Raiders in the sky: the aerial assault on Ceylon | Sunday Observer

Raiders in the sky: the aerial assault on Ceylon

 As in any combat raid there were doubts and speculations. Didn’t the RAF know of a pending attack? If they did, what was their counter measure? RAF Fighter Operations did not realize that the invading Japanese had almost reached the city
As in any combat raid there were doubts and speculations. Didn’t the RAF know of a pending attack? If they did, what was their counter measure? RAF Fighter Operations did not realize that the invading Japanese had almost reached the city

The Ceylon Daily News of 1942 had a headline making story which reads thus: “Colombo and the suburbs were attacked yesterday at 8 o’clock in the morning by 75 enemy aircraft which came in waves from the sea. Twenty-five of the raiders were shot down, while 25 more were damaged. Dive-bombing and low-flying machine-gun attacks were made in the harbour and Ratmalana areas. A medical establishment in the suburbs was also bombed.”

Unknown to most of us in this generation the precision Japanese bombs hit ships in Colombo harbour, the Ratmalana airport and railway workshops and oil installations located at Kolonnawa. The people were in total panic. The Angoda Mental Hospital, which was a short distance away from the oil tanks, was also bombarded. It was later discovered that the roof of the building did not have a red cross painted on it, which was the norm in that era. Several patients were killed in this audacious attack.

The raiders of the Japanese Imperial Force displayed their combat prowess when a plane delivered an explosive directly into the funnel of the merchant ship, “Hector”. The vessel exploded like a scene in a Hollywood blockbuster, and is said to have burnt for a fortnight. The British Admiralty had several ships in Ceylon as part of their fleet strategy. The Japanese pilots now motivated by their success found two Royal Navy cruisers, the “Cornwall” and the “Dorsetshire”. The ships were sitting ducks. After a gallant struggle lasting nearly 60 minutes the two vessels were crippled and sank. Nearly 440 officers and sailors went down with their vessels fighting and firing her guns until their last breath. They lay entombed to this day below the ocean.

The air raid over the city lasted about 20 minutes and the number of civilian casualties was recorded as 85 dead. The people of Ceylon had never experienced such a scenario as this and were propelled into a state of fear. The civilian population, including dock workers fled to rural areas that were considered safe, hoping to stay with relatives, escaping on bicycles and bullock carts.

During the raid there were `dog fights’ between British and Japanese fighter aircraft. One British plane crashed into the Bellanwila-Attidiya paddy field while another was shot down over the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. One Japanese plane crashed into S. Thomas’ College grounds, Mount Lavinia, killing both, the pilot and rear gunner. There is a marker at the STC playground to this day indicating the position of the downed flight. Another raider crashed into the marshlands of Pita Kotte.

As in any combat raid there were doubts and speculations. Didn’t the RAF know of a pending attack? If they did, what was their counter measure? RAF Fighter Operations did not realize that the invading Japanese had almost reached the city.

The Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu once said, “Your plans must be dark as night and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt”- this is what the Japanese did, with the element of surprise. An allied pilot on coastal patrol, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (413 Squadron) had given notice to Command Head Quarters in Ceylon of the approaching Japanese naval fleet, before the enemy chased and shot down his Catalina aircraft, off Koggala. Leonard Birchall was later promoted Air Commodore and hailed as the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’.

In his scintillating war memories the author of, The Most Dangerous Moment, Michael Tomlinson remembers his days in Ceylon. He was RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana. The Japanese planes under the command of Captain Fuchida were flying over Galle by 7.15 a.m. and flew along the coast for more than half an hour at an aerial ceiling of 8,000 feet. Incidentally, Fuchida was the man who led the raid on Pearl Harbour causing damage to many American ships.

Did the RAF radar pick up the emerging movements in the sky? Did the operators realize the potential threat? Were they able to pass on the messages to RAF fighter pilots to launch a strike? Tomlinson writes, “It was said, watches were being changed at the crucial moment and the radar had gone unmanned for some time. Furthermore, since no one realized the great range of the Japanese aircraft, the radar men seem to have clung to the view that their carriers would need to approach much closer and the attack would most likely develop much later in the day. With standby at the aerodromes at the early hour of 4 a.m. such a situation is scarcely credible. The Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal d’ Albiac, was aghast at the situation. “I shall never get over this” he was to lament later.

The Japanese pilots motivated by their recent victory at Pearl Harbour took off from the aircraft carriers, “Akagi”, “Hiryu” and “Soryu”, moving about 200 miles south of Ceylon( With a displacement of 36,500 tons the Japanese carrier Akagi was a massive ship with a speed of 31 knots and crew of 1,360. She carried 66 assault aircraft). The first attacking formation comprising 36 fighter planes, 54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers were led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida: their aim being, kill and destroy. After causing heavy damage Fuchida and his pilots returned to their flagship Akagi. Later, a second wave of dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa was airborne.

Four days later, on April 9, the Japanese struck again at Trincomalee, the home base of the British Eastern Fleet. According to Tomlinson, 125 Japanese fighter aircraft took part in the attack. The low level bombers carried bombs that weighed 800 kilograms. The thunder of their combined engines was audible for miles. Responding to a radar warning, 15 Royal Air Force Hurricanes took off from China Bay. The battle raged from 22,000 feet.

As the attackers came over the Trincomalee Naval Base, the sirens screamed out their warning, activating the Ceylon Garrison Artillery to respond opening up their anti aircraft guns. Armour piercing rounds whizzed into the morning sky. (The CGA was formed in 1888 under Captain Symons alongside the Colombo Town Guard).

The Japanese also attacked and sank two ships HMS Hermes (aircraft carrier) and HMAS Vampire off the Batticaloa coast. Tomlinson describes how one Japanese pilot deliberately crashed his plane into one of the massive fuel tanks north of China Bay. The aircraft crews were – Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto and Sutomu Toshira. Some estimate that 700 lives were lost in this surprise air raid. I spoke to a few old folk who vaguely recollected this raid on Ceylon, when they were just kids. I was able to visit this site in 2017 on a naval assignment. Thus, the bloody aerial invasion of Ceylon’s airspace made its mark in the Second World War. As prudent Winston Churchill stated, “This is no time for ease and comfort, it is the time to dare and endure”. 


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