Ceylon’s Pearl Harbour attack

How allied forces thwarted the Japanese attempt to invade Lanka 68 Easters ago
By Lloyd Rajaratnam Devarajah

It was 68 years ago on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, that Japan made an unsuccessful bid to invade Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called). The Japanese attempt was not only thwarted but successfully repulsed by the Allied Forces based in the island. As Christians throughout the island were attending Easter Sunday morning services in churches, Ceylon received its first “Baptism by Fire” when Japanese enemy aircraft flew over Colombo. The civil defence measures that had been set up only a few weeks before the attack were put into action.

The Colombo raid came 119 days after Japan formally entered the Second World War by attacking the United States Pacific naval fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941. Some 360 war planes took part in that attack. They destroyed the US battleship Arizona and severely crippled the battleships Oklahoma, Nevada, California and West Virginia, three destroyers and nearly a dozen other naval craft. A total of 2,280 military (2,086 Naval and 194 Army) personnel were killed and 1,109 (749 Naval and 360 Army) wounded.

The Japanese raid on Colombo changed Ceylon’s status in relation to the war, vastly. Ceylon was expected to be the next Japanese target, after Malaya (as Malaysia was then called) fell into the hands of the advancing Japanese forces, on February 15, 1942.

Hermes under attack from Japanese aircraft (above) and (below) the Akagi warship from where planes took off to attack Ceylon. Courtesy Wikimedia

Ceylon was strategically important as it had a command and control of the Indian Ocean and was a “mere stepping stone” to India. Shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack, the East Indies naval fleet of the Allies was rushed and based in Trincomalee, one of the world’s biggest natural harbours. The Royal Air Force (RAF) soon established a “Catalina” (flying boat) squadron in early 1942, doing reconnaissance work from the Koggala seaplane base. The other airbase facilities available at that time were the civilian airport at Ratmalana and the military airfield at China Bay in Trincomalee. The Koggala seaplane base was the largest “flying boat” station in Asia.

With the arrival of Sir Geoffrey Layton on March 16, 1942, as the first Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon, reinforcements and recruitment of military personnel gathered momentum.

Australian troops on their way home after the battles in the Middle East arrived in Colombo. East African troops also arrived around that time and took up “battle positions” in Ceylon. On April 2, 1942, Squadron Leader Leonard Joseph Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force came to Ceylon. He flew down from Karachi in his Catalina with his eight-member crew to the Koggala seaplane base. Two days later, on April 4, 1942, Birchall volunteered to fly out on a reconnaissance of the coastal waters. After completing his routine search mission and on his way back to base, Birchall noticed a series of “sticks” rising up on the distant horizon and against the dim grey evening skies, around 4.

Birchall suddenly turned his “Cat” to take a closer look at the suspicious object and was virtually flabbergasted to observe a Japanese armada of seven aircraft carriers, three battleships, two cruisers and a large number of destroyers heading towards the South-East coast of Ceylon, about 350 miles away. Birchall radioed back to the base, the position and composition of the advancing Japanese naval fleet. His SOS message was picked up and all “posts” in the island were alerted. Whilst he was repeating the SOS a third time (as there was no reply to his earlier messages), Birchall’s “Cat” was riddled with bullets from Japanese planes which had spotted it.

The Catalina’s radio and navigational equipment sustained heavy damage and the sea plane crashed into the sea. One member of the crew perished whilst two others were killed by Japanese machine-gun fire whilst they were in the water. Fifteen minutes later, Birchall and five other survivors were picked up by a destroyer and later transferred aboard the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, to Japan. Three of the “Cat” crew were badly wounded.

The Japanese interrogated Birchall to find out whether a radio message had been flashed, alerting Ceylon about the pending invasion. Birchall said he was about to do so when the radio equipment was destroyed by the Japanese gunfire. The six prisoners during the intensive interrogation denied that a radio message had been sent to Ceylon, alerting its air and ground forces.

On the following day, April 5, 1942, Easter Sunday, the Japanese sea and air task force raided Colombo harbour and Ratmalana airport, badly damaging harbour installations. But the Japanese were astonished when they were repulsed and driven off by repeated“Ack-Ack” and anti-aircraft gunfire. The Colombo defences “bagged” 32 Japanese aircraft whilst damaging 25 others. The total civilian casualties numbered 37 in the first “Baptism by fire” over Colombo. Twenty of them were inmates of the Angoda Mental Hospital.

Two ships -- an armed merchant cruiser and a submarine depot ship -- which were in Colombo harbour were badly damaged. The Japanese air raid also crippled the Ratmalana airstrip and the Ratmalana railway workshop and running shed. A number of buildings and workshops in the vicinity of Colombo harbour were also damaged by the Japanese bombings.

When the air raid sirens sounded on that fateful Sunday morning, some of those who were caught in the Colombo streets were at first inclined to ignore the warning as “just another rehearsal alert”. Instead of taking cover in the newly-constructed underground air raid shelters, strategically located in various parts of the Colombo city, they preferred to stand and gaze at the aircraft formation, overhead.

