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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2101

Major General Gratian Silva VSV-(1933 -2015)

By Lalin Fernando - An infantryman

Major General HG (Gratian) Silva VSV was a Commander of the Sri Lanka Regiment of Artillery. It is nearly 130 years old. He in the words of another Artillery General and cricketer like him , a de Silva, ‘ was the finest Commanding Officer the Gunners ever had’ He was an excellent example to all gunners as the last 2 Gunner Army Commanders Generals Srilal Weerasuriya and Lionel Balagalle who had imbibed his best qualities could say. He was truly great gunner General.

Gen Silva’s contemporaries in the Artillery were Brigadier Justus Rodrigo (senior to Army Commander 1981-5) , Major Generals Duleep Wickramanayake (first from Sandhurst at Royal College of Defence Studies) and Jayantha Jayaratne (first ever Instructor in Gunnery) all Sandhurst trained who some thought would but did not command the Army eventually. There was also Sandhurst trained Artillery officer Lt Col V Ramanthan and Major Gajendran who retired early to migrate respectively to Australia and India following the 1983 racial riot disaster. They all followed the high professional and ethical standards set by their former commanders like Colonels Lyn Wickramasuriya, Eardely McHeyzer, HT Gunesekera, among others.

They were excellent and exemplary peace time leaders, highly respected in the Army for their dedication, competence, integrity and ability. They served their Gunners and the Army well. All of them are sadly gone less Col Ramanathan. The writer knew them all well, holds them in great esteem and with much affection. They were reminiscent of an era when the Army was family to those that served. He was also very privileged and fortunate to have served under nearly every one of them. No Regiment up to that time had so many illustrious commanders.

Maj Gen Silva was from a military family. His brother late Vice Admiral Ananda Silva commanded the SL Navy. He was commissioned from Britain’s over 250 year old Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) and Admiral Silva from the over 150 years old Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth (BRNC). Gen Silva’s son is married to the daughter of late Brigadier SB Miyanadeniya an infantryman also Sandhurst trained. He was commissioned in 1955 from Sandhurst into the First Light Anti Aircraft (LAA) Regiment Ceylon Artillery based in Trincomalie. He served as a troop and battery commander. As a major he later attended the Army Staff College, Camberely.

Gen Silva was later the 7th Commanding Officer of the 4 Artillery Regiment SLA SL’s then only artillery regiment. It came into being after the 2nd (Volunteer) Heavy Anti Aircraft (2V HAA) and 3rd Field Artillery Regiments were disbanded after the 1962 coup. No one from 1 LAA was involved. Gunners closed ranks despite this humiliating and devastating set back. They showed what loyalty to the Regiment was about .Less one officer none opted to leave the Regiment for safer or greener pastures or promotions. It caused little wonder as there is no other arm of the services whose efficiency is so directly dependant on its officers as is field artillery. All professional ranks of the Army too rallied round them. They held the Gunners in great respect and closed that infamous chapter forever.

‘Major General Gratian Silva’s name along with his colleagues here mentioned will live as long as the Gunners shall respect their former Commanders’ (With acknowledgements to the inscription on King Alfred’s statue at Winchester England)

Gen Silva was also Commandant of the Army Training Centre (ATC) now SL Military Academy (SLMA) Diyatalawa that then included the Officer Training School, Drill and Weapon Training/Recruit Training Wing.

Unfortunately Gen Silva served at a time (1960s-1988) when the army had become more politically useful than nationally reliable. From 1983 the flower of our manhood was pretty much wiped out in the first 20 odd years of the LTTE conflict. The debacles at Janakpura, Pooneryn, Elephant Pass, Mullativu and Muhumalai marked the nadir of the Army. No one either in government or the military, except in tainted reports, was held responsible for shambolic actions, (up to 2006).

