Tribute: General Deshamanya Denis Perera VSV (1930-2013)

Posted on 05 October 2013 by admin


By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando (Courtesy: The Island)

"The only man under whom any General would gladly serve’

(Field Marshal Montgomery-later Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, on Field Marshal Alexander, later Earl Alexander of Tunis. Alexander commanded the Allied Forces in Africa under whom Montgomery and the 8th Army served))

The above compliment is equally well paid to General Denis Perera who sadly passed away on August 11, 2013. An Israeli Brigadier General Yaacom Even virtually echoed it at the World Wide Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (ARFRO) conference held in Colombo around 2000.He said "what a wonderful man is your General. I would follow him anywhere any day". Coincidently, Gen Perera, who greatly admired Field Marshall Alexander received his commission from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and graduated from the same Staff College- in Camberley UK as did Field Marshals Alexander and Montgomery before him.

General Perera was educated at St Peter’s College. He joined the army in October 1949 and was initially trained at the Mons Officer Cadet School. After further training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he was commissioned into the First Field Engineers and was attached to the British Army of the Rhine. He later graduated from the British Army Staff College, Camberley. After service in both field command and Army HQ staff positions, he served as a staff officer under the then Lt Col Richard Udugama (later Army Commander) in Eastern Sri Lanka during the Gal Oya troubles. Later he was Sri Lanka’s Military Attaché in the UK.

The news of his death elicited messages from distinguished and well known personalities both civilian and military from all over the world. They knew that "an era has passed". What was this "era"? It was one when the highest standards and values expected of professional military officers and gentlemen were upheld and enforced. It was an era where favoritism, family connections and political affinity mattered not.

At the military funeral on August 14, very many Tri Service officers and men and a representative gathering of civilians from all walks of life followed the gun carriage escorted by 1,000 troops to the grave site. Their presence spoke volumes for the enduring respect and affection so many had for him even though it was 32 years since he retired, almost all of it in numbing bloody conflict.

General Perera led a very small, essentially peace time army of about 12,500 all ranks. It was never ‘ceremonial’ as alluded to by the western media that condescendingly coined such terms for many former colonial armies engaged in counter terrorism. This expression was slavishly echoed by the local media post 1980s until the army over 200,000 strong was seen to be winning.

General Perera’s vision, sense of purpose, personality, leadership and character, and the many great works he had completed were such that few, including elected leaders of the country then and now, would disagree that he was easily the best Commander SL ever had. So would many others in the senior echelons of the public service and the captains of industry and the best professionals. They were surprised to observe how easily they were attracted to him, his impressive grasp of diverse national issues, his controlled eloquence, his management style and confidence. All of it was wholly unassuming. He was a born leader. This wonder grew even long into his retirement as his advice was much sought especially by the military on organization and career planning.

While it is not possible to recall all his leadership qualities in this limited space, what stood out were his personality and character, which so effortlessly drew people to him, his ability to inspire and enthuse others, his fairness in all his dealings while maintaining compassion and understanding, and his moral strength that made him stand up for what he believed was right especially when it affected his subordinates. He was fearless but not cavalier when dealing with national issues in situations where weaker leaders would have played to the gallery. His sincerity and charm made people trust him and feel he meant what he said. He produced results of rare quality that have endured.

Professionally, as a military engineer officer, he showed he had the wider knowledge to lead what was basically an infantry army beginning to be threatened by an intractable militant movement, which when launched with earnest the day after he retired, cost the country dearly. If he was not a Field Marshal Alexander, he was a Field Marshal Kitchener or General Gordon who were both Engineers as Brigadier Douglas Ramanayake, Gen Perera’s Commanding Officer in the Ceylon (SL) Engineers, liked to point out to those who questioned having an Engineer officer, command the Army . He judged to a nicety when to be a Martinet (Napoleon’s Adjutant General) and when to relax, encourage and laugh with everyone and take a joke at his expense.

