Saga of RAF-SLAF nexus | Daily News

Saga of RAF-SLAF nexus

The Sri Lanka Air Force mentor, the Royal Air Force celebrates its centenary tomorrow:

The Duke of Cambridge, KG, GT, more familiar to us as Prince William, eulogising on the Royal Air Force (RAF) centenary, drawing attention to his great grandfather, 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 and uncles donned ‘wings’ though maybe of different hues.

As one who had served in the RAF as a full-time member with stints even in Afghanistan on operational duty, he was eminently suited to acclaim the professionalism of the Service with these sentiments.

Queen Elizabeth II in her missive draws attention to the anniversary of the world’s first independent Air Force. The Queen 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.”

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, and its receiving Royal Assent by King George V on November 29, 1917, the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1, 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 the two separate forces had created so far.

With the imminent cross channel invasion, Adolf Hitler angered by the outright rejection of the peace offer through the 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 the Isle of Wight. However, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) Commander-in-Chief Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring 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 August 1940, the Royal Air Force had in position a formidable air defence capability optimising 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 three to one, the Luftwaffe’s aim of air superiority proved elusive with very high attrition rates, which made Sir Winston Churchill on August 20, 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. 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 had been trained and equipped essentially as a supporting arm for the German Army and Navy, was a tactically oriented force with no inherent capability of mounting any independent strategic operation.

However, the success of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ up to the English Channel saw air-land integration warfare at its zenith, which went on 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 outcome of World War II changed.

By April 2, 1942, Admiral Nagumo’s fleet was heading towards Sri Lanka. On April 4, 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, April 5, 1942, a Japanese force of over 125 aircraft, led by Commander Mitsua Fushida of Pearl Harbour fame, attacked strategic targets in Colombo. Perhaps due to an intelligence lapse, aircraft based in the Race Course HMS Bherunda escaped this onslaught to spearhead a gallant air defence, frustrating the aggressor to achieve air superiority.

In March 1946, after being voted out of office, when Sir Winston 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 Trincomalee Port. 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 denying the enemy of the element of surprise. Subsequently, it had been cleared that the missing airman was Air Commodore Birchall of the Canadian Air Force who, in Sir Winston’s view, had made one of the most singular contributions to victory in World War II.

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 August 9, 1949, the Air Force Bill to raise and maintain an Air Force was presented and on October 3, 1949, and with the Governor General Lord Soulbury ratifying it, the Air Force Act was born.

As a sequel to the defence agreement on February 4, 1948, with the British Government, D.S. Senanayake sought the assistance of the UK and they seconded a RAF officer to organise the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF).

Group Captain G. C. Bladon started work from a room at the Galle Face Hotel and then moved to the Rifle Green House later (presently the SLAF Colombo Station).


Birth of SLAF

On March 2, 1951, Gp. Capt. Bladon was appointed the Royal Ceylon Air Force Commander 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 July 1, 1951, Prime Minister and Defence Minister D.S. Senanayake reviewed the inauguration parade at the Air Force Headquarters in Parson’s Road.

Although the RCyAF was formed six years earlier, it came to its own only on November 1, 1957, with the takeover from the RAF, of the Katunayake Base and its airfield. Thus the Royal Air Force station in Negombo, became the Royal Ceylon Air Force station, Katunayake. The RAF continued to use the base jointly, until they relocated to Gan Island in the Maldives at the end of July 1960.

The first Sri lankan Air Commodore E.R. Amarasekara was a RAF bomber pilot with over 52 missions to his credit, 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 Civil Aviation Department in Ratmalana as the Airport Manager. His erstwhile buddy and namesake, also a bomber pilot, C.H.S. Amarasekara too joined as the Civil Aviation Flying School Commandant and went to become the Civil Aviation Director General. On January 1, 1979, he handed over the command to Air Commodore P.H. Mendis, the youngest Service Commander since then, at the age of 38.

