WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

First Japanese air raid on Colombo

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Pacific Naval Base in Oahu, chief of the islands forming Hawaii State, on Dec. 7, 1941, which put the US Pacific fleet out of action, made the US to declare war on Japan. Thus Japan entered the World War II supported by fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. The Japanese on the warpath over-ran Malaya, captured Singapore and Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese forces. After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the British government decided to defend Sri Lanka being their last Naval Base in the Indian Ocean.

The Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott (1937-1944), placed Sri Lanka under a war footing, organised civil defence, food rationing, building camps, evacuation of school children from Colombo and many other things he considered necessary to protect the civilian population in the event of Japanese attacking Sri Lanka. When the danger seemed imminent, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the island. The South-East Asia Command (SEAC) with Lord Louis Mountbatten as the Supreme Commander, had his office shifted from New Delhi in India to Kandy in Sri Lanka.

Knowing the strategic position of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and the importance of the natural harbour in Trincomalee, the Japanese, in their thirst for territorial aggrandizement, were keen in invading the island. At day-break on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, a reconnaissance aircraft took off from Koggala in the South, and spotted a Japanese squadron, about 400 miles south-east of the island making its headway possibly for an attack. At once, Colombo was informed to take prompt and appropriate action to drive the enemy away and avert possible disaster. It is said that this same squardron was responsible for bombing the Pearl Harbour, sinking of the battle ships 'Prince of Wales' and 'the Repulse' on Dec. 10, 1941, which gave the Japanese naval and air supremacy in the Pacific.

The first air raid on Colombo took place 58 years ago on Easter Sunday (April 5, 1942) at 7.30 a.m., when Japanese aircraft flew in close formation over Colombo and dropped bombs at different places. The air battle lasted for nearly half an hour. The Allied forces, warned of the danger, were able to shoot down some of the enemy aircraft which fell on land and sea.

Among those shot down, one fell near St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, one closer to the Bellanwila paddy fields, one near Pita Kotte, one on the race-course, one near Horana and one on the Galle Face Green. One bomb fell off the target and damaged the Mulleriyawa Mental Hospital killing some inmates. It appears that the pilot had mistaken the buildings to be Echelon barracks sheltering the Allied troops. One fell near the Maradana railway station partly damaging it. There were many deaths and more casualties and most of them were civilians. To prevent bombs falling on hospitals, it was decided to have a large red cross painted on the roofs for the guidance of the pilots.

On April 14, the same Japanese squadron bombed Trincomalee, completely destroying one of the fuel tanks at the Chinanvadi installations. The fighter pilot of one of the aircraft, in keeping with the Japanese Code of Chivalry (bushido), dived into the fuel tank, bursting it into flames which lasted for nearly a week. Even years after the war, this wreckage could be seen inside the tank as a relict of war.

When the Japanese bombed Colombo, almost all boutiques in the town, specially in the Pettah area, were closed down and there was not a single hotel to have a cup of tea. The owners had fled for safety leaving the city. In view of this situation, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the newly appointed Civil Defence Commissioner, took prompt action, using his authority, and vested those closed boutiques and hotels on people who agreed to open them for business. They took over possession, in the arbitrary way, and some of them still remain maintaining their ownership of the buildings. No judicature could revoke the decision taken by the Commissioner to vest the buildings on the previous owners.

It is said that Admiral Layton took the initiative not to allow a repetition of the Singapore debacle when about 60,000 British troops were captured by the Japanese as prisoners-of war. However, he was bothered about the lack of preparation to meet enemy attack and said "except for the big guns on the Galle Face, the defence of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was practically non-existent". Remembering his experiences in Malaya, Layton arranged to send European women and children out of the island. This panicky measure brought a rebuke from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, who observed that he had sent Layton to Sri Lanka to take charge and not to panic and cause consternation.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka