Just two months before the decisive battle of Midway, the Indian Ocean was the scene of a face-down between the fleets of Britain and Japan. Their carrier forces came within just 100 miles - and a reciprocal bearing - of a clash that could have changed the course of the war.
By March 1942, Britain was drained. After two and a half years of intense warfare, her flagging forces had been pushed beyond the limit.
Initial excitement that the US had finally been drawn into the war by Pearl Harbor quickly evaporated. The string of military disasters which exploded across South-East Asia following Pearl Harbor soon saw the tribulations of 1939 and 40 pale into insignificance.
With the fall of Singapore on February 15 and the impending collapse of US forces at Bataan, the Royal Navy had to face fighting alone on yet another front - the Indian Ocean.
The rolling tide of Japanese success seemed unstoppable. Germany and Italy were steamrolling their way across Africa.
That the Axis would merge at some point between India and the Middle East appeared almost inevitable. Worst-case estimates projected that the Middle and Near East, the Caucasus, India and all of South East Asia would be under Axis control by September.
All that stood in their way was the British Eastern Fleet.
This was virtually non-existent.
Four days after Singapore capitulated, the Port of Darwin in northern Australia was smashed.
The Admiralty estimated it had just six weeks to assemble a viable defensive force for the strategic Indian Ocean island of Ceylon.
Their calculations proved almost correct.
On March 8, 1942, the First Sea Lord informed Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he regarded Ceylon to be Japan’s next target.
Admiral Pound warned its loss would ‘undermine our whole strategic position in the Middle as well as the Far East'
The fall of this, the fulcrum point of the Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes, would sever trade routes with Australia and New Zealand. As a staging post, it would allow Japan to raid the resources of India and vital oil fields of the Middle East.
Churchill quickly realised that, after the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, the fall of Singapore and the disaster at Darwin, this was the most dangerous moment of his political career. Just weeks earlier he'd been forced to face-down a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
If Ceylon fell, there was little doubt it would bring down his battered coalition government.
It would be one defeat too many.
The need for a strong British fleet in the Indian Ocean became urgently clear in the dawning days of 1942.
With the fall of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands along with northern Sumatra, the narrow sea lanes to Singapore and Malaysia were severed. It was obvious an attack on Ceylon was imminent.
The strategic Indian Ocean island of Madagascar was also under threat. The Vichy government had already handed control of French Indo-China to the Japanese, allowing them to use its airbases against Singapore. If the same was to happen to Vichy-controlled Madagascar, the Cape of Good Hope could be closed.
But finding enough ships to do something about this was a cause for desperation.
Admiral Sir James Somerville was urgently appointed as Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet.
The core of his command was just the old, unmodernised battleships HMS Ramillies and Royal Sovereign.
Even as he prepared to move his flag to Colombo, Somerville was shocked at the scenario unfolding before him: 'How is it considered that two R-class under fighter cover can repel a landing? It seems to me that unless we have a balanced force we may get a repetition of Prince of Wales and Repulse'.
Despite this realisation, Britain was simply not in a position to meet the Japanese threat head on.
But Churchill knew his political neck was on the line.
So the hero of Matapan and Calabria, HMS Warspite, was routed to Colombo via Australia after repairs in the United States. Refugees from the fall of Malaya, the Dutch Heemskerck and Isaac Sweers, along with HMAS Vampire, were redeployed along with the cruisers HMS Enterprise, Dragon and Caledon. The heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were already there, though the latter was undergoing a refit. The light carrier Hermes had been busily engaged in anti-submarine escort duties, while HMS Indomitable had been rushing Hurricanes to the defence of Malaysia. The remaining R-class battleships, HMS Resolution and Revenge, joined their sisters in the Maldives, along with the redeployed Indomitable and eight destroyers. Rounding up the force was six submarines.
Despite the apparent might of this force, Admiral Somerville quickly grasped the impossibility of his position.
He told the Admiralty that had no chance against the main strength of the Japanese navy. Even if an invasion was supported by only a moderate force, 'the best counter is to keep an Eastern Fleet in being, and to avoid losses by attrition… if the Japanese capture Ceylon and destroy the greater part of the Eastern Fleet, then ... the situation becomes really desperate'
Admiral Somerville himself would board the freshly repaired armoured carrier HMS Formidable as it made its way eastward. En-route to Colombo, he had the air group practice what he regarded to be a vital skill: Night torpedo attack.
Somerville knew he faced the very real prospect of the war's first carrier-versus-carrier clash.
The entire corpus of thinking for naval warfare had just been stood on its head. The destruction of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse had finally rammed home the vulnerability of capital ships in the face of air opposition.
No time had passed to figure out how to counter it, beyond the realisation that fighter cover was now absolutely essential in any naval action.
But it was already obvious carriers reigned supreme in the open waters of the Pacific.
Admiral Somerville was in an almost impossible position. Not since the opening days of the war had two RN fleet carriers operated in concert. Even a force of four battleships had been a rare luxury.
As a result, fleet formation and manoeuvre discipline had inevitably waned.
Then, barely after he stepped through the door of his headquarters in Colombo on March 24 to assess his new command, ominous intelligence reports began to roll in.
Japan was sending a strike force into the Indian Ocean.
He immediately called a conference of his available captains.
Intelligence stated a Japanese force of two or more carriers, battleships of the Kongo class, several eight-inch cruisers, two six-inch cruisers and accompanying destroyers was believed to already at sea.
If correct, this was a powerful - yet opposable - force.
Expected time of arrival: March 31. As a full moon was forecast for April 1, Somerville and his advisers were convinced the attack would be launched before dawn that day.
Somerville was in a bind: Admiralty discussions before his arrival in Ceylon had indicated a degree of aggressiveness. Now the tone of their communiques was much more defensive.
He felt he had just one choice: To concentrate his fleet outside the range of Japanese reconnaissance during daylight, and close at night. The British could use their radar-equipped Albacores to slow the Japanese fleet enough for their battleships to engage in the dark.
To achieve this, Somerville had an ace up his sleeve.
This was a hastily assembled secret Admiralty base on the southernmost tip of the Maldive Islands, 600 miles south-west of Ceylon. It was intended to allow a fleet to anchor and refuel away from the eyes of roving reconnaissance planes.
While it lacked anti-submarine and anti-aircraft defences, It nevertheless gave the Eastern Fleet a chance to pick and choose the timing of a fight.
Mistakenly, he believed the Japanese – like the Italians and the US – had no skill at naval night fighting, either in the air or on the surface. But Somerville knew the precarious position he was in.
He signalled the Admiralty that his strategy would be “to keep the Eastern Fleet in being and avoid losses by attrition”. He would do this “by keeping the fleet at sea as much as possible; to avoid it being caught in harbour; to avoid a daylight action whilst seeking to deliver night torpedo attacks; and not to undertake operations that do not give reasonable prospects of success.”
The Japanese, he knew, held the high ground.
Just weeks earlier, the combined US-British-Dutch-Australian forces had been destroyed in and around Java.
Churchill was convinced an invasion force was on its way.
Germany was agitating for a fully-fledged invasion of Ceylon. Japan, however, had other priorities.
British intelligence was aware of Hitler’s ambitions. But not of Japan’s reticence.
For Japan, it was a matter of neutralising one last remaining threat: The British Eastern Fleet.
Admiral Kondo had, by the middle of March, ordered plans for a two-pronged advance into the Indian Ocean to be drawn up. His objective was to bring the Eastern Fleet to battle, and to destroy it. To achieve this, Admiral Nagumo’s elite, and now veteran, carrier strike force was available.
Everything hinged on the success – or otherwise – of reconnaissance. For both navies.
ORDER OF BATTLE
At first glance, the freshly-formed British Eastern Fleet appeared powerful. In fact, it was one of the largest ever assembled by the RN during the war years.
But scratch the surface, and the problems were obvious.
Few of his ships were modern. Most were slow. None were designed for operations under the stifling Eastern sun, nor the open expanse of the Indian Ocean.
The two large and modern aircraft carriers represented a significant chunk of the surviving carrier force. The smaller Hermes was still useful as an escort.
But Somerville regarded his pilots to be an ill-matched jumbled of veterans and untried - untrained - recruits. And the fleet carriers still operated aircraft barely capable to countering Italy and Germany’s long-range land-based fighters and bombers. Certainly not Japan’s unexpectedly capable carrier-based Zeroes, Vals and Graces.
The handful of Martlet and Sea Hurricanes aboard his two fleet carriers were simply not enough to make a difference against the raw numbers carried by the Japanese – yet alone the well drilled and highly experienced pilots of Nagumo’s fleet.
Somerville's modernised flagship Warspite would combine her eight formidable 15 inch guns with those of the four heavily armoured R-class battleships. But the Rs, with their outmoded design, were barely capable of 18 knots. Several of his antique 6-inch gun cruisers had not had their old armaments upgraded. The 8-inch County class cruisers were poorly protected for their size. And the destroyer force was an eclectic mix of compromises.
Admiral Somerville also was under no illusions as to the strength of the force under his command.
At least, by day.
Lt Cdr N. C. Manley-Cooper, aboard Ark Royal, in Ray Sturtivant's British Naval Aviation
In early May 1941 air-to-surface vessel radar (ASV) arrived on 820 Squadron. Nobody thought this new invention would really work but it was put into my aircraft and thus I became the first ASV operator in the Mediterranean Fleet. The equipment was quite bulky, taking up most of the cockpit space underneath and in between the pilot and observer.
On May 17 we took up Vice-Admiral Somerville for an ASV demonstration: he was quite interested in wireless and wanted to see this new development for himself. My pilot on this occasion was Sub-Lt Mike Lithgow, later to become well known as a test pilot. We first had a little practice, and I was able to bring the aircraft out of the clouds right over the ship. The Admiral was very impressed by this, and asked to see for himself how it was done. We put him into my cockpit and showed him what to operate whilst I leaned over from the TAG's cockpit. Unfortunately he put his hand on the wrong know, in which there was a lot of electric current, and he promptly shot up to the extent of the G-string holding him in! After he had recovered from this we flew in cloud close to the Fleet, and I said 'Sir, there is your flagship'. We came out of the cloud and there was Renown. 'Dead easy, isn't it?' he said - having just suffered a very nasty electric shock!
The two-seat Fulmar, while outclassed by the Zero, could however be operated at night. Its performance was also superior to that of the Hurricane when it came to low-level intercepts. And the torpedo-bomber Albacores were fitted with the latest – and highly secret – airborne surface-search radars. Exactly how many were equipped with the game-changing device is unclear, but numbers appear to have been adequate. Air Observer Gordon Wallace, in his book Carrier Observer, was flying in Albacores aboard HMS Indomitable at this time. He says the ASV (Airborne Surface Vessel radar) was fitted only to HMS Formidable's Albacores.
Formidable retained a single Swordfish among her strike wing of Albacores - because it had a precious ASV set.
Indomitable's air group was somewhat under strength, and those she did have aboard had missed out on vital training while the ship was employed ferrying RAF Hurricanes to Malaya. HMS Formidable had only just returned from extensive repairs in the United States. Her Martlet pilots had completed a suitable working up period, but her Albacore squadrons were barely capable of carrier operations.
