The 1962 Coup d’etat conspiracy had three noteworthy aspects.Firstly the architects of the conspiracy wanted a bloodless coup.The planning of the coup was done with the objective of avoiding bloodshed. Important people were to be either detained or have their movement restricted for specific periods of time but would not have suffered summary execution. It was this desire to avert bloodshed that caused the chief conspirators to abort the mission when it was compromised.
Secondly the execution of the coup entailed a quick seizure of power and takeover of Government. The task was to be completed within a few hours. This was to avoid a protracted struggle for power that could possibly have resulted in huge losses of life,limb and property. Also presenting a speedy “fait accompli” would have been a deterrent to potential international intervention on behalf of the incumbent regime.
Thirdly the coup conspirators had no intention of retaining power and control permanently. After dissolving Parliament and consolidating power under military rule, they envisaged a temporary governance of the Country under a regency council presided over by the Governor- General. Thereafter a new ,progressive Constitution was to be promulgated and fresh elections held. As to whether these intentions would have been upheld, if and when the coup was executed is indeed a pertinent question. However no specific answer is available because the coup d’etat never got off the ground as the planners called it off beforehand.
A remarkable feature of the 1962 Coup was that none of the three defence service heads or Police chief were involved in it. However many officers of senior rank from the Army and Police were coup participants. These officers were drawn into the conspiracy by the coup planners on the basis of personal loyalty and cameraderie. The preliminary overture was couched innocuously in an invitation to be part of a project for the “betterment of the Country”. Some had only been assigned specific duties on a need to know basis and had no knowledge of the overall aim.
Architects of the Coup.
Six persons could be described as the architects who designed the Coup. They were 1. Don John Francis Douglas Liyanage, CCS – Deputy Director of Land Development. 2. Colonel F. C. de Saram, OBE – Deputy Commandant, Volunteer Force. 3.Colonel Maurice De Mel – Commandant, Ceylon Volunteer Force and former Chief of Staff of the Army. 4.Cyril Cyrus ,”Jungle” Dissanayake – Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG). 5. Sidney Godfrey de Zoysa – Retd Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG). 6.Rear Admiral Gerard Royce Maxwell de Mel, OBE. Royce de Mel had recently been relieved as navy Commander then designated as Captain of the Navy.
However the only civilian in this six, Douglas Liyanage, though very much involved in formulating the coup project was not involved in its planning and execution . The coup codenamed “Operation Holdfast’was devised by the five defence officials who could be termed ring leaders. It was FC de Saram known as Derek who was the moving spirit of the coup. De Saram was the chief strategist who conceptualized the entire exercise while Sidney de Zoysa was the premier tactician who planned out the knitty- gritty facets of “Operation Holdfast”.
Choice of the Codename
The choice of the codename “operation Holdfast”is rather intriguing.It was the practice in the last century for codenames to be used for regiments/corps in radio communications of the British armed forces as well as those of countries in the Empire/Commonwealth. Some examples are Foxhound -Infantry,Sheldrake-Artillery,Ironside-Armour,Pronto-Signals,Acorn-Intelligence and Starlight- Medical.In that context “Holdfast”referred to the Engineering Corps.
The regimental song of Britain’s Corps of Royal Engineers(CRE) was “Hurrah for the CRE”. It was sung with some variations during British rule by the CRE’s Ceylon/Sri Lanka counterpart the Ceylon Engineers Corps. My father who served in theArmy during World war 2 used to sing this “Sapper” song frequently during my childhood days. It began with the lines “ Good Morning Mr Stevens and Windy Notchy Knight, Hurrah for the CRE”. There was also a verse with the lines “You make fast, I make fast, make fast the dinghy,Make fast the dinghy, make fast the dinghy,Make fast the dinghy pontoon.”. These lines were also sung as “You hold fast, I hold fast, hold fast the dinghy,hold fast the dinghy pontoon”.
