Michael’s Testimony for VE Day in Britain, 8th May 1945

Michael Roberts

Tears rolled down my eyes in profound sorrow and joy as the news media on TV and computer-script dwelt on the VE commemorations in Britain — Yesterday and Today 8th and 9th May 2020. Perhaps that may surprise some readers. So …… let me clarify.

Yes, I was only seven years old or thereabouts then in 1945. Yes, I was resident in the Fort area within the town of Galle in the island of Ceylon …. not in Britain or Europe. So, how is that event so meaningful …. and so profound in my thinking-mould.

The short answer: (A) because the historian and political scientist within me affirms that the defeat of the Nazi upsurge in the world[1] was …. has been …. and is …. one of the momentous events in the history of the world; and (B) because of the profound strands of British/Western thought embedded within the 81 years of life that this pot-bellied mind/body bears now.

Little Mike after a swim on way back home to Pedlar Street house

No, I cannot recall that day 8th May 1945 and I have few recollections of the Second World War.[2] But several circumstantial factors imprinted the significance of the world war and its fighting dimensions within my thinking and reviews of world history. Let me unfold these influences in their overlapping forms.

A: For one, my father was a Barbadian in the British colonial service — the Ceylon Civil Service – from 1901 till his retirement in 1935; so, our background was Westernized and immersed in European history.

Miriam at home in Pedlar Street before they divourced

B: After his English wife passed away his second marriage to a teacher from the south in 1926 meant indigenization in ways that nevertheless retained its immersion within the intellectual strands of Western civilization – for the simple reason that the upper middle classes in Ceylon then were deeply Western in thought, even as they deployed European nationalist thought and liberal democratic arguments to challenge the fact of British colonial rule.[3]

C: The British influences were deeply imprinted in my familial upbringing in the 1940s and 1950s. For the middle class youth growing up then perhaps the most insidious power of Britain resided within the mediums of film and sport. Cricket and soccer (called “football” by us then) and the England vs Australia cricket matches were avidly followed; while the details of English country cricket were carefully monitored by young Michael in the Fort of Galle – with Lancashire and its stars drawing my deep loyalty. In brief, cricket was a pathway for Westernization.

D: So, too, were the mediums of film, novel and schoolboy adventure …. with the Swallows and Amazons,[4] the series on that scamp William[5] and the war stories around Biggles[6] all serving to instill the British world into my skull. By the late 1940s and 1950s these lines of influence included many a war film — with those involving Audie Murphy[7] and such tales as the Dambusters inscribing themselves deeply within my mind. These, then, were my heroes: such cricketers as Keith Miller,[8] Everton Weekes and Denis Compton on the one hand and, on the other, the tales of the Cockleshell Heroes,[9] Biggles and Guns of Navarone  (a British-American adventure film produced in 1961 with Gregory Peck as hero[10]).

E: Here, let me underline, and then underline again, the insidious impact of Movietone News[11] or Pathe News[12] whenever we lads went to the urban cinema – cinema halls which also hosted numerous members of the urban working class. The cinema events opened with God save the King and we (mostly) stood up in respect. What insidious power that!  Most of us – but not the Marxists – were being Anglicized and Westernized without being conscious of the process.

F: By the 1940s my family had no car.[13] So my horizons were limited by the suburb known as the Fort and its immediate environs — including, of course, my school St. Aloysius College to which I was sent by rickshaw till I was able to ride my sister’s old cábaal bike.

G: This location in Galle was influential in raising my awareness of the Second World War and its importance in other indirect ways. Koggala, about eight miles distant from the town on the way to Matara, was a vital air base hosting both seaplanes and fighters and thus an important strategic asset for the allies in the course of World War Two.[14] The British retained their presence at Koggala till SWRD Bandaranaike and the MEP turfed them out in 1956/57. During the early 1950s the troops at the base had a soccer team that battled the Southern Club and Gamini Football Club at “The Esplanade” in front of the Fort on occasions. The latter were working class teams, but featured a number of Aloysians because our school led the field among local schools in that sport.[15] I will never forget the occasion when the British airmen appeared in soccer boots – that great innovation in the mid-1950s – to battle and stomp the barefooted locals. But after the British were shunted out of the airbase, it became an attractive outpost for us university students on holiday—reachable by a long bike ride that enabled us to wander about the disused landing fields and to climb its control tower.[16] …. In sum, this geographical grounding meant that the history of World War Two, especially within its Indian Ocean setting, was etched more deeply into my mind.

