Monday, Mar. 31, 1952

Too Late

"I often twiddle the short wave about," explained Alan Blackman, 36, a fishworker of Hull, England. Listening in at 7:10 one night last week, Blackman heard: "Urgent! Will BBC contact Sir Hugh Cairns at Oxford 58136, ask him to telephone Dr. Pierres, Colombo (Ceylon) 9351? It concerns life or death of our Prime Minister!"

The message was repeated at 90-second intervals. Many other British hams heard it and, like Blackman, notified BBC. One listener sent a cable from Sierra Leone, West Africa.

When the BBC reached Sir Hugh—Oxford's famed Nuffield Professor of Surgery*—he tried at once to phone Colombo. Then began a series of frustrations. The Britain-Ceylon telephone is normally in operation only between 8 and 11 a.m. Before engineers could open up the circuit, two precious hours had been lost.

Finally Sir Hugh got through to Dr. Pierres, and in an eight-minute conversation got the news: Don Stephen Senanayake, 67, Prime Minister of the four-year-old Dominion of Ceylon, had been seriously injured in a freak accident. During his morning horseback ride, his mount had bolted; after sticking to the horse for more than a mile, he had fallen off, somersaulted, landed on his head and never regained consciousness. Sir Hugh instructed Dr. Pierres how to carry on until he himself arrived in Ceylon.

Winston Churchill was at dinner when he heard the news. He ordered the R.A.F. to speed Sir Hugh to Colombo: "Spare nothing—get a plane in the air at once!" Churchill and the British had cause to be grateful to Prime Minister Senanayake. Though in 1915 he had been jailed for 40 days by the British, he had become by 1948 their staunch friend and a worthy foe of the Communists. He had led Ceylon's 7,000,000 people to independence without bloodshed, and he became the new dominion's first Prime Minister. Working to end corruption and diminish poverty, he became known as "the Abraham Lincoln of the East."

At Abingdon Airport in Berkshire, Sir Hugh's R.A.F. Hastings transport had to be fueled and loaded. Sir Hugh was drinking a cup of coffee in the airport lounge, ready to take off, when a final message came. Prime Minister Senanayake was dead.

* Among his patients: General George Patton. Lawrence of Arabia.