Office of the British Naval Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet
18th April 1942
The Secretary of the Admiralty
(copies to: Commander in Chief Ceylon.)
Commander in Chief East Indies
REPORT OF PROCEEDINGS OF EASTERN FLEET
FROM 29TH MARCH to 13TH APRIL 1942
Be pleased to lay before Their Lordships the following report of the operations of the Eastern Fleet from Sunday 29th March to Monday 13th April.
Sunday, 29th March
2. Fleet was disposed as follows;
At Colombo: FORMIDABLE, DORSETSHIRE (refitting), CORNWALL, ENTERPRISE, DRAGON, CALEDON, PALADIN, PANTHER, NESTER, HOTSPUR, and EXPRESS.
At Trincomalee: WARSPITE, EMERALD, HERMES, HEEMSKERK, VAMPIRE
At Addu Atoll: RESOLUTION (wearing flag of Vice Admiral, Second in Command, Eastern Fleet), RAMILLIES, ROYAL SOVEREIGN, INDOMITABLE (wearing flag of Rear Admiral Boyd), NAPIER, NORMAN, NIZAM, FORTUNE, FOXHOUND, GRIFFIN, DECOY, and ISAAC SWEERS
(Paragraph 3 obscured.)
4. It appears to me the enemy’s probable target was an air attack on Colombo and/or Trincomalee and probably a simultaneous attack on both ports. Possible methods of attack were:
(a). A moonlight attack followed by a moonlight landing on the carriers.
(b). A moonlight attack followed by a dawn landing on the carriers.
(c). A daylight attack.
I considered (b) the most probable as I thought the Japanese would use to advantage the full moon for attacking their easily distinguishable targets in spite of the fact that noon of their previous attacks had been at night. The landing on after dawn would facilitate the recovery of aircraft.
5. The enemy could approach Ceylon from the north-east, from the east, or from the south-east, to a position equidistant 200 miles from Colombo and Trincomalee. I considered an approach from the south-east most probable. This would enable to enemy to fly off aircraft between 0200 and 0400 and, after carrying out bombing attacks on Colombo and Trincomalee, allow the aircraft to return and fly on after the first light (about 0530); forces could then withdraw at high speed to the eastward. I was assuming that the Japanese carrier borne bombers could have approximately the performance of our Albacores.
6. My plan was therefore to concentrate the Battlefleet, carriers, and all available cruisers and destroyers and to rendezvous on the evening of the 31st March in a position from which the fast division (Force A, consisting of WARSPITE, INDOMITABLE, FORMIDABLE, CORNWALL, EMERALD, ENTERPRISE, and 6 destroyers) could intercept the enemy during the night of 31st March/1st April and deliver a night air attack. The remainder (Force B, consisting of RESOLUTION, REVENGE, RAMILLIES, ROYAL SOVEREIGN, HERMES, DRAGON, CALEDON, and destroyers) to form a separate force and to manoeuvre so as to be approximately 20 miles to the westward of Force A. If Force A intercepted a superior force, I intended to withdraw towards Force B.
7. On the supposition that the enemy adopted that I considered to be his most probably plan, it was certain that he would have air reconnaissance out ahead on 31st March. The success of my plan depended on my force not being sighted by enemy air reconnaissance. The selection of a rendezvous was therefore governed by the foregoing consideration and also by the following factors:
a). WARSPITE had to proceed from Trincomalee to Colombo to refuel and embark myself and staff.
b). The necessity to conserve fuel in Force B owing to the low endurance of the R Class. I therefore decided to fix this rendezvous in position 4-40N, 81E at 1600 on 31st March.
8. Although it was considered probable that the enemy would approach Ceylon from a south-easterly direction it was possible for him to do so from any directions between north-east and south-west though south. It was therefore desirable to cover all these possible approaches by long distance air patrols over the whole sector. The number of Catalina aircraft available was 6 plus one reserve; which meant that only 3 Catalinas would be on patrol at a time. This limited the sector which could be covered efficiently and I therefore selected the enemy’s most probable direction of approach, viz. from the south-east.
