Chapter 6: The Japanese Peril
For many years Japan had dreamed of a great empire in the Pacific Ocean which would include the Philippines, Borneo, Malaya, Burma, East Indies and the Pacific islands as far as the 180th Meridian. This she designated the “Co-prosperity Sphere of Greater East Asia”. To it, ultimately, Australia, New Zealand and India might be added. The two main obstacles to this grandiose scheme were the British Naval Base at Singapore and the United States Pacific Fleet based on Pearl Harbour. Japanese strategy, therefore, had to devise a plan whereby the Pacific Fleet would be eliminated long enough to ensure the capture of Singapore.
The years between the two world wars were devoted to preparations. Island bases and landing grounds were developed and contrary to the provisions of the Washington Treaty, naval, air and military preparations proceeded under a degree of secrecy rarely attained even in war time and their intelligence service provided them with reliable information. Japan embarked upon a policy of expansion. The occupation of Manchukuo (1931) was followed by the invasion of China in 1937; by the autumn of 1939 Japan controlled the whole China Coast from the Gulf of Pechili to Hainan – a considerable step towards her ultimate objectives in the south.
The outbreak of the European war in 1939 presented Japan with the prospect of satisfying her ambitions sooner than she had hoped. At the outset, her policy was of neutrality in the European war combined with the prosecution of her own struggle with China. But as German forces advanced in Europe, Japan became eager to strike. Her historic moment came with the fall of France in June 1940. Three months later (25 September), Japanese troops entered French Indo-China. This was the first blow at the strategical equilibrium in the Pacific. By it the Japanese obtained a first class anchorage within 750 miles of Singapore, and air bases from which Malaya might be reached by heavy bombers.
These preparations did not go unnoticed in London, but commitments nearer home were many and pressing and it was not easy to divert forces to the Far East – 10,000 miles away – where, at any rate, hostilities had not yet actually broken out. Arrangements were made, however, to strengthen the military
and air forces in Malaya, and the Admiralty planned to base a fleet of seven capital ships, an aircraft carrier, 10 cruisers and 24 destroyers on Singapore, but for various reasons it was not possible for that fleet to arrive there before March 1942. By October 1941, the situation seemed so threatening that it was decided to send the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to the Far East. Owing to casualties no aircraft carrier was available to accompany them but both ships were faster than any Japanese capital ship and it was hoped that the presence of that powerful raiding force in the Far Eastern waters might possibly deter Japan from declaring war.
Loss of the Prabhavati
On the very day when Japan declared war on the Allies an unforeseen incident occurred, which resulted in the loss of HMIS Prabhavati.1 The cruiser HMS Glasgow, reached Colombo on 6 December 1941 from the Mediterranean to join the East Indies Fleet under Admiral Leatnam when Japan was about to enter the war. As soon as she had fuelled, watered and victualled, she was detailed to search the entire anchorages of the Laccadive group for suspicious ships and submarines as it was expected that on entering the war, Japan would try to base her supply ships and oilers in the little known atolls of the Laccadive groups to feed her prowling submarines. She embarked a couple of interpreters and left Colombo at 1700. Her orders were to land those interpreters on the various islands and question the local residents regarding the passage of any suspicious ships. On 7 December, she flew off her Walrus five times for searches but nothing was sighted. At about 1530 she arrived at the first of the islands, Kalpini. The inhabitants had nothing to report and she sailed at 1900 for the next island where she expected to stay till about 0800 on 8 December.
On 7 December 1941, it was announced that Japan had declared war and an Admiralty message said that submarines were to be expected in the vicinity. It further stated that four German merchant ships in Marmagoa harbour had refuelled and might make an attempt to get away. The entrance to Goa was guarded by the ships of the Indian Navy. The Glasgow was immediately ordered by the Commander-in-Chief East Indies to proceed towards Marmagoa and patrol. Earlier, she had intercepted a message from the Dipavati, off Goa, to the effect that she had sighted a submarine which had dived and that she had carried out a depth-charge attack.
Doing about 22 knots the Glasgow headed straight for Marmagoa. Her shipping plot was clear except for the Dipavati. She was working a two-watch system with half the armament constantly manned. A* about 1106 on the 7th, her Starboard look-out sighted a dark object bearing about 080° approximately 3 miles. It was presumed that it was the submarine depth-charged by the Dipavati earlier in the day which had probably surfaced to carry out repairs. The silhouette was very low in the water and the object looked very much like a surfaced submarine. There was also a light visible on deck. The Glasgow immediately altered course to open out a little and went to General Quarters. She then closed and challenged the ship, but there was no reply. At 1158 the Glasgow switched on her searchlights and immediately opened fire with a broadside of twelve-6”.
