Gaddafi’s visit to Sri Lanka for the Non-Aligned Conference in 1976


Reminiscences of Major Ranjit Wanigasundara, SLA (Retd)


Sunday September 04, 2011

Major (Rtd) Ranjit Wanigasundara, who was the Senior Liaison Officer for the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during the fifth Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Colombo in 1976 shares his memories
By Chamari Senanayake
“He was clearly the star of the world leaders that arrived for the conference. Although we had more respected and powerful figures like Indira Gandhi and Marshall Tito staying in Colombo, people rushed mostly to see Colonel Gaddafi. Every time he arrived in a different floor of the hotel, or the lounge, ladies rushed in and lined up to see or talk to him. He signed hundreds of autographs and photos without rejecting any. “My Army life was full of exciting and rewarding experiences; the experiences I had during the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Colombo in 1976 are definitely unique and truly unforgettable,” says Major (Retd) Ranjit Wanigasundara speaking to the Sunday Times of his interaction with the now beleaguered Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi during his 1976 visit to Colombo.

Born in Colombo and educated at Ananda College, Ranjit Wanigasundara joined the Sri Lanka Army in 1959 as an officer cadet and soon after, trained at England’s prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy. “During that time Prince Michael of Kent was also training at Sandhurst and our batch from Sri Lanka had four cadets. After coming back to Sri Lanka I was commissioned into the Artillery Regiment and served in various parts in Sri Lanka throughout my military career.”

He also trained three batches of officer cadets as Chief Instructor of Training at Diyathalawa Academy for two years. Major Wanigasundara retired in 1980 and worked at John Keells for many years. He lived in Canada for four years with his family and now makes his home in a picturesque area in Attidiya with his wife Sandamini Samarasinghe. The experience with Gaddafi was chaotic from the very beginning, he recalls. “Before Gaddafi arrived, a planeload of his security staff arrived with no visas, not even passports. All they had was pieces of papers saying who they were, and our authorities decided to send them back in the next plane that also came from Libya.

Those people were also Gaddafi’s staff, but fortunately, they had visas and passports and we sent the previous load in that plane to Karachchi. When Gaddafi arrived, he looked upset about the whole situation. He even ignored the guard of honour we had prepared for all the world leaders, and also snubbed the Sri Lankan minister who was waiting to greet him.” Gaddafi was one day late for the conference while all other leaders had arrived on the previous day as planned. The Major believes he had deliberately done this in order to make a special entrance. “Chief of Protocol Manel Abeysekara led me to Gaddafi at the Airport and I greeted him and escorted him to the special vehicle that was awaiting the Libyan leader. The country had then imported about 100 Holden Statesman vehicles for the use of the world leaders who came here for the NAM conference. At this point one of his right hand men also tried to sneak in to our vehicle and I told him politely that he has to come in one of the other vehicles designated for the delegates and that this vehicle is purely for the Libyan leader, his liaison officer and the Police ASP in charge of security there.

Gaddafi was quiet most of the time on our way to Colombo. He was dressed in his National Costume, though the rest of the time we saw him in his military uniform. “After we arrived at the Oberoi Hotel, I went to have my lunch but he had suddenly decided to attend the rest of the conference so I had to accompany him to the BMICH. During his three-day stay in Sri Lanka, I never saw him drinking or smoking, but he ate loads of fruit. At this time he was perhaps about 30 years old. “Almost all the leaders stayed at Hotel Lanka Oberoi or the Intercontinental,” recalls the retd Major. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was at Temple Trees and Marshall Josip Tito arrived in his own luxury yacht which was docked at Colombo harbour.

The Algerian President was staying at then Acland House in Union Place. Colonel Gaddafi had the entire South Wing of the Oberoi Hotel and he and his delegations occupied an entire floor, he remembers adding that one of the most difficult tasks he had was always trying to keep the crowds that tried to mob Gaddafi at a distance. “At the state banquet hosted by our President William Gopallawa, Gaddafi tried to sneak out and meet some people. By then the day’s events had finished and all leaders were leaving or had left to their hotels. Gaddafi said he wanted to meet the Algerian President at Acland House and wanted me to arrange the motorcade escort. I said it was too late and it was not possible to get any vehicles at this time, and as such a meeting was also not in the schedule that he should go and get some rest.” But no matter how hard Major Wanigasundara tried to keep the Libyan leader to the schedules that were followed by the rest of the leaders, the stubborn young Colonel had his way. After contacting the Libyan embassy, he had privately organized a vehicle and left to see people in the middle of the night.

“I once accompanied him to the Holiday Inn where he was to meet the senior Muslim leaders in Colombo. As usual, he was mobbed by hundreds of people there who were waiting outside for hours to get a glimpse of him. At the Hotel he expressed his interest in talking to the young Muslims in Colombo.” Gaddafi later addressed Colombo Muslims at a mosque and had contributed generously for renovations and buildings of many mosques. The people who met him had the impression of a westernized modern Muslim leader. “After three days of continuous meetings and escorts, and especially my struggle to keep people from coming too close to Colonel Gaddafi, I was exhausted. I gave my junior liaison officer Captain Asoka Amunugama the opportunity to accompany him to the Airport. I told Gaddafi that I am unable to come with him to the airport and he thanked me for my service, gifted me a stack of books about Libya and later sent me a gold watch through the Embassy. “He was a very reserved person. He didn’t talk much, and I never heard him raising his voice or being rough with anyone. It was mostly the people who worked under him that were rough,” Ranjit Wanigasundara recalls.



Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (c. 1942 – 20 October 2011), commonly known as Colonel Gaddafi, was a Libyan revolutionary, politician and political theorist. He governed Libya as Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977 and then as the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011. Gaddafi transformed Libya into a new socialist state called a Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) in He officially adopted a symbolic role in governance but remained head of both the military and
the Revolutionary Committees responsible for policing and suppressing dissent.

A highly divisive figure, Gaddafi dominated Libya’s politics for four decades and was the subject of a pervasive cult of personality. He was decorated with various awards and praised for his antiimperialist stance, support for Arab—and then African—unity, as well as for significant improvements that his government brought to the Libyan people’s quality of life. Conversely, many Libyans strongly opposed his social and economic reforms; he was posthumously accused of sexual abuse. He was condemned by many as a dictator whose authoritarian administration systematically violated human rights and financed global terrorism.

Amid the 2011 Arab Spring, protests against widespread corruption and unemployment broke out in Eastern Libya. The situation descended into civil war, in which NATO intervened militarily on the side of the anti-Gaddafist National Transitional Council (NTC). The government was overthrown and Gaddafi retreated to Sirte, only to be captured and killed by NTC militants. Gaddafi was mourned as a hero by many across Sub-Saharan Africa; The Daily Times of Nigeria for instance stated that while undeniably a dictator, Gaddafi was the most benevolent in a region that only knew dictatorship, and that he was “a great man that looked out for his people and made them the envy of all of Africa”. The Nigerian newspaper Leadership reported that while many Libyans and Africans would mourn Gaddafi, this would be ignored by Western media and that as such it would take 50 years before historians decided whether he was “martyr or villain”.

A highly divisive figure, Gaddafi dominated Libya's politics for four decades and was the subject of a pervasive cult of personality

Early life of Gaddafi

Birth and Parents

Gaddafi was born near Qasr Abu Hadi, a rural area outside the town of Sirte in the deserts of Tripolitania, western Libya. His family came from a small, relatively uninfluential tribal group called the Qadhadhfa, who were Arabized Berber in heritage. His mother was named Aisha bin Niran (died 1978), and his father, Mohammad Abdul Salam bin Hamed bin Mohammad, was known as Abu Meniar (died 1985); the latter earned a meagre subsistence as a goat and camel herder. His family were illiterate and kept no birth records. Many biographers have used 7 June; however, his birthday is not known with certainty and sources have set it in 1942 or the spring of 1943. His parents’ only surviving son, he had three older sisters.


Gaddafi’s earliest education was of a religious nature, imparted by a local Islamic teacher. Subsequently, moving to nearby Sirte to attend elementary school, he progressed through six grades in four years. Education in Libya was not free, but his father thought it would greatly benefit his son despite the financial strain. During the week Gaddafi slept in a mosque, and at weekends walked 20 miles (32 km) to visit his parents.

Political activism

Gaddafi admired the political changes implemented in the Arab Republic of Egypt under his hero, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser argued for Arab nationalism; the rejection of Western colonialism, neo-colonialism, and Zionism; and a transition from capitalism to socialism. Gaddafi was influenced by Nasser’s book, Philosophy of the Revolution, which outlined how to initiate a coup. One of Gaddafi’s Egyptian teachers was reportedly sympathetic towards the youth’s political ideas, and advised him that a successful revolution would need the support of the army. Gaddafi organized demonstrations and distributed posters criticizing the monarchy. In October 1961, he led a demonstration protesting against Syria’s secession from the UAR, and raised funds to send cables of support to Nasser. Twenty students were arrested as a result of the disorder. Gaddafi and his companions also broke windows in a local hotel that was accused of serving alcohol. To punish Gaddafi, the authorities expelled him and his family from Sabha. Gaddafi moved to Misrata, there attending Misrata Secondary School.

