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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 8

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Lieutenant John Elisha IE
Location of story: 
Ernakulam, Cochin to Colombo , Ceylon.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 November 2004

Colombo Nov. 1942-Nov 1943 No. 2 Engineer Base Workshops, Beira Lake, Slave Island with Officers of 345 Ind. Workshop and Park Coy IE and Civilian Supervisors

A hard life in Ceylon

India and the Golden Chersonese
And utmost Indian Isle Taprobane,
Dusk faces with white silken turbans wreathed

- Milton, Paradise Regained, iv 74-76

S.S. “Maharajah” was a 2,900 tonner of the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company Limited. Built in 1927 her normal peacetime duties, we were told, included the shipment of Indian convicts to the penal settlement at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in the bay of Bengal. To us she seemed diminutive for a thirtysix hour voyage across the Arabian Sea to Colombo, Ceylon.

Eventually all was aboard including our 240 Indian troops most of whom were very excited at the idea of setting out to sea. Few if any of them had seen a stretch of water wider or deeper than a Punjab river. Waiting on deck under the hot South Indian sun we believed we were about to sail. Our attention was directed landward by one of the ships officers. On the horizon a cloud of dust at first no bigger than a man’s hand resolved itself into a flock of 500 goats heading straight to our loading ramp.

On board trotted the odoriferous animals to the forward well deck and main deck. The aft main deck formed the troops quarters and adjoined the goats, separated only by a watertight bulkhead door left ajar at all times to avoid jamming in event of torpedoing. Still the ramps to the shore remained. It was then announced that due to the suspected presence of a Japanese commerce raider (an armed merchant ship) over the horizon, sailing would be delayed indefinitely.

The goats were already highly unpopular shipmates as their urine appeared to consist mainly of ammonia, at such close and confined quarters a breathtaking and eyewatering health hazard. So ashore went the goats and the vacant decks were hosed down. A day later the coast was declared clear, the goats hurriedly re-embarked and off to sea we went. We were joined by our escort , a minesweeper of the Royal Indian Navy. Otherwise we were alone.

The Indian troops were again very excited to be sailing overseas. As a swell developed quietness descended and a large proportion began to look green below their brown complexions. Below decks the mixture of vomit and ammonia was soon indescribable. Those of us still in good health used handkerchieves soaked in water as improvised face masks when touring the main deck accommodation.

A day and a half later I was standing in the ships forepeak, as far away as possible from the goats, taking in lungfuls of fresh salty air. We were heading North East expecting to see Colombo Harbour looming over the horizon at any moment. One became aware of a faint but exotic perfume in the sea breeze getting gradually stronger. It was the aroma of Ceylon, a green tropical paradise of palm trees, spices and flowers. Soon we sailed into Colombo Harbour.

On the jetty a khaki clad figure with a red armband was waiting, an Engineer Staff Captain, our liaison officer from Ceylon Army Command. He was to be our guide to Ceylon. Although I have long since forgotten his name he was an old comrade from Edinburgh University OTC. Transport was waiting to take the troops to billets on the outskirts of Colombo and after settling them in we officers were taken to our Mess in an old but pleasant colonial style building in central Colombo, up a side street nearby the Clock Tower. I picked fresh plantains from my bedroom window.

As soon as we were settled in my new found old friend suggested that he and I should celebrate our reunion by a visit to one of Colombo’s cinemas. Things were looking up. Colombo seemed very bright and cosmopolitan after our rather dreary six months in Jhansi, never regarded even in peacetime as a very desirable social centre.

It was the last week in November 1942, nearing the end of the two month North East or “Chota” monsoon characterised by occasional downpours of rain. The daytime temperature was about 85 degrees falling to 73 degrees at night.Leaving the cinema at the end of the performance we drove back to my friend’s Royal Engineer Mess in a large suburban bungalow.

While I poured a couple of beers he stepped out into the darkness down from the verandah to relieve himself on the lawn, a not unknown practice in our all male society when no one was looking!.

I was startled by a sudden yell “I've been bitten by a snake!” My friend dashed into the lounge shaking one trousered leg from which I thought I saw a sinuous form emerge and disappear into the outer darkness - or was it just a fleeting shadow?

He was certainly in a state of shock and I tried to remember the actions to be taken in case of snake bite, contained in a small booklet issued several months ago on arrival in India. Despite many tales told both in the Mess and by my aunt who had served as an officers wife in India thirty years before I had not so far seen a snake apart from the occasional dead one on the roads.

Firmly seating the patient in an armchair and handing him a glass of beer I rolled up his trouser leg and hunted for the two telltale red pinpricks denoting a snakebite. Unfortunately he had unusually hairy legs and I was reduced to the sort of social grooming used by chimpanzees, parting the hairs carefully and hunting between them.

“Are you absolutely sure you’ve been bitten?” I said, infuriatingly no doubt. “I can feel it “ he said. At last the two pin pricks were disclosed. Time was passing and the critical next operation had to be carried out within twenty minutes of the bite. We were totally alone in what was to me an unfamiliar building. Eventually I found an unopened packet of safety razor blades and hurried back to the victim.

