Lost in the cracks of history


Bridal couple, the Registrar, family and friends including Denis Perera, Douglas Ramanayake, who was Chief Witness, and other members of the Ceylon Engineers Regiment.

By Siri Ranawake

I had no idea that I would become a footnote to history. I was just a schoolgirl with a crush on the boy next door – more than a crush, really – preparing to sit the university entrance examination. One morning, our Principal walked into our class, called me out and, with a smile on her usually stern face, said:

"There is a very nice boy in my office who says he has something to tell you: something that he has to do today. He is a nice young man and I think you should listen to him in my office. I will be outside."

I knew who it was, and that he had worked his usual magic on our formidable Principal. I was ready for what was to come because, even then, we had no secrets from each other. He said he was leaving that afternoon on a troop ship bound for England to join the British Army for training as an officer cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy in Britain. He showed me he had got my name tattooed on his right wrist and said he would be back to marry me on completion of his course.

I mumbled my thanks to the Principal and went back to class, and the giggles of my classmates. And Manthi sailed away.

During our childhood in Sri Lanka, Manthi lived with his parents in the house opposite my aunt’s, which I frequently visited. It was inevitable that we should have fallen in love, as teenagers often do. Our parents did not share our enthusiasm and we did not bother about that. We were in our bold teens, after all, and life beyond that was not something we thought about. I was proud of his brash behaviour to brave the Principal of a major Girls’ School.

What was all this about? In 1948 Ceylon had obtained Dominion Status within the British Commonwealth and set about transforming its volunteer army regiments into the national military force of the independent nation. The Army Act, the legal authority and framework for the establishment of the Ceylon Army, was passed in 1949. But mere legislation could not ensure that we were not vulnerable to attack, particularly in the shadow of the break-up of Empires and the emerging ‘Cold War’. A series of Defence Agreements were signed by the Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake to guard ourselves from attack (whether real or only feared).

The United Kingdom also agreed to furnish Ceylon with such military as assistance as would be required for the training and development of Ceylonese armed forces. The Ceylon government was able to get allotments for future Army Cadet Officers at Sandhurst. Later that same year, the first intake of ten officer cadets was selected for training at Sandhurst, and our old friend Denis Perera, later General and the Army Commander, was among them.

But not Manthi. The route he took to Sandhurst was different and more convoluted. And thereby hangs this tale.

Manthi’s father, C. V. Ranawake, at the time I speak of, was an eminent lawyer, on good terms with a lot of persons of equal eminence. Among them was the first Army Commander, an Englishman, Brig. Roderick Sinclair, the Earl of Caithness who had commented that young Manthi was "running wild" and he could do with a dose of good ol’ army discipline. Maybe that was when the idea that took root in Manthi’s father’s mind.

A new initiative had been mooted by the British War Office, in co-operation with the then Government of Ceylon and other dominions, whereby Officer Cadets from Commonwealth countries would be recruited, trained and inducted into the British Army as Liaison Officers in the event of another world war conflagration. Under this scheme, in 1949, several youngsters from India, Pakistan and Ceylon were interviewed in Colombo and the only one to be selected was 17-year old Manthi Ranawake, who was selected to join the Royal Engineers as a British Army Officer Cadet. But, as Manthi had not yet completed the required time in secondary school, he initially attended an English high school in Malvern before he joined his batch mates at Sandhurst.

It was there that he met the Ceylon Army Officer Cadets who were already at Sandhurst. It was natural that they got on together, comradeship in a foreign land is always valued. This was where he first met Denis Perera and they became life-long friends. The Ceylonese, when on vacation would congregate in London for Ceylonese food, and the fellowship continued to flourish. There is a picture, in the new biography of Denis, which shows Manthi together with a group of them - Denis Hapugalle, Tony Anghie, Cyril Ranatunga, Arthur Bartholomeusz, Duleep Wickramanayake, Noel Gunawardena, Justus Rodrigo, Denis Perera, and Dalton Anderson.