Military training and establishment of the Free Officers Movement

Gaddafi briefly studied history at the University of Libya in Benghazi before dropping out to join the military. Despite his police record, in 1963 he began training at the Royal Military Academy, Benghazi, alongside several like-minded friends from Misrata. The armed forces offered the only opportunity for upward social mobility for underprivileged Libyans, and Gaddafi recognized it as a potential instrument of political change. Libya’s armed forces were trained by the British military; this angered Gaddafi, who viewed the British as imperialists, and accordingly, he refused to learn English and was rude to the British officers, ultimately failing his exams. British trainers reported him for insubordination and abusive behaviour, stating their suspicion that he was involved in the assassination of the military academy’s commander in 1963. Such reports were ignored, and Gaddafi quickly progressed through the course.
With a group of loyal cadres, in 1964 Gaddafi established the Free Officers Movement, a revolutionary group with its central committee led by Gaddafi. They met secretively and were organized into a clandestine cell system, offering their salaries into a single fund. Gaddafi travelled around Libya collecting intelligence and developing connections with sympathizers, but the government’s intelligence services ignored him, considering him little threat.Graduating in August 1965, Gaddafi became a communications officer in the army’s signal corps.

Further military training in the UK

In April 1966, he was assigned to the United Kingdom for further training; over nine months he underwent an English-language course at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, an Army Air Corps signal instructors course in Bovington Camp, Dorset, and an infantry signal instructors course at Hythe, Kent. The Bovington signal course’s director reported that Gaddafi successfully overcame problems learning English, displaying a firm command of voice procedure. Noting that Gaddafi’s favourite hobbies were reading and playing football, he thought him an “amusing officer, always cheerful,
hard-working, and conscientious”. Gaddafi disliked England, saying British Army officers racially insulted him and finding it difficult adjusting to the country’s culture; asserting his Arab identity in London, he walked around Piccadilly wearing traditional Libyan robes. He later related that while he travelled to England believing it more advanced than Libya, he returned home “more confident and proud of our values, ideals and social character”.

Gaddafi comes to power in Libya

Coup d’état by the Free Officers Movement

In mid-1969, Libyan King, Idris travelled abroad to spend the summer in Turkey and Greece. Gaddafi’s Free Officers recognized this as their chance to overthrow the monarchy, initiating “Operation Jerusalem”. On 1 September, they occupied airports, police depots, radio stations, and government offices in Tripoli and Benghazi. Gaddafi and his loyalists took control of the Berka barracks in Benghazi, Tripoli barracks and the city’s anti-aircraft batteries. A loyalist was also sent to arrest the crown prince and force him to relinquish his claim to the throne. They met no serious resistance and wielded little violence against the monarchists.

Kingdom of Libya becoming the Libyan Arab Republic

Once Gaddafi removed the monarchical government, he announced the establishment of the Libyan Arab Republic. Addressing the populace by radio, he proclaimed an end to the “reactionary and corrupt” regime, “the stench of which has sickened and horrified us all”. Due to the coup’s bloodless nature, it was initially labelled the “White Revolution”, although was later renamed the “One September Revolution” after the date on which it occurred.

The flag of Libyan Arab Republic

Gaddafi insisted that the Free Officers’ coup represented a revolution, marking the start of widespread change in the socio-economic and political nature of Libya. He proclaimed that the revolution meant “freedom, socialism, and unity”, and over the coming years to implement measures to achieve this.

Consolidating leadership under a Revolutionary Command Council

The 12 member central committee of the Free Officers proclaimed themselves the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the government of the new republic. Lieutenant Gaddafi became RCC chairman, and therefore the de facto head of state. He also appointed himself to the rank of colonel and becoming commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Gaddafi at an Arab summit in Libya in 1969, shortly after the September Revolution that toppled King Idris I. Gaddafi sits in military uniform in the middle, surrounded by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (left) and Syrian President Nureddin al-Atassi. The coup completed, the RCC proceeded with their intentions of consolidating the revolutionary
government and modernizing the country. They purged monarchists from Libya’s political world and armed forces; Gaddafi believed this elite were opposed to the will of the Libyan people and had to be expunged. “People’s Courts” were founded to try various monarchist politicians and journalists, many of whom were imprisoned, although none executed. Idris was sentenced to execution in absentia. In May 1970, the Revolutionary Intellectuals Seminar was held to bring intellectuals in line with the revolution, while that year’s Legislative Review and Amendment united secular and religious law codes, introducing sharia into the legal system. Ruling by decree, the RCC maintained the monarchy’s
ban on political parties, and in May 1970 banned trade unions, and in 1972 outlawed workers’ strikes. In 1972, Major Jalloud, Gaddafi’s best friend became Prime Minister while a civilian Council of Ministers was founded to implement RCC policy. Libya’s administrative capital was moved from alBeida to Tripoli.

Libya under Gaddafi’s rule

Successful economic and social reforms brought in by the Revolutionary Command Council The RCC’s early economic policy has been characterized as being state capitalist in orientation. Many schemes were established to aid entrepreneurs and develop a Libyan bourgeoisie. Seeking to expand the cultivatable acreage in Libya, in September 1969 the government launched a “Green Revolution” to increase agricultural productivity so that Libya could rely less on imported food. The hope was to make Libya self-sufficient in food production. All land that had either been expropriated from Italian settlers or which was not in use was repossessed and redistributed. Irrigation systems were
established along the northern coastline and around various inland oases. Production costs often surpassed the value of the produce and thus Libyan agricultural production remained in deficit, relying heavily on state subsidies. With crude oil as the country’s primary export, Gaddafi sought to improve Libya’s oil sector. In October 1969, he proclaimed the current trade terms unfair, benefiting foreign corporations more than the Libyan state, and threatened to decrease production. In December Libya successfully increased the price of their oil. The RCC followed with the Tripoli agreement of 20 March 1971, in which they secured income tax, back-payments and better pricing from the oil corporations; these measures brought Libya an estimated $1 billion in additional revenues in its first year. By mid-1970’s Libya under Gaddafi was proving to be an economic success. The gross domestic product which had been $3.8 billion in 1969, had risen to $13.7 billion in 1974, and $24.5 billion in 1979. In turn, the Libyans’ standard of life greatly improved over the first decade of Gaddafi’s administration, and by 1979 the average per-capita income was at $8,170, up from $40 in 1951; this was above the average of many industrialized countries like Italy and the UK. The RCC implemented measures for social reform, adopting sharia as a basis. The consumption of alcohol was prohibited, night clubs and Christian churches were shut down, traditional Libyan dress was encouraged, and Arabic was decreed as the only language permitted in official communications and on road signs. The RCC doubled the minimum wage, introduced statutory price controls, and implemented compulsory rent reductions of between 30 and 40 per cent. Gaddafi also wanted to combat the strict social restrictions that had been imposed on women by the previous regime, establishing the Revolutionary Women’s Formation to encourage reform. In 1970,a law was introduced affirming equality of the sexes and insisting on wage parity. In 1971, Gaddafi sponsored the creation of a Libyan General Women’s Federation. In 1972, a law was passed criminalizing the marriage of any females under the age of sixteen and ensuring that a woman’s consent was a necessary prerequisite for a marriage. Gaddafi’s regime opened up a wide range of
educational and employment opportunities for women.

From 1969 to 1973, it used oil money to fund social welfare programs, which led to house-building projects and improved healthcare and education. House building became a major social priority, designed to eliminate homelessness and to replace the shanty towns created by Libya’s growing urbanization. The health sector was also expanded; by 1978, Libya had 50 per cent more hospitals than it had in 1968, while the number of doctors had increased from 700 to over 3000 in that decade. Malaria was eradicated, and trachoma and tuberculosis greatly curtailed. Compulsory education was expanded from 6 to 9 years, while adult literacy programs and free university
education were introduced. Beida University was founded, while Tripoli University and Benghazi University were expanded. In doing so, the government helped to integrate the poorer strata of Libyan society into the education system. Through these measures, the RCC greatly expanded the public sector, providing employment for thousands. These early social programs proved popular within Libya. This popularity was partly due to Gaddafi’s personal charisma and youth.

