You learn, you serve and then you lead: General Gerry De Silva, Sandhurst Alumni | Sunday Observer

You learn, you serve and then you lead: General Gerry De Silva, Sandhurst Alumni

17 September, 2017

The Sri Lanka Army (then Royal Ceylon Army) was formed after Independence, on October 10,1949. The first batch of officer cadets who joined the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England included Tony Anghie from Royal College, Denis Perera from St. Peter’s College, K.V.J. Rodrigo from St. Benedict’s College, D.M.C. Anderson from St. Peter’s College, Nimal Jayakody from Royal College, K.J.T.N. Gunawardane from St. Thomas’ College, Matale, P. Ramanathan from Royal College, and T.I. Weerathunga from Royal College. General Denis Perera and Tissa Weeratunga were Army Commanders; Rodrigo became Chief of Staff of the Army, and Gunawardane died while in service. The Sri Lanka Army’s entire officer core was trained in Sandhurst until 1962, with the first batch going in 1950 which was an intake of seven in Sandhurst.

A former Army Commander, General Gerry de Silva who is a Sandhurst graduate explains, “The Sri Lanka Army had a Defence pact with Britain who helped us in the formation of the Army. They felt it their duty to start off the nucleus of an Army in Sri Lanka. The Earl of Caithness was the first Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. The Earl of Caithness was followed by Brigadier F.S. Reid who was also a British officer.

We had the Ceylon Defence Force during the war and most of the officers and those in other ranks who served in the Ceylon Defence Force during World War II joined the Army. So, the nucleus of the Army consisted of those officers and other ranks.

We had to have a training institution for both groups. We started off with the Army Recruit Training Depot where they trained batches to join the fledgling Sri Lanka Army. We had during the war, the Sri Lanka light infantry where the nucleus of the officer core came from. The cadets returned only after two years of training in Sandhurst.

The first infantry regiment was the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI), commanded by Lt. Col. H.W. G. Wijayakoon.

We built up the Sri Lanka Army from one battalion of the CLI. We also had the medical core. The medical core and the CLI were the first units to be formed. We had the planters’ rifle core who fought in the Boer war in the 1890s for the British.”

General De Silva recalls, “When I commanded the Army in 1994, I commanded an Army of 120,000 depending on the threat. Of course, there was another threat connected with internal security operations. There were strikes, sometimes petroleum, railway workers and food distribution.

We had to have a force and operational commitment to meet all these threats. When there were general strikes they could not be accommodated. The army had to come in. That is also an internal security situation.

The Tamil militancy raised its head and became a big threat. We had the British influence with us, throughout.

British troops were stationed here during the world wars. Even in the training institutions it was all British at one stage.

We maintained British traditions right along. The rank structures as well as their training methods, such as, the drill system and the weapons training were all on the Sandhurst or the British model.

After commissioning the Sandhurt trainees they inculcated in the Sri Lankan Army these British traditions they had learnt in Sandhurst, and followed them.”

General Silva says, at the Sandhurst Academy it is mainly leadership training and command of troops.

“When I applied, there were 4,000 applicants for four vacancies. I was one of the four in the 29th intake and the other members in my batch were Denzil Kobbekaduwa, A.R.P. Wijeyratne and Jayasinghe. Kobbe, everyone knows what a wonderful officer he was.

Denzil Kobbekaduwa was trained entirely in Britain and all his training courses apart from Sandhurst, officer training, young officer training were in England. He attended the Royal College of Defence Studies for Senior Officers. Initially, we were called for an interview after we faced an examination.

We had a preliminary interview with senior officers of the Army, chaired by the Chief of Staff. The final interview was at the Ministry of Defence. Sandhurst training was tremendous, more than just military training, because we had our training institutions and underwent an initial six weeks training course in Diyathalawa before we went to Sandhurst.

My personal opinion is that it was tougher than our first term as juniors in Sandhurst because Sandhurst is not just military training. It is academic as well. It is an academy where you are taught science and warfare, subjects such as, Geography, French, and International Studies. Training for war was really the basics.

The motto of Sandhurst is “Serve to lead.” It is also a leadership and confidence training. When they pass out as officers after two years of cadetship, they are fit to go and take on a platoon.

That is the first task given to any young officer. He is given a platoon of 35 men, to lead them, and also perform well, and lead them sufficiently to undertake any military operation that comes up.”

“I think Sandhurst training helped greatly in the formative years of the Sri Lanka Army, because we didn’t have an officer core as such till the Sandhurst cadets returned. Sandhusrt trains about a 1,000 at any given time. There are about 200 in an intake and two intakes in the year, and four intakes in the stint of two years.

They are given basic training in weaponry, tactics, field craft sufficient to meet with any internal security threat. So, when they came back in the formative years after the 1971 insurgency we found that we have to send them for specialized training.

That was important because the war was getting more difficult to deal with, especially, during the Tamil militancy.

Now, most of our officers with specialised training in their fields, that is, infantry, armour, artillery, signals training, went abroad. Even the other rankers were trained abroad.

And with that coaching they came back with confidence to meet any threats. So the initial training at Sandhurst prepared us to lead our platoon. Then, the threat was not that severe until the Tamil militancy started off.”

General Silva says, “Sandhurst gets people from all quarters, from several countries and all levels, and all strata in society come there, from nobility, you get Lords and Knights. When we were there, the Duke of Kent’s younger brother, Prince Michael of Kent was also in my batch at Sandhurst. More than just a military training, it accommodated all strata of society.

Certain standards and norms of etiquette had to be maintained which we were taught at Sandhurst. Because cadets come to Sandhurst from all strata of society, they cut them all down to size and all are equal. And then they build them up in the two years and at the end of two years they feel that they are Generals.

The emphasis was on, serve to lead, and to lead you have to be able to do what you demand of your troops under command, so that you will be a man of many parts and that was taught to us and ingrained into our minds.

A big shout from the Sergeant was, “Where is your initiative Sir?” Initiative, leadership, team work, co-operation and that was a very good grounding. Of course, the specialized training came later on and then we were groomed to deal with a sub unit and then a unit. When you become a lieutenant colonel you become a unit commander and a senior commander.

At different levels of command there are different stages of training. At the end of all the training, you are equipped with experience and exposure to other Armies. You learn the finer points, get the finesse of leading troops in battle and going up the rungs in the army hierarchy.”

During General De Silva’s time the duration of the training course at Sandhurst was two years. But now it has been cut down to a year. Now ladies are also trained alongside the male cadets. General De Silva says, “The British Army renews their policy every four years and with that things change.

The first batch of Sri Lankans had their initial training preparatory cadet school before going to Sandhurst. It is a preparatory phase - drills, weapons training, field craft.

From the third batch of Sri Lankan cadets who went to Sandhurst we started training in Diyathalawa. That was a change.

Also, when you cut down the course from two years to a year there are a lot of areas you miss out on, mainly academic. Some of us followed specialized courses. We had facilities to increase our knowledge and sit exams like the London University exam.

All that is not available to the cadets now. And of course, physical training and sports was almost compulsory because the officer has to be more fit than the troops that he led.

So you learn, you serve and then you lead. You can’t expect your subordinates to do what you command, if you are not able to handle it yourself.”