The fifty-year march of the Sri Lanka Army Engineers


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Sappers today in the Oprational Area

The Corps of Sri Lanka Engineers counts 50 years of dedicated service to the nation this year. The Regiment is justly proud of its heritage and achievements, which dates back to 1911. Today, the Corps of Sri Lanka Engineers consists of many combat engineer regiments, all of which form the Engineer Brigade, providing yeoman service in the operational areas of the North and the East. The Corps of Engineers or the Sri Lanka Army Sappers, as they are called traditionally, now comprises 6 regular units and one volunteer unit. The Corps is also affiliated to the Corps of Royal Engineers UK and to the Indian Engineers.

When Ceylon gained independence and consequently the Ceylon Army was raised, the very first Field Engineer squadron was formed. The first Officer Commanding (OC) of this squadron was Capt. P. D. Ramanayake. In 1951, this field engineer squadron was raised to the status of a Field Engineer Regiment. Simultaneously, the appointment of the Officer Commanding the Field Engineer Squadron was also elevated to the post of Commanding Officer of the Regiment. Lt. Col. P. D. Ramanayake, much respected and fondly called the "Father of the Regiment", rendered yeoman service to the Regiment and rose to the rank of Brigadier.

The Sri Lanka Engineers have also produced many officers and other ranks of the highest calibre. So far, 2 Sapper officers have commanded the Sri Lanka Army - Lt. Gen. J. E. D. Perera VSV ndc psc in 1977/81 and Lt. Gen. G. D. G. N. Seneviratne YSY ndc in 1985/88. In addition, 2 Sapper officers have held the post of Chief of Staff in the Sri Lanka Army - namely, Maj. Gen. J. R. S. de Silva RSP VSY USP in 1991/92 and Maj. Gen. K. J. C. Perera RWP RSP VSV USP reds psc in 2000/01. Maj. Gen. E. H. Samaratunga USP, Maj. Gen. A. E. D. Wijendra RSP USP ndc psc, Maj. Gen. M. D. S. Chandrapala RWP RSP USP psc and Maj. Gen. D. S. K. Wijesooriya RWP RSP USP psc are the other illustrious sapper officers who have made their mark as Major Generals in the Sri Lanka Army to date.

Among the many Sapper officers and other Ranks who have laid down their lives while in office are, the late Lt. Gen. N. K. B. Angammana RSP USP psc and the late Maj. Gen. J. K. N. Jayakody USP ndc. Both these gallant and distinguished officers add to the list of names in the Sapper Role of Honour. The former paid the supreme sacrifice for the defence of the nation while the latter made his last call while discharging official duties. Many decorations too have come the Sappers’ way, illustrating their true might and selfless service to the nation. In the annals of the history of decorations for the Ceylon Sappers is the Victoria Cross awarded posthumously to 2/Lt. B. A. Horsfall. Other distinguished decorations recorded for acts of bravery include 2 Distinguished Service Orders, 3 Military Crosses, one Croix de Guere, One Weerodara Vibhushanaya (WV), 2 Weera Wickrama Vibhushanaya (WWV), 34 Rana Wickrama Padakkama (RWP) and 132 Rana Sura Padakkama (RSP).

Tracing the history of The Corps of Engineers it is observed that, it was initially formed as a part of the Ceylon Defence Force in 1911. The main function of the newly raised Ceylon Engineers was, to take over the duties of the Royal Engineers based in Ceylon who were called for active duty in World War I. The newly raised Ceylon Engineers were assigned to man the coastal searchlights and signal works both in Colombo and in Trincomalee. The unit was open only to British Europeans at this point of time. Most of the original members of the Ceylon Sappers consisted of members transferred from the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps (CPRC).

It was at this point of time, early in 1911, that certain British and European residents in Colombo offered their services to the Government, for the purpose of being trained to operate the Defence Electric Lights. The very first officer to be enlisted and commissioned in the rank of Captain to command the unit was Mr. T. H. Chapman, who held the post of Director of Public Works in government service. This day is recorded as the 23rd February 1911. On the same day, the very first Ceylon Sapper too, was enrolled. The service record of the Ceylon Sappers got off to a very active start when 148 Sappers were enlisted for service at the outbreak of World War I. Fifty of these Sappers were subsequently commissioned.

The Ceylon Engineers were demobilized and placed on reserve at the termination of World War I. However, the Commander of the Ceylon Defence Force in consultation with the GOC Troops recommended that the members of the Burgher community who were enlisted to the Colombo Town Guard be invited to replace the Ceylon Engineers, which was to be disbanded by 31st December 1926. This proposal was accepted and the reconstituted Ceylon Engineer Corps was raised on 1st January 1927. Personnel for the reconstituted Unit were individually re-enlisted and a strength of 11 officers and 144 Other Ranks is recorded.

These developments attracted the attention of two prominent Ceylon members of the Legislative Council. Mr. D. S. Senanayake and Mr. E. W. Perera, both raised the question as to why there should be racial military units in the Island. By 1928 the Committee set up by the Governor of Ceylon to inquire into this question, proposed in their report that the "Ceylon Engineer Corps" shall comprise British subjects of good character and respectability. The Corps was to comprise 2 x Companies of Field Engineers, 2 x Companies of Fortress Engineers and 1 x Company of Signallers. From then onwards, the Ceylon Engineer Corps was open to all Ceylonese. 2/Lt. D. G. Wijewardena was the first Ceylon subject to obtain a commission.

The Sri Lanka Engineers have not only marched forward in the battlefront and National Development but they have also been seen in action in the sporting arena and have established many records to their credit. Cpl. SLB Rosa became a legend in Asian athletics when he won gold medals for both the 5000m and 10,000 m events at the 1966 Asian Games held in Bangkok. Cpl. Karunanada won a standing ovation at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. He became the hero of the marathon when he made it at last to the stadium in true sportsmanship, without giving up. Cpl. Wimalasena Perera, Cpl. Diaz, Cpl. T. M. Nandasena are a few, in a string of renowned names that have represented Sri Lanka athletics at many Asian and Olympic Games. The long list of Sapper names representing Sri Lanka in swimming, cycling, hockey, volleyball, rugby football, soccer, badminton, billiards, wrestling, boxing and of course rifle and pistol shooting, shows the versatility and prowess of these Sri Lanka Engineers.

Many laurels have been collected by the Sri Lanka Army Sappers during their chequered history of 50 years. The Regiment stands as one of the support arms of the Sri Lanka Army. It has displayed its courage and strength and contributed towards national development in many instances as well. The call of duty continues to beckon the Sri Lanka Engineers not only in times of conflict and turmoil but also during times of natural disasters and in general nation building. They are confidently marching forward everywhere, never resting on their laurels, true to their motto "UNIQUE" — Everywhere