Reminiscences of the late Wing Commander Tony Dirckze- this article is published in memory of the late Wing Commander and to celebrate the life and contribution made towards the Sri Lanka Air force Regiment by him .
Establishment of the AIR DOG SECTION in 1978
The Commander telephoned me one morning and said he wanted the Regiment to take over the “defunct” Air Dog Section. To my mind the Regiment had nothing to do with air dogs…..in fact it struck me that the Regiment was now going to the dogs. But those of you who have worked with the Commander AVM Harry know that if the Commander thought some task was possible……he never took no for an answer…..and so in1978 the Regiment had to take over the defunct Air Dog Section. Applications calling for those who wished to serve as Air Dog Handlers was inserted in the SRO. Applications were to be sent to the CO Regiment. Interviews were held and one Corporal and 10 Airmen were selected. But I had no specialised knowledge, and hence I contacted Police Inspector Mr. Burtus who was the O i/c of the famous Police Dog Section. Mr. Burtus was a great help…….he not only advised me, but also trained our first course of Dog Handlers…….a very sincere THANK YOU to Mr. Burtus.
The Regiment was totally unprepared for this task. We had no Dog Handlers, no kennels, etc. No budget for meals for the dogs, because they had to have a special diet…..above all I did not have a clue about Air Dogs…..all my knowledge was confined to handling my domestic dog. The Kennels were designed by Flt. Sgt. Edirisinghe, and constructed by the Kat. Works Services. Flt. Lt. Dasa was the vet for the dogs. The most important factor is that they were ALL very keen…..they took pride in their Air Dog Section…..this was a very big contributory factor.
The first batch of Handlers were trained by the Sri Lanka Police. They were sent to the Police Dog Training School at Kandy for training from the 15th.June to the 28th.July 1978. The Air Dogs were trained by the NCO i/c Sgt. Edirisinghe. They were trained in the various functions they would be used, such as “sniffing” for explosives, tracking, etc.
Air Dog Training.
The Air Dogs required a lot of training, firstly because they were new and secondly because they performed multiple functions. …..such as training for public Functions. At first the Air Dogs were utilised mainly for “security” of the Kat. Base. Later they were used to perform the functions of…..Tracking…….Combat Tracking…….Guard Duties Explosive Detection…. and for “Displays”.
Establishment of the COMMANDO UNIT in 1979
When I conceived the idea to establish a Commando Unit, the Commander was notified, and he approved the formation of the Commando Unit. Here again I had no specialized knowledge such as, qualifications, physical requirements, training programmes, etc. Hence I contacted Col. Sunil Peiris (brother of Flt. Lt. Eksith Peiris) who was the CO of the Army Commando Unit. I had the fullest support from Col. Sunil Peiris… for which I am sincerely grateful.
Formation of Commando Unit.
To the best of my knowledge applications were called from the Regiment Squadron personnel who wished to serve in the Commando Unit. Interviews were held, and two Officers and 23 Airmen were selected to form the first Commando Unit of the SLAF Regiment.
Basic Training of Commando Unit.
The training syllabus to the best of my knowledge was mainly based on the Army Commando syllabus. In addition we also gave them training at China Bay in Fire Fighting, Karate, Swimming, and Airfield Defence. The main Basic Training Course was done at DLA and China Bay. The “Training Course” commenced on the 25th. February at DLA and ended on the 24th.August 1979 with the POP at China Bay SLAF Base.
General Training. “Live on Land.”
This “jungle” training exercise aimed at the Commando Unit surviving off the jungle for 7 days without any outside support was held in the Selva Kataragama/Buttala jungles. A particular incident during training in the jungle I will never forget Eksith told me that he could cut a tree by the use of explosives… and wanted to demonstrate the technique
……I had my fears because of the use of explosives…but Eksith was very keen, and hence
I agreed……..he told me to stand approximately 20 metres from the tree……set the explosives and joined me……and detonated the explosives……he cut the tree in two……..but I heard a whistling sound past my left ear……it was a chunk of wood about 3Kg. in weight, had it connected I would not be writing this report today.
The Gunners survived on whatever they could get from the jungle… it is rumoured that
Eksith had an extra item on his menu……”snake flesh.”
The Commando Unit and the Air Dog Section I am informed, subsequently did many a combined exercise.
The “motto”, the badge, the uniform, etc. was decided by the CO Regiment and approved by the Commander. The batik work for the uniform was done free by Fg. Off. Nathaniels (I think) a Volunteer Regiment Officer.
Flt. Lt. Eksith Peiris was a dedicated and “BORN” Commando. His performance of duties as O i/c was far beyond the call of duty. This “seed” of the first Commando Unit of two Officers and 23 Airmen has subsequently developed into a massive tree. The credit for this development must go to Flt. Lt. Eksith Peiris.
Passing out Parade.
The Passing out Parade was held at China Bay, and the Chief Guest was Col. C.A. Dharmapala the Secretary of Defence……after the POP the Commando Unit gave a display of a “hostage” being rescued from the Air Traffic Control Tower this was a combination of a ground and air operation. Fg. Off. Bowela the 2 i/c was in charge of the ground attack, and Flt. Lt. Peiris did the hostage rescue.
COMMANDER’S COMMENTS ON COMMANDO UNIT AND THE AIR DOG SECTION
Given below is an extract of the Commander’s comments pertaining to the Commando Unit and the Air Dog Section:
“Wg. Cdr. Dirckze ……is the architect of the Commando Unit and the Air Dog Section……two of the show pieces of the Sri Lanka Air Force.”
Establishment of the SLAF BAND in 1974.
In 1970 eight or ten Bandsmen were selected and sent to the Navy Band Unit at Welisara for training as Bandsmen. In 1974 a full band consisting of 34 Bandsmen was established, and Batho was the O i/c. Therefore when I took over command of the Regiment in 1977 the Air Force already had a full Band. The details were as follows:
I/C Band……………………………………………………………….. Fg. Off. Nalin Silva.
Band Master…………………………………………………………. Fg. Off. “Batho.”
NCO i/c………………………………………………………………….. Sgt. Morrill.
During my term of command eight Bandsmen were selected and sent to China Bay for an Instructional Technique Course. This would enable the Bandsmen to do their training in- house. The Band had two separate types of training as follows:
Professional Music Training.
Batho was very competent in handling the professional training of the Band…….not only was he competent, he was very keen……I remember I had a tape of RAF Band Marches…..he borrowed it from me and trained the Band to play some of those “marches.” The Band was fortunate to have the services of Batho.
The military training I think was done by Morril. For all SLAF Ceremonials and Parades the Band was in attendance. One of their most difficult duties, I think, was to play the National Anthems of the Countries for which the SLAF had to give the Guards of Honour for the Head of States for the Non-aligned Conference. Batho had to go to the embassies and get their approval, to the effect that the National Anthem was correct.
It is my opinion that in a short space of time, in comparison with the other Service Bands, the SLAF Band was on par or better……this was mainly due to the effort of ALL the Bandsmen, and the leadership of Batho and Morril.
NOTE. One of the Bandsmen from Kandy (LAC Berenger I think) lost his life due to natural causes. We got permission from AFHQ and gave him a “service funeral” through the streets of Kandy………..this enhanced the pride and comradeship of the Bandsmen in their Unit.
For more details please refer article written by Navaratne in “Sri Lanka Air Force Regiment Past Members Club” 10th. Anniversary Book.
SLAF REGIMENT “SQUADRONS.
SLAF Regiment Squadrons. On my assuming duties as CO Regiment, it consisted of three Squadrons as follows:
101 Squadron, comprising of “Regular” Officers and Airmen. 102 Squadron, comprising of “Regular” Officers and Airmen,
106 Squadron, comprising of “Volunteer” Officers and Airman.
The SLAF Regiment is made up of the “REGIMENT SQUADRONS.” The Squadrons are the essence of the Regiment. Therefore I was keen on evolving a “criteria” by which to evaluate their efficiency as a fighting machine. During the period I was CO, the main functions of the SLAF Regiment as stated by the Director Ground Operations in the book, Sri Lanka Air Force Regiment Past Members Club was.……… “The main role and task of the Regiment during the period of the late seventies and early eighties was to provide security to the International Airport.” The very important point I wish to make here is that the “functions” of the Regiment Squadrons were therefore routine and of a “preventive” nature……hence the functions did not provide the opportunity for the Squadrons to show excellence in their performance of work…….there were no opportunities for victory in battles……the most the Regiment could claim…….is that their mere presence prevented riots and looting.
