A Letter from Colombo - by Wg Cdr J Barrass (Retd)

Following a recent trip to Colombo John Barrass wrote this personal article about his short time there, and rekindles some of 30 Squadron's history in 1942 - a strongly recommended read!

Singapore fell to the Japanese on 14th February 1942.

30 Sqn's Ratmalana Memorial
The much talked about Memorial, Ratmalana

30 Squadron, which had reformed and refitted with Hurricanes in the Western Desert following the disaster in Crete, was embarked on the carrier HMS Indomitable, bound for Java along with 261 Squadron. However, the Japanese advance was faster than expected and Indomitable was diverted to Ceylon.

Onboard the Indomitable, the two squadrons had 70 brand new Hurricane MkIIb aircraft – so new in fact, they were still in their packing crates! Everyone on the squadrons joined in building the aircraft and the maiden flight, which was also the first time any of the pilots had taken off from a carrier, occurred on the 7th March 1942 when the 30 Squadron aircraft were flown to Ratmalana airfield just south of Colombo.. The fact that all the aircraft, and pilots, survived the experience is testament to the reliability of the Hurricane design and of course the excellence of the 30 Squadron engineers.

Just think about that for a moment – imagine your first take off from an aircraft carrier is in a plane that has never flown before and which you helped build. Quite amazing. As we flew into Colombo, some 67 years later, the weather was probably much the same as the weather encountered by those pilots – broken stratocumulus at about 2,500 feet, with the higher ground obscured by early morning mist and haze, and a strong south westerly breeze. Our Emirates co-pilot called ready for the turn onto final approach – I know this because he transmitted on PA rather than VHF! I’d forgotten how much fun flying could be! Below us was a carpet of dark green tropical forest, paddy fields and coconut palms, little changed since 1942 I’m sure.

The ground crew landed at Trincomalee later on the 7th March, travelled by train to Colombo, and then arrived at Ratmalana 4 hours later – a journey of 7 miles.

They must have used the same taxi as I did. Riding in the back of a Taxi in Sri Lanka is a bit like being an extra in an Indiana Jones movie. They drive on the left, mostly, nose to tail and in a hurry. The drivers prefer to overtake on a blind bend with no hope of squeezing back into the traffic on their left as the inevitable bus and truck approach head on in the opposite direction. In an Indiana Jones movie, after a few minutes of some relentless hair-raising car chase, you tend to think “well this is just fantasy. In reality, they’d all be dead by now”. After 5 minutes, and several near death experiences, the journey began to be quite surreal. By the time we got to the Galle Face Hotel, an hour and a half later we were in need of a drink

'The Green'
The Green as it is seen and used today


On that same day that they arrived in Ceylon, one of 30s most senior pilots landed on the Green, in front of the Galle Face Hotel to prove its potential as a landing ground if necessary.

Today, the Green is almost exactly the same as it was then. It is a popular place for recreation for Colombo’s inhabitants who enjoy flying kites and having picnics there on the weekend. You could land a Herc on the Green no problem.

The Japanese attack occurred on the 5th of April 1942, Easter Sunday.

The newly commissioned radar, at Mount Lavinia a couple of miles west of Ratmalana, failed to pick up the attacking aircraft – some suggest it was switched off for “routine maintenance”. The 30 Squadron crews ran to their aircraft and got airborne straight into a dog fight.

Galle Face Hotel
The Galle Face Hotel directly in front of The Green

Fg Off Don McDonald, “Canada Mac” shot down one Japanese aircraft before being attacked himself. Flt Sgt Tom Paxton came to his aid, shooting down that aircraft, but Don crash-landed on the Galle Face Green in front of the hotel. At that time, the Hotel was a military headquarters and an RAF officer took Don into the Hotel and sat him down with a glass of amber liquid which he assumed was whiskey but turned out to be iced tea.

Mindful of that, I myself had a pint of Newcastle Brown – an enduring sign of civilisation wherever you go in the world.

Bravely, we ventured out onto the roads again to visit the Commonwealth War Grave at Kanatha, where a number of the Squadron are buried including pilots Flt Sgt Tony Ovens, Plt Off Garth Caswell, Flt Sgt Tom Paxton, Plt Off Don Geffene, and Sgt Allan Browne, who were all killed in action on the 5th April. The cemetery also includes the graves of Flt Sgt John Lisle, killed in an unfortunate flying accident on the 20th April 1942, Flt Sgt James Morris, killed in another flying accident later in 1942, Fg Off Robert Niell, LAC Herbert Perks, who died of Typhoid in Jun 1942, Fg Off Basil Smith, who died from injuries sustained in a Beaufort crash in early 1943, and AC1 James Henderson. It is interesting to note that, while 30 was based in Ceylon, as many pilots died in flying accidents as died in combat.

