Arrive, strike, disappear | Daily News


Arrive, strike, disappear

Commando Regiment celebrates 40 years of gallant service
(Pictures by Sudam Gunasinghe and Shan Rambukwella)
(Pictures by Sudam Gunasinghe and Shan Rambukwella)

One of the most formidable and battle-hardened regiments of the Sri Lanka Army celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. For these brave soldiers who wear the Maroon Beret, it has been a long journey. However, they maintained high morale and military decorum to keep up their victorious image for four decades.

Like all commando forces in the world, the birth of the Commando Regiment (CR) was humble and avoided the media spotlight. In the global military domain, the concept of well-trained men to fight behind enemy lines was first envisaged by a British officer, Major Charles Wingate during the Second World War. He can be credited as being the founding father of the commando concept.

Lieutenant General Denis Perera realised the need for a highly empowered counter-terrorism strike force in the late 1970s, as subversive activity was violently increasing in Sri Lanka. He selected two officers, namely, Major Sunil Peiris and Captain Sarath Handapangoda. Three other rankers were selected to form the first team of commando men. Training commenced at Diyatalawa. In these early days, there were no fancy weapons, but these worthy pioneers had an indomitable spirit to serve their nation at all costs.

By February 1978, the first batch of men was absorbed from various regiments including the Armoured Corps, Light Infantry Regiment, Gemunu Watch, Sinha Regiment and the Artillery Regiment. Two officers, namely, Lieutenant Edirisinghe and Lieutenant Chandrawansa, along with 24 soldiers underwent intense training in the hills of Diyatalawa. The first Commando Squadron was formed with Major Sunil Peiris as the Officer Commanding. Subsequently, the squadron received training from the British Special Forces in various counter-terrorism drills and the craft of jungle warfare.

The very first parachute training was conducted for these soldiers in India and they made their first public ‘para jump’ in 1980 to the public who were indeed dazzled. In the same year, the commandos moved to their new home in Ganemulla. In order to mitigate terrorist threats, in 1981, they were deployed in their first assignment in Jaffna where they were truly able to display their combat skills and maintain the spirit of brotherhood.

By 1997, the regiment was expanded with the formation of the Commando Brigade. The Commando Regiment has many battle credits. One of their most difficult yet memorable military engagements was the capture of the strongly defended hill of Thoppigala in July 2007. This strategic hill was a vantage point to the concealed enemy. After they stormed the hill, the troops displayed the Sri Lankan flag from the summit. The photograph of the team with the national flag has become an iconic photograph of the Army.

The new style of infiltrating and attacking fortified enemy positions turned the tide of the war. By now, the Commando Regiment had streamlined and fine-tuned its covert operations, supported by snipers. They began operating in four-man teams and eight-man teams, depending on the mission requirement. Apart from the basic parachute course, some began to specialise as highly trained airborne assault troops with the ability to rapidly descend from helicopters and engage enemy positions with rapid speed and stealth.

The MP5 (Heckler & Koch) became the trusted weapon of the regiment, although they use an assortment of modern firearms. Men from the CR partner along with men from the Special Forces (SF) to form the feared Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) who have made a significant, but silent contribution to bring peace to all Sri Lankans. The LRRP operated in total silence, almost like ghosts in the dense forests. They would arrive, strike and disappear.

One of the important elements in the development of the Commando Regiment is their use of trained dogs. These dogs are active as tracking dogs, attack dogs and explosives detection dogs. I have visited the CR Kennels in Ganemulla on two occasions. One of the outstanding dogs still in active service is a vibrant retriever named Teesha. She is a friendly dog with a loyal spirit. Teesha was able to perform well with her handler Major Sujith Siranjeewa, who was a paratrooper. The Major and the dog made an amazing parachute jump from an altitude of 4,000 feet from an SLAF MI-17. Teesha thus became the first military dog to make a parachute jump. She is often seen at army exhibitions to this day and somehow remembers me as I find time to pet her.

Another brave dog who earned the respect of the entire regiment was Snowy (incidentally Tin Tin’s dog shares this name). Though the name reflects a gentle dog, Snowy, the Labrador was more than an army dog. Snowy was a tracking dog attached to the 4th CR and handled by Lance Corporal D.H. Sampath. In March 2008, he was tracking a group of rebels in Weli Oya, when a grenade blast caused him multiple injuries. Undeterred Snowy proceeded to chase, bleeding from many wounds in the face of gunfire.

Shortly, Snowy was transferred to Anuradhapura for treatment and later rushed to the Veterinary Hospital in Peradeniya where he was operated with great care. The brave dog had received 11 wounds to his lungs and bowels. Although the surgery was successful, Snowy subsequently died in May 2008, causing much sadness to all the soldiers in Ganemulla. He became the first dog to be posthumously awarded a military medal in Sri Lanka. His preserved body and tag can still be seen at the Commando Kennels Unit.

Over the years, in keeping on par with other armies, the Commandos enhanced their response readiness in two areas. One is the concept of the FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas, also now referred to as the MOUT- Mounting Operations in Urban Terrain). Fighting in the jungles is one thing, but mitigating dangerous threats in cities with sky-rise buildings and hundreds of civilians, amidst moving traffic is a bigger challenge. Again, I have witnessed many drills where CR teams deployed to high-rise towers, often ‘rappelling’ along ropes from hovering helicopters. Brandishing their high-tech weapons, they stormed buildings.

The second area of the CR prowess is the Anti-Hijack Response team. These highly trained warriors attired in full black with facemasks have been trained in all possible case scenarios. This team also uses specially trained attack dogs who can chase and subdue an armed assailant. The Commando Regiment also provides VIP security when required. The CR men have also displayed their talents in various sports. Along the way, many comrades have laid down their lives, so that we may cherish peace. Today, the indomitable soldiers in their maroon berets are a reassuring endorsement to their magnificent combat skills and sincere altruism in the defence of Sri Lanka.

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