pro/ultra national socialist leaning government which for its sins not only had had its Prime Minister murdered by a deranged man dressed in the robes of a Buddhist priest but thought it fit in a bout of anti imperialistic fervor then sweeping the East to ask the ex colonial master Britain to immediately vacate the prime sea base of Trincomalie and the airport at Katunayake to assert its sovereignty if not to dump its colonial baggage. In hind sight this decision was absolutely correct if ill timed. The previous UNP government had for political and economic reasons preferred cuddling up to the British.

The damage done to the Army was permanent. Thereafter the army became a political tool of the Government in power, especially during the time of Attygalle (1967-77) until 2006. It became viciously so under JR Jayewardene (1977-88) who loved visiting military facilities. Being a party man and/or a caste relative became the main if not only criteria to command. Weeratunge, Seneviratne, Wanasinghe and Waidyaratne fitted that notion to a nicety.

The 1966 witch hunt delved into all sorts of imaginative conspiracy tales. In the Gemunu Watch 3 officers including then Lt (later Maj Gen) Wijaya Wimalaratne were tickled almost to death by the questioning of CID Inspector Haniffa. He had obviously been leaked details of a discussion of an operational move to Colombo for internal security duties ordered by Army HQ after the death of the monk by police shooting in Kollupitiya (early 1966). Major (later Brigadier) TSB Sallay was Officiating Commanding Officer.

The 1966 case was notorious for the lack of proof despite the brutal interrogation of suspects which led to the deaths by suicide of two persons at the reputedly notorious and evil 4th floor of the Police HQ., one a businessman and the other a soldier who had been in the close protection team of Gen Udugama. The Police had brought in their most dreaded torturer (Inspector Rahula Silva) to practice gross depravity on the ‘suspects’. These deaths were easily disposed of and brought no protests as there were no NGOs and HR activists and an emergency had been declared. Was JR Jayawardene, descended from Indian ancestors who served both Dutch and British military intelligence, responsible? He was the then Government’s eminence grise.

Yet Gen Udugama was made ambassador to Iraq in 1979 by his tormentor. This was another irony as it was JR Jayewardene who was insistent that Udugama be arrested and charged in 1966.

Attygalle became Commander immediately after Maj Gen BR (Russel) Heyn, within a year after Udugama was removed.

What about Udugama the man? He was held in awe and respect as no other Commander was .Only Gen Denis Perera, who was personally picked to serve under him in Batticaloa came up to his standard. Udugama was notably fierce with incompetents but he was better known as an officer and gentleman for maintaining the high standards of decorum, character, behavior, integrity, generosity and military excellence set by his predecessors, Brigadiers Sinclair The Earl of Caithness and Reid (Brit army) and Generals Anton Muthukumaru and Winston Wijekoon (both graduates of Oxford) and upheld by his successor Gen Russell Heyn and resuscitated after a 10 year (1967-77) wobble, by Gen Denis Perera (1977-81). After Gen Perera there was another period of ‘Après moi de le deluge’ (after me the deluge) for nearly 25 years.

As Coordinating officer and Government Agent Jaffna in 1961 during the anti government satyagraha campaign, the then Col Udugama had with him his own first battalion of the Light Infantry (CLI) and elements of what the UK Daily Telegraph called the ‘crack Sinha Regiment’ commanded by Lt Col RD (Jacko) Jayathileke which included Sandhurst trained Lieutenant (later Captain) LL (‘Lucky') Vitharne, also a Trinity rugby lion.Capt Vitharne was in 1962 to fall afoul of Udugama for ‘visiting’ Lt Col de Saram, a coup suspect in jail. Vitharne groomsman to Capt David Rasiah at his wedding, went over to the jail in between the church service and reception.

During their stay in Jaffna (1961) the then Lt Col Udugama inspected the CLI canteen, well stocked with almost all items the soldiers’ needed. He asked the canteen corporal for the price of an item. The man stood to attention and said “Sir” and nothing else. The question was repeated and once more the man simply repeated his actions but did not volunteer any information. The Colonel showed his displeasure and left saying there was a mute in the Canteen. As soon as the Colonel left the corporal was surrounded by officers and NCOs who asked not too gently what made him clam up. His reply was a classic- “how could I talk back to my Commanding Officer Sir?” Was this Udugama the same Kandyan chieftain’s son who was later accused of hob knobbing with privates and a non combatant officer and plotting a coup?

