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Great Generals remembered with respect, gratitude and affection

Maj Gen Lalin Fernando (retd)

Maj. Gen. Wijaya Wimalaratne           

Lt. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa

On 08th August 1992 Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijaya Wimalaratne along with Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha who were all travelling in one vehicle were in one fell swoop killed by a land mine along with other officers and soldiers on the island of Kayts in Jaffna.

"Skilful commanders seek victory from opportunities and do not demand it from their men". Israeli General during training at Maduru Oya Battle Training School in 1990 as recalled by Lt Col Harin Malwatte (retired)

REMEMBERED: On 08th August 1992 Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijaya Wimalaratne along with Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha who were all travelling in one vehicle were in one fell swoop killed by a land mine along with other officers and soldiers on the island of Kayts in Jaffna.

The three above Flag Rank Officers were the pick of the country's military leaders at that time who should in the fullness of time have commanded their respective services on merit. Their contribution to the defence of the country in the war with the terrorists was immeasurable.

The impact of their deaths devastated the country. The operation they were planning to liberate Jaffna was put on hold for many years. Victory was always assured when the old firm of Kobbs and Wimale teamed up. It took the army a long time to regain that level of competency.

There was a hue and cry as never ever before in the land as to who was responsible for the deaths as the highest in the land were supposed to be complicit. The funerals of the Generals were held amongst an almost hysterical out burst of emotion and muted anger displayed by the enormous crowds present.

Lt. Colonel
 H. R. Steph

     Lt. Colonel
G. H. Ariyaratna

     Lt. Colonel
   Y. N. Palipana

It had to be headed off by the firing of tear gas. There is no doubt at all in my mind that the deaths were caused by an LTTE land mine which had very tragically not been cleared by the garrison at Kayts. The negative reports circulated at the time caused untold anguish to their next of kin and uncovered a streak of demoralising irrationality amongst the Sinhalese, no doubt also stirred by evil men. Kobbs and Wimale were like Marlborough and Eugene whose Allied armies (numbering about 100,000 troops unlike our Task Forces which were less than 5000) defeated the might of France under Louis XIV again and again at Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet against great odds.

Lt. Commander Asanga
Lankathilake

Major Nalin de Alwis

Lt. Commander C. B. Wijepura

When K&W were together we always won including the glorious victories at Vadamarachchi in 1987, the rescue of the troops in the Jaffna Fort (1990) and the relief of the siege of Elephant Pass (1991).Both were highly trained professionals, very intelligent and very well versed in all aspects of military warfare who were looked up to by all troops they commanded.

Their example was such that their troops were extremely confident and would do more than what was expected of them. Major Harin Malwatte recalls that he while in crutches raised a new Reconnaissance Squadron (Saladin Armoured Cars) as it was urgently needed in Trinco by Denzil his CO. It also needs to be emphasised that during their time desertion was rare if at all, something the present officers should ponder on.

Private W. J. Wickramaratna

Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha

Denzil a Trinitian and Wijaya a Royalist graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst UK and the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun respectively. Wijaya was appointed Battalion Cadet Adjutant in his final term.

They both graduated from the same Staff and Command College at Camberley UK. Denzil then attended the Royal College of Defence Studies UK. Wijaya's time to attend was fated not to come. Denzil from the Reconnaissance Regiment Armoured Corps played rugby at all levels including for SL and cricket and hockey at lesser levels. Wijaya an infantryman was in the Gemunu Watch and later raised the formidable Gajaba Regiment which will remain a lasting tribute to his ability in organizing and leading.

He was Sri Lanka's expert in Jungle warfare training, having being trained in the British Jungle Warfare Centre in Johor Bharu Malaysia, was a Stubbs Shield boxer, super hockey player and also a regimental ruggerite.

While Denzil was calm and serene, Wijaya was ebullient, expansive and an extrovert. I remember Wijaya dancing away at a fancy dress party at Major Harry Kumaraswamy's sister's party with polcattu (coconut shells) in his shirt wearing a skirt and smoking a cigar with a hat on. Couldn't imagine Denzil doing that.

Wijaya was also a compulsive and good singer especially of his favourite "Hela Jathika Abimane" which he had on cassette and played at every opportunity. Whenever we marched to Badulla from Diyatalalwa (40km) he had his platoon singing all the way.

They were generous to a fault even when re-supply in the field was erratic. At all times in the field they ate only after the men had eaten. They never drank from the men's water bottles if ever there was a shortage. They readily shared their rations with the men. Both were daring and courageous.