The Glasgow ceased firing as she saw smoke belching out of the bridge and the ship began going down by the bows. Searchlights which had been dowsed after the first salvo were switched on again and she closed to pick up survivors. Midshipman K. L. Kulkarni, RIN, was the Officer of the Quarter “A” Turret and was rather pleased with the clean shoot. When the searchlights were put on, he saw through the “A” Turret periscope the ship heeling over and slowly sinking and a number of raft-like craft astern of her. Men were in water and waving. He was then ordered to go in a whaler to pick up survivors.
When he approached the men in the water, he was staggered to hear, instead of Japanese or German words, oaths in Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil. It was soon clear that the Glasgow had sunk one of the RIN ships. It was HMIS Prabhavati towing some barges to Karachi from Cochin. The tow of the barges had parted and the ship had stopped and was getting out fresh hawsers for towing. With a low hull and a number of barges astern, she had a submarine-like silhouette. She was not on the Glasgow’s shipping plot at all and they had information that apart from the Dipavati, there were no other ships in the vicinity.
The Prabhavati soon turned on her side and sank. All the survivors were put on the barges first. There were three barges and one of them also soon sank, having been hit. Of a total complement of 5 officers and 58 ratings, 3 officers and 25 ratings were saved, including the Captain. There were 12 seriously wounded and they were taken in the whaler. Midshipman Kulkarni was ordered to be in Sickbay with the Surgeon Commander to act as interpreter. Every single survivor was wounded in the lower half of his body.
Dead bodies were afloat all over the area. By 0300 all survivors had been picked up and the Glasgow proceeded to her patrol area. Early in the morning she steamed south again and sank the remaining Lighters and then steamed for Bombay. The Glasgow arrived, in Bombay on the 8th at 2130 and landed the survivors. It was one of the most tragic actions of the war.
Attack on Pearl Harbour
To return to the story of the war. On Pearl Harbor, 5,890 miles from Singapore, was based the U. S. Pacific Fleet under Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. It consisted of nine battle ships (one of which was refitting in the USA), three aircraft carriers, 12 heavy cruisers, 10 light cruisers, 77 destroyers (45 modern, 32 pre-1921) and 31 submarines. At 0800 on 7 December 1941, while negotiations were still in progress in Washington between the special Japanese envoy, Mr. Kurusu, and the American authorities, the Japanese attacked the United States fleet and air forces at Pearl Harbour with carrier-borne aircraft and submarines. The attack was carried out by a force commanded by Vice-Admiral Nagumo. It consisted of 2 battle ships (Hiyei, Kirishima) 6 aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku), 1 cruiser, 2 destroyers, 3 I-class submarines, 3 oilers and a supply ship. The Americans were taken completely by surprise; most of their aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and the fleet was badly damaged which prevented it from exercising any effective influence for six months to come.
Advance over South East Asia
Within a few hours of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese invaded Malaya (landing at Kota Bharu on the north-east coast), Thailand (which capitulated at once) and Hong Kong and launched their first air raids on Singapore and Manila. The invasion of the Philippines commenced with a landing in Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila, the next day. Two days later (10 December), the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by air attack during an operation designed to relieve pressure on the army in northern Malaya. The sinking of those two ships was a serious blow to the morale of the Allies in the Far East. It gave the Japanese an undisputed command of the sea in Malayan waters. The next four months witnessed their steady and almost unchecked advance to the south and east.
Fall of Singapore and Invasion of Burma
Singapore dockyard was closed down on 30 January, and the next day the British forces in Malaya commenced to retire towards
Singapore Island. Singapore with its great naval base fell on 15 February, 70 days after Japan entered the war. That very day, the Japanese landed on South-East Sumatra and captured the important oil centre of Palembang. On 27 February the disastrous naval battle of the Java Sea sealed the fate of Java. On 23 March the Japanese extended their control to the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal by the occupation of Port Blair, Andaman Islands.
Meanwhile, the invasion of Burma had been proceeding, and on 8 March – the day before the surrender of Java – Rangoon fell, to be followed on 29 April by the loss of Lashio, the important terminus of the Burma road to China. This marked the high water mark of the Japanese offensive. By 10 May the Indian and British troops had evacuated Burma, escaping to India through Assam.
