The Most Dangerous Moment
30 Squadron and the air battle over Colombo 5th April 1942.
By Wg Cdr John Barrass
"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."
- Sir Winston Churchill
The 5th April 1942 was one of the most significant events in the history of 30 Squadron - The Battle of Ceylon. Although the air battle over Colombo lasted only a few hours, it represents the finest example of the spirit, courage and determination of our wartime aircrew. Whilst recognising the courage and professionalism of the other RAF squadrons, especially the Catalina’s of 413 Squadron and the Fleet Air Arm, throughout the battle, this account focuses unashamedly on the exploits of 30 Squadron pilots on that day
THE STRATEGIC SITUATION IN APRIL 1942
The Battle of Britain was one of the most important military victories in History. By denying Germany the control of the air they needed to force a crossing of the English Channel, the RAF ensured Britain’s survival as, for a time, the sole opposition to German domination of Europe. But, as Churchill so eloquently put it, the Battle of Britain was only the “end of the beginning” of the War. The tide of war was to flow the way of Germany and her Axis partners for another 2 years.
By April 1942, conflict had spread to the Far East with the entry of Japan and the USA into the War. Buoyant with their success at Pearl Harbour, the Japanese had achieved unprecedented success in seizing Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Japanese forces were close to victory against the Americans in the Philippines, and were advancing steadily into Burma. The Japanese 1st Air Strike Fleet had destroyed the remaining Far East Allied naval presence in the Java Sea, attacked Darwin, and was poised to enter the Indian Ocean unopposed. In North Africa, Rommel was making steady progress eastwards towards Egypt. If the Japanese were to seize Ceylon and control of the sea in the Indian Ocean, then the convoy routes carrying reinforcements to the Middle East, and bringing vital oil supplies from the Gulf, would be cut. There seemed to be a real possibility that within 6 months of Japan entering the War, the Axis powers would control the Middle and Near East, the Caucasus, India and South East Asia, along with all the vast raw materials they needed for an escalating war effort. The outlook for the Allies was grim, and the attention of British planning staffs focused on the defence of Ceylon, which was seen as the strategic centre of gravity.
The British Chiefs of Staff began to assemble forces to defend Ceylon. Two fighter squadrons (30 & 261) were transferred from the Middle East, along with a Catalina squadron (413), to bolster the air forces on the island, and a large fleet of mostly obsolete warships was assembled to form a new Eastern Fleet.
Economically, Japan had much to gain from further conquest in Southern Asia and was advancing quickly into Burma. However, she still had to consolidate her hold over Malaya and the East Indies, and had no immediate desire to invade Ceylon. Above all, to exploit the rich resources of Southern Asia, she needed to secure her sea lines of communication and that required complete domination of the Pacific. Admiral Nagumo’s fleet with its powerful complement of carriers was not ordered into the Indian Ocean to invade Ceylon, but to eliminate the threat posed by the Royal Navy presence in the Indian Ocean so that Japan’s full naval force could be directed against the US Navy in the South Pacific. Thus, rather ironically, the formation of the Eastern Fleet invited the very attack it was intended to deter.
30 SQUADRON AND THE AIR BATTLE OVER COLOMBO - 5TH APRIL 1942
After the fall of Crete, 30 Squadron reformed back in Egypt and re-equipped with the Hurricane, providing air cover for, amongst other things, the coastal convoys carrying supplies forward to the Army in Libya. A number of the groundcrew and pilots had been with the Squadron since the start of the War, including Tony Ovens who was to be as at home in a Hurricane as he had been in the Blenheim. The decision to send 30 Squadron to Ceylon was made in early February 1942. Declared non-operational on the 16th February, they moved via Heliopolis to Port Tewfik on the Red Sea, where the main party embarked on the Princess Kathleen on 22nd February and the air party, including a 196 man servicing party, embarked on HMS Indomitable, sailing for Ceylon on the 26th February.
