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After the outbreak of the Second World War, in the British Crown Colony of Ceylonmarker (Sri Lankamarker), the government of Sir Baron Jayatilleke assured the British king and his majesty's government of its continued support.

Preparations for war

The British had occupied the coastal areas of the island since 1796, but since 1917 the colony had no regular garrison of British troops. The Ceylon Defence Force and Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve were mobilized and expanded. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomaleemarker and the RAF had established an aerodrome in China Baymarker, Trincomalee long before the war.

After the fall of Singaporemarker the Royal Navy's East Indies Station was moved to Colombomarker and then to Trincomaleemarker. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon with Air Vice Marshal John D'Albaic Air Officer Commanding and Admiral Sir James Somerville appointed commander of the British Eastern Fleet

The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee these were established just before the war. Air defenses where expanded starting in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalanamarker near Colombo with its station headquarters set up at Kandawalamarker. Another airbase was rapidly built at Koggalamarker near Gallemarker and several temporary airstrips where built across the country with the largest at Colombo Race Course grounds. Several RAF Squadrons where set to Ceylon. Several commonwealth units where stationed in Ceylon for the duration of the war.

Cocos Islands Mutiny

The fall of Singaporemarker and the subsequent sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse, punctured forever the myth of British invincibility. Against this backdrop, and on the agitation of the Trotskyist inspired Lanka Sama Samaja Party, soldiers of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery on Horsburgh Island in the Cocos Islandsmarker mutinied on the night of 8 May 1942, intending to hand the islands over to the Japanese. The mutiny was suppressed within an hour, however, and three of the mutineers were later executed—the only British Commonwealth soldiers to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War. Gratien Fernando, the leader of the mutiny, remained defiant to the end.

Following the mutiny the use Ceylonese combat troops was discontinued by the British, although a number of supply and transport units were used in the rear areas in the Middle East. The defences of Ceylon were beefed up by the 7th Australian Division and elements of the 1st Division because of the island's strategic importance, holding almost all the British Empire's resources of rubber. Rationing was instituted so that Ceylonese were comparatively better fed than their Indian neighbors; a measure taken to prevent their disaffection.

Japanese attack on Ceylon

The The Easter Sunday Raid was the air raid carried out by Japanmarker on Easter Sunday 5 April 1942 on Colombomarker and a few days later on Trincomaleemarker as a part of commerce raiding and the hunt of the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Oceanmarker.

Although the military effect of the raid was substantial as it resulted in the sinking of several ships including 2 cruisers and a aircraft carrier, the effect on the Ceylonese population was far greater as they had heard of the Nanjing Massacres and of the act of brutality of the Japanese in occupied counties. The civilian population began a panicked fleeing of Colombo and of Ceylon by boats to India following the raid. Such was the panic amongst the British and Ceyloniese that a large turtle which came ashore was reported by an Australian unit as a number of Japanese amphibious vehicles .

Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve

Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve was taken over by the Royal Navy Cutting its teeth on the Port Commission Tugs SAMSON and GOLIATH, it later manned and operated trawlers and Antarctic whalers converted as Minesweepers and fitted out with guns, submarine detection equipment and anti-submarine weaponry. They were the H.M. Ships OVERDALE WYKE (the first ship to be purchased by the Government of Ceylon), OKAPI, SEMLA, SAMBHUR, HOXA, BALTA and H.M Tugs BARNET and C 405. In addition it manned several Motor Fishing Vessels (MFV) and miscellaneous auxiliary vessels. All were manned exclusively by CRNVR personnel. These ships were meant to sweep and guard the approaches the harbors but were often used on extended missions outside Ceylon waters. In the course of these operations, the ships came under enemy fire recovered essential information from Japanese Air Craft shot down, sailed to Akyab after the Burma front was opened in two FMVs for harbour duties and, was called upon to accept the surrender of the Italianmarker Light Cruiser ERITREA and escort her to port with a prize crew on board.

