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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2399

Lalins Column: The Incomparable First Intake of Officer Cadets trained in SL

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

Intake One consisting of 13 Officer Cadets selected from 12,000 applicants with 22 in the finals, began training at the Officer Cadets’ School (OCS) Army Training Centre Diyatalawa (ATC), now the SL Military Academy(SLMA) on 27 April 1968. The OCS was situated at Ella, a former Royal Navy camp together with the Tactics Wing.

Soldier recruits were trained in the Drill and Weapons Wing in the adjoining Thistle camp. The officer cadet’s course lasted 1.5 years.

There could be no better place for training officer cadets than Diyatalawa which is at an elevation of about 4300 feet above sea level with an invigorating climate, bracing air, hills and valleys, gum and pine trees and a comparatively small population. There were also 2 firing ranges and hundreds of acres of field training grounds. It is also within 20 miles of low country jungle, ideal terrain for training in counter revolutionary war.

Many of the 13 selected had been brilliant in school. They included VS (Sarath) M Jayawardene (S Thomas’) who became the most outstanding cadet and winner of the Sword of Honour, RP(Parry) Liyanage and S(Sunil)D Peiris both over 6 foot , MG (Gibbrey) Muthalib and Mohan Moothathambi who had been Head Prefects of Royal, S Thomas, Kingswood and St John’s Jaffna respectively, Daya Nadarajasingham (later Rajasinghe), Lalith Guneratne, and PM (Mahinda)K Wickramaratne, 6 ft 3 ins tall (all 3 from Ananda), MN (Nizam) Jaymon and OKP Gunesekera (Royal) Mangala Ratnayake (Thurston) Baratha Amarasekera (Nalanda) and Terence Jayaweera (Dehiwala Central).They had all respectively captained or represented their schools at cricket, rugby, athletics, hockey, basketball, shooting and rowing. Corporal Neville Sheddon from the SL Engineers joined the course later in keeping with the long standing Army policy of giving promising junior leaders an opportunity to become commissioned officers. Such a quality selection must be rare.

The OCS was and its successor the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) established in 1981 is a significant symbol of the Army, its prestige and power and is its premier training establishment. It now has 4 intakes each of 150 officer cadets at a time. There have been 84 intakes of officer cadets since Intake One. The courses now take 2.5 years. There are about 300 sergeant instructors alone.

Lt Col (later Army Commander and General) Denis Perera, Engineers, who came in as the Deputy, succeeded Col Lyn Wickramasuriya (late Artillery) as Commandant ATC shortly after the First Intake’s training commenced. It was Col Perera who with outstanding vision, led, guided and inspired the OCS to become the SLMA in quick time.

Intake One’s role model was their Commandant. Fortuitous circumstances brought the Commandant and Intake One together to set impeccable standards that endured. Those, not only the Cadets, that followed, held his standards as a template too.

By the time the ‘conflict’ started in 1981, many intakes of cadets had fortunately been commissioned as officers from the OCS/SLMA to meet the challenge. They were the formidable nucleus that fought through the bitter and deadly conflict and led the troops that finally destroyed the terrorists in 2009. The Officers commanding of the Wing were Major MD Fernando followed by Major CH Fernando, (Generals later).

There was nothing locally before Intake One but a great deal after them. It was and is they who set the standards, traditions and values that endured in the OCS and at the SLMA. Subsequent intakes carried on from where their seniors left off, proudly guarding their inheritance. Attempts to create unhealthy ragging traditions later were not countenanced by the cadets themselves and were short lived. Comradeship and friendship were enduring. Unlike the USMA West Point an ‘honor’ code that encouraged sneaking to superiors was never tolerated by either the officer cadets or their instructors at OCS.

Intake one was the promise of the Army’s future. Their officer instructors knew them possibly better than their parents and made them reach far above what their parents probably thought their sons could achieve. The cadets began to pride themselves on being highly disciplined, organized, punctual, polite, well dressed and groomed, had shining shoes and boots, frequent haircuts and looked 10 foot tall when they walked about.

“To produce an officer who will be fit, morally, mentally and physically, to lead the SL soldier”

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm” (Churchill)

All this they passed on enthusiastically to the cadets that followed and on to Direct Entry officer’s course of 5 including 3 from the Signals with 2 making brigadier (Nimal Perera who came from Italy and K Gnanaweera) while the third Terry Seneviratne left early for Australia. There were two from Works Services Engineers (now called Engineer Services Regiment) Ranjith Ekanayake (later Brigadier) and Capt KS Perera who left early too.

