By April 1942, war had spread to the Far East with the entry of Japan and the USA into the War. Japanese forces were close to victory against the Americans in the Philippines, and were advancing steadily into Burma. The Japanese 1st Air Strike Fleet had destroyed the remaining Far East Allied naval presence in the Java Sea, attacked Darwin, and was poised to enter the Indian Ocean unopposed.
There seemed to be a real possibility that within 6 months of Japan entering the War, the Axis powers would control the Middle and Near East, the Caucasus, India and South East Asia, along with all the vast raw materials they needed for an escalating war effort. The outlook for the Allies was grim, and the attention of British planning staffs focused on the defence of Ceylon, which was seen as the strategic centre of gravity. The British Chiefs of Staff began to assemble forces to defend Ceylon. Two fighter Squadrons (30 & 258) were transferred from the Middle East, along with a Catalina Squadron (413), to bolster the air forces on the island, and a large fleet of mostly obsolete warships was assembled to form a new Eastern Fleet.
Economically, Japan had much to gain from further conquest in Southern Asia and was advancing quickly into Burma. However, she still had to consolidate her hold over Malaya and the East Indies, and had no immediate desire to invade Ceylon. Above all, to exploit the rich resources of Southern Asia, she needed to secure her sea lines of communication and that required complete domination of the Pacific. Admiral Nagumo's fleet with its powerful complement of carriers was not ordered into the Indian Ocean to invade Ceylon, but to eliminate the threat posed by the Royal Navy presence in the Indian Ocean so that Japan's full naval force could be directed against the US Navy in the South Pacific. Thus, rather ironically, the formation of the Eastern Fleet invited the very attack it was intended to deter.
30 Squadron and the air battle over Colombo - 5th April 1942
The decision to send 30 Squadron to Ceylon was made in early February 1942. Declared non-operational on the 16th February, they moved via Heliopolis to Port Tewfik on the Red Sea. The main party embarked on the Princes Kathleen on 22nd February and the air party including a 196 man servicing party, embarked on HMS Indomitable, sailing for Ceylon on the 26th February.
All available hands began assembling the crated Hurricanes on the ship's hangar deck on the 5th March, and on the following morning 20 Hurricanes took off, bound for Ratmalana airfield, Colombo. Nineteen of the aircraft landed safely at Ratmalana, but one, flown by Sergeant Whittaker, landed back on the carrier after experiencing engine trouble; a remarkable feat considering that he had no tail hook and this was his first deck landing!
Stores and personnel arrived at Ratmalana on the 11th March, and the Squadron was declared operational on the 19th March. Routine training continued until 28th March when an intelligence report was received confirming that the Japanese Fleet had left the East Indies bound for Ceylon. On the 29th March, 30 Squadron had all 24 of its Hurricanes serviceable and airborne in mass formation over Colombo; morale was high and crews were reported as expectant and ready for operations.
Just before dusk on the 4th April, a Catalina flown by 413 Squadron's CO, Squadron Leader Birchall, sighted a large Japanese fleet 400 miles south of Ceylon. His radio operator managed to transmit the location of the fleet before their aircraft was shot down by 6 Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu. The Japanese now knew that their presence had been detected, so they began preparations for an attack against Colombo the following morning. Shortly after first light, they launched a force of 125 aircraft under the command of Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Akagi, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbour. Fuchida's force comprised 36 Val dive bombers, 53 Kate attack bombers, and an escort of 36 Zeros. Admiral Nagumo kept the rest of his force, approximately another 180 aircraft, in reserve as a second wave, to be launched once Fuchida had confirmed the location of the Eastern Fleet, his principle target.
Back at Ratmalana, most Squadron personnel were up by 0400, and the aircraft were at immediate readiness by first light at about 0600. A routine patrol by 2 of 30 Squadron's Hurricanes reported 8/10ths of storm clouds over most of the island. The RAF were unaware of the range of the Zero, or that they could carry drop tanks, so it was generally thought by Fighter Operations in Colombo that an attack was most likely to be the following day, but the crews watched and waited. The clouds began to clear a little, and at 0730 some men were released for breakfast. Ceylon had modest radar coverage, and the radar posts were linked by commandeered telephone lines to Fighter Operations Headquarters in Colombo. Incredibly, the radar posts were not manned when the Japanese force crossed the coastline south of Colombo. There are various stories about them being shut down for maintenance, as was the norm on a Sunday, or that there was a rather relaxed shift change. Both accounts are bizarre given the events of the previous evening and the readiness posture of the fighter squadrons, and the consequences were catastrophic for 30 Squadron.
