Politics
 

Counter Insurgency Operations - Wellawaya April 1971
An interlude between the decades of peace and counter terrorist war.

Lord Howard of Effingham
Maj Gen Lalin Fernando (Retired)

"God send me to see suche a company
together agayne when need is"

 

A body washed ashore
during the 1971 insurgency-
a common sight at the time

 

(Continued from April 8)

This suspect was the guy the police wanted most as he had cultivated close relations with them. One of his sisters had been very friendly with one of the policemen who happened to be PC Bandara the man whose actions had saved the station. Not much later Bandara had in the eyes of the police become a suspect himself. His action in running out of the station while it was under fire began to look oddly suspicious even though he had turned tables by shooting one insurgent However Bandara was a hero just then and I believe won a reward from the Police. He married the girl later. The suspect, I think his name was Wilmot, had even arranged a volley ball match with the police the previous evening which the police had lost His perfidy was unforgivable according to the way the police saw it. When this man was captured later (in Negombo!) he turned out to be a tall, lean, handsome man who would have made a good soldier. In fact he confided in me that he had applied to join the police and had been rejected. He had then fallen captive to the JVP leader Wijeweera’s indoctrination.

(Later it was revealed that the JVP had infiltrated the army too and in GW 20 odd men were arrested for having attended the five classes. None of them were from B Company. In the RCyAF almost the entire rugger team had been infiltrated. Wilmot went into business on his release from jail and I met him in 1989. He had not joined the JVP. Another insurgent who surrendered in Diyatalawa had been shot in the mouth by Sgt. Seneviratne and cured the wound by applying boric powder supplied by an estate hospital in the Diyaluma area. Boric powder was the be all and end all cure for wounds for many of us in our childhood but who would have believed this?

The next morning using the list given by the two captives we went into several villages. We were well received and the people showed much respect for PS Seneviratne Many wanted to come with us on patrol but were politely turned down. In one village we arrested a young man named Appuhamy. He was sent back to the station. It is with great sadness I recall that while we continued the search of the other villages, the police harmed Appuhamy. When I came back I saw what had been done was irreversible. The boy died that night. A few days later the ‘black coat’ leader of the attackers was caught by some villagers and handed over to the police but sadly was shot while in their custody and brought dying to the station.

On my return to the station I asked for volunteers to take the wounded man to Badulla General Hospital but found none. I questioned the man and found out that he too was from Ambalangoda. His father had been a fisherman who had died when he was a small boy. He asked me for water and one of my soldiers, (driver) Sumanapala, swore and spat in his face. I gave the wounded man my water bottle. He drank from it and said "Sir" (in English) and continued in Sinhala," if you haven’t anymore questions please take your gun and shoot me". I never felt more humbled and small than at this time in front of this fearless man.

I tried to put myself in his place and imagine what I would have wanted to say to my captives after being shot. I realised with pride that in our rural youth there lay tremendous untapped resources of guts and courage that were being frittered away in this confrontation because they had been misled dangerously by their icon Wijeweera. Sumanapala was soon faced with the reality of civil war when he received news that the police had opened fire on some suspected youths in the main street of his home town Passara killing several including one of his best friends. Sumanapala’s attitude changed dramatically thereafter.

We listened to Radio Ceylon news which appeared to be concocted. The Post Master who was next door became a good friend and kept me informed of what the BBC said which was realistic and somewhat unsettling especially as to the numbers of the JVP.

On other days we searched villages keeping the pressure up. Some times we mounted road ambushes and searched rubber estates and rocky hills in the jungle on ‘tips’ received from the police often from Bandarawela .Another day we had excellent info that a suspect Dissanayake would be coming to get provisions from a chena near a prominent ‘nuga gaha’ (Nuga tree) by the stream on the Kuda Oya road. I took a section with me and mounted an ambush. Cpl. Solomon was beside me with the Bren gun and given standard orders to fire when I tapped his shoulder. After some time I noticed that one of the men, Private Silva was falling asleep and got him woken up! Towards dusk we saw our quarry appear from the jungle. He was armed My blood raced as I realised that I had stalked a man and was now waiting anxiously to kill him. By law it would be legal as he was armed Yet it worried me. He was my countryman.