Patrols were arranged daily from 31st March onward to cover an approach section from 110 degrees to 154 degrees to a depth of 420 miles from Colombo. This could only be maintained for approximately 3 days and would then have to be reduced in view of the limited number of aircraft available. The lack of adequate long distance air reconnaissance in this area – a matter I had stressed before leaving the United Kingdom – was most apparent. I placed little reliance on the land based air striking force in Ceylon. The Blenheims were only armed with bombs and were untrained in overseas operations. The 4 Swordfish available had insufficient range to reach the enemy if he kept his distance.
Monday, 30th March
9. At 1130, I embarked with my staff in WARSPITE (the ship having arrived the previous evening from Trincomalee). The Forces of the Eastern Fleet at Colombo, Trincomalee, and Addu sailed as requisite to rendezvous at 1600 on the following day, Tuesday, 31st March, in the position selected in my paragraph 7 above.
Tuesday, 31st March
10. At 0100 I received information that an enemy submarine was in position on an approximate arc 360 miles from Colombo between 90 degrees and 140 degrees. It appeared to me that this patrol had been established for two purposes.
(i). To provide a reconnaissance
(ii). To serve as a screen through which the Ceylon raiding force would withdraw to the east or south-east on completion of their attack. It is also suggested an approach from the east or a withdrawal due east from a position south of Ceylon.
I therefore ordered an Albacore to be flown ashore from FORMIDABLE with a message requesting the Deputy Command In Chief, Eastern Fleet to provide a Catalina patrol to the northward in addition to those arranged from 31st March, to cover this possible approach to Ceylon from 90 degrees.
11. By 1600 all the forces had rendezvoused in the prearranged position and the fleet shaped a course to the northward. I formed the fleet into two forces,
(a). fast division (Force A) consisting of WARSPITE, INDOMITABLE, FORMIDABLE, CORNWALL, EMERALD, ENTERPRISE, NAPIER, NESTOR, PALADIN, PANTHER, HOTSPUR, and FOXHOUND under my immediate command;
(b). Battleship supporting force (Force B), consisting of RESOLUTION, REVENGE, RAMILLIES, ROYAL SOVEREIGN, HERMES, DRAGON, CALEDON, HEEMSKERCK, GRIFFIN, DECOY, NORMAN, FORTUNE, ISAAC SWEERS, ARROW, VAMPIRE, and SCOUT under the Vice Admiral, Second in Command.
12. My movements for the night were governed by the following factors:
(i). The necessity to avoid the enemy’s possible daylight air search area until after dark in order to achieve surprise.
(ii). The need to be at a convenient distance from the position which it was considered likely the enemy would select to fly off his aircraft, either for a moonlight attack and moonlight return to the carriers or as was considered probably, a moonlight attack followed by a dawn land on. This position equi-distant from Colombo and Trincomalee was about 5-20N, 82-55E, and was about 120 miles from the fleet’s position at 1800.
13. I decided on the following plan; to take Force A to the northward until dark and then alter to 80 degrees, 15 knots, continue on that course until about 0230 when I should be in the vicinity of the enemy’s established fly off position. At the same time to carry out a continuous night ASV search ahead and to the southward of Force A. If nothing was sighted or located by 0230, to turn back to the southwest and withdraw outside the enemy’s air search area.Force B to act as a supporting force to Force A, keeping 20 miles to the westward and conforming to Force A’s movements throughout the night, rendezvousing at 0800 the following morning.
This procedure was carried out on the night of 31st March/1st April and nothing was seen or located.
Wednesday, 1st April
14. DORSETSHIRE rejoined Force A, p.m., having stopped her refit at Colombo in order to take part in this operation.
For four hours during the day a wide diverging air search was carried out to the east and southeast to supplement the Catalina patrols being carried out from Ceylon. These daylight air searches and all ASV searches ahead of the Fleet were carried out on each succeeding day at sea.
15. No further information having been received as to enemy movements, I decided in accordance with my previous plan to repeat the sweep to the north-east which had been carried out on the previous night.
16. The following factors affected my choice of the actual sweep.
(i). To keep outside the furthest on of enemy air search area until dark.