No tale of the 5th of April 1942 should fail to mention Tom Paxton. Tom was one of 30’s more experienced and capable pilots. He shot down 2 Luftwaffe aircraft over the Western Desert earlier in 1942 and shot down 2 Japanese aircraft on the 5th of April. Having shot down the aircraft on Don McDonald’s tail, he himself was attacked and his aircraft caught fire; although it was getting hot in the cockpit, and the throttle was too hot to hold, Tom pressed home his attack on another enemy aircraft before baling out and landing in a tree. He suffered 2nd degree burns and was not considered seriously injured but he died as a result of secondary shock 2 days later.

Tom Paxton
"Beautiful memories are all that is left of dear Tommy, one of the best"
The inscription on his gravestone reads: “Beautiful memories are all that is left of dear Tommy, one of the best” He was 20 years old.

There is a very heavy police and military presence in Colombo with frequent checkpoints. Many of the checkpoints are run by the air force, whose uniforms look similar to those of the air cadets back home. Most of the airmen look about 15 years old as well. They were certainly polite and my discomfort was probably due to the experience of working with so many aircrew who took great pains not to be seen as being competent enough to be trusted with a weapon.

The locals weren’t just worried about attacks from the ground; at the rear of the hotel, overlooking the pool, was what you might describe as a flak tower – facing inland. Some years ago, the Tamil Tigers attacked the nearby air force headquarters by helicopter, very successfully, although the assault force was killed. The war may be over according to the headlines and the politicians, but the security forces seem loathe to relax their guard just yet – probably quite wisely; the grievances between the minority Tamils and the governing Sinhalese are far from being resolved.

Two other pilots, Fg Off James Harris and WO John Pollock, are buried in the Liveramentu cemetery in Colombo, a peaceful and very well kept place – the gardener I met there had worked there for 35 years and knew everyone in his care, taking me straight to John Pollock’s grave even though I was probably the first person ever to visit him.

30 Squadron was a truly international squadron, with members from the Dominions, all over the Empire, and the United States. Don Geffene, whose grave I have so far failed to locate, was an American from California, as was “Smokey” Harris. Basil Smith was a New Zealander, John Pollock and John Lisle Canadian, Allan Browne, Garth Caswell, and Robert Neill were all Australian.

At the end of that day in 1942, 30 Squadron had only 7 serviceable aircraft out of 22 available at the start of the day, 5 pilots had been killed in action and 2 injured. The Squadron had, however, fought well, claiming eleven kills, seven “probables” and five damaged enemy aircraft – 23 aircraft that most likely did not make it back to the carrier group. This was quite an achievement given that the Hurricane was out-classed by the Zero. In the attacks on Ceylon, the Japanese lost 70 aircraft. More importantly, they lost 70 experienced crews and three of the five carriers had to return to Japan for a refit. Those carriers and crews were therefore not present at the subsequent decisive naval battles that turned the tide of the war – it is in the light of those events that we should judge the 30 Squadron contribution on the 5th April 1942.

There is one member of the Squadron buried in the war cemetery at Kandy, some 120 miles inland from Colombo.

LAC Sydney Smith died on the 30th January 1943 from burns sustained when a petrol stove in the Officers’Mess exploded. He was 21 years old. The inscription on his stone reads: “He gave his greatest gift of all, his own unfinished life”

Not all the sacrifices were on the battlefield. Having gone to such lengths to find him, the driver asked if Sydney was a friend of mine; I must look older than I think.

The Kandy Cemetery
The Kandy cemetery is on a hillside; the graves are surrounded by flowers, and the view is quite breathtaking; it is a truly beautiful place. According to the warden there, many of the graves are actually empty; the remains were moved from other burial places and buried in a pit near the entrance. What actually rests under the headstones are small items of personal effects, cap badges, medals, that sort of thing, and in some cases body parts or ashes. Nevertheless, a very tranquil place, somewhere to reflect on all that happened in April 1942.

At a dinner in Washington, just after the end of the war, Churchill was asked what he felt had been the most dangerous and distressing moment in the war; he gave a surprising reply – in his opinion, the most dangerous moment, and the one which gave him most cause for alarm was when he received news that the Japanese fleet was making for Ceylon. The capture of Ceylon, he said, and the subsequent control of the Indian Ocean, combined with a possible German conquest of Egypt, would have “closed the ring”, and the future would have been bleak.

There’s no doubt that I viewed the risks very differently as a youngster myself and as a flight commander on operations, but as the father of a 17 year old son, the price paid seems awfully high, but the achievements of the Squadron in Ceylon are something we should rightly take great pride in. It is an honour to have served on the same squadron.

We then set off on the 3 hour death ride back to Colombo. After a short distance, the driver stopped to point out a rope footbridge across a gorge with white water rushing below. “They filmed Indiana Jones movie here” he said – Hmm, I know which one: Indiana Jones and the taxi to Colombo.