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One of the highlights of the annual Independence Day celebrations is the gun salute by naval gunners. This practice has been part of the opulent ceremonial traditions since 1948.

The practice of a battle ship (Man at War) discharging her broadside cannons is a custom from the British Admiralty dating back to the 14 century. The custom of ancient mariners was to fire their guns ‘seaward’ as they entered a friendly port, showing the port and her people that their guns were now empty (in terms of ammunition) and that they posed no threat. It was a gesture of goodwill. The number of shots fired has been odd numbers: even numbers were fired on occasions of mourning.

According to the Queens Regulations for the Royal Navy, 21 gun salutes were for royal and national salutes, with the number of shots going down to 7. An Admiral of the Fleet could be accorded a 19 gun salute. At a Royal funeral naval guns are fired at 3 minute intervals. It was ancient tradition on British ships to fire a ‘morning gun’ and the naval sentries onboard would return fire with their muskets (guns). These traditions have evolved with time and the honour of firing the Salute to the Nation in Sri Lanka has been bestowed on the gunners of SLNS Parakrama, Western Naval Command.

Since 1948 the discharge of ordinance was done at the Galle Face green, but in 2000 moved to the lighthouse. The officer commanding SLNS Parakrama is Captain. Anil Bowatte, who explains “We have used the 52mm guns from our old naval ship SLNS Vijaya. We take immense pride in firing the salute to the nation which comprises 25 shots”. I climb the top of the stone steps with Lt.Cdr. Shantha and the Fleet Chief Petty Officer (FCPO) who is also the Drill Instructor. Of the seven guns mounted on cement turrets only 4 are used for actual firing and 3 are primed on standby. The 52 mm shells fired at the parade are blank rounds but they have sufficient explosives to cause a thunderous volley and emit a flash of smoke (without ejecting a projectile). The guns trigger is pulled by a rope.

Firing Relay

The firing crew consists of the Executive Officer, Gunnery Officer, Fleet Chief and 16 sailors. The flag mast at the light house is displaying the naval flag signals indicating the gun salute. At the beginning of the drill the sailors muster (naval term to fall in formation), under the sharp command of the Fleet Chief (DI). He then proceeds to report to the Gunnery Officer who in turn reports to the Executive Officer. Sharp at 12 noon the firing party ‘loads and fires’ gun number 1. The movements of the men are rapid and precise; there is no room for error. The next is a synchronized drill that displays perfect naval timing and discipline as guns 3, 4 and 5 are fired and they rotate back to complete 25 shots. Whilst the firing can cause noise and smoke one worthy stands very rigid: a petty officer keeps count of the number of shots fired and indicates each shot with a sign board. The shots are fired 5 seconds apart. Within 30 minutes the smoke has cleared and the immaculate drill comes to an end. The Navy has enriched the parade with their timeless tradition.