Appreciations | Daily News


Admiral Clancy Fernando: A patriot beyond compare

The 26th death anniversary of Admiral Clancy Fernando, the 11th Commander of the Navy, falls today. His name is etched in history as the highest-ranking military officer to make the supreme sacrifice in Sri Lanka. He was an admiral of fiery enthusiasm and unswerving commitment to his country. Admiral Fernando was assassinated on November 16, 1992, at 8.35 am on the Galle Face Centre Road in the heart of Colombo, when an LTTE suicidal cadre rammed an explosive-laden motorcycle into his vehicle. He was on his way to Naval Headquarters at Flagstaff Street in Galle Buck, Colombo 1, from his official residence, the Navy House at Longdon Place, Colombo 7. He was travelling in his official car, a Mercedes Benz, clad in his white naval uniform with the ‘Naval Ensign’ fluttering in the flag stand and the distinguished ‘Star Plates’ displayed in the fore and aft. That’s the way Admiral Fernando moved about during his tenure as the Commander of the Navy.

It was a sunny day and I called the Admiral at the Navy House to explain how a series of strange events prevented me from joining him on the drive from his official residence to the Naval Headquarters. By then, he was getting ready to leave and said, “Thank you, I’ll be there,” not knowing that it was the last telephone conversation he would ever have.

After a few minutes, I switched on the communication set to monitor his movement. Suddenly, I heard a confused exchange of messages and my office telephone started ringing. On the line was Monica Fernando, the wife of Admiral Fernando; she could only say ‘Shemal.’

Within seconds, I whisked off in my vehicle and as I drove past the old Parliament along the Galle Face Centre Road, I saw it all. As I approached the scene, many things crossed my mind. Until I saw Admiral Fernando lying face-down inside the car which had turned turtle, I did not believe that he was dead. Then I realised that it was all over and that terrorists had snatched from our midst a courageous admiral.

To die with no time for fear or regrets, doing what he enjoyed as a brave naval officer to the end; not with a whimper, but with a bang that reverberated around the world—that truly was the fate he would have chosen for himself. That was my recollection of the gruesome assassination of Admiral Clancy Fernando. I deemed it a privilege to have known him, received his wise counsel and enjoyed serving him as his Aide and Personal Secretary throughout his tenure of office, which spanned from August 1, 1991 to November 16, 1992. He was indeed an admirable admiral.

I wish to briefly comment on his career, especially on the qualities that struck me most about him during the times I spent under him: firstly in the picturesque Naval Dockyard in Trincomalee in 1988, 1989 and 1990, and then at the Naval Headquarters in 1991 and 1992, as it is impossible to pay an adequate tribute to cover his entire life.

Admiral Clancy Fernando was born on October 10, 1938, as Wannakuwatta Waduge Erwin Clancy Fernando and later received his education at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa. In the 1950's, the Royal Navy was not merely the greatest fighting force afloat, but had also been so since far beyond living memory and assumed that it would remain so always. It was, indeed professional, performing what it was taught to do with skill and dedication. To be a Naval Officer and to be able to be trained at the greatest and most efficient service the world has ever seen was to belong to an exclusive elite. The most usual practice was for aspirant naval officers to join as cadets and undergo initial training in the Royal Ceylon Navy and continue to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, United Kingdom.

Young Clancy Fernando decided that a life on the seas was his destiny; he joined the Royal Ceylon Navy on December 17, 1957. His path into the navy was smoothed by ardent desire; his success within it was owed to his merit and efficiency. Admiral Fernando once recalled those days at Dartmouth: “The cadets wore a uniform of a heavy cloth that never kept its shape and boots and starched collars were compulsory. Everything was done at the double, whether or not there was need for hurry. To toughen the boys in mind and body was a constant preoccupation.”

Most of his early days in the then Royal Ceylon Navy were at Trincomalee, Tangalle and Karainagar besides his long spells at sea. He had served on board the HMCyS Aliya and HMCyS Gajabahu, a frigate which was the then Flag Ship. He also commanded the HMCyS Diyakawa, SLNS Ranakamee and the SLNS Samudra Devi, the Flag Ship of the Sri Lanka Navy in 1980.