Politicians and their stooges as senior commanders comfortably seasoned for nigh on 30 years of peacetime soldiering floundered abysmally. They lacked in knowledge, motivation, and professional interest and mostly in moral courage to stand up for what was correct. They served for their private survival. They were out classed except for intermittent intervals until 2006 by a ruthless and courageous LTTE most of who preferred suicide to capture .Their end was hastened when they turned from popular insurgency to terrorism.

In 1971the JVP gave the army a rude awakening. However very few lessons were learned such as the need for increasing ridiculously low force levels, (10,000 all ranks) realistic counter insurgency training, modern equipment and doctrine until Gen Denis Perera took over in 1977. Politicians had looked mostly for incompetent relatives and stooges with a vengeance not professionals for the army to perform in its intended role. They did not find one in Gen Silva.

The last straw for Gen Silva was when his army and regimental junior, not recommended even to command his own regiment, was eventually promoted above him to General rank and then made Army Commander. Nothing more starkly exposed the rotten state of affairs than this. While waste products of the army moved with scheming and crooked politicians, rounds of political shrapnel persisted in killing off the Army’s leadership. The treacherous gifting of weapons to the enemy, ordered by President Premadasa followed. The treasonable order was executed unhesitatingly by this Army Commander as Premadasa knew he would. Thereafter the decline of the army was rapid. The Army’s resurrection started at Mavil Aru in 2006 and ended with annihilating victory over the LTTE in 2009 .The gunners played a decisive role in what had to be a bloody close quarter infantry slogging match. Gen Silva lived to savour it.

Gen Silva unlike the 2 who preceded him and the one who went over him was professionally qualified for higher command having graduated from the British Army Staff and Command College while the others had failed even to qualify for entrance. They were politically dependant and committed while he was not. In the last 2 cases to be kind it was the blind leading the blind. The last man even entertained the Bribery Commission for a while.

The government news media however were overawed by the battle drums and bugle calls of the defence ministry’s retired generals and gallery playing politicians. Citizens were bluffed about the progress of the war and the abilities of the government’s favourites in the Army until in time they saw, heard and had enough. Some of the private media then stepped in and did its best to depress military and national morale.

AHQ particularly from 1982 to the end of Gen Silva’s tenure and even beyond could not finish off the LTTE but it was determined to storm the media to build bubble reputations for ignoramuses, charlatans and commanders few would have wanted to breed from. Press correspondents briefed by nondescript but overly ambitious officers aired grand strategy and tactics. Even politicians ventured to offer theories based on their absolutely irrelevant knowledge of SL history during foreign rule. Meanwhile a lot of confidential information was leaked too. There was no unity. However there was never a master plan or blue print for winning the war.

I was fortunate to have served under Gen Silva who was Task Force One Commander when I was Officer Commanding Troops Jaffna (1980) when insurgent groups were furtively exploiting the reckless racist attitudes of the politicians both in the North and South. Jaffna was recovering from President Jayewardene’s outrageous decision to give over riding powers above the Army Commander Gen Denis Perera to his nephew Brigadier Weeratunge in 1979.The latter was ordered to ‘to wipe out terrorism in all its forms before the end of the year’.

Ersatz operations followed the granting of the request to suspend the provisions of habeas corpus. It led to irrevocable consequences. Astonishingly Weeratunge reported success. When he vaulting over Brigadier Justus Rodrigo his senior became Army Commander (end 1981) the decline and rot set in. In 1983 his limitations were laid bare. It took 30 years, 100,000 deaths including 21,000 from the forces, before peace returned.

The next year however when Gen Silva was Commander Task Force One in Jaffna; the Army certainly won the hearts and minds of the citizens. No wonder that his senior in the Artillery Col V Ramanathan used to say ‘Gratian out does Dale Carnegie’. There were no terrorist related deaths that year. A decades long tradition of blood donation by the Army to the Jaffna General hospital (with the help of the head priest of the Tissa Vihare KKS), generous contributions by all ranks to charities like the Illaveli Orphanage, dealing uncompromisingly with breaches of civil law and developing cordial civic relations were the priorities that contributed the most towards normalization of life under an insurgent threat and winning hearts and minds. Good behaviour in public, not increasing weapon inventories, was emphasized. There were no terrorist related deaths that year. International teams from Pakistan Army (Hockey) and RAF (Football) played in Jaffna. The learning of Tamil by the troops was encouraged while engaging with civilians and clergy (the non Vellala 6 foot late Father Stanislaus was prominent) left its mark, effectively.