Situation 1: It was a custom for supporters of VVIP’s leaving the country to be escorted right up to the steps of the aircraft by their friends, relations, “catches” etc…..this is a dangerous practice….and should be stopped. When Mr. Premadasa was leaving the country the aircraft was “cordoned off” by a flight of Gunners commanded by Sgt. Mettananda….and his orders were that NO ONE should break the cordon……but the Senior DIG, one of two of the most important and powerful in the Premadasa regime broke the cordon and approached the aircraft…..Mettananda contacted me on walkie talkie and asked for instructions…..I said “stop him.”…..Mettananda marched up to him in front of the crowd and said…… Sorry Sir you cannot enter the aircraft…..the DIG turned and walked back. We were fully aware of the power of the DIG……but Mettananda did his duty…..without fear because he knew the Regiment would protect him.
Situation 2: A similar incident occurred sometime later when Minister Monty Jayawickrema (I think) attempted to enter the aircraft and Eksith stopped him…but this time the Minister did not take it kindly……he contacted the Commander and wanted Eksith punished fortunately Bren was able to sort out the problem with the Minister over breakfast….Eksith did his duty and the Regiment protected him.
Situation 3: A Gunner attempted to desert and went missing…in addition to the Police the other Gunners also went looking out for him…..when he realised that it was serious….one afternoon he surrendered to the Main Guard Room with the MP for Negombo, and the MP wanted to speak to me……I told the Guard Room to inform him that I cannot speak to him and that he should speak to the Commander…..and he proceeded to AFHQ……I knew that I had approximately 60 minutes before he spoke to the Commander to get the Airmen pardoned. I had him charged and brought before me in 30 minutes……he pleaded guilty and said he would accept my punishment 30 days loss of pay and detention 10 minutes later I received a call from the Commander, who wanted to know what this was… I asked the Commander, “is the MP in front of you Sir…he said…. “Yes.” I told the Commander that the Airmen had been charged….he had pleaded guilty and said he would accept my punishment……the Commander told the MP that the Airmen had pleaded guilty….and had been punished by his CO…hence there was nothing the Commander could do now…..he advised the MP to speak to the President……the matter ended there……..this Gunner stepped out of line brought the Regiment to disrepute….he was given the maximum punishment.
ROLES AND FUNCTIONS “IN THE LINE OF DUTY” 1977 TO 1979.
Roles and Functions. Given below are the Roles and Functions that were required to be performed by the Regiment, “in their line of duty” during my term as Commanding Officer:
- Special IS Operations in “Aid to the Civil ”
- Defence of SLAF
- Parades and Ceremonial.
SPECIAL I.S. OPERATIONS IN AID TO THE CIVIL POWER.
General Elections were held in July 1977. Squadron 101 was deployed for “patrol duties” on the Main Road from Chilaw to Victoria Bridge, and they were based at Kat.
Squadron 102 were deployed for “patrol duties” at Borella and Slave Island, and they were based at AFHQ.
Post-Election Violence. After the appointment of the PM incidents of violence began to occur and the Regiment was required to provide security for Minuwangoda and Divulapitiya. The former Deputy Minister of Defence Mr. Lakshman Jayakody was living in Divulapitiya and hence this area was particularly sensitive.
Communal Riots. Soon after the post-election violence we had the communal riots. The Regiment was deployed in Matale and Colombo. The Regiment was later deployed in Puttalam also.
OPERATIONS……1978 AND 1979.
I CANNOT RECOLLECT THE EXACT OPERATIONS DURING THIS PERIOD. There were many operations in “Aid to the Civil Power.” I think all the operations were to prevent communal riots, and looting. I have a recollection of the following, which I hope will assist any Editorial Committee in obtaining the details from other sources.
General Elections 1977 to 1979. Sqn. 101were detailed to do road security duties from Chilaw to Victoria Bridge, and were based at Kat. Sqn.102 were required to do security duties at Borella and Slave Island, and were based at AFHQ. Subsequently we were required to cover Minuwangoda and Divulapitiya.
Communal Riots. Almost after the elections, communal riots broke out and the Regiment was required to do security duties at Matale and Colombo, and later at Puttalam also.
Negombo: Performing security functions in the town, and lining the streets from Negombo to Kat…. most probably to prevent communal trouble
Nalanda or Nikaweratiya. An interesting event during this operation was the local “watch dog.” On all our operations where ever there was a watch dog we adopted it, because they were excellent “sentries….they would give us an “early warning” in case of any intruder…..this dog was special….it would also do PT with the Gunners……when the gunners went for their early morning run…..this dog would run alongside the flight.
