In this three-part series for Remembrance Day,
Sergei De Silva Ranasinghe looks at the Burma Campaign (1941-1945)
of World War II and traces the role of the Ceylon volunteers who
fought at the front
It is often overlooked that the internecine Burma
Campaign was for the British Army and its auxiliary forces, the
longest campaign throughout the Second World War, starting from
December 11, 1941 and ending on June 15, 1945. The intensity of
the fighting can be gauged by the casualties suffered by both sides,
with 14,326 Allied troops killed and 73,909 wounded; and among the
Japanese an estimated 185,149 fatalities.
|Allied soldiers in Burma during the WWII.
Due to little public recognition received in the
media and the protracted nature of the campaign which extended well
past VE Day - May 8, 1945, the British/Indian Army in Burma was
termed the ‘Forgotten Army’. As one officer described
it, he had the, “…strong feeling that they are taking
part in a forgotten campaign in which no one in authority is taking
any real interest”.
During the early stages, up to early 1942, few
people in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, demonstrated an awareness of the
impending strategic consequences of the Japanese invasion of Burma.
Only in April, 1942, did the full reality of war come home to the
people of Ceylon, when the Imperial Japanese Navy assaulted Colombo
and Trincomalee by air and mauled segments of the hastily assembled
British Eastern Fleet off Ceylon.Popularly, the Burma Campaign is
often better known for the infamous treatment of European Prisoners
of War (POWs) on the Burma-Thai railway, which received widespread
coverage through the award winning film, The Bridge on the River
Kwai (1957), which incidentally was itself filmed in Ceylon.
|A poster of the film The Bridge on the River
Kwai, a movie on the Burma Campaign shot in Sri Lanka.
At the time, the film was a huge undertaking, the
bridge alone needing, as the late Noel Crusz who liaised with director
David Lean, maintained in a recent interview: “Local labour,
carpenters and craftsmen from Kitulgala saw 1,500 trees cut down
and dragged to the site by 48 elephants … It was the largest
film set built at that time, even surpassing Cecil B. de Mille’s
Gates of Tanis in ‘The Ten Commandments. There were many fair-skinned
Ceylonese Burghers: planters, merchants, engineers, willing to be
extras. In fact 37 nationalities were among the extras, and some
had fought in World War II.”
Considering Ceylon’s proximity to Burma,
for years I was deeply intrigued to ascertain whether Ceylon, in
any way contributed to the Burma Campaign. In recent times I was
fortunate enough to find rare details alluding to the participation
of Ceylon volunteers to the much vaunted Burma Campaign.
After undertaking years of extensive field research
and conducting numerous interviews with veterans, I have finally
gathered the biographical details and stories of several Ceylon
volunteers who served in the forgotten Burma campaign, which commenced
64 years ago.
Enter the Ceylon volunteers
It presently remains obscure how many Ceylon volunteers
served in the Burma Campaign, although there are fleeting indications
that suggest the manpower contribution was between 100-200 volunteers.
However, I am aware that Ceylon’s volunteers
formed two distinct ethnographic categories, namely, British and
Ceylonese – the British mainly from the exclusively European,
Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps (CPRC) and the Ceylonese from
units of the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) and the Ceylon Royal Naval
Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR).
The British element consisted of two types; those
born and raised in Ceylon; and those who settled in Ceylon for mercantile
or other reasons. Both types joined the all European CPRC, a prominent
unit of the CDF which was open to all European males of military
age in Ceylon. An appropriate personification of this is exemplified
by CPRC volunteer, Major Philip Grimwood, as stated by his relative:
“Prior to World War Two, Philip was a Tea Taster in London
and was then employed by Attampettia Estate, Bandarawela, Ceylon
as a Tea Planter, joining the Ceylon Planters Rifles’ Corps
in 1939. He was also the SD in charge of the Napier Division of
“With the outbreak of World War Two, he
was involved with Garrison Duty in Ceylon with the CPRC. On May
7, 1942, Philip was granted an Emergency Commission into the 4/10th
Gurkha Rifles. From January to May 1942, he attended the Officers
Training School at Belgaum, India and was subsequently deployed
at Imphal with the 4/10th Gurkhas.
The 4/10th GR War Diary entry for November 4,
1943 states: ‘Lt Grimwood and Rfm Budhiman Limbu entered Burma
for attachment to 3/1 GR, being first men of 4/10th GR to enter
He subsequently served with the 3/4th Gurkha Rifles,
as a Lieutenant attached to 40th Column in the Second Chindit Campaign.
Later, he served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Detachment
101 and Special Operations Executive (SOE), Z Force. Upon demobilisation
at the end of the war, Major Philip Grimwood returned to Ceylon
to continue his career in the tea industry. At the time, European
males of military age in Ceylon were generally affiliated to the
CPRC. In much the same circumstances as the First World War, throughout
the Second World War, the CPRC served as valuable officer reinforcements
and is estimated to have provided over 700 volunteers commissioned
in the British and auxiliary armies, mainly enlisting or obtaining
transfers on an individual basis. Notwithstanding, between August,
1940 and July, 1942, the CPRC dispatched six contingents amounting
to 172 soldiers as officer reinforcements to the Officer Training
School at Belgaum, India, and they were given postings in British/Indian
Army units. According to one unpublished and incomplete list, the
CPRC had at least 39 of their volunteers in Gurkha units, some of
whom are highly likely to have served in Burma.
