When Ceylon was under Attack by the Japanese Imperial Thrust, 1942

Jayantha Somasundaram, in The Island, 8 April 2022, where the title runs thus: “The Turn of the Tide”

Eighty years ago on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942, Ceylon came under attack by a Japanese armada. The Battle for Ceylon was going to be a duel of skill, nerves and grit between the pilots of the approaching Japanese Carrier Fleet and the RAF fighter pilots defending Ceylon.

On 26th March 1942 Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s main aircraft carrier force, sailed out of Kendari in the Celebes (now Sulawesi in Indonesia). It consisted of the First Air Fleet with the carriers the Akagi, the Hiryu, the Soryu, the Shokaku and the Zuikaka, along with the Third Battle Squadron made up of the battleships the Haruna, the Hiei, the Kirisbima and the Kongo, accompanied by two heavy cruisers and ten destroyers heading for Ceylon. “In striking power” says naval historian H. P Willmott of the US Naval Institute in Empires in the Balance, “virtually the same as the force used against Pearl Harbour.”

Admiral Nagumo’s objective was to replicate the Pearl Harbour victory by catching an unprepared Eastern Fleet in Ceylon’s harbours so as to destroy Britain’s maritime capability in the Indian Ocean. He planned to attack the island on 5th April which was Easter Sunday, when he expected the British to be off their guard. In fact the Japanese had counted on their mere presence in strength in the Ocean surrounding Ceylon to result in the capitulation of the island and even to the collapse of British rule in India, given that there was widespread Indian resistance to the British.

Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo

 Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force attached to No 413 Squadron at Koggala Air Force Base had transferred to Ceylon on 2nd April. On arrival Birchall was detailed to fly out at predawn on Saturday 4th April on a reconnaissance mission in a Consolidated PBY Catalina seaplane to locate the enemy fleet. At about 4:00pm when they were ready to turn back, the crew saw specks on the horizon. As they approached the advance column of the Japanese armada they came under attack. But by then they had identified the enemy ships, their position, course, speed and the composition of the force. This information was radioed back repeatedly until their radio was hit by attacking Mitsubishi Zero long-range fighter aircraft. Birchall and his crew were shot down and taken prisoner. The Japanese Fleet was 350 miles south east of Ceylon. Though their presence and position had been detected Vice-Admiral Nagumo went ahead with his plan for the Easter Sunday attack.

Responding to Birchall’s signal another Catalina from 205 Sq took off at 5:45 pm Saturday to locate and trail the fleet. Piloted by Flight Lieutenant ‘Jock’ Graham they made contact at 10:30 that night, trailing the fleet until dawn when they too were shot down, killing the entire crew. A third Catalina commanded by Flight Lieutenant Bill Bradshaw took off at 5:30am Sunday, an hour later they encountered aircraft which they mistook as friendly, but which in fact were part of the 125 aircraft that had left the Japanese carriers at first light under Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Akagi – the same commander who led the Pearl Harbour attack five months earlier. His air armada consisted of 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers, 53 Nakajima B5N attack bombers and 36 Zero escort fighters. But Nagumo’s main force of 180 aircraft were held in reserve for the real target, the Eastern Fleet.

Colombo Harbour

 When news of the approaching Japanese armada came through Colombo Harbour began to empty as merchant vessels took to sea accompanied by the Royal Indian Navy Sloop Clive, the Corvette Marguerite and the Sloop Shoreham to protect the flotilla against Japanese submarines. But 21 merchant vessels along with 8 fleet auxiliaries and the armed merchant cruiser Hector, submarine depot ship Lucia, the destroyers Decoy and Tenedos and the submarine Trusty which were not fit to sail remained behind.

Flight Operations in Colombo had misjudged the range of the Zeros and the fact that they carried drop tanks ̶ external auxiliary fuel tanks. The assumption was made therefore that an attack would only be launched on the 6th when the carrier force was much nearer its target.

Air Ministry personnel had begun arriving on 18th March followed by their equipment and the Radar Experimental Station 254 was established at the Ridgeway Golf Links in Borella which became operational a week later. It was linked by telephone to Fighter Operations HQ. However during their approach into Colombo the Japanese pilots remained over the sea thus avoiding detection by radar. So when the first Japanese aircraft approached Ratmalana Air Base at 7:40am, its defenders were unprepared. The Japanese dive bombers heading towards Colombo flew over Ratmalana unopposed. They then rose over the sea to 8,000 feet to begin their bombing run over the Colombo Harbour.

Meanwhile at Ratmalana 30 Sq Hurricanes struggled to get airborne, some emptying their guns while still on the ground at the approaching Japanese planes, with others taking off in disarray as the first bombs fell on the Air Base. Twenty seven fighters did succeed in getting airborne at Ratmalana to fight off the 14 Aichi D3A bombers targeting their base.

Because the Japanese were unaware of the new airbase at the Racecourse 258 Sq’s Hurricanes were able to safely and quickly take to the air and head for the Harbour which was already under attack. Around 75 bombers were attacking the Harbour with 35 Zeros providing protective cover from overhead. Dog fights broke out between the fighters and the gun emplacements around the port also opened fire on the Japanese bombers; in total they fired 22 rounds from 12 pounders, 1,027 from heavy anti-aircraft guns and 527 from light anti- aircraft guns.

The Damage

 The destroyer Tenedos was being refitted in the Walker Sons & Co jetty. According to John Bennett an engineer with Walkers “a stick of bombs fell, some on the jetty and the remainder on the stern of the destroyer setting off the after magazine and the torpedo warheads…forty feet of our very solid reinforced concrete jetty disappeared and the destroyer was sunk. Parts of the destroyer actually fell in our machine shop 150 yards from the jetty.”

