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19th April 1998

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A Warship called HMS Ceylon

By Richard Boyle

In 1959 a surplus British cruiser christened HMS Ceylon was sold to the Peruvian Navy and renamed the culinary-sounding Coronel Bolognesi. With the sale of this warship, the Royal Navy relinquished what was in fact the last of three vessels to have been named after the island over the past 200 years.

And as the last HMS Ceylon had been stationed at Trincomalee during and after the Second World War, with the ship's sale its links with the island became obscured.

HMS Ceylon had the distinction of being the first of the Uganda class of cruiser, a modification of the Fiji class. The Uganda class was conceived as a direct result of the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936, which came into force a year later.

This Treaty limited the standard displacement of cruisers to 8000 tons and at the same time raised the number of such ships each navy was allowed to build.

Alex Stephens shipyard

Ceylon and the two other cruisers of her class were, in effect, 9000 ton cruisers built on an 8000 ton hull. The necessary weight reduction was achieved mostly at the expense of the safety and comfort of the crew, for protective metal plating had been minimised and accommodation severely restricted.

Ceylon was built at the shipyard of Alex Stephens and Son at Govan on Clydeside, Scotland. Curiously, although she was the first of her class to be laid down in April 1939, she was the last to be completed - in July 1943.

She was 555 feet in length, with a beam of 62 feet, and had 9 six inch guns neatly housed within three totally enclosed and armoured turrets. Ceylon also had 8 four-inch guns mounted in pairs, eight 4Omm Bofors guns mounted in two sets of four, two-pounder AA guns and a number of twin and single barelled 20mm AA guns.

Two mountings carrying three torpedoes each were located on either side of the ship. Some 900 officers and ratings were required to crew her.

Ceylon had 4 three-drum Admiralty type boilers that generated 400 pounds per square inch of super-heated steam. This powered the Parson turbines which developed a total of 72,500 shaft horsepower that drove the ship's four propellers. She had steam turbines to drive her electrical generators, with a diesel-driven back-up for emergencies. And her compound evaporators, located in the engine room, produced approximately 66 tons of fresh water daily.

On completion, Ceylon was allocated to the British Eastern Fleet, (BEF), which was at that time being expanded for the war against Japan. After commissioning, Ceylon left the port of Plymouth, England, in October 1943 on her journey to Trincomalee, her designated station.

She arrived in late November and joined the venerable battleship Ramillies, and the 4th Cruiser Squadron, consisting of Newcastle, Suffold, Forbisher, Kenya, Danae, Emerald and Hawkins, in the magnificent harbour.

The British Eastern Fleet had been under the command of ViceAdmiral Sir James Somerville, GCB, KBE, DSO, for nearly two years. Somerville is remembered as one of the decisive players in the drama of the Japanese air raids on Ceylon in April 1942. Newly appointed, he had arrived in Colombo on March 24, 1942 and immediately warned the captains of his fleet that a Japanese attack on the island could be expected in the very near future.

Somerville saved his ships from possible destruction by the Japanese fleet (commanded by Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo) by sailing out of Ceylon waters and sheltering near a secret base at Addu Atoll in the Maldives.

Sensible though this precaution was, "it was scarcely a situation Somerville could relish", as Michael Tomlinson states in his excellent book on the episode, The Most Dangerous Moment (1976).

"In the event the Eastern Fleet had made not a single offensive move against the Japanese. Had it been otherwise, historians of the future would not be able to aver, as they doubtless will, that the last major action ever to be fought by the Royal Navy with a fleet of comparable size was at Trafalgar. For such a fleet will never sail again under the white Ensign and the only opportunity for such a battle to present itself in World War II was here in the Indian Ocean".

It is a good thing that Somerville erred on the side of caution, for with the increase in naval power since the Battle of Trafalgar, any fleet action would have led to terrible carnage.

Furthermore, Ceylon's mercifully brief encounter with the hostilities of the Second World War might have been extended with such a naval battle in the proximity of the island.

"It was Churchill who said that at Jutland, Admiral Jellicoe had the chance to lose the war in the course of a single afternoon. Might not Admiral Somerville have had in mind that he had been placed in the same unenviable position?" asks Tomlinson.

