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Sailing the rough seas

For the Sri Lankan Navy, it had been a tedious journey from fleet of just a single ship fifty odd years ago, to become a force with its unique identity.

(The Navy commemorated its 56 anniversary yesterday, 09)

It is a long and tedious journey from an infant Navy in a newly independent British colony to be one of the most battle hardened sea warriors. The transformation of the Sri Lankan Navy is itself a juxtaposition of the changes in the post independent Sri Lankan state.

Fifty odd years since the country's independence, the Sri Lankan Navy is itself a unique force A Navy which was once assigned to arrest illegal Indian immigrants, is now the only Navy in the world which is fighting a war.

The years of experience of fighting the Sea Tigers, responsible for the largest number of seaborne suicide missions in the post Second World war history, has made the Sri Lankan Navy a force of its own. It's a trove of experience.

It was none other than the Commander of Royal Navy Admiral Jonathan Band, who a few months back observe a training mission of Special Boat Squadron Commandoes, Sri Lanka's equivalent to British Seals and later confessed that it was his first experience in that kind of mission.

The history of the Sri Lankan Navy runs back to colonial Ceylon, when the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force (CNVF) was set up in January, 1938 under the Volunteer Naval Defence Force Ordinance No 1 of 1937. The decision for a maritime security branch for Colonial Ceylon was a result of the Defence Conference in London which concluded that the countries under the British Empire - irrespective whether they are colonies, dominions or protectorates should devise their own methods for their own security.

Three years after its inception, Royal Navy (RN) accepted CNVF as a Volunteer reserve Royal Ceylon Naval volunteer Reserve (CRNVR), which was also mobilized for service during the Second World War.

CRNVR's duties during war time included escort and guard duties, search and rescue missions, patrolling and light house relief activities.

At the end of the war, CRNVR was handed back to the Ceylonese Government. Seventeen sailors under Lt. Rajan Kadirgamar, the brother of late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar took part in the victory parade in 1946.

In 1949, after independence, H.M.S Flying Fish was given to the then Ceylon Navy and commissioned as H.M.Cy.S Vijaya. During the same year, the Navy Act was enacted and Commander. G.R.M.De Mel was sent to UK for training. Those who had served since 1937 were deemed as members to the Regular or Volunteer Force of the Royal Ceylon Navy.

From 1951 to 1956, sailors were assigned for security duties at the Colombo port. Several bases were also set up, which included H.M.S.Gemunu, H.M.S Rangalla, H.M.S.Lanka, H.M.S.Elara. H.M.S.Tissa and several patrol boats-Hansaya,Lihiniya and short patrol boats-Seruwa,Diyakawa,Tarawa and Korawakka were purchased.

During the regime of United People's Front Government which took over the Trincomalee harbour, Katunayake Airbase and several training camps in Diyatalawa from Britain, the role of the Navy, like other forces expanded.

The Ceylonese Navy which had 48 officers and 510 sailors in 1951-1952 grew to 136 officers and 1,650 sailors in 1957-1958.

In 1958, giving the Navy the blue water capacity, H.M.S.Parakramabahu, H.M.S.Mahasena and H.M.S.Gajabahu were purchased. The two blue water vessels, H.M.S.Mahasena and H.M.S.Parakramabahu were sent to Singapore.

In early sixties, the top brass of the Navy had their share in an abortive coup attempt against then UPF led left leaning regime.

Captain of the Navy, then Rear Admiral G.R.M.De Mel was relieved of the command and nine officers were decommissioned and 8 other officers were sent on compulsory retirement. Meanwhile, due to financial constraints H.M.S. Mahasena and H. M. S. Parakramabahu were sold.

However the navy thrived despite limitations. A naval and Maritime Academy was set up and the Navy was assigned to provide security to nationalised ports.

The leftist insurgency in 1971 took the unprepared and under armed security forces by surprise. Even the crew on board the SLNS Gajabahu was sent to fight the insurgency. With the country's transformation from dominion status to a Republic, the Royal Ceylon Navy became the Sri Lankan Navy. Captain of the Navy, there after was called as the Commander of the Navy. Her Majesty's Ceylon ships became the Sri Lanka Navy.

In 1972, Shanghai River Class Fast Gun Boats (FGB)- SLNS Sooraya and SLNS Weeraya were purchased from China. Later in 1975, three other FGBs Dakshaya, Ranakamee and Balawatha joined the service. In 1980, SLNS Samudra Devi was purchased from Soviet Union. Two Off Shore Patrol Craft Jayasagara and Sagarawardana were built by the Colombo Dock Yard. New Bases were set up (SLNS Vijaya in Kalpitiya in 1973). The main role of the Navy was still countering smuggling and illegal immigration.