Col Udugama’s residence was the GA’s sprawling bungalow at Deer Park .The officers resided on the ground floor while some of the Light Infantry troops were upstairs. The Colonel was in the habit of getting up very early in the morning and stepping outdoors to enjoy the cool morning air. One morning one of the soldiers billeted upstairs decided that instead of going to the lavatory he could do what he wanted to do over the railings on to the ground below .The moment the Colonel realized what was happening he let out a yell which brought everyone out. All those upstairs was ordered to come down and paraded. The culprit was ordered to own up. There was no response as no sane body in the army wanted to face the irate and fuming Colonel. Col Udugama ordered the whole lot to bring buckets of water and wash the affected and surrounding area for about half an hour. Meanwhile he went back to his room and in time went to the officers’ mess for breakfast with his officers. The incident as most of his officers knew was over and forgotten.

After breakfast one of the Company Commanders, Major Sammy Strange, a very strange man by all later accounts too, asked to speak to the Colonel about the incident in the morning. It was his men who were billeted upstairs. The Colonel who had much on his mind, asked Strange what the devil he was talking about as he had let the matter out of his mind. Strange said “Sir, I asked my men if anyone of them had done that deed. They all denied it. So Sir it was not my men who did it”. The Colonel erupted “Strange, do you know what you just did?” Strange kept silent. The Colonel continued ‘Strange, I gave them communal punishment.

The matter ended there. You have gone and questioned my decision in front of the men. Did you not know that? “. Strange did not. Seven years later we worked together in HQ Force Panagoda. Strange had become stranger.

Being with Diyatalawa Garrison based Charlie Company of the Sinha Regiment in Panagoda Cantonment in 1962 for Internal Security duties I observed that in the CLI Officers’ Mess whenever Col Udugama came for dinner there was silence until he spoke. He would come occasionally (his home was in Moratuwa) just to keep an eye on his regiment in the silent hours. He would speak to each one at the table and do his best to make us feel at ease but it took time. The food was excellent on his visiting days. One day he told me with a mischievous smile that he had heard that I was interested in one of the prime Coup suspect’s daughters.

Being young and made bold by the knowledge that my brother Eshin was a CLI officer who had served under him in Jaffna the previous year, I asked him ‘which one Sir’? That particular person had 3 daughters! The Colonel had a good laugh. The others relaxed. Only 2 others were privy to that fact. I did wonder who ‘spilt’ the beans.

Col Udugama always wore a suit when he came to dinner. The dress code in all officers’ messes was a tie with long sleeve shirt. Jackets were de rigueur only at Diyatalawa. Years later (1971 the Army Commander at that time had come to his Reconnaissance Regiment mess in a safari suit while a formal mess dinner (mess kit -black tie) for a Russian (BTR 152 Armoured Personal Carrier) training team was proceeding. Anura Bandaranayake and 2 of his close political friends all just above 21 years of age had accompanied him. Having interrupted the formal dinner the army commander had said he would not bother the officers and instead sit out in the garden with his newly found friends. Could the Commanding Officer send him 2 bottles of whiskey and ‘bites’? This was a startling change from all Army Commanders of the past.

Weddings in Jaffna. I next saw Col Udugama in Jaffna when I attended the then Capt (later Maj Gen) George Thevanayagam’s wedding as a member of the Sinha Regiment sword party around late 1962 and also CLI Capt Chandrapragasam’s wedding (earlier teacher at Trinity like other CLI Captains Bertie Dias and Paramsothy who I had known well). Col Udugama came for both.

