EDITOR’S NOTE: Kamloops resident Nihal Maligaspe has kindly obtained permission to publish the following article 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 sheds a little more light on events that took place a long time ago on an Easter Sunday morning. “ In Part 1, RAF reconnaisssance squadron leader Leonard Birchall went missing, and Japan attacked Colombo in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from the air. Part 2 continues the story.
By CAPT. ELMO JAYAWARDENA
A few days before the Japanese attack, most of the British fleet had been moved out to the Addu Atoll of the Maldives, South West of Colombo. This was in response to some intercepted massages received in the previous week about a possible invasion.
“People knew of a likelihood of a Japanese attack. As a precaution, my father took the family to Bandarawela by train on the 1st of April.” So said the son of the then president of the Colombo Aero Club.
The Japanese managed to sink the cruiser Hector and the destroyer Tenedos in the harbour itself. Then they located the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire 200 miles southwest of Colombo and sank them too. Some 424 sailors were killed and a 1,000 plus that survived were saved after hours in the water.
Four days later, the Japanese attacked China Bay. This time they sank HMS Vampire and HMS Holyhock killing approximately 700 people. They hunted down the HMS Hermes and sank her near Batticaloa. The death toll on the doomed aircraft carrier was around 307 sailors.
During the attack on China bay, pilot Shigenori Watanabe operating a Japanese fighter bomber circled around a huge oil tank near the harbour. He had two others in the crew with him, Tokya Goto and Sutumu Toshira. They then power-dived their plane aimed at the tank in Kamikaze fashion. The aeroplane exploded on impact, instantly killed the pilots and completely destroyed the installation.
The Sri Lankan sky saw for the first time suicide bombers killing themselves for their country. Similar actions were repeated many times in another war, in another place. Friend or foe, the sadness is the same, they died for causes they believed in, and they were young.
Commander Fuchida’s raid on Colombo was planned on the same strategy as what he did at Pearl Harbour. Had the British fleet been there on 5th April, they certainly would have all been sunk.
The Japanese were not interested in destroying Colombo or any other place in Ceylon. They could have easily done so, if that was the intent. They had so many aeroplanes and complete supremacy of the sky during that Easter morning.
Ceylon was saved, from whom and how? If the Japanese were planning on an invasion, it is logical to think they could have bombed Ceylon and devastated everything. The first wave of aeroplanes was a total of 180, and there would have been another 120 waiting in the carriers. The Japanese planes sank every ship that was visible in the water.
Perhaps that was their plan, perhaps not. I wonder whether the answers will ever be known. Why did Admiral Nagumo take his winning fleet and move away without coming to Ceylon? He may have had his reasons or may have had his orders. The fact is Ceylon was saved, and that is what mattered.
Some stories came up of the people who played different roles when Japan invaded Ceylon on that Easter Sunday. Logically, they are all acceptable. Some have written evidence too. Each one merits mention.
‘Rathu Palliya’ is a little church somewhere in Kelaniya. There had been a small cemetery behind the church. People say they remember an unmarked grave there, swollen earth and a small white grave stone with no words to say who was buried. People also said that a Japanese pilot was buried there. He flew in on the Easter Sunday raid and was shot down and crashed and died.
Someone buried him, and marked his grave, no name.
The cemetery is no more. New constructions are in place. There is no trace of the unmarked grave and the place and the people of the area had obviously forgotten the unknown Japanese fighter pilot.
Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall spent the war years as a POW in Japan. After the war, he returned home to Canada and visited Ceylon on a later date. His aeroplane was the first known to be shot down in the Sri Lankan sky, and his three crew members, the first to die.
The Catalina that flew out before Birchall’s fateful patrol, there never was any trace of it. It is logical to think that they were spotted by the Japanese fleet and some fighters would have shot them down. There is no record except they were termed missing in action, the first to be recorded so in Sri Lanka.
A young Japanese man came in 1939 to learn to fly in Ratmalana. He became a member of the Aero Club. He was attached to some Japanese mission. Though he came to learn, he had known how to fly, and that too very well, though he pretended he was a student pilot. That was what the instructors whispered to each other in ‘hangar small talk.’
The Japanese trainee pilot did many solo flights over and around Colombo and Ratmalana.
Maybe he wasn’t learning to fly, but gathering information on what he saw from the sky.
It was also said he simply vanished after some time.
Star pilot Commander Mitsuo Fuchida became a defeated man after the war and started working as a farmer to feed his family. In 1950, he embraced Christianity and became an evangelist preaching salvation and converting people to the faith.
His book “From Pearl Harbour to Golgotha” was widely accepted in America and he toured the U.S.A. as an ambassador of peace, preaching the gospel.
Like Birchall, Fuchida too came to Ceylon in later years. Not firing a machine gun from a fighter aeroplane, but carrying a Bible.
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the attack on Pearl Harbour, the one on Darwin and on Colombo. He was also present at Midway when the famous air battle took place. Fuchida died in 1976 at the age of 73.
So ends the story most of my vintage heard from parents who lived during that time. I have tried vainly to find out why Admiral Nagumo turned back without invading Ceylon. Was it an order or precaution?