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Easter Sunday Raid on Ceylon
Part of World War II
British heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall under Japanese air attack and heavily damaged, off Ceylon, on 5 April 1942

British heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall under Japanese air attack and heavily damaged off the southwest of Ceylon, on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942
Date5 and 9 April 1942
LocationIndian Ocean and Ceylon
Result Japanese tactical victory: one British aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers, one auxiliary cruiser, two destroyers and one corvette lost.

The Easter Sunday Raid (or Battle of Ceylon) was an air attack by carrier-based aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy against Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942, during World War II. This attack was part of the Indian Ocean Raid, and was followed a few days later by a similar attack on Trincomalee. The targets were British warships, harbour installations, and air bases; the object was to disrupt the war effort of British Commonwealth nations and force the British Eastern Fleet to leave Asian waters.


The British had been in occupation of the coastal areas of Ceylon since 1796, but the colony had not had a regular garrison of British troops since 1917. The Ceylon Defence Force and Ceylon Navy Volunteer Reserve were mobilized and expanded. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomalee and the Royal Air Force (RAF) had established an aerodrome in China Bay, Trincomalee long before the war.

With Japan's entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy's East Indies Station was moved to Colombo and then to Trincomalee. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon with Air Vice Marshal John D'Albiac as Air Officer Commanding and Admiral Sir James Somerville appointed commander of the British Eastern Fleet.

The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee; these were established just before the war. Air defences were expanded in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana near Colombo with its station headquarters set up at Kandawala. Another airbase was rapidly built at Koggala near Galle and several temporary airstrips were built across the country with the largest at Colombo Racecourse grounds. Several RAF squadrons were sent to Ceylon.

The attack on Colombo

Somerville retreated with the main body of the Eastern Fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives. He left at Ceylon the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (under repair at Trincomalee), heavy cruisers HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire, and the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire.

After the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse and the fall of Singapore, British morale on the island dropped. The sinking of these two capital ships shocked much of the world; the awareness of the superiority of aircraft carriers over battleships increased dramatically. On Ceylon, there was understandably much anxiety that a Japanese attack appeared to be inevitable. A large sea turtle which came ashore was reported by an Australian unit as a number of Japanese amphibious vehicles. However, actual preparations for defence were lackadaisical, apart from the deployment of an RAF squadron at the Colombo race course. Anti-British sentiment increased accordingly within some portions of the indigenous population and their hopes ran high for liberation by the Japanese.

Leonard Birchall spotted the Japanese Imperial Navy approaching Ceylon and radioed the strength and the position of the Japanese fleet before his PBY Catalina was shot down by Zero fighter aircraft. Winston Churchill called Birchall the "Saviour of Ceylon".

The Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.[1] On 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a PBY Catalina aircraft flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall out of Koggala. Birchall's Catalina was shot down by six A6M2 Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryū. He managed to radio in the position of the Japanese fleet and alert Colombo about the impending attack.[2] However, Nagumo's air strike on Colombo the next day achieved near-complete surprise. (Pearl Harbor also was attacked on a weekend.) The British radars were not operating because it was Sunday—they were shut down for routine maintenance.[citation needed]

But the greatest shock of the day probably was felt by the Japanese high command, who had expected to catch the remnants of the British fleet at anchor. They had planned the bombing of Colombo very much like the Pearl Harbor operation (many of the same planes and pilots participated in both strikes). But most of the British Eastern Fleet was at Addu Atoll, so when the Japanese attacked at Colombo there were only three ships there.

The survival of the British Eastern Fleet (which included some Royal Netherlands Navy warships) prevented the Japanese from attempting a major troop landing in Ceylon.[citation needed]

HMS Cornwall, burning and sinking following Japanese dive bomber attacks, a "dangerous moment" in the Indian Ocean, 5 April 1942

The Hawker Hurricanes of the RAF's No. 30 Squadron were on the ground at Ratmalana Airport when the Japanese aircraft passed overhead. The auxiliary cruiser HMS Hector and the old destroyer HMS Tenedos were sunk in the harbour. The RAF and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) lost at least 27 aircraft; the Japanese only five. The Japanese also bombed the lunatic asylum at Angoda, mistaking it for the fuel tanks at nearby Kolonnawa.

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the air attack on in Pearl Harbor.

After Fuchida and his aircrews returned to the flagship Akagi, a second-wave of dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off to attack the two British cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships. British losses were 424 men killed; 1,120 survivors spent hours in the water.