Into every pursuit he hurled himself with an abandon that was always invigorating—and sometimes alarming. He demanded the highest standards from himself and from everyone else. Yet, his professionalism was not cold or calculated; he took enormous pleasure in everything he did and communicated it to everyone around him. He attended the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, India, in 1977. He was then promoted to the rank of Commander on March 1, 1978. He held the appointments of Commanding Officer of the SLNS Tissa in the East, Commanding Officer of the SLNS Elara in the North, and as the Master of the Ceylon Shipping Corporations M/V Lanka Kanthi.

On June 30, 1983, he was made the Director Naval Operations and with his promotion to the rank of Captain on January 1, 1984, he was appointed the Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy and made invaluable contributions towards moulding young officers and men. If naval officers genuinely wanted to get on—to achieve success in some activity, however trivial—he would go to endless pains to help them. I recall his inspiration to improve my journalistic skills. A man best qualified for the Naval Service, he was spectacularly successful. Hard work and efficiency made him a constructive and thoughtful architect for the future. He was elevated to Commodore on July 1, 1986 and held key appointments as the Commander Western Naval Area, Commander Eastern Naval Area, and Security Forces Commander of Trincomalee, where he proved his strengths as a competent and an efficient administrator.

Then he was elevated to the position of Chief of Staff on April 4, 1990. He held memberships of the British Institute of Management, the Nautical Institute of UK and the Royal Naval Institute of Navigation, UK. He possessed a Masters Degree in Defence Studies and had been conferred with the Master Mariner Certificate. He was the first President of the Sri Lanka Branch of the Nautical Institute, UK. He was promoted Rear Admiral on March 29, 1991.

Admiral Fernando was in good stead when his career took its next and decisive turn; he was made Acting Commander of the Navy on August 1, 1991. This ultimate promotion consoled him for some, at least, of the pains and fortified him for the struggles that lay ahead. It did, but until the official letter arrived he did not allow himself to be certain that he had achieved the ambition of his lifetime to reach the helm of the Navy.

“First Day as COMNAV” was his diary entry for Day 1. From the word go, I saw him work towards the betterment of the navy. Everything seemed to take off the ground all at once. For his 50-odd years, he displayed an energy and enthusiasm that would shame a younger officer. In what his greatness laid is harder to define. What he could do with superlative aplomb was to identify the object at which he was aiming, select the method, and force it through to its conclusion.

A powerful analytical mind of crystalline clarity, a superabundance of energy, great persuasive powers and endless resilience in the face of disaster rendered him the most formidable of Commanders. His was a dynamic personality blended with charm and magnanimity, but it was his quality of gentleman leadership that always stole the show. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he blazed the trail for others to follow. Undoubtedly, he inspired all who served and sailed under him. During this time, he played an active role in all military operations and was a familiar sight on the frontlines. In Vettilakeni, Pooneryn, Nagativanturai and Elephant Pass, and even regularly travelling on small naval crafts on the Kilali Lagoon, he took great risks to boost the morale of his men and exhort them. He was a dedicated leader to his men who gave his commitment to defending the national cause of peace, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

He rendered splendid logistic support to the successful joint operations that were carried out in the North. It was the naval backing that enabled the forces to expand the forward defence line in Jaffna. His courage, energy and determination were unrivalled. Reluctant or not, he took considerable pride in his performance. I could still remember him walking on the unclear path leading to Elephant Pass within minutes after the siege was broken. His patience, integrity and devotion to duty struck me as extraordinary.

The admiral was unfailingly courteous and considerate. His tolerance was extraordinary; his readiness to respect and listen to the views of others was remarkable throughout his life. He would always say “Don’t worry, every problem has a solution” and explain carefully what should be done next. He was infinitely resourceful, quick in his reactions, and always ready to cut his losses and start again. He did not know despair.

He always had time for each and everyone who sought his advice or assistance, and with patience of a monument listened, he advised and helped them even in the smallest way possible.

The little acts of kindness he did from day to day were remarkable. He strode the navy like a colossus during his tenure of office, always giving his best. For achievements he never took credit alone; spread applause thick, sharing it with his peers and colleagues; but blame and criticism was received by him and him alone. He attended the prestigious National Defence College in New Delhi, India in 1987. As a devout Buddhist, he displayed the quality of equanimity to its fullest. I was amazed when at times he faced triumph and disaster alike. Similarly, Admiral Fernando accepted any defeat and faced many in his day with a sense of stoic calm. It was he who revived and formed Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu Councils in the Sri Lanka Navy in 1991.