All available hands began assembling the crated Hurricanes on the ship’s hangar deck on the 5th March, and on the following morning 20 Hurricanes took off, bound for Ratmalana airfield, Colombo. Nineteen of the aircraft landed safely at Ratmalana, but one, flown by Sergeant Whittaker, landed back on the carrier after experiencing engine trouble; a remarkable feat considering that he had no tail hook and this was his first deck landing! Stores and personnel disembarked at Trincomalee, arriving at Ratmalana on the 11th March, and the Squadron was declared operational on the 19th March. Routine training continued until 28th March when an intelligence report was received confirming that the Japanese Fleet had left the East Indies bound for Ceylon. On the 29th March, 30 Squadron had all 24 of its Hurricanes serviceable and airborne in mass formation over Colombo; morale was high and crews were reported as expectant and ready for operations.
The expected attack on the 1st April failed to materialise, but the aircraft and pilots remained at cockpit readiness. On 3rd April, there was a false alarm, and during the subsequent scramble, one of 30 Squadron’s pilots, Flight Sergeant Lawrence, was killed when his aircraft got into a spin from 2,500’. The next day, the CO, Squadron Leader Chatter, had all of the pilots airborne to practice spinning!
Just before dusk on the 4th April, a Catalina flown by 413 Squadron’s CO, Squadron Leader Birchall, sighted a large Japanese fleet 400 miles south of Ceylon. His radio operator managed to transmit the location of the fleet before their aircraft was shot down by 6 Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu. The Japanese now knew that their presence had been detected, so they began preparations for an attack against Colombo the following morning. Shortly after first light, when they had reached a position 200 miles south of Ceylon, they launched a force of 125 aircraft under the command of Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Akagi, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbour. Fuchida’s force comprised 36 Val dive bombers, 53 Kate attack bombers, and an escort of 36 Zeros. Admiral Nagumo kept the rest of his force, approximately another 180 aircraft, in reserve as a second wave, to be launched once Fuchida had confirmed the location of the Eastern Fleet, his principle target. Unbeknown to him, the Royal Navy had concentrated its forces at Addu Atoll in the Maldives some 500 miles to his west, and the only warships in Colombo were the cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall, which had rapidly put to sea following the report from Birchall’s Catalina.
Back at Ratmalana, most Squadron personnel were up by 0400, and the aircraft were at immediate readiness by first light at about 0600. A routine patrol by 2 of 30 Squadron’s Hurricanes reported 8/10ths of storm clouds over most of the island. The RAF were unaware of the range of the Zero, or that they could carry drop tanks, so it was generally thought by Fighter Operations in Colombo that an attack was most likely to be the following day, but the crews watched and waited. The clouds began to clear a little, and at 0730 some men were released for Breakfast. Ceylon had modest radar coverage, and the radar posts were linked by commandeered telephone lines to Fighter Operations Headquarters in Colombo. Incredibly, the radar posts were not manned when the Japanese force crossed the coastline south of Colombo. There are various stories about them being shut down for maintenance, as was the norm on a Sunday, or that there was a rather relaxed shift change. Both accounts are bizarre given the events of the previous evening and the readiness posture of the fighter squadrons, and the consequences were catastrophic for 30 Squadron.
At 0750, the crews were horrified to see formations of enemy aircraft overhead. The alarm was given and the startled pilots rushed to take off. The Japanese were aware of the existence of Ratmalana and a small force of dive-bombers was detailed to attack it. So it was then, that as 30 Squadron’s pilots got airborne in ones and twos, the airfield came under attack.
The Hurricanes were at an immediate disadvantage. At low level the Zero was more manoeuvrable than the Hurricane, and armed with cannon, which were more effective than the Hurricane’s machine guns. The only advantage they had was their robustness; the Zero was quite flimsy and would not take much damage. The Hurricanes also had the disadvantage of having no tracer ammunition, which had been removed after a number of rounds had exploded a few days before because of the heat. The Hurricanes found themselves climbing into cloud shortly after take off and, unable to operate as a wing, fighting very much as singletons. We therefore know little about what happened next but can gain an insight into the confusion and exhilaration of the moment from the eyewitness accounts collected by David Dick.