A round-table conference between Admiral Somerville and his captains strove to determine the best composition of a balanced force.
It was agreed the faster light cruisers Emerald and Enterprise could join with the heavy cruisers and Warspite to present a formidable threat – under the confusion of darkness. The remainder would have to do what it could from a supporting position to the west.
But all agreed any defeat would leave the critical convoy routs of the Indian Ocean exposed, and open the way for an invasion of India itself.
Then an order arrived from the First Sea Lord: Somerville was not to allow his fleet to become engaged with anything other than an obviously inferior force.
Somerville’s instructions were clear: He must adopt a purely defensive stance.
But he could choose one capable of being quickly turned to the offensive if an opportunity presented itself.
Admiral Somerville had been handed this opportunity by the code-breakers who had sifted from the torrent of Japanese radio traffic news of an impending strike on April 1 against Colombo. He received this vitally important intelligence on March 28.
With careful timing, the Eastern Fleet could strike when the Japanese were most vulnerable: At night, when the carriers were preparing to launch a ground attack.
But the intelligence report underestimated the Japanese force composition. Nor did Somerville hear that Vice-Admiral Nagumo had postponed his departure date until March 26: The Japanese commander had wanted to wait until the intentions of a US carrier force spotted near Wake Island on March 10 had become clear.
The resulting delay of the strike on Ceylon until April 4 seemed insignificant in Nagumo's mind.
It would, however, almost prove to be Admiral Somerville’s undoing.
* Lamb may have meant Colombo when he states Bombay: Warspite did not venture to Bombay until after Operation C
FORCE A (Fast Group):
Indomitable (Rear-Admiral D. W. Boyd):
- 880 Squadron (9x Sea Hurricane Ib)
- 800 Squadron (12x Fulmar II)
- 827 Squadron (12x Albacore)
- 831 Squadron (12x Albacore)
- 888 Squadron (12x Martlet II)
- 820 Squadron (12x Albacore I)
- 818 Squadron (9x Albacore I, 1x Swordfish I)
Battleships: HMS Warspite (Flagship, Vice-Admiral Sir James Sommerville)
Heavy Cruisers: Cornwall, Dorsetshire
Cruisers: Emerald, Enterprise
Destroyers: HMS Paladin, Panther, Hotspur, Foxhound, HMAS Napier, HMAS Nestor
Submarines: Truant, Trusty, O-19, K-XI, K-XIV and K-XV.
* David Brown, in his book Carrier Fighters, states that - out of a paper strength of 37 fighters in total - Indomitable and Formidable only had 21 available and/or serviceable: Six Martlet IIs, eight Fulmars and 11 Sea Hurricanes. (He may have the figures swapped for Fulmars (11) and Sea Hurricanes (8) based on the official order of battle.)
FORCE B (Slow Group)
- 814 Squadron (12x Swordfish I)
Battleships: Resolution (Vice-Admiral Willis), Ramilles, Royal Sovereign, Revenge
Cruisers: Caledon, Dragon, Jacob Van Heemskerck
Destroyers: Griffin, Arrow, Decoy, Fortune, Scout, HMAS Norman, HMAS Vampire, Isaac Sweers
The situation on the ground was little better. Though not as desperate as it could have been.
Until February, the island's sole air defenders had been two naval squadrons of Fulmar IIs, fresh from fighting in North Africa. 839 Squadron RAF was operating Seals, Vildebeest and some Fulmar Is and IIs borrowed from the navy. Stocks of Hurricane Is were trickling in.
But Ceylon’s meagre air defence was soon supplemented by some 22 Hurricane IBs, veterans of the North African campaign. A fresh force of Blenheim bombers, just arrived from action in Greece, Crete and the Middle East, was shuffled to a hastily constructed auxiliary airfield near Colombo.
It was obviously inadequate.
The newly arrived pilots and maintenance crews were struggling to adapt to the conditions: Just one example of their challenges included a spontaneous fire among incendiary ammunition which resulted in all tracer being removed from among ammunition belts.
Initially, the Catalinas were not ready. Initially, only one aircraft of 240 Squadron was operational after the long flight to Ceylon. The six long-ranged flying boats, with one additional aircraft undergoing maintenance, could not sustain more than three in the air at any given time.
A second squadron of Catalina’s, however, would make a timely arrival on April 2. The Canadian 413 Squadron, under Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, had flown from the Shetland Islands. But these valuable aircraft would enable the RAF to maintain the necessary patrol pattern to cover a radius between 110 degrees to 154 degrees out to a range of 420 miles.
On the island, however, radar coverage was limited. Only one unit, 524 AMES, had been established in the past few weeks.
ROYAL AIR FORCE Order of Battle
Command: Air Vice-Marshall d’Albiac, Air Commanding Officer of No. 222 Group.
This was a small but generally crowded commercial port. Four coastal batteries had been established to defend its approaches. Among its dock facilities were a number of naval facilities, but its character was chiefly civilian. Colombo's air defences included 3 x 12-pounders, 23 x 40-mm, 4 x 3-inch, and about 19 x 3.7-inch guns
Ratmalana: This was a former civilian airfield that had been extended to operate heavy RAF aircraft.
- 30 Squadron: 21x Hurricane IIb
- 803 Squadron: 12x Fulmar II
- 806 Squadron: 12x Fulmar II
Static defences: 12 x 40-mm and 4 x 3.7-inch
Racecourse: This was one of several auxiliary airfields established across the island. With only rudimentary services, its only advantage lay in it not being known to the Japanese.
- 258 Squadron: 10x Hurricane IIB, 7x Hurricane I. This was a re-formed Dominion staffed squadron that had previously been fighting in Malaya with outclassed Buffraloes.
- 11 Squadron: 14 Blenheim IV (11 operational)
Koggala: This was a land-locked lagoon on the southwest coast, near Galle. Its sheltered harbor and remoteness made it an ideal base for seaplanes. It was only just being established, and a ragged assembly of squadrons was in the process of arriving.
- 202 Squadron: 1x Catalina
- 205 Squadron: 1x Catalina
- 240 Squadron: 3x Catalina
- 413 Squadron: RCAF: 3x Catalina.
One of the finest natural harbors in the world, it was specifically used as the Royal Navy’s East Indies Station. Apart from the dock, maintenance and storage facilities, there was little there. The harbor was guarded by five coastal batteries.
China Bay: This was a wide, grass airfield with the sea at either end. Built to established pre-war RAF principles and standards, it was the best facility in the region.
- 261 Squadron: 16x Hurricane IIb. Previously assigned to defend Malta, this squadron took station here after flying off from Indomitable.
- 273 Squadron: 16x Fulmar I&II, This hastily assembled general reconnaissance squadron under RAF command was actually manned by FAA and Marine pilots.
- 888 Squadron FAA: 3x Martlets (unserviceable due to lack of .50 cal ammunition). This was a training detachment from HMS Formidable for new pilots.
- 788 Squadron: 6x Swordfish I. This unit was a hasty assembled unit of reserve RN aircraft and reinforcements shipped out from the UK.
- 814 Squadron*: 10 Swordfish I. This was HMS Hermes' anti-submarine squadron, detached to China Bay part way through the campaign. A further two were under repair aboard the carrier.
Kokkilai: 15 miles south of Trincomalee, was another of the urgently prepared auxiliary airstrips.
- 261 Squadron (flight) was dispersed here from here from April 5.
Malay Cove: Near China Bay airfield, this was a sheltered beach suitable for amphibian aircraft.
- 321 Squadron (RNAF): 4x Catalina
IMPERIAL JAPANESE NAVY: OPERATION C
The initial Japanese plan was for its First Carrier Fleet to leave the port of Kendari in the Celebes, Indonesia, on March 21. This would allow an attack on Ceylon on April 1.
With Vice-Admiral Nagumo were five of the six carriers that had struck Pearl Harbor: Kaga had returned to Japan for repairs after striking a reef on March 15.
Indomitable was not the only carrier to suffer such an indignity, it would seem.
A second force, consisting mainly of cruisers escorted by the light carrier Ryujo, was to enter the Bay of Bengal to strike shipping and coastal facilities there.
Inexplicably, the Japanese forces were to be split in a four-pronged attack. This went counter to all established Japanese naval doctrine.
It was a tactical blunder that would later be repeated – fatally – at Midway.
Nevertheless, the Japanese expectation was for complete surprise - just like at Pearl Harbor and Darwin.
Seized without opposition earlier in May, the Andaman Islands were to provide an ideal staging post for Japan’s naval and air forces into the Indian Ocean.
To that end a detachment of seven H6K long-ranged flying boats out of an eventual 15-18 were deployed to Port Blair on March 24.
Second Southern Expeditionary Fleet (Vice-Admiral Nagumo
Carrier Division 1
Akagi (Flagship Vice-Admiral Nagumo, Captain Kiichi Hasegawa): 27x A6M2, 18x D3A1, 27x B5N2
* Some sources argue that losses due to combat (40 aircraft), deck landing and mechanical attrition since Pearl Harbor, the Japanese carrier force had standardised their squadrons at 18 operational aircraft each to allow for spares. Therefore Akagi was at this time only operating 18 fighters, 18 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo-bombers (for a total of 54)
Carrier Division 2
Hiryu (Flagship Rear-Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi , Captain Kaku): 21x A6M, 21x D3A, 21x B5N
* Alternate figure given is 18 fighters, 18 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo-bombers (for a total of 54)
Soryu (Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto): 21x A6M, 21x D3A, 21x B5N
* Alternate figure given is 18 fighters, 18 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo-bombers (for a total of 54)
Carrier Division 5 (Rear-Adm. Hara)
Zuikaku (Captain Ichibei Yokokawa): 18x A6M, 27x D3A, 27x B5N2
* Alternate figure given is 18 fighters, 19 dive-bombers and 19 torpedo-bombers (for a total of 56)
Shokaku (Captain Takatsugu Jojima): 18x A6M, 27x D3A, 27x B5N2
* Alternate figure given is 18 fighters, 19 dive-bombers and 19 torpedo-bombers (for a total of 56)
3rd Battleship Squadron
Kongo (Flagship Rear-Adm. Gunichi Mikawa), Haruna, Hiei, Kirishima
8th Cruiser Squadron
Tone (Flagship Rear-Adm. Hiroki Abe ), Chikuma
Destroyer Squadron 1, 1st Fleet
Light cruiser: Abukuma (Rear-Adm. Sentaro Omori)
Destroyer division 17
Urakaze, Tanikaze, Isokaze, Hamakaze
Destroyer division 18, Destroyer Squadron 2, 2nd Fleet
Kasumi, Arare, Kagero, Shiranuhi, Akigumo
Second Expeditionary Fleet (Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa)
This force, based in Mergui, Burma, was waiting for Nagumo to arrive before raiding shipping in the Bay of Bengal and bombard installations along India’s east coast. This force was divided into three separate units, not along division lines.
