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The Sunday TimesPlus

6th April 1997



They came and they bombed

By Upali Salgado

"On Easter Sunday April 5 1942 when Christians dressed up in their Easter best, had flocked into church, the loud wail of police and military sirens, followed by ear- splitting gun fire, indicated that the Japs had come."

Facing the crisis: Sir John Kotelawala, Sir Andrew Caldecott and Admiral Geoffrey Layton on the day of the raid (left). Birchall : the vigilant (right).

The rising sun on the Japanese flag was symbolic of a highly disciplined nation, where in the name of their God king Emperor Hirohito, his subjects looked forward to establish a new world heirachy under Japan, "each nation to take her proper place."

Japan had attained unification and peace in her homeland having suppressed banditry; educated about 95 per cent of her rising generation in advanced technology and elctricity based industry, although they themselves were barren of necessary raw materials. To them, the outlook was that all nations were to be one world, fixed to an international heirachy. To their thinking it was the spirit that triumphed over matter. As a nation, Japan was not afraid of America’s mathematical figures, her hybrid genetic culture of technological achievements. The Japanese as a nation firmly believed that the material power America had, was devoid of a spirit and must therefore fail.

In that background the declaration of war by Japan on the Allies (USA, Britain and her colonies, Holland, France and Russia) was a matter of time. The Japanese forces had with lightning speed, militarily over run most of Asia, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Siam (Now Thailand), Malaya, The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) Burma and Singapore. It was then expected that they would attack Ceylon too, which was the gateway to Europe through the Suez Canal.

Whilst the war raged on with fury, the garden city of Colombo underwent a change. Street lamps were never lit at six in the evening. A large percentage of the residents had by January 1942, voluntarily evacuated themselves into the country, for safety. The mass exodus of people transporting their furniture, pets and even poultry, in lorries was a regular sight. All schools were closed. The larger ones reopened about a year later, under make-shift conditions in distant Yatiyantota, Ruwanwella, Kandy, Gurutalawa and Bandarawela, whilst their own buildings in Colombo were converted to Hospitals or operational Headquarters of the military.

Doors and windows of all buildings were painted black to mask any light at night, should an air raid happen to take place. The roads looked deserted like after a great plague. The ugly face of the beggar fraternity had disappeared for want of regular custom. Many shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques were closed. People usually moved about by train or on push cycles, as petrol rationing had come into force with the introduction of ‘Coupons’. Most residences were unoccupied displaying boards "To let". Food was rationed, and so as clothing. They were sold through Co-op outlets. The queue system, for the first time in Ceylon had begun!

Colombo’s Mayor, Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu, in association with Oliver (later knighted) Goonetilleke, the Civil Defence and Food Commissioner, were busy constructing concreted underground air raid shelters. Water tanks were built near large buildings, and the Fire Brigade had mock exercises or ‘drill". The air raid precaution service (ARP) was founded and manned by a large number of doctors and nurses and public spirited civilians. Charles Dymoke Green, Managing Director of Whittals Ltd. and Colombo’s Scout Commissioner, formed the Rover Scouts ARP Messenger service, who on push cycles were to carry messages in case telephones did not work. They were also trained in fire fighting and First Aid. Colombo city looked a veritable military fortress equipped with a battery of Ack-Ack eight inch guns whilst thousands of khaki clad servicemen who were Australians and Negroes moved about in convoys of armed cars. The Britisher was not going to surrender the island that easily.

Radio Message From Flt. Lt. Birchall

In that scenario, on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942 (fifty five years ago) when God fearing Christians dressed up in their Easter best, had flocked into church, at about 7.30 am, the loud wail of police and Military sirens, followed by repeated sounds of ear-splitting gun fire, indicated that the Japs had come. The Japanese had on the day before (4th April) destroyed several Allied vessels off the Andaman Islands, north east of Ceylon, and had moved to a South East position about forty miles away from Dondra Head. The Japanese fleet under the command of Admiral Kano Matsumi ( a veteran, astute sea dog known for his extra hard "bite", with or without the rice based Santori) consisted of three battle ships, five Aircraft carriers, several medium size cruisers and a destroyer flotila.

Fortunately for us, the enemy fleet was first spotted by a vigilant airman, flight lieutenant Birchall, a Canadian, who that very dawn was out on his Catalina sea plane, on a routine reconnaissance mission. He had taken off at about seven in the morning on April 5, 1942, from the Koggala Airbase, and was able, though hotly pursued by two Japanese Fighter Aircrafts, to gallantly radio signal Koggala of the impending danger, the location and strength of the enemy fleet. Not long after, his Catalina sea plane was shot down, and Birchall was taken a prisoner of war to Malaya. He was later decorated with the accolade "Distinguished Flying Cross" (DFC) which he richly deserved.