This was amply displayed during the Vadamarachchi battle when the troops were caught in a deadly crossfire at the Thondamannaru Bridge and casualties were mounting every minute. The situation was becoming critical.

The JOC commander Lt Gen Cyril Ranatunga was flustered and wanted them to come back for a conference. Both of them who were also appalled at the casualties did not however falter and in unison said, "No sir we will stay here with the troops and get it done". They pressed the attack home relentlessly until the enemy broke instead. We took our objectives as planned.

During the initial opposed sea landings on 14 July at Vettilaikerni in the battle to relieve Elephant Pass the first landing wave was thrown back and another attempt was made at last light in the evening.

The enemy fire continued relentlessly and there were very heavy casualties again, despite heavy covering fire from the SLN and SLAF. Denzil this time ordered Wijaya to delay the landing. Wijaya's response was "Let's do it Sir" and he did before it became dark. By mid night there were 2000 troops landed and the beach was secured. The relief mission was on.

These two could do everything asked of them and it would appear that the LTTE had a grudging respect for them and many of those who fought alongside them who later on also produced stirring victories and earned super reputations. But these two were legends in their life time, set the example and showed the way. They were both honoured and loved by the whole country probably even many who were under the jack boot of the LTTE.

I knew Denzil from my school days in the hills. He was junior by a year in Alison House. I remember Gamini Fernando writing to me that he had never played under a better captain than Denzil at rugby. When Denzil came to Sandhurst with Gerard de Silva, Kalu Wijeratne and Sarath Jayasinghe also a Trinitian I was the first to meet them. I was in my final term. The first three became Generals.

When Denzil returned to the country to serve in the First Reconnaissance Regiment my only interest was to see that whenever our regiments met on the rugger field that we never conceded a five yard scrum.

In 1966 he was unfairly dealt along with several Buddhist officers by being sent on compulsory leave following an alleged coup d'etat and only returned to the army in 1970. I remember my wife and I attending his wedding to Lali his only girl friend on 3rd of December 1970, a day by some coincidence, we too share.

Interestingly Wijaya was also questioned by the CID about what was called the "lavatory" coup. I know this as Capt (later Major General) Wajira Wijeratne and I were also questioned at the same time about it.

No charges were preferred against those who were sent out temporarily. Denzil spent his time in Kandy with two other officers one of whom was my brother Eshin and the other Denzils' batch mate 'Kalu' Wijeratne, coaching local schools at rugby. Thus was he deprived of the crucial and invaluable experience he would have gained as a young officer leading, training, looking after and playing with his troopers.

Serving with men is one of the most valuable experiences in the army and he had to miss out a lot of it. The army too was accordingly deprived temporarily of one whose contribution and commitment could have, as events proved later, been enormous.

In 1989 the Head of State ordered Denzil back from his course at the Royal College of Defence Studies the most prestigious of the "War Colleges" in the world taking heed of a vicious campaign mounted by envious and vicious senior(s) to cut short his course. No wonder when Denzil died some people virtually went into hiding. Such were the dangers to the best officers' careers in the SL Army.

This was the most shocking decision taken by a C in C in living memory and those responsible must know that only their subsequent treachery could be more criminal. He was permitted to go back to finish the course when the UK Government made some blunt observations.

He remained a very much saddened man for the rest of his life but kept his sorrows tightly subordinate to his professional duties.

Wijaya and I were in the same regiment from the time he was commissioned. In fact it was before he was, as due to some stupid administrative decision of AHQ which has always proved its imbecility in such affairs, all those who passed out of Dehra Dun had to wait until the slightly senior Sandhurst intake returned even though the world famous Indian army had passed them out being fit to be commissioned officers unexpectedly earlier than programmed due to the outbreak of the Indo-Chinese war in the Aksai Chin areas of Himalayan mountains.

I remember Wijaya telling me that having passed out of the Military Academy and being appointed platoon commander in our regiment he had yet to travel 3rd class in the train while his platoon sergeant travelled 2nd class as his commission had not been gazetted.

His commitment was such that often he had to be restrained as he would do more than what was required and in unofficial ways such as when we wanted to get our camp roads tarred. He was bound to liberate things for the general benefit! He loved being out in the jungles and wanted to go on 'shikar' as he called it.

So on weekends he used to organize trips in the back of an Army 3 ton vehicle to Ampara and back, with Capt Wajira W and me, singing all the way. Trouble was that the words of most of the songs were known only to him.

In Ampara he would go out with some completely wild Field Engineers with similar longings the whole night. As I remember they were never successful but never disheartened also coming back with torn shirts and bleeding bruises. Whatever he organized went well from Battalion firing, to jungle marches and jungle training.

