Posted on July 24th, 2022


The 1971 JVP Insurgency was totally a new experience for Sri Lanka. Once the government woke up to the fact that they had a full blown insurgency on its hands, it moved fast to squash it, said Gamini Gunawardene. The Opposition UNP got to a side, did not obstruct and engage in the blame game.

The government responded strongly to the Insurgency and suppressed it successfully, using army, police and foreign assistance. We have learned too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy the insurgents completely. We have no choice, army said.

This was the first time that the Sri Lanka armed force had to face an attack against the state. The forces used their limited resources. In 1971 the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) consisted of three squadrons: No. 1 Flying Training Squadron with nine Chipmunk trainers based at China Bay, No. 2 Transport Sq. equipped with five Doves, 4 Herons and three Pioneer fixed wing aircraft and four helicopters and No. 3 Reconnaissance Sq. with Cessna aircraft. In the 1960s Britain had gifted five Hunting Jet Provost T51s jet trainers which had gone out of service by 1971.

Beginning at 0900 hours on 5th April the Jet Provost, which were in storage at China Bay, began operating out of this airbase. Armed with Browning machine guns and rockets, they carried out air to ground attacks using 60 lb rockets. The three Bell 206A Jet Ranger helicopters protected by Bren Guns airlifted 36,500 lb of ammunition during April to critical police stations. In addition the Doves carried out supply missions and during the course of April, 900 soldiers and 100,000 lb of equipment were transported by the RCyAF.

The JVP seized parts of the Colombo-Kandy A1 Trunk Route at Warakapola and Kegalle, cutting off the main artery between Colombo and the tea growing highlands. In response the Jet Provost had to mount aerial attacks on the key bridge at Alawwa. This led to the downing of a Jet Provost and the death of her pilot.

India loaned us Gurkha soldiers to guard Katunayake Air Port. On 8th April a full day curfew was declared and a load of ammunition was air lifted here, as we had run short of ammunition.

In the aftermath of the insurgency the armed forces expanded. The Air Force which had 1,400 personnel in 1971 grew to 3,100 by 1976. New units were raised: a Special Police Reserve Force, a Volunteer RCyAF and a new Field Security Detachment targeting subversion was created.

The government was able to win the war against the JVP in 1971 because it received arms from abroad. China, Australia, Pakistan and Yugoslavia   sent arms and equipment. However the disparate array of equipment would pose a logistics dilemma for the military.

The sudden influx of arms and ammunition rapidly altered the balance of power against the JVP. For example the Army took Yugoslav artillery into Kegalle to flush out the rebels.

Within four days of the JVP attack, Air Ceylon’s Trident took off from Singapore carrying a consignment of small arms provided by Britain from its base there. The following day the UK agreed to supply six Bell-47G Jet Ranger helicopters armed with 7.62mm machine guns. On 12th April on board a US Air Force Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, Washington shipped out critical spare parts for the RCyAF helicopters which were flying twelve hour days. And at Colombo’s request New Delhi on the 14th sent six Indian Air Force Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama utility helicopters with crews to Katunayake Air Force Base, along with troops to guard them as well as arms, ammunition and grenades. They would remain in the country for three months.

On the 17th Air Ceylon flew in nine tons of military equipment which the Soviet Union made available from supplies in Cairo. While on the 22nd a Soviet Air Force Antonov AN-22 transporter arrived with two Kamov Ka-26 rescue helicopters and five Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters and one MiG-17 high-subsonic fighter. The Soviet aircraft were accompanied by 200 trainers and ground crew.

Meanwhile there were reports that the JVP were endeavouring to bring weapons in by sea. But the Royal Ceylon Navy’s frigate and Thorneycroft boats could not secure the island’s territory nor prevent supplies reaching the rebels. This compelled Colombo to rely on the Indian Navy which sent three of its Hunt-class escort destroyers, INS Ganga, INS Gomathi and INS Godawari to patrol Ceylon’s maritime perimeter.

There was also the need to catch and prosecute the offenders.    An ‘Ops Room’ was hastily set up at the Temple Trees. IGP Stanley Senanayake who had gone to England was recalled. A team was created which included handpicked persons such as former IGP Alaric Abeygunawardena.

An investigating office was set up elsewhere.  Abeygunawardane had a few CID and Intelligence officers attached to him, who continued to monitor and direct operations to arrest the balance rebel leaders who were hiding.

Police station OICs and ASPs were asked to send their investigation files direct to this office. Under Emergency Regulations, admissions made to ASPs by suspects were made admissible in courts. Abeygunawardane’s office had a few Senior State Counsels like Ranjith Abeysuriya, Kenneth Seneviratne and some others to prepare cases for prosecution and advise the police officers on further investigations. Thus cases were filed in courts without delay.

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