Heavy Cruiser: Chokai (Flagship Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa)
7th Cruiser Squadron
Kumano (Flagship Rear-Adm. Takeo Kurita), Mikuma, Mogami, Suzuya
Ryujo (Flagship Rear-Adm. Kakujo Kakuta): 12 A5M4 and 15 B5N1/2
Destroyer Squadron 3, 1st Fleet
Light Cruiser: Yura
Destroyer Division 11
Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyki, Murakumo
Destroyer Division 20 (replaced Desdiv 11 on April 3rd-4th, 1942)
Amagiri, Asagiri, Shirakumo, Yugiri
Second Submarine Squadron (Operational area Bay of Bengal, Sumatra, Java)
I-2, I-3, I-4, I-6, I-7
Under no illusions as to the effectiveness of half his force, Admiral Somerville set sail from Colombi in Warspite with Formidable, Cornwall, Enterprise, Caledon, Dragon and five destroyers (Nestor, Panther, Paladin, Hotspur and Express ).
Already enroute to the rendezvous point was Vice-Admiral Willis. His flagship Resolution and the rest of the "R"s had left Adu Atoll shortly before midnight, with Indomitable and nine destroyers in company.
However, the composition of the Japanese strike force was not known. Once a comprehensive sighting report had been made, Somerville could judge whether or not the odds were in his favour.
Once his forces merged, the ships could be reshuffled into into his planned “Fast” Force A and “Slow” Force B.
Only HMS Dorsetshire remained behind: She was partway through a necessary engine refit. Her crew, however, was frantically working towards returning her to service.
No sightings were reported. No new intelligence was received.
The roaming Catalinas reported Japanese submarines on the surface some 360 miles east of Colombo.
Somerville judged these were to act as both reconnaissance and an anti-surface screen for an advancing carrier force.
To maintain radio silence, an Albacore was flown off from Formidable to ask the RAF to establish a patrol in the area of the sightings, over-and-above the existing Catalina flights.
The two groups the Eastern Fleet met up during the afternoon. Signal lamps flared and flags were flown. Gradually the ships moved into their new formations.
Sunset was at 1809 hours. Somerville had to keep his force hidden until then. Only under the cover of darkness could he move eastward to take up a more favourable flying off position for his strike aircraft.
But no report of a sighting of the Japanese fleet had been received.
Somerville resolved to make an all-out effort to find the Japanese this night, ranging as far as the estimated ideal Japanese flying-off position.
The fast ships of Force A motored steadily northwards until dark, then swung about on a course of 80 degrees at a cruising speed of 15 knots. Radar-equipped aircraft were sent to the south and east, adding their scope to those aboard Warspite and the cruisers in scouring the night.
Force B, meanwhile, struggled to maintain a covering position some 20 miles westward.
Somerville could, however, have been in a much better position.
Nagumo's aircraft had this morning struck the radio facilities on Christmas Island. An allied submarine had even sighted his ships as they passed by.
None of this was relayed to the Eastern Fleet.
By 0230 the anticipated Japanese flying-off position had been reached.
Nothing was there.
Course was set to the south-west and Somerville’s two forces withdrew, joining together at their distant daytime waiting position at 0800 hours.
During the afternoon, HMS Dorsetshire joined. Her crew had hastily returned her engines to service.
Nagumo, in the meantime, was maintaining a fuel-efficient pace. He had decided to delay his attack further, from April 4 to Easter Sunday (April 5). He felt that - just as the Americans at Pearl Harbor - the British would be less alert and attending church.
For Somerville, it was more of the same: No sightings were reported. No new intelligence was received.
As dusk fell, Somerville was forced to make a decision. After three days of alternating between his day and night stations, anxiously awaiting sighting reports, the more venerable ships of his force were getting low on fuel – and water.
The R-class battleships had totally inadequate condensers to provide their own engines with a constant, clean water supply – yet alone their crew. Their tanks were beginning to run dry.
Optimal moon conditions had almost passed. The likelihood of a Japanese attack seemed greatly reduced.
At worst, the Japanese were playing a game of cat-and-mouse, waiting for his fleet to return to harbor where it would be vulnerable to another Pearl Harbor and Darwin style attack.
At best, the Japanese had aborted their raid.
Most likely: It had all been a false alarm.
That night, Somerville again conducted an eastward sweep – though not as deep as before. By 21.00, nothing had been found.
Somerville ordered his ships to withdraw to Adu Atoll to restock.
Unknown to all, Vice-Admiral Nagumo’s force was now in the Indian Ocean, some 500 miles off the coast of Sumatra.
For the Eastern Fleet and Colombo, no sightings had been reported. No new intelligence was received.
Hugh Popham in Sea Flight: The Wartime Memoirs of a Fleet Air Arm Pilot
Now, at last, it seemed that action was upon us. We joined Formidable and the remainder of the fleet, and cruised up and down to the south of Ceylon at constant readiness. The ship was electric with rumour. And nothing happened. On April 2nd, the fleet turned south and steamed to Addu Atoll, a remote ring of coral six hundred miles from Ceylon, and within a stone’s throw of the Equator. I was in the air when we approached it, and, according to the ship’s navigator, crossed and recrossed the line half a dozen times while waiting to land-on, which must be a record of some sort. It was a place that on appearances alone would give a travel-agent a rush of adjectives to the head: white coral beaches, waving palms, a cobalt sea changing to jade-green inshore, and a sun like an ultra-violet-ray lamp. The reality was rather different. The sea inside the lagoon was tepid and brackish; the white beaches were floored with chunks of coral as jagged as a kitchen-knife that cut one’s skin to ribbons and started sores it took months to heal. The heat was inescapable, and the flies stuck to one’s skin like limpets to a rock.
Admiral Somerville's fleet steadily made its way westward.
At 0520 the destroyer HMS Fortune was dispatched from the fleet to assist the SS Glen Shiel which had reported being torpedoed.
A short time later, the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall were instructed to return to Colombo. Dorsetshire needed to continue her urgent refit. Cornwall was scheduled to escort the convoy SU4 to Australia.
Also in the back of Somerville’s mind was the need to prepare for the Admiralty’s Operation IRONCLAD – the invasion of Diego Suarez, Madagascar. This was scheduled for May 5. It was considered a vital move to prevent the Vichy French from handing over its port facilities to the Japanese in the same way they had for their Indo-China territories. Any hostile force base on Madagascar would be ideally position to deny all traffic in the western Indian Ocean and even raid deep into the South Atlantic.
To that end HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire were dispatched to Trincomalee to undergo boiler cleaning.
Somerville felt his decision was sound: No sightings were reported. No new intelligence was received.
Admiral Nagomo’s force, however, was at this time refueling at sea before swinging on a westerly course at a speed of 20 knots.
Counter to Somerville’s speculation, Nagumo had simply been operating to his own flexible schedule.
His fleet had departed Kendari in Indonesiaon March 26 and entered the Indian Ocean via an unexpected route through the Ombai Straits.
But Nagumo had himself received no sighting reports of the British Eastern Fleet. This did not overly concern him. He was supremely confident in the superiority of his force.
He was certain he retained the advantage of complete surprise.
Nagumo had modified his plans to attack on the morning of the 5th: Easter Sunday. He believed many defenders would likely be attending church.
Meanwhile, Somerville’s fleet was dispersing. Early that morning, Dorsetshire and Cornwall had again taken up their berths at Colombo. Dorsetshire’s crew began preparing ship for already delayed maintenance and the fitting of new anti-aircraft guns and radar sets.
It was about 1600 (4pm) when a reconnaissance aircraft radioed it had spotted the Japanese carrier group 360 miles south of the southernmost tip of Ceylon.
This Catalina was flown by Squadron Leader L.J Birchall. He had flown out of Koggala lagoon at 6am that morning, with enough fuel aboard to linger over his patrol grid (starting some 250 miles south-east of Ceylon) until daybreak on the 5th.
After 10 hours in the air, the Catalina’s crew sighted a smudge on the southern horizon. Investigating from a height of 2000ft, Birchall saw a fleet formation including carriers, battleships, escorts and supply ships.
He knew it must be the Japanese fleet.
Nagumo’s flagship, Akagi, along with Shokaku, Zuikaku, Hiryu and Soryu, was taking station at a flying-off position some 200 miles from Colombo. This was some 160 miles south-west of where Somerville had expected Nagumo to be four days earlier.
Turning north under full power, it was already too late for the Catalina and its crew.
Six Zeros from Hiryu had been sent to intercept.
The Catalina’s radio operator managed to get off a sighting report. But before he could finish his regulation two repeats, cannon shells from the fighters began to rip through the airframe – demolishing the radio.
The fight lasted just seven minutes. Some 350 miles from land, with dusk settling in, Birchall was forced to put his Catalina down in the ocean.
Birchall would later recall:
““As we got close enough to identify the lead ships we knew at once what we were into but the closer we got the more ships appeared and so it was necessary to keep going until we could count and identify them all. By the time we did this there was very little chance left... All we could do was to put the nose down and go full out, about 150 knots. We immediately coded a message and started transmission ... As the Zeros flew in and started to attack, the Catalina began to break up in the air. We were halfway through our required third transmission when a shell destroyed our wireless equipment and seriously injured the operator; we were now under constant attack. Shells set fire to our internal tanks. We managed to get the fire out and then another started, and the aircraft began to break up. Due to our low altitude it was impossible to bail out, but I got the aircraft down on the water before the tail fell off. All the time we were landing and immediately thereafter we were under constant enemy strafing.”
Six survivors were taken aboard the destroyer Isokaze where they were beaten and interrogated.
The single transmission was, fortunately, enough. It was received - though somewhat garbled - and rapidsly shared among all Colombo’s defenders.
Flash warnings were issued.
Admiral Somerville was caught off balance. The remnant of his fleet was only just entering Addu Atoll, 600 miles away.
Most of the ships of his fast Force A could sail immediately – about midday - but not the light cruisers Emerald and Enterprise. These could not complete refueling until midnight.
Force B would not be ready until the following morning. Even then the R-class battleships would remain short of water: There was no freshwater tanks at Addu Atoll. A water-carrying ship had been delayed. And their own condensers had not yet caught up.
Back at Colombo, the Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, ordered all ships to put to sea immediately. All ground and air forces were instructed to be at action stations by 3am.
He was convinced an attack would unfold early the next morning.
In Colombo harbor, HMS Cornwall made steam as Dorsetshire scrambled to get herself back into an ocean-going state. They had received orders to meet up with Admiral Somerville’s Force A as it raced back towards its pre-arranged staging point some 250 miles south of Ceylon.
Around them, 48 merchant ships weighed anchor and scattered to the west and northwest. Some reports indicate a further 21 remained in harbor, unable to sail.
Another Catalina, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Graham of 205 Squadron, was ordered to make its way towards Squadron Leader Birchall’s sighting report.
At midnight, the remaining fast ships of Sommerville’s fleet set out from Addu Atoll and quickly made their way eastward.
All the British could do now was wait.
Shortly before 1am came confirmation of Birchall’s report: Graham signalled he had sighted a destroyer 200 miles south-east of Ceylon. The report was not repeated. Nothing was ever seen of this Catalina again.
A third Catalina, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Bradshaw of 240 Squadron, was dispatched.
Flying low to evade radar (the allies did not know at this time that Japan did not have this technology), Bradshaw sighted a large formation of aircraft overhead.
