War that changed Sri Lanka and the world
Posted on September 3rd, 2014

Janaka Perera

 Seventy-five years ago, on September 4, 1939, the huge guns of the First Heavy Regiment of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery boomed from the Rock house Battery , Modera.  It was practice firing that heralded colonial Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) entry into the Second World War that began the previous day.

 The first intimation that Britain had declared war against Nazi Germany came to Colombo through the wireless from London, shortly before 4.30 p.m. on September 3.   At that moment, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was speaking in London on the declaration of war that day. Reuters immediately flashed the news all over the world. The Reuters message confirming the news (heard on the London broadcast) was duly received at Lake House, Shortly afterwards, a crowd gathered opposite the main LH entrance to gaze at the poster announcing that Britain was at war with Germany. It meant that Sri Lanka –like the rest of the British Empire – was automatically dragged into the conflict.

 Ceylon’s then British Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott addressed the State Council (equivalent of the present Sri Lanka Parliament) in an atmosphere of much solemn gravity that was seldom seen in the House.   Sir Andrew was speaking on the implications of the war on this country. Though at that moment Sri Lanka was still far away from the actual scene of fighting, its economic impact on the island soon became obvious in the form of petrol rationing and other restrictions.

 Leader of the House Sir Baron Jayatilleke assured “His Majesty the King (of Britain) and the British Government” of their whole hearted support in the prosecution of the war.”   In the course of his speech he expressed – most accurately – the possibility of Sri Lanka coming within the range of military operations.

 Britain’s declaration of war was a response to the German invasion of Poland on September 1.  The Polish defenses were no match for the Nazi `blitzkrieg’ (intense air attacks) that devastated the helpless country. Austria and former Czechoslovakia were already overrun by Hitler’s armies.  His military might threatened all of Europe , the Middle-East and possibly South Asia.  In the East, Germany’s ally was Japan , though at that point of time she had not yet entered the war.

 As night fell on September 4, a black-out scheme came into operation in Sri Lanka, spreading darkness all over Colombo. It left the city in a pall of gloom redeemed only by the light of the moon.  The black-out meant that no lights, whether in houses or vehicles should be visible from the outside.   Windows had to be covered with black paper at night. All this was in order to avoid attracting enemy sea or air raiders.

 The authorities enforced these regulations with severity by advancing the time by one hour so that office workers could go home early.   This lasted until the end of the war in August 1945. 

 The black-out covered the town of Galle , all the Urban District Council areas as far as Matara, the ‘Sanitary Board’ Towns of Tangalle, Hambantota and Dondra (Devinuwara) and 13 other SB areas.

 Shortly after the declaration of war, the Colonial Government rounded up all German and Italian nationals (Italy was then Germany’s Axis partner) in Sri Lanka.  These `enemy aliens’ included the Venerable Nyanatiloka (Anton Gueth), well-known Buddhist Scholar, founder of the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa and the first German to become a bhikku. He and other Germans were later sent to internment camps in India.

 It was the identical procedure that the United States Government followed two years later by detaining all Japanese-Americans when Japan attacked the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour. This was perhaps an overreaction but nevertheless the possibility of any of these civilians being a secret agent or spy in disguise could not be ruled out.

 Then as much later during the anti-LTTE war some local Trotskyites with their absurd anti-war slogans became a source of amusement to many.   In April 1942 they issued a pamphlet calling upon lower ranks of the British troops stationed in Sri Lanka to rise against their officers and join the workers and peasants to form a workers government fight against the Britain, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and all other imperialists simultaneously to secure peace! (The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson)  

 Not surprisingly hardly anyone cared for this impractical and unrealistic appeal.    The enmity between Stalin and Trotsky and the resulting ideological rivalry between their followers was among the probable reasons for this inane Trotskyite stance on the war. 

 The Stalinists – the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Ceylon – were backing the British war effort, following the German invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941. The Russians under Stalin called the resistance to the Nazis the Great Patriotic War.  

 Within two years of the outbreak of the conflict the colonial Government began looking for Sri Lankan volunteers to serve in various capacities with the British Forces overseas.   Most of these Sri Lankans joined the British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). One of them Senarath Kadigawe, later joined the paratroopers (Red Berets) and won the Oak Leaves and the Military medal after participating in Allied campaigns in Europe.  

 There was also a handful that joined the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and saw action in the European theatre of the war.  Among them were Rohan Amarasekera (later Air-Vice Marshal and Commander, Royal Ceylon Air Force), Captain Emil Jayawardena and Ananda Kularatne (who paid the supreme sacrifice) son of P.de S. Kularatne former Principal, Ananda College, Colombo.  

 As navigator in a RAF bomber squadron Rohan Amarasekera went on 52 night bombing missions over Germany, braving heavy anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his performances.

 On April 5, 1942 carrier-based Japanese aircraft bombed Colombo and suburbs.  Four days later on April 9 they attacked Trincomalee, creating panic and terror especially in the country’s coastal areas. The air raiders were the same carrier-based planes that bombed the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, thereby dragging America into the war and turning it into a full scale global conflict. 