Security of Welikada Prison. The Regiment was asked to provide security for the Welikada Prisons.
When the Squadrons went out on an operation they could not tell their families when they would return home………………….……”I will be back when you see me” was the answer.
DEFENCE OF SLAF BASES.
Defence of SLAF Bases – SLAF Base Katunayake. I do not remember the date, but one morning when the Airmen at the SLAF Kat were going to work they noticed letters painted in white on some of the roads…..no one paid much attention. Sometime later when the key orderly went to open the door of the SMB Store he noticed that the padlock had been broken. The strange part was that nothing had been stolen. This was serious. Still later at one of the Guwan Kumari Shows at the Hospital Grounds where the Commander was the Chief Guest……and the grounds jam packed ….the Commander’s car was parked near the stage…… after the show when the Commander’s driver went to the car…….he noticed that all four hub-caps had been stolen…….this was serious……these incidents were a challenge to the Base Security by the JVP insurgents operating inside the Base. The next morning the Commander called me and said he wanted the Regiment to take-over the security of the Base with immediate effect. We later realised that these activities were stages in the training programme of the JVP Insurgents……they had “cells” inside the Kat. Base…..they were conducting “training courses” late at night. The Base was divided into sectors and the Squadrons given responsibility for the sectors. Each Squadron was divided into sections of 6 to 8 Airmen each, who patrolled the entire Base from dusk to dawn. The Officers were required to do so many surprise checks each night. The Airmen were “armed”. There were no incidents after that.
PARADES AND CEREMONIALS.
Parades and Ceremonials. The following Parades and Ceremonials were performed by the Regiment when I was CO Regiment, there were more which I cannot recollect:
Guard of Honour for the following:
PM of India…………………………………………… Moraji Desai.
PM Singapore………………………………………. Lee Quan Yew.
PM of Sri Lanka……………………………………. JRJ.
Governor General of Sri Lanka…………….. W. Gopallawa.
President of Sri Lanka………………………….. JRJ.
In order to facilitate relationship with our neighbour …….Negombo…the Regiment was
required to do monthly parade in the town of Negombo. When not on operation duties we had our CO’s Parades.
All Independence Day Parades. Republic Day Parades.
President’s House Ceremonial Guard. The Ceremonial Guard of the President’s House was done by the Army, but subsequently the Ministry decided that it will be done by all three Services. The Commander ordered that the Regiment will do the Guard on behalf of the Air Force. This was a very important and prestigious duty. The Guards had to be selected, trained to stand perfectly still at one position for long periods, etc. The Commander took a personal interest in the design of the uniform……I had to show him many options before he made up his mind.
Training – 1977 to 1979.
Training was mainly “routine.” The objective being, proficiency in tactics, accuracy in firing, and physical fitness.
Squadron Training. The Squadrons conducted their own training programmes. It was mainly drill, operations in aid to the civil power, and physical fitness training. The Squadrons went to the Army Range Panagoda for regular firing. The Squadrons went to the Minneriya or Hingurakkgoda Airfield for training in Air Field Defence.
Commando Training. If I remember correct, the Commando Unit under Eksith and Bo did regular jungle exercises, tactics, fitness training, etc.
Air Dog Training. The Air Dogs required a lot of training, firstly because they were new and secondly because they performed multiple functions… such as training for public displays, attack training, drug detection, etc. The training was handled by Sgt. Edirisinghe the O i/c Dog Handlers
ROLES AND FUNCTIONS
In the Line of Duty. Given above are the duties related to, aid to civil power, security of SLAF Bases, and Ceremonials and Parades, which were performed by the Regiment, “in line of their duties” because they are stipulated in the Roles and Functions of the SLAF Regiment.
Beyond the “Call of Duty.” Given below are some of the functions which were performed by the Regiment which were “beyond the call of duty” as stipulated in the Roles and Functions for the Regiment.
The Regiment Day “Display” – 1979. It was decided that in order to enhance the reputation of the Regiment, and to create an awareness of the value of the Regiment, that a “display” should be staged at Kat for the Airmen and their families. The grounds was packed…….. it was a huge success. The Commander was the Chief Guest.
