Sri Lanka: Gen Denis -- Man who changed the army

Gen Denis knew that only 25% of an insurgency would be shooting while the other 75% would be the need to get the people behind the Forces, the classic if worn out ‘hearts and minds’ strategy. He was aware the insurgents too would do their damnedest to contest that support.

by Lalin Fernando

( November 18, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The biography of General Denis Perera VSV ‘General Denis’ was launched on 29 Sep 2018 at Suhurupaya, Battaramulla . This 328 page hard cover book with plenty of photographs was produced by the Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (ARFRO), partly funded by Army HQ. It is a timely, very readable book. It is a follow up on events to keep alive the memory of Gen Denis that began with the annual oration in 2013, the first and only one ever for any Commander of the Sri Lanka’s Defence Forces .Both are an expression of the affection, respect and gratitude that the Defence Forces, marshaled by ARFRO, have for an iconic Army Commander (1977-81) who passed away in 2013. When alive and asked by Defence Forces officers to write his biography he had said that ‘it is for others to do it’. It has been well done.

Every seat in the auditorium was occupied by serving and retired officers, their wives, and a couple of widows of famed Generals, close friends and family of Gen Denis. The proceedings began with the traditional pomp and ceremony including hewisi and dancers, courtesy of the Army Commander.

The keynote address was by retired Ambassador Mr.HMGS Palihakkara. He had as a young diplomat in the late 1970s met Gen Denis when the latter was SL High Commissioner in Canberra. In time they became good friends, especially later as members of the ‘Diyawanna walking club’.

It was a brilliant celebration, lively, laced with subtle humour. Mr. Palihakkara concentrated on the legacy and values the General gave the Army, Tri Services and also the nation. He dealt well with 4 aspects of the General’s contribution being discipline, institution building, professionalism and humanity. He may have missed Gen Denis’ spiritual disposition that had much to do in molding his character, personality, achievements and strength.

Chief Guest, state minister Ruwan Wijewardene, graciously admitted that he and his Ministry have much to thank General Denis for his tremendous contributions to the development of the Defence Forces. He admitted he has still much to learn from him.

As the years rolled by it does make one wonder whether not just the Army, ever had such a superlative leader. Certainly no one else is even mentioned within hearing distance.

The book covers the life of an exceptionally gifted, extraordinary, born leader of men and not only of soldiers and Generals. He was six footer, handsome and charming man, an old world character with phenomenal command. In any gathering he stood out attracting everyone, military or not. His achievements, standards set and example have stood the test of time.

The acid test of military command is success in war. It may be said Gen Denis was not tested in battle. There was no war when he commanded. Had he commanded in the bitter conflict that followed after he had retired, one thing is certain. An officer’s life would not have been more important than that of a soldier. It is moot that the strategy and tactics that won the war eventually would have not been beyond him. The conflict would surely have ended earlier with far less loss of life and attendant controversy.

General Denis commanded in a peace time environment during which he prepared the Army for war. No soldier died under his command. He was one bullet away and proud of it. As soon as his successor took over in October 1981 however the first soldier’s death in the troubles that were to continue for nearly 30 years occurred in Vavuniya. It was an ominous message.

Gen Denis knew that only 25% of an insurgency would be shooting while the other 75% would be the need to get the people behind the Forces, the classic if worn out ‘hearts and minds’ strategy. He was aware the insurgents too would do their damnedest to contest that support. He had also to contend with politicians who wanted ‘all out war’ from the safety of their beds in Colombo. The minds of many had to change. He made every attempt to curb escalating the level of violence. There would never be calls by a C in C for ‘carpet bombing’ or gifting of weapons to the terrorists under his command. He believed that to defeat insurgencies, the protection of life was far more important than taking of life. This lesson appeared to have been forgotten by many who followed. Also had he been in command when disaster after disaster followed he would surely have sacked instead of cultivating incompetents and misfits.

Those who eventually turned the tide and won the war at the sharp end were almost all the products of the SL Military Academy and the Gen Sir John Kotelawela Defence Academy (later university) founded by Gen Denis. There could not be a more deserving tribute to the vision of Gen Denis. He lived to see the day 28 years after retirement. There were controversial ones too as could be expected but generally they were the game changers for the better and finally for victory and peace. They were Gen Denis’ own.

The book makes excellent use from Canada of Gen Denis’ very good friend from his Sandhurst days, St Patrick’s College (Jaffna) Brigadier APR (Anthony) David’s reminiscences. Together with Gen Denis’ descriptions given in the Army’s 50th anniversary book, it brings General Denis (St Peter’s Colombo) vibrantly to life. This is especially so for the generation of officers who know of him only as a legend.

The book also has riveting contributions from several retired General officers and a major from the Army Women’s Corps. The contribution (from Canada too) by a corporal (later Regimental Sergeant Major) of Gen Denis’ own Engineer Regiment gives a vivid description of him both as a young officer and later as Commandant of the Army Training Centre. Some are tinged with apocryphal recalls of their interaction with him. Some of it is understandably effusive, some slightly erroneous and a bit naïve too. They are all however heartfelt, warm, loyal and inspiring.

