The Most Dangerous Moment of the War


In early April 1942, a little-known chapter of World War II took place, said by Sir Winston Churchill to be the most dangerous moment of the war when the Japanese made their only major offensive westwards into the Indian Ocean. Historian, Sir Arthur Bryant said, ‘A Japanese naval victory in April 1942 would have given Japan total control of the Indian Ocean, isolated the Middle East and brought down the Churchill government.’

War in the Far East had erupted with the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 and it appeared that the British naval bases at Ceylon would be next. The Japanese had a vast new coastline to defend, stretching from New Guinea to Northern Burma, and having destroyed the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, could not accept the threat of the British Eastern Fleet based at Ceylon.

Occupation of Ceylon was vital as it was a springboard into India. Without control of Ceylon, essential convoys from India to Europe and the Western Desert would be in constant danger and Allied naval strength in the Far East was at a dangerously low level. With the Japanese forces seeming unstoppable, the Indian Ocean lay open and undefended.

So far the Japanese had suffered no significant losses and the offensive continued unabated as they steamed westward, unopposed. It was generally felt Ceylon would be next to fall. It was a situation that could not be allowed to happen but the question on everyone s lips was how soon would Japan take advantage of this strategic situation.

After the war Churchill acknowledged that the potential disaster at Ceylon had been averted by the brave actions of one pilot, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall who in flying his Catalina flying boat on a regular patrol, spotted the Japanese warships massing some 350 miles from Ceylon. He was spotted by the Japanese whose aircraft shot him down but before so doing, Birchall sent a brief radio message back to his base. This gave the island s defence forces sufficient time to prepare for the attack and to disperse the British fleet out to sea. Churchill acknowledged that this pilot had made one of the most important single contributions to our victory.

John Clancy tells the story of the events of this dramatic but little known episode in which a major catastrophe was only narrowly averted, but in which over a thousand mainly British lives were lost, including the sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire.

John Clancy masterfully combines the strategic overview, the tactical decision making and many personal experiences to bring this episode of the war to life. This excerpt focuses on the extraordinarily quick series of events leading to the sinking of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall:

Both Captain Agar on the Dorsetshire and Captain Manwaring on the Cornwall had detected a second shadowing seaplane on their radar but as it was on the limits of the horizon, they were not unduly concerned by its presence. Both ships expected to be under the protection of air cover from the aircraft of Formidable and Indomitable by 2pm.

In their estimation it was unlikely they were within the immediate range of the ‘carrier-borne aircraft of the Japanese fleet so it came as something of a shock to discover the accepted estimated range of the Japanese aircraft was considerably wide of the mark. Erring on the side of caution, both ships’ companies went to action stations and pressed on at full speed to rejoin the rest of the British fleet.

The Dorsetshire was slightly faster than her sister-ship Cornwall so she slowed down to 27 1/2 knots (Cornwall ’s maximum) in order that the two cruisers could stay together for added protection. It was a calm day with little or no cloud, there was a slight haze over the sun and visibility was good. At about 11am a single aircraft was sighted by the lookouts of the Cornwall, flying about 20 miles astern but was lost from sight before it could be identified. This was reported to the Dorsetshire.

Shortly after 1pm a number of radar contacts were picked up by both cruisers but it was thought there was a strong likelihood they were our own aircraft that both the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire had been expecting. Until now radio silence had been observed in accordance with the orthodox principle adopted by the Royal Navy for ships at sea but on this occasion radio silence was broken to notify Admiral Somerville of the cruisers’ position, to report the enemy shadowing them and the possibility of an air attack.

The message was received in a mutilated form at about 2pm and was identified as coming from the Dorsetshire but by then, it was too late for Somerville to help; both cruisers had been sunk. Somerville immediately changed course to a southerly bearing when he heard of the threat to the two cruisers but when he later heard they had both been sunk, reversed his course in pursuit of the Japanese fleet.

At 134Ohrs three aircraft were spotted by the lookouts of the Dorsetshire, flying at a high altitude directly overhead. Assuming them to be hostile she opened fire but within a few seconds they were seen to be diving on the Cornwall, a mile to port.

Simultaneously a separate formation of three aircraft attacked the Dorsetshire. She swung to starboard but all three bombs struck their target and by 1348hrs she had sunk; she was closely followed at about 1400hrs by the Cornwall. The radar aboard Somerville’s flagship, Warspite had itself picked up the formation of Japanese aircraft at 1344hrs, flying some 84 miles away to the north-east but they posed no threat and soon faded from the screen. It was later realised this was the strike force heading for the two cruisers.

