6th July 1997


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The Rajaliya of Puttalam

by Roger Thiedeman (in Melbourne)

In the Sunday Times of February 2, 1997, in an article titled Of aeroplanes and jumbos, I told the story of ‘Puttalam Elephants’, a painting by celebrated aviation artist Robert Taylor. The painting was based on actual, wartime events at the Puttalam airbase of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, where elephants were used to haul the squadron’s Corsair fighter planes back onto firmer ground whenever they became bogged in the mud after monsoonal rain.

Never having visited Puttalam himself, Robert Taylor ‘constructed’ his painting solely on the strength of a few notes and a rough sketch of the airfield given to him by Commander Sam Macdonald-Hall, one of the British officers who had flown Fleet Air Arm Corsairs at Puttalam.

In his notes to Taylor, Commander Macdonald-Hall had written the name of the shore station as ‘H.M.S. Rigolia’.

Not knowing any different, I repeated that name in my Sunday Times article. Macdonald-Hall had also spelt Puttalam as ‘Puttleham’-which should have alerted me to the possibility that ‘Rigolia’ too was incorrect.

Just recently I discovered that the Fleet Air Arm base at Puttalam was not called ‘Rigolia’ but H.M.S. Rajaliya (Sinhala for ‘eagle’). So, I wish to tender my apologies to those left scratching their heads in puzzlement after reading my previous article on the ‘Puttalam Elephants’ with its reference to ‘H.M.S. Rigolia’.

The mistake became apparent when I was given two photographs (with detailed captions) taken at H.M.S. Rajaliya, Puttalam during the latter stages of World War II. One shows a group of Royal Navy personnel posing in front of a F4U Corsair aircraft in 1944. The men are from No.1 Corsair squadron of the Naval Operational Training Unit, South East Asia Command (SEAC).

The second photo depicts the company of shore station H.M.S. Rajaliya on 8 May, 1945, listening to an official announcement that the war in Europe had ended.

Perhaps this news was also joyously received by the famed Puttalam elephants, knowing they could soon return to more ‘elephantine’ tasks instead of extricating those noisy, smelly flying machines from the mud!

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