There was also a volunteer force probationary officers’ course. One of them resented the disciplinary measures of the Officer Cadets who were his seniors. He suffered a quick and short period of arrest and improved quickly.

Pleasant, well-mannered and loyal, they were also resolute. When war broke out they took tough decisions on missions that were often thought to be impossible. They did not hesitate to risk their lives to do their duty by the country, some suffering near fatal injuries but surviving.

Officer instructors, warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers were responsible for all training from the parade square to the firing ranges to basic tactics, battle drills in all phases of war and counter insurgency, administration, military law, accounts and physical training both in the gym and on obstacle courses and endurance marching on the hilly roads where one ran up but walked down. Balanced leadership, imaginative and flexible that is essential in battle to predictable leadership that is essential for administration was emphasized. The standard of officer cadet’s drill was and is the best in the Army. Civilian instructors from the National Cadet Corps were in charge of academic studies. Capt Nelson Mendis is the best known of them.

From 1949 to 1968 almost all officer cadet training had been at Sandhurst. Just over 100 were so trained.

One intake with Battalion Cadet Adjutant (later Major General) Wijaya Wimalaratne was also trained with 3 others at the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun (1962-3). He was later chief instructor jungle warfare training ATC.

Three intakes were trained at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul from 1963-65. . There were about 5 Generals in the 3 PMA intakes that stopped with the Indo Pak war in 1965.One of the first Intake’s 2 officer instructors one was Lieutenant (later Lt Col) PWJ (Jayantha) de Silva who was Battalion Junior Under Officer and third in the order of merit at PMA. Cadet Sergeant CS (Srilal) Weerasuriya, later General and Commander of the Army were in the same intake.

Five others made Major General. The other was from RMA Sandhurst who first met then Officer Cadet PVJ de Silva when the former was on a Regimental Signals Officers’ course at Rawalpindi. Lt Col de Silva immigrated to Australia soon after the IPKF started their wretched sojourn in SL.

Many have forgotten that 5 Officer Cadets were also selected to be trained in the Egyptian Military Academy in early 1965. However an election intervened before they could proceed. The course was predictably cancelled probably more on political rather than on practical grounds like language. The five received ad hoc training at Ceylon Light Infantry Panagoda and much later were attached at the tail end of a Directly Enlisted officer’s course at ATC. The last PMA intakes were also added on to this. Of the five in the ‘Egyptian’ batch, one made Army Commander (Gen Lionel Balagalla) and another posthumously Major General (Nalin Angammana).

One of the first things to be corrected was to draw the line on the 2 Sergeant instructors who had been instructors for the short course direct entry (DE) officers’ training. They were essentially drill, weapons and field craft instructors. They had been allowed to over step their role and tried to impose themselves on the officer cadets as they had done unsupervised on the earlier DE course.

The Cadets’ mess was made out of bounds to them. They were disallowed to give any duties to the Cadets other than those connected with training. They had earlier asked the cadets to dig a well on top of the about 50 foot hill where the mess was. Cadet Liyanage (240 pounds on joining and 180 pounds 4 months later) had asked them where the water table was! Once these matters were sorted out training went off as it should for officer cadets. A later project to enlarge the Ella camp parade square led to some severe contretemps. The project was abandoned.

The course Warrant Officer (WO) was Gunam Ahmath. There could not have had a better man than him to maintain a very high standard of drill, discipline, turn out, behavior and office organization. He used to join in on field tactical exercises day or night too. The ATC drill instructor was hawk eyed British Guards Drill School Pirbright trained Warrant Officer HR Dayananda who was excellent. Both had a super sense of humour that kept the cadets in good spirits even when they were being given a hard time especially on the parade square.

All the Cadets had to play rugby which is a great character building game. They were introduced to it by playing what was called ‘Old English Tennis’. This had the cadets lining up on 2 sides of the rugby ground. A rugby ball was placed in the middle. There were few rules and the referee (officer) stood to one side. When the whistle went the 2 sides ran hard to gather the ball and take it across the goal line. The ball could be passed forward or backwards, kicked or punched. The side without the ball did their best to stop the other side in any way they knew. Tackling was done with or without the ball. The cadets who had not played rugby before learned fast with the help of a few bruises.

The ATC consisting mainly of Officer Cadets with the help of 3 Gemunu Watch officers won the Clifford Cup C Division in 1969. One of the players was ‘Gulliver’ Sumithipala of the ATC Regimental Police section who survived the ambush that had 13 SLLI ranks killed at Tinnevelly (July 1983). Some of those who played in the Army rugby team that won the Clifford Cup in 1972 for the first time played in this team too. They included Saliya Udugama (later Colonel) who was the captain.