Some Sri Lankans joined the British-Indian Army and saw action against the Japanese on the Burma Front.  Among them was Richard Udugama, later a Major-General and Ceylon Army Commander

 Almost simultaneously with Japan’s entry into the war, virtually the whole of Sri Lanka was turned one massive military establishment.  British Commonwealth troops from all over the Empire began pouring into the island, which became a transit point.

 In addition to the Ratmalana Airport, several more airstrips – including the ones at Katukurunda and Colombo race course – were built.  The Koggala lagoon (from which Canadian aviator Air Commodore Leonard Birchall spotted the Japanese fleet approaching Sri Lanka) was turned into sea plane base. Army camps sprang all over the country. Mock battles with tanks and artillery, constant drone of RAF planes and movement of military convoys were a common feature here at the time.

 At the time of the Japanese attack, a War Cabinet led by Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott was at the helm of affairs in Sri Lanka. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander of the British Forces in the island. Under him was Civil Defence Commissioner Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke (later the first Sri Lankan Governor General) whose power was second only to the Governor and the Forces Commander.

 A few months following the air raids on Colombo and Trincomalee, a group of Sri Lankan soldiers from the Ceylon Garrison Artillery staged a mutiny – the first of such incidents in British held territory during the war.  The mutiny occurred in Cocos Islands where the soldiers had been sent to guard a vital cable and wireless station. The incident led to the death of one soldier, Samuel Jayasekera. The mutiny was suppressed with help of the Ceylon Light Infantry and three of the ring leaders – Gratian Fernando, G.B. de Silva and Carlo Gauder – were executed in the Welikada Prison.

 Early in 1944 head of the Allied South East Asia Command (SEAC) Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, shifted his Headquarters from New Delhi to Kandy. This saw the birth of Radio SEAC which broadcast forces’ favourite programmes. Broadcaster Livy Wijemanne played a leading role in this.

 In August of the same year U.S. Army Air Corps flying new B29 Super-fortresses – enormous long-range bombers – took from China Bay aerodrome, Trincomalee to attack oil installations in Sumatra in Japanese-occupied Indonesia (then East Indies).

 Despite several hardships that included food shortages and petrol rationing, the world war boosted Sri Lanka’s rubber and plumbago industries. This was due to the Japanese seizure of Malaya and Indonesia. Two Thirds of Sri Lanka rubber went to the United States while most of the balance went to Soviet Russia, which also relied on plumbago mines here for her requirements of graphite.   In fact, Sri Lanka supplied 90 percent of the Allied Nations’ (British Empire, the USA and Soviet Russia) needs in rubber during the war.

 When World War II ended with the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, the entire global political landscape – especially in Asia – had changed.  It accelerated the independence of European colonies in Asia and paved the way for new States, new governments and the United Nations. The post-war era also saw the beginning of a U.S.-Soviet Cold War that was to last for nearly five decades.

8 Responses to “War that changed Sri Lanka and the world”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Bloody ungrateful junk! They USED SL and SLs to fight their war. But when SLs fought their own war to defend themselves these UNGRATEFUL junk cry war crimes.

    It was MOSTLY Sinhalese who fought Britain’s dirty war. Now Britain has turned against them.

    I bet these NATO losers will come back to SL again to fight against China.

    Immediately redefine district boundaries and bring Trinco under Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa district. Then it will be part of the NCP and NOT the ISLAMIC controlled EPC. That will WEDGE NPC from EPC.

  2. samurai Says:

    No dispute there.

    What is significant in this World War, however, is that – as referred to in the article it hastened the end of Western colonialism in Asia. In South-East Asia Japan’s entry (whatever her motives were) into the conflict was the catalyst in the change of the political landscape. The war drained the economies of European colonial powers. For the duration of conflict the British bought the loyalty of Indian leaders like Nehru and Gandhi at a heavy price – they should give up their Jewel in the Crown (India) – at the end of hostilities. From 1945 onwards colonial and pro-colonial regimes from India, Indonesia, Burma, French Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) collapsed one after the other during the 30 years.

    Many Sinhalese and others who volunteered to serve in the British Forces in WW II did not really do so out of loyalty to the white colonialists or for the preservation of the Empire but for monetary and other benefits as well as in a spirit of adventure towards which most young people are attracted to past or present.

  3. Nanda Says:

    “Immediately redefine district boundaries and bring Trinco under Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa district. Then it will be part of the NCP and NOT the ISLAMIC controlled EPC. That will WEDGE NPC from EPC.”

    – Yes. Very important. Not only this, there are few more strategic actions needed. But to whom are we appealing ?

    We nave a bunch of Booruwos governing except GR, Champika and few others.
    These Booruwos have zero Chinthanaya including MaaHinda Chintanaya (මා-හින්දා චින්තනය​).

  4. Dilrook Says:

    It is happening again with different players. The “gang of four” (USA, Japan, India and Australia) group is concentrating in the region to contain China. They are building a major monitoring and possibly a choke point in Cocos Island. As expected, USA is looking for bases closer to Indian Ocean littoral. Diego Garcia base, though strategic, is far away from “action”. Sri Lanka is certainly within their radar. UNHRC action and support for Tamil separatism are driven by USA’s desire to establish a military base in and around Trincomalee. Hope our foreign policy experts will be able to see the big picture than just the parts.

