- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Cecil John Callis
- Location of story:
- India and Ceylon
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 July 2005
CATASTROPHE IN THE FAR EAST
Since 1937 Japan had been, for expansionist reasons, attacking China, and continued to do so in spite of many objections from America, Britain, and other countries. Having occupied all Chinese seaports, she was now planning to cut off all outside help to China by blocking imports via Indo-China and Burma. The occupation of bases in Indo-China now put Japan in suspiciously close striking distance of Malaya, Singapore and the East Indies. Consequently America, Britain, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and others clamped an embargo on all trade with Japan and froze all her foreign assets. This was taken by Japan as a serious threat to herself and her hoped-for Empire, and she reacted violently.
December 7th 1941 Pearl Harbour
Sunday 8am TORA! TORA! (ATTACK! ATTACK!)
400 Japanese carrier-borne planes, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, horizontal-bombers, and escorting Zero fighters, spring surprise attack on unsuspecting American Fleet of 95 Naval ships anchored in Pearl Harbour, in the Hawaiian Islands. Many American ships and aircraft were destroyed or damaged, many casualties. In command of the Japanese Carrier Striking force was Admiral Nagumo, who we meet again later,
December 7th Japan declares War on Britain and America
Air raid on Hong Kong
Japanese landings on East coasts of Malaya and Siam
British battleships “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse” sail from Singapore without fighter escort, to “scare-off” those invading forces. The run into a hornet's nest of 85 Jap torpedo and high-level bombers.
December 10th Both ships sunk, 850 officers and men lost.
December 11th Japan attacks Burma, aiming to cut off the Burma Road into China.
Further attacks on Malaya. Air raids in East Indies.
December 25th Hong Kong surrenders.
The surprising strength and speed of the Japanese advance had caught everyone unawares. It now seemed a strong possibility that Singapore, the largest Naval base in the world, could be at risk. If Singapore did fall, then Ceylon, off the Southern point of India could be their next target for invasion, giving the Japanese the control of the Indian Ocean. This would indeed be a further catastrophe.
SOUTH TO CEYLON
Early in January 1942, the 34th Indian Division moved at short notice from Jhansi to Ceylon. This involved a journey of 1,300 miles, which were made by train and ferry, taking four days. Troop trains are cramped and uncomfortable at the best of times. Trying to get some sleep at night, lying on the hard bench seats or on the floor, is even more uncomfortable. The best place is up on the luggage rack, out of the way.
As we went further South the heat increased and the speed decreased. Sometimes, in order to get some air, we hooked the carriage door open — they opened inwards — and sat out on the steps, enjoying the breeze and watching the changing scenery go by.
Occasional stops at large railway stations were the highlights of the day. Swarming with people, they were a bedlam of noise; vendors going along the trains selling tea, water, fruits, sweets, cakes, toys, everyone shouting at once. Trains arriving and leaving, festooned with natives. Smoke, steam and exotic smells. A native barber would give you a shave or a haircut on the platform. As always, the beggars, often blind, crippled or deformed — a pitiful sight.
The only major halt on the journey was in South India at Trichinopoly, where we were given several hours of freedom. Some of us climbed up to the famous Rock Fort that looms over the city atop a great solid-granite hill, scene of 18th century battles between the British and French. A golden-domed Hindu temple stands on the peak of the hill, from where there are expansive views over the plain.
On the fourth day we traveled down to the coast at Rameswaram, transferred to ferries, and crossed the Palk Straits to Mannar, Northern Ceylon.
SRI LANKA (which means “Land Resplendent”)
At Mannar we went straight from the ferry onto a train that was waiting on the pier. Through the carriage window on the opposite side was the lovely view of a perfect “tropical island” beach; a line of foam creamed onto a long beach of white sand, fringed by graceful palm trees swaying gently in the warm breeze. This first sight of the island gave us expectations of more agreeable surroundings than the hot, dusty plains of Central India.
Another first impression that stays in my memory is of traveling through jungle where we saw native, brown and bare to the waist, who wore sarongs like long tight skirts almost to their ankles, their long black hair reaching down to their waists. They seemed to belong to the distant past.
The journey, which took us down the West side of the island, then inland up into the hills, gave us some splendid views of this lovely country, rich in varied landscapes.
Shaped like a pear, sometimes called the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, Ceylon is 250 miles North to South, 150 miles East to West. Situated just north of the Equator, its coast have countless miles of beautiful sandy beaches, often backed by palm and mangrove jungle, and secluded coves where the sea is too blue and the sand too white to look real on a picture postcard, but real they are!
On the inland plains rice was the main cultivated crop, but all kinds of tropical fruits, vegetables, and flowers were grown. In the jungle there was wild fruit for the picking, coconuts, bananas, mangoes, papayas, etc. Also in the jungle, wild elephants roamed free.
Tea plantations appear amongst the first low hills, and continue away up into the valleys among the cool, central mountains. There, at 6,000ft, is rolling grassland, yellow gorse, evergreen trees, and breath-taking views across mountain country to peaks rising to over 8,000ft.
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