Sandhurst changed me | Sunday Observer

Sandhurst changed me

10 September, 2017

The Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst is one of the most prestigious military training institutions in the world. Major (Rtd) W.M. Weerasooriya of the Sri Lanka Army is one of the privileged Sri Lankans selected for training at Sandhurst Academy. The Sunday Observer met Major Weerasooriya recently to hear about his training at Sandhurst.

Major Weerasooriya was selected as a cadet for training at Sandhurst when he was a student at Dharmaraja College, Kandy. He recalls, “I joined the army as a cadet in 1957. At that time the army was very small but in later years the army expanded. We were sent off to the UK and I returned only after three and a half years. I did two years at Sandhurst and after the graduation I was sent on specialized training in military engineering. I was commissioned into the Sri Lanka engineers. When I returned in 1960 the army had expanded. I was the third Sandhurst graduate to be commissioned to the Engineering division. The first was General Dennis Perera. Then there was General Seneviratne. Later on both of them became Commanders of the Sri Lanka Army. I was the Chairman of the organizing committee which held the 60th anniversary of the first batch of graduates. I was the President of the Sandhurst Alumni Association along with Dennis Perera and Tony Anghie.”

Major Weerasooriya emphasizes that adapting is an important aspect of being a Sandhurst graduate because they were selected straight from school and sent to England. He explains, “As far as I was concerned I had only three weeks of training. We went to Diyathalawa and we were introduced to the army and the uniform and the salute - that’s all we learnt. From there we were put into a ship and sent off to England. We were all young cadets of about 19 or 20 at the time. And this first term in Sandhurt was a physically and mentally, difficult period to go through. The army officers should be strong in their mental endurance. The first term you are treated as a soldier and taken around. We were trying to adapt to Sandhurst in England. Climatically also there is a big difference from Colombo to London. We had to follow all the British army traditions. Getting adapted was difficult but we somehow succeeded in doing that. Even the royalty goes through that training. Even Prince William and Prince Harry are Sandhurst graduates. With the times they changed the course contents.”

The Sri Lanka Army was formed after Independence in 1948 and from then onwards there were Sri Lankan Army Commanders. Major Weerasooriya says, “We were doing all what the British were doing. The old officers were also serving under the British. The British traditions are followed even today. But of course, things have changed since that time. We have changed the commands into Sinhala. Our outlook and our background are British. That is how we were moulded from a schoolboy to an officer. Everything that we know about the army started with the British. My closest British friend was General Baron Charles Guthrie. General Guthrie and I were batch mates. Eventually, he had a good career in the British Army. He became the Chief of Defence Staff and then he was knighted. He was also advisor to the Queen for Defence and now he is in the House of Lords. Both of us went to Sandhurst to attend the 40th anniversary celebrations. And also, we were taken to the graduation parade.”

Major Weerasooriya recalls, “It was an interesting life but it was tough. Their social side of things. We had dances such as the Summer Ball and the Winter Ball. During our stay there we were taught dancing and there were many clubs such as the Whit club and you mixed with the Britishers, so much so that you didn’t feel you’re a foreigner. That is a great thing because whether you are a foreigner or a Britisher or royalty, they treat you the same. Actually, my success in life is due to my training at Sandhurst. You learn all your management skills. When you take a decision you go through with it. There is no going back. There are a lot of things that you learn in the army life at Sandhurst.

Major Weerasooriya considers it was more than a privilege to be selected for training at Sandhurst. He recalls, “I attended Dharmaraja College, Kandy and I thought of joining Sandhurst for the simple reason that I was a cadet in school and the second Battalion in Kandy. I was a bright engineering student at that time and I was in my final year of university entrance. But, when I saw an advertisement for a cadet in the gazette I submitted an application. Fortunately, my father who was a head master in a school agreed even though I was the eldest son. I remember we were called for an examination. There was a Maths and English paper. I scored 100 in the Maths paper. Up until that time there had been no cadets at Sandhurst from Dharmaraja College. I was the first to be selected. Four of us were selected. One each from Dharmaraja, St. Anthony’s, S. Thomas’ and Trinity College. Sandhurst moulded me and after three and a half years I came back to Sri Lanka as a different man.”

Sandhurst graduates are far ahead of graduates from other military academies in the world. Major Weerasooriya says, “Sandhurst made me an all rounder. I’m a civil engineer and I had a very illustrious career in the army for 20 years, and even after I retired from the army I continued to do something for the army. I come from the Engineering Regiment and I became President of the Sri Lanka Army Engineers’ Association and thereafter I became President of the Ex-Servicemen’s Association. My predecessors were Dennis Perera and Tony Anghie.”

All Sandhurst graduates held significant positions in the Sri Lanka Army in later years and they were in great demand within the Army even for staff appointments. Major Weerasooriya served in the Army Head Quarters under General Udugama and General Haynes. He also served in the Central Command. These were extra regimental duties.

Major Weerasooriya remembers that in 1977 there was a major clash between the prisons and the army in Polonnaruwa. He says, “General Attygalle thought the best man to be sent is Weerasooriya. I was given two hours to get ready and go to Polonnaruwa and take over the situation. Then there was a petroleum strike to operate the distribution centres. General Seneviratne took over the first strike when he was Major and for the second strike they sent me. We distributed the petrol without any problem.”

He further says, “During our time Sandhurst graduates were the backbone of the Sri Lanka Army. We have had five Army Commanders from Sandhurst so far. From 1957 until the early 1970s Sri Lanka sent four officers per term. It is a dying race because hardly anyone is sent to Sandhurst now. But, we meet regularly at least twice or thrice a year, and the families get together and we keep the Sandhurst traditions going. We also visit Sandhusrt. On two or three visits I have joined a group going to Sandhurst and one of those was two or three years ago. We have our own Academy now. We have the Academy to produce officers and there are around 500 cadets which is a very big number compared to our days. It is a fully fledged academy and the Sandhurst traditions are followed. They have the correct environment for officer cadet training. Not only military but there are other aspects. At Sandhurst the motto is, producing officers and gentlemen. These are two aspects that we always try to safeguard. We try to do things correctly and we know our limits. The main thing is to be a gentleman. That has to be maintained. A Sandhurst graduate is an officer and a gentleman.”