The Oil Tank Farm of Trincomalee was built by the British but was never used in full capacity after independence as a forgotten marvel lost in time and absorbed by the jungles. This is a hidden landmark to the public eye but provides a spectacular aerial view creating 101 random circles covering 850 acres, like eggs of a giant alien waiting to be hatched from a sci-fi movie. Most of this land is covered by scrub jungle teaming with wildlife including elephants and leopards.
Trincomalee harbour being the second deepest natural harbour in the world (the first being Sydney), the British who were in control of the island decided to make this as their primary logistics station in the east after World War I. They started the oil storage project in 1924 and completed in late 1930’s. The dates engraved in some metal piping indicate dates as far back as 1937. The farm had 101 storage tanks built with 1 inch thick steel sheets and the tanks near the harbour are enclosed by 1 feet thick concrete rings.
Remnants of the pump assembly located at the outlet of each tank still stands solid and firm connected to the manifold. The notable fact of the supply manifolds is that each tank is fed through gravity, that no special pumping was required from the ship and the incoming fuel could be sent directly to the tank, thanks to the individualised manifold arrangement. The mechanism of this now lies under layers of earth and remains lost in time. The inlet and drain feeds were filtered ensuring a clean supply of fuel. However, the manifold arrangement is such that it was most economical to store furnace oil, which was the main fuel used by ships.
The complex was designed with all security features in mind. Each and every tank was built in a basin carved into the earth, where the bunds between act as a natural rampart. The construction is not welded and is riveted instead with multiple rows of rivets. Legend has it that labourers were brought in from British African colonies to complete the work. Altogether 102 tanks were built with tank number 100 being omitted. Probably out of superstition, the tank site was cleared but construction never took place.
Each tank could hold 12,000 tonnes of fuel and has a astonishing total capacity of over 1.2 million tonnes. This dwarfs the CPC’s existing storage facility and even the new storage complex built by the Chinese at Muthurajawela, which has a capacity of 200,000 tonnes.
The complex fell into disuse after the British left the Island and the tanks were slowly left at the mercy of nature. It is sad to note that some solid steel girders and piping have been cut away probably by unscrupulous vendors seeking the metal. Nevertheless, many tanks still possess the complete mechanism, which remain locked and frozen in time. The dried and splintered level indicators remain weather weary but the majestic look when it did serve its purpose is still evident upon close inspection.
The government owned CPC used only 15 tanks in the lower tank farm close to the sea until the farm was handed over to the Indian oil giant IOC in 2002. The IOC too used only these tanks while others were forgotten in the jungles.
Out of the 101 tanks one of the tanks was destroyed when a Royal Ceylon Air Force plane crashed in early 1960’s. The steel has long since been removed with only the concrete cover remaining.
The tank complex was one of the key targets of the Japanese air raids in 1942.
Easter Sunday 1942, the Ceylonese capital city of Colombo had been subjected to a brutal air raid by a swarm of Mitsubishi A06 Zero Fighters. Ever since, the citizens of this tiny island, shaken by the collapse of its flimsy defences erected by its imperial British colonial masters, lived a jittery existence of many sleepless nights expecting the fierce onslaught of a fearsome Japanese Imperial Army.
9th of April 1942 at 7.00 AM, the Japanese unleashed their first attack on Trincomalee with ninety-one bombers and thirty-eight fighter aircraft. However, in contrast to Easter Sunday’s raid, the RAF at China Bay had received some advanced warning and already had a meagre aerial force scouring the skies for enemy aircraft. But it proved to be no avail.
The fierce dog fight that ensued over the skies of Trincomalee that day claimed countless lives in air, sea and ground with damage to fuel installations, ammunition dumps, vehicles on the ground, ships at the harbour and aircraft that dropped from the sky like flaming meteors. One Japanese aircraft, flown by Shigenori Watanabe, Tukyagoto and Sutomu Toshira is claimed to have committed suicide by crashing their plane into one of the British Navy’s massive oil storage tanks, tank number 91, which happened to be fully filled at that time. This plane was later verified to be a Type 97 Kate Bomber which was shot down by ground fire.
The resulting fire that broke out lasted for seven days and generated so much heat that the steel melted and rolled over on itself. The rusted wreckage of the engine is all that can be seen of the aircraft that is now on display at the Air Force Museum in Colombo. Only a skull was recovered out of the remains of the passengers of the aircraft.
Since this tank farm is under the control of IOC, permission is required to visit the Tank Number 91.
Many of the other air craft from both sides of the fight fell into the deep Trincomalee Harbour. They included Japanese Zero’s as well as six Hawker Hurricanes and one Fairey Fulmer.
At 24 Meters depth, in the Trincomalee Harbour, the remains of one of these aircrafts still can be found.
It is hardly of its former self; remnants scattered over two sites close by over the rocks. One site appears to be pieces of wing while the other the main air frame. It is supposedly a Japanese Zero. But doubts remain based on its size and shape. There is a high probability that this is one of the eight Hawker Hurricanes that crashed into the Harbour.
This dive site is only accessible through the Sober Island Resort within the Trincomalee Naval Bay. The one of a kind resort is owned and run by the Sri Lankan Navy.
True to being a war time establishment, the complex even had its own air defences. On the summit of one of the hillocks of the complex the remnants of an air defence gun point can be found. With a 360° panoramic view, this small emplacement provided vital support including fortifications for shelter in case of an attack.
Part of the complex that is closer to the shore has now been revived and is being used for commercial storage of fuel. However, the major share of the tanks still remain locked in the jungle and whether it will remain lost in time is perhaps a question that will have to be kept for the future.