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World's first aircraft in Batticaloa

Just 5 miles off Batticaloa lies the wreck of HMS Hermes, the world's first purpose-built aircraft carrier, writes PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 09, 2007 15:15 IST

Few except some marine archaeologists and professional divers know that there is a historic object at the bottom of the sea just 5 miles off Batticaloa in Eastern Sri Lanka.

HMS Hermes (95), the world's first "purpose-built" aircraft carrier (the first to be built specifically as an aircraft carrier and not a converted one) lies there.

The 11,085 ton, 570 ft long vessel, launched with much fanfare in 1919 and sunk by Japanese dive bombers on April 9, 1942, is today a pathetic sight, dismembered, corroded, and most sadly, vanishing fast.

Local fishermen have been aware of its existence, though none of them has seen it, tucked away as it is, 57 metres below the surface, a depth that can be reached only by specialised "technical" divers.

The wreck was seen and photographed for the first time in 1982 by Rex Morgan, son of the ship's photographer, Charles Morgan, whose dramatic pictures of the final moments had given vital clues about the location of the wreck.

The Australian marine archaeologist Jeremy Green got better pictures of it in 2005 using a sophisticated video camera.

Assisted by Sri Lankan born Australian military historian Sergei de Silva and retired Sri Lankan naval officer Lt Com Somasiri Devendra, Green had gone in search of the 1,000 ton Australian Destroyer Vampire, which was escorting the Hermes.

But he could not find it because it was probably devoured by the 900 metre deep-water trench about 4 nautical miles from the shore.

Even "technical divers" would not be able to go so deep, Green said in the documentary on his mission made by Prospero Productions of Australia.

"Locating it was impossible unless we had the equipment used in the search for the Titanic," said Com.Devendra.

Communication glitch

It was at about 10.30 am on April 9, 1942, that the Hermes met its tragic end at the hands of 70 Japanese carrier-based bombers which emerged from the sun to score 40 direct hits in one of the most accurate bombing raids in Word War II.

Distress signals did go out to bases in Trincomalee and Ratmalana, south of Colombo on the Western coast.

But a telephone line failure had prevented the dispatch of fighter aircraft in time.

Interestingly, 65 years later, it was a telephone line failure which had prevented the police in Vavuniya from warning the Sri Lankan Air Force in Katunayake in time about the raid by LTTE aircraft on March 26, 2007!

The much touted "hotline" was down, and the conscientious cops at Ganeshapuram in Vavuniya had to use the humble mobile phone to warn Colombo!

The two horrific incidents go to show how vital it is to keep the communications system well-oiled and constantly manned.

No aircraft on aircraft carrier!

Astonishingly, aircraft carrier Hermes did not have a single aircraft on board to take on the raiders!

The ship had been under repair in Trincomalee when an air raid warning had made her get out of the harbour in haste.

The crew tried to make up by firing their anti-aircraft guns relentlessly, but to no avail.

"Bombs came thick and fast. It was horrific!" said survivor Stan Curtis.

The Hermes, already 23 years old and unstable because of design flaws, sank in 20 minutes, taking 307 men with her.

The Vampire an older piece of "scrap iron" built in 1917, had even less of a chance.

Split into two, she went down a deep water trench in 10 minutes.

But for the providential presence of the hospital ship Vita nearby, 600 more would have lost their lives.

Old newsreel footage show Sikh and Sri Lankan medical workers carrying the wounded to hospital as British nurses look on.

Archaeologist's lament

Today, 65 years later, the Hermes lies on her deck with the keel over, partly resting on the superstructure.

Its giant propeller and rusted 4 inch guns lie beside caches of unused shells, says Sri Lankan diver, Darshana Jayawardena.

The wreckage was covered with black coral and the whole thing had a strange aura around it. It was exhilarating to be amidst the enormous wreckage and yet saddening when one thought about the hundreds who perished along with it, Jayawardena wrote.

When video footage of the wreck were shown to survivor Alex Rusk, he was moved to tears. "That was my home for three years!" he exclaimed in disbelief.

Marine archaeologist Jeremy Green laments that the Hermes, like other iron ships, will eventually disappear due to corrosion.

"We will be able to see 2,000 year old wooden ships but not the modern iron ships," he said in the documentary "Shipwreck Detectives"

Battle of Ceylon

The sinking of the Hermes was part of the Battle of Ceylon in World War II.

The battle was a short and swift affair, with the Japanese conducting only air raids, and that too only on two days, April 5 and 9, 1942.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had misread Japan's intentions and described the supposed bid to "invade" Ceylon as the "most dangerous moment" in the history of the war.

According to historian Sergei de Silva, Churchill feared that the Japanese would use Ceylon as a springboard to attack India the "Jewel in the Crown" and link up with the Germans who were intending to occupy the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf.

But the Japanese never intended to invade and occupy Ceylon, says de Silva.

According to him, all they wanted to do was to destroy as much of the British Eastern Fleet as possible. "They did not have the resources to carry out an invasion and occupy Ceylon," he said.

Though the Japanese destroyed many ships, the bulk of the Eastern Fleet was intact.

For one thing, Adm.Somerville had cleverly taken the main force with two aircraft carriers from Colombo to Adu Atoll in the Maldives days before the Japanese bombed Colombo and maintained radio silence.

And the ships destroyed, including the venerable Hermes, were actually "scrap iron" which would have been replaced anyway.