This is the last of a series of articles concerning the T-55 main battle tank in use by the Sri Lanka Army. The columns take place as a conversation between the author and a retired officer of the Armoured Corps who prefers to remain unidentified. The narrator’s recollections are part of an oral history project aimed at preserving the memories of the combatants in Sri Lanka’s long war, without regard to political considerations.
Commanding the beast in combat
As a Tank Commander my job was to control the trio of Driver, Gunner and Loader, while directing the team in battle; the Commander has the highest perch and hence the best view of the world around. The Tank Commander’s cupola can be rotated independently of the gun-turret and has a cover which opens forward providing some protection. But enemy snipers were adept at targeting that, so time spent exposed in the cupola had to be kept to a minimum. The Commander had to constantly move in and out of the cupola, to see where the enemy was and give directions to the driver, while remaining an elusive target.
As the four of us got better at working together as a crew, our performance improved. In battle conditions my crew could fire three rounds a minute while on the move, an excellent rate of fire.
For a shot to be accurate the tank must be momentarily static. Rane would load the shell on the move. On Nihaljayantha’s command the Driver would briefly stop the tank long enough for the main gun to stop oscillating and the Gunner to aim and fire. As soon as the shell was fired we would start moving again, while I bellowed instructions from the turret as to our direction and next target.
In the heat of battle, the intensity of the action is unbelievable. The tank would be lurching across uneven ground, the engine roaring and producing clouds of smoke. Huge plumes of dust raised by incoming fire exploding all around us, produces more haze. Machine guns chatter in both directions, hot lead filling the air and impacting on the armour plating. Suddenly the tank lurches to a stop and Nihaljayantha rotates the turret to find his target. With a tremendous roar the main gun fires, and the accompanying concussion overrides everything for a few seconds. Then the din resumes. The tank lurches off in another direction and I peep out of the cupola to find our next target. The process is manic, terrifying, and exhilarating, all at the same time
Don’t get stuck
Other than aiming and shooting, the key to fighting in the T-55 was for the tank commander to be a good judge of terrain. The beast weighs 42,000 kg (think 55 Toyota Land Cruisers) and was designed to fight on the plains of Europe. Using it in the scrub jungles of Asia required a different skill set. Damp ground, ditches, or soft sand meant it would get bogged down very easily. Extricating a stuck tank requires use of the log that was carried on every tank. A crude though effective improvisation, one or more large timber logs can be seen strapped to the body of even the most modern Russian tanks.
If the tank got bogged down, the crew would have to get out, unclip the log, drag it out and secure it under the tracks. The driver then uses the log to climb out of the soft ground or ditch, freeing the tank. The crew then has to retrieve the log and reattach it to the tank before climbing back in. It is brutally exhausting and dangerous work, often carried out under enemy fire. By picking the ground carefully and not getting the tank stuck, the Commander makes everything a little easier for the crew.
For a typical operation the battle planners would study the terrain and identify ‘mobility corridors’ that could take the weight of the T-55s. One, two, or even three Troops would be allocated for the operation, depending on how many tanks the terrain could support. When learning tank warfare with other (foreign) armies, we were taught the classic ‘combined arms’ formations with field artillery, mobile infantry, combat engineers and close air support. But given the terrain and limited resources, our operations were mostly Troop- or Squadron-sized in support of infantry.
A day in combat
Typically, the tanks were used to breach the ‘ditch and bund’ defensive emplacements that the enemy had constructed. This would require us to cover the open ground in front of the trenches under intense enemy fire. We would have infantry on our flanks, sometimes in BMP-2 Armoured Personnel Carriers.
The operations could be a single day’s work or, more likely, a series of stages that took multiple days. A set of objectives had to be achieved each day, mostly dictated by the terrain, enabling the tanks to be secured by evening as moving at night was almost impossible. The T-55 had infra-red vision, but it was an outdated system and almost unusable in the dense scrub jungles we fought in. By early afternoon the unit would reach its objective and commence bivouacking, building a ‘tank harbour’. The infantry would set up defensive positions while the tank crew performed maintenance.
After a day of being cooped up in the tank with the main gun firing, the crew would be physically exhausted and severely dehydrated. Crushing headaches were treated with hot, sweet tea before the work of cleaning the beast and preparing for the next day’s fighting could commence. The main gun had to be cleaned every day, which involved pushing a four-meter-long rod through the gun. The brush at the end of the rod was intended to clear out every bit of the powder residue which fouled the barrel. This took tremendous effort with all four crew members pushing and shoving at it for at least an hour. The ammunition for the main gun had to be replenished, each 32 kg shell hand-carried and placed in the bins. The machine guns had to be cleaned and the belted ammunition reloaded. Finally, the diesel tanks were refilled by pumping the fuel up from barrels (the bowsers rarely made it to the front) using a hand-pump. It was all exhausting work, but had to be done as operations would restart at first light.
Rations were mainly from MRE (meals ready to eat) packs that were supplied. But, like most crews, we learned to stash some dry goods, condiments and cooking vessels in the tank. Jayantha our Driver was an excellent cook, and he would be excused from post-combat duties to cook up a hot meal. Jayantha even took his own spice pack with him and he would always produce an incredible dinner, often with a delicious ‘mutton’ curry. We were too tired and hungry to question the antecedents of the contents.
Night falls early in the tropics and by 1900 hours (7 pm in civilian time) it would be pitch dark. The troopers were totally exhausted by then and would go to sleep under the reassuring bulk of the tanks, which ensured protection from random mortar shells and enemy snipers. I often spent the night on top of the turret to appreciate the beauty of the night sky. It was weirdly peaceful up there listening to the noises of the jungle, the darkness unsullied by ground lights and with only the huge main gun, silhouetted by the stars, for company.
This description, a small snapshot of events which took place in a conflict that lasted over three decades, does not do justice to the men with whom I served. Nihaljayantha, my Gunner, and Ranathunga, my Loader, would go on to be Tank Commanders themselves. Sadly, both were killed in battle. Driver Jayantha and I were fortunate enough to survive. He is a successful businessman now and I visit him often. We reminisce about the great camaraderie that is forged in battle and remember our dear departed brothers in arms. He ruefully acknowledges that the flavours of the dishes produced on the battlefield can never be reproduced in peacetime, but we are both comfortable with that.