When the thundering roar of heavy guns resounded…

Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva inspects the guard turnout.

The Sri Lanka Artillery Regiment, one of the oldest regiments of the Sri Lanka Army, celebrated 132 years of sterling service to the motherland. The anniversary was celebrated with the participation of Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva and senior officers at a ceremonial parade.

With its headquarters at the Panagoda Cantonment, the Sri Lanka Artillery Regiment has a long and rich military history. Its origins can be traced to vintage Ceylon when the concept of ‘heavy guns’ was introduced as a means of strategic defence for the island during 1888. In April of that year, a gun battery was operational and the unit functioned as the Ceylon Artillery Volunteers (CAV) under the command of a British officer named Captain Symons of the Royal Artillery.

With the advent of the First World War, the island’s defences saw a significant boost when the Colombo Town Guard was mobilized. Realizing the need to streamline their combat effort, military commanders of the then Ceylon Defence Force amalgamated both units to form the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) in 1918.

The CGA was tasked with manning the coastal gun batteries. During its deployment in the Second World War, the CGA was thrust into the theatre of combat to support allied operations in the Seychelles and Coco Islands. For the first time in history, Ceylonese soldiers served the Commonwealth fighting outside their own country. Many of these brave veterans have reached the golden shores after their retirement.

The Ceylon Garrison Artillery began to grow in size. It now had its Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment stationed in Trincomalee, to defend the island’s Eastern coast during WW II. Trincomalee Harbour was a strategic maritime stronghold of the Allied Forces. During the surprise raid by the Imperial Japanese Forces, the Ceylonese bombardiers (artillery rank) who manned these guns put up a formidable counterstrike from their gun pits in the heavily wooded hills of Trincomalee.

The artillery was placed to guard the approach way to this important harbour. It is said that the hills echoed and thundered when the guns fired volleys of explosive shells. I have visited these dangerous cliffs which now come under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Naval Command. When you realize the angle of these hills which look directly towards the sea and the fortified gun positions, you can imagine the level of danger, especially at night. During this era, the gunners operated the large British BL six-inch coastal guns. One of these heavy guns is still in its concrete turret on Ostenburg Ridge, Trincomalee and surprisingly remains in operational condition. In Colombo, the gunners had set up a cluster of searchlight and light anti-aircraft gun positions (LAA). One of these gun batteries was said to have been on the Galle Face promenade.

With the Army Act of 1949, the CGA became the Ceylon Artillery. Over the years, the air defence role of Sri Lanka was bestowed on the Sri Lanka Air Force. In 1971 Sri Lanka was plagued with the JVP insurgency and the men of the artillery regiment were deployed in an infantry role to augment the police. When the nation became a republic in 1972, the regiment was renamed the Sri Lanka Artillery. By now, the gunners had 40mm anti-aircraft guns and heavy mortars. They also received the 76mm mountain guns.

By the mid 1980s, when subversive warfare was spreading in the Northern Province, the gunners were tasked to support infantry regiments in all major ground offensives. For the first time the Army would launch its counter-offensive with heavy field guns and howitzers. In 1988, the artillery regiment celebrated her centenary.

In 1990, the School of Artillery was relocated to Minneriya, where new recruits learn the basics of gunnery. Every artillery projectile has four components – fuse, projectile, primer and propellant. The propellant is a low explosive which deflagrates (subsonic combustion by heat transfer). The main functions in a field artillery system are communications, command authority, target acquisition, computation of firing data, fire units and logistics.

The basic calculation to get a quadrant elevation (range) was done manually before computer systems came into action. Logistics is a key part whereby artillery shells have to be safely transported to the crews in the theatre of combat. Storing these shells safely was an equally difficult task in dense jungles where the field guns were deployed.

A gunner must have the right temperament, skills and team spirit to be part of a gun crew that fires heavy artillery rounds. It is these initial rounds that dislodged hidden enemy fighters before the infantry moved in to engage them. Calling in artillery strikes was a deciding factor for ground commanders during those gruesome days of combat.

Artillery regiment provided various types of fire (depending on the terrain, target range and combat mode) including counter battery fire, counter preparation fire, covering fire, defensive fire and protective fire. As the fighting intensified, the Sri Lanka Artillery took on the additional task of target acquisition – locating concealed LTTE gun positions. The Artillery Regiments firepower was upgraded with 85m anti-tank guns and QF Mark 111 Field Guns (25 pounder).

Subsequently this was supplemented with 120mm, 130mm and 152mm howitzers to suppress enemy gun positions. Moving these heavy guns across battlefields was not an easy task, during the periods of rain. Gun crews would have to dismount their trucks and help clear the trees along the path or marshy lands filled with water. Like their counterparts in the Armoured Corps, the artillery’s gunners had to keep moving once they left their forward bases. Modern artillery has evolved over the decades and its primary aim is area suppression. Precision guided munitions enhanced the striking range and capability of field crews. In the year 2000, the RM70 Multiple Rocket Launcher (MBRL) was added to the regiment’s fleet. Its ‘area saturation’ capability with fragmentation shells made a significant change in the ground battles. The 33-ton vehicle mounted rocket artillery system can fire one volley into a concentrated coverage area, with each volley sending 40 rockets very rapidly. The thundering roar of these heavy guns have ceased since 2009. Sacrifices were made on these now-forgotten fields of dangerous confrontation. As we look back in retrospect, we can only appreciate the importance of peace, and the fact that all Sri Lankans must work towards building a prosperous nation. We must never be divided again but only strive to become a stronger nation. The officers and gunners of the Sri Lanka Artillery have travelled a long way facing trials and triumphs. As the Last Post was sounded, family members paid tribute to their departed sons, husbands and brothers.

The war memorial

The Gunners’ band

Sounding the last post.

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