The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.
Sir Winston Churchill
- The Japanese decide to carry out an air attack on Sri Lanka
- Sighting of the Japanese fleet
- Attack on Colombo
- Attack on Trincomalee
- Overview of the Japanese air raids on Sri Lanka
- Newspaper articles published in April 1942 informing the air raids
- Some historical records on the Japanese air attacks against Sri Lanka
List of Annexures
- Air Raid on Colombo on 5th April 1942 by Capt GAF Fernando
- The Japanese aircraft crash on to an oil tank in Trincomalee on 9th April 1942 by Lt Cdr Somasiri Devendra
- The Japanese aircraft that crashed on to St Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia Premises – Courtesy of Mr Odath Weerasinghe
- A story of the Japanese plane crash into St. Thomas’s College Mt. Lavinia in 1942 by a Thomian of the 1950-60s
- HMS Hermes: The ship wreck off Batticaloa by Wg Cdr Suresh Fernando
- In Memoriam – Air Commodore L Birchall, RCAF by Flt Lt E D Pereira
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was a British Crown Colony. The British had occupied the coastal areas of the island since 1796, but after 1917 the colony had no regular garrison of British troops. The Ceylon Defence Force and Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve were mobilised and expanded. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomalee and the Royal Air Force (RAF) had established an aerodrome in China Bay, Trincomalee long before the war. In terms of the war, the government of Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka assured the British king and his majesty’s government of its continued support.
The Second World War was fought between the Allies’ and the Axis comprising Germany, Japan and Italy. Germany (with the support of Italy) was looking to establish an empire covering whole of Europe and Japan looking to establish an empire covering Asia and the Pacific. In their quest for power the Japanese invaded South East Asia in early 1942 including an attack on Singapore, a vital Allied stronghold led by the British. Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 and the westward Japanese advance through east and Southeast Asia was starting to look unstoppable. With Singapore in their possession, one final stepping stone stood between the Japanese and both India and the control of the entire Indian Ocean: the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Therefore a Japanese attack on Ceylon was all but inevitable.
After the fall of Singapore, Ceylon has become a frontline British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station had moved to Colombo and then to Trincomalee. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon, with Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiac as Air Officer Commanding, 222 Group (RAF) and Admiral Sir James Somerville appointed as Commander of the British Eastern Fleet.
The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee; these were established just before the war. Air defences were expanded starting in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana near Colombo with its station headquarters set up at Kandawela. Another airfield was rapidly built at Koggala near Galle and several temporary airstrips were built across the country, with the largest at Colombo Racecourse Airstrip*. Several RAF Squadrons were sent to Ceylon. Several Commonwealth units were also stationed in Ceylon for the duration of the war.
As with other British Colonies conscription was not implemented in Ceylon. However, Ceylonese were encouraged to volunteer for service. Many volunteered throughout the war, most joining the Ceylon Defence Force, which was expanded from a reserve unit to a mobilised force of 10 infantry battalions, 3 artillery regiments and support units. For the first time Ceylonese units were deployed outside Ceylon in formation until the Cocos Islands Mutiny after which deployment overseas of Ceylonese units was stopped with a few exceptions.
Ceylonese continued to volunteer and joined the RAF (from 1941 onwards)*, British Army and the Royal Navy. They were supplemented by personnel of the Ceylon Defence Force who requested transfer to front line units of the British Army. They served in the Burma and later in Malaya. Ceylonese served in the Royal Engineers in Italy and with the Royal Army Service Corps in the Middle East and North Africa. The 1st battalion, the Ceylon Corps of Military Police, served in Malaya till 1949.
* These two subjects are discussed in detail in two separate eDocs.
THE JAPANESE DECIDE TO CARRY OUT AN AIR ATTACKON SRI LANKA
“The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.” – Sir Winston Churchill
The Japanese high command, eager to maintain their powerful momentum, decided to attack Ceylon by carrying out an air raid on Colombo with carrier based aircraft as they have done in Pearl Harbour four months back, maintaining the vital element of surprise. Their main aim was to destroy the British Eastern Fleet based at the Colombo harbour.
The British Eastern Fleet prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon to gain a foothold for a subsequent land invasion of India while having a control of the Indian Ocean.
With the date of the attack on Ceylon fixed for Sunday, the 5 April 1942, carrier Akagi of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service fleet leaves Staring Bay in Indonesia on 26 March 1942 with the course set towards Ceylon. This carrier is followed by four (4) other carriers Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku and three (4) battleships Hiei, Kongo, Kirishima and Haruna, under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and the air arm under the command of Captain Mitsuo Fuchida ‒ the same two leaders who carried out the Pearl Harbour raid.
SIGHTING OF THE JAPANESE FLEET
On the 4th of April 1942, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) having taken off from RAF station at Koggala in a Catalina aircraft on a patrol flight, was over the Indian ocean around 400 miles south of Ceylon when he spotted something suspicious on the horizon. Upon closer investigation, the objects he had sighted turned out to be a large Japanese naval fleet heading straight for Ceylon. Alarmed, Birchall managed to send out a radio message warning the command at Colombo of the presence of the Japanese fleet before his Catalina was shot down by Japanese A6M2 Zero fighter planes.
Birchall and the crew members of the Catalina that had survived the machine-gunning and subsequent crash into the ocean were picked up by the Japanese and interrogated. Birchall told them that the plane’s radio had been destroyed by machine gun fire before he had been able to send out a warning about the Japanese fleet which they believed.
THE ATTACK ON COLOMBO On the following day, 5th April (Easter Sunday) the first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor.
Alerted by Birchall’s radio message the previous day, Colombo was prepared for the raid. British and Commonwealth troops – who were from places from as far as East Africa, Pakistan, Australia and India – defended the city with anti-aircraft guns, raking the Japanese planes with heavy and sustained fire. Also in support of the city’s defence by ground forces, Hurricane aircraft were scrambled from the temporary airstrip at RAF Station at Colombo Racecourse. Theses Hurricanes were involved in several dogfights with the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service Zero fighters and bombers which were attacking the city.
The Hawker Hurricanes of the RAF’s No. 30 Squadron were on the ground at Ratmalana Airport when the Japanese aircraft passed overhead. Therefore a number of aircraft were destroyed at Ratmalana Airport. Also the auxiliary cruiser HMS Hector and the old destroyer HMS Tenedos anchored at the Colombo Harbour were sunk by the Japanese aircraft. Other than these two ships and another two, all other ships of the British Eastern Fleet that were in the harbour had been moved out of Colombo in preparation for the raid.
President of the Ceylon War Veterans’ Association of World War II (CWVA), H. G. P. Jayasekara, has said in his book “How Japan Bombed Tiny Ceylon” that,
“Once the fleet reached Ceylonese waters, two waves of aircraft carried out the raid on Colombo. The waves consisted of 36 zero fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 high-level bombers. The Japanese have also bombed the asylum at Angoda – currently the National Institute of Mental Health – mistaking it for the fuel tanks at nearby Kolonnawa. It was an accidental drop of a bomb by the Japanese, for which, on a later date, they apologised to the Ceylon Government. Other bombs have fallen closer to Bellanwila, Pitakotte, the Colombo racecourse, Horana, as well as the Galle Face Green. One Japanese plane crashed after being shot by ground forces near St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, and another near the Kelaniya Temple.
The Sri Lankan writer Ariyadasa Ratnasinghe recalling the Easter Sunday Japanese raid has said:
“Japanese aircraft flew in close formation over Colombo and dropped bombs at different places. The air battle lasted for nearly half an hour. The Allied forces, warned of the danger, were able to shoot down some of the enemy aircraft which fell on land and sea. Among those shot down, one fell near Saint Thomas’ College, one closer to the Bellanwila paddy fields, one near Pita Kotte, one on the racecourse in Colombo, one near Horana and one on the Galle Face Green. A bomb fell off the target and damaged the Mulleriyawa Mental Hospital, killing some inmates. It appeared that the pilot had mistaken the buildings for the Echelon Barracks. One fell near the Maradana railway station, partly damaging it. There were many deaths and more casualties, most of them civilians. To prevent bombs falling on hospitals, it was decided to have a large red cross painted on the roofs”
Air Vice Marshal G Y De Silva (Retd) states the following regarding the Easter Sunday Japanese raid,
“My father, Lieut. G. Francis de Silva (Electrical Engineer) of the British Army, was a Junior Engineer at the Stanley Power Station, Kolonnawa, which was providing electricity to Colombo. He had been the Engineer on duty at the Power Station on the night of 04th April 1942. At 0100 hours on the 05th of April 1942, he had been informed by his senior a British Army Major, Senior Electrical Engineer in charge, to vacate post and take my mother and eldest sister (01 year old) away from Colombo as there would be a Japanese air raid in the morning which would definitely target the power station. My father had done as told. The Japs had bombed the Angoda Mental Hospital, as its cook house chimneys had been putting out smoke which had distracted the Japs”
A web based article done by Capt GAF Fernando (Ex Sri Lankan Airlines and officer of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force) which is attached to this paper as an annexure gives a rather detailed description of this Japanese air raid on Colombo.
Immediately after the air raid of Colombo, probably seeing as opportunity targets, the Japanese attacked two British cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, in the ocean around 200 miles southwest of Ceylon. The attacks were successful and both ships were sunk, with 424 British seamen killed.
ATTACK ON TRINCOMALEE
On 9th April, the Japanese attacked the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the Destroyer HMAS Vampire and The Flower – class corvette HMS Hollyhock were sunk, and SS Sagaing partially destroyed and set on fire below decks. In this air raid the RAF had lost at least nine (09) aircrafts and the Japanese, eleven (11)includingone in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. Seven hundred people lost their lives in the attack on Trincomalee.
According to eye witness Michael Tomlinson (author of “The Most Dangerous Moment” and RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay in Trincomalee), one Japanese pilot deliberately crashed his plane into one of the giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome. Inside the aircraft were three Japanese—Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto, and Sutomu Toshira. After carefully circling the area, they plunged unerringly into the tank, igniting their own funeral pyre. The resulting fire lasted seven days. Parts of the aircraft’s engine and the flattened remains of the fuel storage tank have been placed in a barbed wire enclosure 1½ km from the turn off at the 4th mile post on the Trincomalee–Habarana Road. But a very different account of the above stated incident has been narrated by Lt Cdr Somasiri Devendra, SLN (Retd) to Wg Cdr Ranjith Ratnapala SLAF (Retd) which is attached to this paper as an annexure.
During this week of air raids almost 1,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen gave their lives to defend Ceylon, and the sacrifices they made were ultimately a success. The survival of the British Eastern Fleet prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon which was the ultimate objective of the Japanese by carrying out these air attacks.
OVERVIEW OF THE JAPANESE AIR RAIDS ON SRI LANKA
The Japanese air attack’s were widely reported both locally and internationally. Here are some fo the newspaper clippings thata reported on the events.