By: Capt Elmo Jayawardena
Some years ago, I was writing a book for the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. They were commemorating 100 years of aviation in our skies. I was collecting information from every possible source, from people who remembered and from people who had heard aviation stories of yester-year that had connections to Ceylon. That’s when I came to know of ‘The Jaffna,’ which sure has its own fascinating story.
The year was 1915. A group of Jaffna Tamil people who had migrated to Malaya, takes the lead role to relate an unusual tale about a British Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) fighter plane that carried a Sri Lankan name.
Native people of countries conquered by the British Empire were called to serve the war effort against Germany. Many joined and saw action both on land and sea. Efforts were also made to collect funds for the military treasury. Special requests were sent out to colonial communities to sponsor the cost of aeroplanes. Approximately 10,000 aircraft were made for the war effort. A lot of them were paid for by private donors and a fair number of them came from the British colonies.
The Jaffna Tamil community of Malaya extended its generosity to the British Government by collecting money to pay for a fighter aeroplane. The cost was a tidy sum of 2,250 Sterling Pounds (see Letter). They formed a team led by Dr E.T. Macintyre (forefather of renowned playwright Ernest Macintyre)
Having the choice to name the plane they gifted to the war effort, the Tamil community in Malaya elected to call it ‘The Jaffna.’ It was in remembrance of a birthplace in a far-away land, of which their heartstrings may have often resonated nostalgic bells.
The gift was made on the 22nd of December 1915.
The aeroplane so paid for, was a F.E. 2b (original design by the great aeronautical Grandmaster Geoffrey de Havilland) which was fitted with a 120 HP Beardmore engine. ‘The Jaffna’ was a two-seater, for the pilot and a gunner, and was known as a ‘pusher’ with the prop being fixed behind the occupants. This arrangement made the front vision great and gave the machinegun mounted in the fore nacelle wide angles of maneuverability. In this era, only the German Luftstreitkrafte operated Anthony Fokker’s invention of firing through a rotating propeller. The two-seater biplane called ‘The Jaffna’ was used as a fighter and a bomber where the gunner threw bombs aimed at targets below.
These aeroplanes flew against the famed squadron of German ace Max Immelmann. ‘The Jaffna’ too was in that same sky.
During this era (1915) the Times of Ceylon in Colombo published an appeal to raise money to buy planes for the British war effort. They collected adequate funds to buy three fighter planes and one observer plane.
The Fighters were Vickers FB.5 costing 2250 sterling pounds each and the reconnaissance plane was a BE2 C type costing 1500 pounds. There was an individual contribution too for an observer plane from a well-known lawyer called F J de Saram.
The Ceylonese four planes were called “The Paddy Bird -වී කුරුල්ලා ”, “The Devil Bird-උලමා ”, “The Nightjar-බිම් බස්සා” and “The Flying Fox- වවුලා”. Unfortunately, with all possible efforts I just could not find the name of the De Saram plane.
What is available on the scattered remnants of the war records is that five aeroplanes, three fighters and two observer planes were paid for by the people of Ceylon.
As the world got older and aviation flourished in Sri Lanka, the locally registered aeroplanes in commercial service were named after prominent royalty and renowned cities, King Vijaya, Viharamaha Devi, City of Anuradhapura, City of Colombo, etc. All of these, plus a host of others, flew the skies, brandishing their Sri Lankan heritage with boldly-painted names. But the first Ceylonese name that got gifted to the sky was the little fighter plane ‘The Jaffna,’ certainly less known, but very much in the annals of aviation. Then there were the four with bird names and the de Saram plane.
Various civilian groups collected money in the British Empire to fund aeroplanes to support the war effort. Australia gave 41, Malaya paid for 53 fighter planes and five were from Ceylon. The era was the infancy of aerial warfare and the flying machines at best were flimsy, made of wood and fabric and a good number of the pilots were fledglings learning the art of flying. The crash rates were very high; more fatalities were recorded whilst in training pilots than in combat.
Any gift aeroplane like ‘The Jaffna’ or the Ceylonese planes, if they crashed or was shot down the British Air Corps gave the same name to a new aeroplane. That way there was always a fighter plane called ‘The Jaffna’ and the ‘Paddy Bird,’ the ‘Devil Bird,’ the ‘Nightjar’ and the ‘Flying Fox’ along with the de Saram plane in the sky till the guns went silent and the war came to an end.
There has to be records of where these memorable machines were laid to rest, the original or the replacement. Could be in a soft meadow in a green valley, broken and forgotten or maybe mothballed in some unknown wooden shed till it rotted and died.
They sure did fly in some war-torn sky, in formation or in dog-fight, maybe in reconnaissance. Then they would have gone into oblivion leaving me to do a poor imitation of a reminiscence.
What I wrote is the truth as I came to know it. In Melbourne, in the Point Cook Air Force Museum, I saw a replica of these fighter planes. I don’t think the Point Cook people know about ‘The Jaffna’ and the three fighter planes and the two observer planes gifted by Ceylon.
I like to think more light would be shed by people who may know some almost forgotten facts connected to these aeroplanes. I am sure it is even possible to trace which squadrons were home to these almost forgotten magnificent flying machines.
The person who gave me the details of this story lives in Sydney. My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr Thiru Arumugam for all the information he provided. He, like I am, is a pastured aviator having flown with a Private Pilot’s License in Nigeria.
Sitiyawan Gnanapathypillai is from Sangarathai near Vaddukoddai in Jaffna. He is the maternal grandfather of Thiru Arumugam. In the 1890s Sitiyawan as a teenager ran away from home and got on a sailing ship and went to Malaya. Perhaps he paid something like a dollar as travel fare.
He probably would have worked very hard and at the time he comes to this story he was living in Taipin Malaya and was the proud owner of a rubber plantation and a stone quarry. Sithiyawan Gnanapathipillai certainly was a rich businessman. He was Dr. Macintyre’s representative in Taipin area and collected money from the Jaffna Tamils settled in that part of Malaya. Mr Gnanapathypillai returned to Jaffa and spent his twilight years among his people living in the place where he belonged.
He passed away in the late 1930s.
Capt Elmo Jayawardena – Elmojay1@gmail.com