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The most dangerous moment

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By Jayantha Somasundaram

“British Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered the most dangerous moment of the Second World War, and the one which caused him the greatest alarm, was when news was received that the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon.” –The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson (1976) William Kimber, London.

It is 80 years since Ceylon, the British colony, came under attack from a Japanese armada on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942. The Second World War, which commenced in September 1939, was a distant war, with the theatre of war being initially Europe and North Africa. Commencing with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the defeat of British forces in Malaya, in January 1942, and the fall of Singapore in February, World War II entered the Indian Ocean, and its epicentre British Ceylon.

In British strategic perception, Fortress Singapore was the key to the protection of their colonies on the Indian Ocean littoral and the sea route to East Asia. With the fall of Singapore, the Indian Ocean became the central theatre of the War. In the Indian Ocean itself the fulcrum of maritime control rested in Ceylon and the Maldives. And this perception predated the Japanese entry into the War in December 1941.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had written to the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand in August 1940, that in the event of Japan entering the War “we should also be able to base on Ceylon a battle cruiser and a fast aircraft carrier which, with Australian and New Zealand cruisers and destroyers… act as a very powerful deterrent.”

If the Japanese took Ceylon, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Christmas Island they could paralyse Allied shipping and resupply to its theatres globally, in Europe and in Asia. This included US shipments to the Soviet Union, via the Persian Gulf, and to China, via the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese could even ultimately link hands with the Germans, now advancing towards Cairo and Suez, in North Africa.

Vice-Admiral James Somerville, Commander of the Royal Navy’s (RN) Eastern Fleet, would later explain to Australia’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr Herbert Evatt, why he was not stationed in Western Australia, because “Ceylon flanks, or covers, all vital lines of communication to the Middle East, India and Australia,” while Australia, lying as it does at the end of a line of communication, was not the ideal location for protecting the Allied sea lanes across the Indian Ocean.

Ceylon’s Loyalty

At the outbreak of the War, Governor Andrew Caldecott wrote to the Colonial Office that the Ceylon National Congress dominated State Council had passed a resolution pledging loyalty to London, unlike the rebellious Indian National Congress in the more important British colony India. In June 1940 Caldecott went on to report to the Colonial Office that the only exception was the “left-wing Samajists (sic) … (who) have come out definitely anti-British.” And in September 1940 Caldecott went further telling the Colonial Office that “Ceylon’s loyalty to the Empire during the War which I assess at over 99 per cent…is due to…a high sentimental regard for the King’s Person and Throne.”

When Singapore fell on 15 February the Chiefs of Staff, ̶̶ the heads of the RN, the British Army and the Royal Air Force (RAF) ̶̶ asserted that “the basis of our general strategy lies in the safety of our sea communications for which secure naval and air bases are essential…Thus we must secure Ceylon…The loss of Ceylon will imperil our whole British War effort in the Middle East and Far East.”

Meanwhile, on 26th February, Churchill suggested to the Commander-in-Chief India, General Archibald Wavell, who was on his way to Ceylon, to consider a Supreme Commander in overall charge of the Island in order to prevent a repetition of Singapore. On 5th March Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was promoted Commander-in-Chief Ceylon, “London took the drastic step of subordinating the Island’s civil authorities to military command.” This was “Britain’s first experiment with unified command in an operational theatre.”

Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton

However, not only was Britain’s airpower in the Indian Ocean weak, they lacked an adequate maritime capability that could halt the advance of the expected Japanese carrier fleet. In fact Admiral Layton complained that “he was profoundly shocked … that Ceylon was virtually defenceless.”

In response “at the highest levels of war direction, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff determined that Ceylon could not be allowed to fall and pumped in troops and aircraft while strengthening the Island’s shore defences and base infrastructure,” wrote Ashley Jackson in his 2018 book Ceylon at War 1939-1945. “The British Government was pulling out all the stops to reinforce the Indian Ocean and get troops and aircraft to Ceylon, but things took time to move across vast distances. It was a race against time.”

The Eastern Fleet

The First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound decided to withdraw the battleship HMS Warspite and the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable which were under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville from the Eastern Mediterranean and move them to Ceylon where Somerville would assume command of the Eastern Fleet. They were followed by four Revenge-class battleships and six destroyers.

By end March the Eastern Fleet included one light and two fleet carriers, five battleships, seven cruisers, 16 destroyers and seven submarines. The Eastern Fleet maintained seven shore bases including in India, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. Further, the RN’s East Indies Station was relocated to Colombo, with headquarters now at shore base HMS Lanka.

On 14th March, Admiral Layton ordered the evacuation from Ceylon of all non-residents, servicemen’s wives, European women and children; all except those doing essential work. While London rushed weapons, equipment and personnel to Ceylon, Admiral Layton strengthened the institutions and military capability of the Island’s defences.

