By: Air Vice Marshal Ravi Arunthavanathan RWP,RSP,VSV,USP,MSc.,psc.,SLAF (Retd)
His Royal Highness, The Duke of Cambridge KG GT, more familiar to us as Prince William, from Kensington Palace eulogizing on the Royal Air Force (RAF) Centenary, drawing attention to his great grandfather, His Majesty King George VI (then Prince Albert) who as an instructor at Cranwell in early 1918, mentions being the first ‘Royal’ pilot, forging a strong link with the Service since then. Not only his great grandfather, but his own father, uncles donned ‘Wings’ though may be of different hues.
As one who had served in the RAF as a full time member with stints even to Afghanistan on operational duty, he was eminently suited to acclaim the professionalism of the Service with these sentiments.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in her missive draws attention to the Anniversary of the world’s first independent Air Force. Her Majesty articulating on the RAF Motto ‘Per Adua ad Astra’ Through Adversity to the Stars, says, ‘May the glory and honour that all ranks have bestowed on the RAF light its pathway, guarding our skies and reaching for the stars’.
Espousing in this manner these were not mere Royal sentiments per se, but the patriotic fervour of a grateful nation acclaiming its Air Force with outpouring admiration, for sparing them from the nightmare of being subjugated by a Hitler on the march, post Dunkirk, with their backs to the wall, wanting only that command of the air to get Operation Sea Lion rolling the invasion of the UK from across the English Channel.
With the passing of the Air Force Act (Constitution) 1917 in the Parliament, and it receiving Royal Assent by King George V on 29th November 1917, the Royal Air Force was formed on 1st April 1918 by amalgamating the air elements of the British Army and the Royal Navy, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS).
King George V issuing a congratulatory message to Lord Rothermere at the Air Ministry wished that the union would preserve and foster the espirit de corps of the two separate forces so far had created.
With the imminent cross channel invasion, Adolf Hitler angered by the outright rejection of the peace offer through King of Sweden, issued the famous Directive No. 16 for a full scale invasion of the UK on a 225 mile front by 13 divisions, from Ramsgate to Isle of Wight. However, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) was expected to achieve ‘air superiority’ as a prerequisite to such invasion. ‘Alderan grif’ or attack of the Eagles was to be launched on the code word Adlertag (Eagle day).
By this period, August 1940, Royal Air Force had in position a formidable air defence capability optimizing the emerging radar technology and having a surveillance radar network in place facilitating ground controlled interception (GCI) by vectoring fighters to intruding aerial targets.
Though outnumbered 3 to 1, Luftwaffe’s aim of air superiority proved elusive with very high attrition rates, which made Sir Winston Churchill on August 20th, in a packed House of Commons to pay his immortal homage “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
Eagle Day Victory (known as Battle of Britain too) though achieved by the ‘few’, Hitler’s folly in straying away from the ‘aim’ shifting to bomb London from the air defence assets also helped in some way to this situation. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Downing of the RAF Fighter Command had achieved the ‘mission impossible’.
Apart from the enviable gallantry of the RAF fighter pilots, it is also said that the Luftwaffe which has been trained and equipped essentially as a supporting arm for the German army and navy, the German Air Force, as a whole, was a tactically oriented force with no inherent capability of mounting any independent strategic operation.
However, the success of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ upto the English Channel saw air – land integration warfare at its zenith, which went to form the US doctrine of ‘Airland battle’ post Vietnam, worked out successfully in ‘Operation Desert Storm’ the invasion of Iraq.
Hitler lost interest in this endeavour and turned his attention to the invasion of Russia (Op. Barbarossa) ironically here too, when Field Marshal Von Leeb was speeding towards Moscow it was changed to the industrial area of Leningrad and Ukraine. If not Moscow would have probably been captured and consequently the whole outcome of World War II.
Prince William will be pleased to note that when his great grandfather King George VI passed away in 1952, the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) was represented at the funeral in London by a contingent led by Flt. Lt. Nagarajah. They along with Army, Navy contingence took part in the funeral march from Buckingham Palace to Paddington Station. Even at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London on 12 July 1953 a RCyAF contingent led by Flt. Lt. Wijendran took part with the rest of the Commonwealth troops.
