Of course, the Sonia would have been armed with explosives as well — this adapted light bomber could carry up to around 550 pounds of bombs for kamikaze operations. But these clearly didn’t detonate, and they may well have been torn off the aircraft once it first impacted the water.
The War Zone spoke to Mike Yeo, author of Desperate Sunset: Japan’s kamikazes against Allied ships, 1944–45, who has identified the particular unit from which the Ki-51 was drawn. This was an Imperial Japanese Army Air Force training establishment based in northern Malaya, where it was preparing to try and repulse an expected Allied invasion of Malaya and Singapore, and it was involved in several waves of attacks against Allied warships on the 26th.
In Yeo’s account, it was the first Ki-51 that was successfully shot down by the anti-aircraft guns on Sussex, while the second managed to press home its attack, striking the vessel and leaving its imprint on its hull. His findings include reports of “dents, scrapes, and scorch marks on the side of its hull,” together with the possibility, at least, that the aircraft’s fixed undercarriage impacted the water prior to impact.
A colorized image of the kamikaze impact on HMS Sussex:
That there is still some confusion surrounding the exact sequence of events of the attack on HMS Sussex is hardly surprising, given the chaos of a kamikaze raid.
While this particular suicide raider was unsuccessful, it’s worth noting, too, that another Sonia pressed home its attack on the Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Vestal on the same day, causing critical damage and killing 20 of the ship’s crew. This would be the last British naval vessel to be lost to enemy action during World War II.
In another strange twist to the HMS Sussex’s campaign, one sailor, George Coyne, later recalled that a Japanese ship was sunk, too, leaving around 20 survivors in the water. “One of our ships, at great risk to themselves, stopped to rescue them,” Coyne said, “Without exception, they refused help and so drowned.”
Less than a month after the attack, Japan had surrendered, the commander of the Japanese garrison in Singapore, General Seishirō Itagaki, signing the surrender documents on behalf of the army aboard the Sussex on September 5, 1945.
“Thank God for the bomb,” Coyne wrote in his diary at the time. “We should now get home safely.”
As it is, this haunting image from the attack on HMS Sussex stands testimony to the brutality of the Pacific campaign and the fine line between those ships that survived to fight another day, and those that would not.
With thanks to Mike Yeo, who you can follow on Twitter here.
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