Anti-War movement

There was resistance to occupation, both against the Axis powers and against the colonial power, the Britishmarker. This was done completely by the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, which supported the independence movement and led the anti-war movement, made it clear that it did not side with either the Axis powers or the Allies and considered the war an internationalist one. The Communist party of Ceylon too supported the anti-war movement as they saw it also as a war of imperialists, but in 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union they joined the war movement in support of the Britishmarker calling it a peoples war.

There was some opposition to the war in Sri Lanka, particularly among the workers and the nationalists encouraged by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, many of the latter of whom hoped for a Germanmarker victory. But the much of the populars dreaded an a Japanesemarker victory.

Among Buddhists, there was disgust that Buddhist monks of German origin were interned as 'enemy aliens' whereas German and Italianmarker Roman Catholic priests were not. Two young members of the Governing Party, Junius Richard Jayawardene (who later became President) and Dudley Senanayake (later th 3rd Prime Minister), held discussions with the Japanesemarker with a view to collaboration to oust the British , these discussions did not go further since the much older D S Senanayake (later th 1st Prime Minister) stopped them.

Independence agitators turned to opposition to the Ministers' support for the Britishmarker war effort. The local Ministers brought motions gifting the Sri Lankan taxpayers' money to the British war machine, which were opposed by the pro-freedom members of the State Council. Propaganda was carried out among the troops, Australian and British as well as indigenous with little effect.

Starting in November 1939 and during the first half of 1940 there was a wave of spontaneous strikes in the British-owned plantations, basically aimed at winning the right of organisation. There were two main plantation unions, Natesa Iyer's Ceylon Indian Congress and the All-Ceylon Estate Workers Union (later the Lanka Estate Workers Union, LEWU) led by Samasamajists.

In the Central Province the strike wave reached the zenith in the Mool Oya Estate strike, which was led by Samasamajists. After Mool Oya, the strike wave spread southward towards Uva, and the strikes became more prolonged and the workers began more and more to seek the militant leadership of the Samasamajists. The Trotskyist leader N.M. Perera addressed a large meeting in Badulla on 12 May, and the police were powerless to act, although it was banned. At Wewessa Estate the workers set up an elected council and the Superintendent agreed to act in consultation with the Workers' Council. An armed police party that went to restore 'law and order' was disarmed by the workers. The strike wave at last was beaten back by a wave of terror by the police, aided by floods which cut Uva off from the rest of the country for over a week.

However, the colonial authorities were finding that the independence struggle was getting too powerful. After Dunkirkmarker, the British colonial authorities reacted in panic (as revealed in secret files released many decades later) and the LSSP State Council members N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena and others were arrested on 18 June. The Samasamajist press was raided and sealed. Regulations were promulgated which made open party work practically impossible.

Public disgust at British colonial rule continued to grow. Among the elite there was irritation at the colour-bar practised by the leading clubs. Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the Civil Defence Commissioner complained that the British commander of Ceylon, Admiral Layton called him a 'black bastard'; this was merely an expression of continuing white-supremacism. However, it was grist to the mill for an increasingly angry middle class that this was the attitude of their rulers who had been bested in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma by Asians.

Sri Lankans in Singapore and Malaysia formed the 'Lanka Regiment' of the Indian National Army, directly under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. A plan was made to transport them to Sri Lanka by submarine, to begin the liberation struggle, but this was abortive.

The LSSP leaders were able to escape, with the help of one of their guards. Several of them fled to India, where they participated in the struggle there, underscoring what had been established before the war, that India's and Sri Lanka's freedom struggles were interlinked. However, a sizable contingent remained, led by Robert Gunawardena, Philip's brother.


  1. Cocos Island Mutiny


  • Arsecularatne, SN, Sinhalese immigrants in Malaysia & Singapore, 1860-1990: History through recollections, KVG de Silva & Sons, Colombo, 1991
  • Crusz, Noel, The Cocos Islands Mutiny, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA, 2001
  • Muthiah, Wesley and Wanasinghe, Sydney, Britain, World War 2 and the Sama Samajists, Young Socialist Publication, Colombo, 1996

See also

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