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.
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
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!