One soldier was so taken up with his very fierce moustachioed military demeanour that without Wijaya's knowledge he had arranged with a film company to whom he had shown Wijaya's photo for him to play the lead roll in a film. It was to show a Sandhurst returned officer getting of a passenger ship in the Colombo harbour in mess kit (Black tie).

That soldier was ordered to do 100 push ups but never ceased to regard Wijaya as a film star hero. When we played hockey we were both in the half line. He could not restrain himself and would always be up with the forwards leaving me to cover his centre half position too.

This same characteristic to get to the sharp end of things showed every time in battle. During the operation to relieve Elephant Pass the advance guard troops had got stuck due to heavy terrorist fire. The whole advance came to a halt. Suddenly the officer in charge saw that he had an unexpected visitor.

Brigadiers are supposed to be in the HQ, a way back from the flying flak. It was the Deputy Task Force Commander himself, like Gen Patton (US Army) on the beaches at Sicily in WW2, digging his foot into a soldier in the leading wave of assault troops and telling him to move it or die.

A few words and the advance started up again. This was a man who led from up front but knowing the risk he was taking. Lt Col (later Brigadier) Vipul Botejue recalls that during the Vadamarachchi operation in the First Battalion Gemunu Watch he was commanding had taken its objective well before the flanking battalion of the Gajaba Regiment. He had taken some casualties who needed to be evacuated fast. It was getting dark. Wijaya the Brigade Commander was asked to help.

He asked the SLAF who for some reason or another were unable to help especially as the light was fast fading. Wijaya ordered a Buffel armoured Personnel carrier to go. The driver had been injured and there was no volunteer to drive. Wijaya whose light vehicle driving is questionable took over the 15 ton vehicle and guided by red lights to the rear from the Gemunu Watch position, drove in pitch dark, picked up the injured men, gave some words of encouragement to the Battalion commander and drove back virtually through no man's land.

General Norman Schwarzkopf the US General who commanded Allied Forces in the First Gulf War tells of how he as a major during the Vietnam war went to a location where an injured Black soldier was there alone in a mine field. He could not move because of the mines which had killed the others of his patrol.

There were no volunteers to get him out. Schwarzkopf went to his aide and brought him out. Officers and men do not easily forget exemplary leadership and many would surely want to emulate it. Wijaya married Manel Wijekoon his childhood sweetheart and sister of the famous hockey playing brothers of Matale.

I never knew at that time why we went all the way to play several hockey matches in Matale, including one at 10 am. Wijaya had a congenital problem of red eyes. I well remember when he fell down during a match going up to him and telling him he better not drink before the match. I remember his look of pain. Capt Gerard de Silva came up quickly and said "Lalin he got a wallop on his knee for God's sake".

We two had also to stop Denzil at rugger in the Inter regiment rugby. It didn't help that most of our players like GB Gunadasa who later played for SL had then little acquaintance with the game. Neither did it help to know that the whole team had been told by our Commanding Officer Lt Col (later Brigadier) John Halangoda to go for Denzil. They did including Wijaya and I made a proper job of it.

How he took punishment without any semblance of anguish or pain only Denzil could explain. While we were all tackling Denzil, Capt (later Brigadier) Nimal Fernando scored the only try to win the game for the Reconnaissance Regiment in the last few seconds. It was a little comfort to me that both of them had been my juniors in Alison House at Trinity College.

It could be said of both Generals, to paraphrase Bolingbrokes's memoirs of Marlborough: "They were raised to head of Task Forces/ Brigades of the army and the defence forces.

Where they, new and private men, subjects of the state, acquired by merit and management a more deciding influence than those in confirmed authority. Not only the parts of the vast machine, the forces were kept more compact and instead of languishing and disastrous campaigns, we saw every scene of the war full of action. All those wherein they appeared, and in many wherein they were not then actors, but abettors, however, of their action, were crowned with the most triumphant success".

I take with pleasure this opportunity of doing justice to these two great Generals whose virtues, commitment and contribution to the Army of Sri Lanka and the country will never be forgotten.

I only hope that their history of their campaigns will be recorded for those who follow. Others will have much to learn. Much has changed since they left us but their ability to win against all odds needs to be remembered with respect, gratitude and affection by all of us who remain.

They were beyond compare and deserve a place in the history of this land as the greatest Generals we have produced to date. It could be said that they never fought a battle without winning a victory.

When they died the nation wept as it never had before or since. Their memories will inspire those serving and to come of gallantry, honour, pride and selflessness and of course victory.

Courtesy: Daily News

 

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