Cocos Islands Mutiny of Sri Lankan soldiers in 1942 in support of liberation of Sri Lanka by Japan
Posted on April 5th, 2016

The fall of Singapore blasted myths of British invincibility

Cocos Islands Mutiny 

The Cocos Islands Mutiny was a failed mutiny by Sri Lankan servicemen on the then-British Cocos (Keeling) Islands during the Second World War.

The mutineers were to seize control of the islands, disable the British garrison and transfer the islands to the Empire of Japan.

However, the mutiny was defeated after the Sri Lankans failed to seize control of the islands. Many mutineers were punished, and the three ringleaders were executed; they were the only Commonwealth servicemen to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War.

Units belonging to the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF), including the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA), the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) and the Ceylon Volunteer Medical corps, were mobilised on September 2, the day before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. The CGA was equipped with six-inch (152 mm) and nine-inch (227 mm) guns. Several of them were posted to the Seychelles and the Cocos Islands, accompanied by contingents of the CLI and the Medical Corps.

The fall of Singapore and the subsequent sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse, punctured forever the myth of British invincibility. Whatever remained was ripped to tatters by the sinking of the aircraft carrier Hermes and the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire off Sri Lanka in early April 1942; accompanied at the same time by the virtually unopposed bombing of the island and bombardment of Madras.

The feelings of the Sri Lankan troops had been excited by the work carried out by the pro-independent Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), both before and during the war. They had volunteered to fight the racism of the fascists and had found institutionalised racism in their own regiments. Even the Burghers, who were of European ancestry, found themselves discriminated against.

With the Japanese successes, public sentiment on Ceylon turned in favour of the Japanese; being unaware of the fate that befell Japan’s East Asian conquest, many Sri Lankans thought that the Japanese would serve as liberators. At this time J.R. Jayawardene, later to be President of Sri Lanka, held discussions with the Japanese with this aim in mind.


Sir Oliver Goonetillke

Geoffrey Layton, of the ”black barstard” comment

Indian troops, who made up the majority of the garrison on Christmas Island, rose up against the British troops and killed them in March 1942, before surrendering to the invading Japanese.[1] The Ceylon Garrison Artillery on Horsburgh Island in the Cocos Islands mutinied on the night of 8/9 May, intending to hand the islands over to the Japanese.

The plan was to arrest Captain Gardiner, the British Battery Commanding Officer and his second-in-command, to disarm the troops loyal to the British Empire, to turn the 6-inch guns on the CLI troops on Direction Island, and to signal the Japanese on Christmas Island. However, the soldiers all proved to be poor shots with small arms – one soldier was killed and another wounded.

The rebels’ one Bren gun jammed at a crucial moment, when Gratien Fernando, the leader of the mutiny, had it trained on Gardiner. The rebels then attempted to turn the 6-inch guns on Direction Island, but were overpowered. [2]

Messages sent by Fernando were received in Sri Lanka, indicating that there was co-operation between him and both CLI troops and the Australian signallers on Direction Island. He declared he had surrendered on condition that he would be tried in Colombo – it may be that he intended to give a speech from the dock to inspire his compatriots. However, the rebels were court martialled on the Cocos Islands.

Fernando was defiant to the end, confidently believing that he would be remembered as a patriot, and refused a commutation of punishment. He was executed on August 5 1942 at Welikada Prison, and two other mutineers shortly thereafter. Fernando’s last words were “Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty”.


Cocos islands mutiny — the authoritative book

No Sri Lankan combat regiment was deployed by the British in a combat situation after the Cocos Islands Mutiny. The defences of Sri Lanka were beefed up to three British army divisions because the island was strategically important, holding almost all the British Empire’s resources of rubber. Rationing was instituted so that Sri Lankans were comparatively better fed than their Indian neighbours, in order to prevent disaffection among the natives.

The LSSP’s anti-colonial agitation now included references to the Cocos Islands Mutiny. Public disgust at British colonial rule continued to grow. Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the Civil Defence Commissioner complained that the British commander of Ceylon, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton called him a ‘black bastard’.

Sri Lankans in Singapore and Malaysia formed the ‘Lanka Regiment’ of the Indian National Army, directly under Subhas Chandra Bose. A plan was made to transport them to Sri Lanka by submarine, to lead a liberation struggle there, but this was aborted.


The men who were convicted by court martial of mutiny were:

” Bdr Gratien Fernando – Death (Executed on 5 August 1942)

” Gnr Carlo Augustus Gauder – Death (Executed on 7 August 1942)

” Gnr G Benny de Silva – Death (Executed on 8 August 1942)

” Gnr R S Hamilton – Death (Commuted to penal servitude for three years)

” Gnr Gerry D Anandappa – Death (Commuted to penal servitude for three years)

” L/Bdr Kingsley W J Diasz – Death (Commuted to penal servitude for four years)

” Gnr A Joseph L Peries – Death (Commuted to penal servitude for four years)

” Gnr A B Edema – Imprisonment for one year without hard labour

” Gnr M A Hopman – Penal servitude for three years

” Gnr F J Daniels – Penal servitude for seven years

” Gnr Kenneth R Porritt – Imprisonment for one year with hard labour Leader

Gratien Fernando (1915 – 1942) was the leader of the Cocos Islands Mutiny, an agitator for the freedom of Sri Lanka from the British and a hero of the Sri Lanka Independence Struggle.

Wathumullage Gratien Hubert Fernando was born to Sinhalese Buddhist parents. His father was a superintendent at the Ceylon Telegraph Office.

He went to school at St. Thomas’, Mt Lavinia. He was later converted to Roman Catholicism. He was impressed by the programme of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and by the anti-imperialist literature which it circulated.

He was very much an anti-racist in his attitude and at the beginning of the Second World War joined the Ceylon Garrison Artillery in order to fight fascism. He was shipped off with his unit first, to the Seychelles and later to Horsburgh Island in the Cocos Islands.

Here, he argued with his officers and agitated for action among his colleagues: his agenda was the opening of the battle against British colonialism. He finally persuaded a core group to rebel, seize the island and signal the Japanese that they had done so.

On the night of 8/9 May, led by Fernando, men of the unit mutinied. However, their plan failed and the rebellion was suppressed the next day. The leaders of the mutiny were court-martialed and condemned within a week.

Fernando’s father petitioned the army authorities to commute the death penalty and asked Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the Civil Defence Commissioner, to intercede with Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, the British Commander of Ceylon. However, when Layton interviewed Fernando, he was adamant that he did not wish to be reprieved or pardoned. He told his family ‘I’ll never ask a pardon from the British: that would disgrace the cause. Many years hence the World may hear my story’.

He was executed on August 4 1942 at Welikada Prison, and two other mutineers shortly thereafter. They were the only British Commonwealth troops to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War. Fernando showed defiance to the end, his last words being ‘Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty’. He was buried at the Kanatte cemetery, Borella, in an unmarked grave.



7 Responses to “Cocos Islands Mutiny of Sri Lankan soldiers in 1942 in support of liberation of Sri Lanka by Japan”

  1. mario_perera Says:

    If only our leaders had a wee iota of the courage of these sons of the soil.

    It is with pride that I see the name of Noel Crusz figuring in this article. Noel Crusz was a Catholic priest. He was a teacher at St Joseph’s and was a pioneer of the film industry. His classical film related to school children was ‘Little bike lost’. He was a master of the English language.

    Later he left the priesthood and worked as a journalist mainly covering parliamentary proceedings. He was contemporary of Rex de Silva.

    Mario Perera

  2. Daya Says:

    A moving and inspiring story, despite the failure because these were men who were committed to certain ideals, were willing to act, and to ultimately pay the price. They were obviously people whose thinking was on a higher plane than the puny, petty-minded people who have, since independence itself, dominated public life. These were people who were not communalistic in outlook.

