A recent article by Dishan Joseph (see below) has marked the role of a commando outfit known as the SBS, or Special Boat Service, that was developed within the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) during the Eelam Wars. The story is complex and demands an elaborate ‘companion piece’ that is attentive to time, combat locations, initiatives and the lessons derived from a remarkable and formidable enemy, namely, the Sea Tigers. In war one becomes like one’s opponent in order to survive. The innovativeness of the LTTE was monumental and its sea-faring capacities were one reason why it outdid-and-outbid the other Tamil militant organisations in the fight to lead the claim for independence for Thamililam during the 1980s/1990s.
One dimension within their seaborne fighting skills lay in the LTTE’s adjustment of technology to meet the requirements of “brown water” combat. This NEED arises from the character of the island coastline which is fringed by (a) lagoons and/or swamps running parallel to the coast; and (b) numerous estuaries where rivers or rivulets flow into the sea. The term “brown water” encompasses those stretches of water and the shallower seas running parallel to the coast. The LTTE had the acumen to utilise the engineering skills of Norwegian friends and organisations[i] to fashion flat-bottomed fighting speedboats suited to combat work in such conditions. The LTTE also built-up female fighter units (Sea Tigresses) as specialists in this field.[ii]
The Trincomalee naval base is in the heart of an area with a SL Tamil populace interspersed with some Sinhala and Muslim Moor settlements; while its immediate hinterland is crisscrossed with rivulets, swamps and jungle terrain. One officer in the SLN who discerned the requirements demanded from the terrain surrounding Trincomalee harbour and its coastal environs north-and-south was Captain(?) Shanthi Bahar (a Lankan of Malay-German lineage). He was inspired by the stories relating to the British SAS units during the World War II and reached out to the experiences of the mercenary personnel[iii] in the Keenie Meenie Services who had been drawn into the Sri Lankan arena (by Ravi Jayewardene?) from 1984 to train the STF within the Police Department.[iv] Many of these KMS personnel were ex-SAS from the British Army. In short, the skills and traditions instilled in the British commando world were brought into play in Sri Lanka.[v]
This idea – naval commandoes in other words — was incorporated in a concept paper presented in 1990 by the Director of Naval Operations, Wasantha Karannagoda, but seems to have slipped out of the scene till Admiral Samarasekera became the naval chief in 1992. He assigned Lt. Cdr. Colombage to develop the SBS, which commenced as a small outfit amounting to two platoons. What one saw subsequently, therefore, was the gradual, and possibly erratic, build up of the SL Navy’s unconventional SBS force. One officer whose role in developing the SBS in its early years is widely mentioned is Cedric Martensteyn — whose early demise in 1996, when a SLAF helicopter in which he was travelling was downed, may have slowed progress in this field.[vi]
Apart from their fighting capacities on both land and sea, the SBS personnel required suitable craft. This is where the considerable expertise in the private mercantile firms who built trawlers and service marine engineering may possibly have aided the SL Navy (probably through old boy and familial networks of friendship). One name mentioned in this regard is that of Billy Rowlands. Thus, lacunae remain in our historical overviews.
So, there is a long and somewhat chequered history behind the emergence of the SBS units that receive accolades in Dishan Joseph’s article. An important ‘prong’ in the capacities displayed by the SBS outfits during Eelam War IV (2005-09) were the “Arrow” boats displayed within the covers here. Such power, however, would have required fighting men with capacities to operate in deadly mode on land, swamp and sea. Versatility was essential. So, too, was toughness and stamina.
So was bravery. One young man from a working-class background in Norwood, Hatton, who displayed this character was KG Shantha (1979-2008), a Petty Officer commanding an Arrow boat: with his other crew seriously injured during an early morning sea battle off Point Pedro on 1 November 2008, he rammed a Sea Tiger suicide craft heading for one of the larger SLN attack craft with ten crew members.[vii] In short, he effected a maaveerar act on the Tiger maaveerar.[viii] This sacrificial work has been recognised with his posthumous Parama Vibhushana Award.
Dishan Joseph 2021 “The Elite Naval Commandos Special Boat Squad with the Motto “Fortune Favors the Brave’,” http://www.dailynews.lk/2021/04/02/features/245624/elite-naval-commandos.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2009f “Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, November 2009, vol 35, pp. 32-33.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2009g “Lessons in Maritime Counter Insurgency,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, January 2010, vol 36, pp 50-53.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2010b “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War, Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010, vol. 30/4. pp. 35-37.
Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009 “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, pp. 20-26.
Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 30 (10): October 2007, pp. 857-88.
Roberts, Michael 2010d “Self-Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 161-201.
Michael Roberts 2014 Tamil Person & State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications.
KG Shantha n. d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._G._Shantha
Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne 2020 “Combat Experience with Indian Navy Marine Commandoes,” https://island.lk/combat-experience-with-indian-navy-marine-commandos/
Wikipedia n.d. “Keenie Meenie Services,” ……. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keenie_Meenie_Services
[i] I have a vague memory that suggests that some Norwegian NGOs were utilised for this purpose –that is, seeking suitable contacts and specialists in Norway and then despatching personnel to Norway to be trained. Red Barna may have been one NGO that aided the LTTE (not necessarily with full awareness of the intent or the links).
[ii] For some data on their work and capacities, see Roberts, Tamil Person & State. Pictorials, 2014, Figs 58a & 58b; BUT, more vitally, consult Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009 and the works of Serge De Silva Ranasinghe cited in the bibliography.
[iii] Partly because they were mercenaries, the Keenie Meenie outfits seem to have attracted unsavoury reputations in the Western world. The study by Phil Miller entitled Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes ( London, 2020 ….ISBN 978-1-78680-584-3. OCLC 1135758174.) specifically asserts that “the KMS went on to commit war crimes in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua.” See the Wikipedia entry = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keenie_Meenie_Services but I have not been able to get the book yet.
[iv] A senior military officer now retired informed me that the advice and training provide by Keenie Meenie Services to the STF were rated highly.
[v] Unfortunately, Shanthi Bahar died at an early stage from a well-directed (Tiger) grenade during a cordon and search operation in the Trincomalee District in (?) the late 1980s.
[vi] Virtually every retired officer from the SL forces whom I tapped for information on the SBS referred to Cedric Martynsteyn. More recently, his contribution has been indelibly recorded by the official naming of the SLN’s “Arrow” class patrol boats “Cedric.” This is a signal honour.
[viii] For the maaveerar concept, one must read the works of Peter Schalk and Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam (references will be found in my book Tamil Person & State (2014). Also see Roberts, “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: …,” 2007 and Roberts, “Self-Annihilation for Political Cause …, 2010.