The Sri Lankan Army in Its First Decade, 1949-59

Jayantha Somasundaram, in Island, 10 October 2019, with this titleSri Lanka Army At Seventy: Recalling The First Decade”

Under the terms of the Defence Agreement, signed in November 1947, between London and Colombo, a British officer, the Earl of Caithness was seconded, in 1948, as military advisor to the Government of Ceylon. During World War II, Brigadier James Roderick Sinclair, 19th Earl of Caithness CBE DSO, had led his regiment the Gordon Highlanders, through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and into Germany.

Earl of Caithness

Brigadier Caithness proposed to the Ceylon Government, that the soon-to-be formed Army consist of an infantry battalion, an artillery regiment, signal, supply, ordnance, electrical and mechanical, and medical units; a works services engineering detachment to maintain buildings, a military police section and a training depot. Such a modest military establishment would only require one per cent of total government expenditure, and its personnel would, initially be drawn from the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF), the volunteer Army that had existed since 1910.

Recalled to active service, in 1948, former CDF officer Lieutenant Colonel Anton Muttukumaru, a Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Department, assisted Brigadier Caithness with plans for the raising of the new army and played a major part in drafting the Army Act. But he was disappointed with Brigadier Caithness’ proposal. “It fell short of the concept I had of what the Army of independent Ceylon should be. Such an Army would have to be an Army of all arms, including Armour, Field Artillery, Field Engineers and an Infantry component of Brigade strength.”

Under the Army Act No. 17 of 1949 the Ceylon Army came into existence on the 10th of October 1949. Brigadier Caithness was appointed first Commander of the Ceylon Army and he invited Lieutenant Colonel Muttukumaru to be its first Chief of Staff. Two combat units were raised, the Ceylon Infantry Regiment (the Ceylon Light Infantry [CLI]) and the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft/Coast Artillery Regiment. They were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Winston Wijeyekoon OBE ED and Lieutenant Colonel Derek de Saram OBE CA, respectively; Lieutenant Colonel de Saram having completed a Long Gunnery Staff Course in the UK in preparation for his new command. A dozen cadets were selected for training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, three of whom would later serve as Army Commanders; Denis Perera, Tissa Weeratunga and Nalin Seneviratne.

The Ceylon Army stationed its infantry at Echelon Square Barracks, the artillery at Rock House Battery, in Mutwal, and conducted training at Diyatalawa, where the Army Recruit Training Depot (ARTD) was established. Major Roy Jayatillake MBE CLI, who was appointed Commander of the ARTD, was given specialised training in the UK, while his staff as well as the initial intake of officers and enlisted men, underwent training by a British Army Training Team at Diyatalawa. In addition to Lee Enfield rifles and carbines, the Army, at formation, inherited Bren light machine guns, Sterling submachine guns, 12 light and 8 heavy mortars and 24 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns.







One of the early decisions of the Army was to establish a new cantonment and it solicited the services of a British advisor, Brigadier Moore who recommended the establishment of a field engineering unit to implement the proposal. The 1st Field Squadron formed in 1951 under the command of Major Douglas Ramanayake would be the core of the Ceylon Engineers, with regimental headquarters at the new Cantonment at Panagoda, in Homagama.

In May 1952, Brigadier Sir Francis Reid CBE RA succeeded Brigadier Caithness as commander of the Ceylon Army. Brigadier Reid had been Commander Ceylon Garrison and UK troops, in Ceylon, from 1949 to 1950. Brigadier and Dorothy Reid had already resided in Ceylon for many years while their daughter Jane, who married a tea planter, lived in Madulkele.

In 1952 the Government decided to use the Army to combat illicit immigration from India and troops were deployed to an area in and around Mannar, which was believed to be where the illicit immigrants entered Ceylon. ‘Ops Monty’ named after the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Major Montague Jayawickrema 2(V)CLI was an all arms operation including search light batteries and signals communication, which scanned the area, seized boats, captured immigrants and provided administrative and logistical support.

In August 1953, a stoppage of work was organized by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party and supported by the Federal Party. Initially, in certain areas, the Police coped well, in Maradana for example Deputy Inspector General Gabriel Rockwood even declined the offer of military assistance. But as the Hartal persisted, and in the face of island-wide strikes, agitation and sabotage, a State of Emergency was declared and the Army was called in to support the Police.