Escort Duties of “ Sutlej” and “ Jumna”
During that period of Allied reverses in the Eastern Theatre, most of the available naval forces were employed in escorting convoys to Singapore and sometimes between Australia and Java. The role of the Royal Indian Navy was mainly to assist in the escort of troop convoys to Singapore and in the operations connected with the evacuation from Malaya and Burma. Indian ships the Sutlej and the Jumna were ordered to proceed direct from the Red Sea to Colombo where they arrived towards the end of December 1941. Both these ships were destined for Eastern waters. After boiler-cleaning, they were soon on their way to Singapore and Batavia, escorting troop convoys in company with cruisers and destroyers of the Royal Navy. In the latter half of January and in February 1942, they carried out escort duties between various ports in the Netherlands East Indies and Singapore, frequently being attacked by Japanese aircraft.
HMIS Sutlej (Captain P. A. Mare, RIN) while lying in Tanjog Priok (which was the name of the port of Batavia) in February 1942, was ordered with other warships to escort a large convoy to Singapore. While going through the narrow Banka Strait on 4 February where the navigable channel was so narrow that hardly any manoeuvre was possible, the Sutlej and other warships were heavily attacked by Japanese bombers in flights of nine. They delivered a very fierce attack, bombs falling all around and between the convoy and its escort, but the Sutlej and other ships engaged them promptly with all their armament and got their range so effectively that they were compelled to make off immediately. When the Japanese returned from the opposite quarter to renew their attack
with even greater intensity, the ships again succeeded in repelling them.
There was an amusing but not entirely pleasant occurrence connected with that incident. When the Captain of the Sutlej looked out of the Chart House porthole immediately after the first attack, the Captain saw one of the gunners leaning back in his strap and waving his hands furiously. Wondering for a moment whether he had been hit, the Captain looked more closely, only to see that he was beating off a cloud of enormous bees. Looking aft, the Captain saw the gunner and his crew all slapping at themselves and similarly engaged with the hostile bees. It was immediately after that, that the Japanese aircraft returned, and in the excitement of the action the bees were able to work their will.
Early next morning the Sutlej was ordered to take the fast ships of the convoy on ahead to Singapore. She proceeded accordingly to the Examination Anchorage, where she anchored with her charges. The leading ships of the main body of the convoy drew in sight to the southward, escorted by HMAS Yarra and almost simultaneously Japanese aircraft came over and attacked them heavily. The Sutlej engaged these aircraft at extreme range but both the leading ships were hit by bombs. One of these managed to reach the Examination Anchorage, where under the protecting guns of the Sutlej she got the fire aboard under control.
Loss of “Empress of Asia”
Meanwhile the second ship, the Empress of Asia, 16,909 tons, was heavily bombed. Three columns of smoke were seen pouring out of her. The Yarra closed her quarter and the Sutlej also weighed anchor and approached the burning ship. Most of those aboard had taken to water. A few had boats, some rafts, but many were swimming about. Lowering her boats, the Sutlej picked up and brought aboard as many as possible. The fire having got complete control of the vessel, there was no hope of saving her. The noise of the explosion of small arms and ammunition was continuous. As she was heavily armed, there was the danger of explosion. Some of the Sutlej’s officers and ratings went on board, and at great risk to themselves jettisoned the depth charges and ammunition.
Meanwhile everything possible was done in the Sutlej for those picked up out of the sea. A great many were found suffering from wounds, burns and shocks. The Mess Deck by the Sick-Bay was cleared out, and there the surgeon and the paymaster and their staff were busy. The surgeon himself dealt with the more
serious cases, whilst those who had to wait their turn or who were less seriously injured were given first-aid dressings until more could be done for them. Fortunately, the Sutlej had a good stock of white clothing on board. This was brought up as quickly as possible and all were given dry clothes and made as comfortable as circumstances permitted. The Sutlej’s men did their best in looking after the survivors.
As the Empress of Asia was burning furiously, she had to be abandoned. The fire was so intense that the plating of her hull had started glowing red, and it was obvious that nothing could be done for her. The Sutlej, therefore, steamed to Singapore and landed the survivors of this ill-fated ship.
