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Two air raids, but one pattern

Resemblance between the raids of 1942 by the Japanese and 2007 by the Tamil Tiger rebels is uncanny, writes PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 05, 2007 12:48 IST

Mysteriously, air raids on the Sri Lankan capital city of Colombo seem to follow a pattern.

The city has had two such raids so far, the first by the Japanese on April 5, 1942 during the Second World War, and the second by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on March 26, 2007.

The two incidents show remarkable similarities despite the 65-year gap.

On both occasions: (1) there was enough intelligence that the enemy might attack and a defence system had been put in place; (2) the radar had been switched off for maintenance or repair. (3) there was human intelligence of the raid.(4) the enemy came in unopposed brazenly flying over enemy territory. (5) the attackers failed to get the main target.

Japanese raid

In March 1942, the British knew that the Japanese would make a bid to take Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) following their successes in South East Asia.

Indeed a Japanese armada comprising 305 aircraft on six carriers, under Adm Mitsuo Fuchida was heading for Ceylon from Indonesia.

On April 4, a Catalina aircraft piloted by Sq Ldr Leonard Birchall of 413 squadron RAF, had spotted the armada 400 miles from Galle.

Birchall was shot down, but not before he alerted Colombo about the imminent invasion.

But incredibly on April 5, the radar posts on the ground were not manned. Being a Sunday, they had been shut for maintenance!

"Or there was a rather relaxed shift change," as historian Wg Com John Barras wrote.

Pilots of the 30 Squadron's Hurricane fighters based in Ratmalana, 10 km south of Colombo, watched helplessly as 53 Kate bombers and 36 Zero fighter-escorts merrily flew over them to pound Colombo harbour.

Once airborne they were outwitted by dive bombers and the low flying Zeros. In no time, Cruiser Hector, Destroyer Tenedos, the Heavy Cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall were sunk.

But the Japanese missed the target, the main Eastern fleet, including carriers Indomitable and Formidable.

Adm Sommerville had, with foresight, tucked it away in a secret base in the Maldives in time.

Tiger raid

That the Tamil Tiger rebels had a fledgling air force was well known since 2005 and that Colombo would be the prime target was also known.

India not only gave the details but gifted a radar system. As on April 5, 1942, on March 26, 2007, a police inspector based in Ganeshapuram in north Sri Lanka had spotted the raiders - two small planes heading south.

According to The Sunday Times the Katunayake airbase in Colombo was informed immediately.

But no action could be taken because the radar there had no been switched on after it was serviced and re-installed!

The earlier day being a Sunday, there was no sense of urgency either.

However, as the raiders, Czech Zlin Z-143 single engine aircraft, neared the base, they were spotted by the radars of the civil international airport next to the airbase and the Air Force was told. But it by then, it was too late.

The raiders dropped four bombs on the base which killed three airmen, injured 16 and slightly damaged two helicopters.

But the main target, the MIG 27s and Kfir fighter bombers was missed. These aircraft had been tormenting the LTTE since April 25, 2006, when the almost daily air raids on targets in the Tamil North East began.

Apparently, the pilots of the LTTE were not confident of coming round for a second sortie to get the jets.

It was clearly not a suicide mission. But they managed to fly another 45 minutes over government held territory to reach their base in the North unscathed.

Like the main body of the Royal Navy's Eastern Fleet survived to fight the Japanese after the debacle in Colombo, the Sri Lankan Air Forces' Migs and Kfirs survived to continue their raids. The very next day, Mannar was pounded in a retaliatory strike.