14th January 2001

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Death rattle on the tower

The Cocos Island Mutiny took place on the night of May 8, 1942 when gunners of The Ceylon Garrison Artillery attempted to arrest their British Commanding Officer and force him to surrender to the Japanese. The mutiny failed but three Ceylonese soldiers were hanged for their role in it, the only Commonweath troops to be executed for mutiny in World War Two.In his recently released book, The Cocos Islands Mutiny, Sri Lankan journalist Noel Crusz now resident in Australia reveals the extraordinary story which the military sought to keep secret. We publish here an extract from the book, which can be ordered from the Freemantle Arts Centre Press. Fax. (61) 8 9430 5242 or on e-mail

ImageIt was an ill wind that blew from the Philippines on 6 May 1942. Between nine and ten thousand American and Philippine troops under Lieutenant General Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese at Corregidor. Then on the night of 8 May, at 10 p.m. while the Coral Sea Battle was raging fiercely, the CGA men on Cocos Keeling went to their barracks. At 11 p.m. the first stages of the mutiny began to unfold when Bombardier Gratien Fernando and three of his group - Kronemberg, Edema and Diasz - took over as members of the guard with the change of shift.

At midnight, gunners R. S. Hamilton and Ken Porritt lay awake in the barracks. Like the other soldiers lying there with them, they had their rifles and ammunition alongside their beds. Their immediate task was to disarm the others, which they were to do by removing the pins from the rifles. Of course they could not begin until all were asleep. This would be a difficult, risky manoeuvre, but the success of the mutiny partly depended on it. The operation was delayed when, a little past midnight, Hamilton observed that two of the men were still awake. Meanwhile Gunner Subramaniam, having finished his shift of the observation post, had retired into the artillery storeroom below.

Fernando anticipated no committed opposition from the 25 non-mutineers, who were nevertheless bound to challenge him when he announced that he was now in charge of the contingent at Rowe Battery. When they settled down he would order Gardiner to surrender his forces to the Japanese Imperial Command, specifically to its officers on Christmas Island.

Fernando had manipulated the roster so that he was free to place himself at the entrance to Rowe Battery. As the minutes ticked by, he waited in vain for the flash of a torch to signify that all rifles in the barracks had been put out of action. After some time someone brought him the message that Hamilton had tampered with a mere seven rifles so far. This did not reassure Gratien, and he decided on a change of tactics; Hamilton and Porritt were to stop disabling the guns, and along with Diasz, take up positions near the barracks and hold the men under the threat of arms.

With the loyal troops in the barracks being held, it was time to get to work in the battery. The first move was to disarm the men in the guardroom. With all quiet and under control outside the battery, Fernando saw no need to take up his position at the entrance immediately, and he was present when the guardroom door was gently pushed open. To the mutineers' relief, all five men were asleep. One of the conspirators quietly approached the camp beds, took the rifles and handed them to Gauder; he in turn passed them on to Anandappa, who was standing outside. Fernando ordered his men to take the weapons to the trench. Gauder quietly shut the door of the guardroom and closed the latch, though the padlock was left open.

Some of the men now turned their attention to the artillery storeroom. Whoever it was that opened the door was startled to see that Subramaniam was still awake. Moving quickly, he kicked the rifle out of the sentry's reach and hit him with the butt of his own gun. Subramaniam slumped to the floor, dazed and bleeding . Gauder grabbed the rifle and flung it into the battery trench with the others.

Stephens was aroused shortly after this by someone tapping on the window that separated his room from the guardroom. It was Gunner R. A. V. Perera, who didn't say much, but made it clear something was badly amiss. Grabbing his revolver, the officer came out immediately, unlatched the guardroom door and was told that all the rifles and ammunition had been taken. The gravity of the situation was instantly clear to Stephens, whose further questioning elicited the fact that one of the guards was sleeping in the storeroom. He set off in that direction with Gunner Callistus Seneviratne, ordering the others to lie low.