Convoy from Batavia
HMIS Jumna (Commander W.R. Shewring, RIN) returned to Tanjog Priok in Batavia, after evacuating and bombarding Oosth’aven in southern Sumatra on 24 February 1942.2 She was ordered to berth so as to afford the maximum anti-aircraft protection to a still fairly crowded harbour. Early that same afternoon Tanjog Priok experienced its first air-raid, being attacked by nine Japanese bombers. HMS Exeter (Cruiser) and HMIS Jumna opened fire and broke up the formation. In that raid which lasted ten minutes with some pretty hectic shooting, two Japanese planes were destroyed – one by the Jumna and the other by the Exeter.
During the next four days, the raids continued averaging two a day which kept everybody alert. Although the Jumna could claim no further success, she had gained valuable experience in gunnery organisation. Meanwhile, the merchant ships were leaving the port, and by the evening of 27 February very few of them were left. Only the Yarra, the Australian sloop, and the Jumna were there. At 1030 the Captain informed the ship’s company that they were leaving at midnight. HMIS Jumna left Batavia at 1201 on 28 February 1942 followed by HMS Anking, HMAS Wollongong, HMS 51, RFAs. War Sirdar and Francol. HMAS Yarra with RFA British Judge joined the convoy 3 miles north of Examination vessel. At 0220 on 28 February the convoy was formed up in single line ahead and proceeded towards Sunda Straits.
Day-break found the Jumna shepherding a 6-knot convoy of two tankers and HMS Anking with the Yarra in company, through the narrow island channels only about 30 miles from Batavia. By that time, there was some concern about the chances of those ships getting out of the Java Sea as it was known that a strong Japanese naval force was coming down from Banka Strait towards West Java. At 0645 a submarine contact was made, but before the Jumna could attack, the submarine surfaced disclosing her Dutch identity. Near that spot, three hours after the Jumna and the Convoy passed through, a Japanese force carried out a landing in Benten Bay. As the Japanese force was accompanied by four heavy cruisers and a number of destroyers, the Jumna and Yarra had a narrow escape. At that time, the first Japanese reconnaissance plane passed overhead to be followed shortly by six Navy, Zero fighters. About the same time the reconnaissance sea-planes of the invasion convoy were also sighted, about 30 miles to the north.
Near Toppers Island, air attacks were made on the oiler RFA British Judge. The attacks were not pressed home due to the heavy barrage put up by the Yarra and Jumna. The Japanese planes, therefore, turned all their attention to the escorting sloops, particularly the Jumna which was attacked incessantly all morning by relays of dive bombers. The Yarra was short of HA ammunition and after the first attack could only fire to defend herself. The Jumna which was bombed and machine-gunned was smothered in bomb splinters from near misses and was holed in places. The wireless aerial and some signal halyards were shot away. Otherwise there was no serious damage and no casualties. Her score for the day was three certain and one highly probable aircraft shot (giving her a total of five in four days). The Yarra shot down one plane.
Four more air attacks were made between 1000 and 1700 that day. At 1800 the Jumna and her convoy were clear of the Sunda Strait. Far away at the bottom of the Java Sea four shattered aircraft still lay, an invisible monument to the performance of Jumna’s guns and to the steadiness of her crew in the ship’s first engagement with the Japanese.
Chief Ordnance Artificer, Cajetan Mascarenhas was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in defending the convoy against the Japanese aircraft which attacked it in the Sunda Strait. The citation in the London Gazette said that he had carried out repairs to guns during dive-bombing and machine-gun attacks, and had shown great devotion to duty. Leading Seaman Khan Mohammed, who displayed skill and initiative in engaging the
Japanese with an Oerlikon gun was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The Gunnery Officer, Lieut. A. J. V. LeCocq, RINVR, was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross and six of the Jumna’s ratings were mentioned in Despatches, having shown “devotion to duty during heavy and continuous dive-bombing attacks”.
Night had set in when the convoy cleared the southern end of the Sunda Strait. At 0745 the British Judge was torpedoed. There being no trace of the submarine, HMAS Wollongong was ordered to stand by, while the rest of the convoy proceeded to Tjilatjap. On arrival off Tjilatjap at 1100 on 2 March the Yarra and the convoy were ordered to proceed to Freemantle while the Jumna was to proceed to Colombo.
