Life Abroad Pt. 125 - "OPERATION HOLDFAST" & CONSEQUENCES
Continuation of a fascinating true to life story of Wijesim Peelige Bandiya, son of a Kandyan ‘ hack & burn’ peasant farmer, who sailed away from the Colombo harbour to the UK at a very tender age, with only three Australian pounds in his pocket, accompanied by Sir Oliver Goonatillake in 1948, married a German girl and transformed his life into something unimaginable over the years and returned to his roots as a ‘ laxapathiya’ (millionaire) and is now settled in a spacious house at the age of 86 with his brother Wijesim Peelige Ran Kira, 98 years old, in Pahatha Dumbara, Kandy. Following are excerpts from an interview the writer had recently in Kandy with Wijesim Pelige Bandiya
In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, as promised during the election, began a rapid ‘ Sinhalisation’ of all parts of the government and accomplished the ‘ Sinhala Only Act’. Simultaneously he ordered the all the remaining British military centers in the country to move out of Ceylon.
Three-fifths officer corps of the army at the time was made up of Christians, one-fifth out of Tamils and one fifth with Burgher. SWRD Bandaranaike wanted to hit a balance in the security forces and increased the number of Buddhist Sinhala officers and appointed a Buddhist Inspector General of Police, by- passing three other more senior Christian officers! On 22 July 1960 Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, made history by becoming the world's first Woman Prime Minister and the sixth Prime Minister of Ceylon since independence in 1947.
By 1961, Christians felt superficially they were being methodically eliminated which gave rise to a subtle resentment. During this period many of the Christians left the country and chiefly ended up in the UK. Suddenly the country’s economy started to deteriorate with the cost of living skyrocketing along with staggering unemployment figures.
Coincidently, right at the time, a military coup by General Ayub Khan in Pakistan managed to give some idea and to motivate a group of embittered officers attached the security forces in Ceylon to emulate the Pakistan action which ultimately ended up as the notorious 1962 Ceylonese coup d'état attempt (also known as the Colonels’ coup). Several Christian elite, senior military and police officers pre-meditated in toppling of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Their planned operation was to take place on 27 January 1962.
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike had planned to visit Kataragama on the evening of Friday 26 January 1962, but providence made her to change her mind. Neither the Air Force nor the Army Commander, Major General H. Winston G. Wijeyekoon, the Inspector General of Police M.W.F. Abeykoon nor the Captain of the Navy Commodore Rajan Kadiragamar were connected to the coup; it had in fact been planned mostly by the ‘reserve and retired military and police officers’.
The operation that was code named as Operation Holdfast aimed at arresting the Prime Minister, Ministers, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External affairs (Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike), Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs (N.Q.Dias), the Army Commander, Acting Captain of the Navy, the Inspector General of Police, DIG (CID) (S.A. Dissanayake), Superintendent of Police (CID), John Attygalle, and escorting them to the Army Headquarters and to be held in the ‘Ammunition Magazine’, which was an underground bunker. The prisoners were to hold there until further instructions. Other service commanders were to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night after a certain hour.
The plan had been to deploy police cars equipped with raucous hailers soon after midnight to announce an immediate curfew in Colombo city limits; the CTO (Central Telegraph Office) Colombo and other city telephone exchanges were to be jammed, newspaper office buildings, Police Headquarters, the CID office and to take control of other key points. Armoured cars had been planned to be stationed at certain spots to ensure the success of the operation. Troops from the military garrison from Panagoda were to be prevented from reaching Colombo that night at any cost.
Armoured cars and army vehicles fitted with radio equipment were to be stationed at the two bridges at Keleniya and Kirulapona and other places. Fully armed ‘Signals Corps Despath Riders’ on motorcycles were to stand by from about 11pm at Torrington (Independence) Square to storm the Radio Ceylon once the password 'Holdfast' was released. The leaders were to meet up at the Queen’s House and force the Governor General Sir Olive Goonatillake to dissolve parliament and take direct control of the state once the coup operation was complete.