Telling him to shut his eyes I swiftly made the required cut between the fang marks followed by two more across the first, remembering the instructions to cut deep if his life was to be saved. I too shut my eyes as I cut! Meanwhile someone else arrived and telephoned the Military Hospital for a doctor who came quite quickly. Blood was streaming down the affected leg, very satisfactorily I thought, no doubt washing out the venom.

As the doctor cleaned up and bandaged the leg I asked casually whether I had done correctly.”Yes” said he “Except that you are supposed to apply a tourniquet above the wound before operating! Your friend might have died from loss of blood!”

On our arrival at the hospital the nursing sister in charge asked for the snake in order to determine the type of anti venom to use. No snake being available she dispatched a Ceylonese nursing orderly to the stockroom for a general type. He brought back the wrong bottle and my friend narrowly missed being injected with something quite irrelevant. It was not his night. Eventually a suitable injection was given and after two or three days of fever and discomfort he recovered. It was a hard life in Ceylon!

The following day we took over No 2 Base Workshops, Beira Lake, Slave Island,Colombo. Our Indian King's Commissioned Officer Lt M N Patel, who was well liked by all, had been posted to another unit in India and his place taken with us by Lt John Elisha IE of Bombay, an Indian Christian.

For John and me it was the beginning of a lifetime friendship. After the war John continued his career in the Indian Army, becoming a Lieutenant -Colonel in the post Independence Indian Army. During his retirement he was for many years choirmaster of St John's Church, Colaba, Bombay, a memorial to the First Afghan War. He died aged 90 a short time ago.

Six months earlier a Japanese battle fleet had attacked Ceylon with a strong carrier borne air force. Colombo, situated within a loop of the Kelani Ganga (river) had only one bridge, the Victoria, giving access to the interior and this was promptly choked by panic stricken refugees.

Ceylon Army Command could neither get troops in or out of the city at this critical time.Our job was to prevent recurrence of this bottleneck by designing and building a number of floating pontoon bridges. with removable sections and motor boats to move them.

In 1942 no such pontoon equipment was available in Ceylon or India. We had to improvise everything. A 60 foot “country boat” i.e. a native barge, was used as a prototype for the pontoons and a 24 foot motorboat said to have escaped from Singapore used as a pattern for the motor tugs. We converted lorry engines for these altering the gear box ratios and designing, casting and fitting several propellers with blades of different diameters and pitches until by trial and error we arrived at a suitable design.

During the next year we built around sixty pontoons and four motor tugs. Our work force consisted of the Sappers of our HQ and one Workshop Platoon plus 500 Sinhalese boatbuilders and their foremen. The Sinhalese were marvellous craftsmen and made much use of the adze, a tool now hardly known in Britain. Another task we were given was to uncrate and run-in forty 10 horsepower Johnson “Seahorse” outboard engines for use on infantry assault boats.

We officers tended to do this job in the evenings on Beira Lake. On one occasion an engine vibrated itself off the boat transom and disappeared into the water of a local canal. A troop of Sinhalese boy scouts was passing. Many of them dived in and one succeeded in finding and bringing it to the surface, aided only by the air in the petrol tank which gave it enough buoyancy to hold it upright.

Our other Workshop Platoon (Lt Scott) and one of our four Park Platoons (Lt Elisha) was based at China Bay, Trincomalee, another at Nachaduwa on the Colombo-Trincomalee road, another at Kalutara, south of Colombo and the fourth 500 miles South West of Ceylon at the Port “T”, secret naval base of the British Eastern Fleet on Addu Atoll a barren ring of islets at the south end of the Maldive Islands.

The Beira Lake pontoon bridge building operation was a major project. Timber girders and decking had to be designed, built , tested and adapted for mass production as well as the pontoons and motor tugs. We also built furniture for Ceylon Army Command’s various units. When recruiting a Sinhalese carpenter he was trade tested by requiring him to make a chair. Many of these men were superb craftsmen.

Timber for all operations was obtained from Sinhalese civilian contractors. It was cut from the forests of the interior of Ceylon and floated down the Kelani Ganga in bamboo rafts then via a canal into Beira Lake. The bamboo was necessary for buoyancy as much of the timber was similar to mahogany and too dense to float.

On arrival in Beira Lake these heavy logs would first be secured with a grappling iron on a long rope, cut free from the bamboo framework and hauled up a slipway into a seasoning yard to dry out as far as possible. Seasoning was a problem. We had little time available before starting production. I can only suppose that we bought in ready seasoned timber to start the operation off. “Halmilla” and ‘Ululu”, the latter with an exotic smell were two of the timbers much used.

The first Sinhalese civilian timber contractor was a very flamboyant gentleman indeed. Exquisitely tailored he proffered cigarettes from an apparently solid gold cigarette case bearing an engraved map of Ceylon. In this the principal towns were represented by quite sizable rubies for which Ceylon is famous. Philip Eden and I shared an office at this time and I was witness to the negotiations which took place. After the contractor had taken his leave I called Philip’s attention to something which had been inserted under his blotting pad. It turned out to be a thousand rupee note.