(ii). To sweep to the north-east to keep clear, as far as possible, of the waters though which I had swept the previous night.
As nothing was sighted by early morning, I withdrew again to the south-west and rendezvoused with Force B at daylight.
Thursday, 2nd April
17. During the day, Forces A and B had manoeuvred in an arc about 50 miles to the westward of those waters in which they steamed in daylight on the two previous days in order to keep clear of any enemy submarines that might have sighted the Forces. Throughout the day, several unconfirmed echoes were reported by destroyers in the screen. Opportunity was taken to oil 5 of the destroyers, 3 from the oiler APPLELEAF which had previously been ordered to the vicinity before I left Colombo; and two from 8” cruisers.
18. My next concern was my future course of action and the following are the main factors, which decided it:
(i). The fleet had now been operating 3 days and 2 nights off the south of Ceylon and probability of location by enemy submarines was increasing.
(ii). No further information had arrived which indicated that an air attack on Ceylon was likely to develop in the immediate future. The possible reasons for this were:
(a) the enemy’s timing had been upset
(b) our deductions of his plans had been incorrect from the start
(c) he had received news of our fleet concentration. This latter reason appeared probable and I considered would influence the enemy in delaying his attack until we were compelled to return to harbour to refuel.
(iii). The R Class battleships were rapidly running out of fresh water. RESOLUTION would soon be compelled to use salt water in her 15” hydraulic system. The Vice Admiral, Second in Command, had informed me at the beginning of the operation that 3 days was the limit of the endurance of R class battleships for this reason. These ships still had ample fuel to remain at sea for a further period and it was unpleasant to me to find that the supply of fresh water was now the factor which limited their endurance at sea. This was in part due to the failure of a water tanker to arrive at Addu Atoll before Force B sailed.
(iv). It was very desirable for me to have an early conference with my Flag and Commanding Officers to explain my police and intentions.
On the above factors, I decided not to repeat the big sweep the north-east for the third time, but to continue my sweep to a much smaller one to the east. As nothing was seen by 2100, I abandoned the operation and shaped course south west to Addu Atoll.
Friday, 3rd April
19. At 0520 I detached FORTUNE to rescue survivors from S.S. GLEN SHEIL, torpedoed in position 00-48S, 78-35E at 0230. FORTUNE picked up 88 survivors and proceeded direct to Addu Atoll where she arrived at 1130 on the 4th April.
20. At this time, I felt convinced that something must have occurred to delay the Japanese attack or alternatively that their objective had been inaccurately appreciated. I therefore detached DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL at 0940 to Colombo. The former to resume her interrupted refit and the latter to act as escort to the Australian troop convoy S U 4. I also detached HERMES with her attendant destroyer VAMPIRE to Trincomalee to prepare for Operation IRONCLAD. I left the decision where she as to land her Swordfish at China Bay to the Commander in Chief, East Indies.
21. During the day, 3 destroyers were oiled from the battleships. At 1820, Force A proceeded ahead at 19 knots for Addu Atoll, Force B following astern at 14 knots.
Saturday, 4th April
22. Air A/S search was carried out over the approaches to Addu Atoll and Force A entered the harbour at 1200. Force B arrived at 1500.
23. At 1630, I received a report from a Catalina southeast of Ceylon that a large enemy force was in position 00-40N, 83-10E at 1605F, course 315 degrees. Shortly afterwards this report was confirmed by a message from 222 Group which gave the course as 330 degrees. This positioned the force 155 degrees from Dondra Head, 360 miles, the distance from Addu Atoll being 85 degrees 600 miles. There was no indication as to the composition of the force.
24. The condition of my fleet at Addu Atoll at this time was as follows: owing to the limited number of oilers available, the vessels comprising Force A had taken about half their fuel and Force B had not yet commenced. In addition, the R Class battleships were very short of water which had to be taken in before they could sail. This meant that Force A (except EMERALD and ENTERPRISE) could proceed to sea immediately. EMERALD and ENTERPRISE would be ready to sail by midnight and Force B could not leave until 0700 on the 5th at the earliest.
