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Of aeroplanes and jumbos

By Roger Thiedeman (in Melbourne)

Robert Taylor is a British artist who specialises in aviation paintings. Over a career spanning many years, he has built up an enviable reputation which sees his depictions of wartime scenes and aerial battles commanding substantial prices the world over.


One of Taylor's more celebrated paintings now hangs in the museum of the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton, England. With its title "Puttalam Elephants" it has special significance to Sri Lankan aviation enthusiasts. The painting is based on the somewhat unusual operations of the Royal Navy shore-based fighter aircraft station H.M.S. Rigolia which was located at Puttalam airfield, Ceylon during World War II.


The squadron was equipped with American-built F4U Corsair airplanes.


The Corsair was a beautiful aircraft with a distinctive "gull-wing" look especially when seen from the front. It was a powerful machine that often proved a handful for its pilots, no matter how skilful they were. Visibility from the cockpit was not ideal, and the aircraft had a nasty tendency to bounce violently on landing.


As if the Corsair and its idiosyncrasies were not enough, the Puttalam airfield posed additional problems for the pilots of H.M.S. Rigolia to contend with. The field itself was (and probably still is) surrounded by dense jungle on three sides, while the end closest to the coast was hemmed in by coconut trees.


When the military took over Puttalam airfield during the war they attempted to strengthen the soft grass landing strip by laying down large, perforated steel mesh plates known as Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), or Somerfield tracking. While the PSP enabled heavier aircraft to land at Puttalam with relative ease, the steel surface became very slippery whenever it rained which, during the monsoon period, was often. So whenever a Corsair touched down in such conditions, its tricky landing characteristics combined with the wet PSP to send the aircraft slithering off the runway into the sandy surrounds which the rains had turned into a quagmire. And the result? A Corsair bogged up to its wheels in mud.


This is where the unique feature of H.M.S. Rigolia came into play. The Royal Navy at Puttalam kept a number of elephants on its inventory for the purpose of dragging its stick-in-the-mud Corsairs back onto firmer ground. One elephant was named Fifi, and had her name painted in large letters on her sides.


Commander Sam Macdonald-Hall was one of the pilots attached to the Royal Navy at Puttalam. It was he who gave Robert Taylor the idea for the painting and eventually commissioned it. Macdonald-Hall, supplied Taylor with valuable background information about operations at H.M.S. Rigolia and the sterling service rendered by the "Puttalam Elephants".

In a letter to Taylor, describing landing conditions at Puttalam, he wrote: "After a shower the runway (steel strips) turned to ice, you stamped on the brakes, locked the wheels, and the Corsair slid gracefully into the sand (which turned to mud after rain). Call for the duty elephant. Ropes were fixed to the jumbo's collar, and led to the undercarriage legs of the Corsair, just above the wheels. To get the outfit back on the runway, the elephant had to pull from the opposite side, as jumbo, did not like padding around on the metal tracking. The jockey (mahout) sat on the elephant's neck, clad only in a loin cloth. The elephants also towed the petrol bowsers."


Commander Macdonald-Hall also gave Taylor a rough sketch showing the layout of Puttalam airfield and its surrounds at the time. On it he has annotated such details as: "sea; camp; coast road; palm trees; sand; runway; jungle (dense)". Never having visited Puttalam airfield himself, Robert Taylor relied solely on Macdonald-Hall's description and sketch to produce the painting seen here.


A few months after the painting "Puttalam Elephants" was presented to the museum at Yeovilton, Taylor received a telephone call from another former Royal Navy Corsair pilot who had been stationed at Puttalam. He asked Taylor how he had known he was there, because he (the ex-pilot) had been accurately portrayed in the painting! This must surely be a tribute to the clever imagination and artistic skills of Robert Taylor.


And speaking of his skills, before Taylor began specialising as an aviation artist he spent the first six months as a professional painter drawing nothing but animals, including a number of elephants. Few will disagree that his unerring portrayals of both animals and aeroplanes have come together beautifully in this delightful vignette from wartime Ceylon.

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!