I do not know whether it was the Engineers Corps references to Holdfast that influenced the Coup codename of “Holdfast”. However upon reflection it does seem an appropriate term for the coup. “Holdfast” could mean establishing a key position and then staying put.An entrenched position that must be “held fast’ at any cost. Seizing power and retaining control was the essence of the coup d’etat.The codenme “Holdfast” therefore sums it up perfectly.
Troops and officers from the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Volunteer Anti-aircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery , 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment,Ceylon Engineers,2nd Volunteer Signals Regiment, Ceylon Signals corps, the Reconnissance Regiment and the Sabre troop of the Ceylon Armoured Corps were to be utilised for the “operation Holdfast” from the army.
Associated with the military would be selected Police officers and policemen mainly from Colombo and suburban areas . Subsequently after the Coup was effected, personnel from the Navy and Air Force were also expected to assist the newly set up military administration. No officers of the Navy or Air Force were involved in the planning of the coup except the former Navy chief Rear Admiral Royce de Mel.
“Jungle”s “Take Post” Order
The blueprint for the coup codenamed “Operation Holdfast”was roughly this. At 10.00 pm on Jan 27th senior DIG Police “Jungle” Dissanayake was to issue a “Take Post” order to his men.A take post order means establishing or occupying an offensive or defensive position. Immediately after the order ASP Bede Johnpillai who was in charge of traffic would clear all main roads and strategically important highways of traffic. This was to be accomplished in 30 minutes.The clearing of traffic in roads was to facilitate the smooth, swift, unhindered progress of military convoys and columns along roads towards their target destinations. This deployment was under the personal supervision of Col FC de Saram and Col Maurice de Mel. It was to begin at 11.00 pm on Saturday (27th) and cease by 3.00 am on Sunday (28th).
DIG “Jungle” Dissanayake was to commence his part of the “coup” operations from 11.00 pm on Jan 27th. The Police headquarters and Criminal Investigations department (CID) offices in Fort were to be taken over at midnight. CC “Jungle” Dissanayake was to be at “Queens House” (Presidents House) in Fort and direct operations from there until Police/CID headquarters was taken over. Queens House was the official residence of then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who was later implicated in the abortive coup.Once “Jungle” moved into Police Headquarters in Fort and took charge, retired Police DIG Sidney de Zoysa was to join him.
The password for operations at Queens House and the Police Headquarters was to be ”Dowbiggin”. This was the name of a former IGP. Sir Herbert Layard Dowbiggin served as IGP in Ceylon/Sri Lanka from 1913 o 1937. Interestingly, both CC Dissanayake and Sidney de Zoysa joined the Police force as Assistant Superintendents of Police when Dowbiggin was IGP. Dowbiggin interviewed and selected them personally..
Seizure of Colombo City
A crucial part of “Operation Holdfast” was the seizing of Colombo city and cordoning it off. This was deemed to be of vital importance as a potential counter-strike by officers and troops loyal to the government was feared. It was necessary therefore to prevent soldiers from the first battalion of the Ceylon Light Infantry stationed at the Panagoda cantonment entering Colombo until the transfer of power was completed.Also it was necessary to seal off Colombo to prevent certain individuals and groups from exiting or entering the capital for a specific period.
Army personnel with armoured cars were to be stationed at the two Kelani river bridges, the Wellawatte-Dehiwela bridge and the Kirillapone bridge. In addition military personnel with radio equipment would be stationed at key locations in suburban Colombo.Soldiers with vehicles were to be positioned in strategic junctions within Colombo city also. It is learnt sthat some armoured cars had been stationed at Kirillapone before the coup was called off.
