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SLAF China Bay: Where aviation history remains alive

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RAF Fulmar aircraft

The Trincomalee area is embellished with military history from decades ago. This town in the Eastern Province has many chapters of history associated with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The Royal Navy maintained naval installations in Trincomalee and the Royal Air Force (RAF) had established an aerodrome in China Bay, Trincomalee before the onset of war. After the fall of Singapore the Royal Navy’s East Indies Station was moved to Colombo and then to Trincomalee. The fixed land defences consisted of four coastal batteries at Colombo and five at Trincomalee; these were established just before the war. Air defences were expanded starting in 1941 with the RAF occupying the civil airfield at Ratmalana with its station headquarters set up at Kandawala. Another airfield was rapidly built at Koggala and several temporary airstrips were built across vintage Ceylon.

Several Royal Air Force Squadrons were sent to Ceylon to augment the air power of the Allied Forces. Commonwealth units were also stationed in Ceylon for the duration of the war. I journeyed to China Bay to discover its hidden chapters from a bygone era when Ceylon was targeted by the Japanese. The large gates of SLAF China Bay open to welcome you into its massive premises. Today it is the head quarters of the Eastern Air Command of the Sri Lanka Air Force. It also houses the esteemed Air Force Academy. The present commandant is Air Commodore Bandu Edirisinghe. This base is also home to the No 1 Flying Training Wing, which is the cradle of all SLAF aviators. Its other formations include the No-3 Maritime Squadron, Ground Training Wing (GTW), Junior Command and Staff College (JC&SC).

Royal Air Force

As we delve into history, once it became clear that Germany was a threat, the Royal Air Force started on a large expansion, with many airfields being set up and the number of squadrons increased. From 42 squadrons with 800 aircraft in 1934, the Royal Air Force had reached 157 squadrons and 3,700 aircraft by 1939, in all allied theatres of combat. The RAF had three major combat commands based in the United Kingdom: RAF Fighter Command charged with defence of the UK, RAF Bomber Command (formed 1936) which operated the bombers against the enemy and the RAF Coastal Command which would protect Allied shipping and attack enemy shipping. Tactical air doctrine stated that the primary mission was to turn tactical superiority into complete air supremacy—to totally defeat the enemy air force and obtain control of its air space. This could be done directly through dogfights, raids on airfields and radar stations, by attacking aircraft factories and fuel supplies. The next priority mission was “close air support” to ground units on the battlefront which consisted of bombing targets identified by ground forces, and strafing exposed enemy infantry.

The airfield and air station at China Bay has a mesmerizing history. According to old records the airfield was opened in August 1939 with the 273 Squadron. The early air fleet included Fulmars and Wildebeest aircraft. The air squadron was initially placed here for the protection of the naval fleet and the large oil storage tanks. By March 1942 the 261 Squadron also flew into China Bay with 8 Hurricanes (MK1) and 23 Hurricanes (MK2). Later Hurricanes, Spitfires and Catalina boat planes joined the RAF fleet at China Bay. The allied forces were aware of the impending aerial threat from the Japanese long range bombers. On April 1942 the defiant Japanese aircraft flew over Ceylon unleashing their bombs on Colombo and Trincomalee. The air field at China Bay was bombarded and some aircraft destroyed. British anti-aircraft gun crews fired back at the invading Japanese. One of the enemy pilots initiated a Kamikaze run and rammed his plane into one of the large oil storage tanks, causing a raging inferno.

Amidst the sunshine we walked towards the runway and control tower. It was exciting to view this runway from where British aircraft once took off to counter enemy attacks. By June 30, 1943 work was begun to extend the airfield at China Bay with a large workforce of 1,400 workers from Cochin, India. In January 1944 the RNAS took over the operation of China Bay and renamed the venue as HMS Bambara (meaning hornet in Sinhalese). By March 1944 the runway extension was successfully completed. The Royal Air Force now had the capacity to safely store 43,560 gallons of fuel for their needs. An American B-25 aircraft landed at China Bay to test the new runway.

In the year 1944, during World War II, the British used the runway at China Bay to re-capture Malaya. A large fleet of B-29 bombers flew into China Bay. On completion of the mission they returned to China Bay on their onward journey to Britain.

Subsequently the RAF handed over China Bay to the Royal Navy on November 14, 1944. The control of China Bay airfield was taken over by the Royal Ceylon Air Force in November 1957 as part of the agreement reached between Britain and Ceylon. In 1972, with Sri Lanka becoming a republic, Royal Ceylon Air Force Base China Bay was renamed as Sri Lanka Air Force Base China Bay.

Career advancement

On March 6, 1976, Flying Training Wing and the Ground Training Wing were established within the Sri Lanka Air Force Base China Bay, and it was renamed as the Air Force Academy in 1976. At present this institution can accommodate almost 1,800 personnel who come here for advanced career development courses. Cadet Officers already under basic training from the Combat Training School (CTS) Diyatalawa come for additional training to the China Bay Academy. Senior airmen also attend courses here on leadership for career advancement. Commissioned officers in the rank of Flight Lieutenant and Squadron Leader attend the Junior Command and Staff College. The Junior Command and Staff College of Sri Lanka Air Force is affiliated to the University of Kelaniya.

This course augments their management skills to lead the men and women under their command. This academy also trains the Air Traffic Controllers of the Sri Lanka Air Force. Members of the Air Force Police (AFP) visit China Bay for their basic and advance training phases. In order to enhance the learning experience the academy has its own library and IT rooms. There is a firing range for advanced marksmanship training. Other facilities include a modern gym, squash court and basketball court. The sprawling garden laced with trees creates a green environment conducive for studying. Life on this academy is a refreshing experience for all the officers and other ranks. The present Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana has also served the academy as a commandant. Sri Lanka Air Force Base located at China Bay sustains its beautiful legacy from the vintage era of the Royal Air Force.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021 – 01:00

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