In 1971, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad signed an agreement to form a federal Union of Arab Republics. The agreement never materialized into a federal union between thethree Arab states.
Relations with the UK and the US After the 1969 coup, representatives of the Four Powers—France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union—were called to meet RCC representatives. The UK and the US quickly extended diplomatic recognition, hoping to secure the position of their military bases in Libya and
fearing further instability. Hoping to ingratiate themselves with Gaddafi, in 1970 the US informed him of at least one planned counter-coup. Such attempts to form a working relationship with the RCC failed; Gaddafi was determined to reassert national sovereignty and expunge what he described as foreign colonial and imperialist influences. His administration insisted that the US and the UK remove their military bases from Libya, with Gaddafi proclaiming that “the armed forces which rose to express the people’s revolution [will not] tolerate living in their shacks while the bases of imperialism exist in Libyan territory.” The British left in March and the Americans in June 1970.

Support for militant groups in other countries

Gaddafi was especially critical of the US due to its support of Israel, and sided with the Palestinians in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, viewing the 1948 creation of the State of Israel as a Western colonial occupation forced upon the Arab world. He believed that Palestinian violence against Israeli and Western targets was the justified response of an oppressed people who were fighting against the colonization of their homeland. Calling on the Arab states to wage “continuous war” against Israel, in 1970 he initiated a Jihad Fund to finance anti-Israeli militants. In June 1972 Gaddafi created the First Nasserite Volunteers Centre to train anti-Israeli guerrillas.

Gaddafi favoured the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his group, Fatah, over more militant and Marxist Palestinian groups. As the years progressed however, Gaddafi’s relationship with Arafat became strained, with Gaddafi considering him too moderate and calling for more violent action. Instead, he supported militias like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, As-Sa’iqa, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, and the Abu Nidal Organization. He funded the Black September Organization whose members perpetrated the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes in West Germany and had the killed militants’ bodies flown to Libya for a hero’s funeral. Gaddafi financially supported other militant groups across the world, including the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the Tupamaros, the 19th of April Movement and the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, the ANC among other liberation movements in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, ETA, Action direct, the Red Brigades, and the Red Army Faction in Europe, and the Armenian Secret Army, the Japanese Red Army, the Free Aceh Movement, and the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. Gaddafi was indiscriminate in the causes which he funded, sometimes switching from supporting one side in a conflict to the other, as in the Eritrean War of Independence. Throughout the 1970s these groups received financial support from Libya, which came to be seen as a leader in the Third World’s struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism. Though many of these groups were labelled “terrorists” by critics of their activities, Gaddafi rejected this characterization, instead considering them to be
revolutionaries who were engaged in liberation struggles.

The “Popular Revolution”, General People’s Committees, Third Universal Theory and the Green

On 16 April 1973, Gaddafi proclaimed the start of a “Popular Revolution” in a speech at Zuwarah. He initiated this with a five-point plan, the first point of which dissolved all existing laws, to be replaced by revolutionary enactments. The second point proclaimed that all opponents of the revolution had to be removed, while the third initiated an administrative revolution that Gaddafi proclaimed would remove all traces of bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie. The fourth point announced that the population must form People’s Committees and be armed to defend the revolution, while the fifth proclaimed the beginning of a cultural revolution to expunge Libya of “poisonous” foreign influences. He began to lecture on this new phase of the revolution in Libya, Egypt, and France. As a process, it had many similarities with the Cultural Revolution implemented in China. As part of this Popular Revolution, Gaddafi invited Libya’s people to establish General People’s Committees (GPCs) as conduits for raising political consciousness. Although offering little guidance for how to set up these councils, Gaddafi claimed that they would offer a form of direct political participation that was more democratic than a traditional party-based representative system. He hoped that the councils would mobilize the people behind the RCC, erode the power of the traditional leaders and the bureaucracy, and allow for a new legal system chosen by the people. Many such committees were established in schools and colleges, where they were responsible for vetting staff, courses, and textbooks to determine if they were compatible with the country’s
revolutionary ideology.

The People’s Committees led to a high percentage of public involvement in decision making, within the limits permitted by the RCC, but exacerbated tribal divisions and tensions. They also served as a surveillance system, aiding the security services in locating individuals with views critical of the RCC, leading to the arrest of Ba’athists, Marxists, and Islamists. Operating in a pyramid structure, the base form of these Committees were local working groups, who sent elected representatives to the district level, and from there to the national level, divided between the General People’s Congress and the General People’s Committee. Above these remained Gaddafi and the RCC, who remained responsible for all major decisions. In crossing regional and tribal identities, the committee system aided national integration and centralization and tightened Gaddafi’s control over the state and administrative apparatus.
In June 1973, Gaddafi created a political ideology as a basis for the Popular Revolution: Third International Theory. This approach regarded both the US and the Soviet Union as imperialist and thus rejected Western capitalism as well as Marxist-Leninist atheism. In this respect, it was similar to the Three Worlds Theory developed by China’s political leader Mao Zedong.

As part of this theory, Gaddafi praised nationalism as a progressive force and advocated the creation of a pan-Arab state which would lead the Islamic and Third Worlds against imperialism. Gaddafi saw Islam as having a
key role in this ideology, calling for an Islamic revival that returned to the origins of the Qur’an, rejecting scholarly interpretations and the Hadith; in doing so, he angered many Libyan clerics. During 1973 and 1974, his government deepened the legal reliance on sharia, for instance by introducing flogging as punishment for those convicted of adultery or homosexual activity.

Gaddafi summarized Third International Theory in three short volumes published between 1975 and 1979, collectively known as The Green Book. Volume one was devoted to the issue of democracy, outlining the flaws of representative systems in favour of direct, participatory GPCs. The second dealt with Gaddafi’s beliefs regarding socialism, while the third explored social issues regarding the family and the tribe. While the first two volumes advocated radical reform, the third adopted a socially conservative stance, proclaiming that while men and women were equal, they were biologically designed for different roles in life.

An Arabic copy of The Green Book

Replacement of the Libyan Arab Republic by Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya On 2 March 1977, the General People’s Congress adopted the “Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People” at Gaddafi’s behest. Dissolving the Libyan Arab Republic, it was replaced by the ‘Great’ Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a “state of the masses” conceptualized by Gaddafi. A new, all-green banner was adopted as the country’s flag.
Flag of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Officially, the Jamahiriya was a direct democracy in which the people ruled themselves through the 187 Basic People’s Congresses (BPCs), where all adult Libyans participated and voted on national decisions. These then sent members to the annual General People’s Congress, which was broadcast
live on television. In principle, the People’s Congresses were Libya’s highest authority, with major decisions proposed by government officials or with Gaddafi himself requiring the consent of the People’s Congresses. Gaddafi (left) with Egyptian President Gaddafi (right) with Sudanese leader, Maj Gen Nimeiry Nasser in 1969 and Nasser in 1969
Gaddafi with Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest, Romania 1974.

Turning towards socialism

Libya began to turn towards socialism. In March 1978, the government issued guidelines for housing redistribution, attempting to ensure that every adult Libyan owned their own home. Most families were banned from owning more than one house, while former rental properties were expropriated by the state and sold to the tenants at a heavily subsidized price. In September, Gaddafi called for the People’s Committees to eliminate the “bureaucracy of the public sector” and the “dictatorship of the private sector”; the People’s Committees took control of several hundred companies, converting them into worker cooperatives run by elected representatives.

Economic downturn

The early and mid-1980s saw economic trouble for Libya; from 1982 to 1986, the country’s annual oil revenues dropped from $21 billion to $5.4 billion. Focusing on irrigation projects, 1983 saw construction start on Libya’s largest and most expensive infrastructure project, the Great Man-Made River; although designed to be finished by the end of the decade, it remained incomplete at the start of the 21st century. Military spending increased, while other administrative budgets were cut back. Libya’s foreign debt rose, and austerity measures were introduced to promote self-reliance Construction for the Great Man-Made River Project.

Conflict with the US and its allies

Libya had sought to improve relations with the US under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but in 1979 the US placed Libya on its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism”. Relations were further damaged at the end of the year when a demonstration torched the US embassy in Tripoli in solidarity with the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The following year, Libyan fighters began intercepting US fighter jets flying over the Mediterranean, signalling the collapse of relations between the two countries. In 1981, the new US President, Ronald Reagan, pursued a hardline approach to Libya, claiming it to be a puppet regime of the Soviet Union. In turn, Gaddafi played up his commercial relationship with the Soviets, revisiting Moscow in 1981 and 1985, and threatening to join the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets were nevertheless cautious of Gaddafi, seeing him as an unpredictable extremist. Closing down Libya’s embassy in Washington, DC, Reagan advised US companies operating in Libya to reduce the number of American personnel stationed there. In March 1982, the US implemented an embargo of Libyan oil and in January 1986 ordered all US companies to cease operating in the country, although several hundred workers remained when the Libyan government doubled their pay.