In 1981, during the nascent Tamil insurgency, the Navy had its first test in fighting terrorism. Sea patrols from SLNS Elara in Karainagar detected a suspicious boat movement and apprehended. The occupant in the boat shot himself to avoid arrest, but survived and was handed over to the Police. He was Kuttimani, one of Prabhakaran's comrate-in-arms and a known smuggler.

Despite the efforts by the security forces, which were under-staffed and under armed, to crush terrorism, it escalated. Faced with a growing threat of terrorism, the Tri-Forces required a bigger expansion. The recruitment and training took to a new high.

The Navy supported in troop transport during Operation Liberation conducted by Lt. Gen, Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the first major military operation since independence. In 1987, the Government of India, claiming that the Jaffna population was starving, sent several ships carrying goods and medicine under Indian Red Cross Society Flag. The Navy was ordered a blockade thus preventing ships entering Sri Lankan waters. Commander, Northern Naval Area from confronting the ships in the mid seas and ordered them back to Tamil Nadu.

Then, infamous "parippu drop" followed. Humiliated India air dropped food.

During the Indo-Lanka peace accord, the Sri Lankan Army was confined to the barracks, but the Navy continued with sea patrolling, sometimes jointly with the Indian Navy.

The Sri Lankan Navy had an increased efficiency in countering LTTE attempts to smuggle arms. Only four detentions were conducted by the Indian navy, Sri Lankan Navy conducted 150 interceptions during the period.

The Navy arrested two LTTE leaders Pulendran and Kumarappa, two senior LTTE cadres responsible for killing of civilian passengers in Ampara. Despite the protests by then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo J.N.Dixit, the government went ahead with plans to transport LTTE cadres to Colombo. The LTTE cadres in captivity swallowed cyanide smuggled by Anton Balasingham to the prison.

The LTTE returned to violence and Indian peace keepers launched Operation Pawan, a costly military offensive which cost the lives of over 1400 Indian soldiers.

As anti-indian sentiments mounted in the South, the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF, to which India complied. IPKF went home leaving an unfinished business in Sri Lanka.

After a brief sojourn between the Premadasa Administration and the LTTE, the Tigers pulled out from peace talks, launching simultaneous attacks on the police stations in the East. The country reverted to war and the Navy played a vital role in troop transport in Operations Thrivida Balaya and Balavegaya. The Navy took part in the counter operation in the aftermath of the fall of Poonerin camp.

In 1992, LTTE staged a suicide attack, killing the Commander of the Navy, Admiral W.W.E.C.Fernando.

Following the brief spell of negotiations between Chandrika Kumaratunga Administration and the LTTE, Eelam war3 erupted. As the sea Tigers gradually expanded their tentacles, the importance of the Navy had a boost. It was no other than President Kumaratunga herself who once famously said had the Navy been well equipped, terrorism would have long been wiped out.

Even after the Wickremesinghe Administration signed the truce agreement with the LTTE, the latter continued with arms smuggling. Several sea Tiger vessels were destroyed.

For fifty six years since its inception, the Sri Lankan Navy has become a unique force of its own- of course despite the resource constraints. Concerns have been raised over the inadequacy of the blue water vessels to counter arms smuggling vessels in the deep seas. A long felt need for 30 mm cannons for Navy's Dvora Fast Attack Craft have recently been addressed.

The Navy today Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs)- SLNs Sayura and SLNs Samudura Fast Missile Vessels (FMV)-SLNs Nandimitra and SLNs Suranimala Fast Gun Boats (FGB)- Ranarisi, Weeraya,Ranakamiya,EditharaII and Jagatha.

Fast Attack Craft (FAC)- Dovras and super Dovras.

Fast Passenger Craft - Hansaya and Lihiniya Hovercraft Inshore Patrol Craft (waterjets) LCMS - Landing Craft and Landing Craft Utility (Shakthi)

Land Bases/Ground bases - ijayaba,Walagamba,Gajaba,Kanchadewa,Gotaimbara,Agbo and Velusumana in North-East.

Main Bases

SLNS Gemunu in Welisara SLNS Rangalla in Colombo harbour SLNS Parakrama (Naval head quarter) SLNS Tissa in Trincomalee SLNS Navy dock- Trincomalee SLNS Ruhuna in Tangalle SLNS Dakshina in Galle SLNS Vijaya in Kalpitiya SLNS Lanka SLNS Elara in Karainagar SLNS Thammanna in Thaimannar

 

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