Admiral Geoffrey Layton operated from the ‘Old’ Secretariat at Galle Face. Under his command were Admiral Somerville, Commander of the Eastern Fleet, Admiral Geoffrey Arbuthnot, Commander East Indies Station, General Officer Commanding Troops Major General Roland Inskip and Air Vice-Marshal John D’Albiac as Air Officer Commanding No. 222 Group. Capt Palliser RN was appointed Trincomalee Fortress Commander.

Troop reinforcements arriving in Ceylon included the 65th Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment, 43rd Light Anti Aircraft Regiment and RAF personnel. 62 heavy and 100 light anti-aircraft guns along with barrage balloons, searchlights and radar units were established. This prompted the requisition of S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia for the accommodation of officers and St. Joseph’s College Maradana, for that of the men. “Schools and public buildings, hotels and houses were requisitioned to accommodate the new forces pouring into the island along with all that was needed to support them,” records Jackson.

Admiral Layton conceived, inspired and drove the hurried preparations, dictating to and overriding the key actors. Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the King’s cousin observed that even “the Governor is definitely under the Commander-in-Chief.”

Layton’s language and manner were rough quarter deck style. At the War Council meeting when a future Prime Minster John Kotelawala Minister of Communications and Works, responded to a query from Layton regarding a task with “the head overseer is having a lot of trouble with supplies;” Layton barked “then give him six on the backside!”

And when a future Governor-General, Civil Defence Commissioner Oliver Goonetilleke protested to Governor Andrew Caldecott that Layton had called him a black bastard, the Governor replied, “My dear fellow that is nothing to what he calls me!” Admiral Somerville explained to First Sea Lord Pound that “Layton takes complete charge of Ceylon and stands no nonsense from anyone.”

Battle for Ceylon

Meanwhile the Ratmalana Civil aerodrome was commandeered by the RAF and its runway doubled in length, the Colombo Museum became Army HQ, a flying boat base was developed at Koggala, fighter airbases opened in Dambulla, Minneriya and Vavuniya and a fleet air arm airbase at Katukurunda. Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College London, in his 2009 paper War on the Home Front in Ceylon, writes “Ceylon was transformed from a (military) backwater into a key Allied military base.”

Number 258 Fighter Squadron withdrawn from Malaya and after seeing action in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) was re-equipped with Hurricanes from Karachi RAF Depot and reformed at Ratmalana on 30th March. It was then transferred to the new Colombo Racecourse RAF Base at Reid Avenue, with provision for the aircrew to sleep in the Grandstand during alerts and emergencies. Under Squadron Leader Peter Fletcher from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) its pilots were from America, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The RAF’s Fighter Operations Room was located at Bishop’s College, Kollupitiya.

The Battle for Ceylon was going to be a duel of skill, nerves and grit between the pilots of the approaching Japanese Carrier Fleet and the RAF fighter pilots defending Ceylon. The Air Order of Battle in Ceylon was:

Number 11 Bomber (Blenheim) Squadron at the Race Course, 30 Fighter (Hurricane) Sq at Ratmalana, 205 Maritime Reconnaissance (Catalina) Sq at Koggala, 258 Fighter (Hurricane) Sq at the Race Course, 261 Fighter (Hurricane) Sq at China Bay, 273 Fighter (Fulmar) Sq at China Bay, 788 Torpedo Bomber (Swordfish) Sq at China Bay, 803 Fighter (Fulmar) Sq Ratmalana and 806 Fighter (Fulmar) Sq Ratmalana.

Carrier borne aircraft on HMS Indomitable: 11 Sea Hurricanes, 10 Fulmar, 24 Albacore and 2 Swordfish.

On HMS Formidable: 21 Albacores and 12 Martlets

On HMS Hermes: 12 Swordfish.

The Eastern Fleet had 29 major warships, and they were divided into the Fast Division known as Force A and the Slow Division Force B. On 30th March well aware that the Japanese Fleet was in the Indian Ocean and heading for Ceylon, Admiral Somerville put to sea in the hope of intercepting the enemy fleet south of the Island. Somerville reasoned that Ceylon faced a night attack by Japanese aircraft, probably when the moon would be full on 01 April. But after two days of fruitless search the Eastern Fleet changed course on 3rd April and headed for Addu Atoll in the Maldives in order to replenish their stock of fuel and water.

(To be continued)



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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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Opinion

A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka

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Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.

Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!

They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.

Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.

Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.

The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.

Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.

What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.

Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.

Priyantha Hettige

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Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW

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It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.

These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.

Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:

* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees

* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees

* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.

These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.

As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!

Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.

UPULl P Auckland

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