RAF STATIONS IN SRI LANKA DURING WORLD WAR II & AFTER

                                                             CONTENTS

  1. INTRODUCTION
  1. DETERMINING THE NUMBER OF RAF STATIONS THAT WERE IN SRI LANKA DURING WWII AND AFTER
  1. LOCATIONS OF THE 14 RAF / FAA AERODROMES &AIR STRIPS OPERATED IN SRI LANKA                                                           DURING WWII
  1. DETAILS OF SOME OF THE RAF / FAA STATIONS THAT OPERATED IN SRI LANKA DURING THE WAR AND AFTER

                              

INTRODUCTION

 “The precursor of the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) were the elements of the Royal Air Force (RAF) based in Sri Lanka. The history of these elements of the RAF is a run-up to the history of the SLAF” – Foot Prints on the Sands of Time: The Story of Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen’s Association

World War 2 which began by Germans invading and occupying most of the countries in Europe expanded to the pacific in 1941 with the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. As a result of this air defences in Sri Lanka were expanded by the British starting with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana. A squadron of medium Blenheim medium bombers detached from Greece, Crete and Middle East was based in Ratmalana.

Then in 1941 itself the British started building several temporary airstrips across the country for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy at Colombo Racecourse, Katukurunda, Negombo, Minneriya, Vavyniya, Kankesanthurai, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Mawatagama, Koggala, Kalametiya and Puttalam.

In 1942 the Japanese occupied South East Asia with their invasions of Burma, Malaya and Singapore. With the fall of Singapore, the British government appointed Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiacas the Air Officer Commanding No. 222 Group RAF* formed on 1st Sep 1941 and based in Ceylon  along with appointments of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton as Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon and Admiral Sir James Somerville as Commander of the British Eastern Fleet also based in Ceylon, first at  Colombo and subsequently moved to Trincomalee.

In the same year, the RAF established a base at China Bay utilizing the aerodrome built by the British in late 1930’s. Two Squadrons of Hurricane aircraft that flew in from North Africa was based in China bay and in the Colombo Racecourse.

DETERMINING THE NUMBER OF RAF STATIONS THAT WERE IN SRI LANKA DURING WORLD WAR II AND AFTER 

Even though printed records indicate fourteen (14) RAF aerodromes / airstrips in Sri Lanka during the war, as per web based records there have been many more in the country for support services (e.g. RAF Colpetty which was a RAF Police Unit). As per the 2nd reference there had been a total of thirty six (36) RAF establishments in Sri Lanka during the war. The extract of the relevant record is given below.

Ceylon 

 

This is an alphabetical list of the 36 RAF stations in Ceylon within the ? Provinces

 

1     RAF Anderson    (Radar)                      ? Province       Ceylon

2     RAF Chapel Hill                               ? Province       Ceylon

3     RAF China Bay                                Eastern Province       Ceylon

4     RAF Cinavadi                                  ? Province       Ceylon

5     RAF Cogallum                                  ? Province        Ceylon

6     RAF Colombo   (Racecourse)                  Western Province       Ceylon

7     RAF Colpetty                                  Western Province       Ceylon

9     RAF Dambulla                                 Central Province       Ceylon

10    RAF Diyatalawa                               Central Province       Ceylon

 11    RAF Ekala                                     ? Province       Ceylon

12    RAF Elizabeth Point                           ? Province       Ceylon

13    RAF Galle                                     ? Province       Ceylon

14    RAF Gangodawila                              ? Province       Ceylon

16    RAF Hora Hena                               ?       Ceylon

17    RAF Jurong   (Signals)                        ? Province       Ceylon                                                
18    RAF Kalametiya                               ? Province       Ceylon

19    RAF Kandy                                    ? Province       Ceylon

20    RAF Kankestanthurai                          ? Province       Ceylon

21    RAF Katunayake                               ? Province       Ceylon

22    RAF Koggala                                   ?       Ceylon

23    RAF Komariyi                                  ? Province       Ceylon

24    RAF Kurunegala                               ? Province       Ceylon

25    RAF Malay Cove                               ?       Ceylon

26    RAF Mawatagawa                              Western Province       Ceylon

27    RAF Minneriya                                 ? Province       Ceylon

28    RAF Namunumkula                             ? Province       Ceylon

29    RAF Negombo                                 Western Province       Ceylon

30    RAF Negombo   (Hospital)                    Western Province       Ceylon

31    RAF Perihanduturventuri                      ? Province       Ceylon 

32    RAF Ramu                                     ? Province       Ceylon

33    RAF Ratmalana                                ? Province       Ceylon

34    RAF Sigiriya                                   ? Province       Ceylon

35    RAF Trincomalee                              Eastern Province       Ceylon

36    RAF Vavuniya                                  ? Province       Ceylon                                         

 
                 Source: https://www.rafstations.co.uk/raf-stations-by-countries                     

However, when relating the stations listed above to the old RAF stations reactivated by the SLAF and information provided by some of the retired SLAF officers it seems that the above web based record is not accurate and that it needs to be revised after considering the following facts.

