Battleships Down: Early Signs in the Decline of British Imperial Power across the Span of the Indian Ocean

Michael Roberts

Prince of Wales (left, front) and Repulse (left, behind) under attack by Japanese aircraft. The destroyer Express in the foreground.

The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list.

The British imperial presence across the far-flung lands of the Indian Ocean rested on military power, with Britain’s naval arm as the spinal column supporting its reach and force. That dominant presence received a rude shock in the South China sea on 10th December 1941 when the Japanese air force flying from aircraft carriers sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse — a few days after the US Navy had been mauled at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941.[1] The implications were expanded when a raiding force of Japanese aircraft carriers and supporting naval ships penetrated deep into the Indian Ocean and raided Colombo and Trincomalee on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942; while sinking the Hermes and cruiser Cornwall off the coasts of the island.

The impending decline of British colonial power across the domains of the Indian Ocean was signaled by this momentous set of events. In pointing up the principal foundations of British power, these moments have a bearing on the acceptance of the radical Donoughmore Commission proposals by the British cabinet and any comparative sweep of the decolonization process in India and the lands adjacent to that sub-continent.

This note does not detract from the valuable contributions imprinted within recent newspaper articles by Leelananda de Silva and Prabath de Silva which presented useful insights on the progressive outcomes flowing from the Donoughmore Commission’s reforms and those flowing from programmes of the State Council in the 1930s and 1940s — with both authors being implicitly influenced by the political debates of the immediate post-1948 era.

One overarching aspect of these latter debates was the assessment of the Ceylonese political agitation against the backdrop of the stirring mass agitation pursued by Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalists in neighbouring India. This encouraged commentary that belittled the achievements of the Sri Lankan leaders – with those of Marxist persuasion leading this set of criticisms.

Such lines of comparative thinking were (and remain) misleading and befuddled. They bypass and shut out any consideration of the BASIS of British power in the territories spanned by the Indian Ocean. Note that: the INDIAN OCEAN …. meaning the states and spaces extending from the shores of Africa and the Red Sea to the peninsula we know as Malaysia with its strategic ‘lane,’ the Strait of Malacca.

A central aspect of the British imperial presence across this region in the period extending from the 1760s to the 1940s was military power. There were two fundamental pillars supporting this power: (A) the organisational and hardware capacities of the British Army and (B) the naval might of the British Navy. Of these two arms the more central was the Navy – because it could carry lethal force to most trouble spots in the vast span of the Indian Ocean.

Within the land mass of the Indian subcontinent, however. reach and effectiveness of military muscle assembled and distributed by the naval arms was limited …. the more so in the 20th century once the Indian nationalists began assembling mass support and intelligently deployed bodies in non-violent satyagraha. Gunfire, laathis and military regiments directed at female satyagrahis were not feasible as a consistent pattern of repression within the vast spaces of the sub-continent.

Ceylon in contrast was an island — one threaded by a network of roads and railways. It follows that the British could deploy its sea power to marshal the forces required to combat any anti-colonial threat of a violent or demi-violent character. Trincomalee, Colombo and Galle provided ports, while Katunayake, Koggala and Trinco had airports.

It is in this context that the liberal patricians serving as the Donoughmore Commission, his Lordship Donoughmore, Drummond Shiels, Francis Butler and ABC, presented a forward-moving set of proposals notably involving (A) near universal franchise;[2] and (B) what can by roughly designated as 7/10th independence.

They so proposed. The proposals went to the Colonial Office headed by Sydney Webb[3] and thence to the British government of that day. I intervene here. What transpired in between that moment and the final “YES” from the British Cabinet?

I speculate.

I suggest that the War Office would have been consulted. The British chiefs of war, representing the Army, Navy and Air Force, would have said: if push comes to shove, we will have few problems in marshaling our forces to retain political control. That degree of confidence was feasible in 1928-31 –unlike the post 1941 decades.

