Dedicated Soldiers and the Cyanide Pill of Protection

Michael Roberts

 Donald and Peter Field, Aussie signalmen extraordinary

A recent story about Australian soldiers working behind Japanese lines carrying cyanide pills to evade leaking information if taken prisoner (see below) brings to mind the LTTE policy of commiting all fighter recruits to the promise that they would BITE the kuppi (cyanide pill) they carried around their necks  if they were in imminent danger of being made captive.

Tiger fighters relax in camp, late 1980s –Pic by Shyam Tekwani (see below)

Grapevine rumour has it that, as the Soviet army closed in on Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker by swallowing cyanide. Other hearsay tales indicate that Velupillai Pirapāharan, the talaivar (leader) of the LTTE,  was inspired by this example and decided early in his career to adopt the precaution of carrying a pill around his neck in case he was captured; and  that this course of action was de rigeur for trained LTTE fighters from an early date.

The last statement is widely attested. Whether Hitler took cyanide is a tale I place in the public realm for others better versed to provide chapter and verse if it is true. Likewise perhaps Ragavan and Ganeshan Iyer or other Tigers of early days who remain alive can confirm whether Pirapāharan had heard about Hitler’s alleged suicide and was thereby led to adopt this course of action with the same intent as that directing the Australians in our story.

The pragmatics informing this line of defence, this military tactic, should disabuse those scholars such as Robert Pape, who have cast suicide bombers as terrible ogres and interpreted the LTTE purely in terms of their aggressive use of suicide attackers. Any study of the LTTE’s suicide missions which begins with their first suicide attack,  that by Miller at Nelliyadi on 5 July 1987, is on a false track. The kuppi was initially adopted as a defensive weapon and it was only after some debate between 1983 and 1987 that the LTTE extended its use as an offensive weapon.

That, too, was a logical and pragmatic step. Suicide bombers are a low-cost precision weapon.    

The Australian evidence has come within my ken during the annual outpouring of patriotic fervour mixed with pathos during the commemoration of Anzac Day on April 25th. When the Allied troops landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, the Australian and NZ expeditionary Force bore the brunt of the invasion. They suffered 8700 dead and countless injured and eventually retreated.

This defeat is seen as a victory for Australian capacities in adversity and a moment that confirms their birth as a nation. The commemoration each year pays homage to those who died in all their wars. It is not a celebration of war per se. It marks the suffering associated with war; but it also highlights the bravery and the dedication of Australian men and women at war; and the stoicism of those at home who sustained the war effort.

It is against this backdrop that I present an extract from the extraordinary tale of two twins who became highly trained signalmen who were then inserted behind Japanese enemy lines in a Papua New Guinea in order to intercept and transmit coded Japanese wireless messages. His is an extract from Sarah Lucas’s story about Donald and Peter Field of Launceston, Tasmania

“For this, signalmen needed to be parachuted behind enemy lines. The signalmen, at constant risk of being captured and tortured for information, kept a small cyanide pill in one heel of their boots and were ordered to commit suicide if they were taken prisoner.”

SEE “Spy twins’ top-secret war”

**** ALSO SEE Anzac Day: Migrants revived nations’ story


Australian soldiers from Mentoring Task Force 4, who are building a new patrol base for the Afghanistan army, hold a service in the desert near Chenatu in Eastern Oruzgan Province. Pic: Craig Greenhill Source: The Daily Telegraph

ALSO SEE “At 100, last of his tribe keeps Anzac Spirit Alive,” by Stuart Rintoul & Amos Aikman in The Australian 26 April 2012

ALSO SEE Shyam Tekwani: ‘The Man who Destroyed Eelam”

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Filed under historical interpretation, law of armed conflict, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, military strategy, patriotism, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, unusual people, world events & processes

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