Short stories, Travel and Health Information
I am posting on my webpage an edited version of the moving talk that was given recently by my friend and former army colleague Lt Col Lalith Guneratna
Speaking about the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa is indeed one of the most difficult tasks that I have ever undertaken.
It is so difficult because 15 minutes is hardly enough time to talk about this great leader! Given half a chance, I could have spoken about General Denzil, as we affectionately called him, for hours without boring you!
Denzil the Great Soldier
I met General Denzil for the first time in July 1970 – he was then a Captain and I was a 2nd Lieutenant who had the good fortune after graduating to be posted to the same unit in which he served, the Sri Lanka Armoured Corps. I was still learning the basics of being an army officer while he was undertaking an important appointment at Army Headquarters – but I used to meet him on and off in our officers’ mess and at Army Rugby practices.
When I was doing the Captain to Major promotion course, he was one of our instructors – in fact the best instructor we had at that time. Subsequently, when he was appointed the Commanding Officer of our regiment, I had the honour of working as one of his squadron commanders.
His next appointment was as the Coordinating Officer in the Kilinochchi area. Within a week of his arrival in Kilinochchi, we young officers observed a very positive operational impact. He insisted that he went along on operations together with his troops. The soldiers loved him for that, and their morale soared.
I still remember, when the helicopter carrying me and some of our soldiers landed on the Kilinochchi Camp grounds, the first person to rush out was Gen Denzil. He walked right up to the helicopter, hugged me and said, “Welcome Lalith, it will be good to have you by my side.” I was not the only person to whom he did this – he personally welcomed every officer who arrived at his command headquarters, and made it a point to talk to the soldiers. He was a firm but fair officer, highly motivated to carry out his responsibilities to the best of his abiltiy. With his hard work, detailed planning and brilliant execution of these plans, he was able to gain control of Kilinochchi.
When it was decided to launch a full-scale operation in Jaffna, General Kobbekaduwa was an automatic choice to command one of the two advancing brigades. The late Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne commanded the other. Denzil Kobbekaduwa along with Vijaya Wimalaratne and a few other brilliant officers such as Lucky Wijeratne, Sarath Jayawardena and Harin Malwatte planned this operation which became popularly known as the ‘Vadamarachchi Operation’. I was appointed to carry out the deception plan, commencing eight days prior to the launching of the operation. The Army was to advance from Palaly to Point Pedro on two fronts, flushing out the terrorists and taking control of key point in Vadamarachchi. LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s own village Velvettithurai was one of the targets of the operation. This village was heavily fortified with concrete bunkers and other defences – Prabhakaran had boasted that he would give up the fight for Eelam if Velvettithurai was ever lost to the Government forces.
The first day of the operation was disastrous for us. We lost about twenty of our own personnel, soldiers and officers. The person most concerned about these deaths and injuries to others was General Kobbekaduwa. In the midst of conducting the operation, he was constantly inquiring about the dead and injured army personnel and making sure they were cared for. On the third day of the operation, we took Velvettithurai. Here we found a house full of weapons, ammunition, mortars and maps. On studying the maps, it seemed that the bulk of the LTTE was defending the northern area of Vadamarachchi towards the sea. At the debriefing headed by the Joint Operations Commander General Cyril Ranatunga that evening, it was discussed whether we should proceed northwards instead of continuing to push eastwards as per original plan. All the senior officers at this debriefing agreed to push northwards, which meant a change of plan, with the hope of capturing Prabhakaran in the process. The maps and documents that we found gave us the indication that Prabhakaran’s headquarters was in that vicinity.
Only General Kobbekaduwa was sceptical about this move and wanted to keep to the original plan to clear the area up to Point Pedro. However, it was decided to go northwards – and Gen. Denzil, being a highly disciplined man, complied with this decision. However, despite this change of the operational plan, we found nothing.
A few weeks after the operation ended, when a member of the foreign press interviewed Prabhakaran, he said that he had surmised that the army was preparing to attack Jaffna and so made plans accordingly. He also said that he had purposely left behind maps and documents to deceive the Army – and it was later learned that he had escaped to India by fleeing towards Point Pedro. This was the time we ruefully realised that if we had listened to Gen. Kobbekaduwa and kept advancing to Point Pedro, without falling for Prabhakaran’s deception and changing our original plan, we would have had a great chance of capturing the LTTE leader. The outcome of the entire operation would have been more positive and we would have broken the back of the LTTE!!
