This island and British colony off the southeast tip of India was most significant during the Pacific war because of Japanese raids on and near it in April 1942. These raids accomplished little tactically or operationally; what they failed to do, however, was of critical strategic importance.
Following the rampage which took the Imperial Japanese Navy from Pearl Harbor to the South Pacific, the Japanese naval general staff cast about for new operations. Hawaii had been alerted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and promised to be a tough fight. Australia was too large, and New Zealand was too far away. Therefore, the general staff leaned toward a move into the Indian Ocean. This option gained impetus on January 19, 1942, when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.
Admiral Yamamoto decided on a major strike west for a number of reasons: (1) The Royal Navy had been rebuilding its forces in the Indian Ocean after the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse. Always looking for another 1904-style decisive battle, the Japanese wanted to “Pearl Harbor” the British as well. (2) The Japanese thought that India might be ready to fall if Great Britain suffered one more major defeat. (3) The Japanese hoped to link up with Hitler’s forces, which were moving through Egypt and soon would be heading into the Caucasus region of the Soviet Union. (4) The Japanese hoped to get Madagascar with the help of German pressure on the Vichy French. (5) Japan wanted to disrupt Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf.
Now that Japan’s initial moves were nearing completion, cooperation between the Japanese army and navy became strained. The army wouldn’t provide the requested two divisions to occupy Ceylon, although these forces were currently nearby. (Six British, Australian, or East African brigades defended Ceylon, but without sizable air support.) The operation was also scaled down in duration. Prophetically, the naval staff wanted the fleet near Japan in case of U.S. carrier strikes against the home islands. The final plan, called Operation C, (not much of a “cover” code name) consisted of a limited attack toward Ceylon and the Bay of Bengal. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo commanded the Southern Area Force, which was divided into two parts. His force consisted of five attack and one light carrier deploying 300 aircraft, four Kongo-era fast battleships, one light and two heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and seven submarines. A larger force would make for Ceylon. This was Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 1st Carrier Striking Force, consisting of Akagi, Hiryu, Shokaku, Soryu, Zuikaku (the other Pearl Harbor veteran, Kaga, returned to Japan with engine problems), and escorts. A third, smaller force, centered on Ryujo under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, would attack shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Aboard Akagi, Kondo slipped out of Staring Bay in the Celebes Islands on the morning of March 26.
The British Eastern Fleet under Admiral James Somerville was made up of the modern fleet carriers HMS Formidable and Indomitable and light carrier Hermes (among the world’s oldest carriers) with 100 aircraft total, five battleships, two heavy and five light (including one Dutch) cruisers, sixteen destroyers, and seven submarines (two Dutch). As a humiliating sign of British weakness, the entire fleet was to avoid the Japanese. Instead, Somerville skirted Kondo, looking for the unlikely chance to fight a small portion of the Japanese force at favorable odds. British intelligence had informed Somerville of the Japanese departure from the Celebes, so he kept his fleet at a safe distance at Addu Atoll in the Maldives from March 30 to April 2. When the Japanese failed to materialize, he assumed either that his intelligence was bad or that the enemy’s operation had been canceled. He therefore sent Hermes, destroyer Vampire, and heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire back to Ceylon for repairs. This proved to be fatal for all four warships.
Alerted of a pending attack on the port of Colombo on April 5, the two cruisers put to sea. They were spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft 200 miles south of the island. Fifty-three Val dive-bombers promptly attacked, coming in from 12,000 feet. Both ships sank in less than half an hour, taking down 422 sailors without loss to the Japanese. However, Nagumo failed to follow up his victory by searching in the direction that the British ships were steaming. If he had looked southwest of the cruisers’ position and course, he very well could have found the rest of Somerville’s fleet.
Using radar to keep out of enemy search range, Somerville patrolled to the southwest. Four days later Nagumo’s planes attacked Trincomalee. They spotted Hermes and Vampire, which had left the harbor the night before. Attacking at 1030 hours, seventy Vals scored forty hits on Hermes in ten minutes (by British estimate) while fifteen Vals attacked Vampire, sinking both and causing an additional 315 deaths. Shore facilities on Ceylon were smashed, and thirty-seven British aircraft were destroyed.
Meanwhile Ozawa’s group sent twenty-three merchantmen totaling over 112,000 tons to the bottom, using old Type 96 biplane torpedo bombers. He also attacked Indian shore installations and disrupted coastal traffic for weeks. Japanese submarines destroyed an additional 32,000 tons of shipping.
Somerville utterly failed to hinder the Japanese thrust, and his fleet retreated to East Africa for a year and a half. Total materiel cost to Kondo for Operation C was twenty-nine aircraft. By April 13, Kondo, low on fuel, cleared Singapore on his way back to Japan, unknowingly marking the high-water mark of the Greater East Asia CoProsperity Sphere.
However, on April 18, as the Japanese fleet moved past the northern tip of Luzon, radios aboard Akagi received word of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo— another operation with small materiel impact but huge strategic implications. Operation C was a half-measure and accordingly achieved only partial results. Kondo had not caused India to topple into revolt. He had not interrupted Allied shipping to Egypt even for a few months. Nor had he cut supplies to the Soviet Union. (Far greater amounts of Western Allied supplies were sent to Stalin through Iran from 1942 to 1944 than were channeled through the Arctic.) The dreaded linkup of Japanese and German forces was still a pipe dream. In fact, Axis failure to act in a coordinated manner condemned them to defeat.
Among all major combatants Japan was still the odd man out, having only limited objectives for the war. But while Kondo was chasing after the Royal Navy 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, the United States had sneaked up and bombed his homeland. Nagumo’s carriers couldn’t be in two places at the same time. The Japanese navy, charged with defending Japan’s home islands, could not do that and operate on the empire’s boundaries as long as the U.S. Navy was intact, had freedom of action, and was intent on taking the war to Japan proper.