Diplomatic relations also broke down with the UK, after Libyan diplomats were accused in the killing of a British policewoman stationed outside their London embassy, in April 1984. During his November 2008 visit to Russia, Gaddafi pitched his Bedouin tent in the grounds of the Moscow Kremlin. Here he is joined by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French singer Mireille Mathieu.

Military strike by the US on Libya

After the US accused Libya of orchestrating the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing, in which two American soldiers died, Reagan decided to retaliate militarily. The CIA was critical of the move, believing that Syria was a greater threat and that an attack would strengthen Gaddafi’s reputation; however Libya was recognized as a “soft target”. Reagan was supported by the UK but opposed by other European allies, who argued that it would contravene international law. In Operation El Dorado Canyon, orchestrated on 15 April 1986, US military planes launched a series of air-strikes on Libya,
bombing military installations in various parts of the country, killing around 100 Libyans, including several civilians.
One of the targets had been Gaddafi’s home. Two of Gaddafi’s sons were injured, and he claimed that his four-year-old adopted daughter was killed, although her existence has since been questioned. In the immediate aftermath, Gaddafi retreated to the desert to meditate. There were sporadic clashes between Gaddafists and army officers who wanted to overthrow the government. The US was condemned internationally. Publicly lambasting US imperialism, Gaddafi’s
reputation as an anti-imperialist was strengthened both domestically and across the Arab world. In the aftermath of the 1986 US attack, the army was purged of perceived disloyal elements, and in 1988, Gaddafi announced the creation of a popular militia to replace the army and police. In 1987, Libya began production of mustard gas, although publicly denied it was stockpiling chemical weapons, and unsuccessfully attempted to develop nuclear weapons

Building up of an opposition to Gaddafi’ rule

The mid 80s period also saw a growth in domestic Islamist opposition, formulated into groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Several assassination attempts against Gaddafi were foiled, and in turn, 1989 saw the security forces raid mosques believed to be centres of counter-revolutionary preaching. In October 1993, elements of the increasingly marginalized army initiated a failed coup in Misrata, while in September 1995, Islamists launched an insurgency in Benghazi. The Revolutionary Committees experienced a resurgence to combat these Islamists.

Gaddafi rebuilding links with the West

In 1999, Libya began secret talks with the British government to normalize relations. In September 2001, Gaddafi publicly condemned the September 11 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda, expressing sympathy with the victims and calling for Libyan involvement in the US-led War on Terror against militant Islamism. Libya also cemented connections with China and North Korea, being visited by Chinese President in April 2002. Influenced by the events of the Iraq War, in December 2003, Libya renounced its possession of weapons of mass destruction, decommissioning its chemical and nuclear weapons programs. Relations with the US improved as a result. British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in March 2004. In 2003, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie (Pan Am Boeing 747) bombing and paid US$2.7 billion to the families of its victims; the US and UK had made this a condition for terminating the remaining UN sanctions.

Gaddafi’s downfall

Libya’s economy witnessed increasing privatization; although rejecting the socialist policies of
nationalized industry advocated in The Green Book, government figures asserted that they were forging “people’s socialism” rather than capitalism. These reforms encouraged private investment in Libya’s economy. By 2004, there was US$40 billion of direct foreign investment in Libya, a six fold rise over 2003. Sectors of Libya’s population reacted against these reforms with public demonstrations, and in March 2006, revolutionary hard-liners took control of the GPC cabinet; although scaling back the pace of the changes, they did not halt them. In 2010, plans were announced that would have seen half the Libyan economy privatized over the following decade, these plans appear to have been soon abandoned however, as the companies that the government stated they were going to float on the stock market were never floated and remained 100% state-owned.

Many socialist policies remained. Agriculture remained largely untouched by the reforms, with farms remaining cooperatives, and state interventionist policies and price controls remaining. The oil industry remained largely state-owned. The government also imposed a 93% tax on all oil that foreign companies produced in Libya. Price controls and subsidies over oil and food remained in place, and state-provided benefits such as free education, universal healthcare, free housing, free water and free electricity remained in place.

Libyan Civil War: The end of the road for Gaddafi Origins and development

With the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, marked by the Tunisian Revolution and fearing domestic
protests Libya’s government implemented preventive measures by reducing food prices, purging the
army leadership of potential defectors, and releasing several Islamist prisoners. This proved
ineffective, and on 17 February 2011, major protests broke out against Gaddafi’s government. Unlike
Tunisia or Egypt, Libya was largely religiously homogeneous and had no strong Islamist movement,
but there was widespread dissatisfaction with the corruption and entrenched systems of patronage,
while unemployment had reached around 30 per cent.

As he announced that the rebels would be “hunted down street by street, house by house and wardrobe by wardrobe”, the army opened fire on protests in Benghazi, killing hundreds. Shocked at the government’s response, a number of senior politicians resigned or defected to the protesters’ side.] The uprising spread quickly through Libya’s less economically developed eastern half. By February’s end, eastern cities such as Benghazi, Misrata, al-Bayda, and Tobruk were controlled by rebels, and the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (NTC) formed to represent them.
In the conflict’s early months it appeared that Gaddafi’s government—with its greater fire-power—would be victorious. Both sides disregarded the laws of war, committing human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions, and revenge attacks. The UN, NATO, ICC and Amnesty International entering the conflict
On 26 February the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1970, suspending Libya from the UN Human Rights Council, implementing sanctions and calling for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the killing of unarmed civilians. In March, the Security Council declared a no-fly zone to protect the civilian population from aerial bombardment, calling on foreign nations to enforce it; it also specifically prohibited foreign occupation. Ignoring this, Qatar sent hundreds of troops to support the dissidents and, along with France and the United Arab Emirates, provided weaponry and military training to the NTC.

NATO then announced that it would enforce the no-fly zone. On 30 April a NATO airstrike killed Gaddafi’s sixth son and three of his grandsons in Tripoli. This Western military intervention was criticized by various leftist governments, including those that had criticized Gaddafi’s response to the protests, because they regarded it as an imperialist attempt to secure control of Libya’s resources. In June, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his brother-inlaw Abdullah Senussi, head of state security, for charges concerning crimes against humanity. That month, Amnesty International published their report, finding that while Gaddafi’s forces were responsible for numerous war crimes, many other allegations of mass human rights abuses lacked credible evidence and were likely fabrications by rebel forces that had been promoted by Western media. In July, over 30 governments recognized the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya; Gaddafi called on his supporters to “Trample on those recognitions, trample on them under your feet … They are worthless”. In August, the Arab League recognized the NTC as “the legitimate representative of the Libyan state”.

Aided by NATO air cover, the rebel militia pushed westward, defeating Gaddafi loyalist armies and securing control of the centre of the country. Then gaining the support of communities in the western mountains who had long been persecuted as non-Arabic speakers under Gaddafi, the NTC armies surrounded Gaddafi loyalists in several key areas of western Libya. In August, the rebels seized cities Zliten and Tripoli, ending the last vestiges of Gaddafist power. It is probable that without the NATO air strikes supporting the rebels, they would not have been able to advance west and Gaddafi’s forces would have ultimately retaken control of eastern Libya.

Capture and the death of Gaddafi

Only a few towns in western Libya remained Gaddafist strongholds including Sirte. Retreating to Sirte after Tripoli’s fall, Gaddafi announced his willingness to negotiate for a handover to a transitional government, a suggestion rejected by the NTC. Surrounding himself with bodyguards, he continually moved residences to escape NTC shelling, devoting his days to prayer and reading the Qur’an. On 20 October, Gaddafi broke out of Sirte’s District 2 in a joint civilian-military convoy, hoping to take refuge in the Jarref Valley. At around 8.30 am, NATO bombers attacked, destroying at least 14 vehicles and killing at least 53 people. The convoy scattered, and Gaddafi and those closest to him fled to a nearby
villa, which was shelled by rebel militia from Misrata. Fleeing to a construction site, Gaddafi and his inner cohort hid inside drainage pipes while his bodyguards battled the rebels; in the conflict, Gaddafi suffered head injuries from a grenade blast while defence minister Abu-Bakr Yunis Jabr was killed.

The Misrata militia took Gaddafi prisoner, causing serious injuries as they tried to apprehend him; the events were filmed on a mobile phone. A video appears to picture Gaddafi being poked or stabbed in the anus “with some kind of stick or knife or possibly a bayonet. Pulled onto the front of a pick-up truck, he fell off as it drove away. His semi-naked, lifeless body was then placed into an ambulance and taken to Misrata; upon arrival, he was found to be dead. Official NTC accounts claimed that Gaddafi was caught in a cross-fire and died from bullet wounds. Other eye-witness
accounts claimed that rebels had fatally shot Gaddafi in the stomach.