a RAF Catalina flying over the southern coast of Ceylon near its base in Koggala

H: There was another strand of influence burning the Second World War and its details into my brain: that was the series[17] known as Illustrated London News that lay neatly bound and available in the library of St. Aloysius College. During the lunch hour at “college” I used to pour over its pages of illustrated images and their written clarifications. This meant that I was deeply knowledgeable about certain aspects of World War Two, whether the Battle of Alamein in North Africa, or the “Rats of Tobruk”[18] or the difficulties faced by the Allied forces when they landed in Sicily and Italy and had to advance across the ridges and valleys in Sicily and the Apennines in Central Italy.[19] Unsurprisingly, the tales of the warring disasters leading to Dunkirk in 1940 and, thereafter, the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944 featured prominently in my readings and recollections. They still do. Significantly, the events leading to the Japanese defeat and surrender in August-September 1945 were less deeply etched in my thinking then (though I have since developed an appreciation of the importance of this set of events too)[20].

 Allied troops struggling up a hill slope in Italy

Mountains west of the Sergio River

I: As my maturity developed and my studies in history, anthropology and politics progressed and deepened, and as I traveled within many parts of the war theatre in Europe,[21] these events and processes in the history of the world became more deeply imprinted in my consciousness.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Michael Roberts 2019Koggala in the Western Imperial Design in the 20th Century, 1931 onward,” 14 November 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/11/14/koggala-in-the-western-imperial-design-in-the-20th-century-1931-onward/

Rob Stuart 2015 “The Japanese Raid on Colombo in April 1942, Leonard Birchall and the Catalina Squadron at Koggala,” 27 March 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/the-japanese-raid-on-colombo-april-1942-leonard-birchall-and-the-catalina-squadron-at koggala/?fbclid=IwAR0FolRrM0AzZHdnWWVkkbOgBQSLwSvCB8YuRGIKdnrU6Nr6cT5LXz7lVmM

Apennines …. see https://history.army.mil/brochures/nap/72-34.htm ……….. ……………. ……………… and  https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHZL_enAU745AU745&sxsrf=ALeKk00PmJFKj6yIYNxOHEipgjcTWj6m4w:1589118674609&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=PHOTOS+–APENNINES+TYPICAL+TOPOGRAPHY&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFlOywuKnpAhWmzDgGHV8sBFcQ7Al6BAgEEBk&biw=1098&bih=475

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_career_of_Keith_Miller

END NOTE

[1] The main reason for the collapse of the Hitler regime was probably the disasters they faced in the east in battling USSR, though one must also note the weight brought to bear in both fronts by the entry of USA –inclusive of its supplies to Russia. However, as a youth growing up, I was not alive to ALL these nuances ….and my task here is to analyse the currents of thought within young Michael Roberts.

[2] There were many Allied troops in Galle and in Koggala. Some were stationed in houses within the Fort. My only memory is that of a screaming pig as it was slaughtered for food in one of these houses in Pedlar Street, The more lasting one is that of an officer named Blackman (funny that) who captivated my mother to the extent that she left us and went to England with him circa 1945.

[3] These challenges to British colonial rule became a major arena of study for me from the late 1960s – as I focused on the various strands of Ceylonese nationalism and the growth of the middle classes. Note the plural) which provided one foundation for that set of challenges. See espec. Roberts: How it became, …….. and  Roberts, Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, 4 vols , 1977.

[4] These books were Arthur Ransome’s work – now available as vintage Classics—see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Swallows-Amazons-Vintage-Childrens-Classics/dp/0099572796

[5] For the character “William Brown” created by Richmal Crompton, see …………………………….. https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/richmal-crompton/william/9781509805242

[6] “Biggles” was the familiar name for the fictional fighter pilot James Bigglesworth in adventure books created for young readers by WE Johns – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biggles.

[7] The Texan Audie Murphy (1925-71) was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II and then played himself in To Hell and Back. Most of his roles were in westerns. He also made guest appearances on celebrity television– see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audie_Murphy

[8] As it happens, the handsome and dashing Keith Miller was a fighter pilot during World War II.

[9] In December 1942 British SBS commandos used folding kayaks to infiltrate Bordeaux harbour and hit German cargo ships. This event was turned into a fictionalized technicolour film starring Trevor Howard, Christopher LEE, Anthony Newley and Jose Ferrer — see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cockleshell_Heroes.

[10] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guns_of_Navarone_(film)

[11] Movietone News is a newsreel that ran from 1928 to 1963 in the United States. Under the name “British Movietone News”. it also ran in the United Kingdom from 1929 to 1979.

[12]  Pathé News was a producer of newsreels and documentaries from 1910 to 1970 in the United Kingdomhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Path%C3%A9_News.