Being so close to Ceylon, Bradshaw assumed them to be friendly – perhaps from Formidable and Indomitable. He did not break radio silence to report their presence.
Bradshaw was not seen by the Japanese as they flew past: His Catalina was lost among the haze and waves.
The Catalina’s crew soon spotted the battleships and cruisers of Nagumos’ force which had taken up protective stations ahead of the carrier body just 200 miles south of the island. The warships had just launched their own patrol seaplanes, with instructions to roam 250 miles to the west and south – searching for the Eastern Fleet.
Stayling low, Bradshaw had hoped to remain unseen. Soon, however, shells from warships began exploding about his wave-top hugging aircraft.
This was not so much of an attempt to shoot him down as it was to notify fighters of the CAP as to his presence.
HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire had picked up Bradshaw’s urgent warning. Realising the enemy was just 150 miles to their east, the two ships worked up to maximum speed (27.5 knots due to Cornwall’s tired engines).
But Nagumo, even though he now suspected his fleet had been located, still expected Somerville’s warships to be in harbor at either Colombo or Trincomalee.
And his strike force was already on its way.
A Catalina sighted six aircraft at 0534, headed towards Colombo. It incorrectly identified these as Fulmars and did not send in a sighting report. Had it done so, it would have given Colombo 50 minutes warning.
Sx Fulmars from 803 Squadron was patrolling an established track coast-to-coast to the south of Colombo. It failed to sight the formation of Japanese aircraft as it was flying over water along the south-west of Ceylon.
The mobile radar station close to Colombo should have been able to give defenders 20 minutes early warning . For whatever reason, this didn't happen.
Excuses ranged from lax shift changes to scheduled maintenance and poor positioning among the hills. Other accounts argue the unit had not yet had time to establish its equipment.
Robert Stuart in an article for the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal (Vol3 No.4 Fall 2014) argues the radar station's crew had arrived on March 18, and its equipment on March 22. Established at the Royal Colombo Golf Course, it reportedly became operational as early as March 25.
Stuart cites RAF reports as showing the radar was poorly positioned, with heavy and permanent interference from nearby hills, giving it a detection range of just 60 miles (54 miles of which was south of Ceylon). At best this offers just 17 minutes warning. (Stuart points out the similar set used at Trincomalee picked up approaching Japanese formations at 91 miles)
But Colombo was alert, if not ready.
Two patrols were already in the air. One was of two Hurricanes from 30 Squadron. The second was the six Fulmars of 803 Squadron. Both formations had been flying just below the cloud line at 2000ft, but were now headed home after an uneventful dawn patrol.
About 7.15am, the formation of 127 Japanese aircraft crossed over the coast at about 8000ft.
They included 53 bomb-carrying B5N Kates (18 from Soryu, 18 from Hiryu and 17 from Akagi). There was aslo 38 D3As (19 from each of Shokaku and Zuikaku). Their escort was 36 A6Ms (9 from each of Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu and Zuikaku)
Blundering into the Japanese as they arrived over Ratmalana was a flight of six torpedo-laden Swordfish. These were under orders to fly from Trincomalee to Ratmalana where they were to refuel before heading out in search of the Japanese fleet. Following regulation line-ahead approach procedures down a narrow pre-designated approach corridor at 2000ft, the ‘Stringbags’ were inherently vulnerable.
Fuchida called in his fighter wing to dispense with the venerable naval bombers. Initially, the Swordfish believed the six approaching aircraft to be Hurricanes. Recognition flares were fired, and code letters flashed by lamp. Too late did the Swordfish crews recognise the profiles to be those of Zeroes. Burdened by their torpedoes, the biplanes were unable to take meaningful evasive action. All six were sent into the ground or sea.
Among those killed was Sub Lt Anthony Beale who had been awarded a DSC for an attack on the German battleship Bismark.
A flight of Japanese bombers attacked Ratmalana airfield and railyards. Fuchida was a passenger in one of the B5N Kates.
The airfield's radio and telephone network went dead (the operators having abandoned their posts), so the fighters were unable to coordinate their defence. No. 30 Squadron, having completed its morning patrols, was caught on the ground. The Hurricanes would have to claw their way up to 8000ft before they could tangle with the bombers. But to get there they had to evade the escorting Zeros.
The 30 Hurricane IIs, five Is and six Fulmars of 803 Squadron were scrambling to get off the ground at Ratmalana. Many quickly quickly fell prey to the swooping Zeroes.
Any aircraft, regardless of its performance, was at its most vulnerable immediately after take-off. The aircraft were simply too slow and low to manoeuvre.
Sub Lt W.H. Anderson recalled:
"Just as we reached the airfield perimeter by truck, the second wave of aircraft were arriving at much lower height, dropping what appeared to be enormous bombs, strafing the airfield, and taking an incredible toll of the Hurricanes as they scrambled ahead of us.
One of the only TAGS to reach the airfield in time for the scramble jumped into the back of my Fulmar and used the only weapon available - a Very Pistol and cartridges - to frighten off any Jap getting a bit close!"
The dogfight was short but intense. Not knowing the formidable low-speed characteristics of the Japanese Zero, the RAF and FAA fighter pilots sought to engage in the same way they had significantly less manoeuvrable German and Italian fighters.
Lt Mike Hordern recalled:
"We were caught on the ground for a start, and not many of us even got airborne. A Petty Officer with a sub-machine gun leapt in the back of my aircraft and I believe even fired it with wild abandon!
I was on my own and saw a number of enemy aircraft circling over the sea - possibly reforming or in defensive orbit against some other aircraft. I approached through broken cloud cover, at about 5000 feet, and made one pass before breaking off at high speed and seeing one aircraft burning on the surface of the sea.
I was credited with one Navy 96 (A6M2 Zero) shot down - seen and confirmed by a Naval officer standing outside the Mount Lavinia Hotel."
A little further north, the port of Colombo was awake to the threat.
Unlike Pearl Harbor and Darwin, its defences were at least alert.
An intense anti-aircraft barrage blanketed the sky above the harbor.
The Japanese strike force made its way to the dockyards, confident their covering fighters would deal with the British. The Val dive bombers were surprised to find it almost empty.
HMS Tenedos, a destroyer undergoing refit, was hit. Her stern was blown away. The armed merchant cruiser Hector was bombed and set on fire. Both soon settled on the bottom.
The submarine tender HMS Lucia was damaged though the submarine HMS Trusty, taking on torpedoes for her next patrol, was undamaged. The freighter Benledi, unable to get underway due to ongoing repairs, was also damaged. While the naval repair shops were destroyed, the port facilities remained largely untouched.
But 14 Hurricane IIb’s of 258 Squadron had scrambled from their converted racecourse. Their makeshift airfield had not yet been seen. The Hurricanes rose to intercept the Japanese bombers even as they fanned out to attack their individual targets – harbor shipping, rail yards and warehouses.
258 Squadron Leader Fletcher recalled:
"Having received no warning and finding the A/C overhead, we took off and climbed for
the HARBOUR as being the most likely point of enemy attack. When we arrived, we
found that the Bombers had commenced their attack, and there was a strong force of
enemy fighters as top cover, and considerably above our formation. I decided to attack
the Bombers in the hope that it would impair the efficiency of the enemy attack. I realized
that this would put the enemy fighters in a strong position. We continued to attack the
bombers for as long a period as possible, though this resulted in rather heavy losses
inflicted by enemy fighters...
“We did a climbing turn towards the harbour; I was still hoping against hope to get above them but if not, a head-on attack against the formation might be possible. Suddenly a couple of Jap bombers dived down through a gap in the clouds, very close to us. Obviously dive-bomber attacks had started. We were still much below the bombers so I had a difficult decision to make. It looked as if we had been spotted. There was (sic) masses of cloud cover about and if we continued climbing, we might get the precious height we needed. On the other hand, by that time the bombers would have done a lot of damage; we would be seen by the Zeros sooner or later and would be mixing it with them instead of getting at the bombers. I decided to go after the bombers, shouted “Tally-ho” and turned into a dive through a cloud between us and the gap through which the Japanese were diving. Some of the formation lost me in the cloud but two or three were still with me when we broke cloud and were in a good position to attack. From then on it was every man for himself.”
Two Vals were claimed as killed as they dived through the rising Hurricanes. But the tables were soon turned as the escorting Japanese fighters arrived. The 258 Squadron Hurricanes attempted to engage in a turning fight: Nine were quickly knocked from the skies.
258 Squadron Leader Fletcher had his Hurricane disabled by defending anti-aircraft fire before two Zeros pounced on his tail. He was able to bail out.
The remaining aircraft from 30 and 258 Squadrons managed to regroup and returned to the fray.
The surviving RAF pilots, by this stage, had begun to identify their aircraft's strengths and their opponent's weaknesses.
"I was scrambling with the squadron, and once again warning was given when the enemy was almost overhead. Over the harbour I became involved with two enemy fighters and a light bomber and eventually claimed the bomber as destroyed. It was extremely unwise to mix it with 'Zero' fighters at low altitude and I had to break away from the main centre of the activity to gain height and come in at the top again.
By this time the action had developed into a series of quick diving attacks as the Japanese force retreated out to sea."
By 8.35am, the action was over. The Japanese aircraft streamed out to sea, returning to their home ships.
The oblivious flight of Fulmars which had earlier seen the Japanese cross the coast was now returning from patrol. Again they believed the ragged formation to be FAA aircraft from Indomitable and Formidable. Only when they approached their airfield did they realise what they had escaped:
Observer Sub Lt Roy Hinton:
"Arriving back at base it was so obvious that all hell had been let loose only minutes before. It transpired that all the wireless operators at Ratmalana had sought shelter as soon as the first bombs were dropped."
Counting the cost
The Japanese believed they had shot down 39 RAF fighters and damaged another 11. Actual RAF losses reported were 21 Hurricanes downed, two of which were repairable. Japanese pilots also claimed eight Swordfish, though the number was actually six.
258 Squadron claimed four destroyed, one probable and four damaged. The FAA claimed one kill - but had lost four out of its six Fulmars. 30 Squadron's tally was 14 kills, six probables and five damaged. Ground AA gunners claimed five.
In all, Britain claimed 24 kills. Japan would only ever publically admit to losing five aircraft.
While most Japanese records of the attack appear to have been lost, accounts such as Bloody Shambles by Christopher Shores gives the tally as six D3A destroyed and seven damaged, along with one A6M and three damaged, and five B5N damaged.
Civilian casualties on the ground amounted to 85 dead and 77 injured.
In the immediate aftermath, Colombo only had a handful of fighters available to repel any follow-up attack. 30 Squadron had seven Hurricanes, while 258 had three MkIIbs and one MkI. About eight Fulmars were also active.
Fuchida was aware of this weakness: He urged Nagumo to rearm the reserve aircraft for a follow-up strike on the airfields.
Whatever the actual Japanese losses, it was a costly day for the RAF and FAA.
Admiral Layton was particularly scathing of the performance of his Fulmars and Swordfish.
‘Fleet Air Arm aircraft are proving more of an embarrassment than a help, when landed. They cannot operate by day in the presence of Jap fighters and only tend to congest aerodromes.’
