EDITOR’S NOTE: Kamloops resident Nihal Maligaspe has kindly obtained permission to publish the following article, a chapter from a book by Capt. Elmo Jayawardena, who says, “I am no aviation historian, just an aeroplane driver who spent a long time in the sky. The Japanese bombing of Sri Lanka in 1942 is mainly information that passed from people to people as the years rolled. Some subtracted the truth and some others exaggerated the myths. I want to share with readers what little I found out and perhaps shed a little more light on events that took place a long time ago on an Easter Sunday morning. “
By CAPT. ELMO JAYAWARDENA
Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall arrived in Ceylon on the 3rd of April 1942. The flight was from Karachi to Koggala where an RAF base was operational. Birchall was from the 413 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. They, at that time, had a joint operation with RAF to conduct reconnaissance flights over the southern coast of Ceylon. The aeroplanes used were Catalina flying boats, cumbersome giants who had very long endurance that was needed for the extended range of surveillance over water.
The next day, Saturday the 4th April, Birchall and his crew of nine were on patrol. Prior to them, another Catalina had gone out on a similar mission and never returned. Reasons became a little clear later when the incident repeated.
Birchall’s crew spotted stick-like images on the calm sea below. It was at 1600 Saturday afternoon, and they flew lower and closer for better identification. The Catalina was 400 miles south of Koggala at that time, according to the calculations of the navigator. What Birchall spotted was the Japanese fleet of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. He was sailing on course to Ceylon with six aircraft carriers, four battle ships, three cruisers, three destroyers and a total of 300 carrier based aeroplanes.
Birchall ordered alert messages to be sent to Colombo. The laid out procedure was to repeat the Morse coded transmission three times. As the second message was completed, the aeroplane rocked with machine gun fire from six Zero fighters that had taken off from the carrier Hiryu after spotting Birchall’s Catalina.
The radio officer was injured, the radio equipment shattered, and the bullets ripped the entire aircraft and damaged the fuel tanks.
With great difficulty Birchall managed to land his crippled aeroplane in the sea. The fighters continued to strafe and killed three of Birchall’s crew members floating in the water. The remaining six were taken prisoner and interrogated as to whether any alert message was sent to Colombo. They vehemently denied. For their luck, the Japanese intercepted a transmission from Colombo asking the Catalina to repeat the twice received message as it was not very clear.
The logical conclusion is that Colombo never read Birchall’s warning correctly. It was all in Morse code, and the possibility is always there for a misread. When the Japanese fighter bombers flew overhead Colombo the next day, people were in church; it was Easter Sunday. The RADAR station was closed for maintenance, as it was the normal practice on Sundays. The two fighter squadrons, one in Ratmalana, and one in the Colombo Race Course were on the ground and went into full alert only when they saw a sky-full of Japanese aeroplanes all over Colombo.
It certainly was a surprise attack, exactly like what happened at Pearl Harbour.
To accept logically that Birchall’s message alerted Colombo is difficult. A lot had been written about how he saved Ceylon. Maybe true, maybe not, he certainly initiated the warning.
Had Colombo been on high alert, I wonder how many would have left their homes and attended church to celebrate Easter? Or for that matter, the RADAR station most certainly would have been operational and not closed for routine maintenance.
Then the question is did Birchall really save Sri Lanka? I leave you to logically deduce. As in most matters of history, opinions could differ.
The Japanese aeroplanes led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida flew into Colombo on the 5th of April 1942, at 7.30 am on Easter Sunday. There were 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers flying in formation. Commander Fuchida was a very well-known name in the war annals, as it was he who led the attack on Pearl Harbour and also an attack on the city of Darwin (featured prominently in the movie Tora Tora Tora).
The Japanese mission was to seek and destroy the British fleet in harbour. They came from the south west. Seeing the Japanese fighters all over the sky, the Hurricanes scrambled from Ratmalana. The squadron stationed at the Race Course grounds too started engines, threw chocks off and roared out to the sky to meet the enemy.
Dog fights took place in the Sri Lankan Sky. People on ground heard and saw the aerial battle and climbed roofs to get a better view. The main attack was at the Colombo Harbour. Whilst dive bombers screamed down to release bombs, the Zero fighter escort flew their aeroplanes to their fuel limits, battling against the RAF Hurricanes. Japanese aeroplanes were shot down, Hurricanes were shot down, parachutes drifted in the sky, pilots jumping out of burning wreckages. Ground batteries too opened fire on the attacking planes.
A Japanese pilot by mistake bombed the home for the mentally-challenged patients in Angoda and 20 inmates died. Around 37 was the total count of the dead on ground that fateful morning. The number of aeroplanes lost is very ambiguous, varying figures keep cropping up at each turn of a page. One states seven Japanese planes were shot down and the RAF lost 27; not possible, unless some of the Hurricanes were destroyed before they even got airborne.
It is believed that Japanese aeroplanes crashed in the following sites. Near St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, Bellanwila, Pita Kotte, Horana, Galle Face green and on the Colombo Race Course grounds.
NEXT — In Part 2 of this article, the Japanese air attack destroys several ships, and some of those involved in the bombing are introduced.