Ivor Jennings saga in Ceylon during WWII
@ WS / 06MAY2006
Written By: Arjuna Hulugalle
An insiders view extracted from the Autobiography of Sir Ivor Jennings “The Road to Peradeniya” edited and introduced by H.A.I.Goonetilleke published by Lake House Investments Ltd).
On the 21st of March 1941, William Ivor Jennings, aged 37, arrived to be Head of University College, Colombo. He succeeded Professor S.A.Pakeman.
The war was in Jennings thoughts. He had survived the debacle of Dunkirk, when British troops had been routed by the Germans. Britain survived eventually under the inspirational leadership of Winston Churchill. At Dunkirk, 330,000 Allied troops were evacuated by sea to England in Operation Dynamo.
The morale of the population in Ceylon in early 1942 concerned Jennings. In Ceylon, there was no great commitment to the war effort. There were no inspirational calls like the famous Churchillian speech about “fighting them on the beaches” which even today echo down the corridors of time.
There were no such speeches in Ceylon . On the contrary, the State Council’s only action was to pass a resolution closing schools.
Jennings, however, impressed on government officials what politicians should be doing. It was a battle against the brutal axis of totalitarianism that was in progress. He told them there was no justification to succumb to this aggression. Ceylon had to be ready for a Japanese attack.
The Government realized, therefore, that to make the nation support the war with mind and spirit, a new momentum had to be articulated. There had to be strong communication between government and the people. Media had to play a major role. The ideas that media communicated would drive the nation and the people, to think and act. The nation had to stir a common sense of purpose for people to unite. There could be no better man than Jennings with a mind that had achieved seven first class degrees for this task.
The Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott, suggested to the Information Officer, Mr. K. Vaithianathan, who was later knighted, who headed Government propaganda to get Jennings.
Jennings’ first wrote a series of articles on the bombing of Britain. With the focus on reinforcing the morale of the people, he emphasised that bombing should not frighten a population. That a patriotic people should not be scared by bombs.
It was Mr. D.S. Senanayake, who produced the best epigram to exorcise this sense of fear. “How often,” he said, “have you stood under a coconut tree? And how often have you been hit by a coconut?” The chance of being hit by a bomb was as remote.
The articles had an impact and soon Jennings was summoned to preside over a committee designed to advise the Information Officer on the maintenance of civilian morale and the suppression of rumours. The Committee had the name War Publicity Committee and met weekly. It produced a bulletin in English, Sinhala and Tamil for the Civil Defense Service every week.
The Civil Defense Service, under Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, rapidly spread over the country. It contained 64,000 men and women, including prominent local leaders from Dondra Head to Point Pedro. Jennings came up with the idea to make each warden’s post into a centre of information. This meant a network of propaganda stations. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, accepted the idea but wanted these centres of information inside the civil defence organisation.
Together with his colleague, Dr. D.M. de Silva, the Air Raid Precaution Controller for Colombo, they decided who could take over if headquarters were bombed. Jennings was appointed and gazetted as Deputy Commissioner to take over the propaganda side. This job he held for three years.
Mobilizing the people and their support for the war effort was vital. Several initiatives were started. One such initiative to make people a part of the war effort was the War Savings Movement. Ceylon Civil Servant, R.Y.Daniel, became Commissioner. Daniel had served in the First World War. He was injured at the Battle of the Somme in France.
War Savings Movement, which became the National Savings Movement set up 12,000 savings groups in Ceylon. The British equivalent during the war was the selling of War Bonds. War Bonds were a form of savings bond used by many combatant nations to help fund World War I and World War II. They were also a measure to manage inflation by removing money from the economy heated up by the war efforts.
Savings had two functions. It stirred an emotional commitment and it also helped the Treasury. Jennings was involved in the Movement.
There were other initiatives nurtured by the government. One was a “Grow more Food” campaign and another was to increase production and thereby help the war effort.
The most well known publication of the War was a poster. It read “Looting is Punishable with Death”. It was posted all over Colombo at intervals of three months. It had a much wider circulation than anything Jennings ever wrote. Unfortunately, it was translated into Sinhalese as “Looting will be Punished with Death”. The translation was faulty, but Jennings was ready for anything even “Anybody who loots will be boiled in oil”. It was looting that had to be stopped at all costs.
Writing about working hours in the Civil Defense Office, he wrote: “ I usually arrived from the University between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and worked at Union Place until about 9 p.m. Sir Oliver was still in his office, for he rarely went home before midnight. In fact, his nightly inspection of the control room frequently occurred after midnight and was always called “the Dawn Patrol”.
Quite often Mr. D.S. Senanayake was there as Minister in Charge of Food. Rarely was our conversation limited to civil defence, for Sir Oliver was advising Mr. Senanayake on all kinds of problems. I was asked for advice about many of them, and especially about the most important of all, the attainment by Ceylon of independence. On one such occasion, the 26th of May 1943 , there developed the triumvirate - Mr. Senanayake, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and Jennings which acted together for nearly five years until, on the 4th of February 1948, the Prime Minister (Mr. Senanayake) and the Leader of the Senate (Sir Oliver Goonetilleke) achieved independence for their country ….”