On the afternoon of 3 March 1942, one hundred and eighty miles or so north-west by north from the Japanese force, HMAS Yarra and her convoy, steering south south-east took survivors of the merchant ship Parigi sunk by the Japanese on the 1st. At 0630 on 4 March the Yarra’s clanging alarm rattles were heard as she sighted to the north north-east of Kondo’s three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. In spite of the best efforts of the Yarra’s Commanding Officer, Lieut-Commander Rankin, to engage the Japanese ships, the Yarra and her convoy were smashed and sunk by gunfire. Of the Yarra’s 34 survivors all except one were ratings.
Jumna Reaches Colombo
The Captain of the Jumna received news of a large Japanese force operating 250 miles due south of Tjilatjap. With the knowledge also of heavy units coming down the Sunda Strait, he decided to go fairly close to Christmas Island and then westwards and on to Ceylon. The Jumna was only 45 miles north of Cocos Islands when she read a general signal saying that the convoy was being bombarded by Japanese raiders and therefore headed north. Four days later (6 March 1942) she arrived in Colombo where she learned that she had been reported damaged ten days before and as no further news was heard, had been presumed lost. In actual fact the Jumna was the only ship of the “China Force” inside the Java Sea which survived to tell the tale.
On 13 March, the Jumna arrived in Bombay to undergo repairs. On her return to Indian waters, her Commanding Officer received a message from Vice-Admiral Sir Herbert Fitzherbert, Flag Officer Commanding the Royal Indian Navy, conveying his heartiest congratulations on the “first class show that Jumna put
up on February 24th and 28th” when she was in action at Batavia and Sunda Strait. The message added “We are all extremely proud of you”.
Escort Duties in the Bay of Bengal
The Jumna was under repairs in Bombay till 25 April 1942. Then she sailed on escort duty to Colombo. She sailed from Colombo on 3 May to escort the rock breaker Nautilus and arrived at Trincomalee on 8 May towing her. Then she sailed on 14 May arriving at Colombo on the 16th for escort duties in and out of that port. She was based there till 19 June when she sailed for Bombay.
The Sutlej was on escort duty in the Bay of Bengal till the end of January 1942 when she was detained in the ABDA3 area where she remained during the first part of the month. She arrived at Trincomalee on 21 February and left on the 26th for Calcutta. She came back again to Colombo and sailed on 12 March for Calcutta. She was placed at the disposal of the Commodore, Burma Coast. She was on operational duties in the Burma Coast Area till 14 April when she sailed from Calcutta for Colombo to take over escort duties between Colombo and Addu Atoll. The Sutlej sailed from Diego Garcia early in May for Colombo arriving on 8 May. On 12 May she sailed for Cocos Islands returning to Colombo on 22 May. On the 23rd she sailed for Bombay arriving on 30 May for refit. She left Bombay on 6 July and for the rest of the month was on escort duties around Colombo.
Engagements off Rangoon and Akyab
Early in February 1942 British and Indian forces were hard-pressed in Burma. By 22 February these forces had been forced back behind the Sittang River. The threat to Rangoon was developing. Reinforcements were vital, but the dock situation in Rangoon did not permit the acceptance of the complete convoy of 17 ships due there on 21 February by the General Officer Commanding the Burma Coast. Japanese raids had scared all labour from the docks and in fact a large part of the civilian population had left the city, thereby causing great difficulty in maintaining essential services. Most of the convoy had, therefore, to be sent to India, but the 7th Armoured Brigade, one Indian Artillery Regiment, a British battalion and an Auxiliary Pioneer Battalion were landed. HMIS Hindustan (Commander I. B. W. Heanly, RIN) provided escort for this part of the convoy which proceeded to the port of Rangoon.
On the night of 20 February, the convoy was piloted up the Rangoon river in complete darkness. The Hindustan remained at the river mouth on anti-submarine patrol until the forenoon when she proceeded upstream. But owing to an air raid on the port she had to remain under way and did not anchor until sunset. All civilians had evacuated the city. Tanks and other equipment remained unloaded by the army, while RIN personnel assisted in the warehouses and manned local launches.
On 5 March, while patrolling at the mouth of the Rangoon River in company with motor launches manned by Burma RNVR the Hindustan sighted a hostile force near China Bakir attempting to infiltrate in Sampans. Owing to the mud flats she could not approach close enough, but one of the launches captured a boat containing a Japanese officer and 55 armed men of the “Free Burman Army”.