While he took responsibility for whatever he had to get done, he encouraged if not empowered his subordinates to tackle problems themselves. He was aware of the insidious outside pressures brought to bear on his command but was able to circumvent all but the most difficult situations. He communicated closely with all he knew throughout his life. He knew his subordinates as well as they knew him. To the many retired officers, who visited him regularly in hospital towards the end of his life, he would greet them by name and optimistically say ‘you must come and see me when I get home and join me for a drink’. It was not to be, this last time.

General Perera provided leadership at a very personal level. He was always prepared to listen to others and accept their advice. He was a great motivator, setting an example in everything he said and achieved. His subordinates felt he cared for them and their aspirations during and after their time of service. The new pay code introduced in 1981 which virtually doubled the salaries of forces personnel was largely due to his ability to convince an eminent commission on what "military pay" should be. However he himself did not personally benefit from the increased pay as these changes came into effect after he retired.

The army General Perera led, developed the moral, mental and physical qualities needed to meet the threats then fast developing in the country. It met with few triumphs and more often with disaster but eventually prevailed over a formidable terrorist group. The qualities and competences he ingrained in those he led at the start of their careers endured and made their impact during crucial moments in the battle against terrorism. Those who were trained when he was Commandant of the Army Training Centre Diyatalawa from 1968 – 1972 included General Sarath Fonseka, Army Commander, and Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary, of the troika that is credited with the victory that ended the 26 year old conflict.

During his military career he made several lasting contributions, starting at Diyatalawa (1968-72). Here he raised the Officer Cadet school, the precursor to the SL Military Academy (SLMA) which too he raised later when Army Commander (1977-81). The young officers who were commissioned from there knew they were the promise of the future. They did not fail from the Army Commander to all the other commanders in the climatic battles of the East and the Wanni.

When he was Commander Northern Command, with his HQ in Anuradhapura in the early 1970s, he sent his children to school there displaying, for a senior officer, a rare humility as well as confidence in Government schools few shared. He was also Commander, Southern Command.

Extraordinary vision

With extraordinary vision, having been much influenced by his visit to the Indian National Defence Academy, Kadakawasala, and with a rare insight into the education levels needed of future military officers, he persuaded SL’s third prime minister, Colonel (later General) Sir John Kotelawela, to gift his magnificent Kandawela estate to the Tri Services to establish the Kotelawela Defence Academy, now university. When it became a university he was appointed its first Chancellor (1995-2010). It is heartening to know that a room has been set aside at the university to house memorabilia of Gen Perera.

Gen Perera also raised the Commandos, SL Army Women’s Corps, the Rajarata Rifles (later disbanded and amalgamated to form the Gajaba Regiment) and the Vijayaba Regiment. He made sure the Commandos and the Women’s Corps were given the best training possible by the world’s best, the SAS and the Women’s Royal Army Corps respectively. Many of the Commandos also qualified as parachutists to give the army a hitherto unexplored battle advantage.

Gen Perera’s command, organizing and administrative ability was seen by a wider audience than the army when he was given in charge of all the security forces duties for the fourth Non Aligned (Nations) Meeting in Colombo in 1976. Navy, Air Force and Police officers, traditionally slow to ever credit their seniors, acknowledged in him an outstanding leader of rare class, approachable to all as the army officers knew all along. The outstanding success of the Conference owed much to the contributions of the Forces and Police for whom then DIG (later IGP) Cyril Herath too made his mark and impressed much. When a year later Gen Perera became Army Commander all three forces and the Police, for the first time, extended their complete and total cooperation at all times to him. Acquaintances turned into lifelong friendship that stood in very good stead during the troubles where Tri Service and police cooperation were at their highest when needed most. It may have been the glue that kept the forces and the police united and buoyant during the worst of times.

At the tail end of Army Commander General Attygalle’s tenure came the 1977 riots. As usual armoured cars were sent to Temple Trees to ‘protect’ the Prime Minister JRJ while the defenceless Tamils were being brutalized by thugs. General Perera, then a Colonel and Director Operations and Plans, set about bringing the situation under control quickly. Soft shoe patrols surprised and controlled the difficult areas even as the goondas easily evaded the mobile patrols.

