20th Death Anniversary of Admiral Clancy Fernando falls today
The 20th death anniversary of late Admiral Clancy Fernando, the 11th Commander of the Navy falls on November 16. His name is etched in the history as the highest-ranking military officer to make the Supreme Sacrifice for his motherland. He was a man of fiery enthusiasm and total commitment for his beloved country.
Admiral Fernando was assassinated on November 16, 1992 at 0835 hrs along the Galle Face Centre Road in the heart of Colombo when an LTTE suicidal cadre rammed an explosive laden motorcycle into his vehicle. He was on his way to Naval Headquarters at Flagstaff Street in Galle Buck, Colombo 1 from his official residence, “Navy House” at Longdon Place, Colombo 7.
He was travelling in his official car, a Mercedes Benz, bearing number NAHA 5006, clad in his immaculate white Naval uniform with the ‘Naval Ensign’ fluttering in the flag stand and the distinguished ‘Star Plates’ majestically displayed in the fore and aft. That’s the way Admiral Fernando moved about, throughout his tenure as the Commander of the Navy.
It was a bright sunny day and I called Admiral at “Navy House” to explain how a series of strange events prevented me from joining him on the drive from his official residence to Naval Headquarters. By then, he was getting ready to leave and said, “Thank you, I’ll be there” and replaced the receiver, not knowing that it was the last telephone conversation in his life.
After a few minutes, I switched on the communication set to monitor his movement. Suddenly, I heard confused exchange of messages and my office telephone started to ring. On the line was the wife of Admiral Fernando and she could only say “Shemal”. Within seconds, I whisked off in my vehicle and as I drove past the old Parliament along Galle Road, I saw it all.
As I approached the scene many things crossed my mind. Until I saw Admiral Fernando lying face down as if asleep sprawled diagonally across the seat in a pool of blood inside the car which had turned turtle, I did not believe that he was dead. Then I realized that it was all over and the cruel terrorists had snatched away from our midst a courageous Admiral.
Surely, Admiral Fernando had been killed instantly by the blast. He could never have known what had happened to him. To die with no time for fear or regrets, doing what he enjoyed as a brave Naval Officer to end not with a whimper but with a bang that reverberated around the world – that truly was the fate he would have chosen for himself.
That was my recollection of the gruesome assassination of Admiral Clancy Fernando. I deem it a privilege to have known him, received his wise counsel and enjoyed serving him as his Aide and Personal Secretary throughout his tenure of office, which spanned from August 1, 1991 to November 16, 1992. He was indeed an admirable admiral.
I wish to comment on his career briefly and especially on the qualities that struck me most about him during the times I spent under him firstly in the picturesque Naval Dockyard in Trincomalee in 1988, 1989 and 1990 and then at Naval Headquarters in 1991 and 1992 as it is impossible to pay an adequate tribute to cover his entire life span.
He was born on October 10, 1938 as Wannakuwatta Waduge Erwin Clancy Fernando and had his education at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa. In 1950s, the Royal Navy was not merely the greatest fighting force afloat but had been so since far beyond living memory and assumed that it would remain so always. It was, indeed intensely professional, performing what it was taught to do with skill and dedication.
To be a Naval Officer and to be able to be trained at the greatest and most efficient service the world has ever seen was to belong to exclusive elite. The most usual practice was for aspirant Naval Officers to join as Cadets and undergo initial training in the Royal Ceylon Navy and continue to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, United Kingdom.
Young Clancy Fernando now decided that a life under the ocean wave was his manifest destiny. And he joined the then Royal Ceylon Navy on December 17, 1957. His path into the Navy was smoothed by ardent desire; his success within it was owed to his merit and efficiency.
Admiral Fernando once recalled those days at Dartmouth, “The cadets wore uniform, of a heavy cloth that never kept its shape and boots and starched collars were compulsory. Everything was done at the double, whether or not there was need for hurry, and the discipline was military. To toughen the boys in mind and body was a constant preoccupation”.
