Not many people know that Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, suffered air attacks in World War 2. But those days it was crucial for the British to keep Sri Lanka under their control to be able to defend India and the Middle East against Japanese attacks. That’s the reason why after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), besides Burma (today’s Myanmar) became a front-line of the British Empire in the Asian-Pacific war.
The British Royal Navy maintained a naval base in the harbour of Trincomalee and the Royal Air Force (RAF) operated an airport in Trincomalee. After Colombo had been attacked by 75 Japanese air crafts already on Easter Sunday, 5th April 1942, Japanese air strikes targeting the two British military bases in Trincomalee began in the early morning on 9th April 1942. They caused severe loss to lives at both the naval dockyard and the air force base, where also local civilian workers were already at work.
During this Japanese operation one air craft crashed into an oil tank. Trincomalee’s oil tanks were the main target of the air strike, but only this one exploded. This crash is sometimes interpreted as the mission of a suicide squad, already two years before Kamikaze attacks began in the Pacific region.
The attack on Trincomalee happened on the the very same day that American and Philippine forces, which had resisted the Japanese on the Bataan peninsula near Manila, were forced to surrender. This day marked the beginning of the war crimes called “Bataan death march”.
Several naval vessels were destroyed in Trincomalee’s harbour during the air raides. Even more than these substantial military effects, the psychological results of the Japanes attacks were desastrous. The local population was overcome with panic, because they had heard of the Nanjing Massacres and other acts of war crimes committed by Japanese forces in occupied countries. Inhabitants left Colombo and many islanders went by boat to take refuge in India.
It turned out the the Japanese forces were too heavily engaged in the Pacific War with the United States. They were not capable any more to launch an operation on a similar scale in the Indian Ocean at the same time. So the attacks on Ceylon were not effective in the long run, and the mass panic of the population now seems to be a footnote to World War 2. Indeed, these events seem to be almost forgotten today. But this was not at all obvious at that point in time when they happened, because the Easter Sunday and the Trincomalee air strikes appeared to be only the beginning of a Japanese advance in the Indian Ocean. Having this in mind, the reader will understand the following quote of Winston Churchill:
“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.”
We will post quotations of eye witnesses from Trincomalee in a blog article the day after tomorrow.
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