Training took over from human instinct. We had a duty to perform. Dissanayake moved cautiously forward amongst the vegetation and we could see his head appear and disappear in the folds of the ‘chena’. When he was only about 100 yards away and still not a clear target, Solomon without any order pulled the trigger of the Bren gun. Luckily it did not fire as the change lever to fire the gun had been on safety. I chided him. He changed it to ‘Auto’. I whispered to him to put the change lever to ‘Repetition-single shot’ following the standard teaching of using only minimum force in dealing with civil unrest. I saw Solomon was agitated. Dissanayake stopped and seemed to sense something. Seconds later, again without a signal from me, Cpl. Solomon fired but with the gun on automatic against my orders. He missed.

Dissanayake began running for his life into the jungle which was behind him and into a dip I yelled "stop" which means ‘stop firing’ to the men and thought I saw their trigger fingers taken off the weapons. We never say ‘stop firing’ in case they hear only the last word and open fire again. I then gave chase.

Counter Insurgency ...

No one followed me. I never saw a man run so fast. It was electrifying. Dissanayake had disappeared into the jungle before I reached its fringe and though I ran a short distance more I knew it was useless. I came back with my hands raised talking to the men to make sure that no one fired on me. This was not taught in text books but this is what happened. I was furious with Solomon. I believed he fired in fear in order not to allow the quarry to close up, not so much as to kill him. I gave Solomon a verbal lashing after we pulled back and I debriefed the men. As much as I knew that the mission had failed I wasn’t all that unhappy that we hadn’t killed a man. I told the men that maybe God Kataragama had saved Dissanayake. It made sense to them. We were fated to meet Dissanayake again soon.

A few days later the police got a tip that Dissanayake was visiting his father in a chena off the stream near the same benighted ‘Nuga gaha’. We entered downstream and walked on both sides upstream. Shortly afterwards the policeman signalled that there was someone ahead. We saw two men coming towards us, one of whom was armed and the other an old man. As soon as they saw us they ran up the side of the stream nearest to the jungle and into the chena. I chased after them with one other soldier and tried to get off a shot but the old man was right in front of me I couldn’t shoot without hitting him. It was Dissanayake again as his father the old man who blocked me admitted unsmilingly later. We could only threaten the old man for giving succour to a felon. He was kept under arrest for a short time and released. On the way in we had seen that their house had been burnt by their neighbours who were working off their personal grudges with a vengeance making maximum use of the situation.

Sadly this happened all over country and was repeated in a much more terrible way 1989-90. It appears to be an incurable failing of our countrymen. I met Dissanayake twice subsequently after he was released from prison. He had been employed as a teacher but avoided questions about his politics. When I told him that I was happy that I had not shot him and asked him what he would have done in my place he did not speak I looked at him quizzically. He only smiled in return. Was it that he did not believe me or that he would have gladly killed me?

Whatever it was he did not join the JVP in 1989-90

On New Years day we received info that some insurgents had holed up in rock temple overlooking the Ella —Wellawaya Road Bridge beyond Randeniya. The plan was to approach them not from the main road as they would be warned but from the hills above on the Haputale side. We went by vehicle towards the Diyaluma Falls and climbed by foot to the Haputale hills before descending on to the temple below. We saw the temple and went in cautiously. It was an anti climax. There was no one there except for a small little man dressed as a priest who admitted that some insurgents had indeed stayed there for a day and had fled the day before. He had fed them. The villagers then came up and denounced the man as a pervert who had abused the trust and generosity of the villagers pretending to be a priest.

He was pushed about by the soldiers thereafter and taken down to the bridge where we had planned to meet up with our vehicles. The villagers however would not let us go until we had part taken of New Year kiri bath, kavun, kokis, kolikuttu and kalu dodol. On reaching Wellawaya police station the man admitted to his lechery as a diary giving details was also found amongst his belongings. He was asked to disrobe voluntarily which he did and was told after being put into a ‘shorts PT’ of the army to get out of the district with a caution that if he was seen anywhere in the vicinity again he would be dealt with extreme severity.