This resulted in the conduct of religious events to commemorate the Navy Day annually, as well as to bestow blessings on the Navy, Naval personnel and their families. Admiral Fernando’s idea of relaxation was to turn to his pastimes. He took a keen interest in naval history and displayed his scholastic skills by publishing several articles. His book on Customs and Etiquette of the Services depicts his vast experience and knowledge of the subject. By devising the first-ever cryptographic system Sinhale in the Sri Lanka Navy, he exhibited the miracles of modern communication. It replaced the Royal Navy’s ‘Britese’ System. He took a lively interest in the affairs of the retired naval personnel as well. One significant event he personally organised with great pride was the ‘Sea Burial’ of ashes of the 4th Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel. It was also him who initiated action to construct a monument in honour of the war heroes of the Sri Lanka Navy in Welisara in 1991.

Admiral Fernando was the brainchild of the Navy’s President Colours and Staff. His enthusiasm towards tracing the history of naval guns and canons was noteworthy and the same paved the way for the establishment of the Naval Museum in Naval Dockyard, Trincomalee. He was instrumental in introducing the new look ‘Navy List’ in 1991.

Admiral Fernando was an all-round sportsman and rendered yeoman service to uplift sports in the navy. Someone once asked him which he preferred: tennis, shooting or golf. After a moment’s reflection he replied, “Well, golf, after all, is a professional’s game.” He was in his early 50's when he embarked on golf, but he really enjoyed it. His was a place for family reunion: a few friends were asked to stay, but only if it was known that they would fit in happily with the established patters of existence. To his family and close friends, Admiral Fernando was the wisest, most honourable of men. His was a Naval family, and his happiness was centred on it.

He was a devoted husband to his wife Monica and loveable father to his sons Nishan and Dinukh and daughter Sashi. Even after his demise, the family continued to value rich customs and traditions of the 'Silent Service' he belonged to. If you read the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘A Father’s Prayer’ by General Douglas MacArthur, you might tend to wonder how close they would have been to Admiral Fernando. He used the media more effectively through hospitality and regular briefings. As with every flamboyant, determined and above all, successful figure, his activities took on a different air according to the angle from which they were viewed.

A man of strong reactions, he inspired strong leavened by a grudging respect; he inspired strong reactions in others. He was a leader for whom men would die, who inspired absolute trust and loyalty. The days as the Commander of the Navy were no doubt the best days of his life. The lines of the English poet, “Why did they fell this mighty oak beneath whose benevolent shade so many found refuge” often comes to my mind. I was travelling with Admiral Fernando when the news of the Araly blast which took the lives of General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha and Major General Wijaya Wimalarathne on August 8, 1992, was conveyed to him on the communication set. We were returning from Marawila after attending a wedding of a naval officer. The sad news broke his heart; it was undoubtedly the saddest moment of his tenure as the Commander of the Navy.

He initiated steps to conduct a Memorial Service in honour of all officers and men who were killed at Araly within a few days at All Saints’ Church, Colombo 8. The Chief Celebrant was present Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who applauded the admiral's magnanimity. At his final voyage, I had the honour to be the Insignia Bearer as per naval ceremonials and proudly carried Admiral Fernando’s medals right behind the majestic Gun Carriage, which bore his coffin draped with the National Flag.

It was Admiral Fernando who designed the Navy’s Gun Carriage and the same remains in the Sri Lanka Navy as a lasting monument to his memory. This tribute is an attempt to retain Admiral Clancy Fernando’s life and ideals fresh in our minds.

The fragrance of his memory remains green in the minds of the vast array of Sri Lankans who were privileged to make contact with him. The nation bade farewell to him with full naval honours and with heavy hearts. The epilogue of the funeral oration still lingers in my memory, “Sir, though you have departed from us, your name and service shall be remembered by us forever as a great patriotic officer and a gentleman, a true son of Mother Lanka who made the supreme sacrifice to defend our country. As you fade away beneath the waves, we will steer your course guns blazing.”

Rear Admiral Dr. Shemal Fernando



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