After much training in basic battle drills in the Fox Hill and Nidankanda areas, a deliberate attack exercise was conducted on the plains at Gurutalawa. Gibbrey Muthalib was the platoon Commander and was observed seething with impotent anger but speechless at one of his section commanders who had lagged behind after crossing the start line.

A defence exercise was held later on the Horton Plains which is 6,900 – 7,500 above sea level, has a mean temperature of 5 degrees C at night with mist and frost in wet weather. Jungle warfare training was conducted in steaming Monaragala.

Three initiative/sabotage exercises were carried out in Passara, Ampara and Trincomalie. At Passara, where tea planters on many estates helped to provide 'safe houses' in their bungalows for the would be ‘saboteurs’, the 6 ft 3 ins Mahinda Wickramaratne (later Lt Col) escaped after being captured by taking a running jump down a 12 foot embankment. He found his way down under to Australia later. OKP Gunesekera got lost and was found after the exercise ended. He finally reached Canada.

At Ampara in a tropical thunderstorm at night, one (sabotage) team of cadets was inspired seeing their DS follow their example by finally slipping into the flooded paddy fields. A team leader’s decision to cross an irrigation canal in full flood at Uhana using a log bridge made the DS’ blood turn to ice .The missions were successful.

At Trincomalie the target artillery guns were within reach for hours but never threatened until dawn.

A fighting patrol that will be remembered was the one commanded by Parry Liyanage. It was to take a prisoner from an enemy post at the bridge on the 3rd mile post of the Bandarawella -Welimada road. Daya Rajasingham who took his duties very seriously would use his binoculars very carefully at all listening stops. Those practiced eagle eyes made him win a place at 3 Olympics for shooting, including Munich (1972).

However all hell broke loose when the 6ft, 180 pound (on joining 240 pounds) Liyanage lost his balance at the Bandarawella end of the bridge and crashed into the enemy hiding at the bottom. The enemy were too shocked to react .A prisoner was taken. Their hurried departure across the Uva patnas at the double was in Foreign Legion’s North African style. The only casualty was an instructor who fell into an abandoned trench.

Mangala Ratnayake showed outstanding initiative in preparing for his leadership presentation collecting his material from several places in Colombo including the Russian Embassy. There was no proper library at the ATC then. His leadership choice from the list given was Leon Trotsky. Baratha Amarasekera astounded everyone including the Commandant when he spoke on Field Marshal Slim and confidently said jungle warfare training for the famous XIV (Indian) Army in WW2 was conducted in Belgium. He amazed everyone including the Commandant. He had meant Belgaum Infantry Training school in India. He lost his way badly in the Army too.

Dinner and supper nights in mess dress and ‘Blues’ were held both in the Cadets’ mess as well as the ATC Officers’ Mess. Strong limbed Muthalib with tremendous determination won the mess game that tested the strength of arms. Participants had to take forward a beer bottle in their hands as far forward as possible without falling. To reach out the most meant using only one hand. He split his trousers in the final attempt and won. Other mess games, played in mess dress, could be more physical. Cadets were only allowed to drink beer

The Cadets were encouraged to go on adventure training during leave periods. A later intake (7) cadet went in a raft down the Mahaveli to Trincomalee and founded the Special Forces. Culture was not ignored. The cadets were ‘volunteered’ to witness a Baratha Natyam display at Bandarawella, encouraged by the possibility of a Chinese restaurant dinner after the show. Some cadets when on leave diligently attended ball room classes to make sure they did not lack in the social graces of Colombo.

The best singer of ‘baila’ and Sinhalese songs was Mohan Moothathambi. His reputation has spread to Vancouver, Canada as vouched last year by Canadian Engineer and former national rugby player Royalist Chandra Thiruchittampalam at a lunch by a Trinity (sister school of St John’s) doctor.

The Passing out Parade of Intake one and the recruit intake 31 was held on the Army Rugby grounds at Galle Face in 1969. The decision to do so instead of Diyatalawa was given by the Commandant as necessary to familiarize the powers that be with the best of the Army.
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake took the salute. The parades are now held at Diyatalawa as before.

Sadly Brigadier ‘Parry' Liyanage, (late Artillery) Lt Col Daya Rajasinghe SLASC and Major Nizam Jaymon SLAC are no more. They are not forgotten.

Jaymon was a natural leader of men and popular. He was electric on the rugby grounds, a sight to behold in full flow. Unfortunately he developed a wasting illness and left the Army early. Sadly, he died very young.

