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The most dangerous moment



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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Sri Lanka cricket: what ails thou?



By a Sports Aficionado

This cricket-mad nation was appalled by the pathetic and blatantly disgraceful performance of its National Cricket Team at the premier event of the game, the World Cup. Even before the event ended, heads rolled over here on the cricket board. Such action should have been taken long ago but what we need now is an honest analysis of the debacle and the remedial measures that need to be taken.

One of the root causes of the problem is that there is far too much money in the game at present. Even in the face of the current economic crisis the money that has been remorselessly thrown around cricket is totally unbelievable. The amount of money that has been paid out to the so-called ‘support staff’ is absolutely mind-boggling. For what, pray we ask? To repeatedly lick the sporting wounds inflicted even by lesser mortals? Shame on the Cricket Board that seems to have completely wasted all that money for years in the past. In recent years we have not gained even an iota of returns for all the money spent on locals and foreigners to supposedly elevate the performance levels.

What we are not told are the most likely princely sums paid out to the players by the Cricket Board. If we are to judge that by the amounts paid to the support staff, the amounts paid to the players must be in a celestial planetary orbit. Those amounts are most likely to be astronomical. It is also a certainty that the Cricket Board Staff too have been at the receiving end of even cosmological amounts. The beneficiaries in the Cricket Board also include various types of managers and other assorted executives and supervisors. Then for good measure, add overriding perpetual corruption and you have the recipe for the disaster that it was. The current situation is nothing new., it has been there for quite a while.

So, for a start, trim down the expenses and most definitely the amounts paid to all and sundry through the Cricket Board. We do not need all kinds of suddhas in the supporting staff brigade to resurrect the game. We have locals who could do even a better job for much less payment. Just take a chapter from the book of India, the nation that is flying sky-high in cricket at present. They do not have foreign managers, foreign coaches, or any other foreign white-skinned ‘experts’ to guide their players. What they have is a home-grown well-knit team of local experts who work behind the scenes to produce the results that they consistently provide. They also have a local medical team that can hold its own against the very best in the world. Their players will interact beautifully with the local experts quite unlike our players who would even venerate the ground those so-called foreign experts walk on, but look down practically murderously at local experts. Our players might even refuse to play if a local expert is put in charge of guiding them.

A good start for enhancing performance up to the highest levels is to have a reasonable monthly retainer for players contracted to the Cricket Administration and to that add appearance fees for matches and substantial rewards for good performance in the field. These could be payments for individual achievements as well as stellar successes by the team to be shared equally amongst the players. There is no harm in paying dearly for proven successes.

Our cricket team is so very poor in adjusting to various situations mentally. In any sport, there are ups and downs. It is only the mentally strong who will be able to come through the setbacks and shine. A sportsperson should first learn to handle defeat before he or she can savour the joys of victory. A winner is just the one who can convert fear into confidence, setbacks into comebacks, excuses into firm decisions and mistakes into learnings. Any sporting person or team needs to adjust to the mental strains of intense competition. A person who can help in such situations is a Sports Psychologist. We have never had a dedicated Sports Psychologist for our cricket team. Apparently, the players are totally against using the services of a Sports Psychologist. They are probably of the mistaken belief that psychologists are needed only by the mentally deranged. The end result is that they become perpetual losers who continue to earn loads of dough. Little do they realise that Sports Psychologists are part and parcel of top-class teams of any sport and even individual high-flying performers.

To add salt to the wounds of our cricket team, many and varied injuries are a real bane for consistent performance at the highest levels by our cricketers. Our players get all the possible injuries in the book., some getting the same injury repeatedly. It has been very clearly demonstrated that in any sport, including those that do not involve muscular exertion, physical fitness is of the utmost importance for stellar performance. It is not necessary to delve too deeply into this as far as our cricket team is concerned. They are probably the most unfit team in the flock of teams playing international cricket. They have only to look at the training programme of 35-year-old Virat Kohli to see what needs to be done. He works extremely hard at his physical fitness and the results are there for all to see. In addition to being a classy batsman, his running between the wickets, together with his fielding and catching are the greatest hallmarks of the cricketer.

There is no proper medical team led by a qualified Sports Team Physician who is in charge of all medical matters related to training, diagnosis of injuries and appropriate management. Unfortunately, it is the physiotherapists and physical trainers who seem to be doing all of that in our cricket team and running the show. When a player gets injured on the field, it is a physiotherapist or a trainer who runs onto the field. It should be a properly qualified sports doctor who should be doing that with the other ancillary service providers following behind him or her. Our players have come to a stage where they trust the ancillary service providers rather than properly qualified sports doctors. Those providers speak a kind of high-flown language that impresses the players. However, those words would fail them miserably if they were to be confronted by properly qualified medical personnel.

The woes of our national cricket scenario are multifactorial. Yet for all that people who are selected to represent our country in cricket should realise what an honour and a privilege it is to represent our country. They should take tremendous pride in that. Then they should try always to give of their best to our beautiful country. There are no simple solutions to the problems of Sri Lankan cricket. The talent is there for all to see. It just needs to be properly nurtured and harnessed. It would be pertinent here to echo the words of the 36-year-old champion tennis player Novak Djokovic after winning the most recent Paris Masters Tournament: “Either you let the circumstances and the feelings that you have at that moment master you or you try to master them in a way. There is no in-between. You either fold, retire, or simply give away the match, or you try to draw the energy from the adrenaline that you are feeling from the crowd, from the momentum that you are feeling on the field.”

Need we say more? With proper guidance and classy management, our cricketers need not be the perpetual losers.

