There were many soldiers from Britain’s extensive colonies serving in the British army. There were Ceylonese soldiers in Egypt, Italy and the Pacific (one platoon even staged an unsuccessful mutiny in the Cocos Islands as the Japanese advanced). There were thousands of Indians and Malays fighting on several fronts. But I had never heard of RAF pilots recruited from parts of the world which were later labelled as the ‘third world.’
The sight of a dark-skinned man like myself standing proudly in front of a Spitfire was a startling novelty, and a matter of pride despite the colonial connotations. Flying fighter planes seventy years ago was largely a white man’s privilege (excluding the Japanese and the Chinese) and now I felt privileged to be talking to the son of a man who had belonged to that exclusive group at that time.
Emile Jayawardena was born in Moratuwa in 1918 and studied at St. Sebastian’s College. His father was a government official working in a Kachcheri, and young Emile’s parents seem to have had no objections when he volunteered to be a RAF pilot in 1940. Out of 15,000 applicants, only 15 were selected and sent for training at the Cranwell Flying School in the United Kingdom.
An old paper cutting 6/9/1941 which mentions twelve of these names – St. Elmo Muller, C.S.A. Perera, S.D.F. Caldera, J.J.A. Perera, E.E. Amarasekara, P. Balachandran, F.H. Brohier, E.D.P.M. Jayawardena, K.G. Joachim, M.M. Omerdeen, P.S.A. Perera and L.O.H. Wanigasekara. Noel Peiris, Red de Silva and Ananda Kularatne were the three others.
Out of the successful 15, only four were selected for fighter training. ‘fighter jockeys’ as they were called by the British, need a special temperament which sets them apart from bomber pilots. Emile Jayawardena, Noel Pieris. Rex de Silva and Shelton Flamer Caldera became fighter pilots and were sent to operational squadrons soon after the Battle of Britain.
Ossie Wanigasekara became a bomber navigator while Rohan Amarasekara, later to become the first Sri Lankan commander of the country’s air force, became an air gunner. He earned the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) twice – a medal earned by pilots and air crew after completing 32 sorties.
St. Elmo Muller too, flew for the RAF, the latter dying in a commercial air crash in Europe after the war.
The pilot trainees first flew Tiger Moth biplanes at Cranwell, later graduating to fly the Master I, which qualified them to fly fighters in combat. Emile Jaywardena flew both Hawker Hurricanes and Super-marine Spitfires. He was based at one stage near the channel coast with the 504 Spitfire squadron. He flew as a flight sergeant and was later promoted to warrant officer.
The Hurricane was an all-wood and canvas cantilever monoplane and slower than the German Messerschmitt ME109E fighter. Hence, the RAF used it to attack the Luftwaffe bombers while the faster, more agile Spitfire took on enemy fighters. The Hurricane’s eight Browning machine guns inflicted horrendous damage on the bombers and their crews, as anyone who has seen the 1969 movie, ‘Battle of Britain’ would recall.
The picture on Duncan’s living room wall shows a Hurricane with two twenty mm canon, a later version. Another picture shows Emile Jayawardena next to a Spitfire. It isn’t known if any of the Ceylonese RAF pilots had any ‘kills’ (enemy aircraft shot down) to their credit, but they saw extensive combat, flying escort and ‘search-and-destroy’ missions attacking ground targets in France.
Emile Jayawardena’s fighter was twice damaged in combat. In the extensive log books and diaries he kept, he recorded details of these missions (‘sorties’), and the fear he felt as a rookie pilot facing the enemy for the first time, hearing over the radio German pilots shouting “Achtung, Spitfire!” as they spotted the British fighters. There was a grim satisfaction in knowing that the Germans were just as nervous as the furious ‘dog fights’ (as combat between fighter planes was called) began.
After the war, Emile Jayawardena joined the newly formed Air Ceylon and flew its inaugural flight in a twin-engined DC-3 with Capt. Peter Fernando. After a distinguished career with the airline, he retired after flying a Dragon Rapid, a 1930s era twin-engined biplane for the Civil Aviation Authority. Emile Jayawardena passed away in 1968.
Speaking of Emile’s RAF batch mates, Noel Pieris was a daring and lucky pilot who emerged without a scratch from three crashes. While flying over England, the propeller of his Spitfire fell off and the plane finally came to rest in a farmhouse minus the wings and the tail. Rescue teams located him having a drink in the neighbourhood pub.
After the war, he flew for Air Ceylon first and then for the Survey Department, which had a twin-engined beech-craft. It crashed along with his American co-pilot at Angulana beach.
Shelton Flamer Caldera was less lucky. Based in Sri Lanka as an RAF pilot after the war (the Royal Ceylon Air Force had not yet been formed), his Hurricane went into a spin while flying over Minneriya and crashed, killing the pilot.
This is a very interesting and invaluable part of our aviation history (and of the RAF’s, too) which has seemingly been consigned to obscure archives. It is quite unfair that the RAF’s ‘third world’ pilots and airmen have not been mentioned in any of the extensive books published about WWII air warfare. If Sri Lankans fought in the RAF ranks, it seems logical that Indians, Malays, Africans and other nationalities too, were represented in air combat. But nothing is known about them. Hopefully, this article would contribute in some way to redress that injustice and spur more research.
Credit – Gamini Akmeemana (Daily Mirror)