  • Jurong is in Singapore and therefore RAF Jurong cannot be a station that was in Sri Lanka.
  • Looking at the SLAF Base China Bay today, RAF China Bay, RAF Malay Cove and RAF Trincomalee should read as one station…RAF China Bay.
  • Looking at the SLAF Station, Koggala today, RAF Galle and RAF Koggala should read as                   one station…RAF Koggala.
  • Looking at the SLAF Base Katunayake today, RAF Katunayake, RAF Negombo (Hospital) and RAF Negombo should read as one station…RAF Negombo.
  • As per information shared a retired SLAF officer, RAF Kurunegala and RAF Mawatagama should read as one station…RAF Mawathagama.

The so-called RAF Kurunegala is located in Mawathagama. The water well, constructed by the RAF still exists. I have been to this site as Heineken Lanka Ltd (where I worked) took this well on lease. You still can find remnants of igloo hangers” – Wg Cdr Palitha Obeysekera

Therefore, considering aforesaid facts and comments, the web based record of RAF Stations that were in Sri Lanka during WWII is revised as given below to indicate that there were only twenty eight (28) RAF stations plus two (2) RNAS Stations, a total of thirty (30) which included fourteen (14) aerodromes /air fields.

Out of this total 30, the 12 highlighted in yellow are now operated as SLAF Bases/Stations. Then 11 others which are now non-existent for which records are available to prove their existence during the war and after are highlighted in blue. The locations of the balance 6 RAF stations (highlighted in grey) are yet to be identified. But out of these it could be RAF establishments at Thalladi (Mannar) Veyangoda, Kokilai and going by the following quotes.

  • “Another airfield was along the coastal road off the Thalladi Army camp in those days. I was required to do a study to see the feasibility of revamping the airfield to enable Air Communications with the Army using the Pioneer aircraft. On a road reconnaissance we saw the marker stones indicating the runway direction; but all the PSP sheets were long gone and the whole area covered and swamped with “buffalo thorns”. It could have cost too much to revive and also administer the airfield at that time. It is on the Thalladi road; along the mainland coast” – Gp Capt Noor Rahim, SLAF (Retd)
  • In in my early teenage years, I spent about two weeks at my aunt’s house at Veyangoda. They were living in an official married quarter at the Veyangoda textile mills as my uncle was a Forman there. One day I was bored and decided to walk to the town which was a couple of kms away. My aunt gave me the directions and told me that there was a short cut through a bushy area. I found the shortcut which was just a footpath through a very bushy area. I came across an old dilapidated hangar-like structure and noticed some metal sheets with big holes in them all over the place and the bush has grown through it. After I returned home and inquired about that place my uncle told me that it was an RAF station during WW2. After I joined the AF I realised that the metal sheets were PSP plates”- Sqn Ldr Theja Cooray, SLAF (Retd)
  • The Most Dangerous Moment by Michael Tomlinson states the following “….Six more fighters, led by Flt Lt Cleaver, were off by 7.10 and five minutes later another six, under Flt Lt Marshall, were scrambled from Kokilai…”

DETAILS OF SOME OF THE RAF /FAA STATIONS THAT OPERATED IN SRI LANKA DURING THE WAR AND AFTER  

RAF STATION – RATMALANA

During the war this station was deployed with No 30 Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes. Also during this period aeroplanes arrived there from Perth, Western Australia, on what was at the time the world’s longest non-stop air route. The flight continued after the war with an intermediate re-fuelling stop at the Cocos Islands. This station was in operation from 1941 to 1946.


Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) English Electric Canberra bomber
                    taxing to the runway at Colombo-Ratmalana Airport during a
                    refuelling stop in the early 1950s. 
                    Source (for all three photos): Google Images
 

RAF STATION – RACECOURSE, COLOMBO

This station consisted only of a single runway, station headquarters and the officers’ mess set up in the bungalows in Cinnamon Gardens and was serviced by a newly established military hospital in the premises of Royal College Colombo. The Royal Navy also established a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) here during the duration of the war with the name HMS Bherunda. 882 Naval Air Squadron was based here. This station was in operation from 1941 to 1945.

Aerial view of RAF Station, Race Course Colombo 

Source: https://ceylon.guide/2020/04/15/an-airfield-in-the-middle-of-colombo/

The Colombo Race Course today

RAF STATION – TRINCOMALEE (CHINA BAY)

This was in operation from 1938 to 1957. R.A.F. Station China Bay was opened in Aug 1938. It gave lodger facility for Royal Navy Air Section from August 1940. The station was transferred to Admiralty in Nov 1944 and renamed RNAS Trincomalee. The station was returned to RAF in May 1950.

RAF STATION – NEGAMBO (KATUNAYAKE)

This station was built in the mid 1940’s to replace lost RAF airfields in Pakistan and India. Katunayake was conveniently situated twixt Aden and Singapore to serve the continuing need of supplying its vast Empire particularly so in the Far East and was used as a staging post to rest crews and passengers of aircraft in transit. The RAF operated this station until 1957.      

   RAF STATION – MINNERIYA (HINGURAKGODA)

This was formed as a RAF station in its 222 Group. During the war 14 flying formations were deployed at this station along with a RAF Regiment ack ack flight and a bomb disposal squadron. This station operated from 1942 to 1945.

During my tenure as the Base Commander, SLAF Hingurakkgoda many year back, I gathered information on how it was during WWII under the RAF. The camp area has extended up to the present town. Aircraft had been parked under trees camouflaged and taxied up to holding points They have took off one behind the other as the runway was built in such a manner to facilitate it. The runway had been built by straightening and filling the canal using 1,000 Cafri people who were at Leigh Farm that was a Cafri colony. Air Defence guns had been placed on Hingurakgala, on a hillock on the way to Medirigiriya the name of which I cannot remember and another towards “Yaya Hathara” and “Hathamuna”. The aircraft maintenance had been done in two hangars that were located somewhere in the present camp area. There is a wide belief that many of the items that could not be taken back when the RAF vacated the airfield were dumped into the “Bombu Wala” close to the Minneriya tank and sealed off whilst it is said that another spot is where the present Cemetery is – AVM Tilak Dissanayake, SLAF (Retd), January 2021.



A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Dakota at Minneriya Airport, Ceylon, 02nd Nov 1952.

RAF Station Koggala

This station which was in operation from 1941 to 1947 was used as a key Catalina flying boat/seaplane base during the war and after


RAF Station Koggala in the 1940s
SLAF Station, Koggala today




RAF STATION- KATUKURUNDA

This station in operation from 1941 was transferred to Royal Naval Air Service in Sep 1942 then returned to RAF in Oct 1946.

RAF Katukurunda in the 1940s & SLAF today

RAF Station Vavuniya

This station in operation from 1941 to 1945 as a bomber airfield. It was also a lodger facility to a Royal Naval air squadron.  

SLAF , Vavuniya

RAF Station Sigiriya

This station was opened in 1942 and in operation till 1946. A number of RAF squadrons (8160200203 and 354) and other units were stationed at the airfield during and immediately after the war.

RNAS Station Puttalam (Palavi)

This station was established in 1941 as a Royal Naval Air Service Station jointly by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. It was in operation till 1945.


An Elephant towing a Corsair (Chance Vought F4U) fighter aircraft, at Airfield near Kalpitiya(puttlam), 1944.
Source: Google Images
SLAF Puttlam

RAF Station Kankesanthurai (Palaly)

   This station was in operation from 1941 to 1945. A number of RAF squadrons (160, 203, 292 and 354) and air-sea rescue units were stationed at the airfield during and immediately after the war.  

SLAF , KKS today

RAF Stations at Dambulla and Kalametiya (Tangalle)

No. 30 Squadron of the RAF were deployed at these two stations between the period Aug 1942 to Jan 1944.

“My father had a small holiday home or shooting box on the opposite side of the Kalametiya airstrip. I recall hearing aircraft landing and taking off even in 1946. It was an amazing place with a long airstrip and small buildings”Kumar Soysa

RAF Station Mawathagama

This station located off Kurunegala – Kandy road has catered to the needs of Lord Mountbatten, Commander-in-Chief of SEAC (South East Asia Command) which had its headquarters in Kandy.

