In the late 1930s, going back in time almost 70 years, Ceylon was a British colony. People were generally satisfied with the way of life though there was talk of self-government. I was happy having a good job as a stenographer at Carson & Co., Ltd., the most prestigious tea firm with its offices on the fourth floor of Chartered Bank Building. The company had a Shipping Department, a Tea Department, Estates Department, Insurance Department and an Import Department. We were paid well and got annual bonuses for Christmas. Our medical bills too were settled by the company.
Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall who spotted a flotilla of Japanese aircraft carriers heading towards Ceylon
All Government and mercantile establishments were in the Fort, and the mercantile sector was run by the British companies such as Keel & Waldock, E. John & Co., Aitken Spence., George Steuarts etc. and banks such as Chartered Bank, Grindlays Bank, Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corp., and the State Bank of India.
Cargills, Apothecaries, Millers etc. were also managed by the British and there were a few Indian merchants down York Street. The impressive State Council building was there overlooking the Galle Face with the Treasury at the rear. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Borahs and Indians all lived in peace with each other. Temples, churches, mosques, and kovils were situated almost side by side with no religious problems.
The peace was shattered in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and quickly rolled westwards conquering several European states. Finally England declared war on Germany. France, England’s closest ally, fell to the Nazi war machine. London was heavily bombed every night and the British and Allied forces too were fighting on the mainland and bombing the Nazi occupied regions. Here in Ceylon Australian and New Zealand soldiers were trans-shipped through Colombo to Europe to fight the Germans.
Businesses and mercantile shipping almost came to a standstill. Ships carrying tea, rubber and other produce were sunk by German submarines in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Ceylon was placed on a war footing. Most of the European mercantile managers, even those on estates left for England leaving just one or two staff to carry on the business.
Oliver Goonetilleke, who was later knighted, was appointed Civil Defence Commissioner. He helped the British to organise Colombo’s defence with Air Raid Wardens. Every building in the Fort and suburbs had an air raid shelter, and these were run with staff from each office building. I was the Air Raid Warden at Carson’s and we were supplied with white uniforms, steel helmets, buckets of sand, stirrup pumps, fire extinguishers, axes and first aid boxes. We were taught fire fighting, and were given training in first aid by St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. My air raid post was on top of Chartered Bank with telephone services to contact the Fire Department in case of an attack.
What was happening in England was duplicated in Ceylon in preparation for enemy attacks. A total black out was introduced and all windows had to be pasted with black paper; even vehicle head lights had to be covered and electric torches were prohibited to prevent a “Fifth Column” from signalling to Japanese ships. For us it was real fun the night Colombo had its first blackout. Everybody got on the streets sightseeing in the dark. Gradually our eyes got accustomed to the darkness.