But Sandhurst days must end, and Denis and his group came back to Ceylon and to commissions in the Ceylon Army. They were posted to different Regiments and Denis was assigned to the Engineers.

But things did not go so smoothly for Manthi. Post 1945 Britain was rapidly dwindling from its former status of the world’s largest imperial power, and though massive cultural changes were taking place in British society, a traditional institution like the Army was slow to change. Efforts were yet being made to be yet a meaningful player in world politics. As a founder member of NATO in 1949 the UK sent a contingent of troops to take part in the Korean War (1950-1953) against Communist North Korea. It still took more years for Britain to become less parochial and readier to adopt a more open attitude to non-British influences. When Manthi completed his course at Sandhurst, he was on the cusp of change: there was reluctance on the part of the authorities to grant him a Queen’s Commission as a British Army Officer.

The social milieu and cultural ethos of the time did not readily take to the idea of permitting an Asian officer to command white British troops. This reality, and finding a way out of the impasse became a problem for two governments. The result was the offer of a King’s Commission but only on the condition that Manthi would accept a posting to the Korean warfront. This was not a welcome proposition.

It was then that Manthi met another army officer who was to become not only his saviour but also his life-long friend: Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Ramanayake. Sensing Manthi’s frustrations and aware of the ‘colour bar’ from his own experiences as an officer during the war, he suggested that Manthi gives up his hopes for a Commission in the British Army and, instead, accept a commission in the Ceylon Army in his Regiment, the 1st Field Engineers Regiment – the very Regiment to which his friend, Denis, had recently been posted.

Manthi saw the wisdom of accepting the offer and so he returned home, no longer with the British Army but the Ceylon Army. Manthi’s batch mate from Sandhurst, Colonel Gerard Napier, who wrote the monumental history of the Corp of Royal Engineers "Follow the Sapper", while making a presentation of the book to the Ceylon Engineers Regiment, at Manthi’s instigation, recorded that:

"Major Manthi Natha (Monty) Ranawake joined the Royal Engineers (British Army) as an Officer Cadet on 21 September 1950. On completion of training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst he transferred to the Ceylon Army on 31 July 1952. He was posted to 1 Field Engineer Regiment. "

Manthi began his posting as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ceylon Army in 1952. Meanwhile, I had finished with school and had entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, that same month. But my studies and his career were just beginning and we were away from each other most of the time. He used to visit me at Peradeniya. Once, he walked into Miss Westrop’s office (she was the Warden of Sanghamitta Hall) to request permission to take me out and, as usual, charmed her.

Our days of living far apart did finally end. I graduated from Peradeniya University in 1955 and started on a teaching career. We had no plans but the one that we had both maintained for many years. We did not want to wait to win over our parents; so accompanied by a few close friends and Army batch mates we went to the nearest Registrar of Marriages and became husband and wife.

And so my brief stint as an Army wife began. It was to last only ten years and those years do not form part of this story.

Manthi maintained his links with Sandhurst throughout his life. In later years when we went regularly to England to attend reunions of his British Army batch mates, Manthi’s immense popularity, then and later, became evident to me. Many anecdotes of their experiences at Sandhurst in which Manthi featured were retold with great affection. I, too, continue to enjoy their friendships to this day.

From an early age Manthi demonstrated his leadership qualities including compassion and generosity, which stood us in good stead where ever we went and when he rose to the highest rank of his professional life in Australia.

I am glad I am putting these words on paper because he was probably the only person in Sri Lanka to have tread this particular path in becoming an army officer; a less known part of military history. This story is just for the record, a tribute to a wonderful man.

(NOTE: Manthi Nath Ranawake was born in Colombo, in 1932. He retired from the Sri Lanka Army as a Major in 1967 and took up the post of the Manager of Walker and Sons, in Kandy. He migrated to Australia with his wife and children in 1974. He passed away in Sydney in 2010.)

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