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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2521

Air raid 1942: No one was asked to resign

By Janaka Perera

"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."

This was how the Ceylon Daily News reported the Japanese air raid over Colombo 65 years ago today (April 5).

Japanese bombs hit shipping in Colombo harbour, the Ratmalana airport and railway workshops and the Kolonnawa oil installations. The `medical establishment' referred to in the news story was the Angoda mental hospital, which was a short distance away from the oil tanks. Owing to an oversight on the part of the authorities no Red Cross had been painted on the roofs of the asylum. As result the air raiders had mistaken it for part of the oil storage facility. Several patients were killed or injured in the attack.

At the harbour, the raiders bombed and strafed merchant and supply ships. One of them, the Hector received a direct hit. A bomb went down its funnel and exploded in the hold, killing all abroad. The ship burnt steadily for a fortnight. A few miles outside the harbour, the Japanese aircraft found two British Royal Navy cruisers, the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire. The defences of the cruisers proved hopelessly inadequate against the dive bombers and after a gallant struggle lasting nearly an hour the two warships sank. Nearly 440 officers and men went down with the vessels while 1,100 were saved. They included the two skippers, Capt. Augustus Agar and P.C.W . Mainwaring.

The air raid over the city and suburbs lasted about 20 minutes and the number of civilian casualties was 85 dead and 77 injured. The National (then General) Hospital staff worked round-the-clock attending on the injured. A medical team was rushed to supplement the staff at the Angoda mental hospital.

By evening that day entire Colombo city was virtually deserted. Most of the terrified civilian population – including dock workers -fled to the provinces by whatever transport they could find. These included buses, trains, cars, bicycles, rickshaws and bullock carts. Private cars were then far less than now and petrol was rationed under wartime conditions.

During the raid there were spectacular `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.

A bhikku dragged the pilot to safety when a Japanese Zero swooped down to machine gun the RAF pilot who had bailed out. To the civilians these `dog fights' were a thrilling spectacle for they had never seen anything like it before.

One Japanese plane crashed into S. Thomas' College grounds, Mount Lavinia, killing both the pilot and rear gunner. Another raider crashed in Pita Kotte.

Like in the case of last week's LTTE air attack on Katunayake there was much controversy over the why the RAF Fighter Operations did not learn until the last minute that the air raiders had almost reached the city. This was despite Squadron Leader - later Air Commodore - Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (413 Squadron) having radioed the Defence Authorities here of the approaching Japanese naval fleet, before the enemy captured him and his crew after shooting down his Catalina flying boat, which was on a routine patrol from the sea plane base at Koggala, the previous day.

According to Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment)who was RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay , the carrier-based Japanese planes were over Galle by 7.15 a.m. and flew on up the coast for more than half an hour at a height of some 8,000 feet. Whether radar picked up the enemy or not was immaterial, for the RAF Hurricane fighter aircraft could have been given an half an hour's adequate warning with merely visual aids.

"It was said that watches were being changed at the crucial moment and the radar had gone unmanned for sometime. 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 say later." (The Most Dangerous Moment)

In fact, the first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles South of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave comprising of 36 fighter planes, 54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers were led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force. He was the same officer who led the surprise air attack on the American Fleet in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 , heralding Japan's entry into the world war.

After Fuchida and his aircrews returned to the flagship Akagi a second-wave dive bomber group led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off to attack the two British cruisers, the ill-fated Cornwall and the Dorsetshire.

The Jap dive bombers scored hits with close upon 90 percent of their bombs – an enviable rate of accuracy when considering the windless conditions, according to Fuchida (Midway: The Battle that doomed Japan in Five Fateful minutes)

Four days later, on April 9, the Japanese struck again - this time at Trincomalee, home base of the British Eastern Fleet. According to Tomlinson, 125 Japanese bomber planes and fighter aircraft took part in the attack. He says that the thunder of their engines were audible for miles. Responding to a radar warning, 15 RAF Hurricanes took off from China Bay aerodrome and its satellite at Kokkilai to meet the enemy. The battle raged from 22,000 feet down to 8,000 feet. It was an unequal battle with a total of 21 British planes (Hurricanes and Fulmars) versus 125 Japanese aircraft. Ten Hurricanes and one Fulmar were lost in the dog fights.

As the attackers came over the Trinco Naval Base, the Ceylon Garrison Artillery immediately put up a heavy ack ack barrage but many of the raiders flew through the flak.

Referring to the Trinco attack Capt. Fuchida says: "Despite this opposition (defensive action) our dive bombers found numerous carrier-type aircraft lined up on the apron of the field and quickly set them ablaze. Low level bombers carrying 800 kilogram bombs concentrated on airfield installations and naval base facilities. One of the targets, a munitions depot, went up in a spectacular display of fireworks."

During the Trinco raid a Japanese reconnaissance plane reported the sighting of two British Naval vessels – one an aircraft carrier ( Hermes) and the other a destroyer (Vampire) – heading south, some 80 miles off Trincomalee. In response Japanese dive bombers plummeted from the sky in devastatingly accurate attacks leaving no chances for the two ships. Hit after hit wrecked the vessels, which were unable to retaliate because the planes from the Hermes had been dispersed for Sri Lanka's defence. Both warships went to the bottom.

Tomlinson describes how one Japanese flyer deliberately crashed his plane into one of the British Navy's giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome.

Inside the aircraft were three Japanese – Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto and Sutomu Toshira. After carefully circling the area they plunged unerringly into the tank igniting their own funeral pyre. The resulting fire lasted seven days. Parts of the aircraft's engine and the flattened remains of the fuel storage tank have been placed in a barbed wire enclosure 1 ½ km from the turn off at the 4 th mile post on the Trincomalee-Habarana Road.

Over 700 lives were lost in the Trinco attack.

When the Japanese finally withdrew from the Indian Ocean they left behind 35 aircraft and their crews (from both the Colombo and Trincomalee operations), none of whom survived.

But the difference between then and now was that there were no political clowns here or in Britain to make absurd demands that the defence top brass resign promptly over the air raids. Instead the focus was on Birchall's alertness and bravery. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called him the `Savior of Ceylon.' He survived the war and visited Sri Lanka on several occasions. I had the privilege of meeting him at a reception held in his honour at the Canadian High Commissioner's residence in 1999.

- Asian Tribune -

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