Indian Ocean

Relief map of Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean was a British lake at the start of the Pacific War, but this quickly changed. The destruction of Force Z and subsequent fall of Singapore exposed the Indian Ocean to raids by Japanese naval forces. The British responded by transferring significant heavy forces to Ceylon, but these were mostly older, obsolescent ships — all that the British could spare from the struggle in Europe and the Atlantic.

As it turned out, the British and Japanese refrained from a showdown in the Indian Ocean. The British could do little more than defend India, while the Japanese hesitated to commit to a long campaign against the British while an active U.S. Pacific Fleet remained at their backs. The Japanese staged a major carrier raid in the spring of 1942, and destroyed much shipping, but turned back after failing to bring the main British fleet to battle.

As a result, the British were able to continue shipping troops and equipment to the African front around the Cape of Good Hope, and to ship oil from the Iraqi fields back the other way; but they were unable to seriously threaten the Japanese position in the Netherlands East Indies until quite late in the war.

Operation "C": The Indian Ocean Raid

Following the collapse of Allied resistance in southeast Asia, the Japanese Navy decided to stage a carrier raid on British positions in the Indian Ocean. The strategic thinking behind this operation was rather muddled. Yamamoto had originally pushed a plan to seize Hawaii, but when detailed study showed that this was beyond the resources of the Navy, the Combined Fleet staff worked up an alternate strategy of seizing Ceylon so as to drive Britain completely out of Asia. However, Germany expressed little interest in a combined effort against south Asia, and the Japanese Army was more interested in finishing off China and preparing to move against Siberia. The Japanese Navy scaled its plan back to a major carrier raid, which was rather pointless given that there were now no plans for any amphibious landings and the Far East Fleet posed no real threat. Nagumo sailed with five fleet carriers and their escorts from Staring Bay on 26 March 1942.

Following the destruction of Force Z, the British had rushed five battleships and three cruisers to Ceylon to defend India. Though the battleships were obsolete World War I ships, the fleet was now led by a first-rate commander, James Somerville. By the time he took command, on 28 March 1942, the Far East Fleet consisted of the five battleships, eight cruisers, two modern and one ancient aircraft carrier, fifteen destroyers, and five submarines. That same day, intelligence reported the sortie by the Japanese into the Indian Ocean. Somerville was well aware that his small carrier force was no match for Nagumo's task force, and he put to sea immediately with the intention of trying to lure the Japanese into a night action where his battleships would presumably give him the advantage.

Three days of searching failed to turn up the Japanese force, and Somerville was forced to take his fleet to Addu Atoll to replenish their fresh water supply. (His old battleships had balky fresh water condensers for the boilers.) Somerville also sent the small carrier Hermes and two cruisers back to Colombo, the Hermes to embark her aircraft (which had been left behind in the rush to clear the harbor) and the cruisers for much-needed dockyard work.

Unfortunately, the Japanese were still in the area. Nagumo's force was spotted south of Ceylon, and Somerville rushed back to try to engage. Meanwhile Nagumo launched a massive raid against Colombo that found few worthwhile targets. The British lost 31 aircraft and the Japanese nine. However, by the time the strike force had landed and rearmed, scout planes from Tone had spotted the two British cruisers making for Colombo. They were sunk in short order.

The British located Nagumo's force later in the day and attempted to close for a night engagement. However, Nagumo headed east to avoid contact. The next morning, the roles were reversed as the British fled to the west to avoid a carrier strike. By April 6 the Japanese had given up on the British fleet and moved to attack Trincomalee. Base facilities were severely damaged, and Hermes was sunk along with escorting destroyer Vampire when they returned prematurely to the harbor. The Trincomalee radar gave warning of the raid, and for the first time in the war Nagumo's air groups suffered more casualties than they inflicted: 24 Japanese aircraft were lost, versus 11 British.

The British counterattacked with nine Blenheim bombers. These approached from the rear, in a blind zone of Hiryu's experimental radar, and dropped all their bombs before the Japanese fighters could react. None of the bombs hit, and five of the bombers were subsequently shot down.