25. It appeared that the enemy’s probably plan was as follows: All the evidence supported my original appreciation that the enemy would attack Colombo (and possibly Trincomalee) with carrier borne aircraft either before dawn or shortly afterwards and would return to the carriers in a position about 150 miles south-east to south of Ceylon. On completion, the whole force would then withdraw to the east. The enemy’s reported position made it apparent that this attack was to be made on the morning of Sunday 5th.
26. My possible courses of action were as follows:
(i). Force A, less EMERALD and ENTERPRISE, to proceed immediately at best speed to the area south of Ceylon, to be joined there by DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL from Colombo and attack any enemy force located.
(ii). Delay the sailing of Force A until EMERALD and ENTERPRISE had completed refueling and sail about midnight. Force B to sail on the morning of the 5th and follow astern to act as a supporting force.
(iii). Delay the sailing of Force A until both forces could leave together on the morning of the 5th.
(iv). Forces A and B to remain at Addu Atoll and leave the Air Force to deal with the enemy attack.
27. My choice of plan was governed by the following considerations:
(a). First and foremost, the total defense of the Indian Ocean and its vital lines of communications depend on the existence of the Eastern Fleet. The longer this fleet remains “a fleet in being”, the longer it will limit and check the enemy’s advances against Ceylon and further west. This major policy of retaining “a fleet in being”, already approved by Their Lordships, was, in my opinion paramount.
(b). The only hope of dealing the enemy an effective blow was by means of a carrier borne air striking force preferably at night. To operate the carriers escorted by WARSPITE out of supporting distance of the R Class battleships would offer the enemy an opportunity to cripple our only offensive weapon.. I considered it a cardinal point in any operation that Force A should not proceed outside supporting distance from Force B unless it could be presumed that enemy capital ships would not be encountered.
(c). No matter which course of action I adopted the enemy force could not be intercepted either before or during the air attack on Ceylon on the morning of the 5th. My only hope was that the air striking force from Ceylon might “wing” some of the enemy’s ships which I could attack later, or that the attack on Ceylon might be delayed for 24 hours.
28. I therefore decided to adapt course 26 (ii). I sailed Force A, including EMERALD and ENTERPRISE at midnight and ordered Force B to proceed as early as possible the following morning.
29. I instructed the Deputy Commander in Chief, Eastern Fleet, to sail DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL to rendezvous with Force A at 1600 on the following day (Sunday 5th), in position 00-58N, 77-36E. This rendezvous was based on their expected time of departure from Colombo and estimated as being the earliest possible time at which they could cross my track, taking into consideration the fact that DORSETSHIRE had resumed her refit and was at extended notice. I considered that the course to be steered by the cruisers would take them well clear of any enemy forces operating in the vicinity. Actually these instructions had been anticipated by the Deputy Commander in Chief, Eastern Fleet and these two cruisers, at his direction, sailed at 2300 for Addu Atoll. On receipt of my signal the Deputy Commander in Chief amended his instructions accordingly at 0409/5.
Sunday 5th April
30. Force A sailed at 0015 and proceeded 70 degrees 18 knots towards a position which would bring it 250 miles south of Ceylon by dawn on the 6th.
31. During the night I received reports from the Catalinas on patrol from Ceylon of an enemy destroyers in position 4-59N, 82-20E (n.b. handwritten correction 1-59N vice 4-59N) course 315 degrees, speed 20 knots; 6 enemy destroyers in position 2-54N, 82-10E course 325 degrees, speed 21 knots; and 0702 1 battleship, 2 cruisers, and 4 other ships 195 degrees Dondra Head 110 miles. This latter message was subsequently amplified to the effect that the vessels previously reported were definitely hostile and consisted of 2 battleships, 2 cruisers, and destroyers.
32. At about 0625 an air raid on shipping and harbour facilities at Colombo commenced, some 75 aircraft taking part. There were later reported to be mainly Navy O fighters, armed with one bomb each. This enemy force withdrew from Colombo before 0900 and was seen by several merchant ships south west of Ceylon probably returning to the carriers. In several cases these merchant ships were machine gunner.
