My earliest memories as a young child was watching my Mum and Dad having a drink in the evening - Mum tells me that my Uncle Percy Kalenberg (her sister Bertha’s husband) was a regular visitor for a drink and chat as he was in the Merchant Navy at that time - sitting on the open verandah of the house that we occupied at Mutuwal near the Colombo Harbour. During the early part of the Second World War, Dad, who was a Refrigeration Engineer, used to work on the Cold Rooms of the ships that docked in the harbour and I presume that we lived in this particular house as it was near the harbour and he could respond to calls at all hours of the day and night, without having to travel a long distance.
Anton d’ Costa (my cousin) on left with Ed on right
There was an “Umbrella” tree in the yard and I remember swinging on a rope swing that Dad had rigged on one its branches. When the fruit was ripe, I recall being told off when I climbed up a low lying branch to get some tasty fruit. The collection of fruit was normally done by beating the branches with a long stick to dislodge the fruit on to the ground, but I obviously thought it better to climb the tree to get the best fruit.
I am told that when the Japanese aircraft attacked the Colombo Harbour on Easter Sunday, the 5th of April 1942 at 7.00 am, Dad very hurriedly covered the dining table with a sheet and Mum who was six months pregnant at the time and me huddled under this makeshift air-raid shelter, until the aerial attack had finished. Fortunately for us no bomb was dropped near our house. I am told that Dad did not go to work that day as I was sick on the Saturday night and this may have saved his life as a bomb hit the ship that he was to be working on. Our house having being so close to the harbour we were very lucky not to have been hit by shrapnel from bombs dropped nearby, which again was most fortunate as Dad spent several minutes in the garden watching the planes fly over our house.
Attack on Colombo on Easter Sunday 1942
The story of this attack is fascinating reading and I reproduce some extracts from are article by Rob Stuart titled “Leonard Birchall and the Japanese Raid on Colombo”. Quote:- “At 1600 hours on 4 April, Birchall and his crew sighted the First Air Fleet 360 miles from Dondra Head, the southernmost point in Ceylon, bearing 155 degrees from Ceylon. As noted earlier, they had just arrived in Ceylon on 2 April. They were given 24 hours to rest after their 10-day trip from Sullom Voe, but then, before being given any opportunity to familiarize themselves with their new operational area, they were ordered to join the search for Nagumo. They took off from Lake Koggala, the Catalina base on the south coast of Ceylon, before dawn on 4 April, and they were scheduled to return after dawn on 5 April. Birchall arrived in his patrol area just as the sun rose. Hour after hour, the Catalina flew 150 mile-long east-west lines, spaced 50 miles apart, at an altitude of 2000 feet over the water. While they were flying the last assigned leg, Birchall’s navigator, Warrant Officer Onyette, the only other Canadian aboard, pointed out that if they flew an extra leg, he could confirm their actual position by using the moon, which was then rising. Since they were required to remain airborne until after dawn the next day in any case, Birchall agreed.
A “Catalina” of an unidentified Canadian Air Force Squadron
Birchall’s crew had been assigned the southernmost search sector. And just as they were completing this extra leg and were at the southernmost point in their search, ships appeared on the southern horizon. If the Japanese had been any further to the south, or if the Catalina crew had not flown the extra leg, they almost certainly would have escaped detection until their aircraft arrived over Colombo the next morning. What follows is Leonard Birchall’s own account of what happened next: “As we got close enough to identify the lead ships we knew at once what we were into but the closer we got the more ships appeared and so it was necessary to keep going until we could count and identify them all. By the time we did this there was very little chance left.” The Catalina was then attacked by up to 12 Zeros. “All we could do was to put the nose down and go full out, about 150 knots. We immediately coded a message and started transmission ...We were halfway through our required third transmission when a shell destroyed our wireless equipment and seriously injured the operator; we were now under constant attack. Shells set fire to our internal tanks. We managed to get the fire out and then another started, and the aircraft began to break up. Due to our low altitude it was impossible to bail out, but I got the aircraft down on the water before the tail fell off”.
Their brave actions gave the authorities sufficient time to commence the transfer of the naval ships that were in the harbour to the Maldive Islands and prepare the defense of Colombo.
One of the aftermaths of the attack in Colombo, is best shown in an extract from an article by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, quote:- “When the Japanese bombed Colombo, almost all boutiques in the town, especially in the Pettah area, were closed down and there was not a single hotel to have a cup of tea. The owners had fled for safety leaving the city. In view of this situation, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the newly appointed Civil Defence Commissioner, took prompt action, using his authority, and vested those closed boutiques and hotels on people who agreed to open them for business. They took over possession, in the arbitrary way, and some of them still remain maintaining their ownership of the buildings. No judicature could revoke the decision taken by the Commissioner to vest the buildings on the previous owners”.
To read the full story go to :- http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo7/no4/stuart-eng.asp
After the attack of Easter Sunday and the subsequent rationing, etc of food and appliances that followed, I remember watching Dad and some friends making drinking glasses by putting some kind of oil into bottles and then inserting a hot poker into the neck of the bottle to create a clean break and thus separate the neck of the bottle from the rest of it, to create a drinking tumbler. The top of the tumbler was then sanded to remove the sharp edge. This is the only time that I saw this done.