Gaddafi’s son Mutassim, who had also been among the convoy, was similarly captured and found dead several hours later, most probably from an extrajudicial execution. Libya’s chief forensic pathologist, carried out the autopsies of Gaddafi, his son, and Jabr in the days following their deaths; although the pathologist informed the press that Gaddafi had died from a gunshot wound to the head, the autopsy report was not made public .On the afternoon of Gaddafi’s death, NTC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril publicly revealed the news. Gaddafi’s corpse was placed in the freezer of a local market alongside the corpses of Yunis Jabr and Mutassim; the bodies were publicly displayed for four days, with Libyans from all over the country coming to view them. Footage of Gaddafi’s death was broadcast extensively across media networks internationally. In response to international calls, on 24 October Jibril announced that a commission would investigate Gaddafi’s death. On 25 October, the NTC announced that Gaddafi had been buried at an unidentified location in the desert.


A very private individual, Gaddafi was given to rumination and solitude and could be reclusive. The reporter Mirella Bianco interviewed Gaddafi’s father, who stated that his son was “always serious, even taciturn”, also being courageous, intelligent, pious, and family-oriented. Gaddafi’s friends described him to Bianco as a loyal and generous man. More widely, he was often regarded as being “bizarre, irrational or quixotic”. Bearman noted that Gaddafi was emotionally volatile and had an impulsive temperament,] with the CIA believing that the Libyan leader suffered from clinical depression. Gaddafi described himself as a “simple revolutionary” and “pious Muslim” called upon by God to continue Nasser’s work. Gaddafi was an austere and devout Muslim, although according to Vandewalle, his interpretation of Islam was “deeply personal and idiosyncratic.” He was also a football enthusiast and enjoyed both playing the sport and horse riding as a means of recreation. He regarded himself as an intellectual; he was a fan of Beethoven and said his favourite novels were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Roots, and The Stranger.



                               The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.

 Sir Winston Churchill


  1. Introduction
  2. The Japanese decide to carry out an air attack on Sri Lanka
  3. Sighting of the Japanese fleet
  4. Attack on Colombo
  5. Attack on Trincomalee
  6. Overview of the Japanese air raids on Sri Lanka
  7. Newspaper articles published in April 1942 informing the air raids
  8. Some historical records on the Japanese air attacks against Sri Lanka
  9. Annexures

List of Annexures

  1. Air Raid on Colombo on 5th April 1942 by Capt GAF Fernando
  2. The Japanese aircraft crash on to an oil tank in Trincomalee on 9th April 1942  by Lt Cdr Somasiri Devendra
  3. The Japanese aircraft that crashed on to St Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia Premises – Courtesy of Mr Odath Weerasinghe
  4. A story of the Japanese plane crash into St. Thomas’s College Mt. Lavinia in 1942 by a Thomian of the 1950-60s
  5. HMS Hermes: The ship wreck off Batticaloa by Wg Cdr Suresh Fernando
  6. In Memoriam – Air Commodore L Birchall, RCAF by Flt Lt E D Pereira


At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was a British Crown Colony.  The British had occupied the coastal areas of the island since 1796, but after 1917 the colony had no regular garrison of British troops. The Ceylon Defence Force and Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve were mobilised and expanded. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomalee and the Royal Air Force (RAF) had established an aerodrome in China Bay, Trincomalee long before the war. In terms of the war, the government of Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka assured the British king and his majesty’s government of its continued support.

The Second World War was fought between the Allies’ and the Axis comprising Germany, Japan and Italy. Germany (with the support of Italy) was looking to establish an empire covering whole of Europe and Japan looking to establish an empire covering Asia and the Pacific. In their quest for power the Japanese invaded South East Asia in early 1942 including an attack on Singapore, a vital Allied stronghold led by the British. Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 and the westward Japanese advance through east and Southeast Asia was starting to look unstoppable. With Singapore in their possession, one final stepping stone stood between the Japanese and both India and the control of the entire Indian Ocean: the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Therefore a Japanese attack on Ceylon was all but inevitable.

After the fall of Singapore, Ceylon has become a frontline British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station had moved to Colombo and then to Trincomalee. Admiral Sir  Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon, with Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiac as Air Officer Commanding, 222 Group (RAF)  and Admiral Sir James Somerville appointed as Commander of the British Eastern Fleet.

Courtesy: Odath Weerasinghe, son of B E Weerasinghe (in photo) and brother of late Neil, one of the first Sri Lankan flight cadets to join an air force (RAF, 1949)

The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee; these were established just before the war. Air defences were expanded starting in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana near Colombo with its station headquarters set up at Kandawela. Another airfield was rapidly built at Koggala near Galle and several temporary airstrips were built across the country, with the largest at Colombo Racecourse Airstrip*. Several RAF Squadrons were sent to Ceylon. Several Commonwealth units were also stationed in Ceylon for the duration of the war.

 As with other British Colonies conscription was not implemented in Ceylon. However, Ceylonese were encouraged to volunteer for service. Many volunteered throughout the war, most joining the Ceylon Defence Force, which was expanded from a reserve unit to a mobilised force of 10 infantry battalions, 3 artillery regiments and support units. For the first time Ceylonese units were deployed outside Ceylon in formation until the Cocos Islands Mutiny after which deployment overseas of Ceylonese units was stopped with a few exceptions.

 Ceylonese continued to volunteer and joined the RAF (from 1941 onwards)*, British Army and the Royal Navy. They were supplemented by personnel of the Ceylon Defence Force who requested transfer to front line units of the British Army. They served in the Burma and later in Malaya. Ceylonese served in the Royal Engineers in Italy and with the Royal Army Service Corps in the Middle East and North Africa. The 1st battalion, the Ceylon Corps of Military Police, served in Malaya till 1949.

* These two subjects are discussed in detail in two separate eDocs.


“The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.” – Sir Winston Churchill

The Japanese high command, eager to maintain their powerful momentum, decided to attack Ceylon by carrying out an air raid on Colombo with carrier based aircraft as they have done in Pearl Harbour four months back, maintaining the vital element of surprise. Their main aim was to destroy the British Eastern Fleet based at the Colombo harbour.

The British Eastern Fleet prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon to gain a foothold for a subsequent land invasion of India while having a control of the Indian Ocean. 

With the date of the attack on Ceylon fixed for Sunday, the 5 April 1942, carrier Akagi of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service fleet leaves Staring Bay in Indonesia on 26 March 1942 with the course set towards Ceylon.  This carrier is followed by four (4) other carriers Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku and three (4) battleships Hiei, Kongo, Kirishima and Haruna, under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and the air arm under the command of Captain Mitsuo Fuchida  the same two leaders who carried out the Pearl Harbour raid.


On the 4th of April 1942, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) having taken off from RAF station at Koggala in a Catalina aircraft on a patrol flight, was over the Indian ocean around 400 miles south of Ceylon when he spotted something suspicious on the horizon. Upon closer investigation, the objects he had sighted turned out to be a large Japanese naval fleet heading straight for Ceylon. Alarmed, Birchall managed to send out a radio message warning the command at Colombo of the presence of the Japanese fleet before his Catalina was shot down by Japanese A6M2 Zero fighter planes.

Birchall and the crew members of the Catalina that had survived the machine-gunning and subsequent crash into the ocean were picked up by the Japanese and interrogated. Birchall told them that the plane’s radio had been destroyed by machine gun fire before he had been able to send out a warning about the Japanese fleet which they believed.

THE ATTACK ON COLOMBO                                                                                                                        On the following day, 5th April (Easter Sunday) the first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers AkagiHiryu, and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor.

Alerted by Birchall’s radio message the previous day, Colombo was prepared for the raid. British and Commonwealth troops – who were from places from as far as East Africa, Pakistan, Australia and India – defended the city with anti-aircraft guns, raking the Japanese planes with heavy and sustained fire. Also in support of the city’s defence by ground forces, Hurricane aircraft were scrambled from the temporary airstrip at RAF Station at Colombo Racecourse. Theses Hurricanes were involved in several dogfights with the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service Zero fighters and bombers which were attacking the city.

The Hawker Hurricanes of the RAF’s No. 30 Squadron were on the ground at Ratmalana Airport when the Japanese aircraft passed overhead. Therefore a number of aircraft were destroyed at Ratmalana Airport. Also the auxiliary cruiser HMS Hector and the old destroyer HMS Tenedos anchored at the Colombo Harbour were sunk by the Japanese aircraft.  Other than these two ships and another two, all other ships of the British Eastern Fleet that were in the harbour had been moved out of Colombo in preparation for the raid.

President of the Ceylon War Veterans’ Association of World War II (CWVA), H. G. P. Jayasekara, has said in his book “How Japan Bombed Tiny Ceylon” that,

      “Once the fleet reached Ceylonese waters, two waves of aircraft carried out the raid on Colombo. The waves consisted of 36 zero fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 high-level bombers. The Japanese have also bombed the asylum at Angoda – currently the National Institute of Mental Health – mistaking it for the fuel tanks at nearby Kolonnawa. It was an accidental drop of a bomb by the Japanese, for which, on a later date, they apologised to the Ceylon Government. Other bombs have fallen closer to Bellanwila, Pitakotte, the Colombo racecourse, Horana, as well as the Galle Face Green. One Japanese plane crashed after being shot by ground forces near St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, and another near the Kelaniya Temple.

       The Sri Lankan writer Ariyadasa Ratnasinghe recalling the Easter Sunday Japanese raid has said:

      “Japanese aircraft flew in close formation over Colombo and dropped bombs at different places. The air battle lasted for nearly half an hour.  The Allied forces, warned of the danger, were able to shoot down some of the enemy aircraft which fell on land and sea. Among those shot down, one fell near Saint Thomas’ College, one closer to the Bellanwila paddy fields, one near Pita Kotte, one on the racecourse in Colombo, one near Horana and one on the Galle Face Green. A bomb fell off the target and damaged the Mulleriyawa Mental Hospital, killing some inmates. It appeared that the pilot had mistaken the buildings for the Echelon Barracks. One fell near the Maradana railway station, partly damaging it. There were many deaths and more casualties, most of them civilians. To prevent bombs falling on hospitals, it was decided to have a large red cross painted on the roofs

            Air Vice Marshal G Y De Silva (Retd) states the following regarding the Easter Sunday Japanese raid,

       My father, Lieut. G. Francis de Silva (Electrical Engineer) of the British Army, was a Junior Engineer at the Stanley Power Station, Kolonnawa, which was providing electricity to Colombo. He had been the Engineer on duty at the Power Station on the night of 04th April 1942. At 0100 hours on the 05th of April 1942, he had been informed by his senior a British Army Major, Senior Electrical Engineer in charge, to vacate post and take my mother and eldest sister (01 year old) away from Colombo as there would be a Japanese air raid in the morning which would definitely target the power station. My father had done as told. The Japs had bombed the Angoda Mental Hospital, as its cook house chimneys had been putting out smoke which had distracted the Japs”

            A web based article done by Capt GAF Fernando (Ex Sri Lankan Airlines and officer of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force) which is attached to this paper as an annexure gives a rather detailed description of this Japanese air raid on Colombo.

      Immediately after the air raid of Colombo, probably seeing as opportunity targets, the Japanese attacked two British cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, in the ocean around 200 miles southwest of Ceylon. The attacks were successful and both ships were sunk, with 424 British seamen killed.  


On 9th April, the Japanese attacked the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the Destroyer HMAS Vampire and The Flower – class corvette HMS Hollyhock were sunk, and SS Sagaing partially destroyed and set on fire below decks. In this air raid the RAF had lost at least nine (09) aircrafts and the Japanese, eleven (11)includingone in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. Seven hundred people lost their lives in the attack on Trincomalee.

According to eye witness Michael Tomlinson (author of “The Most Dangerous Moment” and RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay in Trincomalee), one Japanese pilot deliberately crashed his plane into one of the giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome. Inside the aircraft were three Japanese—Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto, and Sutomu Toshira. After carefully circling the area, they plunged unerringly into the tank, igniting their own funeral pyre. The resulting fire lasted seven days. Parts of the aircraft’s engine and the flattened remains of the fuel storage tank have been placed in a barbed wire enclosure 1½ km from the turn off at the 4th mile post on the Trincomalee–Habarana Road. But a very different account of the above stated incident has been narrated by Lt Cdr Somasiri Devendra, SLN (Retd) to Wg Cdr Ranjith Ratnapala SLAF (Retd) which is attached to this paper as an annexure.  

During this week of air raids almost 1,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen gave their lives to defend Ceylon, and the sacrifices they made were ultimately a success. The survival of the British Eastern Fleet prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon which was the ultimate objective of the Japanese by carrying out these air attacks.

After the Japanese air raid – H.E The Commander-in-Chief Ceylon Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton inspecting men of the fire services. The four men behind the admiral are L-R: (1) An Auxiliary Fire Services (AFS) Officer identity not known (2) B.E.Weerasinghe (in peak cap) Chief Officer Fire Brigade and AFS and an Assistant Civil Defense Commissioner (3) Mr Oliver Goonetilleke (later Knighted and Governor-General of Ceylon) WW2 Civil Defense Commissioner (4) Samuel Kadirgamar (in white shirt) Staff Officer and Senior Divisional Fire Officer AFS (later a leading Barrister-at-law) – Photo Supplied by Odath son of B.E.Weerasinghe.


Japanese Air Raids on Ceylon, April 1942 – Map by C E Warner

The Japanese air attack’s were widely reported both locally and internationally. Here are some fo the newspaper clippings thata reported on the events.



  1. LOCATIONS OF THE 14 RAF / FAA AERODROMES &AIR STRIPS OPERATED IN SRI LANKA                                                           DURING WWII



 “The precursor of the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) were the elements of the Royal Air Force (RAF) based in Sri Lanka. The history of these elements of the RAF is a run-up to the history of the SLAF” – Foot Prints on the Sands of Time: The Story of Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen’s Association

World War 2 which began by Germans invading and occupying most of the countries in Europe expanded to the pacific in 1941 with the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. As a result of this air defences in Sri Lanka were expanded by the British starting with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana. A squadron of medium Blenheim medium bombers detached from Greece, Crete and Middle East was based in Ratmalana.

Then in 1941 itself the British started building several temporary airstrips across the country for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy at Colombo Racecourse, Katukurunda, Negombo, Minneriya, Vavyniya, Kankesanthurai, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Mawatagama, Koggala, Kalametiya and Puttalam.

In 1942 the Japanese occupied South East Asia with their invasions of Burma, Malaya and Singapore. With the fall of Singapore, the British government appointed Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiacas the Air Officer Commanding No. 222 Group RAF* formed on 1st Sep 1941 and based in Ceylon  along with appointments of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton as Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon and Admiral Sir James Somerville as Commander of the British Eastern Fleet also based in Ceylon, first at  Colombo and subsequently moved to Trincomalee.

In the same year, the RAF established a base at China Bay utilizing the aerodrome built by the British in late 1930’s. Two Squadrons of Hurricane aircraft that flew in from North Africa was based in China bay and in the Colombo Racecourse.


Even though printed records indicate fourteen (14) RAF aerodromes / airstrips in Sri Lanka during the war, as per web based records there have been many more in the country for support services (e.g. RAF Colpetty which was a RAF Police Unit). As per the 2nd reference there had been a total of thirty six (36) RAF establishments in Sri Lanka during the war. The extract of the relevant record is given below.



This is an alphabetical list of the 36 RAF stations in Ceylon within the ? Provinces


1     RAF Anderson    (Radar)                      ? Province       Ceylon

2     RAF Chapel Hill                               ? Province       Ceylon

3     RAF China Bay                                Eastern Province       Ceylon

4     RAF Cinavadi                                  ? Province       Ceylon

5     RAF Cogallum                                  ? Province        Ceylon

6     RAF Colombo   (Racecourse)                  Western Province       Ceylon

7     RAF Colpetty                                  Western Province       Ceylon

9     RAF Dambulla                                 Central Province       Ceylon

10    RAF Diyatalawa                               Central Province       Ceylon

 11    RAF Ekala                                     ? Province       Ceylon

12    RAF Elizabeth Point                           ? Province       Ceylon

13    RAF Galle                                     ? Province       Ceylon

14    RAF Gangodawila                              ? Province       Ceylon

16    RAF Hora Hena                               ?       Ceylon

17    RAF Jurong   (Signals)                        ? Province       Ceylon                                                
18    RAF Kalametiya                               ? Province       Ceylon

19    RAF Kandy                                    ? Province       Ceylon

20    RAF Kankestanthurai                          ? Province       Ceylon

21    RAF Katunayake                               ? Province       Ceylon

22    RAF Koggala                                   ?       Ceylon

23    RAF Komariyi                                  ? Province       Ceylon

24    RAF Kurunegala                               ? Province       Ceylon

25    RAF Malay Cove                               ?       Ceylon

26    RAF Mawatagawa                              Western Province       Ceylon

27    RAF Minneriya                                 ? Province       Ceylon

28    RAF Namunumkula                             ? Province       Ceylon

29    RAF Negombo                                 Western Province       Ceylon

30    RAF Negombo   (Hospital)                    Western Province       Ceylon

31    RAF Perihanduturventuri                      ? Province       Ceylon 

32    RAF Ramu                                     ? Province       Ceylon

33    RAF Ratmalana                                ? Province       Ceylon

34    RAF Sigiriya                                   ? Province       Ceylon

35    RAF Trincomalee                              Eastern Province       Ceylon

36    RAF Vavuniya                                  ? Province       Ceylon                                         


However, when relating the stations listed above to the old RAF stations reactivated by the SLAF and information provided by some of the retired SLAF officers it seems that the above web based record is not accurate and that it needs to be revised after considering the following facts.