We were on top of the situation until the Indian Air Force intervened – a political decision taken by the then Indian government that feared that our government would defeat the LTTE, resulting in political repercussions in the south Indian state of Tamilnadu. Gen. Kobbekaduwa was very disappointed that he could not continue with the operation, and he made it a point to speak to all his officers and as many soldiers as he could to thank them personally for their contribution to Vadamarachchi.
All those of us who served under him used to love seeing his ever-smiling face on the battlefield. He was a brilliant tactician and a much revered leader.
Denzil the Great Human Being
Next I would like to move from talking about General Kobbekaduwa, the great soldier, to General Kobbekaduwa, the great human being.
When General Denzil was the Commanding Officer of Armoured Corps, he took a keen interest in the welfare of his soldiers. He was interested in their well being, and particularly about their meals. Everyday, on his way to the officers’ mess for lunch, he would stop at the soldiers’ mess and check their food. Moreover, he had instructed the quartermaster of the unit to send a plate of the soldiers’ food to the officers’ mess. He would first serve a little bit from this plate of soldiers’ food before he started on his own lunch. If the food was not up to his standards, the quartermaster was in for a long talk from the CO!
He would also make it a point on occasion to ask his junior officers as we were sitting down to our own lunch “What are your men having for lunch today?” A bland answer of “Rice and curry, sir” as some young officers tried to say did not pass muster with him! It came to the stage when the soldiers’ mess food in our regiment was the best in the whole army.
Another instance I recall when I was humbled by his actions, was when I was walking with him to the officers’ mess. A group of soldiers saluted and greeted him. He returned the salute and addressing one corporal by name, he asked him whether his wife had delivered their baby. At this time I was feeling pin pricks of embarrassment because my CO knew about the personal life of this soldier – and I as a junior officer was ignorant about it! The soldier replied that the baby was not born yet, but was expected that same day or the following day. Gen. Kobbekaduwa promptly instructed one his officers that this soldier be given a few days off and also instructed his driver to take this soldier in his personal jeep to his home in Gampaha, where his wife was. He would often advise us “Look after your soldiers before you look after yourself”. He was a man who by his own example taught us ‘ to talk with crowds and keep your virtue, to walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch’.
Denzil the Family Man
General Denzil was fortunate to have as his wife Mrs. Lalini Kobbekaduwa. When he was serving in the Northern area of operations for a long period of about ten years, with little or no time with the family, Lali brought up their three little ones and kept the family going. In an article about General Denzil written a few years ago, his friend Wing Commander E.H. Ohlmus SLAF (Retd) recalled how, whilst he was on leave in Colombo, Denzil spent most of his time with his family. It was not unusual to see the Kobbekaduwa family watching a cricket match together, their station wagon parked in the shade by a cricket ground, or shopping at the Liberty Plaza on a Saturday morning, or visiting a friend or a relation for a quiet evening chat. He was a family man and this fine quality definitely influenced his way of life in the Army.
We soldiers loved Mrs Kobbekaduwa as much as we loved the General – one could not meet a lady with nicer ways. Today, she continues to do a magnificent job with the humanitarian work being conducted by the Kobbekaduwa Trust which seeks to perpetuate the memory of this brave soldier who believed the Sri Lankan separatist war could only be solved by winning the hearts and minds of the people.
When Denzil Kobbekaduwa was killed thirty years ago, Sri Lanka lost a great son. We lost a great leader, a hero and a gentleman, Lali and the children lost a great father, I lost my idol.
When General Denzil attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in the UK in 1989, this was what his instructors wrote about him in their final report: “He is unfailingly, courteous and considerate, a thoroughly nice man and a man of principle.. As a result he is highly regarded by his colleagues, particularly since he is blessed with a sense of humour and invariably has a twinkle in his eye.“
Those who served with him respected and trusted him – and those who knew him well loved and admired him.
Three decades after his untimely death, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember him.