33. From 0645, an air A/S patrol was maintained ahead of the Fleet. INDOMITABLE also sent 4 Fulmars to commence a search to the eastward. This search covered the area between the arcs 55 degrees to 105 degrees to a depth of 215 miles. It proved negative except for the sighting of one enemy seaplane at 0855, 76 degrees 150 miles from Force A. This suggested that the enemy was carrying out reconnaissance in a south-westerly direction by means of cruiser aircraft, or a seaplane carrier, in a position 70 miles southwest of the main enemy force. There was no indication that this aircraft sighted any of our surface forces or our air search.
34. Between 0720 and 1145 I received reports of battleships in approximately positions 3-55N, 80-40E steering 290 degrees at 0648, 120 degrees at 07030, and at 1004 in position 4N, 25E, steering 282 degrees. This suggested the battleships were marking time whilst the carriers recovered their aircraft. The estimated position of DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL at this time was 150 mils from the enemy and opening.
35. At 1327 a mutilated “Shad” signal was received from Colombo, subsequently identified at 1406 as from DORSETSHIRE, whose position was estimated as being 37 degrees 90 miles from Force A at 1400, but was not actually established.
36. At 1344 an enemy air formation had been detected by R.D.F. 30 degrees 84 miles from Force A. This had faded after five minutes and it is now clear that this must have been the attack on the 8” cruisers (which it was learnt afterwards occurred at about 1400). Wreckage was reported by reconnaissance aircraft from Force A at 1522 in position 2-08N, 78-08E.
37. A destroyer was detached to search but was recalled when at 1655 a reconnaissance aircraft from Force A reported an enemy force of 5 “unknowns” in position 3-38N, 78-18E at 1600. There was then no indication of the course of speed of this unknown force, but it could be either;
(a). a new force previously unreported, or
(b). the force previously and last reported at 1004.
38. It is unfortunately necessary that no relief shadowers were sent off by the Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers as soon as this report was received and that I omitted to obtain confirmation from Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers that relief shadowers had been sent. (n.b. in text “shadows” pen and ink corrected to “shadowers” in both cases.) At 1700 I received a report from Colombo that there were indications of enemy aircraft carriers steering 230 degrees at 24 knots from an unknown position at 1400.
39. This was thought to be subsequent to the attack on the cruisers and my deductions from this enemy move was as follows.
40. If he held on this course he would be at 0400 in a position to deliver a night air attack on Addu Atoll. This seemed quite a possible course of action. In any case it was necessary for Force A to keep clear to the southward and for Force B (estimated to be 135 miles astern in position 0-12N, 75-15E at 1700) to steer southward so that Forces A and B could close for supporting action at daylight the following morning (6th April). It as also necessary for Force B to steer to southward to keep clear of the enemy carrier force should it be proceeding to attack Addu.
41. At 1726, therefore Force A altered course to 210 degrees at 18 knots and a signal was made to Vice Admiral, 2nd in Command and to DORSETSHIRE to steer south, though by this time I entertained grave fears concerning the fate of the two 8” cruisers. As I had received no signal from them that they were being attacked I felt it was possible they had escaped and were maintaining W/T silence.
42. At 1800 I received a signal from Rear Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, stating that reconnaissance aircraft reported the estimated enemy’s position 20 degrees 120 miles at 1710. This position was very close to the previously reported 1600 signal. The enemy’s course had not been given in either of these reports, but the positions fitted in well with the course received in paragraph 38.
43. At 1817 a further signal was received from Rear Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, adjusting the 1600 position of the enemy force, amplifying it to include 2 carriers and 3 unknown vessels and giving the course as northwest. This was the first indication I had of an enemy course to the northwest.
44. I immediately ordered Force A to alter course to 315 degrees and instructed Vice Admiral, 2nd in Command to conform. These movements had the object of keeping Force A within night air striking distance of the enemy force, trusting to an A.S.V. search to locate the enemy, and to being Force B within supporting distance should it be necessary to retire in that direction. A dawn rendezvous was arranged with Force B in approximate position 3N, 75E.
45. As no news had been received of DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL, the presumption was that they had been sunk.