While we were recollecting events with some satisfaction we received the distressing news that Lt. Muthalib had been shot in the head and a policeman had died on an operation in the village of Gallebedde, North East of Monaragala.

We had earlier arrested a small orphan boy named Sirisena who was about 12 years old. He admitted he had come with the attacking insurgents and that he had attended the first of the famous five lectures. On April 4, 1971 a leader had met him and asked him to meet them near the Nuga gaha as the area leader wanted to speak to all of them that evening. So on the night of April 4 Sirisena became a part of history by reporting at the appointed place where he was told that they would attack the police station that night. Thoroughly frightened he had asked to go back to his guardian grandmother at Athiliwewa and tell her that he would not be coming home that night. A gun was put to his head by the leader and he was told he couldn’t move.

At about mid night they were given bread and potato curry. At about 3 AM they had started the move out. He said his task was to carry the box of matches for lighting the petrol bombs which he did. As soon as two of the attackers were killed he ran off with the rest and got back to his village. He was kept in the police station, did odd jobs and was fed and looked after by us. We handed him over to the police when we left at the end of April. He was later released. I met Sirisena during the 1988/9 second JVP uprising. He was working at the Pelwatte Sugar Company as a labourer/cane cutter. When I spoke to him about 1971 he became silent and I never saw him again.

In Moneragala, which I visited from time to time, info was coming in of insurgent sightings in villages around Obbegoda. 2/Lt. Muthalib was eager for action and followed up on each bit of info. I asked him to let me know if he received any hot news so I could join him. When he decided to attack Obbegoda he did not let me know as he felt time was of essence and communications were not secure. He took about 15 men concealed in a bus including ASP Percy Wijesuriya whose brother had been a recruit in my ATC recruit platoon and some policemen hoping to take the insurgents by surprise by giving them the impression that it was an empty bus. Unfortunately as the bus approached the insurgents an impatient and curious policeman had exposed himself. There had been a cry "Kalu thoppi karayo" (Guys in black helmets) as a helmet had been seen.

The insurgents opened fire first and a hefty policeman on the foot board was hit and fell out of the bus. 2/Lt. Muthalib who was in the front of the bus standing up by this time shouted at the nearest men to pull the wounded man back. No one moved. 2/Lt. Muthalib then unhesitatingly jumped out of the bus gripped the policeman and tried to drag him back when he too was shot apparently from the side of the bus. The men led by Mendis GD later referred to as Bren Gun Mendis fired back, picked up the wounded and drove off before turning back and returning to the station wounded. The wounded policeman died.2/Lt. Muthalib was rushed off by ambulance to the Moneragala hospital. The next day he was taken by helicopter to Colombo. Despite having a pellet lodged in his head (It is still there) his life was saved due to the skill of Dr. Darrel Weinman the well known surgeon.

Capt. Gerard (Gerry) de Silva from C Company (later General and Army Commander) took over the Moneragala detachment with an additional platoon under Capt. Daya Wijesekera who was also from B Company under him I had before the above incident visited the police stations around us to bolster the morale of the policemen as well as to get a feel of the situation. I went to Bibile first. On the way the driver of a Health Dept. ambulance on his way to Badulla requested to come behind us for protection. At the turn off to the Bibile police station we signalled we were turning right while he turned left, when from the opposite direction came a police jeep which observed the manoeuvre It sped off with tyres screaming to the station. We followed. We saw the jeep skid to a halt and the policemen running into the station. Then there followed a wild yell of "Halt. Hands up". We stopped. LCpl MS (Bada) Mendis also from Ambalangoda, had the LMG, (he had been in the Signals platoon with both my brother Eshin and later with me. He played Battalion rugby and hockey with me) said "be careful sir".