While contributions from his old Peterite colleagues were missing, General rank and senior officers of Gen Denis’ vintage who served with or under him were conspicuously so. Sadly most would have crossed the great divide by the time it was decided to produce the biography. Unfortunately Major General Prasanna Dahanayake (late Sinha Regiment)’s snippets have been omitted. He remembers Capt Denis vividly from Diyatalawa (1957), as a Colonel Northern Commander, Anuradhapura (1973) and finally the infamous episode when the knives were out for several regimental commanders after JRJ became President (1977). Brigadier Denis, then Chief of Staff, was delegated the unpleasant duty of conveying to them that they were no longer wanted by the government. No reasons were given. Gen Dahanayake remembers with gratitude Brig Denis softening the blow by apologizing for having to convey this sudden and devastating closure to his career.

An inordinate part of the book is about the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Its SL alumni were meant to give the professionalism and leadership standards that the army much needed. Gen Denis was the best example by far of SL Sandhurst alumni. However the editors have gone overboard describing life at Sandhurst, far beyond descriptions given in the memoirs and biographies of British Generals. Under the heading ‘Notable Alumni at Sandhurst’ it lists Royalty only despite a Prime Minister (Churchill) and famous Generals among better known notables it produced. Michael Faraday was on the academic staff. The Academy’s (senior) librarian (and author Lt Col Alan Shepperd) who apparently ‘kept his socks up on his wooden leg with pins’ actually had two wooden legs, both having been blown off in battle in Normandy in WW2.

Self descriptive, gushing remarks about a former SL cadet who represented Sandhurst at cricket and swimming’ as being ‘more British than the British’ were ill advised. They could create the wrong impression about what Sandhurst aimed to produce. It certainly was not a British clone.

The editing not being professional included some that should have been excluded. Thankfully Gen Denis’ Army Commanders annual reports to the Ministry covered in detail all what he did especially to prepare the Army for combat. His reports could have been given as annexes for better effect and reference.

Gen Denis’ enduring contributions were the raising of the SL Military Academy at Diyatalawa, Sir John Kotelawela Defence Academy (later University), the Commandos, the Women’s Corps, the Combat Training School (Ampara) and the Vijaya Bahu and Gajaba Regiments among others. The products, ‘more Sri Lankan than all other Sri Lankans’, were the harbingers of victory in the terrorist war that soon followed. They were visionary acts beyond imagination in an army in which most officers had gone to seed and struggled to be relevant when he took over.

Gen Denis’ leadership qualities are all well brought out. The biography is also a factual history of much of the Army during his time despite repetition of a few errors from the official history of the first 50 years.

Gen Denis changed the Army radically from being a colonial relict to a professional one. He discarded its amateur, out dated mentality and baggage that had stultified its progress. He retained good traditions, discarded others, created many, raised standards beyond recognition, delegated authority without fear and ensured strict compliance. It was a stirring if also hard time for all who served.

After the 1962 coup d’état, a political careerist army came into being with senior officers kowtowing with politicians and vice versa. Gen Denis was above it all at all times.

It is politely hinted but not stated boldly that Gen Denis was much victimized in his time. He was conned and prevented from commanding his own Engineer regiment (1968). He thus missed out on the best command every professional officer sets his heart on. He was in 1973 deprived of his rightful place at Royal College of Defence Studies (formally Imperial Defence College) course UK. Finally and shockingly President JR Jayewardene (JRJ) deliberately suborned Gen Denis’ command by giving his nephew, his Chief of Staff, an ad hoc appointment bypassing Gen Denis, fatuously ‘to wipe out terrorism’ by year end in 1979. Therein lays the story that led to 1983 and the tragedy that followed. The hand if not the advice of Gen Attygalle Army Commander (1967-77) and Additional Defence Secretary was clearly behind all these moves out of spite and envy.

That was the Army that Gen Denis took over, shook and changed. Sadly many who followed failed. The consequences were disastrous.

When he left the Army after 4 years in command, Gen Denis’ abiding and enduring interest to do his best for the Armed Services did not falter. It did in many of his successors. He among other things rejuvenated the SL Ex Servicemen’s Association that was virtually broke. He created ARFRO so that retired senior officers could still contribute professionally to the services. Last but not the least with Dr.Narame Wickramasinghe (ex SLAF) he planned and developed the beautiful, serene and unique 24 acre Mailapitiya Remembrance Park on the Rantembe reservoir road, 16 kms from Kandy.

A notable omission in the book was his many years as President of the SL Sports Rifle Association.

The most captivating contributions in the book are those of the General Denis’ children and grand children. They describe with affection and sparkling wit the family man in the General. What a superb example he was to them and to other fathers.

It was clear from the conversations during refreshments that followed the launch that the Army in particular would hold his memory sacred and with abiding gratitude. The Army Commander bought half the 2,000 books on sale for the Army, an unprecedented move.

There was also the ‘burning’ question why there has been no mention of any other Army Commander. It went unanswered.

I tossed the idea to Gen Denis’ son Khavan that had his father taken to the priest hood he would have definitely become a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Khavan was embarrassed. In fact the book says that Gen Denis’ mother was very disappointed that instead of entering the priesthood he chose the Army. Thankfully the Army’s gain was the Church’s loss.

‘Gen Denis’ is the most important book on Army Command in peacetime. It will be the standard on military command in the future. It will hopefully inspire all future military leaders. It is a book for all citizens as it is not only on military but also national leadership. For this reason it should be translated into Sinhala and Tamil to spread its message on what true leadership means. In these troubled times there is hope for the future as a younger breed of officers will surely try to emulate him. His memory will live on, affectionately, loved by all who knew him and especially in the Army he loved.

(The writer is a retired Major General)

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