46. At 1930 a night search with A.S.V. aircraft commenced to cover the section 345 degrees to 030 degrees to a depth of 180 miles. Nothing was located by this search.
Monday 6th April
47. From 2100 to 0600 further A.S.V. searches were carried out to cover the section 20 degrees to 80 degrees to a depth of 200 miles. These searches also failed to make any contact with the enemy but reported that Force B was 220 degrees 25 miles away from Force A at 0400.
48. At 0615 Force A altered course to 135 degrees and sighted Force B ten minutes later. By 0720 the fleet was formed up and course altered to 90 degrees.
49. Whilst no further information had been received regarding the enemy’s movements nothing occurred to diminish the possibility of the enemy’s being in the vicinity of Addu Atoll, either to attack it by air this morning or to await the return of the Eastern Fleet.
50. I intended to keep clear of the superior enemy forces by day; to try to get in a position to attack them by night air striking force on their possible return from the Addu area, and also to rescue the survivors from DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL. I therefore steered east and at 1115 course was altered to southward in the direction of the wreckage reported the previous evening.
51. At 1300, ENTERPRISE with PALADIN and PANTHER were detached to search for survivors in the vicinity of the wreckage position. Air search was provided to assist; further fighter escort was sent to cover the operation. These ships were successful in picking up a total of 1122 survivors and rejoined the fleet at noon the following day in Veimandu Channel. At 1800, when about 50 miles from the wreckage position course was reversed and the fleet retired to the northwest. All round air searches were carried out to a depth of 200 miles; nothing was seen.
52. At about 1400 a signal was received from CinC Ceylon estimating that a strong Japanese fleet was still somewhere between Addu Atoll and Colombo. I therefore decided to keep clear of Addu area, at any rate until after daylight on the 7th.
Tuesday 7th April
53. At 0200 fleet altered to the west, course 270 degrees.
54. At 0428 A.S.V. aircraft located two submarines in positions 2-08N, 75-16E and 2-46N, 75-10E; i.e. to the southward of the course of the fleet. This indicated the possibility of an enemy submarine patrol having been established to cover the eastern approaches to Addu. I therefore decided to pass through the Veimandu Channel to the west of the Maldives and make an unexpected approach to Addu Atoll from the west. At 0700 the course of the fleet was altered to 210 degrees.
55. At 1600 ENTERPRISE, PALADIN, and PANTHER rejoined with survivors from DORSETSHIRE and CORNWALL on board, and medical stores were transferred from WARSPITE to PALADIN for treatment of the wounded. ENTERPRISE and PALADIN were detached to proceed direct to Addu.
56. At 2100 course was altered to 160 degrees.
Wednesday 8th April
57. At 0700 aircraft were flown off from the carriers to carry out an all round search to a depth of 175 miles. This proved negative, and at 1100 the fleet arrived at Addu Atoll and entered harbour. Refuelling commenced, Force B being refueled first.
58. I held a conference on board with my Flag and Commanding Officers in the afternoon.
59. Having discussed the situation I decided to send Force B to Kilindini and proceed to Bombay with Force A. This later decision coincided with Their Lordships views as later in the day I received Their Lordships instructions that Force A was not to proceed to Colombo for the present. Further, by proceeding to Bombay I should be afforded an opportunity of meeting with Commander in Chief India and of discussing the situation with him.
Thursday 9th April
60. Force B sailed from Addu Atoll at 0200 for Kilindini where it was due to arrived on 15th April and Force A sailed at 0600 for Bombay shaping course to pass to the westward of the Maldives.
Friday 10th April
61. At 1000 PALADIN closed WARSPITE to transfer Staff Officers for passage to Colombo where they were to inform the Deputy Commander in Chief, Eastern Fleet of my views and make preliminary arrangements to transfer my administrative staff and secretariat to Kilindini.
Monday 13th April
62. PALADIN rejoined Force A from Colombo at 0705 being back the Staff Officers who had been transferred to her on the 10th and also Rear Admiral V.H. Danckwerts, CMG (my Chief of Staff ashore)
63. Force A arrived Bombay at 1040, anchored and commenced oiling
J. F. Somerville