This possibility must be pursued via research work. Dit the War Office provide a nodding “okay” to the proposals of the Donoughmore Commission.

My argument does not end there. Any comparison between the nationalist struggles in Ceylon and India (and, for that matter, those in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia) should attend to the stress on military logistics and military might that is the central pillar in my argument – with its focus on the British naval capacities …. a long arm if ever there was one.

A long arm yes.

Till the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese planes in the South China Sea off Malaysia on the 10th December 1941. ……………… and this momentous event, as we know, followed the even more meaningful mauling of the American Navy and psyche at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941.

The implications were further underlined when a marauding Japanese aircraft carrier force raided Colombo and Trincomalee on 5th April 1942, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes off Batticaloa and the cruiser Cornwall elsewhere, while causing extensive damage at the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo.

British imperial might received a mighty blow then in 1941-42. The decolonization process in subsequent decades was aided materially by this set of events. Ironic that: for an expanding imperial power (Japan) to weaken the military foundations of another imperial power in what can be understood as insidious ways.

To comprehend that type of process, therefore, one must attach weight to the vital significance of sea power in the British colonial dispensation across the Indian Ocean.


[1] At Pearl Harbour USA lost 4 aircraft carriers, 03 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 01 training vessel and 188 aircraft; while 2403 Amerccan servicemen died.

[2] The Donoughmore Commission restricted the voting power of females to those 30 and over. The Legislative Council of Sri Lanka opted to equalize male and female rights to those. 21 and over.

[3] Sydney Webb’s importance, needs underlining of course – both via the choice of personnel for the Commission but also by throwing his own background voice and the probability that Leonard Woolf’s thinking was brought into play in the course of preliminary as well as subsequent discussions.

[4] At Pearl Harbour USA lost 4 aircraft carriers, 03 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 01 training vessel and 188 aircraft; while 2403 AmerIcan servicemen died.


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5 responses to “Battleships Down: Early Signs in the Decline of British Imperial Power across the Span of the Indian Ocean

  1. Janaka Perera

    The hard fact is that whatever Imperial Japan’s motives were it was her entry into the war that hastened the independence of the European colonies of South and Southeast Asia. Asian national leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose, Aung San and Sukarno knew it even though Japan lost the war

  2. Let’s just be clear. The motive of Imperial Japan was to conquer, colonize, exploit and enslave China, Korea and South East Asia.

    Southern and South-East Asians should thank their lucky stars that the Allies whipped the asses of the Japs and put an end to their dreams of conquest and domination. As the new masters of former British colonies the Japs would doubtless have subjected their little brown underlings and slaves to the outstanding brutality and cruelty for which their culture is renowned.

    So it is ignorant and unintelligent to crow about the dismantling of the British Empire. It is only wilful ignorance that prevents an honest acknowledgement that Britain and her Allies saved the asses of British colonists from an horrific future under the whip of wicked and conscienceless overlords.

    Whether or not those asses were worth saving is a question for another day.