The merchant vessel Benledi unloading military vehicles and ordnance was hit, as was the armed merchant cruiser Hector which was set ablaze and her fuel burned for a fortnight. The Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force’s armed trawler Overdale Wyke under Lieutenant Simpson attempted to douse the flames.

After the Easter Sunday raid on Colombo, Admiral Nagumo unaware that the RN Eastern Fleet was sheltering at Addu Attol, scoured the Bay of Bengal for the enemy. Giving up the fruitless search, he returned on the 9th to mount one final attack on the Island, this time targeting Trincomalee. The RAF’s remaining Hurricanes and Fulmer fighters took on more than a hundred attacking Japanese planes. While Trincomalee was under attack nine Bristol Blenheim light bombers attacked the Japanese fleet, targeting Admiral Nagumo’s flagship the carrier Akagi. The RAF suffered heavy casualties with only four Blenheims returning from the mission. 

Out at sea, seeking to distance themselves from Ceylon, the RN carrier HMS Hermes, her escort destroyer HMS Vampire and the corvette HMS Hollyhock were located and sunk by Japanese aircraft. In addition to sinking ships in port and damaging harbour installations in Ceylon, the Japanese sank the only RN carrier sunk during the war. In Ceylon nearly a hundred civilians were killed and a thousand servicemen had died, the majority on board the sunken RN vessels.

However unlike in their previous encounters with the Allies, the Japanese sustained enemy fire from modern fighter aircraft.  In the Battle for Ceylon the Japanese carrier fleet for the first time had encountered aerial resistance and been bombed. In total RAF fighter planes and the anti aircraft defences succeeded in bringing down 70 Japanese raiders in the Ceylon theatre of operations. The losses suffered by them resulted in three of Admiral Nagumo’s five carriers returning to Japan.

The Japanese were surprised that unlike in Pearl Harbour the RN’s Eastern Fleet was not available in port for a surprise attack which would have decimated British maritime capability in the Indian Ocean. Their pilots were also impressed by the accurate anti-aircraft gunfire that they had to contend with. Within a week of the initial raids the Japanese Fleet had returned to Singapore.

Admiral Nagumo’s attack on Ceylon in April 1942 though failing to totally cripple the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet, did result in severe losses which compelled it to retreat to the Kenyan coast and take shelter in the inland Kilindi Harbour. 

Sir Arthur Bryant in his history of the war The Turn of the Tide 1939-1943 summed up what happened in Ceylon: “On Easter morning 50 Japanese bombers, escorted by an equal number of Zero fighters roared in from the South expecting another Pearl Harbour…the attackers returned to their carriers with their mission unaccomplished…For the first time since the start of the Japanese war a major assault by the rising sun had been repulsed.”



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3 responses to “When Ceylon was under Attack by the Japanese Imperial Thrust, 1942

  1. Two Japanese Airmen who perished during the battle along with the planes theye were piloting are said to be buried adjoining the S Thomas College, Mt Lavinia main club grounds just by the Lower School block. Two large old Kottang Trees are said to be ‘monuments’ to those two Japanese Airmen whose remains are buried under those trees. S Thomas was ‘commandeered’ by the British at the time and served as a base hospital.

    • Richard Simon has responded by EMAIL and refers to a NOTE from Warden de Saram : ‘When we returned in 1946, we asked the military authorities to remove the remains and bury them in a military cemetery. So there is no grounds for legends so beloved by small boys, of Japanese ghosts haunting the Big Club!’ – R.S. de Saram. Thomian Fair 1976 Souvenir.

      The article is also preprinted in the STC Magazine, Term 2, 1986.

      Not sure where I learnt that the remains were eventually taken back to Japan. Possibly not in an STC source.

  2. Dr Hayman was attending Chapel Service at STC Mt L, at 7AM on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942, when they heard a big noise of Airplanes. Some left the chapel and he observed a large formation of Aircraft flying from the South towards Colombo at great heights. There was no firing; so he assumed they were RAF. planes. So he went to his room and sat down for breakfast on the veranda above the College Hall entrance. When he was eating the first half of the egg, he heard a plane flying toward College from the sea with artillery A.A. fire. He looked for a towed Target, thinking it was a firing exercise, but did not see one. Leaning over the Veranda wall, he saw a second plane diving at the first Plane firing its Machine Guns.
    Then only did he realize it was Air Raid by the Japanese. There was then a tremendous crash followed by various small explosions. He saw brown smoke rising over the Botany Lab. He went immediately to Air Raid Shelter. There was still splinters of shrapnel falling on the Quadrangle and the roofs aound, with no damage done. When he saw a small boy running towards the smoke, he immedaiatly went after him to fetch him to Air Raid Shelter. The small boy had seen more than Dr Hayman, and said that the First plane which was shot down was a Japanese one and he has turned towards the College and passed over Thallasa, the Warden De Saram Bungalow and crashed on to playing field. The Jap Plane had cleared the roof of Thalassa and hit the concrete Barrel drain damaging it. It had passed over Mrs De Vos’ head who was Warden’s Cousin and was crossing the Big Club grounds to Winchester House to join the Matron. Mrs De Vos had thought to herself –
    “ Why do they allow these silly young pilots to show off.”
    In the Winchester House Sgt Penny of Signals had got Mrs Goonewardane to get under her bed for protection. The only Damage was the cover of slab cover of the Barrel Drain and one of the posts Holding up the canvas net of Tennis Courts. Not even a glass window was broken. The servants of college under the headservant Simon had thought the plane was a British one and attempted to rescue the Pilots, but they were driven back due the intenses heat and exploding of ammunition. They attempted to put out the fire and badly charred bodies were buried in the College grounds. They were removed to the War Cemetery in 1946. Japanese Pilots Ghosts was haunting the Big Club Ground was the talk of Young Boarders of the College. Copied directly College History.

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