Vernon Corea was 14 years old when the Japanese bombed Colombo, Ceylon on the 5th of April 1942. It was Easter Sunday, the time was 7.30 a.m. Vernon,his brother Ernest and mother Ouida had joined parishoners for the Easter Sunday Service at St.Luke’s Church Borella. They had walked the short distance from the St.Luke’s Church Vicarage adjoining the church – little did they know that the Japanese would be attacking Colombo when they walked into the church that Easter Sunday morning.
Both British and Ceylonese military personnel attended the service celebrating Easter – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Vernon’s father, Reverend Canon Ivan Corea was vicar of St.Luke’s Church and he was preaching to a packed congregation when Japanese zero fighters and bombers led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida attacked and bombed Colombo. The parishoners were stunned – they heard the bombs explode in and around the City of Colombo. The big guns boomed in defence of the city and they could clearly see wave after wave of zero fighters and bombers above the church.
The RAF Hurricane fighter airceaft were scrambled from the temporary airstrip at the Colombo Racecourse nearby. The Royal Air Force fighter pilots were involved in dogfights right above St.Luke’s Church Borella.
There are some interesting films on youtube on the Easter Sunday Raid on Colombo, Ceylon.
The British had been in occupation of the coastal areas of the island since 1796, but the colony had not had a regular garrison of British troops since 1917. The Ceylon Defence Force and Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve were mobilized and expanded. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomalee and the RAF had established an aerodrome in China Bay, Trincomalee long before the war.
After the fall of Singapore the Royal Navy‘s East Indies Station was moved to Colombo and then to Trincomalee. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon with Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiac as Air Officer Commanding and Admiral Sir James Somerville appointed commander of the British Eastern Fleet.
The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee; these were established just before the war. Air defences were expanded in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana near Colombo with its station headquarters set up at Kandawala. Another airbase was rapidly built at Koggala near Galle and several temporary airstrips were built across the country with the largest at Colombo Racecourse grounds. Several RAF squadrons were sent to Ceylon.
The attack on Colombo
With Japan‘s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon became a front-line British base against the Japanese. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon. Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiac became Air Officer Commanding. Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed commander of the British Eastern Fleet. Somerville retreated with his main fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving the aircraft carrier Hermes, escorted by the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire, and the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire in Ceylon.
After the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse and the fall of Singapore, British morale on the island dropped. The sinking of these two capital ships shocked much of the world; the awareness of the superiority of aircraft carriers over battleships increased dramatically. On Ceylon there was understandably much anxiety that a Japanese attack appeared to be inevitable. A large sea turtle which came ashore was reported by an Australian unit as a number of Japanese amphibious vehicles. However, actual preparations for defence were lackadaisical, apart from the deployment of a Royal Air Force squadron at the Colombo race course. Anti-British sentiment increased accordingly within some portions of the indigenous population and their hopes ran high for liberation by the Japanese.
On 4 April 1942 the Japanese Navy fleet of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was located by a Catalina aircraft flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall out of Koggala. Birchall’s Catalina was shot down by 6 Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu.He managed to radio in the position of the Japanese fleet and alert Colombo about the impending attack.However, Nagumo achieved near-complete surprise when he launched an airstrike on Colombo the next day (Easter Sunday, 5 April).(Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend.) The British radars were not operating because it was Sunday – they were shutdown for routine maintanence.
But the greatest shock of the day was probably felt by the Japanese high command, who had expected to catch the remnants of the British fleet at anchor in Ceylon. The Japanese had planned the bombing of the Eastern Fleet’s home base with meticulous care and precision in a manner almost exactly like the Pearl Harbor operation (in fact many of the same bombers with the same pilots participated in both strikes). Most of the British Eastern Fleet was maintaining radio silence in Addu Atoll in the Maldives, so that when the Japanese arrived at Colombo there were only three ships at anchor instead of the much larger number they had anticipated.
The continued existence of the remnants of the British Eastern Fleet (which included some Dutch warships as well) prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon. Speaking at a dinner party at the British Embassy in Washington after the war, Winston Churchill called the attempted invasion of Ceylon, “the most dangerous moment of World War II.” Churchill concluded that if the Japanese fleet had succeeded, they would have controlled the Indian Ocean.