Most of his early days in the then Royal Ceylon Navy were at Trincomalee, Tangalle and Karainagar besides his long spells at sea. He had served on board HMCyS Aliya and HMCyS Gajabahu, a Frigate which was the then Flag Ship. Also, he commanded HMCyS Diyakawa, SLNS Ranakamee and SLNS Samudra Devi, the Flag Ship of the Sri Lanka Navy in 1980.
Into every pursuit he hurled himself with an abandon that was always invigorating, sometimes alarming. He demanded the highest standards from himself and from everyone else. Yet his professionalism was not cold or calculating he got enormous pleasure out of everything he did and communicated it to all around him.
He attended the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, India in 1977. He was promoted to the rank of Commander on March 1, 1978. He held the appointments of Commanding Officer of SLNS Tissa in the East, Commanding Officer of SLNS Elara in the North and as the Master of the Ceylon Shipping Corporations M/V Lanka Kanthi.
On June 30, 1983 he was made the Director Naval Operations and with his promotion to the rank of Captain on January 1, 1984 he was appointed as the Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy and made invaluable contributions towards moulding young officers and men.
If Naval Officers genuinely wanted to get on, to achieve success in some activity, however trivial, he would go to endless pains to help them. I recall his inspiration to improve my journalistic skills. The man best qualified for Naval Service, he was spectacularly successful. Hard work and efficiency made him a constructive and thoughtful architect for the future.
He was elevated Commodore on July 1, 1986 and held key appointments of the Commander Western Naval Area, Commander Eastern Naval Area and Security Forces Commander for Trincomalee District where he aptly proved his strengths as a competent and an efficient administrator. Then, he was elevated to the position of the Chief of Staff on April 4, 1990.
He held memberships of the British Institute of Management, the Nautical Institute of UK and Royal Naval Institute of Navigation, UK. He possessed a Masters Degree in Defence Studies and had been conferred with the Master Mariner Certificate. He was the first President of the Sri Lanka Branch of the Nautical Institute, UK. He was promoted Rear Admiral on March 29, 1991.
He was in good stead when career took its next and decisive turn and he was made Acting Commander of the Navy on August 1, 1991. This ultimate promotion consoled him for some, at least, of the pains and fortified him for the struggles that lay ahead. It did, but until the official letter arrived he did not allow himself to be certain that he had achieved the ambition of his lifetime to reach the helm of the Navy.
“First Day as COMNAV” was his diary entry for Day 1. From the word go, I saw him work, work and work towards betterment of the Navy. Everything seemed to take off the ground all at once. For his fifty odd years, he displayed an energy and enthusiasm that would shame a younger officer.
In what his greatness laid is harder to define. What he could do with superlative aplomb was to identify the object at which he was aiming, select the method, which was most likely to achieve it, and force it through to its conclusion.
A powerful, analytical mind of crystalline clarity, a superabundance of energy, great persuasive powers and endless resilience in the face of setback or disaster rendered him the most formidable of Commanders.
His was a dynamic personality blended with a personal charm and magnanimity all his own but it was his quality of gentleman leadership that always stroll the show. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he blazed the trail for others to follow. Undoubtedly, he inspired all who served and sailed under him.
During this time, he played an active role in all military operations and was a familiar sight on the frontlines. In Vettilakeni, Pooneryn, Nagativanturai and Elephant Pass and even regularly travelling on small Naval craft on the Kilali Lagoon. He took enormous risks to boost the morale of his men and exhort them on.
He was a dedicated leader of his men who gave his total commitment to defending the national cause of peace, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. He rendered splendid logistic support to the successful joint operations that were carried out in the North.
It was the Naval backing that enabled the forces to expand the forward defence line in Jaffna. His courage, energy and determination were unimpaired. Reluctant or not, he took considerable pride in his performance. I could still remember him walking across the unclear pathway leading to Elephant Pass within minutes after the siege was broken.