After Col Silva handed over Jaffna command its public library was burned to the ground following the district council elections (1981). It was a sheer politically conspired, incomprehensible, barbaric response by the government in power. It brought Col Silva’s hearts and minds campaign to naught. Those responsible, though known to all who govern now remain unpunished.

The deployment of armoured cars for the first time ever into the Peninsular followed. This ill advised move tormented, harassed and angered the citizens especially wives and mothers. It escalated the level of violence from which there was no turning back. Hesitant, novice insurgents began turning into formidable terrorists fortified by the government’s own criminally negligent behavior in 1983. The propaganda war which is 80% of any counter insurgency campaign became the biggest casualty. SL has still not recovered from its effects even despite complete peace after the defeat of the terrorists in 2009.

Gen Silva after commanding Task Force One was at different times Commander of Northern, Southern and Western Commands. He was also Senior Staff Officer Operations AHQ, Director AHQ Budget &FM and also Director Personal Administration among other appointments. He was however deprived of command of the Army for reasons that must shame not only those politicians’ responsible but also ambitious military officers who were guilty of aiding and abetting.

He however gave the impression of never fully realizing all the very unpleasant potentialities of the predicament he was in. He was doing the hard work for seniors who would benefit but later not stand by, even betray him. He appeared to be entirely unaffected, completely composed and never to have the slightest doubt that all would come right in the end trusting his professional background and performance alone. It didn’t come right. Yet in retirement he never complained, spoke about it or showed bitterness. A better officer and gentleman would be hard to find.

Maj Gen Silva was a superb example to his juniors, a model of rectitude and integrity, professionally amongst the best. He spoke his mind with a firm voice to over bearing seniors and subordinates in need of correction. He could express disagreement without arousing rancour and he received from his colleagues a steady affection and loyalty.

He was deliberate, calm and confidant. Known for his vivacity and vigour he had no appetite for personal glory. Good looking, solidly built in the Gunner tradition, he was straight forward, solid, dependable, tactful, cheerful, energetic and adamant whenever he was sure he was right.

He had nerves of gun metal. He was no man for offering soothing opiates to superiors or subordinates .He wouldn’t say just what others wanted to hear. He called a spade a spade. He had the energy, optimism, joy of soldiering, alertness, self confidence military bearing, broad mindedness, warmth, flexibility, ability to relax, and a sparkling sense of humour that was contagious. He enjoyed a joke most, when it was about him. He was charming and courteous, easy smiling with a grace that belayed a firm mind that could make hard decisions without fear or favour. Unlike some he did not dwell or boast about his abilities. He was exceptional.

I first met Gen Gratian when he was a major and Staff Officer AHQ in 1969.He asked me to take an SAS free fall parachuting team led by then Capt (later General Sir) Michael Rose- late Grenadier Guards and SAS), and RAF support staff that had come to participate in the Army Searchlight Tattoo on a trip to Kandy. Second lieutenant Sunil Peiris of Gemunu Watch accompanied me. He was later the founder commander of the Commando Regiment to who then Lt Col Rose loaned a SAS training team in 1980. Gen Rose visited SL again as a Brigadier (1986) and then was invited by perpetual loser PM Wickramasinghe in 2001/2 to advise him.

