23 April, 2024


‘Battle of Ceylon’: Japanese Air Raid on 5 April 1942

By Nalaka Gunawardene –

Near-misses in the ‘Battle of Ceylon’ (Japanese Air Raid on 5 April 1942)

By Nalaka Gunawardene –

Nalaka Gunawardene - Photo by Shahidul Alam/Drik

Few among us have personal memories of the Japanese air raid of Ceylon that happened on the Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942.

Yet the event’s 70th anniversary, falling this week, is a good occasion to reflect on how timely gathering and sharing of information can change the course of history. Although technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since, fundamental lessons can still be learnt.

The Colombo air raid took place exactly 119 days after the Pearl Harbour attack. In that time, the Japanese military had advanced westwards in the Indian Ocean with astonishing speed and success.

When Singapore fell in February 1942, it was widely believed that the next Japanese target was Ceylon. Once their battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines were based in Ceylon, their domination over the Indian Ocean would be consolidated.

If the Allies read Japanese intentions correctly, they completely underestimated their adversary’s capabilities. Lack – or deliberate blocking – of information had characterised the build up of Japanese military capabilities for years.

Japanese Air Raids on Ceylon, April 1942 - Map by C E Warner

Their Zero fighter planes proved one of the greatest surprises. Developed by the Imperial Royal Navy Air Service and deployed from early 1939, it was the most versatile carrier-based fighter in the world, combining excellent maneuverability, high firepower and a very long flying range. The Zeros played a key role in the Battle of Ceylon.

Michael Tomlinson, an Englishman who was posted in Ceylon with the Royal Air Force in 1942, later wrote the definitive book about those fateful weeks. Its title,The Most Dangerous Momentwas derived from a remark by British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Looking back later, Churchill said the most dangerous moment of the Second World War, and the moment that caused him the most alarm, was when the formidable Japanese fleet was approaching Ceylon.

In anticipation, Ceylon’s newly appointed Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, and Civil Defence Commissioner Sir Oliver Goonetilleke initiated preparations and precautions. These included building several new airstrips, and placing RAF squadrons on the island.

Operating from the Koggala lagoon, Allied airmen conducted aerial patrols of the Indian Ocean using long-range Catalina aircraft – multipurpose ‘flying boats’. With no satellites, and radar still in its infancy, these ‘eyes in the air’ offered crucial surveillance.

On the evening of 4 April 1942, just before dusk, one such Catalina made a chance observation that changed the course of history. As they were about to turn back, Leonard Birchall, a young Squadron Leader of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), saw a ‘black speck’ in the Indian Ocean. Upon investigation, they discovered a Japanese aircraft carrier fleet, at the time 400 miles (640km) south of the island.

As the Catalina’s crew took a closer look, its radio operator radioed to Colombo the location, composition, course and estimated speed of the advancing fleet. Moments later, they were shot down by Zero fighters: Birchall and crew mates spent the rest of the War as Japanese prisoners.

The message reached Colombo “a little garbled but essential correct” and immediately passed on to all the Services. But what happened thereafter shows that an early warning by itself serves little purpose unless it is properly acted upon.

Sq Ldr Leonard Birchall, 'Saviour of Ceylon' aboard his Catalina aircraft

The next day, 5 April, was Easter Sunday. The authorities decided not to issue any public warning about the impending air raids, “lest it precipitate a possible panic” says Tomlinson.

In the event, the air raid caught Colombo’s defenders almost by surprise.

The Catalina’s radio message wasn’t the only warning. As Tomlinson records: “The huge air armada had made its landfall at 7.15 in the Galle area and flew up on the coast for half an hour at a height of some 8,000 feet. Thousands must have seen and heard them. Whether radar picked them up or not was scarcely material for the Hurricanes [British fighter aircraft] could have been given half an hour’s adequate warning with merely visual aids.”

Even worse, an RAF crew going out on a Catalina patrol that morning had seen the advancing Japanese planes flying far above them – yet, assuming them to be friendly, didn’t break radio silence to report it!

How and why these obvious clues were missed has never been satisfactorily explained.

The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson (1976)

Ceylon had only basic radar facilities at the time. Apparently radar was unmanned at the crucial moment when watchers were being changed. And at 7.30 am, when a dawn attack didn’t materialise as expected, some airmen at Ratmalana Airport were released for breakfast.

Twenty minutes later, Japanese formations appeared overhead. Many of RAF’s Hawker Hurricanes were still on the ground, and proved sitting ducks. Others scrambled to take off. The ensuing defence was hurried, scattered – and needlessly costly.

“Failure in communications all around was to bring tragic results in its wake,” says Tomlinson. “Afterwards, there was even talk about sabotage, but this cannot be taken seriously.”

