Lankan was privy to WW II covert operation
One of the last surviving Sri Lankan World War II veterans who served in the Middle East passed away recently at the Sri Lanka Ex-servicemen’s Association Veterans Home in Bolagala, Katana, at the age of 92. Staff Sergeant-Major Percy G.B. Perera of the British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) was the only non-European soldier to be appointed Confidential Stenographer at British Advanced Headquarters in the Sudan and Eritrea during the campaign against Italian Forces in North-East Africa in 1941.
It was the beginning of the end of Fascist Dictator Benito’s Mussolin’s dreams of a new a Roman Empire.
At the time the British needed men for garrison and administrative duties and logistical operations in the occupied war zones. Many young Sri Lankans responded to large advertisements in the local press calling for recruits to join the British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). As the terms and conditions looked rosy, many lads signed up for duty curtailing their studies and – in some cases – resigning from their jobs. Among the latter was Percy Perera, who was then a stenographer at the Central YMCA Colombo Fort.
The first batch of 88 Sri Lankan RASC volunteers set sail from Colombo on May 6, 1941 at 0900 hours. Their ship, the 46000 ton-HMS Aquitania also carried 6000 Australian and 1000 New Zealand troops – including 1000 Maoris.
The Aquitania was part of a convoy that comprised four other Middle-East bound troop ships, escorted by the British naval vessels - HMS Canberra and HMS Leander. The Royal Air Force provided round-the-clock air cover throughout the voyage. During the voyage the escort vessels engaged an enemy surface raider which was sent to the bottom. (The second batch of volunteers included R.B.M. Sumanadasa who later became Lake House Katunayake Correspondent)
On May 16 at the height of Axis (German and Italian) aerial bombardment the first Sri Lankan RASC contingent landed in Egypt's Port Suez from where they were taken by army trucks to their camp at Genefa on the bed of Bitter Lakes. The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) dominated the skies in the early days of the war. Soon the drone of swastika-marked Stukas and Messerschmitts became a familiar sound to the Sri Lankan soldiers. Although the RASC was basically a non-combat unit the men were given intensive combat training including assault courses and gasmasks drill at the Genefa Camp.
A week after the Italian surrender in East Africa, the Sri Lankan soldiers found themselves posted to all parts of the sun-baked African zone. Several of them including Percy Perera, Siriwardena, Jacob Rasanayagam and Rasiah were sent to Eritrea, North of former Italian-held Ethiopia - then known as Abyssinia (Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890). The place was the scene of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles that left 500 British and allied troops killed and 3000 wounded. The Italians lost five times that number. After 12 days of fierce fighting the British captured the heights of Keren, as formidable a natural fortress as man has ever been called to conquer. The jagged peaks and dizzy heights soar 1300 metres above sea level.
At the time Percy – then a corporal - was the only soldier in Eritrea who held the London Chamber of Commerce Certificate for stenography. This gave him the rare and unexpected opportunity of becoming confidential stenographer to Brigadier Cyrus Greenslade, Commander of the British Advanced Headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea This gave him the privilege of having access to highly sensitive military information at Advanced HQ. No one outside AHQ – even commissioned officers – could meet Greenslade without informing Percy and none of them could enter the room. They had to speak from outside. Those were the Brigadier’s orders for Percy was handling highly confidential documents and intelligence reports. He was already promoted from Corporal to Sergeant.
One of the secrets known only to the top brass and Percy at AHQ was that a British officer disguised as an Abyssinian was moving above native tribes (like the famed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ alias T.E. Lawrence in World War I) organizing a Fifth Column against the Italians. This British officer was Brigadier O. Wingate who later died in air crash in Burma.
Around this time Percy came into contact with Colonel Hugh Boustead, British Commander of the Sudan Defence Force (Camel Corps). He was connected to Boustead Brothers who operated tramways in Colombo. Percy helped the colonel to prepare his war diaries to be sent to the War Office in London
Camel routes were then being opened to support anti-Italian native tribes with arms, money and material. In one operation over12, 000 camels had been killed. It was a strange war – camels, mules and horses were in the field with motorized infantry, armoured cars and tanks.
After serving in Eritrea and the Sudan Percy was transferred to Egypt, where in El Alamein was fought one of World War II’s most decisive battles in October 1942. Percy was among the recipients of the Africa Star awarded to soldiers who served there under Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery who led the British 8 Th Army to victory against General Erwin Rommel's German `Afrika Korps.'
The other Commanders under whom Percy's unit served were Generals Claude Auchinleck, Harold Alexander and Dwight D. Eisenhower who led the Anglo-American Armies against the Germans in North Africa (Operation Torch).
Percy recorded on film (still photographs) many of his experiences in the war. He used to recall with sadness the fate a group of Sri Lankan lads who joined a British Army engineering unit and took part in the Allied operations in Italy. The Germans had machine-gunned all of them while constructing a bridge for military convoys.
Among the Sri Lankan officers who served in Percy’s unit was Captain (later Colonel) L.A. Perera who – three years after the war - hoisted the Lion Flag in Cairo on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day 1948, having obtained permission from his British Army superiors.
Percy underwent a terrifying experience when returning home from the Middle East towards the end of the war. He was on board the HMS Orbita bringing 5,000 troops to the Far East. There was much festivity on board following the Allied victory over the Axis powers. Only the Japanese were not yet completely defeated although on the retreat.
After the ship’s revelers had gone to bed in a gay mood, the night had been extremely quiet until a thunderous explosion made the ship tremble like a leaf caught in a gale. This was followed by a deafening crash and the men were ordered to their stations with life jackets on. The lights were dimming as they watched the only serviceable boat take the few women on board away from the listing wreck.
He men were ordered to jump overboard and swim as far away from the sinking ship so that they could avoid being sucked by the wash. Each life-belt was equipped with a special torch that on contact with salt water flashed off at regular intervals sending put an SOS signal. The sea was dotted all around with these artificial fireflies. All around Percy there was panic. Percy lost some of his valuable mementoes in this incident.
Then hope dawned as rescue planes lit up areas with fares and shortly afterwards, Percy found himself along with many others on board a vessel loaded with cotton. But this ship too was sabotaged by being set on fire.
After the relief of rescue, the second disaster within a space of an hour was worse than the first. Once again Percy was in the water, now between two ships - one slowly sinking and the other burning fiercely. It was like a diabolical scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ By this time the British RAF and the Royal Navy came to the rescue swiftly and Percy was picked up and taken to Aden. He finally got back home after a voyage that lasted three months.
After returning to Sri Lanka in 1945 on board the RMS Almanzora he served in the Ceylon Army Command Headquarters, under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Allied Supreme Commander, South-East Asia, in Peradeniya, Kandy. In June of the following year Percy took part in the British Commonwealth troops' World War II victory parade held in London as a member of the Ceylon contingent. By then he was Warrant Officer Class I (Staff Sergeant Major).
Among the medals he earned were the1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Italian Star, Defence Medal and Victory Medal.
A bugler from the Sri Lanka Army Service Corps (SLASC) – the Sri Lankan Counter part of the British RASC - played the ‘Last Post’ at Percy Perera’s funeral at the General Cemetery, Borella.
- Asian Tribune -