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Going ritual mode



A representational image

The article titled “The distortion of Buddhism and the rise of meaningless rituals” written by ‘Member of the silent majority’, which appeared in The Sunday Island of November 26 is a bold explication of Buddhists’ going ritual mode, which most of them seem to feel as the highpoint of living a Buddhist life. The writer comments on the wanton waste in terms of money, resources and time on revelries that pass as demonstrations of religious fervour: “All this excess is expressed in the form of Katina pinkamas that we are witnessing right now. They may be described as carnivals, not religious practices.” This is the unadorned truth of the matter. What is more harmful is that this sort of ritualistic routine helps perpetuate nothing but mass excitement unwittingly construed as the most certain indication of living a Buddhist life and protecting Buddhism.

It is this very skewed attention to the habitual rites that prevents us from seeking the meaning and, more importantly, the applicability of even the religion’s basic teachings in practical life. Unfortunately, the more festive and adorned our outward expressions of religion are, the more easily we tend to think that festivals are the most reliable guarantors of our religion.

Our elites, who are skilled in the delicate art of exploiting the religious sentiments of people for ensuring self-gain and political stability, make a big fuss about ‘protecting religion’ thereby, wittingly or unwittingly, sowing the seeds of divisive feelings of “self” and “other”. This is a grand way of making Buddhists feel that Buddhism is, more than anything else, something to be protected like personal property. Stating that Buddha discourages rituals, the writer goes on to say that Buddha extolled the practice of virtue: “The path which is simple and direct, is clearly stated by the Buddha, namely: the practice of generosity, virtue and mindfulness for lay people; and the practice of virtue, concentration and wisdom for the monks.” Our rulers seem to continuously maintain that if anyone wishes to ‘protect Buddhism’, he has to protect it from any ‘harm’ coming from outside. The writer challenges this when he says, “The Buddha predicted that the decline of Buddhism would indeed be caused by its corruption from within.”

However, the problem is, for the people, be they Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. there is no escape from the political, economic and social forces that determine their entire outlook on life. The good values like generosity, empathy, tolerance, etc., which are not the exclusive preserve of one religion but virtues that promote the wellbeing of all societies, will remain just rarefied notions in the air until the root causes of greed, corruption and mindless competition propelled by consumerism continue to constitute our criteria of progress.

Most ‘development’ projects that hide corrupt deals bringing enormous jackpots to the elites begin with loud religious ceremonies that help maintain the collective myth of preserving religion. The more we start any programme: opening ceremony, construction project, shramadana, funeral, community meeting and whatnot, the more intense our feeling of religiosity becomes, and the more assured we are of ‘preserving’ our religion. In other words, what we are strongly convinced of as the preservation of our religion is the routine observance of the relevant set of rituals. ‘Protecting’ religion, in this sense is the name of the game and all devotees feel happy that ‘our religion’ is ‘protected’. The whole caravan of religions moves forward satisfying the weekly, monthly or seasonal outpouring of our sense of ‘spirituality’ and our sense of religiosity is well taken care of.

It is this kind of cosmetic religiosity that is easily hijacked by political leaders who never miss a chance of showing their religious fervour whenever there are TV cameras around them. And they are the very people who, unluckily, get exposed at regular intervals for their connivance in all kinds of scams. However, we rarely find time to question how these self-professed guardians of religion have benefitted from being publicly religious and swearing to protect religion.

It would be more beneficial to society if people start asking themselves whether it is possible to envision a good society without religious branding. After all, what everyone wants is a good society where all can live peacefully and work productively for the well-being of all- where ‘peace’ cannot be sold as an election promise.

It matters little whether you label your society as Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Moslem, multi-religious or secular.

Susantha Hewa

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LIFE IS A FROLIC…. Goolbai Gunasekara’s latest book of humour



Published by BAYOWL Press Sam and Hussein Publishing House

Versatile author, Goolbai Gunasekara’s books are always eminently readable whether they be on History, Education or Humour. Her latest book is hilarious from beginning to end and all Sri Lankan readers will relate to her amusing anecdotes, relationships, and laughable incidents told with a personal chuckle and a genuine sense of laughter.

“Humour is only amusing when you can laugh at yourself” says Goolbai. You must never laugh at other people by saying anything hurtful.” She quotes, “My mother used to tell me never to write about someone who cannot hit back. I have tried to follow this advice and although humour is sometimes exaggerated to make it funnier it is never offensive.”

I recall the KitKat stories of her granddaughter which were such a hit years ago. KitKat was actually a composite of ALL children of that age. Today, Goolbai’s humour ranges over every known topic against a back drop of modern doings The Social life 65 years (ago as a school girl) is compared to social life today. The difference if mind boggling. Visits to the Dentist are particularly funny as one of my best friends is a Dentist. Goolbai asks how a Dentist expects a patient to answer with his mouth open, but still manages to carry on, cheerfully, with his monologue anyway!

Weddings of yesterday are compared to weddings of today. One story ends with a father viewing the unfolding expenses with horror and telling his bridesmaid daughter, “Darling, when you want to marry, do me a favour and elope.”

The story “Bicycle Boom” describes “Our lovely Mayor Rosy” and the Dutch Ambassador (of some time ago,) trying to popularize the use of the bike to help traffic. Another pithy comment describes the place ‘Clothes and Shoe Brands’ have in the life of a complete philistine (herself) who hardly recognizes a Nike from a Bata.

Nothing Goolbai says can ever cause offence. She is witty and kind in all the 58 short episodes and I am both entertained and fascinated by the versatility of this well-known authoress who writes books on Education with the same panache and sense of humour as LIFE IS A FROLIC.

I cannot end these few comments without reference to the drivers of long ago. They were better than Mosad agents in keeping beady eyes on unwanted male attention and were thoroughly trusted by suspicious parents.

Read this book as a complete Mood Lifter. You can’t go wrong

Sandra Gomes

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