The Blenheims of 11 Squadron had escaped the Japanese attack. Just a week earlier, they had been redeployed to the Racecourse airfield.
Ten Blenheims were at the alert, fueled and loaded up with 500lb semi-armour piercing bombs. But they were forced to wait until all scrambling 258 Squadron Hurricanes were out of the way.
The Blenheims managed to get into the air at 8.30am, hoping to catch Nagumo’s carriers in the midst of landing-on his returning strike force.
Wing-Commander A.J.M. Smyth, however, failed to find the Japanese fleet due to heavy cloud. He was forced to return without dropping his bombs.
Meanwhile, Nagumo’s force had been thrown into disarray.
About 10am one of Tone’s seaplanes had reported sighting two destroyers to the north-west of the main fleet travelling the south south-west at 25kts. It warned of an impending surface attack.
And the carriers were only just starting to receive their aircraft.
Worse, the Japanese covering force of battleships and cruisers had been left some 40 miles to the south east: The carrier group had been steering into the wind at 26 knots.
Nagumo was put in a bind: It was a similar situation to what he would later find himself in at Midway.
He had kept back a strike force of bombers for just such a situation.
But Fuchida had already advised Nagumo to rearm his ready anti-ship aircraft for a follow-up attack on Colombo.
Nagumo had ordered their rearmament at 0853.
Now he had aircraft low on fuel, and some damaged, urgently needing to land.
His returning pilots had reported that the Eastern Fleet had not been in Colombo harbor. Were these two destroyers part of its advanced screen?
Then, Tone’s seaplane updated its initial report: Instead of two destroyers, the warships it was shadowing were two heavy cruisers.
HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire.
Both were now well within range of the carrier’s bombers.
Fuchida ordered the urgent recall of all his remaining bombers over Colombo, leaving the Zeroes to deal with the defenders.
He also had to reverse the rearmament order for his dive bombers. This was done at 10.23.
Hugh Popham: Sea Flight: The Wartime Memoirs of a Fleet Air Arm Pilot
The exact size and composition of the fleet was still not properly known: only that it was there, five hundred miles to the north-east of us, steering westward, and that it contained one, or more, carriers.
That night, as we steamed north, a striking force of Albacores, armed with torpedoes, was ranged, with their crews at readiness. As dusk deepened swiftly into darkness, the ship herself seemed to tremble with a strumming nerve of anticipation. Not many people slept. The knowledge persisted past the brink of waking: a Jap carrier-force was approaching Ceylon: we were on our way to intercept. Our chance had come at last.
We were at Action Stations before dawn, hurrying up to the flight-deck almost as if the enemy might be hull-up ahead, almost as if we might be missing something. There was no news, nothing to be seen. We rushed down to breakfast in ones and twos, lifebelts and anti-flash gear near at hand, and hurried back on deck. All was still and expectant. Pilots, observers, air-gunners, with their Mae Wests unbuttoned and their helmets hanging round their necks, moved restlessly about the deck.
“For Christ’s sake, let’s get at the little yellow bastards,” Jock said. “What are we waiting for?”
What were we waiting for? Instead of driving northwards at full speed, we were dawdling about on the leisurely swells. We began to get edgy with impatience.
A portion Nagumo's reserve force of Val dive-bombers eventually took flight at 11.30am. Their instructions were to shadow the cruisers until reinforcements arrived. This happened at noon.
Meanwhile, the Kates and Vals of the Colombo had been streaming back to the fleet. The Zeroes they left behind had to find their own way home.
Hammers on eggshells
HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall continued to race southwards. They hoped to be under the fighter umbrella of Formidable and Indomitable by 2pm and to rendezvous with Somerville by 5pm.
The first Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had been spotted by Cornwall’s lookouts about 11am, passing some 20 miles behind the British ships. Later, a second was detected on radar as it loitered near the horizon. Then, about 1pm, a large number of echos indicated a force of aircraft was nearby.
Was this Formidable and Indomitable’s CAP?
But the cruiser captains were cautious, and closed up to action stations regardless of their doubt. They even took the unusual action of breaking radio silence to report to Somerville the location of their ships, and the likelihood of an enemy air attack.
The strike force of Vals was led by Lieutenant-Commander Takashige Egusa, Air Group Commander of Soryu’s wing. His pilots had all been carefully trained to sink the flat-tops of the US Pacific Fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In total, the strike included 18 Vals from Soryu, 18 from Hiryu and 17 from Akagi.
Their skill was immediately evident for the two heavy cruisers.
Despite the radar warning, the approaching Japanese had not been sighted against the glare of the clear sky above the ships.
This was no accident.
The Vals, operating in flights of three, had taken the time to position themselves up-sun. This happened to be directly ahead of the speeding cruisers. Being of 1920s design, neither cruiser had anti-aircraft guns that could fire directly forward.
Hugh Popham in Sea Flight: The Wartime Memoirs of a Fleet Air Arm Pilot
At 1030 the fighters on deck were put at instant readiness, pilots strapped in. We sat there, sweltering, fingers on the starter button, muscles aching with the effort of waiting. There were enemy aircraft on the radar screen. A W/ T message had just been received from Dorsetshire and Cornwall— those dignified symbols of an obsolete Pax Britannica—“ We are being attacked by enemy dive-bombers.”
Then why weren’t we airborne and on our way? For Christ’s sake, why?
A last message from the two cruisers as they went down, and we raged and blasphemed with frustration. Commander Flying was bombarded with the demand, and could only answer: the Admiral says no.
All day it was the same: the sour anger of enforced inaction, of a sapping impotence.
Rumours filtered through. Colombo had been bombed. Then why, and again, why, weren’t we there?
For forty-eight hours longer we steamed in desultory circles, in a state of readiness that had long since become a mockery. Just our luck, we said bitterly, to belong to the fighter-squadrons that never fought. The T.B.R. boys were equally galled. The thought of an enemy fleet just over the horizon, simply waiting to be torpedoed, was too tantalising to be borne.
HMS Warspite and Indomitable watched silently. Their radar operators also had detected the formation of Japanese bombers at a range of some 84 miles to their north-east. The blips soon faded away - no doubt as they initiated their dives.
Closed up at action stations and fully ready to repel air attack, at 1340 Dorsetshire’s lookouts saw the first Japanese bombers directly overhead and opened fire.
The aircraft dived – on Cornwall just a mile to port.
At the same time a second flight of three aircraft began their attack on Dorsetshire. Despite an urgent turn to starboard, all three bombs plunged through her decks. Her rudder was jammed, the engine and boiler rooms hit, the ship’s catapult ablaze and the radio room smashed – all within the opening minutes, Dorsetshire lurched to a stop. Then a bomb hit one of her magazines.
By 1348, Dorsetshire’s bow lifted as her stern began to slip beneath the waves. In all, she’d been hit by 17 500lb bombs.
Cornwall followed shortly after. The first bomb had struck astern. Attempting to evade with a swing to starboard, several of her anti-aircraft gun mounts were obliterated as more bombs rained down.
Sub Lt Popham recalled:
"A W/T message had been received from Dorsetshire and Cornwall: 'We are being attacked by enemy dive bombers.' Then why weren't we airborne and on our way? A last message from the two cruisers as they went down, and we raged and blasphemed with frustration. All day it was the same: the sour anger of enforced inaction, of a sapping impotence.
The TBR boys were equally galled. The thought of an enemy fleet just over the horizon, simply waiting to be torpedoed, was too tantalizing to be borne."
* Pictures originally attributed as being uploaded by Bill Somerville on the J-aircraft.com site. Unfortunately I am unable to find the original post to link to.
First Lieut. Geoffrey Grove later described his recollections of the attack.
“We watched the planes like hawks, and as the bombs showered down, we flung ourselves down on our faces. If the hit was close by, you were bounced like a ball. We had three hits almost directly under us and for one of them I was standing up and was enveloped in a great sheet of flame. I thought it was the end of me but my clothing saved me and I was unhurt. We took something like fifteen hits in about seven minutes and the poor old girl took on a bigger list than ever and started to settle. When I could do no more up top, I went below to help put out the fires and throw red-hot ammunition into the sea. We got all the fires out quite easily. By this time the ship was obviously sinking and some of the men were launching the floats.”
Japanese reports are cited as saying 13 bombs were dropped on Cornwall, with 11 direct hits. The heavy cruiser went under, bow first, at 1400
Egusa’s dive-bomber crews had set a record for bombing accuracy: Every bomb either struck the heavy cruisers, or burst right alongside.
Spotted some two hours later by a Swordfish sent to investigate the scene, a rescue destroyer would be recalled by Somerville under the mistaken belief the Japanese main force was nearby.
TAG L/Air Gordon Dixon recalled (in Bloody Shambles Volume 2):
"We sighted the Jap fleet - we could see the outline of the carriers and the battleships. Sub Lt Jaffray gave me a signal to send. A simple message, repeated twice, indicating the sighting. It was while sending this message that the 'Zero' made the first attack. At this time we would have been flying at 3000 feet.
At once Grant-Sturgish dived to sea level. The 'Zero' then made a frontal attack. This we evaded by swerving side to side. The pilot fired his forward gun. It then attacked from the rear. I stood up in the cockpit with the Vickers GO, and when the 'Zero' opened fire, I responded with a burst, while Grant Sturgis did a tight turn towards the fighter.
It was during the second attack from the rear that I was hit in the left forearm and the left hip. The fighter engaged us for about 15 minutes, making four attacks from the rear and three frontal ones. All the time we were at sea level.
The Vickers gun had a very small bag to collect the spent cartridges, and if this got too full the gun jammed. To avoid this, I removed the bag: consequently, when firing, spent cases were flying all around the cockpit.
We finally arrived back at the carrier and Jaffray fired a Very pistil, and we landed straight away. The Albacore had been hit by about 40 bullets."
Four Albacores of 827 Squadron aboard Indomitable were sent aloft at 1400. They ranged 200 miles to the north-east of the British fleet as it gingerly advanced. At 3pm, one of them sighted the wreckage of the two cruisers – and radioed a report.
Just 15 minutes later, the same pilot – Sub Lieutenant Streathfield – was shot down after sighting the main Japanese formation. His crew had not had time to send a full report. All three aboard were killed.
The Eastern Fleet and Nagumo’s strike force were just 180 miles apart.
With just four hours of daylight left, it was the most dangerous moment of the entire operation.
But neither commander knew where the other was.
Had Sub Lieutenant Streathfield been able to get off a detailed report, the direction of the war could have been turned on its head. Somerville could have been able to set course for his desired night intercept.
The outcome of such an engagement was by no means certain – for either side.
But Somerville was left frustrated.
Without accurate details of location, course and speed, he could not calculate the necessary path to guarantee a safe night launch of a radar-guided Albacore strike, followed up by an attack by his fastest warships.
He wasn't even certain of the enemy's fleet composition.
Then, at 1817, a battered 827 Squadron Albacore made it back to Indomitable's deck. While souring the western edge of Somerville's search area, it had stumbled over Nagumo’s ships. Sub Lieutenant Grant-Sturgish had been forced to dive while under attack from a Zero. Weaving between the wave tops, the Albacore escaped: The Japanese aircraft had used up all its ammunition and pulled away.
