“The most dangerous moment of the war”, Japan’s Attack on the Indian Ocean, 1942

The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.

Winston Chruchill— From a conversation at the British Embassy, Washington, D.C

The book starts with the background to the Pacific war specifically the things leading up to Japan’s declaration of war attack on Pearl Harbor. I’m not entirely certain that this chapter fits that well with the subject of the book. However it is a very good description of the events leading up to Japan’s decision to declare war and why they attacked Pearl Harbor as the first strike of the war.

The book then covers the general state of Allied preparations covering the Indian Ocean in detail. The fact that the Allied forces in the Indian Ocean would be completely out of their depth if the main Japanese carrier force came their way was not lost on them. It also covers not only the military actions but also the political machinations behind-the-scenes and how these impacted the military preparations.

Overall the book moves from large, big picture details down to finer detail as the Japanese draw closer to Ceylon. As the book talks about reconnaissance missions to try and locate the Japanese fleet it is naming specific pilots and the missions in several places. As the Japanese fleet drew closer to Ceylon the level of detail increases with each individual airstrike and the Allied response to them being discussed. Admittedly the air battle was quite one-sided with a handful of RAF fighters unable to do much to stop the cream of the Japanese Navy.

The loss of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire is covered in great detail as you would expect considering the authors father was a survivor from HMS Cornwall. The description of their sinking indicates just how good the Japanese dive bombers really were. Interestingly the author describes a missed opportunity by the Japanese to locate the rest of the British fleet in the Indian Ocean. The book contains several personal stories by survivors of the two ships which give a real feel to what it was like to be there.

The book describes the follow up attacks against Ceylon and other ships. The sinking of HMS Hermes is covered in quite a lot of detail and the fact that she sank close enough to Ceylon that some survivors swam the 5 miles to shore.

Chapter 8, “The sequel and its aftermath”, and onward is basically conclusions and the final thoughts about the Japanese foray into the Indian Ocean. The final chapter asking whether this was a victory or defeat for the for the allies is a good question as in many ways it can be both, but whatever it may be seen as it is because the Japanese wanted it that way rather than because of the allies actions. The Japanese didn’t occupy so long because they didn’t want to, but there was nothing to stop them if that had been the plan.

I found this book to be a very good read and with all the details of the military actions of April 1942 it was very hard to put down. It is an excellent description of the Japanese raid into the Indian Ocean in 1942 and is recommended to anyone wanting to know more about this operation.

If you go here and click on the Book cover you can read a sample of the book.


  1. Introduction
  2. The background to the conflict
  3. The Allied response
  4. Political Divisions as Ceylon Prepares
  5. The events of Easter 1942
  6. The Loss of the Cornwall, the Dorsetshire and other ships
  7. Survivor’s stories
  8. Nagumo follows up with Trincomallee and more ships are sunk
  9. The sequel and its aftermath
  10. Victory or Defeat
  11. A Poem by Emlyn Parry, a former seaman of HMS Dorsetshire
  12. Further Reading
  13. Index


From the publisher’s website:

In early April 1942, a little-known episode 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 Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed in succession by Japanese drives on the Philippines, Indochina, the Java Sea and Singapore. Seemingly unstoppable, the Japanese now had a vast new empire, and having crippled the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, turned their sights on the British Eastern Fleet based at Ceylon. Occupation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) would not only provide the Japanese a springboard into India but control of the essential convoy routes to Europe and the Western Desert. And aside from the British Eastern Fleet, the Indian Ocean lay undefended.

So far the Japanese had suffered no significant losses and the question on everyone’s lips was how soon the enemy would appear off India. In April 1942 a Japanese fleet led by six aircraft carriers, four battleships and 30 other ships sailed into the Bay of Bengal. After the war Churchill said that potential disaster was averted by the actions of one pilot, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, who in his Catalina flying boat spotted the Japanese warships massing some 350 miles from Ceylon. He was shot down by a Japanese Zero but not before sending a brief radio message back to his base. This gave the island’s defense forces time to prepare.

In the ferocious battles that followed, the British lost a carrier, two heavy cruisers and many other ships; however, the Japanese eventually turned back, never to sail against India again. John Clancy, whose father survived the sinking of HMS Cornwall during the battle, tells the story of this dramatic but little known campaign in which a major Allied catastrophe was only narrowly averted.

John Clancy is an experienced author of over fifteen local history books and holds an MA in archaeology and heritage from the University of Leicester. His father was a survivor of the sinking of HMS Cornwall, and later in life he met another survivor who provided many missing links in the story.

The details of the book are:

  • Authors: John Clancy
  • Publication date: November 2015
  • Publisher :Casemate UK
  • Language:English
  • Illustration :16 pages photos
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • ISBN: 9781612005331
  • Costs £12.99 ($16.95 at today’s exchange rate) from the Publisher’s UK website
  • Also available at Casemate in the US

This is an essential book to have on your shelf to use for Luftwaffe colour references.

Many thanks to Casemate for sending the book along for review.

Paul Tosney – Editor
ModelBuilder International

Paul Tosney

Paul has been with Model Builder International since almost the beginning. He started building models as a boy, and took a hiatus, but started building again a few years ago. He builds pretty much anything, but mostly WW2, with a smattering of modern and the occasional SciFi model.


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