When the young Royal couple, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Sri Lanka in 1954 the ‘street lining’ along Parson’s Road and the Royal Guard of Honour when they boarded SS Gothic on 21st April 1954 at the end of the State visit too was by the RCyAF. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Sri Lanka in 1981 on a State visit was accorded a Guard of Honour by the Sri Lankan Air Force at the Bandaranaike International Airport.
By 2nd April 1942 Admiral Nagumo’s fleet was heading towards Sri Lanka. On 4th April 1942, Sq. Ldr. L. J. Birchall, a Canadian in his Catalina spotted the Vanguard of Nagumo’s fleet and got a message through, before the Catalina was intercepted and the crew captured.
On Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942 a Jap force of over 125 aircraft, screaming and whining, led by Commander Mitsua Fushida of Pearl Harbor fame attacked strategic targets in Colombo. Perhaps due to an intelligence lapse, aircraft based in the Race Course ‘HMS Berunda’ escaped this onslaught to spearhead a gallant air defence, frustrating the aggressor to achieve air superiority to explore the possibility of a subsequent invasion.
In March 1946, after been voted out of office, when Sir Vincent Churchill was asked what he considered was the most dangerous moment of the war was he said, “It was when news received that the Japanese fleet was heading for Sri Lanka’s Port of Trincomalee. He went on to say that Britain was spared a further disaster by an Airman on a reconnaissance flight, who though shot down, was able to warn (Ceylon) of the impending attack thereby element of surprise denied. Subsequently it had been cleared that the missing airman was Air Commodore Birchall of the Canadian Air Force who in Sir Vincent Churchill’s view had made one of the most singular contributions to victory in World War II. Air Cmde L. J. Birchall OBE, DFC, CD, of the Canadian Armed Force after many visits to Sri Lanka on 05 April 1995 established the memorial for 413 ‘Tusker’ Squadron at Sri Lanka Air Force Koggala.
Air Commodore Sir Lenard Berchol and Wing Commander Ravi Arunthavanathan at SLAF Koggala 1995
Post independence there was a growing awareness amongst the country’s leaders for Sri Lanka to have her own Air Force. Meeting this aspiration, on 09 August 1949 the Air Force Bill to raise and maintain an Air Force was presented and on 03 October 1949 with the Governor General Lord Soulbury ratifying it, the Air Force Act was born.
As a sequel to the Defense agreement of 4th February 1948 with the British Government, Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake sought the assistance of the UK and they seconded a RAF officer to organize the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF).
Group Captain G. C. Bladon started work from a room at Galle Face Hotel and then moved to the Rifle Green House later. (Presently SLAF Colombo Station).
On 2nd March 1951 Gp. Capt. Bladon was appointed the Commander of the Royal Ceylon Air Force and Sri Lanka’s Air Force was born. Ironically, it was on this day, 136 years before, that Sri Lanka lost her independence to the British.
On 1st July 1951, Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake, Prime Minister and Minister of Defense reviewed the inauguration parade at Air Force Headquarters in Parson’s Road.
Although the RCyAF was formed 6 years earlier, it came to its own only on 1st November 1957, with the take over from the RAF of the Katunayake Base with its Air Field. Thus Royal Air Force station Negombo became Royal Ceylon Air Force station, Katunayake. The RAF, continued to use the Kat base jointly until they relocated theirs in Gan Island, Maldives end of July 1960.
In 1958 Air Commodore G. C. Bladon relinquished command of the RCyAF and was succeeded by Air Commodore J. L. Barker. He was a veteran of the RAF’s North African campaign in World War II and was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He in turn relinquished command in November 1962 in the rank of Air Vice Marshal (AVM).
Succeeding AVM Barker was Air Commodore E. R. Amarasekara who was a RAF bomber pilot with over 52 missions to his credit and most of them over Germany. His valour had won him a DFC and bar (Re award). He assumed command in November 1962. When he returned to Sri Lanka from the RAF after the war as a Flt. Lt. he joined the Department of Civil Aviation as the Airport Manager, Ratmalana. His erstwhile buddy and namesake, also a bomber pilot, C. H. S. Amarasekara too joined as the Commandant of the Civil Aviation flying school and went to become the Director General of Civil Aviation. AVM Amarasekara was a Wesleyite and Capt. C. H. S. Amarasekara was a Richmondite. We as students were to be mesmerized by his flying over the Galle Esplanade when Mahinda-Richmond Big Match was being played those days.