It was also a failure of imagination and intelligence gathering. No one knew the Japanese aircraft had such long range; it was assumed that their carriers had to get much closer to the island before the planes could take off.

The Easter Sunday Raid, or the Battle of Ceylon, is well documented. Much to the surprise and disappointment of the Japanese, the Allied naval fleet had been moved out of the Colombo habour. Another Pearl Harbour was thus avoided.

The Colombo air raid lasted some 20 minutes, and the civilian casualties amounted to 85 dead and 77 injured. The British claimed destroying “27 enemy aircraft” that morning, but the Japanese admitted losing only five. Tomlinson speculates that some damaged aircraft never managed the long flight back.

On April 9, the Japanese bombed Trincomalee harbour and attacked British ships off Batticaloa. Close to a thousand Allied servicemen lost their lives defending Ceylon that week. The Japanese never returned.

Leonard Birchall survived the notorious Japanese prison camps. Decorated and hailed as the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’, he died in September 2004 aged 89.

Three months later, the Boxing Day Tsunami would head to the island at the speed of a modern jetliner. An early warning from Hawaii would go unheeded in Colombo – and up to 40,000 perish within a few hours.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Sri Lanka Air Force website page on Battle of Ceylon

Courtesy http://collidecolumn.wordpress.com/


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Latest comments

  • 4

    very good article – very accurate
    thank you Mr Gunawardena
    in this day of limbs being broken and some doing soul selling journalism – this is a breath of fresh air

  • 1


  • 1

    A multinational, pan-Commonwealth force had defended Ceylon 70 yrs ago – nearly a 1,000 of them giving their lives for it. our tin frogs should understand this.

    • 2

      Very useful article by Nalaka.But it is unfortunate that one “Upul Abe”is trying to divert the attention somewhere else,most probably Srilanka bashing.Foreign forces didn’t defend the poor souls of this island,but their vital interests!

  • 2

    The multi-national pan-Commonwealth force was defending the British Empire, not Ceylon. My family, and they were not alone, supported the Japanese against the Colonialists. So did the Cocos Island mutineers and the Sri Lankans in Malaya and Singapore who joined Subas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army’s Lanka Regiment.
    It should be remembered that Admiral Layton, the British C in C, with impunity called the Civil Defence Commissioner Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke a ‘Black Bastard’.

  • 1

    Indeed, many people do not understand that the Nazis, for all their faults, would have brought the British empire crashing down. As it turned out, they helped to accelerate the process.

  • 6

    April 1942 I was a communications officer on the Danish ship MV Danmark. We arrived in Colombo on the morning of 5th April 1942 having loaded in Liverpool according to the manifest which stated food for Singapore. En route we had engine trouble so consequently we went into South Africa for repairs and we were delayed there for six weeks. On arrival in Colombo the British Sea Transport naval officers boarded the ship to check us. I was with the captain greeting them as he spoke very little English. They sat down to have their usual welcome drink while looking at the manifest which I told them if they looked at the code they would see that we were carrying a full load of explosives destined for Singapore in case the Japanese showed signs of taking Singapore. In this event we would be in a position to blow up our installations. As soon as the officers saw the correct manifest they disappeared over the side of the ship into their transport yelling “get the hell out of here”. At that moment the sirens started and the Japanese planes arrived overhead bombing Colombo and the ships at anchor that had escaped from Singapore region. We were lucky – we steamed away at full speed towards the Indian coast where we were moving up and down for about 3 weeks in Japanese submarine waters. Finally we got orders to go to Karachi to unload. On arrival the army had cleared the port of everything and then started to unload our cargo. The major in charge told me that if a bomb had hit us in Colombo there would be no Colombo. On our way home the ship was torpedoed but I was rescued – another interesting story. I am now 90 and living in Lymington, Hampshire, UK. John Owen Coundley

  • 1

    I am currently writing a book on the events that took place in the Indian Ocean, in and around Ceylon, in April 1942 to update Michael Tomlinson’s excellent account. In looking for a suitable map to illustrate these events, I came across one on one of your web sites, a monochrome sketch map, and I would like to know if I may please have your permission to use it in my book.

    My interest in this subject is that my father was a survivor from one of the ships sunk in the action, HMS Cornwall, and although he often spoke of this incident, it was not until I met another survivor, this one from HMS Dorsetshire, who had extensively researched the subject, that my interest grew and I felt confident enough to write a book on it.
    I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
    With best wishes,
    John Clancy

  • 1

    @John Clancy,

    I believe you are referring to the black and white map I had used at: http://nalakagunawardene.com/2012/04/02/battle-of-ceylon-70-years-on-still-waiting-for-its-place-in-the-movies/

    I did not create that map. It was borrowed from this website: http://militaria.forum-xl.com/viewtopic.php?f=229&t=483&p=689

    Please ask that website’s content managers for permission.

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