Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan's entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon became a front-line British base against the Japanese.

Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon. Air Vice Marshal John D'Albiac became Air Officer Commanding. Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed commander of the British Eastern Fleet. Somerville retreated with his main fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving the aircraft carrier Hermes, escorted by the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire, and the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire in Ceylon.

After the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse and the fall of Singapore, British morale on the island dropped. The sinking of these two capital ships shocked much of the world; the awareness of the superiority of aircraft carriers over battleships increased dramatically. On Ceylon there was understandably much anxiety that a Japanese attack appeared to be inevitable. A large sea turtle which came ashore was reported by an Australian unit as a number of Japanese amphibious vehicles. However, actual preparations for defence were lackadaisical, apart from the deployment of a Royal Air Force squadron at the Colombo race course. Anti-British sentiment increased accordingly within some portions of the indigenous population and their hopes ran high for liberation by the Japanese.

On 4 April 1942 the Japanese Navy fleet of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was located by a Catalina aircraft flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall out of Koggala. However, Nagumo achieved near-complete surprise when he launched an airstrike on Colombo the next day (Easter Sunday, 5 April). Despite the fact that the war in Europe had been raging for almost 18 months, and in the Pacific for almost four, the British radars were not operating because it was Sunday.

But the greatest shock of the day was probably felt by the Japanese high command, who had expected to catch the remnants of the British fleet at anchor in Ceylon. The Japanese had planned the bombing of the Eastern Fleet's home base with meticulous care and precision in a manner almost exactly like the Pearl Harbor operation (in fact many of the same bombers with the same pilots participated in both strikes). Most of the British Eastern Fleet was maintaining radio silence in Addu Atoll, so that when the Japanese arrived at Colombo there were only three ships at anchor instead of the much larger number they had anticipated.

The continued existence of the remnants of the British Eastern Fleet (which included some Dutch warships as well) prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon. Speaking at a dinner party at the British Embassy in Washington after the war, Winston Churchill called the attempted invasion of Ceylon, “the most dangerous moment of World War II.” Churchill concluded that if the Japanese fleet had succeeded, they would have controlled the Indian Ocean.

Burning, sinking HMS Cornwall following Japanese dive bomber attacks, "dangerous moment" in the Indian Ocean, 5 April 1942.

The Hawker Hurricanes of No 30 Squadron were on the ground at Ratmalana when the Japanese aircraft passed overhead. The auxiliary cruiser Hector and the old destroyer Tenedos were sunk in the harbour. The Japanese discovered the Cornwall and Dorsetshire 320 kilometres (200 mi) southwest of Ceylon and sank the two ships. British losses were 424 men killed; 1,120 survivors spent hours in the water. The RAF and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) lost at least 27 aircraft; the Japanese only five. The Japanese also bombed the lunatic asylum at Angoda, mistaking it for the fuel tanks at nearby Kolonnawa.

On 9 April 1942 the Japanese attacked the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. Hermes, Vampire and the Flower-class corvette Hollyhock were sunk. The Royal Air Force lost at least eight Hurricanes and the FAA one Fairey Fulmar. The Japanese lost five bombers and six fighters, one in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks.

The sortie demonstrated Japanese superiority in carrier operations. Good luck favored Somerville when the Japanese did not find his fast carriers Indomitable and Formidable; these ships were saved to fight another day. But British prestige was brought even lower than it had been after the fall of Singapore.

The WW II air raid on Colombo by Japanese took place on Easter Sunday the April 5, 1942 at 7.30 a.m. The Ceylon R.A.F. had only 20 planes as against that of 120 planes of Mitsuo Funchido. These 20 fighter planes got off from the Race Course grounds in Colombo and there was an air battle over the city. Ceylon Garrison Artillery and Boys of Royal Artillery managed to shoot down many of the Japanese planes. Ratmalana Airport and Colombo Harbour were bombed. As they returned to their fleet carriers, a large number of the Zero fighters that had provided the escort had run out of fuel and crashed into the sea before reaching the mother ship.