At midnight Police cars equipped with radio and loudspeakers were to go around Colombo and outskirts announcing a 24 hour curfew. People were to be warned to remain indoors and that anyone seen outside would be shot on sight. As a precautionary measure ,many Police vehicles at the Thimbirigasata Police depot were rendered immobile by the siphoning off the Petrol in the tanks
While curfew announcements were being made, key installations were to be taken over in a rapid “blitzkrieg” like manouevre using shoc nd awe tactics.. The old Parliament(now Presidential secretarit)the Secretariat buildings, Fort and Maradana Railway Stations, Pettah Bus Terminal, the Light House, Harbour etc were to be occupied by pro-coup troops.The Central Telephone and Telegraph exchanges would be taken over and all tele-communication suspended until further notice. The newspaper offices of Lake House and Times of Ceylon were also to be taken over and newspapers were to cease publication for a few days.
There was no Television in Sri Lanka in those days and the most important communications institution was “Radio Ceylon”. Fully armed Signals corps despatch riders on motor cycles were to be positioned from 11 pm on Nov 27th at Torrington (Independence) square. At H-hour when the password “Holdfast” is given these troopers were to storm “Radio Ceylon” and take it over.Thereafter the Country was to be informed by Radio of the takeover of Govt through the Coup
In anticipation of the coup the conspirators in the Army sappers had on Thursday Jan 25th laid out a special telephone line from the Army headquarters at Lower lake road to the Army barracks in Echelon square in Fort. This secure line was to be used for urgent intra-army communication. “Col” Maurice de Mel was to be at Army headquarters co-ordinating matters while FC de Saram was to be at “Temple Trees”. “Jungle” Dissanayake would operate from Police headquarters/Queens House.
Prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike
According to “Operation Holdfast” objectives , the Prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was to be taken into custody. Originally the PM was scheduled to participate in some religious observances at Kataragama on Saturday Jan 27th. She was to depart from Colombo on Friday Jan 26 and return on Sunday Jan 28 evening .DIG (retd) Sidney de Zoysa went down to the South on Jan 25th and devised a plot to have the PM arrested in the Hambantota district. ASP David Thambyah was to apprehend her at Hungama. She was to be escorted safely back to Colombo and placed under House arrest at the Rosemead Place residence”Tintagel”.
However things changed when Sirimavo suddeny cancelled her Kataragama trip. This was because the Prime Minister’s secretary Bradman Weerakoon reminded Mrs. Bandranaike that she had earlier turned down an invitation to attend a religious ceremony at the Getambe Vihara in Kandy due to some important work in Colombo. Hence the Getambe prelate may take offence at her declining his invitation and going to Kataragama instead , pointed out the PM’s secretary. The premier therefore cancelled her K’gama trip.
When this cancellation became known there was a hasty change of plan. While ASP Thambyah was to remain alert in case the PM revised her itinerary again, it was decided to arrest her on Saturday night within the precincts of the PM’s official residence”Temple Trees”.The senior Police officer in charge of security at “Temple Trees’ was Asst Supdt of Police W. T. Dickman. However he was replaced at short notice by ASP Stanley Jirasinghe on the orders of DIG Dissanayake. ASP Jirasinghe was the DIG’s PA and exremely loyal to “Jungle” Dissanayke.
Lt. Col Wilmot(Willie) Abraham MBE the commanding officer of the 3rd field artillery regiment was to take over “Temple Trees” with some soldiers. Stanley Jirasinghe’s task was to assist Willie Abraham in the takeover of ”Temple Trees”. Col FC de Saram was to position himself at the Prime Minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at the earliest and direct operations from there. The password there was to be “British Grenadier”. This was the title of the Artillery regiment’s marching tune.
Col “Derek” de Saram was a close relaive of SWRD Bandaranike ( SWRD and De Saram’s wife Nedra were first cousins) . Col de Saram would personally inform Mrs. Bandaranaike of the coup and take into custody the premier. Thereafter Mrs. Bandaraaike was to be placed under house arrest at “Tintagel” with her children Sunethra (18)Chandrika(16) and Anura(12). She would be given the choice of acknowledging the coup and joining the Governing council to be set up for an interim administration.If she declined Mrs. Bandaranaike and her three children were to be relocated to Britain with a generous monthly pension in sterling currency. There was absolutely no question of bodily hrm being done to her or the children.