  5. Nanda Says:

    “Hope our foreign policy experts will be able to see the big picture than just the parts.”

    Who are our “foreign policy experts ” ?

    Kumar Moses
    Dilrook kannangara
    Mario Perera
    Lorenzo ?
    Shenali Waduge ( who won Indian academy awards recently)

    Lee Kuan Yew always made strategic policies based on international political trends. Our buggers have no time to think appoint people and get advice and debate on these matters. They concentrate on just 1 old woman ( Nondi Pillay) and 1 poo hole called Tamil Nadu.

    Watch how people in this hole behave (right had side of the video) ” http://www.timesnow.tv/videoshow/4463418.cms

  6. Christie Says:

    Thanks Janaka, a great article. During the war Indian sepoys in the Burma and Malaya fronts supported the Rising Sun. After the war an Indian rep in the Japanese war crimes investigations supported the Japanese and saved the emperor. Don’t forget the reason Indian terrorist outfit was formed was to park Soviet nuclear submarines that India was going to acquire in Trincomalee harbour.

  7. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    The British government that confronted and defeated Nazi Germany was mainly under Churchill. He did not want the disintegration of the British Empire. But between the negative effects of the war, the rising call for home rule by the Mahatma and a new Socialist government under Atley the sub continent was given her freedom but at a terrible cost.

    India got her freedom with terrible prize that she gets that freedom only by the British idea for a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims. This was never the case when the Mahatma fought the British using the nonviolence method of Satyagraha or “active nonviolence”. For decades both Hindus and Muslims worked side by side for the independence of a united India.

    The concept of “Pakistan” was not even in the vocabulary of the Mahatma, Nehru, Jinnah or Patel. It was purely created by the British upon a region or nation which is defined by her diversity. Ever since then the division of nations became the blueprint of the sub continent. This concept of ‘self determination’ was voice by President Woodrow Wilson after the Great war or World war 1 at the Versailles Treaty which the British effectively used against a united India.

    When New Delhi wanted to impose Hindi as the national language, the Madras Presidency threatened New Delhi they would secede rather than accept Hindi over Tamil. It was then that New Delhi redrew the Indian states along linguistic lines. Again the concept of “self determination” was used as a weapon against the more established concept of a nation state.

    The ensuing years were defined by the cold war between Pakistan and India. It was also defined by China who annexed Tibet in the 1950’s and by that changing the Demographics of the region bringing China to the borders of India. In turn India then used RAW to annex the nation of Sikkim in order to create a corridor that separated Nepal from Bhutan while simultaneously surrounding each nation on three sides by India.

    The concept of division and annexation continued to define the region. Both Pakistan and India continued their feud over the “disputed” state of Kashmir. China then started to claim the Kashmiri region of Ladakh and the North Eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as her own. India should never have allowed China to annex Tibet for at that time India and China had about the same level of military might while Democratic India had the sympathy of the Democratic Western powers on her side. She failed to utilize any of this and by that lost the “buffer zone” Tibet created.

    The concept of Self determination continued to define the internal politics of New Delhi as more and more regions demanded recognition within India as a separate state. The most recent being the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to create the new state of Telengana.

    India effectively used this against Pakistan in the 1971 war to divide that nation and create the new nation of Bangladesh. By doing that she divided the power of Pakistan by half and created two new problems of Pakistan to her west and Bangladesh to her east. In a recent ruling by the International Seabed Authority gave Bangladesh close to 30 thousand square miles of disputed maritime water of the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh. The same authority also gave Bangladesh another 60 thousand square miles of the Bay of Bengal from another dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

    For whatever reasons India then got involved in the creation of Elam to be carved out of Sri Lanka. Claims range from Sri Lanka’s resistance to India claiming the Indian ocean as an extension of India as the reason why India wanted to cut the power of Colombo to support of a greater Tamil region. The latter is less plausible for New Delhi would have given too much power to the secessionist movements of Madras. It makes more sense that India would have wanted to divide the power of Sri Lanka while seizing the power of an independent Elam which would have included the strategic port of Trincomalee.

    What President Woodrow Wilson advocated at the Versailles treaty ended up defining the history of the subcontinent in the 20th and 21st century and extended to China. On a final note the decision of the Indian courts to relinquish India’s claim on the island of Katchacheevu continues to be a thorn in the side of Chennai.

    Next month Scotland will use this concept of self determination to vote whether to stay with the United Kingdom or become an independent nation. That template however cannot be applied to the Sub continent and especially not to Sri Lanka who through her unbroken written history has a collected mindset of an integral island nation that has no bearing on the United Kingdom.

  8. samurai Says:

    There is an element of truth in what Lorenzo says about the possibility that the NATO will come to back Sri Lanka to fight against China or any other country which they think is a challenge to them. I recall a few years ago the U.S. Ambassador in Colombo (I think it was Blake) requesting for Sri Lankan troops to fight alongside NATO in Afghanistan. But Gotabhaya had turned down the request. This was reported in the front page of the Daily Mirror

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