The Japanese dive bombers scored hits with close upon 90% of their bombs—an enviable rate of accuracy when considering the windless conditions, according to Mitsuo Fuchida in Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan.[3]

RAF Hawker Hurricanes were scrambled from the temporary airstrip at the Colombo Race Course. The Hurricanes were involved in several dogfights with the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service Zero fighters and bombers who were attacking the city

The Japanese attack began at 07:30 on Easter Sunday morning. Air defense of Colombo fort and harbor was provided by the 3rd Searchlight/Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Ceylon Garrison Artillery with two batteries based at Galle Face green and Mutwal. Colonel R.M. White and his Operations Staff Officer, Major J.O. Widdows, DSO command ground units from ground forces headquarters at Echelon Barracks. St Luke's Church, Borella was packed for Easter services with both locals and military personnel. According to parishioners, the vicar, Reverend Canon Ivan Corea, was preaching when the RAF Hurricanes engaged the Japanese Zero aircraft high above the church.[4]

The Sri Lankan writer Ariyadasa Ratnasinghe recalled the Easter Sunday Japanese raid: "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 Saint Thomas' College, one closer to the Bellanwila paddy fields, one near Pita Kotte, one on the race-course in Colombo, one near Horana and one on the Galle Face Green. A 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. 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."[5]

Admiral Nagumo's fleet unleashed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters and bombers on the attack on Colombo on 5 April 1942. The Japanese Zero fighters attacking Colombo and Trincomalee were led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida who also led the attack on Pearl Harbor

In the late afternoon on 5 April 1942, just before sunset, at 16:55 and again at 18:00, two RN Albacores operating from the RN aircraft carriers Formidable and Indomitable made contact with the IJN carriers. One Albacore was shot down and the other damaged before an accurate sighting report could be made, frustrating Admiral Somerville's plans for a retaliatory night strike by his ASV radar-equipped Albacore strike bombers. Somerville continued to probe for the IJN carriers on the night of 5 April 1942, but they failed to find the IJN ships, and the RN's only opportunity to launch a strike against enemy aircraft carriers faded away.[6] H.G.P. Jayasekera, President of the Ceylon War Veterans Association of World War II, wrote: "The April raids in Colombo were led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the two men who inflicted the biggest damage on the mighty American Pacific Fleet. The Ceylon R.A.F. had only 20 planes as against that of 120 planes of Mitsuo Fuchida. These 20 fighter planes got off from the Race Course grounds and there was an air battle over Colombo on the Easter Sunday morning 5/4/1942. Ceylon Garrison Artillery and Boys of Royal Artillery managed to shoot down many of the Japanese planes." [7]

The Ceylon Daily News reported the raid on Monday, 6 April 1942: "Colombo and the suburbs were attacked yesterday at 8 o'clock in the morning by 75 enemy aircraft which came in waves from the sea. Twenty-five of the raiders were shot down, while 25 more were damaged. Dive-bombing and low-flying machine-gun attacks were made in the Harbour and Ratmalana areas. A medical establishment in the suburbs was also bombed." [3]

The attack on Trincomalee Harbour

On 9 April, the Japanese attacked the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. HMS Hermes, HMAS Vampire and the Flower-class corvette HMS Hollyhock were sunk. The RAF lost at least eight Hurricanes and the FAA one Fairey Fulmar. The Japanese lost five bombers and six fighters, one in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. Seven hundred people lost their lives in the attack on Trincomalee. According to eye witness Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment and RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay in Trincomalee), one Japanese pilot deliberately crashed his plane into one of the giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome. Inside the aircraft were three Japanese — Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto, and Sutomu Toshira. After carefully circling the area they plunged unerringly into the tank igniting their own funeral pyre. The resulting fire lasted seven days. Parts of the aircraft's engine and the flattened remains of the fuel storage tank have been placed in a barbed wire enclosure 1 ½ km from the turn off at the 4th mile post on the Trincomalee-Habarana Road.[3]

HMS Hermes was undergoing repairs in Trincomalee harbour in April 1942. As a result of the advanced warning of the impending attack by the Japanese, Hermes left Trincomalee, minus the 12 Fairey Swordfish Mk Is of 814 Naval Air Squadron, disembarked in Ceylon. A Japanese reconnaissance plane spotted Hermes off Batticaloa, and 70 Japanese bombers attacked the defenceless Hermes forty times. The carrier sank with the loss of 307 sailors.

HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier was sunk off Batticaloa by Japanese bombers on 9 April 1942

The sortie demonstrated Japanese superiority in carrier operations. Good luck favoured Somerville when the Japanese did not find his fast carriers HMS Indomitable and Formidable; these ships were saved to fight another day. But British prestige was brought even lower than it had been after the fall of Singapore.

Winston Churchill quote on the Battle of Ceylon

Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: "The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black."

From a conversation at the British Embassy, Washington D.C.[8]

British Commonwealth units in Ceylon at the time of the attack


Ceylonese units

Commonwealth units


Royal Air Force

Fleet Air Arm

See also



  • Brown, David (1990). Warship Losses of World War Two. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-914-X. 
  • Dull, Paul S. (1978). A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-097-1. 
  • Tomlinson, Michael The Most Dangerous Moment: The Japanese Assault on Ceylon 1942, London: William Kimber & Co Ltd, 1976, ISBN 955-564-000-9.

External links

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