The principle target of the Japanese force was of course the harbour. Fuchida was dismayed not to find the Royal Navy in harbour, and soon he received a report from a float-plane which had located the Dorsetshire and Cornwall heading south-south-west. Concerned that the Eastern Fleet might be about to launch an attack against his own carriers, Fuchida ordered the recall of his bombers. A number of the Zeros stayed to continue the fight against Hurricanes of 258 Squadron which, being based at Colombo Racecourse, had received precious early warning of the attack and had managed to get airborne without loss. Attempting to return to their carriers without the usual assistance of the bombers and their navigators, several Zeros never made it back to the Japanese ships, which had since altered course to the west. The Japanese launched 80 dive bombers against the 2 Royal Navy cruisers, sinking them without loss in little more than 15 minutes. Admiral Nagumo, unaware of the British naval base at Addu Atoll, took his fleet south-east and then towards Trincomalee, which he attacked on the 9th April. The defenders, 261 Squadron along with some Fleet Air Arm Fulmers, put up a valiant defence, and the Blenheims of 11 Squadron carried out a costly and ineffective, but very courageous attack on the Akagi. The Royal Navy Carrier Hermes and the destroyer Vampire were caught and sunk by the Japanese, south of Trincomalee, the same day. Having failed to find the Eastern Fleet but had moderate success in sinking 2 cruisers, 1 carrier, and several merchant vessels, Nagumo’s forces returned to the Singapore Straits. Acutely aware of the superiority of the Japanese Fleet, and the obsolescence of most of his capital ships, Admiral Summerville never ventured forth with the Eastern Fleet to engage the Japanese in a surface action. The Eastern Fleet was broken up a short time later and Indomitable returned to the Mediterranean.
In the aftermath of the 5th April battle, the general breakdown in communications made it difficult ascertain what had happened. Squadron Leader Chatter flew over to the Racecourse to see if any of 30 Squadron’s aircraft were there; 8 had failed to return. Slowly the situation was pieced together. Flight Sergeant Paxton was in hospital with serious burns; he died 2 days later. Sergeant C J Browne was dead; his aircraft had been seen to down a Japanese bomber before being engulfed in flames. Pilot Officers Caswell and Geffene had both been shot down and killed. Flight Sergeant Tony Ovens’ body was found in his aircraft crashed in a reservoir near the Kandy road. By the end of the day only 7 of 30 Squadron’s Hurricanes were fit to fly. Twenty-seven RAF and FAA aircraft had been lost in the battle, with 17 airmen killed and 11 injured.
How Significant Was The Battle of Ceylon ?
The pilots of 30 Squadron claimed 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 more probably destroyed, and 5 more damaged, out of a total of 19 destroyed, 7 probably destroyed, and 9 damaged in air combat. Some historians dispute these figures. The Japanese claim to have lost no more than 5 aircraft over Colombo, though they admit to several others failing to make it back to the carriers. Indeed, only 3 Japanese planes were found crashed around Colombo. On the other hand, we have eye witness reports of 5 kills and of course no idea if Tony Ovens, an experienced fighter pilot, managed to shoot anything down before he was hit. An analysis of the results is therefore difficult, not least because our pilots were not ones to boast, but the situation was very confused. At best, between the air action at Colombo and the battle over Trincomalee, the Japanese may have lost a total of 70 aircraft. The reality is probably less than this, but it is not unreasonable to contend that the Japanese lost around a fifth of their aircraft during the course of the battle. The aircraft were easily replaced but, and this is the essence of the argument, the crews were not. The absence of those experienced crews at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, some 2 months later, may well have tipped the balance against the Japanese, turning the tide of war in the Pacific. If we accept this, then the deaths of those men were not in vain for they contributed to the eventual victory in the Far East. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what historians think. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that these young men, so full of life, fought hard, fought well, and gave their lives for their Squadron, their country, but more importantly so that we might have the freedoms, the quality of life, and security that they never had.
ROLL OF HONOUR - 5TH APRIL 1942
Pilot Officer G E Caswell RAAF
Pilot Officer D Geffene RAFVR
Flight Sergeant L A Ovens DFM RAFVR
Flight Sergeant T G Paxton RAFVR
Sergeant O J Browne RAFVR
Personal recollection by