  3. Vinod

    Is this intended as an apologia for the “Sri Lankan leaders”? Let us put things in perspective. The first person to call for Independence in Sri Lanka was Philip Gunawardena, as part of the Comintern, in 1927. The movement he founded demanded Independence from the very beginning.
    The Left understood the strategic imperative from the beginning, that an independent India was a prerequisite for Sri Lankan independence. Hence, they threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Quit India struggle.
    Why didn’t the “Sri Lankan leaders” share this perspective? Because they had no personal connections with India. On the other hand, they were all tied into the British colonial system. They were plantation owners, or plumbago mine owners, or arrack rentiers, or traders who had a personal stake in the continuation of the Planter Raj.
    Even after the British naval disasters of 1942, the “Sri Lankan leaders” continued to brownnose the British. In 1943, when the CNC declared for Independence, the so-called “father of Independence” DS Senanayake resigned from it. That year, the British C-in-C Admiral Clayton was able to call the Civil Defence Commissioner, OE Goonetilleke, a “black bastard” and OEG basically took it lying down.
    What was 70% independence, was not the Donoughmore Constitution, but the Dominion Realm which was established in 1948. The plantation companies and the agency houses remained in control of the economy, the British controlled the armed forces, and had their own units stationed here in case of trouble. The degree of dependence of the “Sri Lankan leaders” on the British war machine became apparent during the 1953 Hartal, when the entire cabinet sought refuge on the HMS Newfoundland. The British even had an important signals intelligence station in Sri Lanka, and began moving it from Narahenpita to Perkah, without the Government of Sri Lanka even knowing of its existence!
    True, the weakening of the British Empire became apparent after the Second World War, but not even this enabled the “Sri Lankan leaders” to demand full independence. The weakening of Britain merely led to them turning to an alternative teat at which to breastfeed – the USA.
    The DS Senanayake government was so supine that it adopted the formulas of the Bretton Woods institutions wholesale – the establishment of a Central Bank to carry out the Bretton Woods diktat, and even to close down the few industries the British had established in Sri Lanka during the War.
    Fundamentally, what independence we have today was achieved after 1957, when SWRD sent the British packing.
    We still ahve to send the Bretton Woods institutions packing, and then we can talk about achieveing true independence.

  4. No it is not. It is a response to the waffling “whatever” modifier of the phrase “Imperial Japan’s motives” in the comment preceding it.

    Sri Lanka will never have “true independence”. An over-populated, heavily mortgaged, third-world country with the Chinese camel’s front feet firmly under the tent flap is not a candidate for any real independence to speak of.
    Ceylon has always been, and Sri Lanka will always be, under the thumb of a greater power. D.S Senanayake merely acknowledged the unavoidable truth.
    Though perhaps not its laws, which were the legacy of the Dutch, the British gave Sri Lanka its judicial system, school system, transportation system, postal system, a stable currency, and established the plantations that sustain its economy right down to the present. The Portuguese and Dutch in turn developed the spice trade. Sri Lanka has been ruled by overlords since the Tamils first encroached. Someone has always had to give Ceylon a helping hand or a foot up to aid its progress from one phase of under-development to another.
    The Sinhalese themselves claim their civilization came from Indian invaders. Even their National religion originated in India. Several signatures of the Sinhalese traitors who formally gave up their last kingdom to the British on the 1815 document of surrender to were in Tamil!
    The Western-educated SWRD, a Christian apostate, was a hypocritical opportunist down to his very bones. Not a single one of his names had a Sinhalese origin – ‘bandera’ being a Portuguese word and ‘Nayaka’ a South Indian one. SWRD kicked out the Burghers and fooled the Sinhalese into believing that ‘Sobasha/Sinhala only’ would be to their benefit. It was not. And for all his efforts to ingratiate himself, he was bumped off by a couple of saffron-robed assassins. Sinhala only speakers are still at a disadvantage, and they know it. Futile and silly attempts at asserting ‘independence’ will always have to bow down to the inevitable. Remember when Saturday and Sunday were briefly and ridiculously supplanted with Pre-Poya and Poya days?
    When there has been a shortage of external ‘enemies’ on whom to pin their grievances, the Sinhalese have turned on the Burghers, the Tamils, the Muslims, and during the insurgency even themselves. Disunity treachery and avarice have always divided them.
    Soon they will have to turn against the Chinese, who have inextricably indebted them and taken over the Hambantota port and kindly bequeathed them with the Wuhan virus.
    Corrupt dictators, failing economies and rising sea levels are bound to send hard-pressed Sri Lankans who want a better life flocking to the West, or as at present, to the Middle East as indentured servants.
    For a nation with such a history, “true independence” – whatever that is – can only be a pipe dream.
    And then there is Kuveni’s curse.

  5. Pingback: Pushing the British out of Ceylon, 1918-1956: Issues | Thuppahi's Blog

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