  • Jurong is in Singapore and therefore RAF Jurong cannot be a station that was in Sri Lanka.
  • Looking at the SLAF Base China Bay today, RAF China Bay, RAF Malay Cove and RAF Trincomalee should read as one station…RAF China Bay.
  • Looking at the SLAF Station, Koggala today, RAF Galle and RAF Koggala should read as                   one station…RAF Koggala.
  • Looking at the SLAF Base Katunayake today, RAF Katunayake, RAF Negombo (Hospital) and RAF Negombo should read as one station…RAF Negombo.
  • As per information shared a retired SLAF officer, RAF Kurunegala and RAF Mawatagama should read as one station…RAF Mawathagama.

The so-called RAF Kurunegala is located in Mawathagama. The water well, constructed by the RAF still exists. I have been to this site as Heineken Lanka Ltd (where I worked) took this well on lease. You still can find remnants of igloo hangers” – Wg Cdr Palitha Obeysekera

Therefore, considering aforesaid facts and comments, the web based record of RAF Stations that were in Sri Lanka during WWII is revised as given below to indicate that there were only twenty eight (28) RAF stations plus two (2) RNAS Stations, a total of thirty (30) which included fourteen (14) aerodromes /air fields.

Out of this total 30, the 12 highlighted in yellow are now operated as SLAF Bases/Stations. Then 11 others which are now non-existent for which records are available to prove their existence during the war and after are highlighted in blue. The locations of the balance 6 RAF stations (highlighted in grey) are yet to be identified. But out of these it could be RAF establishments at Thalladi (Mannar) Veyangoda, Kokilai and going by the following quotes.

  • “Another airfield was along the coastal road off the Thalladi Army camp in those days. I was required to do a study to see the feasibility of revamping the airfield to enable Air Communications with the Army using the Pioneer aircraft. On a road reconnaissance we saw the marker stones indicating the runway direction; but all the PSP sheets were long gone and the whole area covered and swamped with “buffalo thorns”. It could have cost too much to revive and also administer the airfield at that time. It is on the Thalladi road; along the mainland coast” – Gp Capt Noor Rahim, SLAF (Retd)
  • In in my early teenage years, I spent about two weeks at my aunt’s house at Veyangoda. They were living in an official married quarter at the Veyangoda textile mills as my uncle was a Forman there. One day I was bored and decided to walk to the town which was a couple of kms away. My aunt gave me the directions and told me that there was a short cut through a bushy area. I found the shortcut which was just a footpath through a very bushy area. I came across an old dilapidated hangar-like structure and noticed some metal sheets with big holes in them all over the place and the bush has grown through it. After I returned home and inquired about that place my uncle told me that it was an RAF station during WW2. After I joined the AF I realised that the metal sheets were PSP plates”- Sqn Ldr Theja Cooray, SLAF (Retd)
  • The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson states the following “….Six more fighters, led by Flt Lt Cleaver, were off by 7.10 and five minutes later another six, under Flt Lt Marshall, were scrambled from Kokilai…”



During the war this station was deployed with No 30 Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes. Also during this period aeroplanes arrived there from Perth, Western Australia, on what was at the time the world’s longest non-stop air route. The flight continued after the war with an intermediate re-fuelling stop at the Cocos Islands. This station was in operation from 1941 to 1946.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) English Electric Canberra bomber
                    taxing to the runway at Colombo-Ratmalana Airport during a
                    refuelling stop in the early 1950s. 
                    Source (for all three photos): Google Images


This station consisted only of a single runway, station headquarters and the officers’ mess set up in the bungalows in Cinnamon Gardens and was serviced by a newly established military hospital in the premises of Royal College Colombo. The Royal Navy also established a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) here during the duration of the war with the name HMS Bherunda. 882 Naval Air Squadron was based here. This station was in operation from 1941 to 1945.

Aerial view of RAF Station, Race Course Colombo 


The Colombo Race Course today


This was in operation from 1938 to 1957. R.A.F. Station China Bay was opened in Aug 1938. It gave lodger facility for Royal Navy Air Section from August 1940. The station was transferred to Admiralty in Nov 1944 and renamed RNAS Trincomalee. The station was returned to RAF in May 1950.


This station was built in the mid 1940’s to replace lost RAF airfields in Pakistan and India. Katunayake was conveniently situated twixt Aden and Singapore to serve the continuing need of supplying its vast Empire particularly so in the Far East and was used as a staging post to rest crews and passengers of aircraft in transit. The RAF operated this station until 1957.      


This was formed as a RAF station in its 222 Group. During the war 14 flying formations were deployed at this station along with a RAF Regiment ack ack flight and a bomb disposal squadron. This station operated from 1942 to 1945.

During my tenure as the Base Commander, SLAF Hingurakkgoda many year back, I gathered information on how it was during WWII under the RAF. The camp area has extended up to the present town. Aircraft had been parked under trees camouflaged and taxied up to holding points They have took off one behind the other as the runway was built in such a manner to facilitate it. The runway had been built by straightening and filling the canal using 1,000 Cafri people who were at Leigh Farm that was a Cafri colony. Air Defence guns had been placed on Hingurakgala, on a hillock on the way to Medirigiriya the name of which I cannot remember and another towards “Yaya Hathara” and “Hathamuna”. The aircraft maintenance had been done in two hangars that were located somewhere in the present camp area. There is a wide belief that many of the items that could not be taken back when the RAF vacated the airfield were dumped into the “Bombu Wala” close to the Minneriya tank and sealed off whilst it is said that another spot is where the present Cemetery is – AVM Tilak Dissanayake, SLAF (Retd), January 2021.

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Dakota at Minneriya Airport, Ceylon, 02nd Nov 1952.

RAF Station Koggala

This station which was in operation from 1941 to 1947 was used as a key Catalina flying boat/seaplane base during the war and after

RAF Station Koggala in the 1940s
SLAF Station, Koggala today


This station in operation from 1941 was transferred to Royal Naval Air Service in Sep 1942 then returned to RAF in Oct 1946.

RAF Katukurunda in the 1940s & SLAF today

RAF Station Vavuniya

This station in operation from 1941 to 1945 as a bomber airfield. It was also a lodger facility to a Royal Naval air squadron.  

SLAF , Vavuniya

RAF Station Sigiriya

This station was opened in 1942 and in operation till 1946. A number of RAF squadrons (8160200203 and 354) and other units were stationed at the airfield during and immediately after the war.

RNAS Station Puttalam (Palavi)

This station was established in 1941 as a Royal Naval Air Service Station jointly by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. It was in operation till 1945.

An Elephant towing a Corsair (Chance Vought F4U) fighter aircraft, at Airfield near Kalpitiya(puttlam), 1944.
Source: Google Images
SLAF Puttlam

RAF Station Kankesanthurai (Palaly)

   This station was in operation from 1941 to 1945. A number of RAF squadrons (160, 203, 292 and 354) and air-sea rescue units were stationed at the airfield during and immediately after the war.  

SLAF , KKS today

RAF Stations at Dambulla and Kalametiya (Tangalle)

No. 30 Squadron of the RAF were deployed at these two stations between the period Aug 1942 to Jan 1944.

“My father had a small holiday home or shooting box on the opposite side of the Kalametiya airstrip. I recall hearing aircraft landing and taking off even in 1946. It was an amazing place with a long airstrip and small buildings”Kumar Soysa

RAF Station Mawathagama

This station located off Kurunegala – Kandy road has catered to the needs of Lord Mountbatten, Commander-in-Chief of SEAC (South East Asia Command) which had its headquarters in Kandy.

“One of the very significant airfields was located at Mawathagama. It was a grass field and up to 1960/61 it was very visible from the air. The airfield catered to the needs of Lord Mountbatten who was the Commander-in-Chief of SEAC during World War 2; with his SEAC Headquarters hidden away in the Peradeniya Gardens. The airfield could take a C47 easily. However; it is no longer to be seen as with the years the villagers encroached it and now there are settlements on it. The last person to land was Walter Fernando in a Chipmunk” – Gp Capt Noor Rahim 

RAF Detachment Kandy (Senkadagalapura) A detachment of RAF No 160 Squadron was deployed at this facility during Aug 1944 and Feb 1945 while the squadron main was based at RAF StationKankesanthurai. The motto and the badge heraldry of the RAF 160 Sqn have been derived from Sinhalese language and tradition / culture.

RAF Transmitter Station Ekala

RAF Ekala was originally built in the 1940s but was greatly enlarged in the early 50s to cope with the increased signals traffic to and from the Far East created by the removal of all the British Forces from India and Pakistan. Once RAF Gan and the Hitaddu transmitter site became fully operational most of the signals traffic was transferred there. The base finally closed down in 1961 when the last British forces left Sri Lanka.

