Allied naval forces, those that had not been destroyed anyway, were withdrawn. The British Eastern Fleet had withdrawn to the British colony of Ceylon, a large island off the coast of India. The fleet was weak, but was being reinforced by warships transferred from other areas. Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed to command this fleet.
The Japanese wasted no time in making plans to continue their offensive actions against the British. They planned to deploy a large, powerful naval force into the Indian ocean to attack shipping and to attack the British base at Ceylon. They hoped to destroy the remnants of the British Eastern Fleet as well. On March 26, 1942, the large Japanese force, consisting of six aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, Zuikaku), four fast battleships (Kongo, Haruna, Hiei, Kirishima), three cruisers (Tone, Chikuma, Abukuma), and numerous destroyers, departed its base in the Dutch East Indies under command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.
Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo,
commander of the Japanese striking force.
Japanese carrier Akagi, flagship of Vice Admiral Nagumo.
Japanese carrier Kaga.
Japanese carrier Soryu.
Japanese carrier Hiryu
Japanese carrier Shokaku.
Japanese carrier Zuikaku.
Japanese battleship Kongo.
Japanese battleship Haruna.
Japanese battleship Hiei.
Japanese battleship Kirishima.
Japanese Heavy Cruiser Tone.
Japanese heavy cruiser Chikuma.
Japanese light cruiser Abukuma.
Japanese destroyer Akigumo.
British carrier Formidable.
British carrier Indomitable.
The small British carrier Hermes.
British battleship Warspite, flagship of
Admiral Sir James Somerville,
underway in the Indian Ocean.
British battleship Revenge.
British battleship Resolution.
British battleship Ramilles.
British battleship Royal Sovereign and
sister ships underway pre-war.
British heavy cruiser Cornwall, shown
British heavy cruiser Dorsetshire.
British light cruiser Emerald.
British light cruiser Enterprise.
British light cruiser Dragon.
British light cruiser Caledon.
Dutch light cruiser Jacob van Heemskerk,
attached to British Eastern Fleet.
British destroyer Hotspur.
British destroyer Paladin.
British corvette Hollyhock, a companion to
carrier Hermes when she was attacked and sunk
by Japanese naval aircraft. The Hollyhock was also sunk.
The Japanese attack on Ceylon failed to materialize on either April 1st or April 2nd as expected, although a smaller, independent Japanese force had attacked and sunk several merchant ships in the Bay of Bengal. Lacking current or accurate information as to the location of the main Japanese fleet, Admiral Somerville decided to return to Addu Atoll to re-fuel and to allow the Revenge class battleships to take on more water. He decided to send the small carrier Hermes back to Trincomalee for some needed repairs, escorted by heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire and the Australian destroyer Vampire. Hermes and Vampire arrived at Trincomalee while the two heavy cruisers were diverted to Colombo.
On the evening of April 4th, a catalina flying boat search plane operating from Ceylon located the Japanese fleet approximately 400 miles South of Ceylon. Somerville ordered the Cornwall and Dorsetshire to leave Colombo and rejoin his Force A at best speed. The next morning, April 5th, the Japanese launched a large air attack on Colombo, Ceylon consisting of 125 bombers escorted by 36 Zero fighter aircraft. The Japanese attacked and destroyed much of the shipping remaining in the harbor, including the immobilized destroyer H.M.S. Tenedos and the armed merchant cruiser H.M.S. Hector.
British destroyer Tenedos, which was sunk
in the harbor at Colombo, Ceylon during the Japanese air attack.
British heavy cruiser Cornwall, on fire,
listing, and sinking after being attacked by
Japanese aircraft. Sister ship Dorsetshire was
also sunk in this same attack.
Admiral Sir James Somerville,
commander of the British Eastern Fleet.
British carrier Hermes sinking after taking
at least 40 hits when being attacked by
Japanese naval aircraft.
The results clearly indicated that the Japanese had superior aircraft and used superior tactics compared to their British adversaries. Japanese warships were also faster, and many were more modern than their British counterparts. The British admirality deemed Ceylon to be too dangerous to continue serving as the Eastern Fleet's front line base. On April 9th, Force A was withdrawn from Addu Atoll to Bombay, India, arriving April 13th, while Force B was withdrawn to the East coast of Africa, arriving April 15th. For the next two and a half years, the activities of the British Eastern Fleet would be primarily reduced to escorting convoys, and the most modern ships were withdrawn from the Indian Ocean and sent to other theaters for duty there. It would not be until 1944 that the British Eastern Fleet was again reinforced with modern warships and began planning and undertaking limited offensive operations against the Japanese, who by then had been substantially weakened from the unrelenting assault they were under from the advancing United States military forces.