During AVM Amarasekara’s command, Air Chief Marshal Ellworthy Chief of Staff RAF, visited Sri Lanka. On 1st January 1979 he handed over command to Air Commodore P. H. Mendis, the youngest Service Commander since then, at the age of 38.
AVM P.H. Mendis revamped the Command and Control structure that existed since then on taking over, and it was put to test with the 5th April 1971 insurrection breaking out. Not only did the new command management system functioned admirably, it also optimized the available resources to meet this unprecedented threat that had come up post independence.
Air Force going beyond the ‘Air Role’ also extended ground troops as could be met. RCyAF came of age with this campaign meeting the influx of technology with the induction of MiG 15/17 Aircraft, Bell and KA 26 helicopters. Service met the air support to ground troops, supply demands with flying colours. In this campaign the Air Force has placed on record the gallantry of the Ceylon Police personnel spread out countrywide facing the initial onslaughts. As a ‘Police product’ these sentiments are fully endorsed by this writer too.
The 25th Anniversary fell during this period and President’s colour was awarded to the SLAF in 1976 where Mr. Maithripala Senanayake doing so on behalf of the President, Mr. William Gopallawa. The Air Force Board of Management and the independent formation systems continue to this day almost encompassing the same tenets introduced by Air Chief Marshal ‘Paddy’ Mendis.
Following ACM Mendis, AVM W. D. H. S. W. Goonetileke (ACM later) took over the reigns. He was a resource multiplier and worked on the nuts and bolts of command and administration. He being an outstanding sportsman boosted AF sports in a big way. During his period Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Beetham, Chief of Air Staff, UK visited Sri Lanka, last to do so till today and was later promoted as Marshal of the Air Force. During AVM’s time SLAF Families Welfare Association was formed headed by his wife Marian Goonetilleke. He managed to get a Rugby Coach, Sq. Ldr. French from the RAF to help SLAF Rugby. His two sons Roshan and Shirantha also followed in the father’s footsteps and joined as pilots. Roshan went to command the Air Force during the crucial period of the humanitarian ops, promoted Air Chief Marshal when in service, and went to become the Chief of Defense Staff too subsequently. Gp. Cpt. Shirantha was one of the best professional pilots produced by the SLAF, went down to the missile, he along with Air Cmdr D. S. Wickremasinghe, soon after a RAF missile course in the UK, when tasked investigating, was shot down at Palali. ACM Harry’s grandson, ACM Roshan’s son, too is a pilot in the SLAF.
AVM D. C. Perera (ACM later) took over in 1981. He was the first to undergo the US Air Command and Staff course. Fortunately for the SLAF and the country, ACM had taken a great liking to his young pilot days exercising with the RAF in the Air Fields then operational. He, without waiting for external resources commenced reactivating these one by one. When the civil disturbance in the north broke out most of them were operational like, in his young officer days. ACM’s son Mario too joined the SLAF as a pilot, thereafter Sri Lankan Airlines. ACM’s granddaughter, Mario’s daughter, too is a pilot with Sri Lankan Airlines.
Air Vice Marshal A. W. Fernando (Later ACM) came to the helm in 1985 and he had to face the brunt of the IPKF induction issues and was determined to defend the airspace, in a planned programme at least. He was the earliest to undergo RAF staff College Course at Bracknell, UK. ACM’s son Priyantha too followed his father and joined the SLAF, but later faced the consequences of ‘war’, at that young age (Sqd, ldr) when on an air operation. ACM got the AF Museum rolling, then the first ever in this part of the world, to its present glory. He went to become the Secretary Defence, the first to do so from the AF, upto now.
Air Marshal M J T De S Gunawardene (later ACM) took over Command in 1990 and in no time got the SLAF, back into the Jet fighter league with F 7’s. He also experimented with a zonal management concept and the present SLAF Motto ‘Surakimu Lakabara’ too was introduced. Though on the chubby side, he excelled as an AF goal keeper, doing so for his alma mater too – Wesley College.
The journey from a hotel room, even though it was the Galle Face Hotel, to the present day edifice in down town Colombo was not an easy one. Air Marshal O. M. Ranasinghe (later ACM) taking over Command in 1994 was determined to take the AF to the ‘skies’ literally. ACM who was a former AF Cricket Captain embarked on then AFHQ building project knowing very well that he will not see the day to regale in it. This is deemed a sense of duty of the highest level, with selfless dedication.