[13] Apparently, my pater did have a car at one point; but it does not figure in my memory. I do remember a white racehorse in our rented house in Pedlar Street. Family lore insists that “Nancy” did not win a single race. It is my speculation that in his retirement my father’s interest in horse racing via his stewardship for the Galle Gymkhana Club at the Boosa races generated a measure of penury that would not have been evident to outsiders. We did have a fridge a Pedlar Street. But when we moved to middle street (when perhaps circa 1950), we did not have one. At this rented house in Middle Street my pater used to spend oodles of time studying racing form. Therein, I suspect, lies a tale.

[14] See Roberts 2019 and Stuart 2015.

[15] Sumanadasa, Nandadasa and Mahathun from St Aloysius played for Southern SC; while Neville– all from a working class background – turned out for Gamini SC. At one point I too played for Southern…. and remember being induced to travel to Colombo from Peradeniya to play a competitive match near the Fort in Colombo –one where we were thoroughly outclassed by the Colombo team.

[16] I am not able to specify any date/year to these occasional ventures but reckon they took place around 1958 and 1959 – most likely during the university vacation period. It is probable that Alastair and Trevor Roosmale-Cocq, Vidya and Lucky Wickremasinghe and Elmo de Alwis were among the intrepid lot…. and also my sister Audrey. Time has blunted my memory. One of the most enjoyable aspects of these trips was swimming in the offshore pool created by the RAF– by depth-charging the along-the-shore reef to enforce a pool. That pool is still in existence.

[17] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Illustrated_London_News.

[18] “The Rats of Tobruk were soldiers of the Australian-led Allied garrison that held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Afrika Corps, during the Siege of Tobruk in World War II. The siege started on 11 April 1941 and was relieved on 10 December.  The port continued to be held by the Allies until its surrender on 21 June 1942” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rats_of_Tobruk. Here. Let me stress that I was fully alive to the term “Rats of Tobruk” before I moved to Australia – proof that as a young juvenile I was awash with tales from World war Two arising from the British side.

[19] See https://history.army.mil/brochures/nap/72-34.htm and

[20] This knowledge has developed from my studies of “sacrificial devotion” – the concept I use to embrace what is generally referred to as “suicide bombing”. While it began with my studies of devotion to cause displayed by the Tamil Tigers, my work has extended to the jihadists as well as the Japanese kamikaze. The concept also encompasses “suicide in protest” and self-immolation by the Vietnamese monks and Jan Palach in Prague in 1969 as well as seppuku by Japanese radicals. See sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com.

[21] When my brother-in-law, sister and two pals holidayed by car in Yugoslavia and Greece in the summer of 1965, episodes from WW Two came vividly into my mind at various moments. I have always been alive to topography in its impact on battle theatre. In the summer of 2007, my wife and I indulged in driving holidays in Tuscany and thereafter in Sicily (from our base in Ascona in Switzerland). As I negotiated the narrow roads along  the serried ridges and interspersed plains in both these parts of Italy, I was fully alive to the difficulties they would have posed to the allied Forces when they were seeking to recapture these areas from the Fascist forces led by Nazi Germany in 1944/45.

6 Comments

Filed under authoritarian regimes, British colonialism, British imperialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, life stories, photography, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes, World War II

6 responses to “Michael’s Testimony for VE Day in Britain, 8th May 1945

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    I have nostalgic memories of this era.

  2. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Thanks Mike.Found it absorbingly interesting! Chandra.

  3. Janaka Perera

    My interest in World War II was mainly due to my late paternal uncle who was a staff sergeant major in the Ceylon Contingent of the British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in the Middle East. A deeper study of the war in later years however I made to adopt a more balanced approach of the war rather than believing in the Allied powers’ one-sided interpretation of it.

  4. An EMAIL COMMENT from JOHN HENRI DE SARAM, a fellow-resident at RAMANATHAN HALL at PERADENIYA UNIVERSITY in the late 1950s, 11 May 2020: “So much nostalgia for one who devoured the entire lot of William books, heaps of Biggles to say nothing of the Saint, Bulldog Drummond et al………………. Those were halcyon days when we were more familiar with oak rather than Nadun trees and spring and winter instead of the monsoons.
    I remember lying on the floor with the newspaper spread out before me puzzling over the banner headlines – Germany lays down her arms and asking my sister I thought you raise your arms when surrendering.”

  5. Gus Mathews

    Hello Michael,
    Thank you for your reminiscences. I was born in 1947 though the war details were talked about ad infinitum in my grandfather’s household even during the fifties. My mother scrupulously collected the ‘Illustrated London News’ and even kept the ‘Coronation Special edition’ for posterity.

    I liked your narrative style in relating to your early days in Galle. Memories are a valid segment of our personal history and as your age advances these are the signposts of our life, though the recollections can be murky at times.

  6. Pingback: Colossal Kills on All Fronts in 1944/45, World War II | Thuppahi's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.