Sri Lanka: Patriotic Surgeon who treated me in Battle field

There is an unique difference in fighting out at sea. There are no covers. Whoever fire effectively first will win the sea battle. Sea battles are very short and decisive. 

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne 

In 1991,(more  than 30 years ago) I was selected to one of the prestigious sea appointments in Sri Lanka Navy. After short familiarisation course, I was appointed to P 467 (old pennant numbers) , Fast Attack Craft (FAC) Super Dovra Mk ll, one of the fastest FAC of the Navy at that time. Built in Israel at cost of US $ 30 million, the vanguard of our Navy through out our conflict with LTTE Sea Tiger terrorists.Dovra (or Dobra) in Hebrew language means “lady Bee”.

P467 was commanded by LT Cdr Ariyadasa, an officer senior to me, who has captured highest number of smuggling boats in SLN in Western Naval Command. So, my sole intention was to work hard and capture more smuggling boats than LT Cdr Ariyadasa.

Sadly, two days after taking over, my FAC was attached to Eastern Naval Command to patrol in Northern waters. Someone in Naval Headquarters do not want to see my face in Colombo?

It was not smugglers, but LTTE terrorist Sea Tigers operating in Northern waters at that time. LTTE had some camps in Southern Indian Thamilnadu coast, which was their main logistics route to Northern peninsula. They had boats moving at excess of 30 knots (30 nautical miles per hour - approx 40mph ) and our FAC had slight speed advantage over terrorist speed boats.

The distance between India and Sri Lanka is approximately 24 nautical miles. Indo- Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) marked at equidistance, approximately 12 nautical miles. So, terrorist boat moving at 30 knots can cross our waters in 24 minutes ! That’s the time given to us in the Navy to detect, chase and to destroy enemy boats. If you go too close to land, which was held my enemy at that time, you will be fired upon with enemy’s shore gun batteries. FAC will become a “sitting duck” if you have not moved away from land fast. Enemy always keep their tractors with the trailers in water ready for their boat arrivals. 

As soon as their boat hit shore, they were loaded in to trailers and towed with help of a tractors to safe area, away from beach to unload the boats.

Similarly launching enemy. boats also done by bringing boats to shore from inland and launching done in few minutes. It was more difficult for us to detect these boat launching pads as they were done at night under the cover of darkness. However those days (1991), when LTTE sea tigers saw an  Israeli built Dovra, they used to run away at maximum speed. Most of our chases of sea tiger boats ends up in “Stern chase” and with slight speed advantage, we destroyed the enemy boat with 20mm Oerlicon cannon gun we had as main weapon. FAC had a crew of two officers and 12 sailors at that time. It was a very close “family“. My Second-In-Command was LT SHU Dushmantha, fearless and an  excellent officer. He was an Outstanding Tennis player, old Anandian and from KDU Intake 4. Sadly, he died in action out at sea on 30/10/1998. He was a recipient of three gallantry medals for his bravery and valour out at sea namely, Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya (WWV), Rana Wickrama Paddakkama (RWP) and Rana Soora Paddakkama (RSP). I had Leading Seaman Newton as my coxswain ( later rose to Master Chief Petty Officer rank and excellent photographer) and Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic  Premaratne (also rose to MCPO rank later and excellent cook) looked after the engines. Our FAC in her first patrol to Northern Naval Area was able to destroy a enemy boat, which was a great achievement to me personally and to  my crew.

CDR SHU Dushmantha

KIA / MIA 30.10.1998

P498 at Sea off Mullaitivu

FAC was a time tested craft in SLN.  Time to time, we upgraded our weapons and sensors on board FAC. When we were onboard FAC, we had only radar to detect enemy boats at night. Later we went in to MSIS (Multi Sensor Integrated Systems)  and better forward main gun, such as US made 30mm Bush master chain gun, but the platform, the FAC hull remained same.

When we fought with sea tigers, there were no suicide boats. The enemy used ran away at their maximum speed when they saw a FAC, Then enemy developed their suicide carders and speed boats later loaded with explosives and they started to steer towards us at fast speed on suicidal missions.

We had to rewrite and develop our fighting tactics and manoeuvres against this new threat. We lost some of our best FAC Commanders and crews due to these deadly attacks. My salute to and  to all who worked tirelessly during this time, special thanks to our gunners, electrical/ electronic engineers and marine engineers for keeping FAC operational and battle-prepared. 

There is an unique difference in fighting out at sea. There are no covers. Whoever fire effectively first will win the sea battle. Sea battles are very short and decisive. 

There is special bond between your shipmates (FAC mates), whether you are an officer or sailor. You go to battle together in FAC and come home victorious or perish at sea together. OIC take decisions and he has to be brave and knowledgeable.

My FAC command period was eventful and enjoyable. I was married and my wife Yamuna was expecting our first (and only) child. We lived in married quarters at Naval Base Trincomalee. Those Royal Navy time officers quarters are specious and beautiful.

Our patrols to Northern waters were for seven days. If everything goes well, you get seven days break for maintenance, repairs and. to get ready for next patrol. Before my patrol to North, I will leave my wife with my brother officer’s family living in Naval Base Trincomalee, where she will stay until my arrival. She preferred to be with LCdr (L) Sarath Silva’s house. Sarath is from my junior batch and his wife Chandrani looked after Yamuna so well ( In her own words “ not allowing even me to prepare a cup of tea - all done by her”). They were very close friends also. That was the camaraderie among Naval families ! 