Ceylon arrived at Trincomalee just weeks after the final Japanese skirmish with the island's defenders. This was when huge four engined Kawanishi Type 1 flying-boats ("Emilys") appeared over Colombo and Trincomalee on a Poya night seeking confirmation that the BEF was returning to Ceylon waters.

One of these planes dropped bombs on the east coast. However, by then the island had radar-equipped Beaufighters, and two of the Emilys were shot down, one off Colombo and one off Trincomalee.

One month after the arrival of Ceylon, the BEF was reinforced further with the addition of the battleships Queen Eizabeth and Valiant, the battle cruiser Renown and the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Unicorn.

On March 21, 1944 Ceylon was part of the fleet that left Trincomalee and Colombo for Operation Diplomat. Three days later, the warships of the BEF metup with the US Task Force 58. Five consisting of the aircraft carrierUSS Saratoga and her three attendant destroyers. This joint force then returned to Trincomalee.

Its purpose became apparent on April 16, when the fleet set out eastwards in two groups - Task Force 69 (including Ceylon) under Admiral Somerville, and Task Force 70 under the American, Vice Admiral Power.

On April18 Ceylon was assigned to reinforce TF70 and its aircraft carriers.

Operation Cockpit commenced the next day when 46 bombers and 39 fighters took off from the carriers to attack Sabaing, northwest of Sumatra, where Japanese oil installations and airfields were located.


Two merchantmen and two destroyers were set ablaze, 24 bombers were destroyed on the ground, and oil tanks, a power station, barracks and the dockyard all received direct hits. Somerville reported in the 'Colonel Blimp' idiom of the day, "we caught the Japanese commander with his kimono up!"

Ceylon nearly saw action for the first time on the return journey when Japanese planes carrying torpedoes tried to attack the fleet, but they were all shot down short of their target by carrier-based fighters.

In June, Ceylon was part of the covering force that accompanied the aircraft carrier Illustrious in an air attack on the harbour and airfield at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands.

In July, when the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Victorious sailed trom Trincomalee for another air attack on Sabaing, Ceylon and other cruisers and battleships of the BEF sailed with them. Operation Crimson included a bombardment of Sabaing in which Ceylon took part.

Somerville relinquished command of the BEF in November when it was reorganised into the British East Indies Fleet and British Pacific Fleet under Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Ceylon was allocated to the latter fleet, which included many newly arrived ships, such as the battleships King George V and Howe, the aircraft carriers Indefatigable and Indomitable, a handful of cruisers, and three destroyer flotillas.

Year1945 opened with an attack by planes from the Indomitable and Indefatigable on oil refineries at Pankalan Brandon in Sumatra. Ceylon, together with three other cruisers and six destroyers, provided the cover for Operation Lentil, as it was called.

Several weeks later, Ceylon left Trincomlaee to join other ships destined to become the British Pacific Fleet and steamed towards Sydney, Australia. On the voyage, the fleet was refuelled at sea. Afterwards, Ceylon stayed to protect the oilers while the remainder of the fleet took part in an air raid on an oil refinery north of Palembang, which turned out to be the first of the two largest strikes undertaken by the Fleet Air Arm during World War II.

The second came a few days later when the fleet attacked other oil refineries at Soengei Gerong. Refuelling was then undertaken once again, and while the fleet proceeded to Australia, Ceylon escorted the oilers to Trincomalee.

Film archivist Roland R. Smith has spent years in a personal crusade searching for old and obscure footage of Royal Navy ships and naval operations. I was delighted to discover that one of a series of recently released videos of archival film compiled by Smith is on the British Pacific Fleet and features the whole Palembang Operation, starting from the time the fleet left Trincomalee, until its arrival in Australia.

This previously unknown and unseen footage of Trincomalee is an important addition to the film archives of the island. It is quite possible that there is other archival film of the period, such as of Royal Air Force operations, lying around somewhere in England.

While Ceylon was involved in the Palembang Operation, one of her sister ships was on her way from Colombo to Australia to become part of the British Pacific Fleet. There is a curious story behind this ship.

Named HMS Uganda after her class, she was the first to be completed. By the time Ceylon had arrived at Trincomalee in December 1943, Uganda had already seen action in the Mediterranean, suffered a direct hit from a massive glider

bomb, undergone extensive repairs in America, and finally acquired by the Royal Canadian Navy and re-named HMCS Quebec.

