A memorable evening with General Sir John Kotalawela, Part I

Neville Jayaweera, courtesy of the author and The Ceylankan: Sir John, Dudley and the Abortive Military Coup of 1962

It was on a hot summer’s evening in 1974, on the  manicured lawn of Sir John’s sprawling farm  in Brogues Wood  Kent, that the extraordinary conversation I am about to narrate took place. Even allowing for Sir John’s  proclivity  as a raconteur, the stories he unfolded to me that evening seemed, both from the human point of view as well as from the point of view of history,  so extraordinary, that upon my return to Colombo I urged  my one time colleague Godfrey Gunatilleke of the Marga Institute , to  have Sir John’s stories  recorded on tape for posterity. I believe that Gunatilleke sent one of the Marga staff, Lalitha  Gunawardena, with a tape recorder to Kandawela, Sir John’s  home in Sri Lanka, to have him on tape. Those priceless tapes, now more than 35 years on, may still be languishing somewhere in Marga’s archives.Unless those tapes have been published, which I do not think is the case, the stories that Sir John related to me that evening will forever be forgotten and will not be available to historians. To avert such an unfortunate outcome, I have exploited Doug Jones’s (the CEYLANKAN’s estimable  editor)  invitation to me to resume writing to his high class journal produced by the Sri Lankan community in Australia.  

I am prompted to put Sir John’s  stories in writing because much of history is based on published documents, official releases and memoirs,  whereas  anecdotal data, which rarely reflect what  has really  been going on behind the scenes and which  lend to the official versions a very different perspective, is hardly afforded  space.

Historiography is like an iceberg, only 1/7th being visible above the water. Unseen and unheard, but bulging large below the water line, there is invariably a tangled mass of cunning machinations and deceptions which, though  never entering the mainstream of official history,  are  often its driving motors and mainsprings.

In the series of articles that follows, I shall lay before the readers of CEYLANKAN  the stories that  Sir John related to me some 36 years ago, all bearing on contemporary  Sri Lanka history, which though overtaken by time, resonate in my memory as if they were related to me yesterday.

To preserve the richness and flavour  of Sir John’s narratives, I shall relate them in the first person dramatic form, summarising from memory, rather than in a third person reportage format, which would drain the stories of their vibrancy.  

While making allowance for Sir John’s reputation as a racy raconteur, readers might also concede that, because he was so utterly honest, eschewing  double talk and diplomacy, as when he confronted Chou En Lai at Bandung and caused an international furore, these stories may conceal more than a kernel of truth.

This series will include the following narratives as they were related to me by Sir John.

1. How both Dudley Senanayake  and Sir John were involved in planning the attempted coup of 1962.

2. How Sir John influenced the Privy Council to uphold the appeal lodged by the coup detenus and order their release.  

3. How Sir John was a party to a well-constructed conspiracy to influence Lord Soulbury in writing his report.

4. How Sir John was instrumental in cementing the marriage of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to Sirima Ratwatte (Later Mrs B ) .

I happened  to be travelling in England in June 1974 and Mrs Lorna Wright, Sir John’s housekeeper and hostess at that time, telephoned  me to say that Sir John will be happy if I would  come round  one evening to Brogues Wood for drinks and supper. Needless to say I accepted the invitation promptly.  

Kent was drenched in sunshine that summer evening and the drive down to  Brogues Wood  along quaint country lanes lined by hedge groves, my progress hampered only by herds of  lazy cattle curled up on the roadside,  was redolent of a bygone era.  

Sir John received me under the porch of his sprawling manor in his characteristic expansive style, adding with a loud guffaw, “So! So!  Jayaweera, what foul wind blows you to this fair shore, eh?” and waved me to one of a circle of chairs that had been arranged for drinks on the lawn and invited me to share his favourite premier malt whiskey Glenfiddich  before sitting down to supper. Within the next 2-3 hours, between us we consumed half the bottle and Sir John’s butler had virtually to yank us out of our seats and propel us towards the sumptuously laid out meal, where Sir John continued to unspool  his stories.  

Narrative 1 How both Dudley Senanayake and Sir John were involved in planning the attempted coup of 1962.

Sir John (SJ) – “ So! So! I understand that you are a great Dudley loyalist eh?”

Neville Jayaweera (NJ ) – “ Well Sir! He was my Prime Minister and my loyalty to him was natural for a senior public servant”

SJ. – “ I say! I know you think that Dudley was a man of great integrity.  You know, there is no such thing as integrity in politics.  That is all balderdash!  True, neither Dudley, nor anyone of our time would ever think of taking bribes but that was because we did not need any money., and not because we were any better than the other chaps.  But when it concerns power we politicians are all bloody corrupt and will do anything to gain power and keep power, and it is only the fear of getting caught that  makes  us  honest gentlemen! Have you read the “Premier Stakes”?