The Ceylon Light Infantry’s B Company, under Major Maurice Jayaweera, was deployed in Moratuwa while C Company, under Major Roy Jayatillake, was deployed in Colombo. An artillery detachment, under Colonel Derek de Saram, cleared the High Level Road which passed through the Kelani Valley, a leftist stronghold “by the powers of his words, his Scarlet Pimpernel gaze and a hand idly swinging his pistol,” writes Colvin de Silva, Assistant Secretary of Defence. The Hartal experience led to the creation of the Joint Intelligence Bureau which covered the armed services and Police.

Brigadier Reid, meanwhile, drew up a set of plans, codenamed Operation Homeland which would ensure that the Army would be able to effectively deploy in support of the civil administration in order to maintain essential public services. In 1954, he also decided that an Army level military exercise would be staged, called Exercise Tyro. It required the deployment of a Battalion Group from Diyatalawa to engage a hostile force which lands near Tissamaharama and the subsequent withdrawal of that Group via Wellawaya.

This theme was also taken up in the Ceylon Army Journal, in 1955, by Lieutenant Colonel Wijekoon, who laid emphasis on the Ceylon Army’s need to be equipped to handle internal security operations as well as be proficient in jungle warfare, particularly in the context of the prevailing insurgency in Malaya.

Modelled on the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Armoured Corp became an independent unit, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron of the Ceylon Armoured Corp, in October 1955. Based at Ridiyagama, in Ambalantota, it was commanded by Major Sepala Attygalle MVO, assisted by Major Weerasena Rajapakse MBE and Major Victor Joseph. In 1958, it would become the 1st Reconnaissance Regiment of the Ceylon Armoured Corp and was housed at Rock House Camp. The Armoured Corp was initially equipped with 15 British Daimler Ferret Mk I Scout Cars, an armoured fighting vehicle, designed for reconnaissance purposes. Later the Regiment received the Daimler Armoured Car, designed in World War II for armed reconnaissance, as well as Saracen armoured vehicles.

In 1956, the Ceylon Artillery was restructured, the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Maurice de Mel, while Colonel de Saram moved to the Volunteer Force and took over command of the 2 (V) Light Anti Aircraft Regiment. A new 3rd Field Artillery Regiment was established under Lieutenant Colonel Willie Abraham MC MBE.

In October 1956, with the establishment of the 1st Battalion, Sinha Regiment a new infantry regiment was raised at Diyatalawa. Lieutenant Colonel Roy Jayatillake of the CLI was appointed commander of the rifle regiment and he was concurrently appointed Garrison Commander Diyatalawa.

In preparation for assuming command of the Ceylon Army, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Muttukumaru OBE ED ADC idc was promoted Colonel and sent for a year to the Imperial Defence College London, where, among his instructors, was Field Marshal Montgomery. On his return to Ceylon, in 1956, he was promoted Brigadier and appointed the first Ceylonese Army Commander. He was instrumental in directing the Ceylon Army towards his initial vision of an Army of all arms, including Armour, Field Artillery, Field Engineers and an Infantry component which with the raising of the Gemunu Watch, in 1962, would be of Brigade strength. In 1958 Brigadier Muttukumaru was promoted Major General and relinquished command of the Army, on 31st December.

Police and Army in riot control action in 1958


Gerald Peiris: Discontent and Confrontational Violence in Sri Lanka, 1948-2009,” 22 September 2016,



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3 responses to “The Sri Lankan Army in Its First Decade, 1949-59

  1. Janaka Perera


  2. A MINOR CORRECTION from DAVID BLACKER via Email, 10 October 2019: …. the Ceylon Army would have been issued with Sten submachine-guns, not Sterlings, as the latter didn’t enter production until 1953. A few prototypes (initially called Patchett submachine-guns) were trialed in combat in 1944, but the weapon was put on hold at the end of WW2 due to an excess of Stens. I don’t believe the Ceylonese military received any Sterlings until the 1971 insurgency.

    • Somasiri Devendra

      Spot on w.r.t the Sterlings, which came here about 1970. Previously, the Army had Stens and the Navy had Lanchester carbines. In about 1970 the Navy received a stock of Sterlings and they were still unpacked. In 1971 the Army needed more Sterlings and I remember unpacking our stocks and handing them over to the Army.

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