Perhaps there are many similar stories to be told
about the hundreds of CPRC volunteers who served in India but that
is not the objective of this article. Of the CDF units, the Ceylon
Light Infantry (CLI) appears to have been where the trickle of Ceylonese
volunteers originated. These participants included: Gerry Van Reyk
of the 2nd battalion CLI, (who according to Lieutenant General Denis
Perera served in Burma, although no records have been located);
P.D. Pelpola; S.D. Ratwatte; A.R. Udugama and B.R. Kriekenbeek,
who all served as military observers.
It is a matter of regret that I could not locate
any substantive details on P.D. Pelpola, S.D. Ratwatte and A.R.
Udugama other than their war service records.
Volunteers from outside the CDF included Rex de
Silva, Bonaventure Schofield and 17 known personnel from the CRNVR.
As such, the largest contribution of manpower to the Burma Campaign
came from the CRNVR. As will be established, the unassuming Ceylonese
contribution to this forgotten theatre, merits deference.
Peter Donald Pelpola
The late Major P.D. Pelpola served in both World
Wars in frontline theatres receiving many decorations to his name,
including the War Medal, Defence Medal and the Burma Star for service
in the Second World War and appears to have been the oldest Ceylonese
volunteer to serve in Burma. Due to his rank as Major and his impressive
military background, notably in the First World War where he served
with the Legion of Frontiersmen in German East Africa campaigning
against General Von Lettow-Vorbeck, it is quite likely that he held
a position of responsibility.
According to his service records, while he was
affiliated to the 2nd battalion, CLI, he volunteered to serve in
Burma for a short tour. He was sent to India for further training
on December 16, 1943 and was subsequently attached to the 161st
Indian Infantry Brigade, in the Arakan, from January 1, 1944, to
January 27, 1944.
Sooriyaratne Douglas Ratwatte
The late Colonel S.D. Ratwatte joined the CLI in
1938 as a 2nd Lieutenant and when war started, he was posted to
the 1st and 5th battalions, CLI. In 1942, he volunteered to serve
in Burma. After initial training, he was attached to the 14/15th
Punjabis, in the Arakan, where he led a company. In the post-independence
Ceylon Army, S.D. Ratwatte held several senior positions in the
Ceylon Volunteer Force, later the Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force,
notably as the first Commanding Officer of the 2nd (V) Sinha Regiment,
retiring at the rank of Colonel.
Alexander Richard Udugama
A.R. Udugama received a commission in the CLI as
a 2nd Lieutenant in 1940 and was posted to the 1st, 3rd and 4th
Battalions respectively. According to the excellent research conducted
by retired Major General H.V. Athukorale: “He underwent numerous
infantry courses [sic] in Ceylon and India, and was promoted to
the rank of Captain on 1st January 1943. In November 1943, he was
selected for attachment to the 14th Army in the operational areas
of Burma. During this period of attachment, he served [sic] with
the 7/2nd Punjab Regiment in the Arakan area, on the eastern side
of Mayu Range. For service during the Second World War he was awarded
the Burma Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal.”
Mervyn Rex de Silva
Winner of the prestigious Lord Leverhume Aviation
Scholarship, the late Rex de Silva from St. Peter’s College,
Colombo, was one of several dozen Ceylonese volunteers who joined
the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in the Second World War and
was amongst the first Ceylonese to experience frontline aerial combat
in the war. He received his training in England and was posted to
504th Squadron, (Spitfires VB) at Ibsley and Redhill where his squadron
escorted Marauders over German occupied ‘Fortress Europe’.
After a lengthy period of service in Europe, he
had the honour of being posted to Ceylon in April, 1944, with the
17th Squadron, at Minneriya in defence of the ‘Trincomalee
Fortress Area’. On November 19th, 1944, the 17th Squadron
relocated its operational base to the Imphal valley, where air support
was rendered to the allied ground offensives on Kalewa and Taukyan.
In his diary, Rex summed up the events: “December 19th. Spitfire
VIII. Beat Up Taukyan. Just a show for the Colonel’s benefit!!!
December 19th. Patrol. Kalewa Bridgehead again. December 20th. To
Sapam. And Gentlemen! Kalewa Once Again!!” Rex ended the war
as a Flight Sergeant.
Brian Randall Kriekenbeek
Now an elderly gentlemen of 83, yet vibrant and
alert, Brian Kriekenbeek recalled for the first time, during his
telephone conversations with me, his memories of over 64 years.
When war began, Brian felt assured of his motivation to fight: “I
accepted the fact the British were occupiers, and felt the Empire
was guarding Ceylon from the Japanese.” On completing his
schooling at Royal College and turning 18, he volunteered to join
the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) and was accepted for officer cadet
training at Diyatalawa. In December, 1942, after finishing a six
month basic training course, he obtained a commission as a Second
Lieutenant in B Company, 2nd Battalion, CLI.