His patience, integrity and devotion to duty struck me as being beyond normal. He was unfailingly courteous and considerate. His tolerance was extraordinary; his readiness to respect and listen to the views of others was remarkable throughout his life.
He would always say “Don’t worry, every problem has a solution” and explain carefully what should be done next and off we go with such a sense of relief. He was infinitely resourceful, quick in his reactions, always ready to cut his losses and start again.
He did not know despair. He always had time for each and everyone who sought his advice or assistance. And with patience of a monument listened, advised and helped them all even in the smallest way possible. Almost all went back with a sense of relief. The little acts of kindness he did from day to day were remarkable.
He strode the Navy like a colossus during his tenure of office giving of his best. For achievements he never took credit alone – but spread applause thick, sharing it with his peers and colleagues, but blame and criticism was received by him and him alone. He attended the prestigious National Defence College in New Delhi, India in 1987.
As a good Buddhist he displayed the quality of equanimity to it’s fullest. I was amazed when at times he faced both triumph and disaster alike. Similarly, he accepted any defeat and he faced many in his day with a sense of stoic calm.
It was Admiral Fernando who revived and formed Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu Councils in the Sri Lanka Navy. This resulted in conduct of religious events to commemorate the ‘Navy Day’ annually and to bestow blessings on the Navy, Naval personnel and their families.
Admiral Fernando’s idea of relaxation was to turn to his pastimes. He took a keen interest in Naval history and displayed his scholastic skills by publishing several articles. His book on “Customs and Etiquettes of the Services” depicts his vast experience and knowledge of the subject. By devising first ever cryptographic system ‘SINHALE’ in the Sri Lanka Navy, he exhibited the miracles of modern communication. It replaced the Royal Navy’s ‘Britese’ System.
He took a lively interest in the affairs of the retired Naval personnel as well. One significant event he personally organized with great pride was the ‘Sea Burial’ of ashes of the 4th Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel. Also, it was him who initiated action to construct a monument in honour of the war heroes of the Sri Lanka Navy in Welisara in 1991.
He was the brainchild of the Navy’s President Colours and Staff. His enthusiasm towards tracing the history of Naval guns and canons was noteworthy and the same paved the way for the establishment of the Naval Museum in Naval Dockyard, Trincomalee. Also, he was instrumental in introducing the new look ‘Navy List’ in 1991.
Admiral Fernando was an all round sportsman and rendered yeoman services to uplift sports in the Navy. Someone once asked him which he preferred – tennis, shooting or golf. After a moment’s reflection he replied, “Well, golf, after all, is a professional’s game”. He was in the early fifties when he embarked on golf but he really enjoyed it.
His was a place for family reunion: a few friends were asked to stay but only if it was known that they would fit in happily with the established patters of existence. To his family and close friends Admiral Fernando was the wisest, the most honourable of men.
His was a Naval family and his happiness centred on it. He was a devoted husband to his wife Monica and loveable father to sons, Nishan and Dinukh and daughter Sashi. Even after his demise the family continued to value rich customs and traditions of the “Silent Service” he belonged to. The marriages of 3 children certainly glimpsed Naval ceremonial and pageantry.
If you read the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘A Father’s Prayer’ by General Douglas MacArthur, you might tend to wonder how close they would have been to Admiral Fernando. He used the media more effectively through hospitality and regular briefings. As with every flamboyant, determined and above all, successful figure, his activities took on a different air according to the angle from which they were viewed.
A man of strong reactions himself, he inspired strong leavened by a grudging respect; he inspired strong reactions in others. He was a leader for whom men would die, who inspired absolute trust and loyalty. The days as the Commander of the Navy were no doubt the best days of his life. The lines of the English poet, “Why did they fell this mighty oak beneath whose benevolent shade so many found refuge” often comes to my mind.