While these operations took place, Ozawa with Ryujo and six cruisers sank 23 merchant ships in the Bay of Bengal.

Somerville now decided to retreat to the east coast of Africa, abandoning the eastern Indian Ocean to the Japanese. He was unaware that Nagumo had already set course for Japan for a much-needed refit.

Japanese order of battle, 26 March 1942

Carrier Strike Force (Nagumo)       Also described as Kido Butai  ("Strike Force"). The aircraft strengths here are nominal values. Actual strength was likely reduced by unreplaced combat and operational losses.
  Elements, Carrier Division 1 (Nagumo)     
Kaga was in Japan with engine trouble.

  CV Akagi

  18 A6M Zero

27 B5N Kate

18 D3A Val

Carrier Division 2 (Yamaguchi)

CV Hiryu

21 A6M Zero

21 B5N Kate

21 D3A Val

CV Soryu

21 A6M Zero

21 B5N Kate

21 D3A Val

Carrier Division 5 (Hara)

CV Shokaku

18 A6M Zero

27 B5N Kate

27 D3A Val

CV Zuikaku

18 A6M Zero

27 B5N Kate

27 D3A Val

DD Akigumo

Battleship Division 3 (Mikawa) On loan from First Fleet

BB Kongo

BB Hiei

BB Kirishima

BB Haruna

Cruiser Division 8 (Abe) On loan from Second Fleet

CA Tone

CA Chikuma

Elements, Destroyer Squadron 1 (Omori) On loan from First Fleet

CL Abukuma

Destroyer Division 17

DD Hamakaze

DD Isokaze

DD Tanakaze

DD Urikaze

Destroyer Division 18 On loan from DesRon2

DD Kagero

DD Shiranuhi

DD Kasumi

DD Arare

Elements, Destroyer Squadron 4
On loan from Second Fleet

Elements, Destroyer Division 4

DD Maikaze

DD Hagikaze

Malay Force (Ozawa)

CA Chokai

Cruiser Division 7 (Kurita)

CA Kumano

CA Mikuma

CA Mogami

CA Suzuya

Carrier Division 4 (Kakuta)

CVL Ryujo

16 B5N Kate

Destroyer Squadron 3

CL Yura

Destroyer Division 11
Replaced by DesDiv 20 on 3-4 April 1942

DD Fubuki

DD Shirayuki

DD Hatsuyuki

DD Murakumo

Submarine Force

SS I-2

SS I-3

SS I-4

SS I-6

SS I-7

British order of battle, 26 March 1942

Far East Fleet (Somerville)    

  Force A (Somerville) Fast class

BB Warspite

Aircraft Carriers (Boyd)

CV Indomitable

9 Sea Hurricane

12 Fulmar

24 Albacore

CV Formidable

16 Martlet

21 Albacore

1 Swordfish


CA Cornwall

CA Dorsetshire

CL Emerald

CL Enterprise


DD Napier

DD Nestor

DD Paladin

DD Panther

DD Hotspur

DD Foxhound

Force B (Willis)

CVL Hermes

814 Squadron

12 Swordfish


BB Resolution

BB Ramilles

BB Royal Sovereign

BB Revenge


CL Dragon

CL Caledon

CL Jacob Van Heemskerck


DD Griffin

DD Norman

DD Arrow

DD Vampire

DD Decoy

DD Fortune

DD Scout

DD Isaac Sweers

All aircraft counts for Colombo are lower limits.

DD Tenedos

15 Hurricane

2 PBY Catalina

4 Fulmar

9 Blenheim


6 Swordfish

17 Hurricane

6 Fulmar

Subsequent Operations

Yamamoto intended to station a powerful cruiser-destroyer force in Burma to carry out a commerce raiding campaign against the British in the Indian Ocean while the Japanese Navy carried out its Second Operation Phase against the Americans. These plans were dropped following the landings at Guadalcanal and the cruisers redeployed to participate in the campaign to retake Guadalcanal.


Costello (1981)

Dull (1978)

Lundstrom (2006)

Muir (accessed 2007-9-5)

Prados (1995)

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