Jennings authored a pamphlet “Ceylon and Its People” issued by the Commander-in-Chief’s office. The Commander in Chief, Sir Geoffrey Layton, had told him that in Malaya the troops, who disliked the country, had been apt to ask “why they should fight for this b - country”, and consequently had fought with lowered morale. He did not want that to happen in Ceylon, so he hoped to get them interested in the country and its people. Layton asked whether Jennings could write a pamphlet which would answer the questions that the troops would probably ask. Jennings felt that he could answer most of the questions as he had himself had asked them on his arrival in 1941. A pamphlet with a print order of 20,000 copies was released. It was rapidly exhausted and reprinted.
Sir Geoffrey Layton was anxious to conciliate Ceylonese opinion. Jennings writes: “As soon as he had acquired sufficient experience of the environment, he realised that there were ministers and public servants whom he had to persuade, or by whom he had to be persuaded. He made very few mistakes on the side of civil government - I have no knowledge by which his military dispositions can be judged - because of his readiness to take advice and listen to criticism from them. He disliked “yes men” intensely. If he was on the wrong track he liked to be told why. He would argue vehemently, and in lurid quarter-deck language, but he could always be persuaded by a good case well presented. If Goonetilleke convinced him, for instance, that a course of decisions would be unpopular, he would seriously address his mind to the question of whether on military grounds that line of decision was necessary. He knew what he was doing; if he had to fight he might have a fifth column at his back, but at least he need not create a fifth column.”
A concern of the Government was the Japanese wireless propaganda, mainly from Tokyo, Singapore and Saigon . Psychologically it was very inept. However, it was supported by military success and had some effect, for local opinion thought that the British and the Americans were minimising their losses and that the exaggerated claims made by the Japanese were accurate. Like the Goebels propaganda in Germany, Japan being a totalitarian state had no qualms about disseminating false propaganda. .Jennings, therefore, undertook a series of weekly broadcasts called “Tokyo Lies”. These broadcasts proved to be invaluable as they were listened to by a large audience.
Easter Week 1942, the Japanese attacked Ceylon . Jennings heard this on the evening of April 4th through a message from the Canadian, Catalina, that a large enemy force was south-east of Dondra Head. It was obvious that the Island was wide open to attack.
The Colombo Racecourse had become an aerodrome through the efforts of F. R. G. Webb, Divisional Irrigation Engineer. With scratch labour force, he worked 16 or 17 hours a day and got the aerodrome ready. Apparently the Japanese knew nothing about it, for they bombed Ratmalana but ignored our fighter-station. Our nation had 42 fighter planes to defend it.
The civil defence machine was working as well as could be expected after three months of intensive work. The control room work though incomplete. Such as the fire-fighting equipment, and if the Japanese dropped incendiaries on the Pettah a large part of Colombo would have gone up in smoke.
Jennings wrote: “There was little that any of us could do at the eleventh hour, and the Japanese were not expected until the early morning. Accordingly I went home to dinner and collected some clothes for the night. Believing that I should probably spend the rest of the War in an internment camp, I wrote a cable to my wife and slipped it into a drawer in case somebody saw it after the arrival of the Japanese and managed to slip it out of the country. It was, of course, a purely personal message and gave no reason for its being sent.”
The Japanese though late came suddenly. In order to achieve ‘surprise’ they kept out of radar range - as it was in those days - and skimmed the sea until they neared the harbour. The sirens howled as the first bombs fell.
The Japanese aimed mainly at the harbour and did damage. It was less than anticipated, for two reasons. First, the Commander-in-Chief had had notice of their probable arrival and had sent to sea all ships which could be spared.
There was damage to workshops at Ratmalana, but the most serious “incident” was due to a stick of bombs on Angoda Mental Hospital. Most of the patients were taking fresh air outside, and casualties were high. All things considered, the civilians came off very lightly.
Jennings recorded, “When there was nothing more to be done at Union Place, Goonetilleke authorised me to go out and survey the damage. I soon realised that the material damage was very small and that what mattered was the damage to morale. Many Colombo citizens had decided that Colombo might suffer the fate of Singapore and Rangoon. They had therefore packed their bags and waited for the first attack. As soon as the raid was over, many of those who had cars decided that they must escape to their estates, and their friends’ estates, before the War started in earnest….”
The real problem was evacuation not bombs. Goonetilleke spent a hectic few days requisitioning restaurants and foodstuffs to feed those who remained. He called the entire staff of the Audit Department to serve in kades. Volunteer ladies Leslie de Saram and Dr. Andreas Nell offered their services and they opened canteens in the Fort.
Two men Jennings admired immensely during this period in the Civil Defense Service was D.S.Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.
Jennings wrote “My judgement of the capacity of a person does not necessarily depend on his doing what I think he ought to do; quite often it depends on his doing something different for a reason which I recognise as valid but which had not occurred to me.” Mr. D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (less often) fell into this category.
This country will remember Sir Ivor Jenning’s as the founder Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Colombo . The University at Peradeniya is the stupendous commemoration of this man: its buildings are of the most beautiful University in the world. His contribution to strengthen the morale of the people by squashing unfounded rumours and the war propaganda of the Japanese at a time when the country was under siege, was considerable.
Jennings left for Great Britain in January 1955. He died in December 1965 at the age of 62.
In the context of today, where we are having a war of attrition which can degenerate into a full-scale war the story of Ivor Jennings and his war service as Deputy Civil Defense Commissioner is invaluable. This story gives an insight as to how the Government in a similar situation mobilized the people and got their commitment.
Written By: Arjuna Hulugalle