WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Four Lankans die in secret 'independence' war

by Janaka Perera

Now that the 52nd Independence Anniversary has ended, it may be worthwhile to recall a little-known secret war which determined the destiny of Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia, clamouring for national freedom in the wake of a global conflict.

The year was 1944 and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was caught in the vortex of World War II, which had by then entered its fifth year. Around this time, a Japanese submarine set off from Penang (in Japanese-occupied Malaya) carrying four young Sri Lankans. They were Tudor Gunaratne, Vernon Fernando and two brothers, Edwin and Joseph Jayakody. They were supposed to land off Kirinda on this country's southern coast. From there the four young men were to operate a secret radio transmitter to report on security forces operations here. The objective was to facilitate Tokyo's invasion plans for India and Sri Lanka. This island then was the hub of Allied (Anglo-American) military, naval and air operations in the context of the world war.

But by some quirk of fate, the submarine dropped them off South India's Madras coast, where they were caught by the British and executed. The unfortunate Sri Lankans were members of the 'Hikari Kikan.' This special Japanese agency recruited Sri Lankans, Indians and other south Asians domiciled in Malaya and Singapore for spying missions against the Allies. However, it is believed that Allied secret agents operating in Japanese-occupied territory had tipped off the British on the enemy spies.

Six other Sri Lanka 'Hikari Kikan' members, Christie Seneviratne (later Sports Editor, 'Daily News'), Samson Silva, Henry Tissa, Lional Hettihewa and Piyasena, Dayananda avoided going on the fateful mission at the 11th hour. Christie and Samson however had to pay the penalty for "wasting the time, money and energy of the Japanese Imperial Army," in the words of the Japanese Officer-in-Charge, Hayashi. Consequently, the two young men suffereed imprisonment, until they were rescued by the British, after the Japanese surrender.

The Allied counter espionage operations against the Japanese were directed from Sri Lanka, which Japanese aircraft bombed twice (Colombo and Trincomalee) in 1942. Japanese submarines constantly haunted the sea off the island where Supreme Commander, Allied South East Asia Command (SEAC), Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten had set up his headquarters in Kandy. Under him - among other units - was the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British counterpart of t he Japanese Hikari Kikan.

Tokyo radio constantly broadcast programmes urging South East Asians to rise against "white imperialism," and co-operate with Japan to secure "Asia for the Asians." The Japanese were already sponsoring the Indian National Army led by the fiery Bengali Leader Subhas Chandra Bose to fight the British in India. (Some Sri Lankans too, were involved to Bose's movement).

In Burma and Indonesia too, nationalist movements were armed and equipped by Japan.

The British, in the meantime, had promised self-rule to India, Sri Lanka and Burma (now Myanmar) once the war was over.

One moon-lit night in 1944, a British Royal Air Force (RAF) technician on duty at Trincomalee, spotted a submarine speeding beneath the waters off Sri Lanka's East coast. However, before he could do a further search, the vessel disappeared but surfaced again - undetected - some distance off Trinco in the pre-dawn darkness.

A group of Chinese led by a European officer climbed out of the vessel and headed towards the beach in rubber dinghies. After landing on the beach, the men unloaded their equipment from the boats and rested until day-break.

But as they were about to move inland, they were spotted by three Tamil fishermen - a father and his two sons. The officer in charge of the Chinese group identified himself as a German (Germany was then Japan's ally in the war). Speaking in English, he told the terrified fishermen that since he and his group had been spotted he had no alternative but to kill them. The officer revealed that his mission was to report on the British defences here to the Japanese, who were expected to land in Sri Lanka any time. The officer told the fishermen that he could not trust them to keep silent.

The father of the two young men pleaded with the officer to spare their lives and said that he had hated the British since the time he worked in a tin mine under the British in Malaya.

But the officer did not seem satisfied.

"If you worked for the British I cannot trust you at all," he retorted. "I will shoot you down at once."

He then aimed his sten gun at the fishermen. The latter fell on their knees and begged for their lives.

"Okay, then you three come with us. We will not allow you to give us the slip. The officer did not allow the fishermen to inform their home folk that the three of them would be away for some time. Instead they were ordered to hide the equipment brought from the submarine in rubber dinghies. The strangers were armed with small arms that were not visible at a glance. Thereafter the officer and his men - accompanied by the fishermen - set off on foot. In that era, a good part of the area outside Trinco was desolate and jungle covered.

Most of the Sinhalese and Tamils whom the group came across, told the strangers that they were against the British. When some villagers learnt that the European officer and his Chinese assistants were pro-Japanese secret agents, the visitors were accorded grand receptions. Some village headmen told the group that they were eagerly awaiting the day when the Japanese would land in Sri Lanka and drive out the British. Japan had overrun most parts of Asia by that time - driving out the British, French and Dutch colonialists.

The officer in charge of the party told the natives that they would be well-rewarded once Tokyo's forces captured the island. He then prepared a list of all those who opposed the British saying that the Japanese needed their names.

By this time, the group had walked about 60 miles inland without any obstruction. This made them relax their vigilance, resulting in the police getting wind of their movements. AS they were walking along a paddy field, an armed police party led by an inspector confronted them. Strangely, the group - despite being armed - offered no resistance. Hence, they were not harassed after arrest but were detained for questioning in a dark and uncomfortable police cell.

The police inspector who arrested the group, promptly conveyed the information to the them (European) Inspector General of Police R.R.M. Bacon. It turned out that the chief suspect (the man who claimed to be a German) was a friend of the IGP! This revealed the actual story of the "enemy secret agents."

The 'German' officer was really a British Army Officer - Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hannah, a one-time resident of Malaya. He and his Chinese assistants belonged to the 136 Division of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Lt. Col. Hannah's unit was known as 'Group B,' under the command of Colonel Christopher Henderson, who had his bungalow in Mount Lavinia.

The real purpose of 'Group B's mission was to observe the state of alertness in the island and the loyalties of the natives. The fact that Hannah and his men were able to walk 60 miles inland with no hindrance, proved that there were serious draw-backs in the defence system. To make the operation, look like a real Japanese sponsored spy mission, the SOE ensured that no other security arm was tipped off on the plan.

The police inspector was highly commended for his bravery, for had the group been really pro-Japanese spies, they could have easily killed him and his men.

Meanwhile, around 150 Sri Lankans - both Sinhalese and Tamils - were considered traitors by the British colonial government following the list of names provided by Hannah's group.

Sources include:

(a) Information supplied by the late Christie Seneviratne.

(B) Accounts of the SOE by Ian Trenowden.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka