03 March 2008

Backwaters of history: the Cocos Islands mutiny

The Cocos Islands are an Australian territory about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka consisting of two atolls and about two dozen coral islands. In 1942 it was the site of one of only a tiny handful of mutinies perpetrated by allied soldiers during WWII - Indian soldiers mutinied on Christmas Island and surrendered the island without a fight. The biggest mutiny took place at Salerno in 1943, there was also a mutiny of RAF personnel in India in 1946 although it was more of a strike than an actual mutiny. The ringleaders of the Cocos Islands mutiny were the only Commonwealth soldiers to be executed under military law during the Second World War.

The Cocos Islands had no strategic value as such but it was the site of an important cable relay station. It was garrisoned by units of the Ceylon Defence Force, including the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) and the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI).

By early 1942 British fortunes in the Far East were at their lowest ebb: Singapore and Hong Kong had fallen; the army in Burma was in headlong retreat; Japanese aircraft had sunk the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse and the aircraft carrier Hermes; Ceylon was at great risk from seaborne invasion. Add to the military reverses a situation where relations between soldiers and their commanding officer on Cocos Islands had broken down (apparently the methods used by the commanding officer George Gardiner were widely hated. Both he and his second in command were accused of deep racism), a fear of what would happen to them if they had to fight the Japanese and, possibly, knowledge of the successful mutiny on Christmas Island two months before.

Led by Bombardier (corporal) Gratien Fernando fourteen members of the CGA battery on Horsborgh Island mutinied on the night of 8/9 May intending to hand the islands over to the Japanese. The mutineers planned to arrest Gardiner, disarm loyal troops then train the battery’s guns on soldiers on a neighbouring island. They would then signal Japanese forces on Christmas Island. However, the plan failed: Fernando’s men were poor shots and at a vital moment a Fernando’s Bren gun jammed. One loyal gunner, Samuel Jayasekera, was killed.

A Field General Court Martial was held on Cocos Keeling, Fernando and six others were sentenced to death. However, the Judge Advocate General in New Delhi, after reading the Court Martial reports, decreed that just three of men were to be executed. Fernando,along with Benny de Silva and Carlo Gauder were hanged in Ceylon’s Welikade Jail in August 1942. The four men whose death sentences were commuted and four others were sentenced to prison terms of between one and seven years.

No Ceylonese regiment was deployed in a combat situation after the Cocos Islands Mutiny.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

They were silly to trust to the good graces of the Japanese who would have had no respect for their surrender.

jams o donnell said...

I think it would have been something they repented at leisure unless they got the chance to serve under Bose