With a wounded airman, a bullet through the radio and another through a tyre, Grant-Sturgis had to put his vibrating plane back on deck before he could make his report. This had taken two hours of tense flying. Touching down, the Albacore slewed heavily and almost went over the side.
CLEARED FOR ACTION
Grant-Sturgis reported five Japanese ships - including two carriers - had been seen 120 miles from Force A, steering to the north-west.
Somerville was convinced this was his chance to initiate a night action, so he also changed course to the north-west.
The carriers were already at the ready. Torpedoes had long since been loaded on HMS Indomitable and Formidable's Albacores and the aircraft had been waiting for the launch order, their crews awaiting the loudhailer's call to action.
Observer Gordon Wallace recalls:
Ground crew were milling around as we approached 4C, ranged in the first section on the port side, so we would be one of the first to go in to the attack. I bent down and looked at the torpedo, all 1600 pounds of death reflecting what little light was left. A voice out of the dark said 'You've got a good one there, Sir, see you put it right up one of those squint-eyed bastards!
I climbed in after Oscar and, after switching on the little hooded light, unpacked all my gear and checked the beacon receiver. There was nothing else to do but sit and shiver in the darkness as the aircraft gently rocked on its fat tyres. From my compass i saw that the ship was now on a north westerly course which seemed strange. Acrid fumes from the ship's funnel percolated into the cockpit. I lost count of time and don't remember how long it was before there was a rap on the cockpit door and a disembodied voice said we were packing it in for the night...
So why hadn't we been flown off for our night attack? No one knew.
The Eastern Fleet held a steady north-western bearing. Through the night, radar-equipped Albacores swept an arc to the north.
They found nothing.
Nagumo's force had much earlier actually come within 100 miles of the Eastern Fleet, travelling in a south-easterly direction. It passed quickly beyond reach.
By now Admiral Somerville had learnt of the second Japanese raiding force roaming the Bay of Bengal. Signals reporting merchant ships under attack by aircraft or surface ships were coming in thick and fast.
In all, Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s cruisers and destroyers had sunk 23 merchant ships totalling more than 100,000 tons.
Somerville had also learnt of the size of the force that had attacked Colombo. Clearly it was vastly superior to what his own carriers could caounter.
A flight of Swordfish were sortied from China Bay at dawn to search for any Japanese ships they could find. Several 273 Squadron Fulmars were in company, as escort, or on reconnaissance flights of their own.
They found nothing.
Nagumo, however, had failed to extrapolate the course of the two British cruisers his aircraft had sunk the day before and had neglected to send a scouting formation along their line of advance.
Instead, he had altered course to the south east the previous afternoon. This was to keep a rendezvous with an oil tanker and its support ships before launching an air strike on Trincomalee.
Both Somerville and the general staff at Colombo believed by now the Japanese carriers could be headed towards Addu Atoll. Somerville resolved to maintain an easterly course to place himself between the Japanese fleet and their home ports.
After some 26 hours in the water, at 5pm, help finally arrived for the survivors of HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire. An aircraft flew overhead, signalling “Hold on. Help is coming”.
Then, at 6pm, the light cruiser HMS Enterprise and the destroyers Paladin and Panther hauled over the horizon. Fighters from HMS Formidable and Indomitable maintained a watchful presence.
In all 1122 men were pulled from the water. The two heavy cruisers had been carrying 1546 between them.
Ken Smith, in Iain Ballantyne, Warspite
We were at action stations for most of the time. It all felt very tense and dangerous. You were closed up for hours and hours. Your nerves were jangled every time alarm bells rang to warn that action was imminent. Sometimes they did this because they genuinely thought it might be and other times they did it just to keep us on our toes. A 6-inch gun battery is a long passageway, each of the guns in its own compartment with only a semi-divide between. You could see the other gun crews over it but that was all. Nothing else. It was pretty tedious. There was a crew of about seven on each gun and there was no sitting down – you stood for hours. When they stood down the alert status then you might be able to sit on the floor, but there would always be someone stood by the phone. You even had crews sleeping by their guns. We were not certain what was going on at all. They did tell us they were hoping to make a night attack. But whether that was propaganda to keep our spirits up or a serious intention I don’t know. We were told very little about what was happening – we found out the detail later. I believe had we gone on towards the Japanese for another five or ten minutes we would have been picked up by the Tone’s scouting aircraft. Thank goodness we turned about – there was no sense risking the whole fleet in seeking a hopeless battle with the same carriers which destroyed the American fleet. There but for the grace of God went I.
That evening Somerville’s radar-equipped biplanes of 827 Squadron continued to scour the ocean for any echo of the Japanese ships. One was engaged by what it thought to be Zeros, but escaped into cloud. It may have encountered an opposing search patrol of D3As.
But Nagumo had slipped the net.
To supplement the battered Catalina patrols, five 11 Squadron Blenheims set out from Colombo to find the Japanese fleet. Several flights of Swordfish did likewise from Trincomalee - again escorted by Fulmars.
None found a thing.
Meanwhile, the main Japanese fleet had met up with its tankers for an underway replenishment. The carrier air groups rested as mechanics strove to restore as many as possible to service.
Admiral Somerville woke to news a convoy of six merchant ships had been sunk off the coast of India. Another had been bombed by aircraft from Ryujo. Facilities along the east coast of India were being bombarded by Ozawa’s cruisers.
But the British were not out of hot water yet.
Nagumo was about to launch a second attack, this time on Trincomalee.
Winston Churchill had, by this time, received a report on the April 5 fight. He would signal US President Roosevelt:
"According to our information, five, and possibly six, Japanese battleships, and certainly five aircraft-carriers, are operating in the Indian Ocean. We cannot of course make head against this force, especially if it is concentrated.
Even after the heavy losses inflicted on the enemy's aircraft in their attack on Colombo, we cannot feel sure that our two carriers would beat the four Japanese carriers concentrated south of Ceylon. The situation is therefore one of grave anxiety."
At 11am, the Eastern Fleet pulled into Addu Attol. An urgently convened conference of captains was told by Somerville that he no longer held any intention of attempting to intercept the Japanese.
The loss of HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall had put a serious dent in his fast force. And the overwhelming strength of the Japanese carrier air fleet made the force aboard Formidable and Indomitable seem almost irrelevant.
Instead, Somerville would ensure a ‘fleet in being’ by sending Force B westwards, to the Kilindini naval base near Mombassa.
Force A set course for Bombay. From here it could contine to deter Japanese attacks on convoys operating in the Indian Ocean. But it was far enough away to evade any attack from a heavy carrier force.
The crews of the Eastern Fleet were shattered.
Why were they running away?
However, when informed, Churchill approved:
“On one point we were all agreed, the Rs should get out of danger at the earliest moment. When I put this to the First Sea Lord there was no need for argument. Orders were sent accordingly”.
The Japanese carriers, having completed their replenishment, turned to the north west. They were to launch an attack on Trincomalee at dawn the next day.
Again, the Catalina’s of 240 Squadron – this time piloted by Flying Officer Round – made a timely sighting. Nagumo’s force was detected early in the morning when some 500 miles east of Dondra Head at the southern tip of Ceylon.
With enemy fighters approaching, Round was able to hide his big flying boat among cloud – returning to the lagoon late in the evening.
The Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon, Admiral Layton, immediately deduced Trincomalee was in for an attack. He put the island’s defences on full alert.
All ships in Trincomalee harbor were ordered to sea, but the 15inch gunned Erebus remained to supplement the defences. One cargo ship, the Sagaing, was unable to set sail.
Among those to leave was the light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, commanded by Captain Richard Onslow. The 10,850 ton carrier prototype from 1923 could only carry 15 aircraft. But, in the same manner as the escort carriers just beginning to enter service, she had been provided valuable anti-submarine escort services to shipping in the western Indian Ocean.
She was in Ceylon to prepare to join the fleet carriers in their attack on Madagascar in May.
Hermes, which has by now been back in harbor for four days, was not able to get underway immediately. The boiler cleaning work had to be made good and her liberty men recalled from shore.
Only two Swordfish – both undergoing repair - were in her hangar. The remaining 12 aircraft of 814 Squadron were nesting at China Bay.
At 7pm, Captain Onslow took his ship, accompanied by the elderly Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire, the corvette Hollyhock, the tanker British Sergeant and the submarine depot ship Athelstone directly south. He hoped that by keeping clear of the coast he would evade Japanese submarine and reconnaissance patrols.
Vice-Admiral Nagumo was convinced he would find the Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee. He knew the Royal Navy’s ships had only limited endurance. Expectations were high among command staff and crew that this morning’s raid would be another Pearl Harbor.
He still had no idea the British had set up their secret refuelling facilities at Addu Atoll.
As dawn broke at 6.20am, his carrier’s swung into the wind. The strike force of Kates and Zeroes was soon in the air and making its way towards Trincomalee.
Two Kates were diverted to scout Colombo harbor in the unlikely event the Eastern Fleet had anchored there.
But the Japanese carriers had again been sighted by a British Catalina. Flight Lieutenant Thomas of 413 Squadron made an urgent sighting report at 7.16am. A repeat transmission was cut short – presumably as the fleet’s Zeros made their attack.
The Hurricanes of 261 Squadron had been at alert since before dawn. Dispersed between the main airfield at China Bay and the auxiliary airstrip at Kokkilai, a dawn patrol of three aircraft was already in the air when the first radar contacts were reported.
Trincomalee's radar station had only been active two or three days. Unlike the Colombo unit, it proved effective.
At 6.35am an unknown number of aircraft were reported approaching from the east at a range of 50 miles.
Six Hurricanes were scrambled from China Bay. Another six took to the air five minutes later from Kokkilai - bringing the total number of Hawker's in the air to 17. Six Fulmars of 273 Squadron were also up - though on reconnaissance patrol.
The attack force was made up of 91 B5N Kates, with 41 A6M Zeros as escort. All the D3A Vals were being held in reserve for a decisive blow against the British Eastern Fleet - wherever it be found.
At last, many of the British fighters were at optimal heights and surveying the formations of Japanese aircraft approaching them. Primary targets would, as always, be the bombers. But first, the 16 defenders had to get through the 41 Zeros.
The dogfight swirled between 22,000 and 8000 feet.
Despite beginning to realise the need to maintain momentum over the Zero, the British pilots were hopelessly outnumbered.