I got out with my hands up but told Mendis if the police fired he was to fire back. The challenge came "What’s your name? Where have you come from? What are you doing here"?. I told them. The response was "Are you the Lalin Fernando who plays cricket for the army at Badulla"? Thus did the MCC save the day at Bibile in April 1971 and prevent a deadly clash. My interrogator was Inspector Punya de Silva who later became DIG CID. He was the only policeman who faced the insurgency in the Moneragala district with complete confidence. He had his policemen outside around the station, not in it, at night. This would lure the attackers into what they would assume to be an abandoned station where they could be picked off in the manner they had expected to get the policemen.

He asked me just before I left the station for the LMG that Mendis MS carried. Mendis growled. We left for Lunugala police station which was on a hill. On arrival, after introductions, I observed that one armed PC was circling me as I spoke to the OIC of our moves. The PC had seen that though I claimed to be a captain there were no rank badges to prove it. Before sudden death could descend I told the policemen that in combat situations we preferred not to wear rank. Before they could begin to think otherwise we moved out.

Our next call was at the Ella police station where I saw CSM Gunesekera in charge. I can’t remember in which company he was at the time but he was Colour Sergeant when I was OC A Company I was a bit worried about the location of the station as it was at a the bottom of a very high hill. Shortly afterwards CSM Gunesekera was called to the radio room. When he returned he quietly took me to a side and told me the most shocking news to date. Capt. Noel Weerakoon, Ceylon Artillery, my egregious senior at Sandhurst and vacation buddy in Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia and my team mate at cricket at Sandhurst and the Army (he was a flamboyant and erratic, nearly 6 foot fast bowler) had been killed in an ambush on his way to deliver ammo from Vavuniya to Anuradhapura.

It took some time to digest that the insurgents had become bold enough to take on not only the police but the army as well. Having spoken to the troops I left for Wellawaya on the precipitous and at that time fortunately recently built Ella — Wellawaya road. Night had fallen and we felt vulnerable for the first time. We drove without lights all the way down. No one spoke. It was a full moon night thankfully. All the men were worried as we got back and broke the news. I spoke to them to allay any fears they had. I said the insurgents were no match for us in anything from weapons, tactics, numbers, organization and , resources to popular support. They were not a challenge to us. We would get them all.

The next morning I got one of the men to fire several short bursts with a Bren gun at a target into an empty space to the West of the station. We had not fired it at all since our arrival. I would have liked to fire all 3 LMGs at the same time but we had limited ammo. The LMG has a cyclic rate of fire of 450 rounds a minute. Each round could go through several men at 100 yards as we knew. Shot gun armed men would be given short shrift. I think the demo had the desired effect on both our troops and our friends and any lurking JVP sympathisers.

The next night we heard two shots being fired from the 3rd section Bren gun post on the Koslanda side. I rushed to the spot. We had killed a man who had approached the post and not heeded the challenge to halt. The next morning inquiries revealed that the man was of unstable mind and deaf. There was much contrition amongst the men.

As soon as Captain Gerry de Silva had familiarised himself we planned an operation to get the people who ambushed 2/Lt. Muthalib. We were told that they were holed out at a school at Liyangolla near Dambagalla. We decided that a deliberate attack should be mounted. That day a helicopter carrying Major Mano Madawela (later Maj. Gen.) who had been B Company Commander before arrived from AHQ with some welfare stores. He was smartly dressed in Bush jacket Sam Browne belt and silver buttons and was in a hurry to go back. We asked him how he could help us to take on the insurgents at Liyangolla. He said he would fly ahead and throw some grenades at the place which we had identified.

We moved in 2 trucks to Liyangolla. We didn’t see anyone on the roads but saw the damage done by Maj. Madawela’s grenades. They had fallen on a vehicle repair shop about a mile from the target school. Elsewhere another grenadier had become notorious and was called Bombiah. These were the unconventional tactics AHQ produced in 1971. When we attacked the school there was no sign of anyone being there. We moved into the village and soon realised there was some tension building up. People came out and told us that some insurgents had lived there with their families. They showed us the house in which rice stolen from the Cooperative shop was hidden. It belonged to the leader Bandara. We surrounded the house.

