Japanese demonstrate cult of suicide bombing in Trincomalee

By: Romesh Tissainayagam

This is the third and final part of an article on the Japanese raid on Colombo and Trincomalee, April 1942.

The sighting of the Japanese fleet by the Catalina was duly relayed to the operations room at Trincomalee and the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) headquarters in Colombo. Admiral Layton, Supreme Commander, Ceylon, immediately ordered all shipping berthed in Trincomalee harbour disperses forthwith. Nearly all the ships of the East Indies and Eastern fleets had however left the harbour after the first sighting of the Japanese, which was prior to the raid on Colombo on 5 April (see Northeastern Monthly, May 2004) and made for the open seas of the Bay of Bengal. What remained was the ‘toothless tiger’ HMS Hermes – a first generation aircraft carrier that had arrived at Trincomalee for running repairs before returning to Britain for permanent decommissioning. Since it was under repairs, its Fleet Air Arm (FAA) Swordfish fighters were parked at the China Bay aerodrome. With the Hermes was the destroyer HMS Vampire. On the sighting being reported, the Hermes and Vampire weighed anchor at 7.30 in the evening on 8 April and made for the open sea hoping to avoid being discovered by the Japanese reconnaissance aircraft the next morning.

Just as in Colombo, the Anti Aircraft Batteries of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) at Trincomalee were alerted to an imminent attack. Major F. C. De Saram, commanding the Ostenberg battery, and the battery commander of the CGA formations at Diamond Hill and Hoodstower, set about briefing the bombardiers under their command. They emphasised the overwhelming success of the CGA at Colombo in order to boost the confidence of their men ahead of the raid. Moreover, the two battalions of the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) deployed along the eastern coast of Ceylon in formations of various strengths, one of which was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel S. Saravanamuttu (non other than the legendary “S. Sara”) and the other under Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Mack were put on high alert for a possible amphibious landing, though the prospects of it were very remote. Retired Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army Brigadier E.T. de Zoysa Abeysekera, who was a junior lieutenant in 1942 commanding an infantry platoon, told this writer that machinegun nests and pillboxes were set up along the eastern coast and soldiers put through repeated “dry runs” to counter a possible amphibious assault.

For the Japanese aircraft crews the day started as the first rays of the rising sun were lighting the bridge of the Akagi, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s flagship. As he had done four days previously, Commander Shigeru Itaya prepared to lead an assault force of 91 bombers and 38 Zero fighters over Ceylon, though this time on Trincomalee harbour and naval maritime docks with a sole objective: to locate and destroy the Eastern and East Indies fleets either within the harbour or on the open seas. Approaching Ceylon however Japanese pilots were taken aback when they found, unlike during the raid on Colombo, a squadron of Hurricanes and another of Fulmars waiting to pounce on them from a higher altitude. Radar had spotted the arrival of the Japanese and an early warning issued to 261 Squadron of Hurricanes under Squadron Leader Kevin Sharp and FAA Fulmars of 273 Squadron.

Notwithstanding the challenge by the RAF, the Zeros and the Kate attack bombers began straffing the China Bay aerodrome and dropping their lethal cargo. Deafening explosions rocked Trincomalee, which increased twofold as the antiaircraft batteries at Ostenberg, Diamond Hill and Hoodstower began engaging the raiders. The incessant wail of air-raid sirens added to the confusion and mayhem. Dogfights between the RAF’s Hurricanes and Fulmars, and the marauding Zeros and Kates raged over the strategically important China Bay aerodrome, Thambalagam Bay and the vicinity of the Trincomalee harbour. Meanwhile, the Japanese began searching the harbour and the adjacent seas for the missing Eastern and East Indies fleets, ignorant that they were nestling beneath the friendly protection of Adu Atoll in the Maldives. All the Japanese found in the harbour were three aging merchant vessels that included the Erebus and Sagaling (with a cargo of whisky), which were duly scuttled.

At China Bay aerodrome, despite the relentless antiaircraft fire, the Japanese pursued their targets almost unhindered. The toll on the aerodrome was quite considerable. The communication tower and hangers were severely damaged by the bombing. But they paled in significance and drama to a Kamikaze attack on a RAF fuel tank containing aviation fuel. The Japanese dive-bomber that dove right into it sent up a thunderous explosion and pillars of black fumes into the sky. Still do the inhabitants of Trincomalee who witnessed it tell the story of the Kamikaze attack and the wrecked oil tanks that were burning for nine days.

The Japanese raid is perhaps best remembered for an event that occurred during the middle of the morning on 9 April. After the Japanese bombers and fighters had taken off from their carriers, the Japanese Pacific Fleet remained about 130 miles east of Ceylon. Nothing unusual happened as they lay in wait for the aircraft to return after scuttling British shipping. Around 9.30 a.m. a distinct drone of aircraft was heard from the direction of Ceylon. The Japanese, unlike the Allies, could not avail themselves of the benefits of radar technology and had to depend on spotters to make visual sightings for identification. The Japanese were in for a rude shock however when a squadron of British Blenhiem bombers zoomed down on them out of the sky.

On the morning of 9 April, a courageous and unprecedented decision was made by Layton in consultation with Group Captain Thorburn, in charge of Ceylon’s air defences. It was to take on the Japanese Imperial Fleet should it come within range of the Blenhiems. So when the Zeros were spotted on radar heading towards Trincomalee, it was obvious that the fleet that was within range of the Blenhiems would be a sitting duck without any air cover. No. 11 Squadron of Blenhiems under Squadron Leader Kerry Ault took off from Colombo a little after sunrise, soon after the Japanese air armada was spotted heading for Trincomalee. The Blenhiems flew across Ceylon without any fighter protection because whatever was left of the Hurricanes after the raid on Colombo, four days previously, needed a major overhaul before undertaking battle duties, and those from China Bay were busy getting ready to take on the Zeros and Kates.