When the sirens sounded church-goers took shelter under pews, and civilians on the streets who were disciplined took cover. There were few casualties. Anti aircraft guns positioned at Mutwal over looking the Fishery Harbour, at Galle Buck and at Galle Face Green boomed for well over half an hour. Squadrons of Spitfires took off from the Race Course (which had been converted to be a small sized Aerodrome) and gave chase to the Jap "ZERO" fighters resulting in Aerial dog fights. The Jap Bombers flew way up in the sky, moving in beautiful formations like flights of doves, and they incessantly bombed the Port of Colombo, the Fire Brigade (which then was located in Pettah, near the Khan Clock Tower on Reclamation Road), and the Asylum at Angoda.

Whilst over twenty five Jap fighter aircraft had been destroyed, they had succeeded in creating havoc. One dare devil type Japanese Pilot of the Kami Kazi Corps (Suicide group) committed Hara-kiri, by crashing his light fighter aircraft through the funnel of a Destroyer in the Port. Another Steamer was badly hit. Both vessels eventually sank inside the Port. A sad story related was when three mechanics who took shelter in the well of a Railway Loco shed (Engine Repair workshop) of the Port Commission Railway, were pinned to death, as a result of the locomotive jumping rails due to the bomb blast.

One of the Japanese fighter planes shot down was seen on Galle Face Green. Hundreds of civilians rushed to the scene to tear off a piece of pewter, as a momento. Another fighter plane was seen on the S. Thomas’ College, Cricket (Big Club) grounds. Several more such planes were seen at Hokandara, Nawinna, Borelesgamuwa and at Gampaha.

Tribute from the London Times

The London Times of April 6, 1942 said, " The inhabitants of Colombo, whose appearances and suave manners seen unfilled to and age of fire and steel behaved well, courageously and calmly, than Londoners when they first met their ordeal." A few days later, on April 12, 1942, the cigar smoking, defiant Winston Churchill, P.M. of Britain made a statement in the House of Commons to say,’ "two 10,000 ton eight inch Cruisers, the SS Dorsetshire and SS Corn Wall, together with the Aircraft Carrier Hernes were sunk by the enemy off the coast of Ceylon."

Chelva stood tall in his shoes

By Prof. C. Suriyakumaran

Contd. from last week

In all these, led outstandingly on the minority side of course by "GG", as Ponnambalam was called, there would be Chelvanayakam - observant, mostly silent, clear, almost always accepted when contributing, and fervently loyal.

The Soulbury Commission Report was a disappointment and a blow to the Tamil Congress. It was in this background that the Party went nevertheless into the first Parliamentary Elections. The post-election events, the increasing domination over the minority in Government, various legislative enactments by the Government, and the general charge of the Soulbury Constitution not having met the aspirations of the minority, weakened also the fabric of minority solidarity. The ground was ready for individual departures from the common front, either in the form of voting in Parliament on issues, or crossing the floor.

It was at this time that Chelvanayakam decided to stand tall in his shoes (or slippers). He saw issues on which he could not compromise on behalf of his people. He saw distortion in the system which he felt could not be set right by simple means. And he saw a permanence in a continued imposition of this on the minority, unless new changes and new formations of government came to be adopted.

He was of course a born ‘pacifist’. Yet the similarity with which I began this reminiscence to Ho Chi Minh, as the circumstances moulding the man, was real. In this case I do know that Chelvanayakam’s reaction and his decisions as to what he saw as his mission, were the product of these compulsive exigencies, which he regretted, but which he saw as impossible from which to shut himself.

That resulted in its inevitable reaction, and the formation of the Federal Party, which from then on was to become the platform for the Tamil people, under this nomenclature or later as the TULF. Chelvanayakam had right along been an ‘integrationist’, if one may use that word. He was not a ‘separatist.’ He had long wedded himself to a single country with forms of governance at the centre that would assure the rights, safeguards and opportunities of all citizens equally. He saw the door as participation of all in Central Government.

The formation of the Federal Party, for reasons indeed imposed on him by the majority government, was therefore still based on the concept of one country, but of course emphasised the need, in the historic situation that had been allowed to develop, for autonomy to the minority in the areas which were their homes - and which the majority were to define for them repeatedly, in 1958, 1977 and 1983, by telling their Tamil victims to ‘go home’!

In the meantime, various short-sighted pieces of legislation, the most traumatic being the ‘Sinhala Only Bill’, had acerbated the situation.

These were what led, in short, to the escalating demands, in the later parleys with the Government of the day, and to the emergence of perhaps the most significant benchmark in central political process, despite the tragedy of its being discarded later, namely the Bandaranaike-Chevanayakam (B-C) Pact of 1956.