Burning, sinking HMS Cornwall following Japanese dive bomber attacks, a “dangerous moment” in the Indian Ocean, 5 April 1942.
The Hawker Hurricanes of No 30 Squadron were on the ground at Ratmalana Airport when the Japanese aircraft passed overhead. The auxiliary cruiser Hector and the old destroyer Tenedos were sunk in the harbour. The Japanese discovered the Cornwall and Dorsetshire 320 kilometres (200 mi) southwest of Ceylon and sank the two ships. British losses were 424 men killed; 1,120 survivors spent hours in the water. The RAF and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) lost at least 27 aircraft; the Japanese only five. The Japanese also bombed the lunatic asylum at Angoda, mistaking it for the fuel tanks at nearby Kolonnawa.
According to writer Janaka Perera:’ 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 Japanese 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)’
The first Japanese air raid took place at 7.30 am on Easter Sunday morning on 5 April 1942. According to the parishioners of St.Luke’s Church Borella, the vicar, Reverend Canon Ivan Corea was preaching when the RAF Hurricanes engaged the Japanese Zero aircraft high above the Church. St.Luke’s Church was packed as it was Easter Sunday, British and Ceylonese military personnel also attended services.
The Sri Lankan writer Ariyadasa Ratnasinghe, recalled the Easter Sunday Japanese raid: ‘Japanese aircraft flew in close formation over Colombo and dropped bombs at different places. The air battle lasted for nearly half an hour. The Allied forces, warned of the danger, were able to shoot down some of the enemy aircraft which fell on land and sea.
Among those shot down, one fell near S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, one closer to the Bellanwila paddy fields, one near Pita Kotte, one on the race-course in Colombo, one near Horana and one on the Galle Face Green. A bomb fell off the target and damaged the Mulleriyawa Mental Hospital killing some inmates. It appears that the pilot had mistaken the buildings to be Echelon barracks sheltering the Allied troops. One fell near the Maradana railway station partly damaging it. There were many deaths and more casualties and most of them were civilians. To prevent bombs falling on hospitals, it was decided to have a large red cross painted on the roofs for the guidance of the pilots.’
H.G.P.Jayasekera, President of the Ceylon War Veterans Association of World War II wrote: ‘The April raids in Colombo were led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the two men who inflicted the biggest damage on the mighty American Pacific Fleet. The Ceylon R.A.F. had only 20 planes as against that of 120 planes of Mitsuo Funchida. These 20 fighter planes got off from the Race Course grounds and there was an air battle over Colombo on the Easter Sunday morning 5/4/1942. Ceylon Garrison Artillery and Boys of Royal Artillery managed to shoot down many of the Japanese planes.’
The Ceylon Daily News reported the raid on Monday 6 April 1942: ‘”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.”
The attack on Trincomalee Harbour
On 9 April 1942 the Japanese attacked the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. Hermes, Vampire and the Flower-class corvette Hollyhock were sunk. The Royal Air Force lost at least eight Hurricanes and the FAA one Fairey Fulmar. The Japanese lost five bombers and six fighters, one in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. Seven hundred people lost their lives in the attack on Trincomalee. According to eye witness Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment)who was the RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay in Trincomalee, 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.
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes was undergoing repairs in Trincomalee harbour in April 1942. As a result of the advanced warning of the impending attack by the Japanese, Hermes left Trincomalee, minus the 12 Fairey Swordfish Mk Is of 814 Naval Air Squadron, disembarked in Ceylon.A Japanese reconnaissance plane spotted the returning aircraft carrier off Batticaloa and 70 Japanese bombers attacked the defenceless Hermes forty times. The carrier sank with the loss of 307 sailors.
The sortie demonstrated Japanese superiority in carrier operations. Good luck favored Somerville when the Japanese did not find his fast carriers Indomitable and Formidable; these ships were saved to fight another day. But British prestige was brought even lower than it had been after the fall of Singapore.
Winston Churchill quote on the Battle of Ceylon
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: “The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.” Quote about the Easter Sunday (April 5, 1942) Raid on Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From a conversation at the British Embassy, Washington D.C.