She arrived in Australia and joined first the British Pacific Fleet and then the US Third Fleet. While this was going on, the Canadian government wanted the crew to volunteer for the war in the Pacific.

Dubious distinction

The crew, for one reason or another, was under the impression that they had volunteered for hostilities only set against Canada, but now they found themselves in a war zone on the far side of the Pacific.

When ordered to re-volunteer they voted "no", and Quebec was recalled to Canada. She therefore has the dubious distinction of being the only warship to vote itself out of the war. It is ironic that she was sold prematurely for scrap to the Japanese in 1956.

Ceylon joined the East Indies Fleet and in April took part in the covering operation of the invasion of Rangoon alongside a handful of cruisers and the aircraft carriers Shah and Empress. For the next few days the force shuttled between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, bombarding air fields and installations.

The day after the operation concluded on 8 May, all the ships in the force celebrated Victory in Europe Day, but within 24 hours they had returned to Trincomalee, ready to continue the war against Japan.

Although Ceylon patrolled the Andaman Sea during June, no enemy activity was reported. After the war in the Far East was officially over on 15 August, the main activity of both fleets was to accept the Japanese surrender in the scattered areas where they had been in control.

In late August Ceylon was part of a task force that accepted the surrender of Penang, and the next month she participated in the re-occupation of Malaya by British forces.

So ended Ceylon's duties during the Second World War. In two years she had travelled all over South East Asian waters, but had always been based in her namesake island. Fortunately for her and her crew, she had escaped any serious fighting, and sustained minimum damage.

In October 1945 she returned to Portsmouth where she became part of the Reserve Fleet. However, this was not to be the end of Ceylon. Nor was it to be the end of her association with the island, for in 1950 she was recommissioned and sent back to Trincomalee.

The Korean War had started, and on July7, Ceylon and the Belfast (which during the 1960s was used as the venue of the Wilson-Smith Rhodesian Independence talks, and later became a tourist attraction in London) left Trincomalee for the Pacific. For the next two years Ceylon was employed in endless patrols and bombardments. She was relieved in July 1952, and while her crew returned home, she was refitted at Singapore before being recommissioned for further service.

Ceylon was present at the inauguration of the Maldive Islands as a Republic in January 1953, and a year later she escorted the S. S. Gothic, which carried Queen Ellzabeth II, from the Cocos Islands to Hobart, Australia. She returned to Portsmouth in October 1954, had a two-year refit, and was then allocated to a cruiser squadron formed as a response to the crisis over the Suez Canal.

This squadron escorted a carrier force which landed troops in Egypt as part of Operation Musketeer Revise. After the landings, Ceylon returned to Portsmouth.

On October 15,1957 she was back at Trincomalee for the handing over of the Royal Navy base. A year later she took part in the evacuation of British troops sent to Jordan to meet a threatened invasion by Iraq (few remember this earlier Iraq crisis).

In 1959 she flew the flag of the Second-in-Command, Far East Station, Rear Admiral V.C Begg, in a cruise to New Zealand and back. Between July and September she was again his flagship in a cruise to Colombo to take part in Exercise Jet.

The end

This was to be the last visit by Ceylon to the island, for when she returned to Portsmouth in December 1959 it was announced that she had been sold to Peru. According to Vice-Admiral Javier Llerena, who served in the Coronel Bolognesi as captain, the ship performed her duties for the Peruvian Navy efficiently until she was decommissioned in 1982.

But what happened to her after that? Did she, as seems likely, meet an ignominious end in the breaker's yard?

As I mentioned earlier, Ceylon was the third and last Royal Navy ship to be named after the island. The first of her name was originally built as an East Indiaman and named Bombay. She was purchased by the Royal Navy in 1806 and converted into a 5th Rate frigate of 32 guns. Her name was changed to Ceylon in 1808. Two years later she was captured by the French Navy, but was recaptured the very same day. In 1817 she was converted into a troopship and from 1832 she was used as a receiving ship at Malta.

The second of her name was built as a private pleasure yacht in 1871 and originally named Lady Ina. At the beginning of the First World War she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and renamed HMS Ceylon. This vessel served in the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles from June 1915 to May 1916 before being returned to her owners.

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