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The Sunday TimesPlus

16th March 1997



Remembering DS


Remembering DS

Father of the Nation and first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon D.S. Senanayake died on March 22,1952 after a riding accident . Sir John Kotelawala rightly observed at that time that his death was a national calamity. Today 45 years later, we take a peek at the pages of a collector's note book and publish extracts from the British press which ran the story of the premier's fall and Radio Ceylon's SOS for a British surgeon

Flight by Sir Hugh Cairns cancelled

Last-minute Drama at Abingdon

Don Stephen Senananayake, first Prime Minister of Ceylon, died in Colombo today from head injuries received when he fell from his horse yesterday.

News of his death came just as one of the world's leading brain surgeons, Sir Hugh Cairns, of Oxford, was preparing to leave Abingdon R. A. F. Station in a special plane for Colombo.

Sir Hugh had first planned to leave at 4.30 a.m. but the flight was cancelled on Ceylon reports that the Prime Minister's condition was "now such as to make it not worth while."

Then came news of an improvement in his condition, and it was decided that Sir Hugh should after all undertake the flight. The plane was due to take off at 11 a.m.

The cancellation of the flight came when Sir Hugh, with Mr. Walpole S. Lewin, assistant neurological surgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary, were ready to step aboard the plane.A Hastings aircraft had arrived from Topcliffe (Yorkshire) at 10.15 a. m. and the station staff at once began filling the seven tanks of the plane, which carries 3,000 gallons of petrol. Twenty-two parachutes and 22 "Mae Wests" were taken aboard.

The High Commissioner for Ceylon (Mr. Wijeyaratne) arrived with his two sons, Cuda, aged 29, a medical student in London, and Tissa, aged 18 a law student at the Inner Temple who had come to see their father off. Then, just before 11 o'clock, Group-Capt. C. A. Watts, the station O.C., told waiting pressmen and photographers that a report had been received that the Prime Minister was dead.

Ten minutes later the station orderly officer, Flt.-Lieut S. G. Brown, announced that the death was confirmed. Sir Hugh and his party later returned to Oxford.

Abingdon Hustle

The cancellation of the flight planned for 4.30 a.m. was made on Mr. Churchill's personal orders from 10, Downing Street, after a message from Colombo that there was "no hope" for Mr. Senanayeke.

It was shortly before midnight when a telephone rang in the office of the Senior Duty Officer at Abingdon R.A.F. Station, and an Air Ministry official at the other end told Flt.-Lieut. Imray that a Hastings transport plane was flying from Topcliffe R.A.F. Station, in Yorkshire, to pick up Sir Hugh and his party at 4.30. Immediately the sleeping station, woke to life as members of the emergency crew for the control tower as well as refuelling crew were roused from sleep and told to take up their stations. One airman just going on leave, was called back and another, clad only in his shirt and boots, ran to rouse others, and in a short time arrangements were complete. However, at 2.30 a.m. the telephone rang again and another Air Ministry message was received cancelling the arrangements on the instructions of the High Commissioner.

The ages of the Ceylon High Commissioner's sons were erroneously reported. Tissa was 29 and Cuda 18.

Senanayake, friend of Britain

Farmer who was once a wrestler

A wrestler who became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, Don Stephen Senanayake - "Jungle John" - led his country in its campaign for Dominion status.

But it was not until he was 42-25 years ago - that Senanayake took an interest in politics says the British United Press.

A giant of a man, he spent the biggest part of his life farming. Apart from being a wrestler, he was also a good boxer and a hard hitter on the cricket field. He was educated at St. Thomas' Church of England College and although a devout Buddhist later became a director of the school.

He first took part in public life as a temperance reformer but his brother Frederick the first leader of the Ceylon Independence Party, was then the politician of the family.

In 1925 Frederick died and Don Stephen was called from his farm to take his brother's place. He entered the Legislative Assembly and, as a farmer, became Minister of Agriculture, a post he held for 16 years.

Ousted Corruption

As head of the Independence Party, he worked to give his country Dominion status. In 1946 came success. The British Government framed the new Constitution.

Senanayake, who had become leader of the State Council had the biggest say in Ceylon in the drafting - and in the following year he became the first Prime Minister of the country.

But the struggle was not over. He sought to rid public life of corruption and a judicial inquiry he set up in 1949 recommended the dismissal of six high officials.He set up new hydro-electric stations, developed new mineral resources and strengthened the country's trading position.

Many have been the tributes paid to this friend of Britain, but none more accurate than that once paid by Lord Soulbury Governor-General of Ceylon who said:"He is a man of unfailing courtesy, kindness, tolerance and moderation and a statesman of judgment: sagacity and foresight."

'Life-or-death' Radio call to save injured Premier

Daily Mirror Reporter

At ninety-second intervals, a life-or-death call for help for an injured Premier was broadcast 6,500 miles to London last night.

Radio Ceylon said: "Urgent message ....Will B.B.C. contact Sir Hugh Cairns at Oxford 58136 and ask him to phone Dr. Peiris, Colombo 9351?

"It concerns the health and life and death of our Prime Minister. If he cannot telephone, ask him to cable or use some other means of communication."

The Premier, Don Stephen Senanayake, had been thrown by a bolting horse, and still was unconscious.

B.B.C. monitors at Caversham picked the call up. An official passed it to Sir Hugh, who is a leading brain specialist. The G.P.O. at once opened a radio-telephone link between Oxford and Colombo.

And late last night a spokesman for Mr. Churchill said: "Every effort is being made to fly Sir Hugh out as soon as possible - in the fastest plane available."

By telephone from the hospital where Mr. Senanayake lay, Dr. Peiris told the Daily Mirror: "I understand that Mr. Churchill is providing a jet plane so that Sir Hugh can fly here straight-away to operate.

High British Government officials meanwhile worked on arrangements for sending an assistant, two nurses, and the High Commissioner for Ceylon - Sir Cecil Syers - with him.

Minutes after the call was monitored, short-wave enthusiasts all over England who had heard it, were telephoning the B.B.C. And a cable telling of the SOS came from Sierra Leone, West Africa.

One of the first short-wave men to ring up Broadcasting House was Mr. A. Hare of Lyndhurst avenue, Twickenham.

Sir Hugh, 55, returned to Oxford a few days ago, after convalescing - he had undergone an operation.

Sixty-seven-year-old Mr. Senanayake, an expert horseman, somersaulted twice after he was thrown.

Continue to Plus page 2 -Picturing the prose * Traditional homelands: The revival of a dubious claim

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