The contractor was recalled but denied all knowledge of it! Philip telephoned the CRE Colombo Area who advised him to pay it into the Regimental Fund for the welfare of the troops.

Our Indian troops were accommodated in bungalows in an only partially occupied suburban street - Station Road, Wellawatta. The rest of the bungalows were occupied by middle class Sinhalese families who after a few weeks sent a delegation to ask if the troops could be accommodated elsewhere.

It was quite difficult to ascertain the precise reason, the Sinhalese were almost speechless with embarassment.Eventually it transpired that the Indian troops sanitary practices, based on customs in their villages in North India, were blocking the main drainage system in Station Road, causing the W.C.s in the local residents houses to back up and overflow. Instead of toilet paper the troops were accustomed to use a handful of small pebbles in conjunction with a tin can of water. The pebbles were accumulating below ground. I forget how it was solved!

The recruitment of so many Sinhalese craftsmen made it possible to withdraw the troops in rotation from the Base Workshop for military and educational training. Battle drill had recently been introduced. We practiced on a local golf course and on the “Madras” rifle and machine gun ranges near Colombo using live ammunition fired on a fixed line from a tripod mounted Bren light machine gun.

I also taught myself Morsecode, borrowing from Ceylon Army Command a pair of heliograph instruments and teaching some of the sappers to send and receive messages. This they did over distances of a mile or two along the beautiful beaches between Colombo and Mount Lavinia. Business could be made a pleasure! Some of the troops improved their English as a result and my Urdu improved sufficiently to pass the Elementary Urdu Examination in time to get the Rupees 150 reward.

The possibility of losing my my “Acting” rank of Captain had been removed by time, as from October 1942 it had automatically become “Temporary” i.e. more permanent! It was still essential for me to pass the Urdu examination.The oral examination was conducted by two imposingly tall and burly Viceroy's Commissioned Officers from an infantry unit, one a bearded Sikh the other a Punjabi Mussulman with a “fanned” puggaree.

In February 1943 I had my first leave since joining the Indian Army, travelling by train up into the central mountains of Ceylon, to Newara Eliya (pronounced Neuralia) where at an altitude of 6,199 feet the climate is cool,remarkably like an English spring. Making friends with four Dutch commandos who had escaped from the East Indies I climbed Ceylons highest mountain - Pidurutalagala, 8,292 feet but from Newara Eliya only the height of a typical mountain in Scotland whose countryside it slightly resembles.
Hakgala Botanical gardens and many other delightful centres of interest abound in the area.

There were very many British people on leave, both civilian and servicemen. It was relaxing to escape back into something resembling the climate and culture of home and to escape at last from the continual sweating and associated prickly heat of the humid tropical climate of the coast.

Returning eventually to the warm humid climate of the coastal plain life resumed its normal pattern of workshop and administrative problems. In our centrally located officers mess we were able to bathe in the sea in the ruined Governors Pool each evening and then sit watching the spectacular sunset.

The railway line runs south from Colombo close to the beach. Then as now it was local custom for Sinhalese families to take an evening stroll along the railway line to enjoy the sunset. The gorgeous colours of the ladies saris complemented the colourful spectacle.

Eventually we were dispossessed of this officers mess building and given a bungalow nearer the troops billets at Wellawatta. Here I noticed one day that my Mussulman bearer was lunching in the Hindu langar. When I enquired the reason from Subedar Shambu Nath he said with smile“Sahib, it because it is nearer and he is lazy!” So much for religious discrimination.

When it came to Philip Eden’s turn for leave, instead of going to Newara Eliya by train he invented a job for me. This was to make an inspection trip to our Workshop and Stores Platoons at Trincomalee but using his station wagon on a route via Newara Eliya.There I would drop him off and continue on a roundabout route via Badulla and the east coast near Batticoloa.

I spent the night in a pleasant little dak bungalow at Badulla. On heading north east the following morning impassable floods at Bibile put an end to further progress and making it necessary to return to Colombo. It was not a wasted journey.It was a fascinating opportunity to see the remoter interior of Ceylon.

Bibile is on the edge of what is now the Gal Oya National Park. In 1943, even more possibly than now, the whole area teemed with exotic animals, birds and insects and the smiling, attractively copper coloured people were both picturesque and friendly..

Ceylon, or Taprobane as it was known in ancient times is surely one of the most beautiful countries in the world. In religion it is predominantly Buddhist , the Sinhalese king having been converted in 270 BC by Mahendra, a Buddhist monk who was a son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka. The type of Buddhism, Theravada,is that of the Southern School shared with Burma and Malaysia. The Northern School, Mahayana, is that practised in Nepal, Tibet and further east.

After 150 years of cruel religious oppression by the Portuguese, and a further 150 years of more benign rule by the Dutch, Britain profited by its experience elsewhere to make its own 150 years in Ceylon one of the better examples of colonialism.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Lieutenant John Elisha I.E.(later Lt Col Indian Army)

Posted on: 01 December 2004 by Alan Shaw

I would be delighted to hear from members of his family.

Alan Shaw

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