AVM Mendis revamped the Command and Control structure that existed since then, and it was put to test during the April 5, 1971, insurrection. Not only did the new command management system function admirably, it also optimised the available resources to meet this unprecedented threat that had come up post-independence.

The Air Force also extended assistance to ground troops as could be met. The RCyAF came of age with this campaign meeting the influx of technology with the induction of the MiG 15/17 aircraft and Bell and KA 26 helicopters. In this campaign, the Air Force has placed on record the gallantry of the Ceylon Police spread countrywide facing the initial onslaughts. As a ‘Police product,’ these sentiments are fully endorsed by this writer too.

Silver jubilee

The 25th anniversary fell during this period and the President’s Colours were awarded to the SLAF in 1976. 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 reign. He was a resource multiplier and worked on the nuts and bolts of Command and Administration.

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 operations, was promoted Air Chief Marshal when in service, and went to become the Defence Staff Chief too subsequently.

Gp. Cpt. Shirantha who was one of the best professional pilots produced by the SLAF, along with Air Cmdr D.S. Wickremasinghe, was shot down at Palaly. 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. ACM’s son Mario too joined the SLAF as a pilot, and thereafter, SriLankan Airlines. ACM’s granddaughter, Mario’s daughter, too is a pilot in SriLankan 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 the RAF Staff College course at Bracknell, UK. ACM’s son, Sqd. Ldr. Priyantha too joined the SLAF, but later faced the consequences of war, at that young age, 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 Defence Secretary, the first to do so from the SLAF, up to now.

Air Marshal M.J.T. De S. Gunawardene (later ACM) took over the command in 1990, and in no time got the SLAF back into the jetfighter league with F7s. He also experimented with a zonal management concept and the present SLAF motto Surakimu Lakabara too was introduced.

The journey from a hotel room, even though it was the Galle Face Hotel, to the present day edifice in downtown Colombo was not an easy one. Air Marshal O.M. Ranasinghe (later ACM) taking over the command in 1994, was determined to take the SLAF to the ‘skies’ literally. He embarked on the AFHQ building project knowing very well that he would notbe there at its completion. This is deemed a sense of duty of the highest level, with selfless dedication.

Not only the AFHG building, but the two chalets he benchmarked in Koggala as ‘Tusker’ and ‘Catalina’ honouring Air Cmdr. Birchall’s legacy, were a generation ahead in vision.

In fact the AFHQ building was occupied after a soft opening only in October, 2004, by Air Marshal G.D. Perera (later ACM), who went to become the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the first from the SLAF, during the height of the humanitarian operations. Later he served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Israel.

Gold jubilee

On reaching the milestone of 50 years, there was a grand Golden Jubilee celebration. Not only did the Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took the salute in Ratmalana, but also the No. 1 Flying Training Wing and the SLAF Base Katunayake 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 of the show was the Indian Air Force aerobatic team Suryakiran going through its breathtaking displays. ACM Werakkody went on to serve as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Pakistan.

The SLAF continued to maintain a ‘balanced air force’, commensurate with the resources the nation bestow. Every AF Commander left his indelible mark. Accordingly ACM H.D. Abeywickrama, during his time, added the Eagle’s Lakeside where the Commonwealth Business Forum was staged. ACM Kolitha A. Gunatilake went on to become the CDS on relinquishing command. ACM G.P. Bulathsinhala is currently the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Incumbent Air Force Commander Air Marshal K.V.B. Jayampathy at the invitation of the RAF Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hiller, attended the RAF centenary celebrations in London last July.

The present Commander introduced a doctrine to the Air Force (followed suit by the Army) which previous generations have been yearning for. 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 many times over, apart from maintaining security in the Indian Ocean.

In April 2018, the President’s Colours were awarded to the Combat Training School in Diyatalawa by President 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.

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, it will be not fair.

For both the Air Forces to be what they are 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:

From this hallowed cenotaph, I am constrained to seek your indulgence to list two of my batchmates, 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.


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