The role of the Armoured Corps | Daily News
Victory Day:

The role of the Armoured Corps

Armoured Vehicle Long Bridge (AVLB)-BTR Crew Transporter
Armoured Vehicle Long Bridge (AVLB)-BTR Crew Transporter

Sri Lanka looks back this week on three decades of conflict and the victory manifesting from the hard-won humanitarian operation. Today, all ethnic groups live and cherish peace as one nation. In retrospect, the credit of ushering peace obviously goes to the then political leadership and the Armed Forces and Police.

The land-based force, the Sri Lanka Army was at the forefront of aggressively confronting the enemy for 30 years. The Sri Lanka Armoured Corps (SLAC) made a significant impact on the battlefield. To the average Sri Lankan, the term ‘Armoured Corps’ would bring to mind images of tanks moving on caterpillar tracks. The men of the Armoured Corps made a silent contribution to sustain military operations and were often the precursors in penetrating fortified enemy defences, clearing the path amidst the threat of mines, for infantry platoons to engage the enemy.

The Northern advance

I visited the Rock House Camp, the headquarters of the Armoured Corps where I met Brigadier Prathap Tillekerathne (presently Major General). Over the centuries, the armoured element has been modified and enhanced with armies across the world having armoured brigades to provide firepower to support ground operations.

The Armoured Corps in Ceylon can be traced to 1955, when they used Saladin Armoured cars (with 76mm guns). As violence gradually escalated in the North, the Corps acquired its first Saracen APCs (armoured personnel carriers). Since then, acquisitions were made to enhance the fleet with battle-efficient tanks.

By 1984, Sabre troops were deployed to Palaly, Jaffna and Kilinochchi. In 1985, the British-made Stalwart amphibious vehicle was added to the fleet. Weighing 14 tons, the Stalwart vehicle had a speed of 45 kilometres, enabling troop commanders to engage in dismounted operations. During the Vadamarachi Campaign, infantry troops were supported by tanks from the Alpha Squadron and Delta Squadron. During the siege of Elephant Pass and the subsequent military offensive to liberate the camp, the Armoured Corps had three squadrons ready for action.

A and C Squadrons from the Third Reconnaissance Regiment and B Squadron from First Reconnaissance Regiment were poised at Vettilankerni from where they moved towards Elephant Pass (each squadron has 12 tanks). The battle continued and finally at the ‘break out’ stage the armoured crews punched out aggressively, motivating the infantrymen to complete the mission.

The SLAC firepower was enriched with the arrival of the T-85 (Chinese light tank) in 1991. This tank had a 73mm smooth bore gun. In 1995, the Army received T-63 type AFV (armoured fighting vehicles). Moving these heavy vehicles into the combat zone was a logistical challenge. They were moved by train to China Bay, Trincomalee. From here, the Sri Lanka Navy’s vessels had to carefully move the AFVs to Kankesanthurai. This is an example of the interoperability of the Forces. These AFV crews were deployed in Operation Riviresa, playing a crucial role in the offensive. It must also be recorded that the Armoured Corps raised its own ground troops at one stage, forming a reinforcement regiment to take up an infantry role.

Armoured advantage

One of the dynamic vehicles in the fleet which delivered confidence to advancing infantrymen was the T-55 (AM2) Main Battle Tank. Made in Czechoslovakia and weighing a staggering 42 tons, this is a mechanised beast on wheels.  It has a crew of four – the tank commander (an officer), gunner, loader and driver. This monster tank can rotate its 100mm heavy gun (mounted on the main turret) to cover 360 degrees. When racing into action, the crew can unleash her weapons, firing effectively up to almost seven kilometres.

The powerful bursts include explosive shells and armour piercing rounds. The formidable T-55 tank is also fitted with a 12.5mm gun to mitigate threats from low-flying aircraft. Each of the crew members has a specialised skill in exploiting the combat capabilities of this tank. The tank has no conventional steering wheel, but two mechanised levers. The T-55 can reach a speed of 50km on normal roads and pushes through at 22km in muddy terrain. The crew can operate in darkness, gaining direction and data from infrared panels.

During deployment in the Northern and Eastern domain, the armoured columns had their support crews and vehicles. One of the auxiliary vehicles I observed was the Armoured Vehicle Long Bridge (AVLB). It is a work of engineering genius. The AVLB is a mechanised life saver which carries a 60-foot iron bridge (folded position). During the humanitarian operation, this reliable vehicle was used to facilitate infantry crossings in marshes and rivers, thereby avoiding ambushes at these vulnerable choke points. In addition, jeeps and trucks moved along this temporary bridge. Trapped civilians were moved safely, crossing quickly on this trusted bridge. The AVLB uses advanced hydraulics to release the 60-foot bridge in just 15 minutes, in sunshine or rain.

Fighting a war is not a pleasant task. Unlike some combat outfits, the crews of the Armoured Corps cannot drive back at sunset to their Forward Base. Once deployed into action the tanks have to remain on the move, resting when possible. The advancing infantry depended on the efficient progress of the tank column. Even during rest, the massive tanks would be prized targets for the enemy, so a state of constant alertness was maintained.

Driving for hours inside a restrictive iron vehicle requires a strong mind, precise decision-making skills and teamwork. The Northern monsoon period was a challenge from nature. At times, heavy tanks got bogged down in marshlands, and the armoured crews called in the ARV (armoured recovery vehicle). This is an iron giant that can steadily pull and tow up to 100 tons. It is the trusted ‘buddy’ to the regiment’s fleet and operates in all terrains.

During fierce confrontations, tank commanders used many tactics. One was the ‘extended line’ where three tanks garnered their firepower collectively, firing from one line. When traversing unknown areas, tanks moved in the ‘one up and two down’ positions. In the one up (arrow head) formation the lead tank moves with two tanks to its left and right, a short distance behind. Approaching tanks had the threat of concealed mines and other ambushes. As the tenacity of the battle increased, new counter-measures evolved. The SLAC began deploying its Russian-built BTR- Crew Transporter, a vehicle fitted with 30mm cannon which carried a seven-man assault team. The BTR was useful to send in reinforcements.

The role of the Armoured Corps saved many lives, military and civilian. The present Colonel Commandant of the Armoured Corps is Major General Sathyapriya Liyanage. Today, one can see the fleet of armoured vehicles at a parade or military exhibition at the BMICH. The crews who served inside these turrets will have many memories of their duty during the bloody conflict. It is the responsibility of every Sri Lankan to maintain peace. The Armoured Corps has proudly left a gallant footprint in our nation’s military history.

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