    Well, that’s what I feel after reading this piece. Who wrote it? We’ve not been told. Why? He deserves to be congratulated, not just for his writing, but for the quality of his mind.

  3. Dham Says:

    Sad but an inspiring story. How dare bloody British killed these heroes in Colombo.

    “Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty”.

    Let us change this to suit current conditions as a tribute to our heroes.

    Loyalty to a party under the heel of power, money or materialism is disloyalty to the country

  4. Christie Says:

    What I see is Sinhalese becoming subjects of the Indian Empire. Bose and Lanka Sama Samajaya says it all.

    Even today Indians are steering our heads.

  5. samurai Says:

    Comments should be made with a historical knowledge. The impact of World War II in the Asian region over 70 years ago cannot be understood from the view point of current events. There was neither an Indian Empire nor ‘India’ at the time but only British ‘India’, which included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Almost all of South Asia, Burma (now Myanmar) and Indonesia (then Dutch East Indies) were European colonies at the time..

    The colonized people’s common objective at the time was to free themselves from the Western colonial yoke. Sri Lanka too was caught in the struggle during which many South and South-East Asians though with different ideological opinions shared the same goal. It is in this context we need to understand the struggle waged not only by Bose but also Burma’s General Aung San and Indonesia’s Soekarno with Japanese military assistance.

    At the time neither the ‘Indian’ nor Sri Lankan leaders could foresee the issues that would emerge in the post-independence years. The fact remains that the British left Sri Lanka’s shores mainly as a consequence of their being forced to leave the Indian subcontinent following World War II. The war was a massive drain on the British economy, despite the defeat of Germany and Japan. British ‘India’ was known as the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. Once the crown was lost there was no point in trying to save the remaining ‘treasure.’

    After 1848 Sri Lanka had no national leaders of the calibre of Bose, Aung San and Soekarno or even Gandhi (non-violent civil disobedience). Our ‘leaders’ were only keen on asking for Constitutional reforms without displeasing the British colonialists.

  6. Nimal Says:

    Glad that that mutiny was put down. Chinese and Japanese are the last people to dominate us.I know much about these people. In fact we may need some security to protect our selves from their ruthless domination on indigenous native in South Asia.
    People have forgotten Manchuria and other places they violated people.
    Wait till the North Koreans rattle their nukes while people are starving.

  7. Nimal Says:

    Here’s a true history of these people. My wife’s grand father who settled in Kuantan Malaya where his second wife was of Japanese origin was condemned by the invading Japanese.They forcibly occupied their palatial ancestral home in kuntan.The old gent being prominent a business man and a philanthropist did associated with governor of the state of Pahang.
    Because of his status and connections the late man’s children suffered terribly where his eldest son(my father in law’s elder brother) was dragged out of the house was beheaded in public in their house’s front yard and his body was thrown in to the nearby Kuantan river. Up to this date their home is unoccupied. My wife’s father and his surviving siblings had to live under the floor boards of neighbours where he married a girl from one of the house that sheltered them.
    That family is honoured by naming the biggest street in Kuantan.
    One could as MR father or his brothers who visited our homes in Mirihana who the people were terrified by the Japanese Air attack on the island because our Sri Lankan expatriates in Malaya, Singapore and even Burma suffered at the hands of the Japanese.The way how are people in Burma was tortured was horrific to mentioned and many never came back and disappeared with out a trace.
    Thanks to the likes of Sir Oliver who was the defence commissioner united the locals against the invaders. My uncles who were in the forces manned the AA at the race course where my dad was in the ARP and they were relieved when the invaders left us.
    They were so appreciative of the colonials they urged the colonials to bring their terribly wounded from the battle ships like Prince of wales,Hector,Repulse and even a ship named Lanka.They thought of Lanka before us and some of the sailors are buried in Trinco.They were well cared in placeslike in Galle,and Trinco.
    Burt there were the usual two bit traitors like Chandra Bose who wanted the fascists to rule us.
    I truly feel uneasy when I visit my wife’s relatives in Japan.

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