Captain Agar later commented that the reason for the Japanese success in sinking the Dorsetshire and the Cornwall was no doubt due to their clever tactics of attacking with the sun behind them (hence the shout adopted by many pilots during the Battle of Britain, ‘Beware of the Hun in the Sun’) and approaching the ship from ahead, the cruiser’s blind spot for anti-aircraft defences. The two cruisers had unknowingly helped the japanese pilots by being on a southerly course at the time of the attack.

Typical of this frustration at not being able to fire back at the attacking aircraft, on the Dorsetshire Ray Lock was manning a ‘pom-pom’ gun (an automatic rapid-firing, small-calibre, 20-40mm, anti-aircraft gun) amidships and was fuming at the hopelessly restricted field of fire. Suddenly, as a bomb struck, he was flung to the deck some ten feet below him.

Shaken but appearing to be uninjured, he got to his feet intent on returning to his gun platform only to see only two black stumps remaining of what had once been the twin gun barrels. The rest of the crew in that area were either dead or badly wounded. It was only later that Ray noticed a squelching sound coming from his shoes which were filled with blood. He then realized that he was seriously wounded in the chest and legs.

The bombs fell in quick succession, accurately striking the ship’s aircraft catapult, the wireless telegraph installation near the bridge, and the engine and boiler rooms. Her guns blazed away in defiance but one by one were put out of action. With her steering jammed hard to starboard, the ship swung in a wide circle until she shuddered to a halt. Suddenly there was an explosion as a bomb hit one of the magazines. The valve on the ship’s siren was shot away and its haunting, plaintive wail added to the confusion and din. Eight minutes after the first bomb struck, the Dorsetshire’s bow rose high above the sea and within seconds she slid beneath the waves, a victim of seventeen well—aimed bombs.

Simultaneously, much the same fate befell the Cornwall when Japanese dive-bombers struck at 1.40pm with the first bomb striking her port side, astern. She swung evasively to starboard as gun crews blazed away, but several were wiped out. It is one of my lasting childhood memories that my dad, Charlie Clancy, a Stoker PO on the Cornwall often told us that because he was deep down in the bowels of the ship, working the boilers, he and his shipmates were unaware they were being attacked. When told about it their first reaction was, ‘Well if anything happens, at least the Dorsetsbire is close by to help us’. Imagine their horror when told, ‘There’s not much she can do. She went down five minutes ago.’

First Lieut. Geoffrey Grove later described his recollections of the attack. “We watched the planes like hawks, and as the bombs showered down, we flung ourselves down on our faces. If the hit was close by, you were bounced like a ball. We had three hits almost directly under us and for one of them I was standing up and was enveloped in a great sheet of flame. I thought it was the end of me but my clothing saved me and I was unhurt.

We took something like fifteen hits in about seven minutes and the poor old girl took on a bigger list than ever and started to settle. When I could do no more up top, I went below to help put out the fires and throw red-hot ammunition into the sea. We got all the fires out quite easily. By this time the ship was obviously sinking and some of the men were launching the floats.”

In not wishing to over-glamorise the situation Grove added that there were some very nasty sights to be seen that day which were far too harrowing to describe. Grove then tells how having got the wounded over the side, he joined them, swam clear of the sinking ship and turned around to witness her final moments. Cornwall sank bows first, then her stern rose up high in the air and as she slid down, one propeller was still slowly revolving.

With both cruisers now sinking, the Japanese aircraft formed up into squadrons and flew past in perfect formation. To the relief of the survivors, they flew away. Most expected to be strafed in the water.

Survivors later recalled counting the enemy aircraft and said there were 27 dive-bombers and one seaplane but Captain Manwaring of the Cornwall was of the opinion the figure was nearer 36 or more; Captain Agar of the Dorsetshire suggested it was closer to 50, possibly more. In the heat of battle and its aftermath no one can be sure.

The attack on both ships had taken just nineteen minutes. The first dive- bombers had been sighted, already in a dive at 1346hrs and by 1405hrs both ships had vanished beneath the waves. In the attack Egusa’s dive- bombers established an all-time record in bombing accuracy with every bomb either hitting its target or scoring a damaging near miss. The explosions came so quickly that many pilots could not see whether they had actually released their bomb load or not. It was only after they had completed the attack and formed up into formation the pilots could check each other’s bomb racks to ensure they were not still armed.