In 1942 two unrelated mutinies occurred on remote British
islands in the Indian Ocean. In both cases the mutineers were Asian
artillery gun crews who in one incident killed all the British European
soldiers with them, and in the other incident killed one of their own
countrymen. Whilst the first mutiny
appears to have been motivated by self-interest, the second mutiny appears to
have been a result of successful anti-Imperial propaganda expressed by the
ringleader. In both incidents British military justice was applied, but in only
one of the events was capital punishment carried out.
Eleven hundred kilometres (700 miles) south of Singapore lies Christmas
Island, which in 1942 was known principally for its phosphate
deposits. The inhabitants, mainly
Chinese with some Malay, numbered around 1,300 and were mostly employed in
extracting phosphate for a London-based company. The island was part of the Straits
Settlements of Malaya and a British Colonial Officer, T.P. Cromwell, was in
charge supported by a few armed Sikhs of the Straits Settlements Police.
The Heavy Battery, 7th Coast Regiment, Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery, posted a
detachment to the island consisting of one British and one Indian officer, four
British Non-Commisioned Officers (NCOs) and gunners, and 27 Punjabi NCOs and
gunners. The British officer was Captain
L.W.T. Williams and the Indian officer was Subadar Muzaffar Khan. The detachment manned a 6-inch gun
manufactured in 1900 that had been mounted on the island in 1940.
In early March 1942 a passing Japanese naval squadron
bombarded Christmas Island with 15-inch
guns. Little damage was done but Captain
Williams decided that resistance was futile and he displayed a white flag and
ordered the stripping down of the gun; however on that occasion the Japanese
were not interested in landing and after using the island for gunnery practice
the squadron sailed away. Williams
quickly re-assembled the gun and re-displayed the Union flag, but his actions
had unsettled the Punjabi gunners who began to discuss their future when the
Japanese returned to occupy the island.
By then Singapore
was in Japanese hands.
On the evening of 10 March Williams and his four British
artillerymen (Sergeant W. Giles, Lance Sergeant G.H. Cross and Gunners J. Tate
and G.S. Thurgood) attended a party with other Europeans on the island and then
went to bed before midnight. At around
0230 hours on 11 March a group of Punjabi mutineers, probably with the tacit
support of some or all of the Sikh police, shot and killed the five Europeans
and threw their bodies into the sea.
Subadar Muzaffar Khan and other unarmed non-mutineers ran into the bush
on hearing the firing, but the mutineers called them back threatening to kill
the runaways if they did not return. The
following day the inhabitants of Christmas Island
were ordered by the mutineers to not interfere in any way until Japanese troops
arrived. Colonial Officer T.P. Cromwell
and the civilian expatriates were imprisoned in Cromwell’s house.
It appears that the mutineers, led by Havildar Meher Ali
and Naik Ghulam Qadir, wished to ingratiate themselves with the Japanese. However when Japanese troops did occupy the
island on 31 March they congratulated the mutineers but were not overly
impressed by the mutinous actions, and all the Punjabis were treated as
prisoners of war and shipped to Surabaya in Java.
Meanwhile 900 kilometres (550 miles) to the southwest
trouble was brewing in a gun battery on Horsburgh
Island, one of the Cocos-Keeling Islands. Here a detachment of No 1 Coast Regiment of
the Ceylon Garrison Artillery was manning two 6-inch guns. Captain George Gardiner, a
wartime-commissioned former Colombo
accountant, commanded around 75 soldiers of the Ceylon Defence Force. An infantry platoon of the King’s African
Rifles was nearby as was a Ceylon Light Infantry detachment, and around 1,400
mainly Malay civilians inhabited the islands.
Both Gardiner and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Henry
Stephens, practiced authoritarian leadership styles that appear to have been
based on issuing formal orders and then using strict disciplinary measures to
ensure compliance. This caused
dissatisfaction and frustration amongst the war-time volunteer gunners, and
when Japanese propaganda broadcasters such as Tokyo Rose used slogans stating “Asia for the Asians” feelings of
resentment towards the officers built up amongst some of the Singhalese
Bombardier Gratien Hubert Fernando was a Singhalese
independence activist influenced by the TrotskyistLanka Sama Samaja Party, which sought an end to British rule over Ceylon. Fernando soon established a following amongst
some of the gunners on Cocos
Island who liked his
rhetoric. He planned a non-violent
mutiny that would capture Gardiner, Stephens and the Singhalese non-mutineers
and then use the 6-inch guns to seize military control of the
neighbourhood. Then a signal would be
sent to the Japanese on Christmas Island
inviting them to come and take over. The
difficulties attached to achieving all these aims were not seriously queried by
Fernando’s co-conspirators, who blindly followed him.