RAF Ekala was the transmission site for the Signals Centre at RAF Negombo, later RAF Staging Post Katunayake and was located several miles from Negombo beside the Ja-ela to Minuwangoda road.

The camp was self-contained and staffed by 35 to 40 men and was administered by the Signals Centre. Most of the staff were radio technicians working shifts to provide and maintain the 24 hour radio relay link with the United Kingdom, some 5,000 miles away.

The station was also part of the Commonwealth Air Forces Network (CAFNet) which provided worldwide signals relay connections to many countries including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, Malta, Canada and the United States.

A small team of aerial erectors maintained the huge aerial farm which surrounded the camp and extended beyond the site into the neighbouring cinnamon plantations. There was also a number of RAF Police dog handlers, a cook, two assistant (local) cooks, a fireman and a Royal Signals signalman.

The domestic site was located adjacent to the road in one corner of the camp. It consisted of two barrack rooms, two short rows of NCO rooms, a cookhouse/dining room, a small club house with a bar and a small bungalow for the CO.

RAF -Ekala
SLAF-Ekala today

RAF Radio Receiving Station Gangodawila

RAF Gangodawila was the receiving station for the Signals Centre at RAF Negombo in Ceylon. Following Independence from Britain RAF Negombo became known as RAF Staging Post Katunayake.

RAF Gangodawila (the current site of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura) in 1957 as seen from
one of the aerial masts prior to the camp closing down.

RAF Anderson Colombo  

Far East Combined Bureau” (FECB) of the Royal Navy settled on the Anderson Golf Links in Narahenpita, Colombo’s third golf course. Here the first purpose-built sigint facility in the East came up, also serving as a direction-finding (DF) facility for the Royal Navy. Named “H. M. S. Anderson”.  Apart from the naval staff, H. M. S. Anderson also held 190 R.A.F. personnel to provide small “Y” parties (consisting of “computers” and telegraphists) to be deployed in ships      to give warning of air attacks.

H.M.S. Anderson, about 1945.

Additional information related to the article.

Source: AVM RA Dayapala, SLAF (Retd


  1. Foot Prints on the Sands of Time: The Story of Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen’s Association
  13. and Google Images

Of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka

We often hear it said that Sri Lankans still carry with us a “colonial hangover “. This is true to a great extent but not surprising. After all Sri Lankans have been independent of western colonial rule for only  69  after 443 years of continuous occupation of the country starting from 1505 up to independence  in 1948.

While the pros and cons of colonial rule will continue to be debated for many more years to come, history of those decades under foreign rule make for interesting reading and study, particularly the Portuguese period which lasted over 150  years.

Being the first Europeans to occupy our country, they have left a lasting legacy and tales about the Portuguese arrival here have become folklore in the country. Some of these maybe exaggerated but the bewilderment that both the locals and the foreigners   experienced on seeing and interacting with each other for the first time is understandable.

It was on a day in 1505 ,a Portuguese fleet carried by wind and waves was tossed onto the Southern coast of Sri Lanka and ended up at the Galle Harbour. (There is some dispute among historians about the year of the Portuguese arrival but most agree it was either late 1505  or early 1506) .  The fleet was led by a young nobleman called Don Lourenco De Almeida. This accidental tryst with the island was the beginning of decades of occupation of the country by Europeans powers.

According to Donald Ferguson, who wrote in The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland on the “THE DISCOVERY OF CEYLON BY THE PORTUGUESE IN 1506,” the Portuguese had been nearly 20 years in India before they took steps to get a footing in Ceylon.

IMG_1013 (1)

The Portuguese first landed on the shores of Galle and then moved onto Colombo where the trade in   cinnamon, coconuts and elephants was in full swing and in the hands Muslim traders, who were decedents of seafaring Arabs.

News of the arrival of the strangers first reached the King of Kotte Vira Parakramabahua whose palace was located less than five miles from the Colombo coastline. According to the Sinhalese chronical   Rajavaliya, the message of their arrival was dispatched to the King, the news relayed in this manner:-

“There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people, fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets and hats of iron; rest not a minute in one place but walk here and there. They eat hunks of stone (bread) and drink blood (wine). They give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime. The report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it burst upon the rock of Yugandhara.”

The other well-known story in Sri Lanka is how the Portuguese who were summoned by the King of Kotte to visit him were taken in a circuitous route to the kingdom so as to mislead the foreigners. Don Lourenco chose as his envoy Fernao Cutrim, one of the captains of his fleet to lead the delegation to meet the King.

Eminent historian Father S.G. Perera in his writing describes the journey of Cutrim to Kotte in this manner.

“The royal councillors, however, had thought it is unsafe to let the foreigners see that Kotte was so near Colombo, and the Portuguese envoy was led by a circuitous route, uphill and down dale, for three long days .The people of Ceylon who heard about the ruse thought that the Portuguese were misled and to this day a circuitous route is called in   Sinhalese “as the Portuguese went to Kotte” (Parangiya Kotte Giya Wage)”.

But the Portuguese captain who had sailed across the seas from Lisbon to India could not be so easily deceived.

“Don Lourenco had taken the precaution of retaining hostages for the safe return of his envoy and had agreed to fire a gun at every turn of the hour-glass. From the report of the gun, Cutrim saw quiet clearly that he was being led in a roundabout way but took no notice as no harm seemed to be intended,” Father Perera wrote.

Cutrim however did not get an audience with the King but was assured that the King would be pleased to form an alliance with the foreigners. Payo de Souza was then chosen by Don Lourenco to meet with the King and negotiate a treaty.

Based on this meeting, the King of Portugal has made a classic description   to the Pope of Rome   when he announced the discovery of Taprobane to the Pope.

“There was large hall at the far end of which was a magnificent throne wrought like an altar. On it sat the King, clad according to the fashion of the country and wearing on his head something like horns, studded with the finest gems of the country. Around the King were six men, three on either side, holding lighted candles of large size and many large silver candlesticks illumined the hall?  On either side of the hall separated by a free passage in the middle leading to the throne, stood a large number of gentlemen and nobles. There the king received our ambassador with great affability and listened to him with great pleasure and granted his request with great courtesy. He promised to pay annually one hundred and fifty measures of the most excellent cinnamon of that country and indeed paid the first tribute immediately.”

Although things got off on a good footing initially, Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka was marred by bloody battles and the infamous chapter in the country’s history of Don Juan Dharmapala, who  died after bequeathing his kingdom to the king of Portugal in 1580 by way of a Deed of Gift. (More on other episodes of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka later).

Che, Castro & Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba soon after its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Even though Castro could not visit Sri Lanka during his five-decade long reign as Cuba’s leader, the visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by his special emissary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara set the stage for an enduring relationship between the two countries.

Che Guevara’s visit to Sri Lanka took place in August 1959, soon after the two countries established diplomatic relations, to promote the sugar trade. While here, Guevara also took a look at the rubber planting methods in the country by visiting the Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana. There he planted a Mahogany tree on 7 August 1959, which still stands as testimony to the visit to Ceylon by the legendary Argentinean revolutionary who spearheaded the Cuban revolution along with Castro.


Che at the Yahala Kele Estate in Horana

Che’s visit was part of a study tour he undertook to several countries in Asia, which also took him to India. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries Guevara visited in his lifetime. At the time of his visit to Ceylon, he was the Minister of Industry.

One of the people Che Guevara met on his brief visit to Ceylon was James T. Rutnam of Colombo, who imported sugar from a company called Galban Lobo Trading Company based in Havana.

“After the Cuban revolution, Julio Lobo – a great sugar tycoon – fled Havana and resided in New York. Fidel Castro sent his right hand man Che Guevera to all the countries that formerly imported sugar from Cuba. Ceylon was one of them,” said Jayam Rutnam, son of James T. Rutnam.

Che Guevara had been appointed as the Governor of the Cuban Central Bank and had nationalised the sugar plantations but the revolutionary Government was eager to ensure that the sugar trade continued uninterrupted under the new regime.

“Che Guevera and his interpreter visited my father in 1959 to persuade him to continue to import sugar from Cubazucar in Havana. I remember seeing this scruffy, unshaven man, with breakfast stains on his uniform, who was seated in our living room with his beautiful Cuban female interpreter. I didn’t pay much attention to him since he only became famous later,” Jayam Rutnam recalls.

After Che went back to Havana, the USSR had announced they will purchase all sugar from Cuba. “That was the end to my father’s business deal with Che, Fidel and Cuba,” says Rutnam.

Fifty-seven years later, the visit to Ceylon by Che Guevara, the special emissary of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, continues to be a highpoint in relations between the two countries .