Head of Police in Colombo, Stanley Senanayake, had been taken into the confidence of the coup leaders that led to the collapse of the operation. Once he came to know about the details of the plot, immediately he rushed to Temple Trees with two senior police officers to inform Mrs. Bandaranaike about the attempted coup ‘to topple the government with the help of certain army, navy and police personnel’. Simultaneously he informed his father-in-law, SLFP Member of Parliament and party secretary, P. De S. Kularatne, who in turn notified the CID.
The unexpected news naturally juddered the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike. However under the directions of Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike all service commanders, Major General Gerard Wijekoon, Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar, Air Commodore John Barker and the IGP M.F.W. Abeykoon were called to Temple Trees for an emergency meeting.
Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike beckoned all the junior police and army officers, who were known to be acting under the orders of the coup leaders, to Temple Trees immediately where he personally, with the help of the CID, interrogated them. It was revealed that the coup's ‘military element was led by Colonel Fredrick C de Saram of the Ceylon Artillery (cousin of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike) and Colonel Maurice de Mel, the Commandant of the Volunteer Force (second-in-command of the Army); the Police element led by DIG ‘Jungle’ Dissanayake, the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police in change of Range I (brother of DIG S.A. Dissanayake) and DIG Sydney de Zoysa being responsible for the coordination between the services’.
Further investigations revealed that the Deputy Director of Land Development, Douglas Liyanage attached to the Ceylon Civil Service, had planned the coup supported by Rear Admiral Royce de Mel. The coup was to be carried out by troops from the 3rd Field Regiment, 2nd Volunteer Antiaircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery (with almost the entire officer corps of these regiment to be involved), 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment, Ceylon Engineers; 2nd Volunteer Signals Regiment, Ceylon Signals Corps and armored cars of the Sabre troop of the Ceylon Armoured Corps. Captain Nimal Jayakody and Captain Tony Anghie of 3rd Field Artillery Regiment and Ceylon Artillery were members of the first batch of officer cadets of the Ceylon Army who had been trained at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK.
As the first arrest of the coup, Neal de Alwis, MP for Baddegama, was taken into custody, from his residence. A known conspirator to the coup organisers replaced Navy’s internal security personnel who were mobilised to guard Temple Trees. No one was still certain how deep the conspiracy had penetrated the ranks of the army and police. “ Jungle” Dissanayake” at this point received a call to say that that the leaders had decided to call off the coup.
On the orders of Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike, Dissanayake and J.F. Bede Johnpillai (ASP Traffic) were arrested; on the following day Colonel F.C. de Saram, Colonel Maurice de Mel and Rear Admiral Royce de Mel were taken into custody along with many others. All in all, thirty-one Conspirators, Commissioned Officers from the Army and the Navy, Gazetted Officers from the Police and a Civil Servant were arrested just in time prior to the execution of coup.
Felix Dias Bandaranaike however did not make any allegation against Sir Oliver Goonatillake , but according to news reports at the time but Mrs. Bandaranaike had never lost an opportunity to link Sir Oliver with the attempted coup.
Sir Oliver Goonatillake, being the Governor General of Ceylon, who represented the H.M. Queen Elizabeth the II, could not be arrested due to his British Royal affinities. In other words, to arrest the Queen’s representative in Ceylon would have been akin to ‘sending the Queen to jail’! For this very reason the Ceylon government could not do any harm to Sir Oliver Goonatillake legally, but the only thing Felix Dias R. Bandaranaike could do at that time was to expel the Queen’s representative in Ceylon from the country making sure that Sir Oliver was escorted up to aero plane under strict security to ensure that the ex-Governor General of Ceylon was extradited.
Sir Oliver Goonatillake was not allowed to take any personal belongs with him but had to fly out only with his clothes he was wearing at the time. Finally, he landed in France and his friend a in Paris, Baroness De Waldner came to the rescue of Sir Oliver in France.
To be continued ….. Sir Oliver writes to Peter Wijesinghe from abroad.
NB: Pictures attached:
1.Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike
2. Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike
3.DIG Stanley Senanayake.
4. Signing of the Declaration of Independence June 1948. Sir Henry Monk-Mason Moore – Governor of Ceylon, D.S.Senananayake PM, C.H. Muthall, Sir Oliver Goonatillake and Sir Arther Ranasinghe
Tilak S. Fernando