Remembering Heroes on the 30th Anniversary of Sri Lanka Navy Special Boats Squadron

Landing at an enemy beach is a suicidal task. If you want to see what it looks like, please watch the first half-hour of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan.”

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[Image left above] Samantha with his son after receiving two gallantry medals from the President on 4th Feb 1996 (8 months before his death)

Thirty years ago, in Fort Hammenhiel, Karainagar, two officers and 42 sailors volunteered to undergo special training to start a new unit in our navy known as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) or the Naval Commando Unit.

SBS was formed to fight against the LTTE Sea Tigers in lagoons and waterways. I was fortunate enough to command this unit and train my men to be the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy. I was a young Lieutenant Commander at that time, and my Second-in-Command was an officer more than 12 years junior to me. He was Acting Sub Lieutenant Samantha Waruna Gallage, who hailed from Dehiwala. He was an excellent swimmer and a fearless fighter. Samantha was also an excellent boat handler and a top marksman.

We trained together for three months in the Karainagar lagoon with the intention of taking over boat operations in the Jaffna lagoon from our small detachment at Nagadevannturai.

On November 2, 1993, our Naval Detachment in Nagadevanthuri and the Pooneryn Army Complex came under heavy attack from the enemy. One by one, small detachments around the main Pooneryn Army Complex fell into the enemy’s hands like a house of cards, and more than 700 military personnel were trapped in Poonaryn.

As there was no possibility to reinforce the besieged Army Complex from the air, Military Commanders decided to send reinforcement troops through an amphibious landing. My unit SBS, the brand-new Naval Special Force, was tasked with carrying out the first wave of landing.

Landing at an enemy beach is a suicidal task. If you want to see what it looks like, please watch the first half-hour of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan.” It is bloody and chaotic. There is no cover for you until you find some by crossing the beach area. Enemy obstacles and gun positions will be there to slow down your advance, and there is a 90 percent probability of getting killed or injured during this dangerous crossing.

Orders were issued. Samantha and I were commanding two Inshore Patrol Craft (commonly known as Water Jets) which carried fifteen Commandos each, followed by fiberglass boats carrying six Commandos each. My orders were very clear to Samantha. I told him that I would land first because I wanted to assess the situation myself.

The Navy Gunboats started bombarding the beach early in the morning with their 37mm guns, and we were given clearance to do the landing with a lull in heavy gunfire. Our two Water Jets raced towards the Poonaryn beach. Two enemy machine guns started firing towards us, and suddenly Samantha increased the speed of his Water Jet and landed first, neutralizing the enemy machine gun position with his grenade launchers.

I was very angry with Samantha. My orders were very clear as I told him that I would be landing first. However, I was very happy that he had destroyed enemy gun positions in quick succession, preventing any casualties on our side. The landing was successful, and we established the beachhead for our landing craft to beach, and reinforcements poured in. The Poonaryn landing was a huge success. The SBS was hailed as the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy.

Gathering after 30 years – First and Second Batches of SBS

After accomplishing our given task successfully, we returned to Karainagar that evening to rest and relax. That night I asked Samantha why he had disobeyed my orders and landed first. He said with tears in his eyes, “Sir, I was afraid that you would be hit by enemy machine gun fire! I did not want you to get killed.” I told him that he would have had the same fate. He said, “Sir, I can die. That’s not a concern. My father and mother will cry. But not YOU! You have a wife and a son (my son was one year old at that time). That was Samantha.

You should live Sir! I want to protect you, Sir! (Ironically, I was the only married person in the SBS at that time.)

This was the caliber of officers and men with whom we went to war. We as Commanders were fortunate to have officers like Samantha as our subordinates. They were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect us.

One day, I saw Samantha going through the Navy List, which is a book denoting the seniority and qualifications of naval officers. I asked why he was perusing the Navy List, and he said that according to the seniority gap between the two of us when I became a Rear Admiral, he would still be a Lieutenant Commander. I promised him that if I rose to the rank of Rear Admiral one day, I would take him as my Flag Lieutenant [Aide-De-Camp (ADC)]. He was very happy, and he had mentioned this even to the SBS senior sailors. We wanted to be together.

In 1995, Samantha got married to Nishika, a young lady officer of the navy who was a teacher at our Naval Pre-school. Samantha took part in another difficult landing operation in Nallatantituduwai with then Commanding officer of SBS, LCdr (SSD) Piyal De Silva (who went on to become the Navy Commander). An enemy RPG snuffed out the lives of Samantha, Lt (SBS) HKI Nishad, and three Sailors. Piyal was lucky; RPGs fired at his boat did not explode. He and his boat crew were very lucky to survive on that day. Samantha made the supreme sacrifice in this SBS and Army Special Forces joint operation at Nallathannithuduvai in Chalai, Jaffna, on October 20, 1996. His only son, Rumal, was only eight months old when he sacrificed his life for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our motherland. He was awarded the Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya for his valor and bravery during this operation. His wife Nishika died in 2011, leaving young Rumal alone in this world.

Now 27 years old, Rumal is working in Australia upon completing his higher education there, and he should get married soon. He misses his parents, about whom he is very proud. Today, the SBS is his family.

Keeping my promise to Samantha, I never took a Flag Lieutenant when I became a Rear Admiral. Even though Samantha was dead, I kept my promise to him. The desk of the Flag Lieutenant’s office next to my office when I was Navy Commander and then Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), the highest Military Officer in Sri Lanka, was kept empty in honor of Samantha until I retired on 2nd January 2020. The late Lieutenant Commander (SBS) Samantha Waruna Gallage, WWV, RWP and Bar, RSP, who was ready to sacrifice his life for my protection.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

Retired Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne, former Chief of Defence Staff of the Sri Lanka Navy, currently serves as the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Pakistan, following his tenure as Managing Director of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Chairman of Trincomalee Petroleum Terminals Ltd.

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