April 9th this year marks the 73rd Anniversary of the World War II Japanese air raid on Trincomalee, four days after they bombed Colombo and suburbs. Although many articles have been written about the two aerial attacks, hardly any of them have touched on the real reasons that prevented a Japanese occupation of Sri Lanka.
With the loss of Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee became vital to the British as a link between Europe and the Far East. Sri Lanka also played a key role as the main rubber supplier for the Western Allies during the war. It was also their main military base in Asia and transit point for troops heading for the battle fronts.
The capture of Sri Lanka was vital to the Japanese too. They wanted to defend the Western flank of their newly conquered territories and open sea supply routes to the Japanese troops fighting in Myanmar (then Burma). The capture of Sri Lanka would have possibly helped the Japanese to link up with the German Armies in the Middle-East, had the Germans continued to push back the Soviet Forces.
Japan’s European Ally, Nazi Germany also had noticed Sri Lanka’s strategic value in the war. Admiral Erich Raeder, German Naval Commander-in-Chief, in a report to Chancellor Adolf Hitler, dated February 13, 1942, wrote:
“Japan plans to protect this front in the Indian Ocean by capturing the key position of Ceylon, and she also plans to gain control of the sea in that area by means of superior naval forces. Fifteen Japanese submarines are at the moment operating in the Bay of Bengal, in the waters of Ceylon and the straits on both sides of Sumatra and Java…”(The Most Dangerous Moment).
In March 1942, - the month before the air raids over Colombo and Trinco - the Japanese Navy had laid a plan for the invasion of Sri Lanka before a joint conference of the Army and Navy Sections of Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters, according to Captain Mitsuo Fuchida who served in the Japanese Imperial Naval Air Force and led the Pearl Harbour, Colombo and Trincomalee attacks and participated Midway naval battle.
In the book, Midway, which he co-authored with Commander Masatake Okumiya, 12 years after the war Fuchida states: “The Navy plan which envisaged amphibious operations against Ceylon, of course required the participation of Army forces. The Army however voiced strong opposition on the ground that it had to be on guard against the Soviet Union and therefore could not afford to extend itself any further in South Asia. From the Navy’s view point, this argument appeared somewhat specious in view of the Army’s current operations in Burma; but specious or not the Army’s refusal to cooperate meant that the proposed offensive in the Indian Ocean could not be carried out.”
Nevertheless the Japanese decided to go ahead with the air strikes to cripple British defenses in Sri Lanka. But Japan’s plans to take them by surprise was foiled by Canadian Air Commodore Leonard Birchall who alerted the military authorities here before the Japanese captured him after shooting down his Catalina Flying Boat which was on a routine patrol off the island’s Southern coast.
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 5, scores of Japanese combat planes took off from the flight decks of the aircraft carriers, Akagi, Hiryu, Ryujo, Shokaku and Soryu. The carriers belonged to the Japanese Imperial Naval Fleet under the Command of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. Five months before, the same aircraft carriers had participated in the surprise attack (Dec.7, 1941) on the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour, drawing the Americans into the war.
The attack on Colombo and suburbs was on Easter Sunday April 5 and gave citizens their first taste of aerial warfare. The raiders bombed Colombo Harbour, Ratmalana Railway Workshops and the Kolonnawa oil installations among a couple of other places.
During the Trinco raid the Japanese succeeded in sending to the bottom off the Eastern coast two British naval vessels – the aircraft carrier ‘Hermes’ and the destroyer ‘Vampire’.
It was also the first time Sri Lanka experienced a suicide attack, two years before Japan officially formed its Kamikaze Suicide Squadron in a desperate move to stem the Allied (U.S. and British) Advance. At a jungle-covered spot near the China Bay Road are parts of an aircraft engine placed in a steel-wire enclosure and the flattened remains of a fuel storage tank, one of many build by the British. The location is about 1 ½ kilometres from the turn-off at the 4th mile post on the Trincomalee-Habarana Highway. A board erected nearby carries the following words (The Sinhala wording is more precise than the English version)
“Tank 91- A Japanese plane which attacked Trincomalee on April 9,1942 at 6.45 a.m. was destroyed when it crashed on to this tank. Inside the plane were Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto and Sutomu Toshira of the Japanese Air Force. The resulting fire lasted seven days. One skull was found after the fire. Remnants of the plane were found at this site.”
Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment) who was British Royal Air Force Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay describes how the pilot of this plane deliberately crashed the aircraft into one of the British Royal Navy’s giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome. After circling the area it plunged unerringly into the tank igniting crew’s own funeral pyre, which was to burn for days.
Their action was later reflected in the words of a young Japanese Kamikaze pilot before he went on his suicide mission during the closing years of the world war.
“…I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree
May our deaths be as sudden as clean as shattering of crystal”
By Janaka Perera