At 0750, the crews were horrified to see formations of enemy aircraft overhead. The alarm was given and the startled pilots rushed to take off. The Japanese were aware of the existence of Ratmalana and a small force of dive-bombers was detailed to attack it. So it was then, that as 30 Squadron's pilots got airborne in ones and twos, the airfield came under attack. The Hurricanes were at an immediate disadvantage. At low level the Zero was more manoeuvrable than the Hurricane, and armed with cannon, which were more effective than the Hurricane's machine guns. The only advantage they had was their robustness; the Zero was quite flimsy and would not take much damage. The Hurricanes also had the disadvantage of having no tracer ammunition, which had been removed after a number of rounds had exploded a few days before because of the heat.
The Hurricanes found themselves climbing into cloud shortly after take off and, unable to operate as a wing, fighting very much as singletons. We therefore know little about what happened next but can gain an insight into the confusion and exhilaration of the moment from the eyewitness accounts collected by David Dick, recorded on the next page.
The principle target of the Japanese force was of course the harbour. Fuchida was dismayed not to find the Royal Navy in harbour, and soon he received a report from a float-plane which had located HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall heading south-south-west. Concerned that the Eastern Fleet might be about to launch an attack against his own carriers, Fuchida ordered the recall of his bombers. A number of the Zeros stayed to continue the fight against Hurricanes of 258 Squadron which, being based at Colombo Racecourse, had received precious early warning of the attack and had managed to get airborne without loss. Attempting to return to their carriers without the usual assistance of the bombers and their navigators, several Zeros never made it back to the Japanese ships, which had since altered course to the west. The Japanese launched 80 dive bombers against the 2 Royal Navy cruisers, sinking them in little more than 15 minutes. Admiral Nagumo, unaware of the British naval base at Addu Atoll, took his fleet south-east and then towards Trincomalee, which he attacked on the 9th April.
Having failed to find the Eastern Fleet but had moderate success in sinking 2 cruisers, 1 carrier, and several merchant vessels, Nagumo's forces returned to the Singapore Straits. In the aftermath of the 5th April battle, the general breakdown in communications made it difficult ascertain what had happened. Squadron Leader Chatter flew over to the Racecourse to see if any of 30 Squadron's aircraft were there; 8 had failed to return. Slowly the situation was pieced together. Flight Sergeant Paxton was in hospital with serious burns; he died 2 days later. Sergeant C J Browne was dead; his aircraft had been seen to down a Japanese bomber before being engulfed in flames. Pilot Officers Caswell and Geffene had both been shot down and killed. Flight Sergeant Tony Ovens' body was found in his aircraft crashed in a reservoir near the Kandy road. By the end of the day only 7 of 30 Squadron's Hurricanes were fit to fly. Twenty-seven RAF and FAA aircraft had been lost in the battle, with 17 airmen killed and 11 injured.
Eyewitness recollections of 5th April 1942 At Ratmalana
By D A McDonald, then a Pilot Officer on 30 Squadron
Don Macdonald crashlanded on the Front at Colombo in front of the Galle Face Hotel. A staff officer from the Headquarters (now the HQ of the Srilankan Airforce) rushed to his aid and took him into the Hotel.
"I expect you could use a drink" said the officer. A waiter duly arrived with a tumbler of amber liquid, which Don gulped down only to discover with typical RAF horror that it was iced tea rather than whiskey. Well, it was only 8.30 am!
"We knew that the Jap fleet was out and bound for Ceylon a week before the raid. On Saturday 4th April we knew that the Catalana squadron had sighted the Jap fleet. We stood at readiness from about 2am on in bright, brilliant moonlight. About 6am half of us went for breakfast and we had just arrived back in front of the control tower when we heard engines roaring (overhead) and looked up to see formations of Japs (aircraft) coming over the tops of large cumulus clouds. We later found that the radar shut down regularly on Sunday mornings for maintenance. Apparently no one alerted them to the emergency."