As he turned the corner he was confronted by Gauder, with his rifle raised. When Stephens challenged him, Gauder responded by firing a round that grazed the lieutenant's cheekbone. An exchange of fire followed, some ten rounds in all, with the two men standing about six feet apart. No serious injury was inflicted, though Stephens was also hit on the leg. With only one bullet left, Stephens limped away and found himself a well protected place within the battery. He lay very still with his heart pounding when, after some time, he heard Fernando calling to him to come out from hiding. A little later it was de Silva's voice "Stephens - where is that bastard Stephens ?"

The mystery of why neither Stephens nor Gauder hit his target was never resolved. Stephens evaded the question when I asked him. As for Gauder, with all his embitterment against the excessive military discipline and the racist remarks from his commanding officers, and for all the personal animosity he bore towards Stephens, when it came to the point he just couldn't kill him. Patterson was convinced that, if either of them had been determined to kill the other, they could certainly have fired fatal shots.

Meanwhile Fernando climbed up to the observation post to get the Tommy gun, but found that he could not fix the magazine to it. He had to act quickly: he needed a machine gun to guard the entrance to the battery. The exchange of gunfire would surely have awakened the whole camp, and loyal troops could appear at any moment if Hamilton and the others were unsuccessful in keeping them at bay. After a final attempt to attach the magazine, he covered it up again and ran down to retrieve the Bren gun, which he had hidden outside the battery entrance. With him were Gauder and Anandappa with their rifles ready, and between them they had the battery reasonably well covered.

All the roster manipulation in the world would not have allowed Fernando to set up a situation in which he had only fellow conspirators with him in the battery compound. Apart from Stephens, Subramaniam and the other five guards mentioned there were a few others, including Gunner Samuel Jayasekera. Mahadura Samaris (Samuel) de Silva Jayasekera was a loyal soldier imbued with the highest traditions of his battery. He had been educated by the Jesuits at St Aloysius College in Galle, and left school after passing his eighth standard. The fourth son of the Registrar of Births and Marriages in Galle, he lived in Dadalla. His elder brother had also volunteered for war service, and was in the Middle East.

The evidence is not quite consistent, but it appears that Jayasekera was on the ground when he heard the telephone at the observation post ringing incessantly, and, since, the gunner on duty was not answering it, decided to ascend the staircase. As he approached the top of the tower he was confronted by de Silva, who challenged him twice and , receiving no answer, fired at point blank range. Jayasekera staggered back and fell. The single 303 soft-nosed bullet had entered just below his throat and then passed through the lumbar region of his spine. The body of the soldier slumped on the staircase and there was a brief death rattle.

Fernando cursed when he heard that Jayasekera had been killed, but he had to put that out of his mind. There was by now a lot of movement in the camp: Gardiner was awake, and so were the loyal troops. How they managed to brush aside Hamilton, Porritt and Diasz is not known, but a few of the more courageous were soon moving towards the battery. Fernando opened fire with the Bren gun. One man fell. The time was 4.30 a.m.

Many years later Corporal Lucian P. Koch of the Medical Corps recounted to me how he had been asleep in his billet, which was attached to the Medical Inspection Room, when he was woken by gunfire. His first thought was that the Japanese Forces had at last landed .

At the sound of the rifle I slipped into khaki shorts and deck shoes, [grabbed] my first-aid kit - always ready - switched the light off and got out of the room. Within seconds a burst of machine-gun bullets skimmed across the cement tennis court a few yards in front of me. I was able to judge the line of fire of the tracer bullets and keep clear.

I then sprang forward and leaned against a coconut tree. At that very moment I heard another report of a .303 coming from the direction of the observation post, a short distance from where I stood. I could get a clear view of Rowe Battery and the line of fire. I then saw three soldiers from our own crew walk from the direction of fire towards the observation post. I then rushed to the aid of the wounded Gunner B. G. de Zilwa and using the 'fireman's lift' method carried him to the Inspection Room.

