WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

How tiny Ceylon became a target

By H.G.P. Jayasekera
Ceylon was not fully prepared to face a war when the Japanese dropped bombs on Colombo at 7 a.m. on 5th April 1942 a Easter Sunday.

The actual war was started by the Germans who first captured Poland. Japan remained neutral until they raided the Pearl Harbour destroying many ships, aircraft carriers, planes etc. Over 2000 Americans were killed and another 1000 wounded.

America and England with France joined hands to face Hitler and Mussaloni of Italy who were planning to conquer the whole world. Russia too joined England against Germany. Japan, Switzerland and Turkey remained neutral for a short period.

Mr. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England immediately summoned a conference of high ranking military officials and decided to send General Mac-Arthur to the Far East along with a fleet of war ships, planes and troops including the most powerful H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse. Admiral Tom Philip volunteered to command the Prince of Wales. Both these ships were sunk by Japanese.
On the next day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced to a shocked House of Commons that two of the most modern battleships H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse had been sunk of Malaya.

When most of the lands of the British Empire in the Far East were captured by the Japanese, all troops retreated to Ceylon. Immediately Lord Louis Mount batten was summoned from India and he was made the Supreme Commander of South East Asia. He established his HQ at the Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya.

All schools and colleges in Colombo were closed down and were converted into hospitals and barracks. The National museum was converted into the Army Command. The Army Paymaster operated from here. A recruiting office to recruit boys for army and navy was opened at 399, Galle Rd, Kollupitiya. Major L.V. Gunaratne was the chief recruiting officer.

Additional Government Agents were appointed in every District and new kachcheris were opened. More camps were opened in almost all main towns along sea coasts, Trincomalee, Kandy, Kekirawa, Dambulla etc. A special air strip was opened at Mawatagama for the use of Lord Louis Mountbatten.

One of the most important tasks was to open offices for communication. As the telephone was not considered a safe transmission of secret messages, a new system was introduced, known as the 'Fuller Phone' cables that were laid underground from Army Command to Trincomalee, Kandy, Kekirawa, Kurunegala and Bentota.

The fuller phones were connected to these lines and operated. Other modes of communication were the Tele-printer, Wire-less, W/T dispatch riders. Apart from all these the pigeon was used to carry messages. There were two or three sections opened to train pigeons. A note with the message was inserted to a small loop tied to the leg of the bird. All communication work was handled by the Ceylon Signal Corps.
Heavy ack-ack guns were installed at Galle Face Havelock Park and Mutwal in Colombo. Ostenburg, Nilaveli, Plantain point esplanade and in few more places in Trincomalee. All the guns were operated by the Royal Artillery of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery.

Although the Germans were encouraging Japan to invade Ceylon, they did not want to act on it as Japan's main motive was to attack the British Eastern Fleet which was commanded by Admiral Sir, James Sommerville.

His forethought made him to withdraw the entire fleet from the Colombo harbour. The fleet sailed 450 miles Southwest of Colombo and hid them at Addu Atol. Even most of the allied planes were hidden at the Koggala Lagoon a key R.A.F. base that was highly camouflaged and hence never attacked.

During this period one Canadian R.A.F. Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall who was in Ceylon took off on a reconnaissance mission from Koggala on a flying boat. He sighted a Japanese fleet 350 miles off the land towards the South.

No sooner he radioed the news to Colombo his plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. This squadron leader later promoted to Air Commodore, visited Sri Lanka on 5th April 1992 to Koggala for the 50th Anniversary of the Japanese raid on Colombo.

Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton who was serving in Java was summoned immediately to organise the defence of the civilians. On his arrival he observed that many ships were anchored in the outer harbour which he thought were at the mercy of the Japanese and Italian submarines. The Railway had only three-day reserves of coal. He took all necessary emergency steps to solve possible scarcity problems.

All the buildings and bungalows of top officers like the Chief Justice at the race course were demolished. Former Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, the then Minister of Works, was responsible for the building the airstrip in no time at the request of Sir Geoffrey Layton.

Sir Layton diverted all Blenhem bombers, catalinas, flying boats, aircraft carriers etc., from Java to Ceylon. He also introduced the Radar warning system to Ceylon. In this manner he took all necessary precautions to fortify Colombo and other important places in Ceylon.

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was made the Civil Defence Commissioner who was responsible to put up air-precaution shelters, fire-fighting units, first-air depots, large water tanks at most parts in Colombo. Each depot had over 300 men working in three shifts. They were trained by the municipality doctors in first aid in case of an air-raid.
Gas-mask drill was one of the items for them every morning.

All emergency AGAs were responsible for the food drive. Rice was rationed and coupons were issued for the people to draw up their rations from the co-operative stores. Every government building and public place carried large posters. 'Grow more Food', 'Looting is punishable with death'.

At night there were black outs. All vehicles at night had to cover the headlights. Even in houses, lights had to be used in a way it was not visible from outside.

When an enemy plane was sighted the Army gives the signal to the Civil Defence who gives a red warning by sirens. People on the streets had to get into the air precaution shelters immediately with a piece of stick between their teeth. They had to lie down till the yellow light comes on when they can come out of the shelters.

The April raids in Colombo were led by Pearl Harbour Heroes Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and Commander Mitsuo Fuchida the two men who inflicted the biggest damage on the mighty American Pacific Fleet.

The Ceylon R.A.F. had only 20 planes as against that of 120 planes of Mitsuo Funchido. These 20 fighter planes got off from the Race Course grounds and there was an air battle over Colombo on the Easter Sunday morning 5/4/1942.

Ceylon Garrison Artillery and Boys of Royal Artillery managed to shoot down many of the Japanese planes. One plane crashed into St. Thomas' Ground, another one near Kelaniya Temple. The Angoda mental hospital too faced an attack in which 15 inmates were killed. It was an accidental drop of a bomb by the Japanese. They later apologised to the Ceylon Government.

When the Americans dropped the Atomic Bomb on 6th August, 1945 on Hiroshima and 9th August, 1945 on Nagasaki Japan surrendered unconditionally. With that the 2nd World War ended. (The writer is the President of the Ceylon War Veterans Association of World War II)

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka