Aviation history amidst nature’s beauty | Daily News
SLAF Station Koggala

Aviation history amidst nature’s beauty

Catalina flying boat plane
Catalina flying boat plane

One of the most beautiful destinations in Sri Lanka is the Koggala area. This venue is embellished with a massive lake and eco system. Apart from its natural allure it is closely associated with the defence of Ceylon during the Second World War.

We set off on a rainy Friday morning to explore the Sri Lanka Air Force Station (SLAF) at Koggala, which was once a vital hub of the Royal Air Force. It was from this airfield that the Royal Canadian Air Force 413 Squadron (attached to Royal Air Force Coastal Command) operated their Sunderland and Catalina aircraft, for aerial reconnaissance. In 1941 V.H.A. Bratney assumed duties as the first Commanding Officer of the RCAF 413 Squadron, at Koggala. The Catalina Flying Boat was manufactured by Consolidated Corporation of USA. It was the most popular flying boat in aviation history. Allied pilots had to fly the Catalina and secretly observe enemy surface ships, without being seen.

Today we can observe a unique landmark adjacent to the SLAF Station: the runway, rail track and road intersect each other, within a short distance from the sea. This is the only such point in Sri Lanka. The present Commanding Officer Group Captain Thilina Rajapaksa and his team of officers greeted us, and we began to explore this 104-acre SLAF venue.

During the Second World War, the air defence capability of the British Royal Air Force was put to the test. This was owing to the successful air raids carried by the Imperial Japanese Forces. RAF Fighter Operations did not realize that the Japanese fleet had long-range dive bombers. April 5 was a beautiful Easter Sunday morning in Colombo. Many Christians had gone to church and other citizens were busy with their routine weekend chores. The serenity of that morning was shattered when 75 Japanese aircraft suddenly appeared over Colombo and began bombing preselected strategic targets. The bombs hit ships within the Colombo Harbour, the Ratmalana Airport and Railway workshops and oil installations located at Kolonnawa.

The British Admiralty had several ships in Ceylon as part of their fleet strategy. One wonders how the Japanese intelligence managed to know the whereabouts of these ships, because when the raiders of the Japanese Imperial Force attacked, they successfully hit the important vessels of the British fleet. The Japanese pilots found two Royal Navy cruisers, the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire. The ships were anchored within the Colombo Harbour. The British sailors put up a gallant resistance lasting nearly an hour, but the two vessels were crippled and sank. The merchant vessel Hector also sank after her steam funnel was hit. The air raid over the city had lasted about 20 minutes. The people of Ceylon had never experienced an aerial bombardment. By Tuesday the frightened civilian population in Colombo had sought refuge with relatives and friends in the suburbs.

In his book, The Most Dangerous Moment, Michael Tomlinson recalls his service at the Royal Air Force Station in Ratmalana. The airfield at Ratmalana was hurriedly constructed as part of the air defence capability of Ceylon. The Japanese planes under the command of Captain Fuchida were flying over Galle by 7.15 am and flew along the coast for more than half an hour at an aerial ceiling of 8,000 feet. Captain Fuchida was the officer who led the raid on Pearl Harbour causing damage to many American Navy ships. Tomlinson writes, “It was said, watches were being changed at the crucial moment and the radar had gone unmanned for some time. Furthermore, since no one realized the great range of the Japanese aircraft, the radar operators seem to have clung to the view that the carriers would need to approach much closer and the attack would most likely develop much later in the day.”

An allied pilot Squadron Leader Leonard Joseph Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (413 Squadron) had begun a routine reconnaissance flight in his Catalina boat plane on April 4, 1942. After nine hours of being airborne he spotted the enemy Nagumo Fleet (with five Japanese aircraft carriers) approaching Ceylon. Birchall and his crew managed to update Allied Air Defence Head Quarters of the approaching Japanese threat with one radio message. Minutes later six enemy aircraft shot down his Catalina plane.

The Japanese pilots fired at the Canadian crew who were in the water, killing three of them. Squadron Leader Birchall managed to survive the crash. He was taken prisoner with the remaining six airmen, by the Japanese. He was severely beaten many times. In 1945, American soldiers rescued Squadron Leader Birchall. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) medal for his bravery in Ceylon and subsequently promoted Air Commodore during his service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. For his gallant flying that day which was paramount in protecting Ceylon, Leonard Birchall was hailed as the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’ and became an iconic hero.

Years later after retirement Air Commodore Birchall visited Sri Lanka, where he was warmly received by the Sri Lanka Air Force. The Canadian pilot was taken to the SLAF Station Koggala, where he met then SLAF Commander Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe. The Canadian veteran respectfully laid flowers at the monument which honoured his colleagues of the 413 Squadron, who had died in the defence of Ceylon. As we walked along the spacious grounds we came across this monument which has the names of 21 Canadian Air Force men who had died on duty. At the age of 89, Air Commodore Leonard Birchall passed away in Ontario.

We saw the ramp built on the lake from which allied pilots once boarded their seaplanes. There are some old vintage buildings from that glorious era. At the administrative office at SLAF Koggala there is an album with historic photographs of the pilots and troops stationed at the RAF airfield. The SLAF must be commended for preserving rare copies of the Tropic Tusker Tales, a newsletter circulated among Allied Forces with war updates. Those interested in military history can also visit the SLAF Museum at Ratmalana and see the vintage aircraft along with vehicles that were once used by the RAF at the Koggala and Katunayake airfields. The Sri Lanka Air Force Station, Koggala began its duties in 1982 with Flight Lieutenant A.P. Paul being the first Commanding Officer. Their formation day is celebrated on October 19. Group Captain Thilina Rajapaksa explained the recreation facilities available at SLAF Koggala for the families of SLAF personnel. Another beautiful location here is the well maintained Golf Course, which is patronized by foreign tourists. This is probably the only scenic golf course bordering a tranquil lake, found in the Southern Province.

The present Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana is hopeful that more tourists will patronize this golf course in the future. The former Royal Air Force runway is still operational. The SLAF doesn’t have a permanent flying formation at Koggala. However cadet pilots undergoing training at the Flying Training Wing (China Bay) use this airfield for their navigation flying training phase. Commercial flights by private helicopters taking tourists use this airfield. Flying over Koggala by helicopter offers stunning views and is awesome for aerial photography. The SLAF Station also offers a safe boat ride on the lake. It is an alluring venue that presents vintage military history augmented with mesmerizing natural beauty.

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