Koch showed more than a measure of courage in getting at the injured man during the height of the mutiny. De Zilwa had been the first loyal soldier to get out at the alarm, and he had four of Fernando's Bren gun bullets embedded in the outer region of his chest on the right side. The Chief Medical Officer, Lieutenant S. K. Menon, was stationed on Direction Island, which meant that Koch would be on his own in dealing with this and any other emergency until well into the morning.

When the loyal troops responded to the alarm of gunfire, most of them grouped behind their quarters and then branched out in two directions. Some went to the beach on the right-hand side of the line of fire while the others took positions at the rear of the officers' quarters. Gardiner joined the left flank and took charge of that group. Fernando saw Gardiner creep behind a tree and fired at him, shouting to him to come out. The officer replied with a burst of shots from his rifle and called on the machine gunner to surrender. While Fernando had been able to recognize the commander in the faint light, the latter was unable to see his opponent. He called to his men to find out who it was.

Gardiner had to meet the immediate challenge the mutineers were throwing at him, but he was also concerned for the safety of his men. There would be no reckless suicide charge. Gradually the loyal troops encircled the mutineers' position, but Fernando and his followers were still in a good position to hold them off. There was a stand-off. Then Fernando's voice echoed in the breaking dawn:'Captain Gardiner to the battery.'

Gratien saw Gardiner advancing from the left flank. This was the moment. He would do it. He turned the Bren gun on his commanding officer and pulled the trigger. Then the unthinkable happened. The gun failed to respond. Fernando pushed the silent weapon aside and took his revolver, but the situation had changed in that instant. Thoughts jostled in his mind. The death of Jayasekera had blighted the situation, and last-minute defections had left him with a greatly weakened force. He turned and saw that a white sheet had been pulled over Jayasekera's body, and shook his head in disbelief. It was only a week before that he had sounded out Jayasekera and received no response.

In a desperate move that greatly puzzled de Silva, Gauder and Anandappa, Fernando ordered that the six-inch guns be turned on Direction Island. Whatever merit there might have been in such an action if they had had the upper hand it was too late. Lieutenant Stephens had seen his moment and, together with Sergeant Pereira and Corporal Ferdinands, approached the observation post just as Captain Gardiner was nearing the enclosure. Soon the area was brought under control, with the mutineers in Rowe Battery finding about 14 rifles and Gardiner's revolver directed at them. With a suddenness that shattered his allies, Fernando walked to the corner of the battery and picked up a white towel. He fastened it to the end of his rifle and announced that he was going to surrender. The mutiny had failed, he told them, but his dream had not failed. This was small comfort to the men who had put their trust in him.

Fernando shouted to Gardiner that he wanted to surrender. The commanding officer demanded that all arms be thrown towards him. De Silva and Gauder were arrested by the injured Stephens and put under close guard. According to Koch, the mutineers were asked to put their hands up and come forward, which they did. They were placed under close arrest and marched into the camp. A bricked fuel store [with] barbed wire on top,....... was cleared and the prisoners were kept under armed guard. One of the guards was Lance Sergeant O. M. D. W. Perera, who would be subjected to heavy cross-examination by a number of accused when he gave evidence at the Field General Court Martial.

Gardiner doubted that he had detained all the mutineers, and this was soon confirmed. There was an appalling payback for real and imagined battery grievances when names were given to him. Torch in hand, Gardiner and Stephens began a march around the camp rounding up suspects. Gunner R. S. Hamilton was brought out from hiding with Lance Bombardier Kingsley Diasz. Gunners A. J. L. Peiris, A. B. Edema, M. A. Hopman, F. J. Daniels and K. R. Porritt also fell into Gardiner's net and were arrested. Having declared that those found guilty would be executed at dawn, Gardiner sent a signal to Ceylon advising of the events and asking for reinforcements.

With the smoke setting on Cocos, there was a pall of sadness over the islands as preparations were made for a military funeral.

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