Early next morning, while it was still half dark, the Hindustan noticed three large landing craft about to run on the beach and fired on them, sinking one. On seeing figures running towards the scrub, fire was directed along the foreshore. Wherever the shells exploded groups of Japanese soldiers were seen to scatter and it was believed several casualties were caused among them. The two other hostile landing crafts were later discovered drifting and empty. On the following day, a boat which suddenly appeared out of the fog near the same spot was destroyed with all hands.
With the rapid deterioration in the military situation, decision was taken on 7 March to evacuate Rangoon. The policy was to withdraw all forces northwards to continue resistance in north Burma in conjunction with the Chinese. This was a difficult operation since the Japanese had blocked the Rangoon-Prome road about 26 miles north of Rangoon. However, Indian forces eventually broke through with the help of tanks though not without heavy losses.
The Hindustan provided parties for the destruction of port facilities and for demolishing the docks by means of depth charges. She proved very useful as anti-aircraft guard and in establishing wireless communication between the town and the outside world. After completing the demolition of the docks and oil refineries, a number of small craft carrying evacuees were sailed under the escort of HMIS Hindustan and the United States destroyer Allen. Up to the last moment parties from the Hindustan were employed in scuttling small river vessels to prevent their falling into Japanese hands as well as to obstruct the entry of Japanese ships into the
harbour. The convoy arrived safely at Calcutta on 11 March. Meanwhile, Rangoon had been occupied by the Japanese on 9 March.
With the fall of Rangoon, the position of Akyab and Kyaukpyu on the coast became precarious. The port of Akyab in Arakan was used for evacuating troops and civilians. Many warships took part in these operations, the RIN being represented by the sloops Indus and Sutlej and the auxiliary vessels Haideri, St. Anthony, Sandoway and Selama.
Loss of the Indus
On 5 and 6 April 1942 Akyab was heavily bombed.” HMIS Indus (Commander J. E. N. Coope, RIN) was in Akyab harbour. Four Indian officers against an officer complement of twelve were borne in this ship. She was lying at anchor when three formations of Japanese aircraft coming from different directions attacked her. The first formation dropped a stick of bombs so close to her that it was once thought she had been hit. When, however, the second and the third formations came on and attacked together, the ship did not have much of a chance. She received at least two direct hits, one of them on the engine room, causing severe damage. Another hit caused the ship to settle by the stern. Distress signals were made to HMIS St. Anthony which was nearby but before any help could reach the Indus had capsized. She had put up a very gallant fight against immense odds and went down fighting. By a miracle no lives were lost. An eye witness rightly said that in the face of an attack by 27 bombers and 18 fighters, “we considered we were lucky to have lost only one ship.” There was no way of saving the ship and she sank very soon. Officers and crew were taken on board HMIS St. Anthony (Lieutenant T. R. V. Bird, RINR). On 7 April St. Anthony ran aground on the rocks at the entrance to Akyab harbour. She was refloated and subsequently left Akyab for Calcutta on 18 April 1942.
HMIS “ Sandoway” and HMIS “ Haideri”
HMIS Sandoway (Lieutenant CB. Sutherland, RINR) encountered Japanese forces in the Kaladan River on 3 May and opened fire with her 12-pounder. Machine-gun fire from the Japanese craft hit the wireless transmitter which was put out of action. Shortly afterwards, she was attacked and machine-gunned by four Japanese aircraft. The same morning 27 bombers attacked Akyab, and in the afternoon six fighters attacked the harbour. On 4 May the Sandoway left Akyab for Chittagong – the last ships to leave the port before it fell. With repeated bombings, the approach of
Japanese land forces and the stirring up of the local population, it had become impossible to hold Akyab and so the garrison was withdrawn on 4 May.
In the final stages of the withdrawal, HMIS Haideri (Lieutenant S. Gill, RINR), engaged Japanese batteries in their advance on the port of Akyab. She was a small vessel of 1,500 tons employed for war-time minesweeping and patrol duties.
After the occupation of Rangoon by the Japanese their troops poured northward up the Irrawaddy Valley. HMIS Haideri found herself in the “front line”. She had many jobs to do. One was reconnaissance; another was delivering water and coal to the ships that were supplying and transporting Allied troops in forward areas.
One day, on patrol about 20 miles to the westward of Baronga Island she encountered a country craft carrying 134 Indian evacuees many of whom were women and children. The serang and crew of this craft had been murdered by the Japanese and not one of the 134 souls aboard had the slightest knowledge of navigation. But, rather than remain in Japanese territory, they cast off and put to sea. Luck was with them, although by the time the Haideri hove in sight, they were exhausted by hunger and exposure. The Haideri took them in tow and they were soon put ashore in Akyab.