His handling of the 1981 riots was an example of his style of managing and leading in a conflict situation. In Ampara and Batticaloa where the trouble started, it was contained quickly without the loss of life. However ruling party politicians made sure the troubles broke out far away a short time later. In Ratnapura and Rakwana, many miles distant, there were many murders and arson attacks targeting estate Tamils, the hardest working, most helpless, easily victimized and exploited people of SL.

On taking over as Commander of the Army, Gen Perera issued his famous 100 point ‘aide memoire’ for administration on his very first day in command, being very well prepared as he was in everything he planned. It was followed by group presentations for the re organization of the army, review of its weapons, communications and logistics where majors (who do the bulk of the staff work) were given their head. Noticeably the recommendation for 39 infantry battalions in 1978, when the army had only three, was grudgingly reduced to two. (Raja Rata and Vijaybahu) by the government. Gen Perera’s also created a much needed Combat Training School at Ampara. This in addition to exercising troops for the first time as all arms combat teams (infantry, armour, artillery, engineers and signals) and running battle courses for mid ranking officers also trained the first batch of policemen who were the nucleus for the later raised STF.

After retiring Gen Perera was appointed High Commissioner to Australia and New Zealand and accredited to several other smaller countries in the vicinity. He did an excellent job including dampening the hostile international media with a savvy that some of SL’s professional diplomats failed to display. This was at a time SL was considered an international pariah due to the effects of the 1983 riots.

On his return, General Perera took up the post of Chairman of Blackwood Hodge, a heavy machinery engineering firm. The business world saw in him an exceptional leader. Thereafter SL’s number one contributor to the exchequer, the Ceylon Tobacco Company, made him its Chairman, a significant recognition of his leadership qualities, management ability, personality and reputation. He was later appointed Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission before he was tasked with heading the highly controversial Defence Review Committee by the then Prime Minister.

When he became the President of the SL Ex Servicemen’s Association (SLESA) it was nearly bankrupt. He initiated a scheme, with the ready concurrence of the Service Commanders at that time, whereby serving troops were made nonvoting members. Their subscriptions went to the SLESA welfare fund. That saved SLESA.

He also inaugurated the local branch of the world wide Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (ARFRO) which soon became very popular with retired and serving Tri Service officers as a think tank on the lines of Royal United Services Institute UK and similar institutions in other countries .


The Organization of Professional Associations (OPA) responding to the initiative taken by Gen Perera admitted ARFRO to its membership after a polished presentation that stunned the OPA.

Gen Perera was also the founder President of the Gen Sir John Kotelawela Memorial Association which commemorates his birth and death anniversary with appropriate ceremony at Kandawela. He launched a small scale scholarship scheme for under privileged university undergrads there.

Gen Perera must have been very proud of the Army he commanded as much as those who served under him were of him. He was happiest to hear of the achievements of his protégés whether it was in winning battles or doing well at the Olympic Games. At the worst of times even though it was in his retirement he did much to help in restructuring the army, offering advice and giving it confidence in his unwavering belief of the ultimate outcome. The success of the army, the deeds of its officers, men and women and the performance of the many regiments and institutions he raised, testify to the enduring nature of his efforts and achievements. His wide circle of friends and admirers made sure he received all the help needed to support whatever he wanted of them for the forces. His management acumen led to high appointments in the corporate world. In his career and in life he was always large hearted, generous and straight. He never had to apologize for anything he had done as Commander or in any other post military or as a civilian.

He was the best and a super example of an Army Commander, leader, manager, visionary and achiever. Emulating him will be a worthwhile challenge to the Commanders who now follow.

The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst "Serve to Lead" would have guided him. It meant serve your men first to be able to lead them.

In ancient days the Valkeries would have taken him to Valhalla, the adobe of warriors.

He leaves his wife of over 50 years, Ranjini, and three sons, Khavan, Dinesh and Druvi and their wives and his grand children, one a doctor who will soon serve in the Military Hospital, treading softly in the footsteps of this noble and wonderful man.

May he rest in peace.

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