“Sports Training” for Children of the Gunners. Some of the Gunners whose wife’s were working informed me that they had problems during school holidays, because their children were alone at home. Could something constructive be done? It was I believe also the “International Year of the Child”……and this gave us an idea. It was decided to arrange a “sports training programme” for the children of the Gunners. I contacted Sgt. Paul in the i/c Sports Section, and he arranged a programme for four weeks…morning to evening. At the end of the training programme a “Sports Meet” was held at the Kat, grounds, and Certificates and trophies were given. I must place on record a “sincere THANK YOU” to Sgt. Paul and his Physical Training Instructors for conducting the training programme and having made this idea materialised. The Children had great fun…….it was not only fun but mental and physical exercise also. The Commander was the Chief Guest.
Management of Katunayake Airport. The Secretary of Defence requested the Commander to take over the Management Functions of the Katunayake Airport. As such eight areas of management were identified, and an Air Force Officer was appointed to manage each area, EG. Eddie Buell was appointed Manager ADMIN. I was appointed Manager Fire and Security… these functions were in addition to our normal Air Force duties….this was strenuous because I would leave office at approx. 16.00 hrs and return home at approx. 20.00 hrs.
Canteen and Agro. For various activities, such as meals for the Children’s Coaching Camp, etc. the Regiment needed “funds.” Hence the Regiment established a “Canteen” and also an “Agro.” Section, the profits of which went to the “Regiment Fund.” The running of the Canteen and the Agro Project was the responsibility of the Squadrons. I cannot recollect which Squadron was responsible for which.
Agility/Combat Facility. In order to provide physical training the Regiment constructed an Agility/ Combat in the area of the old Power House or the Church area. Eksith and Bruno Fernando were the main architects in the construction of this very valuable training aid.
SLAF COLOUR. The SLAF Colours were paraded for the first time at the Republic Day Parade at Kandy on 22 May 1976.
GST. In the early 1970’s General Service Training was compulsory
GDO. As Adjt. China Bay I was the Ground Defence Officer…..this was during the height of the JVP insurgency.
SLAF and CMC Fire Department. When the CMC Firemen went on strike, the Ministry requested the SLAF to take over the functions of the Fire Dept. Flt. Lt. Atapattu and a flight of Airmen took over the functions. Flt. Lt. Atapattu had just passed the Graduateship Examination of the Institute of Fire Engineers UK.
VISIT TO JAFFNA AIRPORT. I remember travelling to Jaffna Airport…..but I cannot recollect whether it was to check the Regiment arrangements or the Fire Service.
“JET EXERCISES.” I was Adj. for the Jet Exercises conducted at C’Bay.
KOGGALA AIRPORT. The Regiment was required to “clean and clear” the Koggala airfield for the first SLAF aircraft to land at Koggala. If I remember correct the Chief of Staff A/C DCP made the first landing after the Regiment cleared the airfield.
SLAF “ROAD-RUN.” I cannot remember the year…. but someone at HQ decided that the fitness of the officers and airmen should be put to the test…..a road run for all SLAF Formations was conducted in Colombo…..each formation had to enter a team…..the Regiment Team came third.
MOTOR RACES. In the good old days the Kat. runway was not a busy one….hence the Motor Races were conducted there…..it was a very popular event…..large crowds and vehicles used to converge on the grounds…..this created major logistic problems…..but what worried the Motor Racing Association is that the profit was a mere thousands…..because their security permitted kith and kin entrance free…… hence they requested the SLAF to conduct the event…..on the first event alone the profit ran into lakhs of rupees.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. I wish to place on record my “SINCERE THANKS “to the following who helped me to compile this report: Vijitha, Nalin, Oliver, W/O Karunasiri, W/O Wijekoon, W/O Tissa Fernando., F/Sgt. Edirisinghe and Sgt. Samarakody. I would be failing in my duty if I did not acknowledge the assistance and encouragement given to me by the Commander AVM Harry Goonetillake.”
Suggestion. I suggest that a Newspaper advertisement be published stating if it is desired to publish this history in a printed format, and requesting all Officers and Airmen to provide information…..their achievements, etc. ….for inclusion…there are no complete records ….and hence the omission of anyone could cause pain of mind to the individual concerned.
This article had been written by the late Wing Commander Tony Dirckze [retd], SLAF for the benefit of all serving and retired Officers who value history.
A “Salute” to the Late Wing Commander Tony Dirckze by thesundayreader.lk news team !