After some difficulty Ault spotted the Japanese fleet lying in anchor in the placid waters of the Indian Ocean with the aircraft carriers’ decks empty. The Blenhiems were however met by a formidable barrage of antiaircraft fire that made penetrating the vessels’ defences next to impossible. Though most of the aircraft could not break through the Japanese guard, one of them, piloted by Flight Lieutenant D. H. Evens, managed to do so. Despite both its engines already on fire and one of its wings torn apart, the Blenhiem broke through and made directly for Nagumo’s flagship, the Akagi. Pandemonium reigned as the Japanese sailors, never at the receiving end of an attack on the Imperial Navy, took refuge by jumping overboard. The Blenhiem crashed head-on on the bridge of the Akagi rocking it with a series of explosions.

This was in fact the first attack carried out by the Allies on the Japanese fleet since Pearl Harbour four months previously, when Japan formally entered the Second World War and the first bombing mission that took place with absolutely no fighter protection. The price the RAF had to pay was very heavy with only four of the Blenhiems returning to their base.

Even though the city of Colombo suffered due to the Japanese raid on 5 August, nothing disturbed the peace, tranquillity and leisurely pace of life in the rest of the country. It was no different on the morning of 9 April in the east coast village of Kalmunai. At the Public Works’ Department (PWD) Executive Engineer’s home the residents went about their normal chores, quite unaware that the second assault within Ceylon’s territorial waters was hours away. Interestingly, though the Engineer (in his younger days a commissioned officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry) was the Civil Defence Commissioner of the district and responsible for the welfare and protection of civilians in the event of an invasion, he too was quite oblivious to the impending raid as much as the country folk in the area! However, an occasional glance by those in the bungalow towards the ocean under the midmorning sun indicated unusual activity out at sea. Since there was no binoculars or field glasses available, they watched the developing drama through a theodolite – an optical instrument used for surveying and easily obtainable in any PWD office. Through the theodolite they saw aircraft repeatedly diving over a flotilla of vessels.

What the residents of the Executive Engineer’s bungalow witnessed was none other than the bombing of the ‘toothless tiger,’ the aircraft carrier Hermes. The Hermes that left its Swordfish biplanes back at China Bay, had, along with the Vampire, weighed anchor on the evening of 8 April and made for the open sea. However, by the morning of the 9th, Hemes’ commander Captain Richard Onslow realised that without any air protection and with only very basic antiaircraft cover on board, the chances of the two vessels withstanding an air assault was very remote. He decided the two ships should return to Ceylon, but rather than making for Trincomalee harbour, to try slipping into a bay or lagoon that was deep enough to accommodate a vessel as large as an aircraft carrier and destroyer, to avoid being spotted by the Japanese bombers.

This hope however was short-lived since no sooner had the two ships changed direction and started heading back towards Ceylon, the Japanese bombers spotted them. They pounced first on the Hermes and pounded it with bombs, setting the entire deck on fire. Realising that there was no hope of saving the hapless carrier, Onslow ordered the crew to abandon ship. The men, like those of the cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall sunk by the Japanese five days before off Ceylon’s west coast, jumped overboard with lifejackets to keep them afloat. Onslow himself, like his counterparts on the Cornwall and Dorsetshire, went down with the Hermes when it finally sank in 28 fathoms of water at 10.55 a.m. on the morning of 9 April. The Vampire perished in similar fashion along with Athelston and Hollyhoc, oil tankers that happened to be in the vicinity.

Fishermen from Kalmunai whose ‘vallams’ and boats were commandeered by the civil defence commissioner were ordered to rescue the survivors of the unfortunate vessels. The fishermen, with considerable danger to their own lives from the Japanese aircraft, set out and picked up a number of survivors. They returned to Kalmunai early in the evening with the survivors variously injured. Some of them, possibly from the oil tanker, had been blinded by burning oil splashing into their eyes. This motley bunch of British, Indian and Norwegian sailors were despatched by buses and lorries to a government building where they issued with rations and put up for the night. One of the witnesses told the writer that despite the harrowing experience the sailors adhered strictly to military secrecy when questioned about their identity; all they would say was, “From the Royal Navy…”

To this day, people living at Kalmunai in April 1942, remember some of the more humorous episodes of the rescue. One of them told this writer, “Since most of the survivors came ashore stripped to the waist or in bloody and filthy clothes, they had to be given new clothes to wear. There were no trousers or shirts of the required quantity to be procured from the sleepy village of Kalmunai at such short notice. So they were all given white sarongs and banians. We had a hearty laugh seeing white-skinned foreigners, obviously uneasy in sarongs, walking about the place!”

The Japanese lost five bombers and 12 fighters on the raid on Trincomalee alone. For the RAF, only four Blenhiems returned from the raid on the Japanese fleet, while the Hurricane Squadron 261 lost five of its aircraft defending Trincomalee. Eleven RAF pilots, nearly all of them Australians, were killed. Thus ended the passage of arms in the Indian Ocean and over the island of Ceylon that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill described as “The most dangerous moment.” One wonders what would have happened if the Allied resistance had been feebler, or if the Japanese decided to land in Ceylon. Though this is in the realm of speculation, the depleted RAF and the inexperienced gunners defending Ceylon had given a creditable account of themselves. In fact the performance of the bombardiers of the CGA was so remarkable that it earned the regiment postings overseas, including on the formidable Arakan front in Burma alongside other Allied troops. As for the Japanese Imperial Fleet, it was the first time it came under attack, and possibly the last till the Allies crippled it beyond recovery at Midway Islands.

(Concluded)

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