On the night of 8 May 1942 the mutineers acted and started
disarming the gunners not in the plot.
However during this activity one non-mutineer, Gunner Samaris
Jayasekera, was shot dead; Fernando then tried to shoot down other resisting
non-mutineers with a Bren gun but the gun had a stoppage that Fernando could
not or did not remedy. The mutiny ended
at this point and Fernando and his mutineers negotiated a surrender to
The Christmas Island mutiny trials
After the defeat of Japan
and the release of both the Punjabi murder suspects and of military and
civilian witnesses, legal proceedings commenced in Singapore
against the Christmas Island mutineers, except
for Havildar Meher Ali who was never found.
However the accused could not be charged with murder as over three years
had elapsed since the event, and so the charges were of mutiny with violence. The initial defence argument was that mutiny
could not have occurred because Captain Williams had previously raised a white
flag which was an act of unconditional surrender, and so Captain Williams had
ceased to be the lawful military authority.
This argument failed.
After many affirmations and challenges over which gunners
actually killed the British soldiers, on 13 March 1947 five of the
Punjabis were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. One other man was convicted and sentenced to
two years imprisonment without hard labour plus discharge with ignominy. The Punjabis sentenced to death appealed from
Tanglin Detention Centre, Singapore,
claiming that in fact the prosecution witnesses were the murderers, and that
the evidence presented by these witnesses was only circumstantial anyway. The appeals failed.
Subsequently another alleged Punjabi mutineer, Sultan
Mohammed, was apprehended in October 1947.
He was tried by separate Court Martial, found guilty, and also sentenced
Although His Majesty the King confirmed the death
sentences on 13 August time had run out for the hangings to take place before Pakistan and India gained independence. Politics now took over and on 8 December the
death sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life. After further legal arguments between Britain and Pakistan
about where the imprisonments should take place (Britain
demanded that a full nine years had to be served) the six prisoners were
transferred to Pakistan
in June 1955, and British interest in the matter then officially ceased. Meher Ali remained at large.
Islands mutiny hangings
There was no delay in trying the Singhalese mutineers on
Horsburgh Island by a local Court Martial, and on 16 May seven men were found
guilty on three charges, including causing a mutiny or conspiring to cause a
mutiny in His Majesty’s Forces, and were sentenced to death; four others were
sentenced to penal servitude or imprisonment with hard labour. Captain Gardner wished to immediately execute
the condemned men but Ceylon Army Command ordered the return of the seven to Ceylon. There the Court Martial findings were
adjusted so that three men were confirmed to die whilst the other four received
extended jail sentences.
Left: Cocos Island Atoll
Leading local political figures in Colombo and family
members pleaded for clemency to both the Governor, Andrew Caldecott, and the
Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Geoffrey Layton, but on 5 August 1942 Bombardier
Gratien Hubert Fernando was hanged at Welikada Prison and shortly afterwards so
were Gunners Carlo Gauder and Benny de Silva.
It appears that these three Singhalese gunners were the only British Commonwealth troops to be executed for mutiny
during the Second World War.
There is little doubt that the speedy and successful
Japanese invasion of European colonial territories in Asia
freed many Asians of feelings of fear and awe towards their colonial rulers,
and sometimes inspired them to use violence against those rulers. There is also little doubt that on both
Christmas and Horsburgh
Islands the British
officers in command could have usefully worked towards appreciating the
apprehensions, doubts and general feelings of their own gunners; but they did
not, and the result in both cases was unexpected and violent mutiny.
Captain L.W.T. Williams, Sergeant W. Giles, Lance Sergeant
G.H. Cross and Gunners J. Tate and G.S. Thurgood are commemorated on the
Singapore Memorial in Kranji War
Cemetery, Singapore. Gunner Mahadura Samaris De Silva Jayasekera is buried
in Kranji War Cemetery.
Above: Christmas Island Coastline
The gun and gun position on Christmas
Island have been recently re-furbished, see:
SOURCES: --Gerry R. Rubin. Murder,
Mutiny and the Military (Francis Boutle Publishers 2005). --Noel Crusz. The Cocos Islands
Mutiny. (Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2000). --Barry Renfrew. Forgotten
Regiments. Regular and Volunteer Units of the Far East.
(Terrier Press 2009). --General Sir Martin Farndale KCB. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The Far East Theatre
1941-46. (Brassey’s 2000).