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Remembering the heroes of WWII’s ‘most dangerous moment’

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READING about VJ Day on TCW (see here and here) reminded me of a visit to the War Cemetery in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and prompted me to write about this sometimes forgotten theatre of the Second World War. It was to Kandy that Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten moved his South East Asia Command (SEAC) Headquarters in April 1944 from New Delhi where it was initially set up in November 1943.

It is well known that the whole of the British Empire joined together to win the Second World War that affected many countries in East and South Asia. Conquering Ceylon could have helped Japan dominate the vast Indian Ocean and its major shipping lanes, so the island was considered to be their next target following the fall of Singapore. (It is probably for similar reasons that China is now investing vast amounts of money in the country.)

The Japanese bombed Colombo in Ceylon on April 5, 1942. I remember my mother saying that it was Easter Sunday and that they saw planes circling overhead as they walked to church in the early morning, unaware of the situation. It is said that the authorities had decided not to issue any public warning about the impending raids to prevent possible panic. (It is interesting to note that it was again Easter Sunday that Islamic terrorists chose to bomb churches and hotels in Sri Lanka last year.) Four days later, on April 9, the Japanese bombed the naval base at Trincomalee. It is believed that close to a thousand servicemen of the Allied forces died while defending Ceylon during the week of Japanese attacks.

Churchill believed ‘the Easter Sunday Raid’ or ‘the Battle of Ceylon’ was ‘the most dangerous moment of the war’. This episode is detailed in the book The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson, who was in Ceylon with the RAF at the time. A short description of the events also appears here.

The Commonwealth war dead in Ceylon are buried in several cemeteries, the main ones being the Colombo General Cemetery and the War Cemeteries in Kandy and Trincomalee. When I visited the cemetery in Kandy in 2006 I was impressed by the way it has been maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and saw a great example of the sacrifices made between 1939 and 1945 by Commonwealth citizens of various countries. The pictures I took during my visit show the beauty of the cemetery. It is well worth a visit by anyone who travels to Sri Lanka.

According to the information provided on the large descriptive plaque at the cemetery, there are over 2,000 war burials in Ceylon. They include those who were killed during the attacks of April 1942, garrison deaths and casualties from the formations which underwent jungle warfare training on the island before proceeding to Burma. There are 203 burials in the Kandy War Cemetery: 16 Navy, 151 Army, 32 Air Force, 1 Merchant Navy, 1 National Fire Service and 2 unidentified. The nationalities are 107 British, 6 Canadian, 23 Indian, 26 Ceylonese, 35 East African, 1 French and 3 Italian.

Comrades: Graves of servicemen from the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Ceylon Engineers

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Thantirimudalige Canisius
Dr T D Gerard Canisius is a chartered structural engineer who works mainly on fire safety engineering, especially of tunnels.

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