|April 5, 1942 the day Ceylon escaped Japanese occupation
Gamini de Silva
As I watched the unfolding drama I was taken back 60 years to the day when a building, cherished by all Thomians, came within a few metres of being struck by a plane. What was worse, death was only a metre away from the chapels organist. She was on her way to play at the Easter Sunday morning service. Singapore had fallen on 15th February, Java and Sumatra within days, and the Japanese fleet unknown to the British, was heading for Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known at the time). It was a formidable force by any account. It consisted of four fast battleships, three cruisers, eight destroyers and the carriers Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokadu and Zuikaku.
The British Far East fleet, after escaping from Singapore, was sheltering in the Maldivian Atoll of Addu. The Japanese were perhaps aware of this as they did not position their attacking fleet in the west, which would have made it easier for them to reach their targets - Colombo Harbour and the Ratmalana Airport. What took them by surprise was a lone Catalina, commanded by a Canadian, Commander Birchall, who spotted the armada towards the end of his dusk reconnaissance flight from his Koggala Lagoon Base. He was able to radio his discovery before being shot down and captured.
In the meantime the Japanese fleet had intercepted a radio signal which they mistakenly believed to come from the Royal Navy fleet. A decision was made to fall back further to the south but yet to go ahead with the planned bombing raids at a little after dawn on Easter morning.
A Japanese Zero fighter plane, escorting the bomber force, became the first casualty. It was shot down at Holy Cross College Kalutara. The second victim was another Zero, which came down in Katubedda where the present University stands.
The third was also a Zero. It crashed while trying to reach the safety of the senior cricket ground at S. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia. The plane was riddled with bullets through skirmishes with a Hurricane that had taken off from Ratmalana. While it gasped its last, the Japanese pilot attempted to manoeuvre it towards the open green space he could see from the air. Losing height rapidly, he succeeded in avoiding the chapels rear wall. However, the plane virtually grazed the brolly of Miss Ondatje, walking on the Tarmac alongside the north wall. He crashed a few metres before he could reach the safety of the turf.
Miss Ondatje, whose younger brothers were at STC at the time, is a cousin of Booker Prize winner, Michael Ondatje, and the millionaire financier who has made the largest donation to the British Labour Party.
Ratmalana Airport and Colombo Harbour were bombed. However, as they returned to their fleet carriers, a large number of the Zero fighters that had provided the escort were unable to reach the mother ship. They had run out of fuel and crashed into the sea.
Two days later Trincomalee was attacked. But the debacle and pressing calls from the Philippines compelled the Japanese fleet to return to the Far East.
Churchill described the Easter morning attack (5th April 1942) as "the most dangerous point" of the Second World War. Had Ceylon fallen, India would easily have been taken. Should the Japanese have taken control of most of the Far East and Southeast Asia, they would have joined forces with the Axis Powers in North Africa.
The British Navy, the bulk of whose ships were at least 25 years old, suffered significant casualties. Among those lost were the battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Kepulse, the veteran carrier, HMS Hermes, the cruisers HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire.
Admiral Somerville, the Commander-in-Chief, was keen to engage the enemy. His deputy, however, Vice-Admiral Willis, was pragmatic and aware of the fact that Britannia no longer ruled the waves. He managed to persuade the Commander to desist and so to live to fight another day.
I am grateful to the following sources for facts and photographs:
The imperial War Museum
Hurricane at War by Chaz Bowyer
Wings over the Sea by David Wragg
The War at Sea by Julian Thompson
American Aircraft (Hutchinson)
The Chapel picture comes from the cover of the booklet published by STC to mark the 75th Anniversary of its foundation.
Other items of interest:
Just after the raid, an Auxiliary Fire Service was formed under the command of Terence de Soysa. Tarzie Vittachi, Leslie Jayatilake, photographer Joe Perera, Neil de Saram and Sam Samarasekere, who were all to become newspapermen, joined this Fire Brigade. They successfully fought an oil fire in the Port, which spread to the Canal near the Fort Railway Station.
After a forest fire in Canada, they found the charred remains of a man wearing a snorkel. An autopsy
revealed that he had injuries consistent with a fall from a great height. The rumour spread that he had
come from outer space! Actually, the hapless victim was a diver who had inadvertently been scooped
up by a Catalina fitted with an under-belly water tank to fight fires. It discharged the snorkeler with its water load, into the heart of the forest fire.