They were soon in for a rude awakening when they saw the planes break formation and swoop down to dive-bomb and machine gun buildings and other noted landmarks and targets in Colombo. The Japanese, taking advantage of the low thunder clouds, carried out the first round of dive-bombing over Colombo harbour. A second round of high-level bomb attacks, launched over Colombo, damaged a large number of workshops, as the ground defence forces found interception and effective anti-aircraft batteries firing a difficult task.

At Ratmalana, several Allied fighter aircraft were destroyed. Thirty six “Hurricane” fighter planes and six “Fulmar” aircraft from the recently-constructed airfield at the Havelock Racecourse, found themselves engaged in aerial “dog fights”. The Racecourse airfield remained untouched during the Japanese air raids. On that same Easter Sunday afternoon, the merchant cruiser “Hector” and the destroyer “Tenedos” were sunk in Colombo harbour, whilst the cruisers “Dorsetshire” and the “Cornwall” were sunk by dive-bombing, some 300 miles west of Colombo. The Allied losses in aircraft in the “Battle of Colombo” were officially stated to be “Comparatively heavy”.

The Allied forces in Ceylon next anticipated an attack on Trincomalee and a large Japanese armada -- both warships and aircraft carriers -- was spotted on April 9, 1942 by reconnaissance planes, about 30 miles off the east coast. That same day, the Japanese aircraft attacked Trincomalee harbour as well as the airport buildings, causing heavy damage. There were many casualties especially among the naval personnel and civil dockyard workers.

The Allied forces using “Fulmars”, “Blenheims” and “Hurricanes” engaged in fierce “dog fights” with the enemy aircraft and Japan sustained losses of 21 war planes, whilst 17 others were crippled in the Battle for Trincomalee. “Ack-Ack” firing from the ground had downed nine of the Japanese planes.

Eight “Hurricanes” and three “Fulmars” of the Allied forces were destroyed whilst five “Benheims” and a “Cat” were reported “missing in action”. Six airmen of the ground staff were killed whilst 36 were seriously wounded.The bombing caused heavy damage to hangars, equipment and bomb dumps in the Trincomalee battle. A plane on the airstrip was destroyed. One section of the Trincomalee harbour was also badly damaged. The aircraft carrier “Hermes” accompanied by the Australian destroyer “Vampire” were spotted about 80 miles south of Trincomalee by the Japanese raiders that same fateful date. Both these vessels were sunk. They could not defend themselves as the planes aboard the carrier, had already been sent to defend Ceylon. The corvette, “Hollyhock”, which was near-by, was also sunk.

The Navy sustained a total of 756 casualties in the two “battles” over Colombo and Trincomalee. Twenty one officers and 287 ratings lost their lives on the “Hermes”. Ten officers and 180 ratings were lost aboard the “Cornwall”; 19 officers and 215 ratings on the “Dorsetshire”; three officers and 12 ratings were killed aboard the “Tenedos” and one officer and eight ratings perished with the “Vampire”. There were no casualties reported on the “Hector”.A Japanese aircraft, believed to be on a reconnaissance, flew over Colombo on July 17, 1943 and the following day, a Japanese bomber flew on a similar mission over Colombo. Another reconnaissance aircraft flew over Hambantota and Colombo on September 20, 1943.

A “Beaufighter” belonging to the Allied forces shot down a Japanese naval aircraft on a reconnaissance mission on October 12, 1943. A Japanese seaplane was shot down 17 miles west of Colombo in November 1943.

On February 7, 1944, a Japanese warplane flew over Point Pedro and later over Batticaloa. It dropped eight bombs, but there were no casualties as most of them fell on the Batticaloa-Trincomalee road and on a nearby plantation.

Leonard Birchall who was called the “Saviour of Ceylon” was transferred to a Yokohama prisoner-of-war camp where he was kept for about 15 months. The Japanese then moved him to Tokyo until the Allied forces virtually “burnt out” the capital.After Birchall and his surviving crew fell into the hands of the Japanese, all hopes of seeing them again had been given-up for nearly two years until a Canadian managed to escape from the prison camp and sent a postcard to “Mrs. Birchall C/o the war office”, stating “Birchall is Alive”. Birchall was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The United States produced the first atom bomb and successfully tested it on the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. On August 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped the first atom bomb, used in a war, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It killed more than 200,000 people. Three days later, on August 9, 1945 a second atom bomb was dropped by the US on the industrial city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 72,000, almost all of them civilians.

Five days after the Nagasaki bomb -- i.e. on August 14, 1945 -- the Japanese unconditionally surrendered. The formal surrender took place aboard the U.S.S. “Missouri” on September 2, 1945 and was celebrated as “V-J (Victory over Japan) Day”. With the end of the war, Birchall and his remaining crew members were liberated by the conquering forces.

Birchall later appeared as a witness to testify at the Japan War Crimes Trials.

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