5th March 1943
They called it the Massacre of Bengal in the histories that were later written about the war and it was not one of the British Empire’s greatest moments. A day of fire, havoc and misery that left the Royal Navy with plenty of egg on its face!
It all started in the deep of night with three submarine strikes at the doors to Diamond Harbour. Two different enemy submarines attacked and sank three British merchants on the regular Cape Town-Calcutta supply run. Despite the presence of aerial ASW efforts and a brace of DE’s on patrol, one of the attacks was on the surface! Despite the tonnage lost these ships were on the outward journey and thus had empty cargo holds!
Yet this was just the harbringer of more destruction! A pair of old light crusiers had run the gauntlet of aerial search and had thrust deep into the Bay of Bengal like a rapier searching for easy prey. Easy prey was to be had! Using the dark night as its best early these torpedo laden ships tore into TF 59 with a devasting torpedo salvo that sank three ships barely 2 minutes into the action. Panic and confusion was sown as the brave merchant mariners went from a peaceful journey into a hellish night of fire and death. Accompanied by a destroyer the two cruisers proceeded to sink all 6 ships in TF 59. 25,200 tons of Brtish shipping, full to the brim with supplies for the bombers in India went to the cold, dark bottom of the Bay of Bengal.
The Hunt was to be a good one as after destroying TF 59 the Japanese ships steered NNE and stumbled upon a second convoy, TF 126 leaving Calcutta having already run the gauntlet of Japanese submarines. This time it was the main batteries on the Japanese ships that did the damage sinking 5 ships leaving the pitiful, few survivors to the mercy of the sea. All in all another 22,000 tons of shipping was lost was barely a scratch on the Japanese ships. Righteous fury was directed at Eastern Command at Colombo, where RN warships sat pennants fluttering in the breeze! For the Merchant Navy it was a disaster beyond reckoning and the full extent of it was not publicly revealed until after the war.
As the sun rose every single plane on the Indian seaboard was scouring the sea to locate the enemy ships and sure enough a solid lock was soon fixed on their location, steaming south east just off Chittagong. Another task force of three destroyers was also spotted at Akyab, no doubt unloading supplies to the garrison on the island. Beauforts, Libeartors and Mitchells all took a pop at the enemy ships but revenge was not to be forthcoming. It was only a USAAF attack on the ships at Akyab that scored the only hit on the enemy ships with one 500lb bomb hitting a destroyer.