Sri Lanka’s Spitfire pilots: A FORGOTTEN HISTORY


Well-known member
  • Oct 23, 2023


    Aviation history fascinates me and I’ve seen enough WWII pictures of Hurricanes and Spitfires, the British fighter planes which faced off Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. I was visiting Duncan Jayawardana, an old friend from Moratuwa, and wondered why he had WWII aircraft pictures displayed prominently on his living room wall.

    Then I saw that the pilot in the pictures was a Sri Lankan, not British.

    “That’s my father,” Duncan told me with his usual modesty. I’d known him for thirty years but I was learning for the first time now that his father had been a fighter pilot for the RAF, Britain’s Royal Air Force, back in WWII. Duncan, brother of flight captain Elmo Jayawardena, was an air traffic controller when I first met him. Now he works at the Civil Aviation Authority headquarters at Hunupitiya, Colombo.

    I was stunned. I have read extensive histories of WWII, and about the Battle of Britain in particular, because military aviation fascinated me those days. I knew there was a squadron of Polish fighter pilots involved in that bitter air fighting after the Germans conquered Western Europe in a matter of weeks and Britain stood alone against Hitler’s military might. After the RAF withstood the German air onslaught successfully (perhaps helped by Hitler’s mistaken decision to divert bomber attacks from RAF air bases to distant London at a crucial stage), Prime Minister Winston Churchill remarked: “Never had so much been owed by so many to so few.”

    Apart from the Poles, I’d never read any mention of other foreign nationals serving as RAF pilots. There were many soldiers from Britain’s extensive colonies serving in the British army. There were Sri Lankan 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. Duncan has 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 (Duncan recalls that 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 Lankan 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.

    Duncan regrets the loss of this invaluable archival material. The diaries were taken to Britain by a British national, with a promise to return them. Neither the man nor the diaries ever turned up again, but Duncan hopes that they are safe in some archives there.

    As for the log books, they were simply thrown out with the garbage by a domestic many years ago, the fate of much archival material in this country.
    Duncan recalls visiting the Hendon Air Museum in Britain. There was a Spitfire on display inside a cordoned off space. When he told the staff about his father, they were so impressed that he was allowed to sit inside the plane’s cockpit.

    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. By then, Duncan too, was a pilot for Civil Aviation, flying an Indian two-seater trainer called Pushpak. This aircraft was often hired to drop flowers during public events. Duncan recalls his father sitting quietly next to him, saying nothing, as he flew with a load of ‘araliya’ flowers over public spaces like Independence Square. Sometimes, he gave the controls to Emile, who would then drop the plane to roof top levels and head towards Ratmalana airport, often flying over their home within sight of the town.

    This aircraft later crashed at Ratnapura during a training flight, killing both pilot and passenger. The Sri Lanka Air Force museum has on display a Tiger Moth biplane which was flown by three members of the Jayawardena family – father Emile, and sons Duncan and Elmo.
    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 farm house 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; Duncan says this unflappable war veteran dropped in at their home the same evening for a cup of tea. He was an artist and spoke fluent German. Duncan remembers him singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ in German during Christmas.
    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. Duncan’s father was an eyewitness to this tragedy.

    Brohier later joined the police department.
    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.