His arrival at the nuptials sent a palpable current of excitement and warm anticipation amongst the Jaffna elites, almost like the arrival of a Governor General .He was surrounded and welcomed as a trusted, respected and honoured friend. Possibly other CLI officers like Captains N Armithalingam (Ceylon’s first ever graduate from the Australian Staff College) under whom I later served in the first ever Brigade HQ, APR David (later Brigadier who was later posted to Gemunu Watch) of the first Sandhurst Intake may also have been there with the tall Lieutenant S Anandasunderam (later Captain who joined Gemunu Watch) as well other subalterns like my brother Eshin and my Sandhurst friend Careem Zavahier. (National and Sandhurst boxing champion and later New Zealand Army) and possibly Vas Gunewardene (father of politician Sajin).

Training. The army was training oriented during Gen Udugama’s time. Jungle and guerilla warfare were emphasized. Links with Yugoslavia the best known exponent of guerilla warfare, were established after Gen Udugama visited that country. There was a language barrier that prevented closer military contact.

An officer (captain later major Sidney Wijeratne Artillery) and warrant officer (Jayasinghe –CLI and Gemunu later) were trained at the Brit run Jungle Warfare School in Johore Bahru Malaysia. On their return the infantry and artillery concentrated on jungle warfare although a doctrine for guerilla warfare was under consideration.

However the jungle warfare school trained students to combat and not be guerillas. The anticipated guerilla warfare doctrine a la Yugoslavia never saw the light of day. It was Attygalle mesmerizing clueless politicians with military terminology who mixed this up as Udugama was no longer Commander.

Army Sports. The army did well in sports and games during Gen Udugama’s time especially at athletics, boxing wrestling and rugby and men from the CLI figured Edwin, Piyadasa, Ruperatne, Anderson and Queens’s medalist in shooting Perera, prominent and well known at national level among them. In 1962 the Army lost to the CH&FC (all British) in the finals of the Clifford Cup, the closest it got until 1976. Fittingly it was when Capt (later Colonel) Saliya Udugama, Gemunu Watch a nephew and a Trinitian captained the Army team that it won the Clifford Cup in 1976.

Batticaloa .Gen Athukorale’s article states the then Col Udugama as Coordinating Officer Batticaloa during the communal riots, independent of the police, declared a curfew to bring matters swiftly under control.

It was during this time that in Ampara Hospital , Capt Trevor van Twest, a doctor, gave a errant apothecary 21 assorted injections for selling exactly those injections to innocent and poor villagers for a consideration.

Gemunu Watch. Gen Udugama visited Gemunu Watch once that I can remember. After a ceremonial welcome he spoke to all the officers. He knew all their names and of their escapades which sent shivers down many spines. He warmly recalled vignettes of service in Jaffna (1961) with Capt Anandasunderam.

Gen Udugama had been Army Recruiting Officer and also commanded the Recruit Training Depot as the ATC was then called. Few know of one man who he virtually personally recruited. That was LDD (Dixon) Wijetunge a lance corporal of the Signals platoon of the First battalion Gemunu Watch in 1966.He was recalled to service at nearly 50 years and promoted lieutenant to be in charge of communications. He died in battle in the East when the patrol he was hastily asked to lead was ambushed. In 1965 we were on a 71 miles (113 kms) long jungle march from Haputale to Ridiyagama, Wijetunge was in charge of the platoon’s rationing. He would ask me what I wanted for meals in the middle of the jungle. He would offer me papaw and eggs for breakfast and chicken for dinner. He had a nose for zeroing in to the nearest habitation and making a good bargain. As the platoon enjoyed a meal in the cool of the evening overlooking the Balaharu Wewa he told me that he even stole chickens from Gen Udugama’s home. He was finally caught by the General himself who after due admonishments advised him to join the army and here he was. Wijetunge was an excellent soldier and played rugby and hockey for the regiment too. He had not even seen these games before joining.

When Gen Udugama was arrested in 1966 we in the Gemunu Watch which had more than half of its officers from the CLI, (Lt Col Halangode, Captains FP Chapman, L Balthazar, Stanley Roles, TI Weeratunge, Lieutenants S Anandasunderam, Samarasinghe, EC Fernando and QM Edgar Seneviratne) were briefed by a disconsolate Commanding Officer that evening at a special meeting. Col Halangode having been a former brother CLI officer under Udugama, a fellow Trinitian and possibly a relative too, was utterly distraught and close to tears.

