The strategic importance of Ceylon had grown in the Admiralty’s eyes after the sinking of Repulse and the Prince of Wales on December 10, 1941. It began looking further westwards for a naval base. The Eastern Fleet (or East Indies Fleet) withdrew from the Sembawang base in Singapore. After the surrender, the fleet was moved to Trincomalee in Ceylon. Just five days after the sinking of the two ships, Vice Admiral Somerville was told he would be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet. He would arrive in Ceylon only three months later though, less than ten days before the Japanese attacked. He chose the slower and more leisurely route from Britain by an aircraft carrier allocated to his fleet, the HMS Formidable. Before the journey, he spent some time studying the situation and availed of some “well-earned” leave.

The news, as the Formidable made its slow loop around the Cape of Good Hope and approached Ceylon, was anything but encouraging. By then, Japan had quickly dominated the waters east of Singapore. By the time Somerville arrived in Colombo on March 26, it had also advanced westwards, overrunning the Andaman Islands.

Somerville kept his cheer up during the voyage, reporting back to the Lordships at the Admiralty even “events of minor importance” such as the birth of five kittens and how a rat caught in a trap fell on the Captain’s head. (“With the exception of the rat, all are doing well.”) But he was aware of the difficult task he had been given, made even trickier by the fact that a large part of the Eastern Fleet was old and unfit. He wrote to his wife:

I hear a lot of blah about how everything now depends on our maintaining control of the Indian Ocean . . . That’s poor bloody me and I wonder how the devil it is to be accomplished. My own battleboats are in various states of disrepair and there is not a ship at present that approaches what I call a proper standard of fighting efficiency.

Somerville’s flagship was the reconditioned Warspite. The fleet was made up of three venerable aircraft carriers (including the ill-fated Hermes), four ancient battleships and about two dozen cruisers and destroyers. Somerville’s main task was to protect the sea lanes to the Middle East for ships that rounded the Cape of Good Hope and travelled along the east coast of Africa. He and his deputy, Algernon Willis, had realized that they would be unable to withstand a full-scale assault and invasion of Ceylon. The best counter to even a less ambitious attack, they reckoned, was to avoid losses by attrition and refrain from operations that did not have reasonable chances of success.

In short, keep the fleet “in being”; afloat and in readiness. The defence of Ceylon was important but neither he nor the Admiralty wanted to take ‘excessive chances’ with the Eastern Fleet for the sake of Somerville informed the Admiralty and Archibald Wavell, by then the Commander-in-Chief of India, that he was not prepared to use his fleet ‘offensively’ and that there was nothing he could do until it was properly trained. “Damned if I am going to fritter it away in penny numbers . . .” he noted, as he complained about the lack of war experience among his staff officers. “It was all the most amateur party I ever heard of.”

Even so, Somerville, who saw himself as something of a fighting admiral, was not averse to having ‘a good crack’ at the enemy. On March 30, two days after he received intelligence about an approaching Japanese fleet, he set sail south-east of Colombo on the Warspite, accompanied by two aircraft carriers and his mix of cruisers and destroyers. The idea was to head towards the probable launch point of Nagumo’s fleet at night and initiate an unexpected torpedo attack while withdrawing from detection during the day.

But all he encountered over the next few days was a “flat calm” and a scorching sun that left his “face and arms like raw beetroot”. When nothing turned up, Somerville may have concluded that either the intelligence about the fleet was mistaken or that the Japanese were playing a waiting game. The thought that they had abandoned all plans to attack Colombo also crossed his mind.

“I fear they have taken fright which is a pity because if I could have given them a good crack now it would have been very timely.” By April 2, there were far more pressing reasons to abort the mission – his fleet was running out of fuel and water. The aircraft carrier Hermes, its escort, the destroyer Vampire, and two cruisers (Cornwall and Dorsetshire) were sent back to Ceylon. He took the rest of the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives. He would write to his wife: “Now I am off to one of my ruddy Atolls which I understand is the last word in beastliness it.”

Excerpted with permission from The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion, Mukund Padmanabhan, Penguin India.