27th February 2000

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How ceylon was part of a vital aerial lifeline during the dark days of world war II

Koggala, Catalinas, and the double sunrise

By Roger Thiedeman 

A Qantas Catalina flying boat ob Koggala LakeMention Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the context of the Second World War and most people would think of the Japanese air raids of Easter Sunday April 5, 1942. Ceylon's "most dangerous moment" of the war would have been much more horrific were it not for the heroic deeds of a Canadian pilot, Squadron-Leader Leonard Birchall, and the crew of his Catalina flying boat (seaplane). On April 4, patrolling the Indian Ocean from their base at Koggala Lake, they spotted a fleet of Japanese warships in the distance and radioed a warning back to base, a warning that would prepare Ceylon for the inevitable aerial onslaught by the enemy.

His fateful message despatched, Birchall's next priority was to turn and head for Koggala with the greatest of haste. But his slow-flying Catalina was no match for Japanese fighter planes. Six Zero fighters launched from an aircraft carrier shot down the lumbering flying boat like a sitting duck. Birchall and five of his crew survived the attack, only to be fished out of the water and taken captive by the Japanese. Freed when the war ended, their endurance of torture, malnutrition, deprivation of medical supplies and other atrocities at the hands of their captors, was further testament to the courage and fortitude of Birchall and his men.

But Koggala Lake and Catalina flying boats had another significant role to play in World War Two. Today, few would be aware that they combined to help maintain vital links between two far-flung nations in the face of further ravages by the Japanese.

When Singapore was invaded by Japan on February 15, 1942, among the many dire consequences was a sudden stoppage of aerial services between Britain and Australia. The 'Horseshoe Route', as it was known, had hitherto been flown with Short Empire flying boats from two airlines. Qantas Empire Airways operated the Australia-Singapore leg, linking up with Imperial Airways (precursor to BOAC and British Airways) for the longer haul to the United Kingdom.

Now, with Singapore in Japanese hands, alternatives to the route were hastily sought, but these options proved tedious and time-consuming. Things began to look grim until Capt. W. H. Crowther, a Qantas flying boat commander, came up with a suggestion that appeared workable.

His idea was for Qantas to operate flying boats nonstop across the Indian Ocean, carrying passengers, freight and mail from Western Australia to Ceylon, and continuing onwards to Karachi (then still a part of pre-Partition India). From Karachi, a BOAC aircraft would complete the flight to Britain.

But the plan was not as straightforward as first seemed. Until then, no aerial sector existed which even approached the nonstop duration of 28 hours estimated for the Indian Ocean crossing between Australia and Ceylon.

However, after a series of successful route-proving flights, Qantas decided to purchase five Catalina flying boats from the Royal Air Force (RAF). To maximise their range and endurance, the aircraft were stripped of all non-essential equipment, and auxiliary fuel tanks were installed.

Trincomalee was first mooted as the Ceylonese terminal point for the trans oceanic service. However, the necessity for special take-off techniques with a heavily-laden flying boat saw the sheltered waters of Koggala Lake selected in preference to the open seas of China Bay (Trinco). Also in Koggala's favour was the availability of technical support from RAF Catalina and Sunderland flying boat units already stationed there. 

The inaugural service took off from Koggala Lake on July 10, 1943. Despite all but two crew members suffering food poisoning, and the added inconvenience of unfavourable headwinds, the Catalina alighted on the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia just over 28 hours later.

So began a regular air service that was not only unusual but dangerous too. The ever-present threat of detection by Japanese warplanes demanded that flights operated in strict radio silence throughout almost the entire duration of the long Indian Ocean crossing. The crew could only listen out for any weather reports they might be fortunate to intercept.

For eastbound passengers, the most curious aspect of the 28-hour flight was to see the sun rising twice between take-off and touchdown. To commemorate this rare encounter, Qantas presented them with a certificate proclaiming their membership of "The Order of the Double Sunrise".

In 1944, the Catalina flying boats were augmented with Liberator landplanes. Ratmalana aerodrome became the Ceylonese terminus for the latter, but with some limitations. While Liberators inbound from Australia could land at Ratmalana without difficulty, insufficient runway length prevented Perth-bound flights from taking off with a full load of fuel for the long trip eastward. 

To overcome this, the Liberators first headed for the RAF base at Minneriya after leaving Ratmalana. Here, their fuel tanks were filled to capacity before departing from the longer runway at Minneriya on their marathon journey to Australia. Not until 1945, when runway extensions were carried out (aided by a team of elephants!), did Ratmalana become the departure point for Qantas services to Australia. Later still, the RAF airbase at Negombo (now Katunayake) supplanted Ratmalana as the landplane terminal.

Towards the closing stages of the Qantas Indian Ocean operation another landplane type, the Avro Lancastrian (derived from the Lancaster bomber), was used on the route. Indeed, the only fatalities during the three-year history of the service involved a Lancastrian which disappeared without trace during a flight between Negombo and Perth in March 1946.

On August 6, 1945, when a Boeing B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima to effectively end the Pacific war, the writing was on the wall for Qantas Indian Ocean flights. Singapore, once more under British control, re-established its value and convenience as a staging point on the Britain-Australia aerial route.

So, on April 5, 1946, the departure from Perth of a Liberator bound for Colombo rang down the curtain on what was the world's longest regular airline sector. In fact, the Qantas Perth-to-Ceylon nonstop service of 1943-1946 remains the longest in terms of flying time for airline operations, a record that will probably stand unbroken until regular inter-planetary travel becomes a reality!

And not to be underestimated or forgotten is how the tiny island of Ceylon, by virtue of its geographically strategic location, ensured the success of that important aerial lifeline during the dark days of World War Two.

(With acknowledgments to Barry Pattison, co-author with Geoff Goodall, of "Qantas Empire Airways Indian Ocean Service, 1943-1946", published 1979)

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