For all purposes a departmental head, to find the land, phased funding, particularly when most others are at ground level, is indeed a formidable ambition. He may be very proud of this fete today. The generations who habit this ‘sky scraper’ should go to emulate such leadership traits.
Not only the AFHG building, but the two chalets he benchmarked at Koggala as ‘Tusker’ and ‘Catalina’ honouring Air Cmd Birchall’s legacy, were a generation ahead in vision for such facility, until the array of ‘Golf’ abodes came into being in recent times.
Infact the AFHQ building was occupied with a soft opening only in Oct 2004 by Air Marshal G D Perera (later ACM) who went to become the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), first from the AF, during the height of the humanitarian operations. Later he served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassodor to Israel.
On reaching the distinct milestone of 50 years, there was a grand Golden Jubilee bash observing all formalities for such an unique occasion. Not only the Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief, Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga take the salute at Ratmalana, the No. 1 Flying Training Wing and the SLAF Base Katunayake also were awarded President’s Colours.
Many Regional Air Forces were represented at the invitation of Air Marshal J. W. Weerakkody (later ACM). The crowning glory to the show was the Indian Air Force aerobatic team ‘Suryakiran’ going through its breathtaking displays. ACM Werakkody went to serve as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Pakistan.
Right along its illustrious history, the SLAF continued to maintain a ‘Balanced Air Force’, commensurate with the resources the nation could send its way. Every AF Commander left his indelible mark. Accordingly ACM H. D. Abeywickrama, during his time added the Eagle’s Lakeside where Commonwealth Business Forum was staged. ACM Kolitha A. Gunatilake went to become the CDS on relinquishing command. ACM G. P. Bulathsinghala is currently the Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Afghanistan.
Incumbent Air Force Commander K. V. B. Jayampathy at the invitation of the RAF Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hiller attended RAF centenary celebrations in London, July last year.
The present commander introduced a doctrine to the Air Force (followed suit by the Army) which previous generations have been yearning for. He being receptive to numerous proposals for the benefit of ex-AF personnel is indeed timely and praiseworthy. In a vision statement for a smart air force, the further development of maritime policing along with the Navy is deemed to give a return manyfold, leaving aside the quest for Indian Ocean power rivalries.
In April 2018 the President’s Colour was awarded to the Combat Training School Diyatalawa by His Excellency Maithripala Sirisena. The Colour Parade and the ceremonies took all of us down memory lane – where it all began. Incidentally this writer recollects on commissioning, taking up appointment as Adjutant Training Wing in 1975 and thereafter serving two tenures as the Commanding Officer.
Though not intending to dwell on the intricate subject of National Security in this instance, suffice to keep it in focus on the dictum that any impairing of it, as shown over and over in history, is bound to cost in Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, as Sir Winston Churchill exhorted on taking over reins as the new Prime Minister with the invasion force across the English Channel.
Just detaching the Air Power dimensions of the military component of National Security, it will be sobering to reminisce, the generations who were not privy to Admiral Nagumo’s manifestations to win Air superiority over Sri Lanka, would have perhaps got a notion of it when the Czech built Zlin 143 LTTE aircraft made a few forays over the Colombo skies. May be a glorified ‘Mosquito Menace’!
On this momentous moment, if we do not salute our sportsmen and women, who not only excelled at the National level but internationally too, bringing honour to the country, will be not fair at all. Restricting the fetes to the RAF / SLAF nexus, Sqn. Ldr. Ajith Jayasekera (later Air Commodore) a SLAF Cricket Captain, when at RAF Cranwell did play for the RAF Team (main team) and toured the Far East with them.
For both the Air Forces to be what it is today on their 100th and 68th Anniversaries respectively, all those who contributed towards it should be remembered with immense gratitude, and they in every way deserve to be bestowed with that immortal epitaph.
They shall not grow old as we that are left to grow old
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them
when you go home tell them of us and say
“FOR YOUR TOMORROW WE GAVE OUR TODAY”
From this hallowed cenotaph, I am constrained to seek your indulgence to list the two of my batch mates, Wing Commander Eksith Pieris and Air Commodore D. S. Wickramasinghe, A Royal-Thomian duo, of boundless patriotism and professionalism, who made the supreme sacrifice for the sake of our Motherland.