NJ. Yes Sir, I have “  

[the“Premier Stakes” was a vitriolic  political pamphlet published anonymously in 1951, shortly after D.S. Senanayake’s death, recounting the  sordid machinations that led to Sir John’s eviction from the race to succeed D.S. as Prime Minister,  and the installing of Dudley as Prime Minister instead. Although written anonymously, it was widely known that the real author was Sir John himself, who had asked J. Vijayatunge to ghost write the pamphlet for him]

SJ. Well then! If you have read the Premier Stakes you must know how gentlemanly we politicians are!  Let me tell you something you do not know about Dudley.

NJ. “Please do!”

SJ.  “Will you believe me when I say that Dudley and I were both ring leaders of the attempted coup of 1962?”

NJ . “I have heard the story about Dudley’s alleged involvement in the coup before, but I do not think there was a grain of truth in it! As for your involvement in the coup this the first time I am hearing it, and you must be very brave to talk about it even 15 years later. ”

SJ.  “This is the problem with you bloody (sic) Civil Servants! You think you buggers (sic) know everything but you know nothing! Let me tell you some home truths”

NJ. “Ok!”

SJ. “Here are the names of the buggers (sic) who met in my house on consecutive evenings in early 1962 at Kandawela  to plan the coup. It was all hatched by that bloody (sic) colleague of yours  Douggy Liyanage,  along with F.C de Saram, Morris de Mel, Jungle Dissanayake and a few other police chaps and both Dudley, his cousin Upali Senanayake,  and I, went along with them and all along we were in their confidence and gave them support.  They shared all their plans  with us three! In fact even  Thattaya  ( i.e. Sir Oliver Goonatilleke   the Governor General) was  in the know! 

Dudley’s role was to stand under the large clock of the General Post Office opposite Queen’s House, on the night of the coup,  and light his pipe and Thattaya ( (meaning Sir Oliver ) who was  scheduled to stand watch on the balcony around midnight,  would take that as the cue that the coup was on and declare a state of emergency and order the arrest of Felix Dias  Bandaranaike and Dr N.M Perera and the rest”

NJ.   So why didn’t all this come out in the course of the police investigations or at the trial? Surely!!

SJ.  That is the beauty of it men!!  F.C de Saram took upon himself all the blame as the principal conspirator and all the others who were sworn to secrecy, just kept their mouths shut about  the involvement of Thattaya, Dudley, Upali and myself!! The coup leaders were all splendid gentlemen! You know, unlike now, (i.e. in 1974) those days there were gentlemen and no bastards!! They were all from Royal and St Thomas and played cricket, you know!. You know that is very important in public life?

Sir John then went on to tell me how one evening in Feb. 1962,  he, F.C de Saram,  Dudley and Morris de Mel sat together for drinks at his Kandawela residence  to plot the final details for the coup. They had placed Upali Senanayake in a jeep  at the entrance to  Kandawala    to sound the alarm by pressing the horn of the jeep should any police vehicles be seen approaching  the gate. At this point, to make the narrative come alive, I think I’ll switch back to the first person dramatic mode.

SJ.  You see, all of sudden the horn of Upali’s jeep  started sounding loud and went on sounding and what was worse, the jeep started approaching the house at speed, with the horn blasting  away! We thought that the police were about to stage a raid and Upali was warning us. All hell broke loose inside my dining room where we were gathered. We all panicked! F.C de Saram  ran up stairs and hid  in a dirty linen room. Morris de Mel hid under the stair case. But that fatso  Dudley could not make up his mind where to run, ( side comment from SJ  “just like him! cannot make  up his bloody mind in a dam crisis ). So he crept under the dining table and hid  behind the draped table cloth.  But you know what?

NJ.  No Sir, I cannot imagine! I am all ears! This is so exciting! Tell me!

SJ. You won’t believe this, but there was no police raid or anything like that. It was just that Upali had been meddling with the steering wheel of the jeep and the horn suddenly short circuited and got stuck.  So he drove back to the house, the horn blasting away,  to tell us what had happened.  Bloody idiot! That is a bloody Senanayake for you.

NJ.  So, do you mean to say that the investigators could not break through FC de Saram and company and unearth yours  and Dudley’s  involvement?.

SJ. Exactly, nothing the police did could get FC de Saram and company to confess  and spill the beans about Dudley and me. They stuck to their story that they and they alone were responsible. Which of course put a huge burden of guilt upon us and we had to do everything possible to get them out, which we did.

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