"Why the Japs did not keep us on the ground I will never know. We took off in sections of two and never did have an opportunity to operate as a squadron unit. I took off flying number two to Flight Sergeant Paxton. We started into a cloud to gain height. In one clear spot I saw a line of T99 dive bombers. I broke off and attacked the last one in line. All our aircraft were loaded with straight ball type ammunition because a couple of weeks before, the 4E incendiary started to explode in one of our aircraft due to the intense heat, (when) sitting uncovered in the sun. I was not able to see whether I was hitting the Jap or not, but finally noticed some liquid pouring out from under his wing. I then looked around and saw two very nasty looking aircraft above me, rolling to attack. I figured that they would likely out-turn me so I dove for the deck hoping to outdistance them. I saw tracers going by each side of the cockpit and I was almost immediately covered with oil and glycol. By this time I was quite low and heading across the harbour, which was full of ships. Some of them - possibly all of them - took pot shots at me. I knew I would have to crash land and the Galle Face Green appeared to be my best bet."
"The next day we found that Flight Sergeant Paxton was in hospital, severely burned. The CO and Frank Bush went to see him. First he confirmed that the Jap I shot at went down in flames. He took one of the Zero's off my tail, but was attacked himself and set on fire. He was ready to jump when another Jap flew in front of him. He stayed in long enough to shoot at him and then baled out. George Chater (the CO of 30 Squadron) asked him if there was anything he wanted and he said "A bottle of Scotch". They arranged to get a bottle and took it back to the hospital. When they left Paxton was quite happy with his bottle. Unfortunately he died shortly after. Frank Bush drew picture of Paxton's Hurricane on fire with him shooting at a Jap; I have often wondered what happened to it, along with the other pictures Frank painted."
"Before we landed in Ceylon a B17 Flying Fortress overshot the runway at Ratmalana and could not be flown out. It was sitting at the edge of the field without any engines. Apparently every Jap that attacked the field shot at the B17. After, we wondered how many B17's were claimed as destroyed by the Japs that got back."
"Our communications system was very inadequate. The signal for the Squadron to scramble was for the control tower personnel to fire a Very pistol. That morning whoever was to fire the pistol was so excited that he forgot he was in the tower under the roof when he fired. Apparently it was pretty exciting for them dodging the flare. I believe that the only casualty among the ground crew was a chap standing under a palm tree being hit by a coconut shaken loose by a bomb blast."
"Flying Officer Cartwright was being chased by a Jap Zero. He was on the deck turning around trees when one wing hit a tree. Cartwright said that the aircraft cartwheeled three times and he ended up still strapped in his seat, but jammed back in the tail. He had a slight scratch on one shin, Cartwright was later OC "A" Flight from August 1942 to some time in 1944."
How significant was the Battle of Ceylon?
The pilots of 30 Squadron claimed 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 more probably destroyed, and 5 more damaged, out of a total of 19 destroyed, 7 probably destroyed, and 9 damaged in air combat. Some historians dispute these figures. The Japanese claim to have lost no more than 5 aircraft over Colombo, though they admit to several others failing to make it back to the carriers.
Indeed, only 3 Japanese planes were found crashed around Colombo. On the other hand, we have eye witness reports of 5 kills and of course no idea if Tony Ovens, an experienced fighter pilot, managed to shoot anything down before he was hit. An analysis of the results is therefore difficult, not least because our pilots were not ones to boast, but the situation was very confused. At best, between the air action at Colombo and the battle over Trincomalee, the Japanese may have lost a total of 70 aircraft. The reality is probably less than this, but it is not unreasonable to contend that the Japanese lost around a fifth of their aircraft during the course of the battle. The aircraft were easily replaced but, and this is the essence of the argument, the crews were not.
The absence of those experienced crews at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, some 2 months later, may well have tipped the balance against the Japanese, turning the tide of war in the Pacific. If we accept this, then the deaths of those men were not in vain for they contributed to the eventual victory in the Far East. Perhaps it doesn't really matter what historians think. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that these young men, so full of life, fought hard, fought well, and gave their lives for their Squadron, their country, but more importantly so that we might have the freedoms, the quality of life, and security that they never had.
ROLL OF HONOUR - 5TH APRIL 1942
- Pilot Officer Garth E Caswell RAAF
- Pilot Officer Don Geffene RAFVR
- Flight Sergeant Tony Ovens DFM RAFVR
- Flight Sergeant Tom Paxton RAFVR
- Sergeant Allan Browne RAFVR