Big battle in Batti seas – 67 years ago

How the Japanese destroyed a British aircraft carrier off Lanka’s eastern coast
By Prince Casinader

Batticaloa remembers the epic naval battle, in which two mighty nations pitted their strength against each other 67 years ago. Officials working inside the ancient Dutch fort, serving as the administrative centre, left their desks to view the battle using the ramparts as the grandstand.

Information had filtered through that a formidable Japanese armada had entered the Bay of Bengal under the command of the much feared Japanese Admiral, Naghmo, who was responsible for the successful raid on Pearl Harbour.

On receipt of information, Sir James Somerville, who commanded the Far Eastern Naval Fleet of Britain, was quick to issue orders to British warships huddling in Trincomalee harbour to take flight, along the east coast towards Batticaloa. The pride of these ships, the H.M.S. Hermes, an aircraft carrier, was accompanied by its sister ships – the Australian destroyer H.M.A.S. Vampire, the British Sergeant, and the corvettes Hollyhock and Athletane, among others.

Not far from the Batticaloa sand-bar lighthouse, like angry bees disturbed, came the Japanese planes zooming, diving in threes out of the sun, at 10.35 a.m. on April 9, 1942.

The administrative centre of the Batticaloa district was the Kachcheri, housed in the ancient fort. The British ships were no match for the continued waves of Japanese planes, and as the first bombs hit the deck of the Hermes, she began to sink. A touching tragic scene was the heroic stance of the ship’s captain, Captain Onslow, who as the ship was sinking, stood at the salute with the Union Jack flying, to go down with his ship, not far from the lighthouse.

Nineteen officers, including the brave captain, and 283 ratings were lost, despite a British hospital ship picking up some survivors. Among the survivors was Commander L.K.A. Black who gave details of the downing of this majestic aircraft carrier of the British navy.

He said how from the sun, in waves of three, the planes came in to the attack at a time when the Batticaloa light house could be seen Commander Black on his return to England after the war, rose to become a judge and commissioner of no less a prestigious font of justice, the 'Old Bailey'. He would unfailingly every year insert an 'In Memoriam' in The Times paper, "in memory of my gallant captain and my shipmates of H.M.S. Hermes, who paid the supreme sacrifice”.

Several corpses of sailors were thrown up and among them were three found at the 'sand bar'. The colonial authorities had to tempt some labourers with spirits to retrieve them. A few members of the public, among whom I was then a schoolboy, attended a burial ceremony at the old cemetery at Alayadicholai. There were three crosses with the names of three sailors -- K.A. Vatcher, S.M. Lewis, and the third, the 'Unknown Sailor'. Unlike the other two, his identity disc had slipped off his wrist.

It is said that some villagers from the nearby fishing village of Navaladi went out at night and began looting parts of the sunken ship. It is said they even used dynamite to break open some parts.

Some of us tipped off the police. A young sub inspector whom we knew as Kathirgamanathan lay in ambush and pounced on them as they came to shore with the booty lashed on to catamarans. The vandals fled and made good their escape leaving their haul. A propeller and some other parts lay at the Batticaloa Police Station where I took some of my students to see it and took a photograph. Alas! these items of much historical value were auctioned for a mere song.

Some years later, a research team from the Blue Water Corporation coming to Batticaloa on a project to find the breeding places of a particular species of either whales or sharks, discovered a species resting in the shadows of this ship.

Batticaloa has been very remiss in caring of ancient artefacts and though some years ago, the Kachcheri opened a unit for the care of historical and archaeological artefacts, it seems to be in the doldrums today.

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