Liyanage challenged a newly joined instructor to run up the steep hill to the ‘White Gate’ after a game of rugby. He was compelled after descending to huff and puff up the hill again when counter challenged. As an Artillery Commander he dared an IPKF Brigadier who threatened that if he with his men was not allowed to enter Liyanage’s camp in Trincomalie he would do it by force. The IPKF man blinked. Liyanage was immediately posted out by a supine AHQ as was Lt Col (later Brigadier) Vipul Botejue ( Intake 2) in Jaffna in similar circumstances.

Daya Rajasinghe took part in 3 Olympics including Munich 1972, served in the Oman Police and its Special Task Force and was the Commanding Officer of the Oman Olympic Team for the 1992 Olympics. Rejoining the Army he was the founder Commander of the Army Sniper Training School and took part in many operations with his snipers. A mighty atom standing just 5 ft something tall, he was a super officer who led by example but whose potential was recognized by the Army very late.

Lt Col Sarath Jayewardene single handedly brought the 1983 riots to an end by a resolute action at Athidiya. He later commanded his Engineer Regiment that built the defences of Mullativu and beat off many LTTE attacks in the late 1980s. Like a few others, he left the Army when the IPKF with RAW were allowed to run riot in SL (1987-9). He later became the Sultan (of Oman’s) Armed Forces Engineers (SAFE), key operations and training officer who the Commanding Officer could not do without.

Lt Col Sunil Peiris (late Gemunu Watch) founded and commanded the elite Commandos in battle. Like Sarath Jayawardene he took part in the Vadamarachchi operation (1987) among many others. He commanded the first ever heliborne assault on the LTTE. He lost his brother, the 6ft 7 ins Squadron Leader Eksith in Batticaloa. He too left at about the same time and was quickly absorbed by SL’s biggest multinational company. Soft spoken and direct, he appeared to be the leader of many Intake One Cadet Initiatives during and after their training at OCS. This included landing off side rugby tackles on one of the instructors who had given him double punishment for letting the side down. He later found out this was his cousin. He was prime mover of Intake One’s 50th anniversary reunion this year.

Lt Gibbrey Muthalib was shot in the head by the JVP insurgents in 1971 but survived to become a Major General in SLEME. His pilot brother in law Flt Lt Shibley died in an RCyAF plane crash and his brother national pole vault record holder Akbar, died in a RTA.

Lt Col Lalith Guneratne enjoyed his time in Jaffna with a squadron of armoured cars calmly showing the flag to demonstrators. When in 1989-90 he was ordered by a powerful politician to ‘destroy’ captured JVP suspects, he refused and resigned as did Gemunu Watch officers Brig Vipul Botejue of Intake two. Brig Hiran Halangode of Intake 7 did the same but survived. Sandhurst trained Lt (later Major General) Janaka Perera did so too when ordered by his superior officer in 1971. Lalith lives in the Oregon, USA.

Major OKP Gunesekera left the Ordnance Corps to migrate to Canada as did Artillery Captain Mohan Moothathambi. Major Mahinda Wickramaratne, Service Corps, migrated to Australia where Neville Sheddon had already gone. Mangala Ratnayake SLLI, like Daya Rajasinghe was a second generation officer. He immigrated very early to New Zealand in 1981.

There is no news at all of Dehiwala Central long jumper Capt Terence Jayaweera, (Sinha Regiment) and Nalanda cricketer Capt Baratha Amarasekera (Light Infantry) whose careers were not much distinguished.

When the school cadet corps arrived in Diyatalawa for their annual camp, invitations to dinner at the Cadet Corps Battalion Commanders homes were not in short supply. The Officer Cadets looked forward to these invitations from the old school masters, some being principals. They also had pretty daughters as the Officer Cadets knew. One Principal went over the course commanders’ head to get a cadet on restrictions to attend.

Intake One celebrated their 50th anniversary with their wives including those from USA, Australia and New Zealand and revived nostalgic memories by visiting SLMA Diyatalalwa on the invitation of the Commandant. In Colombo on 27 April 2018 they graciously invited their former instructors and their wives to a splendid reunion dinner at the Armoured Corps Mess, Mutwal at which the Deputy Chief of Staff represented the Commander of the Army who had pulled out all stops to make the event unforgettable.

Intake One upheld the SLMA motto ‘Serve to Lead’. It means one serves his soldiers (setting an example, training, educating, playing with them, taking care of their needs and welfare) in order to lead them in battle where without question they take orders that may even lead to their deaths. Intake One is incomparable.

- Asian Tribune -

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Lalins Column:  The Incomparable First Intake of Officer Cadets trained in SL
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