The fall out was distressing, shocking, un nerving and frightening .The army would never be the same again. Thereafter there would be an indiscernible but real split in it on barely concealed political lines. JRJ visited the battalion in 1967 and asked after one officer from his electorate but little about anything else. Professionalism would give way to the more rewarding and barely concealed political schemers. The army but not the Navy or Air Force became an insurance cover for the politicians. Their close relatives, sons of party men etc were the premiums they invested in. There was little thought of combat realities and national security as the machine guns were under trusted sycophants. It was an illusion the LTTE soon blasted.

When JR Jayawardene (JRJ) came into power in 1977 what could not be done through the courts as in 1966 was done by one fell swoop of ‘lese majeste’ no doubt energized by the well practiced then retired Gen Attygalle. Attygalle without batting an eye lid had done exactly same in 1970 to mainly non Buddhist officers when given a similar politically contrived list of allegedly UNP supporters. It sadly included Lt Col Denis Hapugalle a bold and forth right officer who had stood up for both Gen Udugama and Lt Kobbekaduwa in 1966.

National minded and extremely professional officers commanding regiments in 1966 like Prassana Dahanayake, (Sinha) MD Fernando (Armoured Corps) and Kamal Fernando (Signals) amongst others, all Buddhists, were forced to retire without any cause being given while a slew of others were sent on compulsory leave.

These actions not only removed many officers who could have made a worthwhile contribution to the army but also demoralized it to a ruinous degree. When the terrorists started waging war and the army response was shocking, many western critics, blindly aped by SL journalists, said it was because the army had been basically a ceremonial one. Gen Denis Perera (Commander 1977-81) put aside this myth but failed to add, being too gentlemanly and ashamed to admit it, that it was instead a almost fully politicized one with such tainted officers knowing politics and politicians, caste and community more than military organizations, tactics, strategy, maneuvers, traditions, conduct or history.

The process begun in 1962 was firmed in when CA Dharmapala a doddering former UNP MP (Hakmana) and volunteer officer was made Secretary Defence in name. Attygalle was brought in after retirement and was de facto Secretary. He went to town in a manner only Attygalle knew how, interfering with and undermining Gen Perera’s command at every turn, aided and abetted by a senior army officer said to be JRJ’s nephew and his emboldened gang of four. The idea was to prevent Gen Perera from doing what would be an excellent job as it would show Attygalle in an extremely poor light. The serving officer did all he could to undermine Gen Perera at every turn so that he could get into his shoes early.JRJ knew what was happening and acquiesced with, if he did not market it.

When the tracers started flying shortly after the end of Attygalle’s seemingly unending years (10!) of command, the Army found it very difficult to become a merit oriented professional fighting force until over 15,000 soldiers had died in the years that followed. Officers who had seen action from the day they were commissioned then inexorably sorted out the terrorists.

Gen Udugama did not have time to complete his mission. If he had, maybe the army would have had a foundation that no one could have shaken. It was not to be. In 1988 three Generals were complicit in ordering the army to deliver weapons, ammo, cash and cement to the enemy LTTE simply because the then President Premadasa wanted treason committed at any cost. That was the breed that drove the army close to the grave.

He knew the weaknesses and weak character of the men he dealt with. He did not live long enough to know the terrible cost of his treachery. No senior army officer protested or resigned. Had Gen Udugama been Army Commander or Secretary Defence, Premadasa would not have dared. That was the price SL paid for politicizing the army by falsely implicating Gen Udugama of leading a concocted coup (1966) in retaliation for the failed real coup of 1962 and humiliating him and his family.

All this led inexorably to a politicized army that had its fair share of lackeys and incompetents at senior command levels. Consequently it was made to pay a very heavy price in blood of both soldiers and innocent civilians. Who was responsible?

- Asian Tribune -

  Lalin’s Column:  The General Udugama I knew
  Lalin’s Column:  The General Udugama I knew
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