When your FAC is non operational, you have to take some others Operational FAC on patrol. This is not an good arrangement as you are going out to sea with unknown crew. However in September 1991, I had to take P468 (my batchmate Shirantha’s FAC) as my one was under repairs on slipway. Further, my 2IC, Dushmamtha was also on leave. I decided to go to sea on board P468 without a 2IC, on six-day patrol to Northern waters.

FAC have very powerful two inboard engines. They required large amount of low sulphur diesel (LSD. One engine consume approximately 100 litres of LSD per hour. Two engines running, its 200 litres per hour. It takes four hours for us to go from Trincomalee to KKS. 800 litres consumed per one run to Northern waters from Trincomalee. If Rs 100/- a litre of LSD, FAC consumes approximately Rs 80,000/- worth LSD per one run. Then we do seven days patrolling and returning back to Trincomalee. Navy has 36 FACs . So you can imagine the fuel cost of running them. 

That why Ship and craft called ‘SHE’. We always refer ship as a lady. Why? Like a lady, it’s not the initial cost of purchase (to marrying her), but the maintenance that kills you !

Navies are very expensive!

So, two days of my patrol onboard P468 was uneventful. On 13th June 1991,  around 10AM, were returning to KKS for rest and refuelling from Mulativu sea area. Sea was calm and I was keeping about two nautical miles from land and moving North at approximately 20 knots speed. I was on the flying bridge and enjoying bright sunlight and very clear weather. My lookout sentry on Port side (land side) reported two open jeeps moving on Manakkadiu road, one fitted with a gun. The area was held by enemy . I sounded action stations and told the  crew that I will turn towards jeeps and increase speed . When I am turning again away from land  to engage the targets with our 20mm cannon. The depth in this area is sufficient FAC to go up to 400m from land. Forward gunner was very good his third shot hit a jeep and it  started burning. Other jeep took cover of a sand dune. We saw some movements on beach with enemy cadres getting into boats on land. When we were breaking away from targets and headed towards deep sea, our boat was hit by enemy fire from boats. Crack and thump of 50 caliber machine gun fire was very clearly heard.

Do you know how to identify some one is firing at you? You hear two noises ( in military terminology know as Crack and Thump) every shot fire at you- two noises for one shot.  As bullet velocity is faster than sound speed, you first hear sound “tuck’ ( or crack) when bullet goes through air closer to you. Then you hear sound “Dum” ( or thump) after some time. That is the sound made when bullet left gun barrel. Well trained Special Forces person will able to say approximate distance of firer by time between crack and thump.

Enemy gun fire rained the FAC, but we were almost over at enemy’s effective gun range. Suddenly one enemy gun shot hit  the guard rail of the FAC. It’s splinters hit my left shoulder and upper arm . A sailor who was standing next to me at Open bridge also hit on his leg. Blood soaked my left arm and multiple injuries  were visible.  I knew I was hit badly. Sailors onboard were panicked. I steered the FAC to safe distance from land and informed my colleague Rohan who was on another FAC on patrol of the incident happened and steered towards KKS. 

After bleeding was controlled by sailor trained on Combat medicine, I found no major damage to bones. I felt bit dizzy, but able walk into waiting ambulance at KKS harbour to transfer to Army hospital at Palali for immediate medical treatments.

On arrival Palal Army Hospital, I saw a tall figure in Surgical gown waiting for me. He was non other than Dr Maiya Gunasekara, consultant Surgeon. Dr Maiya took few hours to remove whatever shrapnels he can remove. He said others will remain inside bones as they pose no harm. They are still in side my left shoulders and upper arm.

I consider them as gifts from LTTE which deny me go through any Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan due to metal particles in upper body.

Dr Maiya

I invited Dr Maiya on board my FAC that evening and took him to sea and showed him Point Pedro and VVT ( home town of LTTE leader Prabhakaran) from sea. 

Dr Maiya was a patriot and his volunteer services as a Surgeon at battle front saved number of officers and men who got severely injured. 

Dr Indrajith Maithri  (‘Maiya’) De Zoysa Gunasekara, FRCS, FICS, Consultant Surgeon was born on 22nd August 1951 and educated at Royal College, Colombo 7. He was a College colours man on Basketball and Rugby Football and represent College in Athletics also. He played for Royal Rugby team for number of years and entered Medical Faculty of Colombo University.. He was the recipient of Leslie  Handunge trophy for best sportsman in both Colombo and Peradeniya Universities in 1974. Outstanding person both in Studies and sports, graduated from both Royal College of Surgeons of England and Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and Captained Rugby for CR and FC and played number of years in National Rugby team and National Rugby sevens team. He was President of Sri Lanka Rugby FootballUnion and Chairmanof National Sports Council. Now he is the Consultant Surgeon atNawaloka Hospital, Colombo. He will sit at his Consultation Room (Room 55) at Navaloka Hospital every day. 

However his dedicated service to Nation in treating our Armed Forces personnel at Battle front in Palali Army hospital was not known by many. 

Former South African President Nelson Mandela once said “ There will be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return”

Thank you Dr Maiya - we salute you !

(The writer Retired from Sri Lanka Navy and served as Chief of Defence Staff )