Under the bombs. Heavily damaged British cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall are zig-zagging under the Japanese air attack on 5 April 1942.



In the beginning of the spring of 1942 the Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The British garrisons of the islands left them earlier due to menace from the north, where the Japanese took Rangoon on 8 March, and the south, where the Japanese landed on Sumatra. The enemy presence in the Andaman Sea, in the north-eastern section of the Indian Ocean, meant in the first place the menace to the main forces of the Eastern Fleet in Colombo on Ceylon. The base did not possess any adequate anti-air defence - either anti-aircraft artillery or aircraft. After all, the British air forces in the Indian Ocean was weak as far as the quantity and quality of the equipment is concerned. The forces of the Royal Navy comprised three aircraft-carriers, but the Japanese could oppose them with six ships of the same class.

In that situation the new commander of the Eastern Fleet, Adm. Sir James Somerville, who on 26 March 1942 replaced Adm. Sir Geoffrey Layton, appointed the governor and commander-in-chief of the British forces on Ceylon, decided to move his forces from Colombo some 600 miles into the Indian Ocean, to the new naval base on Addu Atoll in the Maldives. From there his forces - Force A (battleship Warspite, carriers Formidable and Indomitable, and three cruisers) and Force B (four Revenge-type battleships, and cruisers) - had to operate on the positions off Ceylon, from which British aircraft could attack the enemy approaching from the south-east.

According to Sommerville's plan, on 31 March his fleet was concentrated in the south to Ceylon. Yet, hydroplanes were patrolling the waters between Ceylon and Sumatra, where they expected to spot enemy forces, in vain. After three days without reports about the Japanese movements, Sommerville decided to return to Addu for refuelling and to come back to the designated positions. But as soon as his ships moored at the base, there came the alarming report: the Japanese fleet was spotted 360 miles south-east from Ceylon!

Admiral Layton, as he expected a prompt air attack on the British bases, ordered all the ships to leave their ports. Heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were ordered to leave Colombo for the south-west and join Sommerville's Force A. The latter was expected to be refuelled and heading towards Ceylon. Aircraft carrier Hermes and merchant ships from Trincomalee, escorted by a destroyer and a corvette, were sent to the Bay of Bengal in the north-east.

After all those precautions, the Japanese air raid on Colombo on 5 April in the morning brought rather mediocre results. Unfortunately, during that action one of the Japanese reconnaissance crews, sent in all the directions, spotted Cornwall and Dorsetshire in the south-west, half-way to Addu. Few hours later 50 bombers sent them to the bottom. British crews took to the life-boats and rafts; two days later the ships Sommerville set to rescue them found 1,122 men alive, but 424 perished.

Most ships from Colombo and Trincomalee met the same fate. The Japanese had deployed very strong forces against the Eastern Fleet: 4 battleships, 5 carriers, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, and 1 carrier, 6 cruisers and 4 destroyers under the command of Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. As they could not detect Sommerville's fleet in the base, about which they had no knowledge, they starter patrolling intensively the waters of the Bay of Bengal, sinking whatever they were able to catch. Between 4 and 9 April they sank 23 ships of the total displacement of 112,000BRT and Hermes. The latter was spotted and sank shortly before the noon on 9 April south to Trincomalee, off the eastern coast of Ceylon, together with four accompanying ships. A hospital ship that arrived to that area later saved 600 men, but twice so perished.

Despite of sinking so many ships, navy and merchant, the Japanese success was only partial - they failed to destroy the Eastern Fleet. Quite a contrary - the British naval forces in the Indian Ocean had been steadily reinforced, and controlled the waters of the Indian Ocean, where the Japanese naval forces did not show up again.