Cruising on the waves of victory | Daily News

Cruising on the waves of victory

In 2019, the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla was bestowed with the President’s Colours in a grand parade.
In 2019, the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla was bestowed with the President’s Colours in a grand parade.

Sri Lanka is an island nation. The responsibility and honour of being the country’s first line of defence is assigned to the Navy. For more than six decades, the Sri Lanka Navy has duly fulfilled this obligation with valour and determination. It was on September 14, 1988 that the Dvora Squadron was formed at the Eastern Naval Command, Trincomalee.

All officers and sailors, both serving and retired, will agree that Trincomalee is the heart of our Navy. I consider it a privilege to have visited this massive base on many occasions, observing and realizing the important task this establishment has in the broader spectrum of maritime and National security. The Naval and Maritime Academy is also located within this compound.

As we all know Sri Lanka faced a prolonged conflict for three decades. Peace was gradually secured with sacrifice. There are many chapters of battles which were fought on the ground, air and sea. The latter played a key role as it firstly protected our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in terms of commercial trade and shipping, and secondly kept the oceans supply routes safe and running to feed both the civilians and land-based Army battalions across the Northern and Eastern theatres of combat, when road transport was dangerously hampered. The active presence of the Navy was a strong deterrence to the seaborne activities of the LTTE. In his book Asymmetric Warfare at Sea, retired Admiral Jayanath Colombage (former Navy Commander) speaks of the radical changes adapted by the Navy to counter these threats and regain command of the sea.

The role and task of the Dvora Squadron surely changed the tide of the war in many ways. In the early years of the Royal Ceylon Navy, there were only a few vessels in our fleet. With time, our nation acquired new vessels with enhanced firepower. However, the sporadic attacks by small boats using “swarm” tactic was a daunting challenge to the Navy at one stage. The logistics supply at sea was facing a new threat. The Navy had to adapt and advance to maintain their superiority at sea.

The need for fast boats with firepower was the need of the hour. In 1985, the first such FAC (Fast Attack Craft) was brought from Israel. This was the first Dvora in the Naval fleet. At that time, these FACs were the best of their kind displaying speed and mobility. A few other FACs were added and the Dvora Squadron boldly initiated a formidable counter offensive. Subsequently, these boats and their crews blossomed into the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla of the Sri Lanka Navy. The writer Mark Twain once stated “Courage is resistance to fear” and the Dvora crews have proved this many times in the oceans realm.

There are many tales of altruism and gallantry stemming from the Dvora fleet at their home base, Trincomalee. The first is the sea encounter of Lieutenant Jude Wijethunge. On March 30, 1996, the Dvora bearing number P-458 was tasked with the duty of escorting a convoy. After their sea passage began, P-458 was confronted by enemy boats, and took some heavy gunfire. The other sailors were decapacitated. Lieutenant Wijethunge was alone and realized that the suicide boat would now target the convoy, in an attempt to initiate a contact blast. The officer had to make an instant decision. The suicide boat had already begun its full speed throttle towards the ferry. Disregarding his own life, the Navy officer steered the Dvora to intercept the enemy craft. The suicide boat rammed and exploded. P-458 was no more. The convoy reached safely. Lieutenant Jude Wijethunge became the first Navy officer to be posthumously awarded the PWV medal (the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya is the highest gallantry medal awarded to members of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces). He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and his exemplary action lives on to inspire new cadet officers to this day.

Another young officer also laid down his life at sea on May 11, 2006. The Navy Dvora bearing number P-418 was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Lalith Edirisinghe. The crew was on routine patrol in the North-Eastern sea. They were aware that the ferry named Pearl Cruise would shortly sail on this route carrying 710 soldiers. This was a routine run from KKS to Trincomalee. The ferry was escorted by two Fast Attack Craft and one Fast Gun Boat. Shortly after seeing the Pearl Cruise, the crew of P-418 had spotted a few rebel boats in the area. Lieutenant Commander Edirisinghe had to make a tactical analysis of the impending danger. At this crucial moment, the engine of P-497 (the second FAC) developed an engine trouble when steering to combat speed. The sailors were confronted with a challenge.

This is the raw nature of asymmetric warfare. Lieutenant Commander Edirisinghe had to make an instant decision. He began to engage the cluster of rebel boats. A large suicide boat was already heading towards the Pearl Cruise at full speed. The action was raging in the sea. P-418 rapidly gave a chase to position itself directly in the path of certain death, covering the approach of the Pearl Cruise ferry. Within minutes, there was a violent explosion that rocked the sea as the suicide boat rammed. The crew of Dvora P-418 had saved 710 lives. Their shattered craft entered her eternal rest in the oceans domain. On that day, 19 Naval heroes made the ultimate sacrifice.

Since then the Navy has acquired a modern version of the Dvora, known as the Super Dvora class. I was able to go onboard P-4443 at the Eastern Naval Command, Trincomalee. These new boats are 29 metres in length and have a displacement of 72 tonnes. Their primary armament takes the form of a 30mm Bushmaster Gun, supplemented by other guns. The Super Dvora which is specifically built for interception and assault has a crew of 17 men and can reach combat speeds of up to 50 knots. Working in Dvora boats require a special breed of officers and sailors.

These crews are a close-knit family who knows the value of teamwork. The sea endurance of the Dvora is 48 hours but if required they can remain on duty for 72 hours. Since their inception three decades ago, the officers and sailors of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla of the Sri Lanka Navy have been involved in dangerous confrontations at sea. They introduced a new concept of engagement at sea. In 2019, the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla was bestowed with the President’s Colours in a grand parade. Today they continue their maritime patrols and assist other mariners at sea when required taking part in rescue missions.