On 3 May 1942 the Haideri set out on her first offensive mission. She was detailed to bombard Japanese positions along a nine-mile stretch of the Kaladan River. The Japanese saw her coming and sent out seven dive bombers. At 1400 the planes roared down on the Haideri out of the blue and for the next 30 minutes her fate was uncertain. She wriggled between the bomb splashes twisting and turning as her helm was swung hard a port, then hard a starboard. And all the time anti-aircraft guns were blazing away at the swooping bombers. So great were the columns of water thrown up by near misses that the SS Henrick Jessen, lying three miles away assumed that the Haideri was sunk and sent a rescue launch to pick up the survivors. She was amazed to see the little Haideri emerge from the spray and smoke and proceed up the river to carry out her allotted task.
As if, in a fit of revenge, she pounded the Japanese shore positions. To the bomb fragments that littered her deck was added a swiftly mounting pile of empty shell cases, showing her determination to fight to the finish.
Eighteen days later, a brace of Zeroes strafed the Haideri, inflicting only minor wounds on some persons. It was a short,
sharp attack and the raiders made off before she could fire back.
Loss of Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The possession of the coastline of Burma greatly strengthened Japan’s position in the Bay of Bengal and presented a threat to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and even to Ceylon and the east coast of India. On 24 February the landing ground at Port Blair, the only important town and port in the Andamans was bombed by the Japanese. During the next few weeks there were frequent reconnaissance flights over the islands. It was during this period that HMAS Sophie Marie was lost after striking a mine. The British garrison was withdrawn on 12 March. Japanese Forces landed on 23 March. Early in April, six United States “Fortresses” attacked Japanese warships at Port Blair, scoring direct hits on a cruiser and a transport. However, the Nicobar Islands were occupied by the Japanese on 13 June.
Japanese Strength in the Bay of Bengal
The later stages of the Burma Campaign were marked by incursions into the Bay of Bengal by Japanese warships and submarines which resulted in the loss of some merchant ships belonging to the Allies. These raids added to the Royal Indian Navy’s responsibility of protecting India’s coast and shipping. The loss suffered was not great owing to the efficiency of the Naval Staff ashore and personnel afloat. When the Japanese submarines were detected Indian ships went into action to protect the convoys under their charge, and when Japanese aircraft appeared over the coast of Eastern India they met with an effective opposition from naval guns. On 28 January 1942, the paddle steamer Idar was shelled by a submarine off the north coast of Ceylon but there were no casualties. She eventually drifted ashore. At least four ships (mostly merchant vessels) were sunk off the east coast during the month. On 5 February 1942 HMIS Ramdas was attacked. During March 1942 several ships were attacked by submarines. On 12 March two Japanese cruisers with other vessels were sighted near Achin Head and on 30 March two Japanese cruisers with five destroyers were sighted off Port Blair.
A number of Japanese submarines operated in Indian waters during April 1942. On 4 April one battleship, two cruisers, 7 destroyers and four other crafts were sighted 350 miles south-east of Ceylon. On 6 April, four Japanese heavy cruisers, one or two aircraft carriers and a number of lighter units were operating in the
Bay of Bengal. These sank 23 Allied merchant ships, five of His Majesty’s ships and one of His Majesty’s Australian ships.
Loss of Sophie Marie and Lady Craddock
HMIS Sophie Marie and HMIS Lady Craddock were minesweepers. The former was stationed in Port Blair for minesweeping duties, and the latter for local naval defence duties at Calcutta at that time. HMIS Sophie Marie was requisitioned for local naval defence at Bombay on 1 September 1939. From 10 October 1939 till 10 June 1941 she was employed on local naval defence duties at Karachi. After refitment she left for Cochin. On 16 July 1941 she ran aground off Cochin and was refloated the next day. On 4 November 1941 she left Cochin for Colombo and from there went to Calcutta. She proceeded to sea for Pamban on 19 January 1942 and was back in Calcutta after three weeks. On 23 February 1942 she left Calcutta and arrived at Port Blair on the 27th. Immediately on arrival she was berthed alongside the Coaling Jetty (to unload 1,000 bags of coal) and instructed by the then Harbour Master to camouflage the ship as a Japanese air-raid was expected. The Japanese came over Port Blair regularly either at 0930 or at 1430.