I do not go on this occasion into its details, nor is there need for it here. It should be noted however, as we saw earlier, that Chelvanayakam advanced this and agreed upon this as part of the structure of National Government, providing as I stated for honest self-expression, security and opportunity to the minorities in their own areas of habitation. An index of its non-Eelam nature was available in that sometime after, an outstanding candidate in a 100 per cent Tamil Electorate, campaigning on an Eelam ticket, was totally rejected at the polls.

The time of forging of the B-C Pact was an exciting one, given its potential. Chelvanayakam had told Bandaranaike during the talks - and they were always marked by great mutual respect and regard for each other - that ‘if they did not implement this now, twenty years later the minorities would be asking for independence.’ In turn, when Bandaranaike was asked by the media at the time how he came to sign the B- C Pact, he replied, "I was merely interpreting the present in the context of the future.’

I was then a young officer still, but this time in Headquarters and in a senior position, right under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Yet, that was not the reason for the privilege to see for myself what was then considered an epochal change for a better and happier country. I had had a history of invariably writing on subjects, including Local Government, and I had also probably initiated in my postings in the regions, some of the most creative ideas, not simply in Local Government but in economic development.

While I was in Jaffna, these included for the first time ever an inter-sectoral co-ordination of all departments of government and all Local Authorities, for a selected area, to produce a fully integrated socio-economic development plan and programme. It was soon clear that I was too early for my time, for both the politicians and decision-makers, except for exceptional people like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. One by-product that still exists, is the original electrification of rural Jaffna. There were many others, including the larger Keerimalai Plan etc.

We used to meet informally, and in all of these I remember Chelvanayakam as an MP would come and sit simply and whole-heartedly and follow this up with all the support that could be given. There were many other initiatives, also in Batticaloa and elsewhere.

The aftermath of the collapse of the B-C Pact had been a sad sequence of protests and dissatisfaction from the minorities and the increasing reaction of the Security Forces in the North on the ground of maintaining ‘Law and Order’. The escalations in the succeeding years, and the imposed violence and terror on helpless citizens, by the so-called Security Forces of the Government in the North and East, naturally led to even greater hardening of political postures and demands. The result of all this was the inevitable reaction that, at the end of the road, the only solution for the minority could be separation. The Vaddukkottai Resolution was simply its expression, in its core, a part still of contemporary thinking on solutions.

The continuation of that imposition on the people indeed led directly to the rise of the Tiger Movement which soon gave to the entire crisis a new dimension. As its obverse, the Tamil United Liberation Front, which had succeeded the Federal Party, and which Chelvanayakam had nurtured with his leadership, began to decline as a force.

The rest is history, at least in the Chelvanayakam dossier. Perhaps the most significant fact was what he had told Bandaranaike on what could come to pass twenty years later. From being a Statesman, he had ended up a Prophet, as indeed also in Bandaranaike’s own words, interpreting their present in the context of the future. In large part, the traumas and the travails that we have been put through as a people - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims alike - had been the result of that lost ‘First Opportunity’, that succeeding leaders of our people turned into tragedy.

Shortly after the collapse of the B-C Pact, I had been associated under Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in an Officials Committee Report introducing the development design into what was going to be experimented as Development Councils - and which became the basis in fact of the Dudley Senanayake- Chelvanayakam Accord.

I myself left, almost immediately after, to go abroad, on invitation as a Career International Civil Servant of the United Nations, coming back only after long years on my eventual retirement, renewing the threads, the travails and the recollections of a chapter which I had left, and which tragically, seemed to remain almost only where I had left it! The only changes in fact seem to have been pathetic escalations of community alienations, of violence, and of sheer inability to perceive mentally the simple reasons that divided each from the other, and indeed the simple solutions that were there, which we just did not want to pick up. I have written since on these, have kept writing and still seem to be doing so amidst my economic, international and environmental pre-occupations.

How long more we shall all remain only witness to all these, lies perhaps much more in our hands than we realise. The work, life, and inspiration of Chelvanayakam would help in this, if properly understood. For myself, I had known him simply as one who related completely and intimately, and in very humble ways for a person of his stature. Perhaps all these placed me in far better position than relating by consanguinity, which has been used sometimes to ‘evaluate’ him.

An initiative had developed at a point in time to have Chelvanayakam called father of his people (‘Thanthai Chelva’), an honorific which one thinks we would have been uncomfortable to accept. He would have been more prone to see himself simply as a Man - rather than some father figure.

In his style and in his image, he projected indeed the figure of a man who by force of circumstances adopted a mission and a duty to serve and to fulfil a cause - rather a spiritual call, for a fulfilment in which, when sacrifice had to be made, it was given unflinchingly, as if he were their debtor, and not the people whose cause he had sought. Perhaps an awkward politician, he was certainly a committed visionary and, above all else, the Nishkama Karma Yogi - whose work expected no reward.

When the day comes, when we shall see peace, it will as well be as the fruits of his devotions and his labours, as of all the others that gave of themselves, and of all else that would have transpired by then.

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