Felix and NQ; “Dangerous Dias Duo”
Prime Miniser Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s cabinet in which she was in charge of defence and external affairs, comprised eleven ministers . The ministers were to be placed under house arrest with the exception of Finance minister Felix R Dias Bandaranaike who was also the Parliamentary Secretary of the Miistry of Defence and External Affairs (junior minster. Felix Bandaranaike and the powerful Defence and External Affairs ministry secretary Neil Quintus Dias were to be arrested and held at the Army headquarters on Lower lake road.FRD Bandaranaike and NQ Dias were regarded as the “dangerous Dias duo” responsible for much of the “Sinhala Buddhist” politicization of the defence sector despite Felix being an Anglican Christian.
Several other important defence officials were also to be taken to Army headquarters and detained. These included the DIG-CID SA Dissanayake (Jingle) who was a brother of DIG CC Dissanayake (Jungle), acting Navy chief Rajan Kadirgamar and SP-CID John Attygalle .Those taken to Army headquarters were to be detained in underground bunkers used to store ammunition at the armoury. They were to be held incommunicado for a certain period.
Col. Maurice de Mel the commandant of the Ceylon Volunteer Force and former Chief of Staff of the Army was to station himself att the Army headquarters and direct his side of the coup operations from there. The officer in charge of the Guard room at Army H’quarters on 27/28 night was to be Capt. Robert Poulier, one of those involved in the Coup conspiracy. He later shot himself after being interrogated. The password to be used at the Army H’quarters was “Yathura”(key).
Other cabinet ministers, and important officials were to be placed under virtual house arrest. These included the IGP Abeykoon, Air Force chief Barker and Army commander Wijekoon. Their movement was to be restricted to their homes alone. However the acting Navy chief Rajan Kadirgamar was to be detained at the army headquarters.
In another facet of “Operation Holdfast” a large number of Government members of Parliament and leftist MP’s of the opposition were to be detained en masse at the “Sravasti” MP’s hostel. These included all LSSP, MEP and CP members. Some party leaders were to be placed under house arrest in their own homes in Colombo.Ministers,MP’s , Trade unionists and Journalists perceived as “threats” were to be incarcerated. Among these were CMU Gen Secy Bala Tampoe, CTUF Gen-secy Nagalingam Shanmugadasan and “”Tribune” editor SP Amarasingham.
Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
Once the coup was accomplished the ring leaders were to converge at “Queens House” and request: Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and take direct authority.The coup conspirators did not seem to have plans of retaining power for themselves after acquiring it. At least that is what it seemed at that time.
The simplistic plan was to dissolve Parliament and establish direct rule under the Governor-General Sir Oliver. He was to be assisted by a “Regency Council” in which former Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawela were to be members of. Even Wijayananda Dahanayake and Sirimavo Bandaranaike being ex-premiers were to be invited to join this council. After a reasonable period of time fresh elections were to be called under a new Constitution and an elected government would be installed. A team of eminent lawyers including two Queen’s Counsels would draft the new Constitution.
Three Phases of Post-coup Activity
It was stated later that three phases of Post-coup activity were envisaged by the coup planners.. The first phase after the coup would be a military dictatorship. The second phase would be “indirect democracy” where a governing council including ex-prime minsters would assist the Governor-General in ruling. The third phase would be elections to Parliament after promulgating a new constitution ensuring justice and equality to all races and religions.
As stated earlier the architects of the 1962 Coup d’etat Conspiracy embarked on that venture with lofty motives for the beterment of the country. One does not know whether their good intentions would have stood the test of time had the coup succeeded in the overthrow of the then Govt. We shall never know because the coup never materialized.It was called off at the eleventh hour. The underlying causes behind the Coup conspiracy and the reasons for its abrupt cancellation would be delved into in greater detail in forthcoming articles.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article appears in the “D.B.S.Jeyaraj Column” of the “Daily Mirror” dated January 19th 2022.It can be accessed here: