The Air Raid on Colombo on 5th April 1942



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by Capt. G A Fernando


Many articles have been written through the years, in newspapers of that Japanese Air Raid on 5th April’1942 which happened to be Easter Sunday. Are we aware that the air raid lasted only 20 odd minutes? The Japanese intention was to destroy as many ships as possible in the Colombo Harbour (the Primary Target), bomb the Kolonnawa oil tanks and destroy the Railway workshops. They were also assigned to destroy aircraft at the Ratmalana airport on ground before they could retaliate. According to Michael Tomlinson, the author of ‘The Most Dangerous Moment’, eighty five civilians died, seventy seven injured and forty seven were treated at the General Hospital Colombo.


The five Japanese aircraft carriers were parked some 200 miles South West of the Island. Getting airborne at the crack of dawn, the aircraft consisted of 36 Type 99, two crew, Dive Bombers, 53 type 97, three crew, Attack Bombers and protected by 36 Zero fighters. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, commander of the raiders flew as observer in a type 97. Fuchida was the same commander who led the Pearl Harbour attack on another Sunday on 7th December 1941. To enable the Zero’s to fly 200 miles to Ceylon and another 200 miles back they had ‘drop tanks’ which could be dropped at sea after use before reaching the coast line of Ceylon.


The fleet, holding a loose formation, crossed our coastline, close to Galle at 0715AM and flew northwards towards Colombo. Although the day before a PBY Catalina aircraft (flown by Squadron Leader Birchall and his crew) had spotted the fleet steaming towards Ceylon and were able to send a warning signal by radio just before being shot down by the enemy, no one was expecting the air raid this early in the day. Being Easter, the Christians were at church. A 125 aircraft flying in formation would have been an unusual sight. My sister and her ayah had rushed to the garden to count the aeroplanes flying at 8000ft over Moratuwa. They were blissfully counting till the gentleman next door had told them to go inside as this was the ‘real thing’.


All reports from air patrols from vicinity of Ratmalana Airport were routine. All was quiet till 0750AM when suddenly bombs started to fall from high altitude. Communications those days were through commandeered telephone lines. The first intimation that Japanese were overhead was by the Ratmalana Commanding Officer, to Fighter Operations based in Colombo! Sadly on two earlier occasions that morning, a Catalina aircraft and a formation of six Fulmars aircraft had spotted the enemy aircraft flying high in the sky, between Bentota and Colombo and assumed that they were friendly carrier based aircraft. The Royal Air Force (RAF) No 30 squadron of Hawker Hurricanes were caught on ground. The Japanese had the advantage of height and were able to destroy many a hurricane by using some of their type 99 dive bombers. The bomb blasts destroyed some hurricane aircraft on ground. However, of the few RAF aircraft that successfully got airborne, some were shot down. My parents were at St. Matthias’ Laksapathiya close to the airport and the Railway workshops. They could see planes crashing. The congregation was all asked to come forward towards the alter for prayers. One Japanese aircraft crashed near the lower school at S Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia. It is reported by Dr Rollo Hayman, that there were two pilots on board and they were burnt to death.


Then the Japanese airplanes flew east of Colombo towards Kolonnawa to bomb the fuel storage tanks. The bombing was quite accurate, except by mistake they also bombed the Mental Hospital at Angoda/ Mulleriyawa. As they were flying there they spotted, far below them, six Fairey Swordfish Biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm led by Lt. Longsdon, carrying torpedoes (one per aircraft) flying from the North going towards Ratmalana. Their mission was to fly to Ratmalana along a north/ south corridor over Colombo (demarcated for friendly traffic),refuel and then go looking for the Japanese fleet (as reported by Birchall and crew, the day before) and then to torpedo them. Some of the Zeros were directed by Fuchida to engage them in combat. Being slow and unwieldy with the suspended torpedo the Swordfish formation, did not have a chance. All were shot down within a few minutes.


The Japanese knew about the Ratmalana Civil Airport. However they did not know about the airport at the Race Course. One end of the Runway was near McCarthy (now Wijerama) Road, Colombo 7 and the other end was at the ‘Thunmulla’ Junction. The RAF 258 squadron of Hurricanes were parked there. The fences down Reid Avenue had been removed and the aircraft even parked at the University College grounds. As soon as the news was received that the Ratmalana airport and the Railway workshops were under attack, the Hurricanes from the Race Course got airborne and started climbing frantically to 10,000ft to gain an altitude advantage over the enemy. While climbing they observed that the dive bombers had already started their attack over the harbour. So they were forced to engage the enemy. This caught the Japanese off guard. The ‘Hurries’ being heavier could out dive the Zero’s, but at slow speeds the Zero was more manoeuvrable.


Consequently, the dog fights commenced over Colombo. Vernon Corea reports that he watched the aircraft fighting over St. Luke’s Church, Borella that Easter Sunday morning. The harbour and the Race Course were in the vicinity. Both RAF squadrons 30 and 258 joined the fray and took the Japs on.


To their surprise the Japs found only four ships (Tenedos, Lusia, Hector and Benledi) in the harbour. All ships were badly damaged. The Hector was on fire for two weeks and sank to the bottom of the harbour. Two years later it was raised to the surface and towed north and abandoned near Uswetikeiyawa.


The RAF and the Fleet Air Arm lost 27 aircraft with seventeen airmen killed while the British records show that Japan also lost 27 aircraft. However, the Japanese claimed that they lost only five aircraft. Only three Japanese aircraft crashed on Ceylonese soil. One at Mt. Lavinia, the second in Horana and the third in Pitta Kotte.(Thalangama lake). A forth aircraft, Japanese aircraft responsible for shooting down Pilot Officer DA MacDonald, a Canadian, went into the sea opposite Galle Face Green. MacDonald himself force landed on the Green. When a RAF Corporal ran across from Headquarters on Parson’s Road, after the air raid, MacDonald was having a drink at the Colombo Club (the old building opposite the Taj Samudra). Another Hurricane flew low over Wellawatte and crashed at Nelson Place. Yet another force landed in a paddy field in Battaramulla.. It is also doubtful whether all surviving Japanese aircraft returned on that 200 mile journey to the five carriers from where they originated. Like in the German attacks during the ‘Battle of Britain’, the enemy fighters couldn’t waste time over the target but had to return quickly to base due to the limited fuel on-board. So they were not repelled by air superiority as thought at first.


The last Japanese Zero left at 0830AM. When a tally was taken, the RAF and the fleet Air Arm were in bad shape there were only seven serviceable aircraft at Ratmalana and nine hurricanes airworthy at the Race Course. If there was a second wave, there would be ‘hell to pay’. Fortunately Fuchida decided to use his aircraft resources to engage with the British ships who were heading to attack the Japanese fleet and a second wave over Colombo never came. Instead they attacked Trincomalee on 9th April ’42.


Almost immediately there was an exodus of citizens from Colombo in a state of panic, to areas thought to be less vulnerable to Japanese attacks. My parents and sister moved to Ratnapura.


Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. To keep communications lines open with Australia, a non-stop Koggala/ Perth and return flights were established with the help of Qantas using PBY Catalina aircraft that same year. The longest flight was 32 hours and the shortest flight was 28 hours, but that is another story!


The above has been gleaned from what we have read and heard. A ‘Catalina Club and Aviation Historical Society has just been formed. The author could be contacted at gafplane@sltnet.lk


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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