The next time we met was on 5 April 1971 at Wellawaya. The police station had been attacked by 25 JVP insurgents (reported as 500 by the police at the time) at about 5 am that morning. He as a Grade 2 Staff Officer AHQ (Operations) and DIG Rudra Rajasingham (later IGP) had arrived by RCyAF helicopter. Major Silva was reassuring and calm while the police were devastated, on edge and frightened, like the government was for about 3 weeks. This was the historical opening of armed revolt in independent Ceylon and the unwelcome blooding of the security forces against its own. The attack left 2 police constables and one insurgent dead. He left wishing me good soldiering or was it luck. We were armed with 1913 vintage surplus UK .303 rifles (the UK had many millions of them).Our Bren Light Machine guns had defective ammo! Fortunately the JVP had only stolen shot guns and fire bombs. .

I next met then Lt Col Silva when I was a grade 2 staff officer in the Volunteer Force Branch AHQ while he was a Lt Col grade one staff officer at Operations Branch AHQ in 1972. He was not amused by my saluting him with a smile after he had ordered me to vamoose following a contretemps with a very silly officer in the duty officer’s room.

I was once nominated by him to be Secretary at Army Commander Attygalle’s Operations Conference held in the late evening. It was mainly a monologue with a lot of giggling. The conference minutes were ready the next morning when Col Silva came to office .I had warned my clerk to be ready by 6 am to type them as I prepared the draft at night at home. Lt Col Silva was surprised. However I was summoned some time later and told with a straight face that I would not be asked by the Army Commander to prepare conference minutes again. Apparently I had reported everything verbatim and that was never done.

The impresario Commander who finally over stayed his tenure by 6 years had a habit of speaking off the cuff. Most of it had little substance. He did not expect it all to be minuted. What he had objected most to was my use of the exact word he used in making an uncomplimentary if not salacious reference to army/police cooperation at night. At the British Army Staff College in 1973 my recording of minutes of a conference went up to the Commandant to be remarked in green ink- a rare honour it was said.

The next incident was when I had to lecture mid ranking officers’ on a tactics courses at the Army Training Centre.

I was on temporary loan from my duties as Grade 2 Staff Officer South Eastern Command Diyatalawa. It was a course for Volunteer (Reserve) Force officers. I saw an officer in the class who had been tried but acquitted in court over that most horrible and shocking incident at Kataragama during the 1971 insurgency. The end result was that Col Silva told me that I had no right to refuse training an officer who had been acquitted by a court of law whatever my moral objections were .I was relieved in many ways including my temporary but voluntary duties for which I put in some very hard work with much passion as an instructor.

In retirement Gen Silva was a prominent Lions Club member. He was Managing Director of a pioneer Electronics Security Firm. He never failed to attend Artillery reunions and dinners .In addition to his many close friends, army officers living abroad like Maj Gen Duleep Wickramanyake, Col Ramanathan (Artillery) Maj Ron Mahendran CLI and Manthi Ranawaka(Engineers) and those in SL were entertained to splendid dinners at his home where his wife Mallika was an ever gracious and most generous host .

Gen Gratian who as a young officer played good cricket and as he grew older badminton especially in Pallaly camp Jaffna, kept himself fit in retirement by walking daily at the BRC grounds like Air Vice Marshal Dick Perera retired SLAF Commander, a man after his own heart in many ways, including being absolutely straight. Sadly Gen Silva took ill even as he tried to keep up his fitness levels. I treasure the memory of seeing and being recognized by him while in extremis at the Army hospital with his wife and family beside him, shortly before he died.

It is said that the best generals were those that served in the Artillery. Artillery men know there are only 2 types of people-other artillery men and targets. Gunners will always fight together, drink together, laugh together and mourn together.

It must also be said that the “thanks of the infantry are more treasured by the gunners than all the decorations and citations”. While it is the infantry that wins wars, there is no other arm of the services whose efficiency is so directly dependant on its officers as field artillery. Gen Gratian Silva was foremost among them.

- Asian Tribune -

 Major General Gratian Silva VSV-(1933 -2015)
Major General Gratian Silva VSV
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