Air artificer Ron Swinn, in Voices in Flight: The Fleet Air Arm - Recollections from Formation to Cold War
On 9 April 1942, my birthday, we were walking back from the dining hall after breakfast when my mate and I heard a low drone of aircraft engines in large numbers. ‘Sounds like the Hermes aircraft returning,’ was the observation of my mate ‘Sammy’ Samuels. ‘No two-engined aircraft on her,’ was my reply. By this time, I was a clear twenty yards ahead of him, and galloping off to our machine-gun emplacement. As we dived in, all hell let loose. The station was caught unawares. Bombs dropped in the first wave set off a bomb dump near the hangars and further heightened the din. One Japanese aircraft dived into the oil tanks and set them on fire. The raid was over almost as soon as it had started. Bewildered officers and ratings appeared from the shelter holes to survey the carnage, ammunition from the RAF supply dump and a merchant ship was exploding all the time and the hangars were blazing. Amidst that entire spectacle, I could still murmur to myself, ‘Thank God, at least that damn compressor will be out of commission now, and I’ll be detailed off for a new job.’ Gathering a few of the ratings together, we made off to assist with the firefighting and, after a few hours, had everything under control. Hot, sticky and terribly dirty, I made my way to the hangar housing the compressor; the building was two-thirds gone and still smouldering. Imagine my amazement, after inching past the wrecked aircraft and peering through the smoke, to see my monster still in A1 condition, with only a bit of paint blistering and a cracked dial or two but otherwise intact. I need not have bothered anyway, since their Lordships decided that China Bay had had it for the time being. So, once again, the draft was carved up and I, plus a dozen more, was sent overland by truck to a small fishing village on the West coast of Ceylon called Puttalam, where we were to start up a storage section. Our ‘field’ was a strip hacked out of the jungle and, as we moved in, it was still being constructed. It consisted of a mere dirt strip with a perimeter track that was also made of dirt. At intervals around this track were small loops, which led in and out again. These contained hides for the aircraft, which could be pushed into them with wings folded. It was in these hides that we carried out maintenance. Our complement of planes was a rather mixed bag. There were some Swordfish, Albacores, Hellcats, Bearcats, Corsairs, Fulmars, Hurricanes, Harvards and a Gladiator. Nobody seemed to know where the last one came from. The Swordfish was also an unknown but came in useful in the monsoon season when it was used as an airborne truck to fetch supplies from Colombo if the road traffic could not get through. I remember that it came back once loaded with bags of spuds.
Flight-Lieut. D. Fulford recalled:
“I took off at 0652 hrs with Flight-Sergeant Rawnsley and Sergeant Walton forming Emerald Section and climbed to a height of 15,000 feet. I had been told to fly out on a vector of 100 degrees to meet a strong plot of aircraft flying thirty miles from the coast. I flew behind some cumulus cloud to protect my eyes from the sun and almost immediately sighted the enemy aircraft. They were at a height of 15,000 ft., flying due west, straight towards the harbour. I saw two formations of bombers, each comprising of two groups of seven in line astern, escorted by a number of Navy O’s. “A moment later I sighted another similar formation about a mile behind. The escorting fighters were not in a definite formation but spread out all around the bombers. I saw the sun glinting on their perspex windscreens above and behind me so I brought the section together into a tight group and we climbed to the north behind some cloud. I climbed to a height of 22,000 ft. then turned west until I was over the rear formation. I noticed that several enemy fighters were weaving behind the formation so we dived down and selected one each.”
The three Hurricanes of the dawn patrol were quickly in an ideal position: They blasted through the escort in a dive from 22,000 feet. Two Zeros were quickly knocked down. Two of the three 261 Squadron fighters climbed back to safety, but the third was seen pouring smoke.
Six Hurricanes had scrambled from China Bay, climbing to 21,000ft before engaging in the fight. These also attempted to use the momentum from their dives for safety, but many soon became fixated in tangling with the formations of bombers. It was a similar story for the Hurricanes from Kokkilai.
The Japanese bombers made Trincomalee harbor at 7.20am
They were shocked to see it virtually empty.
The monitor HMS Erebus was hit several times. The merchant ship Sagaing was beached, ablaze - her cargo of three crated Albacores destroyed.
Zeros circled above the China Bay airfield, awaiting damaged or low-ammunition defenders attempting to return. Beneath them, the bombers attacked. A petrol pump was hit and set alight, an ammunition dump exploded – sending debris flying through two nearby hangars. Bombs fell among the accommodation facilities.
One Japanese pilot was seen to crash his aircraft – damaged or otherwise – into a Royal Marine Bofors gun emplacement. Another plunged into the Royal Navy's oil tanks at the end of the field.
61 Squadron Leader Lewis had been delayed in getting off the ground:
"I had barely got my undercart up, when a hail of bullets struck the armour plate at my back and the throttle lever was no longer there. I was obviously hit, as the plane was on fire and, at that moment, two planes with blood red roundels slid by, in close formation: I realised with a start - Zeros! In less time than it takes to tell, I was reaching for the release pin on my Sutton harness and I was out. I caught the tailplane as I fell away...
What seemed to be shrapnel rained down, and i was glad of the leather helmet. A Hurricane passed overhead; the awesome chatter of the 12 guns helped me to realise that the Jap's weren't having it all their own way."
Flight Sergeant Mothersdale recalled:
"The Navy '0' continued along the length of the airfield slowly climbing but taking no evasive action. It pulled into a climbing turn to port, reached about 300 feet when the Bofors gun at the north-east end of the field fired four shells in rapid succession; the rear half of the Navy 'O's' fuselage - from right behind the cockpit - disappeared! Its nose dropped and the front half of the fuselage went into a steep dive and struck the rim of a large oil storage tank in the Naval Base area. As I watched, grey smoke was rising from the tank, soon turning black and soon flames were flickering."
The Japanese bombers had finished by 8am. Many felt it had been a wasted effort – there being so little for them to attack. The aircraft began to form up and make their way back towards their carriers.
261 Squadron claimed four bombers and four fighters destroyed, plus three fighter and one bomber probable. In all, the tally claimed was five bombers and six fighters.
Japan never publically admitted to losing more than the five aircraft in their first attack on Colombo. Nevertheless, the book Bloody Shambles Volume 2 states three Zeros were accepted as having been shot down over Trincomalee, as were two Kates - with seven seriously damaged.
The Japanese were also exuberant in their claims: 36 kills among the defenders. In reality, of the 16 Hurricanes that had made if off the ground, eight were shot down or force-landed. Three more were damaged.
At 0755, a float plane from the battleship Haruna had radioed it had found a carrier and three destroyers.
Some accounts claim that, on their way to Colombo, the two reconnaissance Kates confirmed the sighting of HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire making their way south.
Nagumo became convinced the whole Eastern Fleet must be in their vicinity. He was alarmed that he had no air cover himself and that the British may soon attack – and attempted to issue an urgent recall order to his fighters.
The Trincomalee force landed on as the reserve strike of Vals was bombed up in the hangars below. Once the decks cleared, the dive bombers were hoisted on the lifts and the fleet turned to the south.
Below, aircraft maintenance crews struggled to quickly refuel and rearm the Kates and Zeroes in anticipation of a follow-up attack.
It took an hour to get more than 50 Vals and six escorting fighters into the air (18 from each of Soryu, Hiryu and Shokaku, 17 from Akagi and 14 from Zuikaku).
To the south, HMS Hermes’ Captain knew his carrier was in trouble.
The seaplane from the battleship Haruna had been shadowing Hermes and Vampire. Without aircraft of her own, there was nothing the British carrier could do about it.
Captain Onslow turned back to the north, angling towards the coast. The best he could hope for was RAF fighters to respond to his desperate calls for help before the inevitable attack unfolded.
The Japanese, when they arrived at 10.15, were incredulous at the lack of air opposition
Again, the Vals came out of the sun and over the carrier’s bow. There was little the light carrier’s four Bofors, a scattering of Oerlikons and two 4 inch guns in the stern could do about it.
Hermes desperately twisted and turned, both in an attempt to evade the bombs and to open up her anti-aircraft arcs.
But the Japanese simply flew lower to improve their accuracy.
Lt Bailey, 273 Squadron Fulmar pilot:
The first intimation of excitement was when a Hurricane from China Bay landed at Kokkilai with a wounded RAF officer, who said the Japanese were attacking. I scrambled my flight, and with my No. 2 'Twinkle' Neal flew off in the general direction of whence the Hurricane had come.
I had had the back seat gear from all the Fulmars removed to save weight. We did not have enough parachutes and used engine covers to give us the necessary height in the seat.
I climbed as fast as I could, which was not very fast in a Fulmar, and at about 18,000 feet I saw the Hermes ahead. As we approached, I saw more aircraft than I had ever seen in one place before and, as I had no wireless communication (none of us did), I rolled over - and believing that the best chance was to have maximum speed - kept pointing downhill into the melee.
The Fulmar had a terminal velocity, so we believed, of about 270 knots, and at that speed I arrived in the middle of a lot of aircraft - fortunately all opposition! I remember noting that the Hermes was not on fire but seemed to be very full of holes. There was an escort of some sort.
I found a '96 (sic) in front of me and was about to fire when there was the most almighty noise in the cockpit - I pushed the tit and to my surprise, whilst continuing to overtake the '96, it flipped over. The noise, I then discovered, had been my cockpit hood blowing off, doubtless due to the unexpected speed the thing had been doing...
... I went to China Bay. There the armoury was on fire but nobody seemed very interested! We refueled and headed out to Hermes again. On arrival there were no enemy and Hermes was sinking fast. We flew around and then returned to China Bay.
Lieut. Brimble, Hermes’ Second Gunnery Officer, recalled:
“We were in the look-out position some 120 feet above the flight deck and at times, some of the enemy aircraft swept by well below us”
A flight of six 273 Squadron Fulmars arrived and attempted to intervene. The reconnaissance squadron pilots claimed one kill and two probables, with three damaged. One of their own was shot down.
But Hermes was quickly hit.
The Japanese delayed-fuse bombs penetrated the thin steel flight deck and burst in the hangar and enginerooms.
Inexplicably, the Japanese attack paused. (Ed's note: There is contention as to whether or not this pause in action actually happened. I am attempting to find more primary sources to resolve the dispute)
For almost half an hour Hermes made her way as fast as she could towards the coast as damage control teams fought to contain the fires. Soon land was just eight miles away.
Hermes’ radio calls were eventually heard at Ratmalana. Only the Fulmars had the range to reach the hapless carrier. Eight aircraft of both 803 and 806 Squadrons - carrying just their pilots - took off at 10am.
Observer Bert Holt recalled:
"We - that is all the TAGs - went to our planes but were sent away again by the pilots, who said it was only a top cover routine patrol, and we were just 'excess baggage'.
A surge of elation swept through the carrier when a cloud of aircraft was seen at great height: The RAF had finally come!
But hearts sank once they were seen moving into the sun before swooping down one after the other.
The time was 10.35am
Lieut. Brimble, Hermes’ Second Gunnery Officer, recalled:
As soon as 'Action Stations' was sounded three planes were seen on the starboard beam. The ship's AA guns and pom poms opened up but the Jap pilots flew through the barrage, unhooked a stick of bombs, then dive-bombed and machine-gunned the ship. Their bombs exhausted, they made off, and then the attack really developed. Wave after wave of planes in formations of six and three came over.
Their bombing was pretty deadly. We caught fire and started blazing furiously. The one thing we expected, however, did not materialise. There were no torpedoes. Some of the raiders came in low despite our AA fire. They paid for their audacity. We reckon at least four never reached their bases - we saw them being smacked good and hearty - three staggered away and one came hurtling into the sea.
Aboard HMS Hermes, no sooner had the order been given to abandon ship than a bomb struck Hermes’ bridge – killing everybody there, including Captain Onslow.
Her flight deck peeled open, her sides torn open and ablaze from stem to stern, Hermes rolled over and sank at 10.55am.