I was travelling with Admiral Fernando when the news of the Araly blast which took the lives of General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha and Major General Wijaya Wimalarathne on August 8, 1992 was conveyed to him on the communication set. We were returning from Marawila after attesting at a wedding of a Naval officer. The sad news broke his heart and tears poured down from both his eyes. It was undoubtedly the saddest moment of his tenure as the Commander of the Navy.
He initiated steps to conduct a ‘Memorial Service’ in honour of all officers and men who were killed at Araly within a few days at All Saints’ Church, Colombo 8. The Chief Celebrant was present Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who applauded his magnanimity.
At his final voyage, I had the honour to be the ‘Insignia Bearer’ as per Naval Ceremonials and proudly carried Admiral Fernando’s medals right behind the majestic ‘Gun Carriage’, which bore his coffin draped with the National Flag. It was Admiral Fernando who designed Navy’s Gun Carriage and same remains in the Sri Lanka Navy as a lasting monument to his memory.
This tribute is an attempt to retain Admiral Clancy Fernando’s life and ideals fresh in our minds. Indeed, the fragrance of his memory remains green in the minds of the vast array of Sri Lankans who were privileged to make contact with him.
The whole Nation bade farewell to him with full Naval honours and with heavy hearts. The epilogue of the funeral oration still lingers in my memory, “Sir, though you have departed from us, your name and service shall be remembered by us forever as a great Patriotic Officer and a Gentleman, a true Son of Mother Lanka who has made the Supreme Sacrifice in defence of our country. As you fade away beneath the waves, we will steer your course with all guns blazing”.
(Rear Admiral Shemal Fernando, RSP, USP, MSc, psc)
Admiral W.W.E.C. Fernando ndc, psc, VSV – Sri Lanka Navy
01.11.1991 to 16.11.1992
Born on 10th October 1938 Admiral W.W.E.C. Fernando was educated at the Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa. He was enlisted to Sri Lanka Navy as an officer cadet on 17th December 1953, and on completion of 05 months basic training in the country proceeded for training at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, United Kingdom. He was promoted to Midshipman in 1959, Acting Sub Lieutenant in 1960 and Sub Lieutenant on 01st March 1962. He was promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant on 01st April 1963, Lieutenant Commander on 01st April 1971 and Commander on 01st March 1978. He was thereafter promoted to the ranks of Captain and Commodore on 01st January 1984 and 01st July 1986 respectively. In 1991, he was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and the Chief of Staff of Navy, and Vice Admiral on appointment to the office of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy.
Admiral W.W.E.C. Fernando held the memberships of the British Institute of Management, and the Nautical Institute of U.K and had obtained a Master’s Degree in Defence Studies. He had also been conferred with the certificate of Master Mariners. He was the first President of Sri Lanka Branch of the Nautical Institute of U.K.
To his immense credit, he devised the first ever cryptography system, ‘SINHALE’ in SLN, and authored the book on ‘Customs and etiquettes of Services’.
Amongst the courses he had followed, Sea Training on board Pakistani Naval Flotilla from 15th January 1963 to 12th August 1963, Communication Specialization Course at INS Vendurathi, India from 01st September 1976 to 16th March 1977, Staff Course at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, India from 01st January 1977 to 01st December 1977 and National Defence College Course in New Delhi from 03rd January 1987 stand out.
Admiral W.W.E.C. Fernando had been awarded Ceylon Armed Services Long Services Medal and Clasp, Sri Lanka Navy 25th Anniversary Medal, Sri Lanka Armed Services Long Service Medal and Clasp, Republic of Sri Lanka Armed Services Medal, President’s Inauguration Medal, Purna Bhumi Medal and Vishishta Seva Vibushanaya Medal.
He was targeted by LTTE for intensifying war to cut their MSR and assassinated in Colombo by suicide bomber on 16th November 1992; and was posthumously promoted to the rank of Admiral.
(Sri Lanka Navy Website)