The same afternoon she sailed for Car Nicobar arriving there the next morning. The same evening she left for Port Blair. At 0900 next morning (1 March) the ship was tied up at Chattam Jetty and had just disembarked the wireless operator and the police sepoys when she was ordered to go out of the harbour and take shelter somewhere along the coast as a precaution against air attack and to return to the harbour only after 1430. The Commanding Officer decided to go south and shelter in the Macpherson Straits. The ship anchored there at about 1100. At 1345 she weighed anchor and was proceeding out of the Straits when there was a loud explosion as if she had hit a mine. The ship started listing to the port and had to be abandoned. The port lifeboat was lowered without any trouble, but the lowering of the starboard one was difficult due to the ship’s listing. However, it was finally got into the water by S/Lt. R. P. Rahalkar and S/Lt. F. S. Sopher and five ratings. The ship, meanwhile, had listed so much to port that S/Lt. Sopher had to slide down to get from starboard to port and then to step off the boat-deck into the boat.
When the ship started going under, it was seen that its starboard boat too was following her. It was found that the occupants of the boat had forgotten to slip the boat-rope during the panic. But by then, it was too late to do anything. The port lifeboat
waited until the occupants came to the surface and then rowed towards them to pick them up. They had 44 in the boat and rafts tied alongside. They could not take any more and so made towards shore. The tide being on the ebb, the others in the water started drifting out to sea. The port lifeboat landed on the nearest beach (about a mile and a half away) at 1600. S/Lts. Rehalkar and Sopher and five ratings set out to pick up the remaining survivors and had picked up 16 in all from as far as five miles out to sea and then got back to the beach at 0915. They made themselves comfortable for the night after drawing the lifeboat up. The first party landed, had moved further along the coast. The second party joined the former the next morning and learnt that a patrol of six had been sent overland the previous evening to Port Blair to report the unhappy incident. A muster was carried out and it was discovered that a Signalman and a Stoker were missing, neither of whom had been seen by any one from the time the ship hit the mine and sank. Another party of 16 was sent out at 1700 to Port Blair. All they had with them were a barrico of water and a tin of sea-biscuits which were full of weevils. At 1030 on 2 March a launch arrived from Port Blair to collect the survivors, and returned to the port at 1430. The first party that had set out overland arrived the same afternoon whilst the second the following evening after having returned to the beach and taken the lifeboat which had been left behind for such a contingency. They had rowed about 10 miles towards Port Blair before being taken in tow by a launch. Only few had suffered serious injuries, the Commanding Officer being one of them. The majority was unhurt. The ship’s survivors were looked after by the local authorities for the next 11 days and were finally evacuated to Madras on 13 March aboard the SS Neuralia escorted by HMS Enterprise.
It was later found that a military outpost on Rutland Island had seen HMIS Sophie Marie sinking and heliographed a message across to Port Blair. A Board of Enquiry was held at Madras. The Sophie Marie could not be blamed as no warning message regarding the mining of the Macpherson Straits had been received on board. The Japanese occupied the Andamans on 23 March but Commander Waters and a few others were able to escape from Port Blair to India, in a launch.
HMIS Lady Craddock, a fishing trawler of about 80 tons was requisitioned and commissioned at Calcutta on 13 October 1939. After serving there on local naval defence duties till 17 September 1941 she left for Vizagapatam for a few days on patrol. She
returned to Calcutta and resumed her local defence duties which she continued till the next year. She was engaged in minesweeping at Sandheads. On 16 October 1942 she was caught in a severe cyclone wave of thirty feet height while at anchor at Diamond Harbour in River Hooghly, capsized and sank off Haldia River Buoy. The survivors swam ashore after she sank and took shelter on high land and trees.
The Rising Strength of Japanese Sea Power
The Japanese had by then established their operational superiority in the Indian Ocean. In April 1942 five submarines of the “I” class (displacement about 2,000 tons) and two auxiliary cruisers left Penang for the west. The latter acted as supply ships for the submarines and also carried out attacks on merchant ships. During June and July the Japanese submarines worked mainly in the Mozambique Channel where the Allied shipping traffic was dense. In addition, Japanese submarines which were frequenting the coasts of India and Ceylon began to extend their operations to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian coast, and the Gulf of Aden. Towards the end of 1943 they attacked several ships off Bombay, Calicut and Cochin and sank a number of them off the Malabar Coast.