When the 803 and 806 Squadron Fulmars arrived from Colombo, it was already too late.
Sub. Lt. Metcalfe, in one of the fleet fighters, later recalled:
‘The carrier and the destroyer (were) lying stopped, like a couple of beetles being attacked by a swarm of ants’.
The Fulmar pilots, however, saw other ships in the area were being attacked: While avoiding the hospital ship Vita, the Japanese swooped on a tanker and cargo ship.
They had, by this time, been joined by an escort of Zeros dispatched from the Japanese carriers.
At 12.15, the Fulmars engaged. Their pilots soon realised the Val dive-bombers, once unburdened of their loads, were as fast and manoeuvrable as their own.
The Japanese (believing they had been attacked by 19 fighters between the two engagements) claimed a total of five kills and two probables.
British records state two Fulmars were lost in the dogfight which lasted more than 30 minutes – but the survivors insisted at least three Vals were seen plunging into the water.
806 Squadron's Commander, Lt Robert ‘Sloppy’ Johnston, claimed a D3A Val for his first confirmed victory. Sub Lt Barry Nation was also credited for shooting down a dive bomber. Sub Lt Paul Peirano was seen to bring down a third, before being shot down and killed himself.
In total, the Fulmar pilots of 803, 806 and 273 Squadrons claimed four kills and five as seriously damaged over HMS Hermes. Japan never publicly admitted any losses as having been incurred in this action.
The destroyer HMAS Vampire, her back broken by Japanese bombs, soon joined Hermes on the bottom.
Hermes had lost 19 officers and 283 crew. Vampire lost her captain and seven men.
The ships that had left Trincomalee habor with Hermes, but which had since dispersed, were also found by the Japanese. Hollyhock, Athelstone and British Sergeant were quickly sunk.
No sooner had Nagumo’s carriers been sighted than the 11 Squadron Blenheims at Racecourse were made ready for another attack. Eleven took to the air at 8.20am, forming up in two flights. Soon, however, two were forced to return with engine troubles.
The remaining nine flew on, without fighter cover. The Hurricanes simply didn’t have the range and the surviving Fulmars were needed for their extended patrols.
It was after 10am when the Blenheims arrived at the point where the carriers had been reported. For 15 minutes, they flew an expanding search pattern until the Japanese fleet came into sight.
The British bombers were not spotted against the cloud until they were directly overhead at 10.48.
Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall states Hiryu had sighted the oncoming bombers, but did not relay its sighting. No reason for the late report was given, though it caused much consternation in later reports. Perhaps they had been mistaken for Vals returning from the attack on Hermes.
Flying steadily at 11,000 feet, the Blenheims maintained their bombing run formation.
It was the first time the Japanese carrier strike force had come under attack.
One string of bombs straddled Akagi, sending huge towers of water into the sky on either side and slightly forward of the ship. The Japanese admitted at least one near-miss caused some damage to the carrier.
Another string of bombs fell near the cruiser Tone, but did no damage.
With their bomb loads gone, the Blenheims could do little but head for home.
But the 20 Zeros of the combat air patrol were now aware of the British bombers and quickly swooped among them. Then the Zeros and bomb-less Vals returning from escorting the attack on Hermes joined in.
In all, five Blenheims would be shot down and the remaining four seriously damaged.
The Blenheim's return fire had some effect: The Book 'Bloody Shambles' Volume 2 names two Zero pilots as being shot down.
Admiral Somerville had been in one of the war’s most untenable positions.
Should he fight – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy? Or set flight, to preserve his force as a deterrent ‘fleet in being’?
With his rag-tag fleet, he could hope to do little to hurt the immensely superior Japanese force. Retreat was ultimately his only option.
But, had Somerville pressed his initial aggression home, his command could easily have been overwhelmed. With the battleships and carriers of the Eastern Fleet sunk, the Indian Ocean and Middle East was as good as lost.
By his judgement, the vital fleet carriers HMS Indomitable and Formidable would live to fight another day. This they did – off Sakishima Gunto and the Japanese mainland itself.
It was a bind not lost to Churchill. He would later compare Somerville to Jellicoe – citing both as being men who could have lost a war in a single afternoon.
Churchill, however, needed a scapegoat.
The howls of protest in parliament had to be quenched.
He demanded to know how the Royal Navy carriers had so few effective aircraft (neglecting to mention it had been he who had vetoed RN plans for a Seafire in 1940, and ordered delays to the TBR replacement program). Why were their aircrews so poorly trained? Why had HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire returned to Ceylon? Why had HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire gone back to Trincomalee? Should they have stayed in harbor to face the second Japanese attack?
But the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, stood staunchly in Somerville’s defence.
And Churchill was in no position to destroy the career of a man he had personally lauded and appointed only weeks earlier.
In the House of Commons, Churchill attempted to offload the burden of blame on to the Admiralty:
‘… I cannot make any statement about the strength of the Forces at Admiral Somerville’s disposal, or of the reasons which led him to make the dispositions of his fleet for which he was responsible. Nothing in these dispositions, or the consequences which followed upon them, have in any way weakened the confidence of the Admiralty in his judgement.’
Hugh Popham in Sea Flight: The Wartime Memoirs of a Fleet Air Arm Pilot
It was natural enough that we should be angry at seeing our first chance of action in six months go by default; it was natural that we should see it as an unintelligible decision by Admiral Somerville. It was his decision, of course; but it was not unintelligible, and it must have been a bitter one to make.
While we were at Addu Atoll the first time, he learnt— as we did not— that the Japanese force consisted of five aircraft-carriers, and four fast battleships, besides cruisers and destroyers. Against this fleet we could pit only two aircraft-carriers and one fairly modern battleship, Warspite. They had, therefore, a superiority in sheer numbers that would almost certainly have made any battle a foregone conclusion.
For the second time in six months, our Eastern Fleet might have suffered obliteration, leaving India, Ceylon and the whole Indian Ocean an open hunting-ground. In fact, at the same time as Admiral Nagumo— he of Pearl Harbour— was attacking Ceylon, a striking force of one light carrier and six cruisers was ranging the Bay of Bengal and sinking every ship in sight.
But both operations were, as it turned out, flashes in the pan.
Nagumo, when he retired eastwards, had failed to bring the Eastern Fleet to battle, and had suffered such rough-handling by the Hurricanes we had flown off to Colombo and China Bay, that the attack was never followed up.
It might have been otherwise; and would have been, if we had had our say.
There would have been a Battle of the Indian Ocean set down in the histories of the Second World War next to the great American carrier battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. That was what the situation demanded, and what, I dare say, Admiral Somerville would have given his right hand to have been able to achieve.
As it was, the Battle of the Indian Ocean was never fought.
Instead there was a small and terrible butchering of one old carrier, two lightly-armoured County Class cruisers, a destroyer, and 100,000 tons of merchant shipping, while we lurked beyond the horizon and chewed our nails and followed the tracks of the dive-bombers on our radar screens.
It was from the logic of our unpreparedness that this should happen; but it was none the less disheartening for that.
But Churchill's understanding of the inadequacy of the Eastern Fleet was apparent in his communications with Roosevelt, stating that HMS Illustrious, Valiant, Nelson and Rodney would soon reinforce Somerville's position within 'eight or nine weeks'
Until these more modern reinforcements reached him, Somerville knew that - at best - the Eastern Fleet could only 'create diversions and false scents, since I am now the poor fox'.
Churchill agreed: 'With so much of the weight of Japan thrown upon us we have more than we can bear,' he wrote to Roosevelt. The US President, however, was unable to divert any of his own forces to bolster the Indian Ocean.
Somerville, however, did not escape lightly. The Admiralty concluded that he had been too hasty to deem as innacurate the intelligence of an impending Japanese attack. It was this alone which led to the inevitable loss of Dorsetshire, Cornwall and Hermes, they ruled.
The price was high. Michael Tomlinson in his book The Most Dangerous Moment: The Japanese Assault on Ceylon 1942 summarises:
- 2 8-inch cruisers (Dorsetshire and Cornwall) – 425 men killed
- 1 aircraft carrier (Hermes) – 302 men killed
- 2 destroyers (Tenedos and Vampire) – 23 men killed
- 1 corvette (Hollyhock) – 4 men killed
- 1 armed merchant cruiser – 4 men killed
- Casualties on the Erebus and Lucia – 10 men killed
- 23 merchant ships totalling 135,689 tons – 90 men killed
- 3 Catalina flying boats – 19 men killed and 6 taken as prisoners of war
- 6 Swordfish torpedo-bombers – 5 men killed
- 17 Hurricane fighters – 12 pilots killed
- 5 Blenheim medium bombers – 17 men killed
- 6 Fulmar fleet fighters – 12 airmen killed
- 3 men killed on the ground at China Bay
- 2 members of the 55th LAA Battery killed
- 17 killed in the naval dockyard at Trincomalee
- 85 civilians killed in Colombo
Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later write:
Japanese success and power in naval warfare were formidable. In the Gulf of Siam two of our first-class capital ships had been sunk in a few minutes by torpedo aircraft. Now two important cruisers had also perished by a totally different method of air attack - the dive bomber.
Nothing like this had been seen in the Mediterranean in all our conflicts with the German and Italian Air Forces. For the Eastern Fleet to remain near Ceylong would be courting a major disaster. The Japanese had gained control of the Bay of Bengal, and at their selected moment could obtain local command of the waters around Ceylon. The British aircraft available were far outnumbered by the enemy, and the available carrier-borne air protection would be ineffective against repeated air attacks on the scale of those which had destroyed the Dorsetshire and Cornwall.
Initially, Britain believed the defence of Ceylon to be a costly success. The total tally of claimed kills – by air, sea and ground defenders - amounted to some 50 Japanese aircraft. It was not until after the war this figure was cast into doubt.
Japan eventually emerged the clear – though not decisive – victor.
A public relations bulletin issued by Tokyo in 1942 only admitted only to the loss of five aircraft on April 5. Different authors have since then attempted to establish the real figure, with results rarely proffering evidence of more than 20 aircraft lost or written-off.
Nevertheless, Ceylon had proven to be the Japanese carrier fleet’s first seriously opposed action.
Three carriers of the Japanese strike force withdrew to Japan for refit and replacement of damaged and worn aircraft, and pilots. Akagi had her bow inspected.
Vice Admiral Nagumo failed to learn a lesson from the confusion his carriers experienced on both April 5 and 9 as they hastily attempted to arm and rearm their aircraft as mission requirements changed.
Britain's navy continued to struggle with the need to fight on four fronts.
Churchill's promised reinforcement of the Eastern Fleet never fully eventuated - at least not during Somerville's command. For a short time HMS Indomitable, Formidable and Illustrious operated in concert. By the end of August Somerville's fast 'Force A' had again been whittled down to just Illustrious, Warspite, Valiant and two or three cruisers. Only a handful of fleet destroyers were allocated to screen them.
But the Royal Navy now knew beyond a shade of a doubt its FAA aircraft were simply no longer good enough, and its carriers had to go to war with maximum possible air wing strengths.
Thus, when the opportunity presented itself later that year for HMS Victorious to learn new techniques of carrier warfare from the USN, a cautious Admiralty agreed.