Some people ran out into the wooded area near by. I yelled out to them to stop running as I feared our men would shoot anything that moved. An old lady signalled someone to run. I yelled at her and asked whether she wanted the soldiers to shoot and kill them. I then called out and said that no one would get hurt if they came back. Out came a girl of about 12 years and an even younger boy. As the stolen rice was found in her house the old lady was arrested by the police for aiding and abetting an insurgent. She pointed out towards the two children and asked whether they could come with her too as she feared the villagers might harm them. When they got ready to move the girl informed us that her watch was missing. Within minutes of my announcing the consequences of stealing, the watch appeared.

On the way back to Moneragala two shots were heard. We stopped. I got down and asked who it was that fired. No one answered Sgt. Maj. Gunesekera (who was earlier at Ella) tried to tell me something but I wouldn’t listen as I was angry at what I believed to be very shocking fire discipline. Later at the debrief it appeared that we had actually been fired upon by the insurgents who must have run off when they thought that we were ‘debussing’ from the vehicles. They would have thought we were getting ready to pursue them.

A few days later we planned another operation. Capt. Gerry de Silva would approach Obbegoda from Ampara with a platoon while I would go with another platoon commanded by Capt. Daya Wijesekera from Moneragala, debus on the move (jumping off the vehicles while changing gears when the vehicle speed was about 10km per hour) and carry on to join the oncoming Capt. de Silva’s platoon and return with him and go past the ambush position Once they passed the ambush position we expected the insurgents would come out on to the road thinking there was no one there and they were free to move

Some time after the ambush was set slightly above the road we heard Capt. de Silva’s two vehicles coming up. We were very tense as we did not want a crossfire incident. Instead there was pure anti climax. Capt. Daya Wijesekera’s spectacles had fallen down onto the road and in trying foolishly to retrieve them; he slipped on to the road just as the vehicle with Capt. de Silva came up. We saw the lead vehicle scout swing his weapon on to Capt. Wijesekera. I yelled ‘stop’ and stood up slowly. The soldier held his fire. The vehicles moved on towards Moneragala as planned and waited for our call. Some moments later as we had predicted some unarmed villagers came up a side road. Cpl. Vernon who was covering that road, probably hoping to win a medal, fired at them with the Bren gun without orders and missed. He did not get the kick he deserved. We saw villagers bolting in all directions except towards us, perhaps fortunately. Our intention had been to catch some of them to get info but not to shoot unless they were armed. A chagrined lot went back to base.

The people of Wellawaya had made history again just like their gallant forebears during the Kandyan rebellion against the British rule in 1848. Over 200 years before they had wiped out the Portuguese at Randeniya. In May 1971 Bravo Company was relieved by Charlie Company under Capt. Pakshaweera whose 7 platoon commander was 2/Lt. (Bushido) Karunaratne (ex PMA) who I first met in 1964 in Pakistan when I attended the RSO’s course in Rawalpindi He was in the first batch of Ceylonese Officer cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul from which its present President General Pervez Musharaf too graduated. With Bushido was Jayantha de Silva (later Lt. Col. SLLI ).who was appointed a Junior Under Officer and came third in the order of merit. ‘Bushido’ was a short man with the arms of a bear and an excellent wrestler. He ensured Gemunu Watch won the Army championship repeatedly. A few days later a magnanimous Government surrender offer turned the tide and support for the insurgency began collapsing. The end came soon after. The Defence Forces had about 30 dead of which the army had 12 while the police bore the brunt of the attacks having 60 dead. About 10,000 ‘insurgents’ were killed and about 17,000 surrendered. Their leaders were tried and sentenced to terms of imprisonment by judges of the Supreme Court. They were later released by the new government which came into power and the rest is history

Post script In 1989/90 Gemunu Watch (GW) troops under Commanding Officer (CO) Lt. Col. Hiran Halangoda (later Brigadier and Commander of the Air Mobile Division which performed outstandingly in the battle for Jaffna and whose father had been founding CO of GW) served in the Moneragala district. I had the honour and privilege to serve under his father and with him in the regiment Hiran was under pressure to wantonly kill civilian suspects. He did not do so much to the anger and chagrin of the all powerful men that were. Gemunu Watch was and would always remain an enduring, proud, brave and honourable regiment loved and never feared by the people.

 

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