In November, 1943, he volunteered to serve at the
Burma front. Within days of selection, he entrained from Colombo
to Talaimannar and embarked on a ferry to Dhanushkodi, the closest
proximity from Talaimannar to Southern India on the Rameswaram coast.
On January 1st, 1944, he was attached as reinforcement to the 114th
Indian Infantry Brigade in the Arakan and posted to D Company, 4/5th
Gurkha Rifles, as a Second Lieutenant. Brian’s tour with the
4/5th Gurkha Rifles was an outstanding experience. In his short
three-week stint he was accepted by the other ranks and officers
of the battalion. Ethnically, the unit’s composition was typical
of the British-Indian Army of that time, mostly British officers
and Indian other ranks.
His first experience of patrolling through the
jungle was uneventful. However, his experiences soon changed. As
he sardonically recalled, his first combat experience was: “Quite
frightening because no one had shot at me before”. However,
on his second dusk patrol they stumbled on to a Japanese platoon
near a paddy field. Immediately both patrols began firing at each
other from a distance of about 200 yards. The loud clatter and confusion
of rifle and sub-machine guns firing went on for several minutes
before both patrols hastily withdrew into the jungle – as
he remembers, there were no likely casualties in the skirmish. Out
of the six patrols with the 4/5th Gurkha Rifles, four made contact
with the Japanese.
At that time, due to the static nature of their
portion of the front, they had simple orders to collate field intelligence
on Japanese positions, movement and numbers. As Brian said: “I
conducted all my patrols at night, scouting for Japanese positions,
which was pretty grim work. Night patrols were normally conducted
after dinner, around 7 pm, and usually lasted several hours. We
tended to stay away from the jungle tracks as they were prone to
ambushes. The ‘No Man’s Land’ area we operated
in was normally between three quarters to a mile in distance. At
night we could not see, so we navigated with a hand-held compass
which was difficult. When we encountered Japanese patrols it was
always nerve wracking and confusing and we were not quite sure where
they were, so we fired wildly in their direction. Once contact was
made we would either drop flat on the ground or take cover and frantically
scan for enemy silhouettes or muzzle flashes. If we spotted them
we fired our weapons and threw grenades. The duration of these skirmish
actions lasted sometimes for up to 15 minutes. Quite often contact
was made out of the blue with the Japanese patrols.”
Through his encounters and experiences, he had
developed an ungrudging respect for the Gurkhas he served with.
“It was a brotherhood. They treated me in an excellent manner.
The Gurkhas were so special, it was like working with military machines.”
Once his brief tour with the Gurkhas was over,
he was posted to another unit on the Burma front for an even shorter
tour as a 2nd Lieutenant in the all British composed, 1st Somerset
Light Infantry, better known as the ‘SomLI’.
His posting was with C Company, 1st Somerset Light
Infantry, which was attached to the 7th Division’s 33rd Indian
Infantry Brigade. His duties were identical to his experience with
the Gurkhas, taking part in three uneventful night patrols with
no sign of the Japanese. As destiny would have it, Brian’s
short two-week tour of duty with the SomLI was to be a starkly different
experience. He remarks rather indignantly: “When they found
out where I originated from, there was a definite change in their
attitude towards me. They had very ill-informed and negative views
of Ceylon and its people to the point of being condescending and
just bloody rude. They didn’t like that I was an officer,
didn’t respect my commission and displayed irritation when
Once his five-week tour of Burma ended, he was
ordered back to Ceylon in February 1944 and rejoined the 2nd battalion,
CLI at China Bay, Trincomalee where he was promoted to the rank
Soon after, he attended an advanced infantry training
course for NCOs and junior officers at the ‘Battle School’,
near Weliveriya. Subsequently, he was sent to India to attend the
Jungle Warfare School, at Shimoga, in January, 1945, for one month,
before rejoining the CLI in February, 1945. In mid 1945, he led
a group of 10 soldiers from his battalion on a special mission,
escorting 26 interned Japanese POWs to India. As he recalled, “They
were just poor harmless bastards who were captured probably from
the merchant navy.” The escort party travelled by train from
Colombo to Talaimannar, and the group was ferried to Dhanushkodi.
Once in India, they travelled by train all the way to the Red Fort,
Delhi, where the POWs were transferred. Brian affirms that by the
end of the war the CLI furnished guards as POW escorts for at least
6-8 missions, between Ceylon and India.
Demobbed in mid 1946 he was awarded the Burma
Star and the War Medal. Subsequently in 1947, he signed up as a
2nd Lieutenant in the British Army, General List Infantry (Ceylon
Section) and agreed to serve with the 1st battalion, Ceylon Corps
of Military Police (CCMP) that was deployed in Malaya from August,
1947, to June, 1949, where he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
After Malaya, Brian returned to Ceylon and in 1949 migrated to Australia.