The Coup d’etat of January 1962 … The Plotters and Its Failure

 Jayantha Somasundaram in The Island, 29 January 2022, where the title runs thus: ” The  Sixty-Two Coup. How the Plot would unfold” ….

A group of senior Police and Military officers attempted to overthrow the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government. They were driven by three critical events in the years leading up to January 1962. The coup participants belonged to the Westernised urban middle class who were alarmed at the undermining of the secular plural state and government.


The coup d’état would commence at midnight Saturday 27th January.  Lieutenant Colonel Noel Mathysz, Commanding Officer, Ceylon Electrical and Mechanical Engineers would take the Central Telegraph Office, Major Weerasena Rajapakse Ceylon Armoured Corps would send four armoured vehicles to guard the Governor-General’s residence Queen’s House and another four to the Kirillapone Bridge to secure a key access point into Colombo. Captain J.A.R. Felix would guard Lake House.

The Prime Minister was scheduled to return to Colombo on the 27th after a visit to Kataragama. At Hunugama on the A2 Road Superintendent of Police, Southern Province (East), David Thambyah would intercept her and place her under arrest.

While the Coup plot included officers and former officers from the Police, the Army and the Navy, the heads of these services were not participants. The sympathies of the Army Commander Major General Winston Wijeyakoon OBE ED had been unclear to the conspirators prior to the Coup. It is claimed that he had been sounded out obliquely about moving against the Government, but the coup plotters felt that he was too cautious and would “act against the regime only when the situation deteriorated to the point of anarchy.”

The Inspector General of Police Walter Abeykoon was a Civil Servant from outside the Police Force. Moreover, specifically appointed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike he was considered an SLFP loyalist. The acting Captain of the Royal Ceylon Navy Commodore Rajanathan Kadirgamar was seen as a supporter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. So, on the night of the Coup Kadirgamar was shadowed by the conspirators in order to be aware of his movements and location. The Royal Ceylon Air Force was commanded by a Royal Air Force-seconded officer  Air Commodore J.L. Barker CB CBE DFC, who was presumed to be indifferent to domestic political issues.

The Mastermind?

The Coup participants identified different leaders as the prime movers. According to Royce de Mel, Derek de Saram was the person who masterminded it. While according to Douglas Liyanage “everyone knew that the brains behind the Coup was Sidney de Zoysa, although F. C. De Saram took personal responsibility,” once they were apprehended.

Admiral Royce De Mel

  FC de Saram …. assessing cricket at the SSC

Former President J R Jayawardene claimed that in April 1966 at Kandawala (Kotalawala’s then residence and the current Military Academy) former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala CH KBE KStJ PC informed him that both former Prime Minster Dudley Senanayake and he “had been involved in the planning of the Coup.” According to Jayawardene the Coup leaders had discussed the plot with Kotelawala who had advised them to get the support of Dudley Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. Both Sir John and Dudley had participated in a meeting at Borella to finalise the Coup, followed by a further meeting at Kandawala on the 26th with Dudley presiding. While a few weeks before his death in 1988 Douglas Liyanage “confirmed that Senanayake, Kotalawala and Goonetilleke had been in the know of it.” (K. M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins in J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka Vol II )

In 1958 during the anti-Tamil riots, Prime Minister Bandaranaike had been unwilling to act firmly against the rioters and as a consequence the violence had spread. This compelled the Governor-General to declare a State of Emergency, deploy the armed forces and take command of security operations. The Coup was premised on a similar situation, that mindful of the severity of the political crisis, the Governor-General would agree to take political control once the Bandaranaike Government had been overthrown.

Take Post Order

The first step in the execution of the Coup would be taken by CC ‘Jungle’ Dissanayake who in his capacity as DIG Range I which covered the city of Colombo would issue a Take Post order to officers in his range at 2200 hours Saturday. He had instructed all the Coup participants to be in uniform.

In response the first operation would be carried out by ASP Traffic Bede Johnpillai who would get the Police to secure within half an hour all entry points into Colombo. Police patrol cars would then go around Colombo announcing the imposition of a curfew which would commence at midnight. They would be backed by troops from the 2nd Volunteer Ceylon Signal Corps equipped with radio transmitters enabling the Coup Commanders to monitor events across the city.

Soldiers would now take up position across the city, seizing and securing key points and armoured vehicles would be deployed at strategic entry points. Because of the highly unstable labour and political situation which had moreover been deteriorating over the past months, and because the military had been inducted into many facets of normal civilian life, from unloading cargo at the Colombo Port to imprisoning Tamil parliamentarians at military bases, a heightened presence of troops and their performing what normally were non-military duties was expected neither to attract attention nor be construed as abnormal or cause for alarm.

Before any of these plans would be implemented though, a premature arrest had been made. At about 10:00pm that night SP (Southern Province) Elster Perera with a team from the Galle Police arrested the LSSP MP for Baddegama Neal de Alwis, Felix Dias’ uncle by marriage.

Meanwhile unknown to the other conspirators, SP Colombo Stanley Senanayake had got in touch with his father-in-law Patrick de S Kularatne. MP. Kularatne met the IGP Walter Abeykoon at the Orient Club on Saturday evening and notified him of the plot, he also informed Felix Dias.

Thwarting the Coup

Felix Dias promptly initiated counter measures to thwart the coup. He briefed the Prime Minister, who for reasons unconnected with the Coup had cancelled her Kataragama trip. Positioning himself at Temple Trees he summoned the IGP who thereupon sent the following radio message to Police Stations, island-wide:

” To All OICC Divisions and Districts: From the IGP: Please don’t carry out whatever instructions of a special nature that you have received from your DIG. Be in readiness to carry out orders only from the IGP.”

This was followed by Colonel Sepala Attygalle MVO, commander 1st Reconnaissance Regiment, Ceylon Armoured Corps instructing Major Weerasena Rajapakse to send armoured vehicles to guard Temple Trees. And at 1.30am 28th morning 300 troops supported by Bren gun carriers surrounded Jungle Dissanayake’s Longden Place residence and took him into custody.

Operation Holdfast had been checkmated.

Thirty suspects were arrested of whom twenty four defendants were tried before Chief Justice M.C. Sansoni, Justice H.N.G Fernando OBE and Justice Silva who tried the case without jury. They did so under The Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act, No. 1 of 1962 which was passed by Parliament after the plot was uncovered.  Thirteen were regular or volunteer Army officers, six were gazetted police officers. Other officers who were suspect were sent on compulsory leave or forced to resign.

The Trial-at-Bar found eleven suspects guilty of waging war against the Queen and sentenced each of them to ten years in prison and the confiscation of all property. On appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council they were released on a point of law. The Privy Council’s verdict of 5th December 1965 stated that “The Ceylon Government has no powers to pass the new law styled The Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act No. 1 of 1962, which is ultra-vires, bad in law and had denied a fair trial.”



Donald L. Horowitz: Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives, Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective, 19vv Princeton University Press.

KKS Perera: “Wrong Men to Head Police and Navy….,”


Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, conspiracies, economic processes, governance, historical interpretation, insurrections, island economy, language policies, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world events & processes

Leave a Reply