First suicide attack 73 years ago today (April 9) – Why Japan did not invade Lanka
Posted on April 8th, 2015

By Janaka Perera

April 9th this year marks the 73rd Anniversary of the World War II Japanese air raid on Trincomalee, four days after they bombed Colombo and suburbs.  Although many articles have been written about the two raids, hardly any of them have touched on the real reasons that prevented a Japanese occupation of Sri Lanka.

With the loss of Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee became vital to the British as a link between Europe and the Far East.  Sri Lanka also played a key role as the main rubber supplier for the Western Allies during the war.  It was also their main military base in Asia and transit point for troops heading for the battle fronts.

The capture of Sri Lanka was vital to the Japanese too. They wanted to defend the Western flank of their newly conquered territories and open sea supply routes to the Japanese troops fighting in Myanmar (then Burma). The capture of Sri Lanka would have possibly helped the Japanese to link up with the German Armies in the Middle-East, had the Germans continued to push back the Soviet Forces.

Japan’s European Ally, Nazi Germany also had noticed Sri Lanka’s strategic value in the war. Admiral Erich Raeder, German Naval Commander-in-Chief, in a report to Chancellor Adolf Hitler, dated February 13, 1942, wrote:

Japan plans to protect this front in the Indian Ocean by capturing the key position of Ceylon, and she also plans to gain control of the sea in that area by means of superior naval forces. Fifteen Japanese submarines are at the moment operating in the Bay of Bengal, in the waters of Ceylon and the straits on both sides of Sumatra and Java…”(The Most Dangerous Moment).

In March 1942, – the month before the air raids over Colombo and Trinco – the Japanese Navy had laid a plan for the invasion of Sri Lanka before a joint conference of the Army and Navy Sections of Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters, according to Captain Mitsuo Fuchida who served in the Japanese Imperial Naval Air Force and led the Pearl Harbour, Colombo and Trincomalee attacks and participated Midway naval battle.

In the book, Midway, which he co-authored with Commander Masatake Okumiya, 12 years after the war Fuchida states:

The Navy plan which envisaged amphibious operations against Ceylon, of course required the participation of Army forces. The Army however voiced strong opposition on the ground that it had to be on guard against the Soviet Union and therefore could not afford to extend itself any further in South Asia. From the Navy’s view point, this argument appeared somewhat specious in view of the Army’s current operations in Burma; but specious or not the Army’s refusal to cooperate meant that the proposed offensive in the Indian Ocean could not be carried out.”

Nevertheless the Japanese decided to go ahead with the air strikes to cripple British defenses in Sri Lanka.  But Japan’s plans to take them by surprise was foiled by Canadian Air Commodore Leonard Birchall who alerted the military authorities here before the Japanese captured him after shooting down his Catalina Flying Boat which was on a routine patrol off the island’s Southern coast.

In the pre-dawn darkness of April 5, scores of Japanese combat planes took off from the flight decks of the aircraft carriers, Akagi, Hiryu, Ryujo, Shokaku and Soryu.  The carriers belonged to the Japanese Imperial Naval Fleet under the Command of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.  Five months before, the same aircraft carriers had participated in the surprise attack (Dec.7, 1941) on the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbour, drawing the Americans into the war.

The attack on Colombo and suburbs was on Easter Sunday April 5 and gave citizens their first taste of aerial warfare. The raiders bombed Colombo Harbour, Ratmalana Railway Workshops and the Kolonnawa oil installations among a couple of other places.

During the Trinco raid the Japanese succeeded in sending to the bottom off the Eastern coast two British naval vessels – the aircraft carrier ‘Hermes’ and the destroyer ‘Vampire’.

It was also the first time Sri Lanka experienced a suicide attack, two years before Japan officially formed its Kamikaze Suicide Squadron in a desperate move to stem the Allied (U.S. and British) Advance.

At a jungle-covered spot near the China Bay Road are parts of an aircraft engine placed in a steel-wire enclosure and the flattened remains of a fuel storage tank, one of many build by the British.  The location is about 1 ½ kilometres from the turn-off at the 4th mile post on the Trincomalee-Habarana Highway.  A board erected nearby carries the following words (The Sinhala wording is more precise than the English version)

Tank 91- A Japanese plane which attacked Trincomalee on April 9, 1942 at 6.45 a.m. was destroyed when it crashed on to this tank. Inside the plane were Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto and Sutomu Toshira of the Japanese Air Force.  The resulting fire lasted seven days. One skull was found after the fire. Remnants of the plane were found at this site.”

Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment) who was British Royal Air Force Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay describes how the pilot of this plane deliberately crashed the aircraft into one of the British Royal Navy’s giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome. After circling the area it plunged unerringly into the tank igniting crew’s own funeral pyre, which was to burn for days.

Their action was later reflected in the words of a young Japanese Kamikaze pilot before he went on his suicide mission during the closing years of the world war.

…I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree

May our deaths be as sudden as clean as shattering of crystal”

3 Responses to “First suicide attack 73 years ago today (April 9) – Why Japan did not invade Lanka”

  1. Christie Says:

    Namaste: Indian colonial parasites troops did not fight the Japanese advances in the Eastern front, instead helped the Japanese. Chandra Bose has already done the hack work for the Japanese and the Third Eye the Indian intelligence service has been formed that helped the Japanese advancing forces. There is no doubt the Indian colonial parasites in the Island nation provided the Japanese Army with exact details of British war efforts to the Japanese army. Attack on Colombo was repelled by the Sinhala and Burgher soldiers who manned the artillery in Colombo. While the British gunners ran for cover the Ceylonese gunners kept firing at the Japanese aircraft making them go stray and loose their targets and leading tem to bomb places like the Mental Hospital complex in Angoda. Indians did help the Japanese during and after the war and there is an Indian whose photos and names appear at the Japanese war memorial. India knows the importance of Trincomalee for its forces and that is one reason Indian terrorist arm trained, armed, financed, managed and branded Tamil Tigers was formed. Jai Hind

  2. Nimal Says:

    I could vaguely remember the day when they attacked Colombo.I was only 4 years old and I was with our parents and other relatives in the little church where the present Mirihana police station is,which once belongs to us.
    That day there was dog fight with one RAF plane fighting about 3 Jap fighters. I think according to my family that RAF flight took off from the Colombo race course, where my dad was based as a ARP warden.
    Thanks to the early warning from the crew from Catalina aircraft our authorities were able to prepare in advance.
    Sir Oliver was the defence Commissioner and he had learned from our people in Burma and Malaya how the Japanese tried to bring chaos and mayhem among the civilians, where a few thugs looted the shops causing scarcity that led to unrest. Food supplies were protected and the coupon system was created in a vary short time. Since we imported much of our rice from Burma that was disrupted the authorities persuaded the people to eat Yam and other home-grown products.OEG also displayed the warning signs in the city which read ‘looters will be shot on sight’
    Our own families in Kotte,the Arigalles,Basnayakes organized some food distributions in the old Mirihana Police station which was then in the Station road, where the honest cops kept a watch on the coconuts(plucked from the Artigalle lands that stretched from KV lines to Rajamaha vihara.
    My late parents said that even MR’s father was involved in the social work with the Basnayake and the Artigalle family near Jublee post.
    While we were in side the church we could hear the empty shells of the planes dropping on the roof.Next day a Japanese fighter was shot down at Alawathugoda,a place off Pitta Kotte where the pilot bailed out and was stuck to a tree and he committed suicide. They were part of the fleet that bombed the Angoda mental hospital, to the fury of the locals.
    They woudn’t have dared to invade the island as the people were deciplined,willing to fight back. I remember several Indian Seiks around who were very helpful to the natives, where they used to offload their tin rations and the primary school I just started. There was a contingent of East African troopers stationed at Galle, guarding the Italian POWs.Under Lord Mountbatton,stationed in Kandy was able to get more military assets from India and the Japs wouldn’t dare to invade.
    I think he appreciated our loyalty to the crown, he named his daughter INDIA.I had the pleasure to meet them at a function, truly genuine people.Britian had tuned her back on us now and yesterday they put in exit control at the border just to harass our loyal citizens while the one time enemies of UK have easy access to UK,truly shameful.

  3. Nimal Says:

    As you say,a lot of Sinhalese and Burghers fought along side to defend Sl.They manned the AA and the numerous search lights’ couldn’t remember any other minorities defending the island except for burghers and Malays, ofcause the Tamils that were educated in the elitist schools were in the forces and one turned to be to commander, perhaps one Kadragamer?

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