War that changed Sri Lanka and the world | Daily News

War that changed Sri Lanka and the world

Members of a Canadian Flying Boat Squadron in Ceylon.
Members of a Canadian Flying Boat Squadron in Ceylon.

Seventy-eight years ago, September 3, 1939, the news of Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany came to Colombo through the wireless from London, shortly before 4.30 p.m.

At that moment British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was speaking in London on the declaration heard over the BBC. The Reuters message flashed all over the world confirming the news was duly received at Lake House on the same day.

Soon afterwards, a crowd gathered opposite the main LH entrance to gaze at the poster announcing that Britain was at war with Germany. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) – like the rest of the British Empire – was automatically dragged into the conflict.

The following day, 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 this country’s entry into the Second World War that began the previous day.

Ceylon's then British Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott addressed the State Council 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.

Hitler's armies

Britain's declaration of war was a response to the German invasion of Poland on September 1. The Polish defences 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. Their military might threatened all of Europe and the Middle-East. In the Far East, Germany's ally was Japan, though at that point of time the latter 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. 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. This lasted until the end of the war in August 1945.

Shortly after the declaration of war, the British 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.

Two years later the United States Government took a worse step by detaining all Japanese-Americans when Japan attacked the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour (but after 43 years the U.S. was compelled to compensate these innocent civilians for the injustice they suffered in the detention camps).

Within a year of the outbreak of the conflict the colonial government began looking for Sri Lankan volunteers to serve in various capacities with the British forces. They joined Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Engineers among other units.

Among the Sri Lankans who joined the British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and served in the Middle East were R.B.M. Sumanadasa (later Lake House Katunayake Correspondent) Kanchana Senarath Kadigawe and Percy Perera, paternal uncle of this writer.

European theatre of the war

Senarath Kadigawe later joined the paratroopers and won the Oak Leaves and the Military medal after serving in the Middle East and Europe. He was the only Sri Lankan soldier to win the Oak Leaves.

Percy G.B. Perera, a RASC warrant officer, then attached to British Advanced Headquarters in Eritrea, was the only Asian privy to covert operations against Italians in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The medals he won included the Africa Star, Italian Star and the Victory Medal.

Richard Udugama (later Major General and Sri Lanka’s Army Commander) served with the British Army on the Burma Front against the Japanese. For his war service he was awarded the Burma Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal.

A handful young Sri Lankans joined the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and saw action in the European theatre of the war. Among them were Ekanayake Rohan Amarasekera (later Air-Vice Marshal and first Sri Lankan Commander, Royal Ceylon Air Force), Michael ‘Mickey’ Dias Bandaranaike (half-brother of former Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike), Emil Jayawardena, Ossie Wanigasekera, Noel Pieris, Rex de Silva, Shelton Flamer Caldera and Ananda Kularatne (who paid the supreme sacrifice in combat with the Germans). Ananda Kularatne was the son of former Ananda College Principal P. de S. Kularatne.

Emil Jayawardena, Flamer Caldera, Noel Pieris and Rex de Silva became fighter pilots. Michael Dias Bandaranaike joined the RAF Coastal Command and served as a tail gunner flying in bombers. As a member in a RAF bomber squadron Rohan Amarasekera went on around 80 night bombing raids over Germany, braving heavy anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes. He started as an air-gunner and later became a flying officer. In an era when advanced techniques were not available he could accurately hit a target from the air.

He was decorated for bravery and was awarded the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar for his performances. According to Squadron Leader (Rtd.) Rex Fernando, Amarasekara was the most decorated Asian in the RAF.

Almost all these young men joined the British forces in search of adventure or because of good pay rather than any loyalty to the empire.

On April 5, 1942 carrier-based Japanese aircraft bombed Colombo and suburbs. Four days later on April 9 they attacked Trincomalee. The air raiders were the same carrier-based planes that bombed the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, thereby pushing America into the conflict.

With Japan's entry into the war, virtually the whole of Sri Lanka was turned into one massive military establishment. British and Commonwealth troops from all over the Empire began pouring into the island, which became a transit point. Following the fall of Singapore to the Japanese the British Far Eastern Fleet moved to Trincomalee. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed the island’s military governor.

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 Naval 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 caused 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. In August of the same year the 30th U.S. Army Air Corps flying new B29 Super-fortresses – enormous long-range bombers – took off from China Bay aerodrome, Trincomalee to attack oil installations in Sumatra in Japanese-occupied Indonesia (then East Indies).

World War II

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 the East Indies (now Indonesia). Two Thirds of Sri Lanka's 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.

Within a couple of years after World War II ended with the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, the entire global political landscape had changed. It paved the way for the United Nations, new independent states (including Sri Lanka), new governments, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Many controversies are continuing over the root causes of World War II and of the judgments given at the war crimes trials. Whatever were the causes and the motives of the warring nations there is no question that it is this global conflict which accelerated the end of European colonialism in the Asian region. 


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