“One of the very significant airfields was located at Mawathagama. It was a grass field and up to 1960/61 it was very visible from the air. The airfield catered to the needs of Lord Mountbatten who was the Commander-in-Chief of SEAC during World War 2; with his SEAC Headquarters hidden away in the Peradeniya Gardens. The airfield could take a C47 easily. However; it is no longer to be seen as with the years the villagers encroached it and now there are settlements on it. The last person to land was Walter Fernando in a Chipmunk” – Gp Capt Noor Rahim 

RAF Detachment Kandy (Senkadagalapura) A detachment of RAF No 160 Squadron was deployed at this facility during Aug 1944 and Feb 1945 while the squadron main was based at RAF StationKankesanthurai. The motto and the badge heraldry of the RAF 160 Sqn have been derived from Sinhalese language and tradition / culture.

RAF Transmitter Station Ekala

RAF Ekala was originally built in the 1940s but was greatly enlarged in the early 50s to cope with the increased signals traffic to and from the Far East created by the removal of all the British Forces from India and Pakistan. Once RAF Gan and the Hitaddu transmitter site became fully operational most of the signals traffic was transferred there. The base finally closed down in 1961 when the last British forces left Sri Lanka.

RAF Ekala was the transmission site for the Signals Centre at RAF Negombo, later RAF Staging Post Katunayake and was located several miles from Negombo beside the Ja-ela to Minuwangoda road.

The camp was self-contained and staffed by 35 to 40 men and was administered by the Signals Centre. Most of the staff were radio technicians working shifts to provide and maintain the 24 hour radio relay link with the United Kingdom, some 5,000 miles away.

The station was also part of the Commonwealth Air Forces Network (CAFNet) which provided worldwide signals relay connections to many countries including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, Malta, Canada and the United States.

A small team of aerial erectors maintained the huge aerial farm which surrounded the camp and extended beyond the site into the neighbouring cinnamon plantations. There was also a number of RAF Police dog handlers, a cook, two assistant (local) cooks, a fireman and a Royal Signals signalman.

The domestic site was located adjacent to the road in one corner of the camp. It consisted of two barrack rooms, two short rows of NCO rooms, a cookhouse/dining room, a small club house with a bar and a small bungalow for the CO.

RAF -Ekala
SLAF-Ekala today

RAF Radio Receiving Station Gangodawila

RAF Gangodawila was the receiving station for the Signals Centre at RAF Negombo in Ceylon. Following Independence from Britain RAF Negombo became known as RAF Staging Post Katunayake.



RAF Gangodawila (the current site of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura) in 1957 as seen from
one of the aerial masts prior to the camp closing down.
Source: https://roar.media/english/life/history/sri-lankas-secret-sigint-stations

RAF Anderson Colombo  

Far East Combined Bureau” (FECB) of the Royal Navy settled on the Anderson Golf Links in Narahenpita, Colombo’s third golf course. Here the first purpose-built sigint facility in the East came up, also serving as a direction-finding (DF) facility for the Royal Navy. Named “H. M. S. Anderson”.  Apart from the naval staff, H. M. S. Anderson also held 190 R.A.F. personnel to provide small “Y” parties (consisting of “computers” and telegraphists) to be deployed in ships      to give warning of air attacks.


H.M.S. Anderson, about 1945.
Source: https://roar.media/english/life/history/sri-lankas-secret-sigint-stations

Additional information related to the article.

Source: AVM RA Dayapala, SLAF (Retd

References:

  1. Foot Prints on the Sands of Time: The Story of Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen’s Association
  2. http://www.airforce.lk/history_pages.php?pages=royal_air_force_and_world_war_ii
  3.   https://www.rafstations.co.uk/raf-stations-by-countries
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_former_Royal_Air_Force_stations#Rest_of_the_World
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceylon_in_World_War_II
  6. https://military.wikia.org/wiki/China_Bay_Airport
  7. https://ceylon.guide/2020/04/15/an-airfield-in-the-middle-of-colombo/
  8. http://rafkatunayake.tripod.com/
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratmalana_Airport
  10. http://www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk/FAA-Bases/Trincomalee.htm#.XwrGICgzbIU
  11. http://www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk/FAA-Bases/Katukurunda.htm#.XwrOZigzbIU
  12. http://www.hariggers.co.uk/places.htm
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._160_Squadron_RAF and Google Images
  14. https://roar.media/english/life/history/sri-lankas-secret-sigint-stations
  15. https://books.google.lk/books?id=031WegRPmM8C&pg=PA388&lpg=PA388&dq=receiver+station+horahena
  16. https://worldradiohistory.com/hd2/IDX-Site-Early-Radio/Archive-Radio-News-IDX/IDX/40s/47/Radio-News-                                   

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