The Cenotaph war memorial, a stone behemoth nestled in the heart of Colombo, is one of many reminders of a forgotten war in Ceylonese history. Adjacent to the National Library of Sri Lanka this memorial bears the names of those who lost their lives defending our country during the Second World War. However much like this memorial, whose existence is oblivious to many of us, our acknowledgment of their sacrifice is one that has simply faded into obscurity.
Turning the hands of time back to 1939 we see the commencement of the Second World War with a majority of the worlds’ superpowers split between the Allied and Axis forces. In a war spanning 6 years and claiming over 75 million souls, Ceylon too would find itself in the middle of the conflict given that it was still under the occupation of the British Empire. The island paradise soon transformed into a frontline for the Allied forces with troops of the Ceylon Defense Force deployed along the coast, primarily in Colombo and Trincomalee. In addition to the coastal batteries, Trincomalee occupied several installations of the Royal Navy while the RAF set up a base in the China Bay Aerodrome and Ratmalana airfield.
While the Ceylonese troops played more of a supportive role throughout the first half of the war, aiding in missions protecting the British Naval forces, gathering essential intel from fallen enemies, and escorting surrendering ships, that was all about to change come the morning of April 5th, 1942. The infamous Easter Sunday Air Raid saw Japan send in 36 zero fighters, 90 high-level bombers, and 54 dive bombers in an attempt to wipe out the British naval occupation in Colombo and on a later date in Trincomalee as well. While the RAF and on-ground forces were quick to engage, the lack of preparedness by the British ensured the Japanese to ultimately claim victory. The RAF lost a total of 31 aircraft, while the Royal Navy lost two ships. The raid also saw 424 men killed in action while 1120 survivors spent several hours in the water. While the raid shook the Ceylonese community, many of whom attempted to flee to India, the troops in the Ceylon Defense Force remained vigilant to ensure that Ceylon played its contributing role in bringing the Second World War to an end.
According to the Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen Association, initiated back in 1998, there were a total of 1200 veterans registered, of which only a handful remain today. It is truly unfortunate how there has never been a proper census carried for these ex-servicemen and how the only evidence of their service had to come through their relatives, memorial sites like the Cenotaph, and the Commonwealth gravesites. To paraphrase a quote by George Elliot. “Heroes are never dead to us until we have forgotten them. Therefore in the spirit of their remembrance, we must take it upon ourselves, for the sake of the generations after us, to keep their stories, their accounts, and their experiences alive. To remember and venerate these great men and women for their sacrifice and the part they played in protecting the future of the country that we are now blessed to live in. For they are the fallen, but not the forgotten.
Rtr. Kavinda Fonseka