July 2018


Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Secret Order of the Double Sunrise
July 2018




Catalina over Galle

In October 2017 SriLankan Airlines inaugurated daily services between Sri Lanka and Australia. Linking the cities of Colombo and Melbourne while proving popular with passengers from both destinations and beyond, Flights UL604 and 605 operate nonstop across the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.


Words: Roger Thiedeman


On February 4, 2018, a few months after the new flights commenced, Sri Lanka celebrated the 70th anniversary of Independence from Great Britain. But 2018 marks yet another important milestone for Sri Lanka: 75 years since a historic trans-Indian Ocean aerial service was launched between Australia and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It wasn't just any airline route but a vital lifeline during the dark days of World War Two when India, Ceylon, and other parts of British-colonised Southeast Asia were under threat of invasion and occupation, or already overrun, by another foreign power.


Ceylon felt the first real impact of the war when its capital Colombo was attacked by Japanese warplanes on Easter Sunday April 5, 1942. More enemy air raids were unleashed on ground targets and British warships in Trincomalee and off the coast of Batticaloa on April 9. But by then the Japanese had lost the element of surprise, which had also become apparent when they bombed Colombo on April 5.


Later, the former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill described the Japanese advance on Ceylon as "the most dangerous moment" of the war. It was a ‘moment' that began unfolding on April 4, 1942, when a Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engine flying boat (seaplane) of the Royal Air Force (RAF) took off from its base at Koggala Lake, in the south of Sri Lanka, on a routine patrol of the Indian Ocean. In command of the Catalina and its crew was a Canadian pilot, Squadron-Leader Leonard Birchall.


Suddenly, the airmen spotted in the distance a huge fleet of Japanese warships, including aircraft carriers, apparently heading for Ceylon. They immediately radioed a warning back to base, enabling the nation's defence forces to prepare for the enemy's inevitable aerial onslaught.


The story of what happened next to Birchall, his crew and their flying boat, and the subsequent air attack on Ceylon, has been retold many times over the past seven-and-a-half decades, and scarcely needs repeating here. But for the record, the slow-flying Catalina was seen, chased, and shot down by six ‘Zero' fighters from the Japanese armada. Birchall and five of his crew survived the attack, only to be rescued from the sea by the Japanese navy and held captive until the war ended.


To this day, Leonard Birchall and his Catalina crew remain symbols of vigilance, quick-thinking and courage in a time of adversity. Had they not seen the approaching enemy fleet, and warned the authorities, who promptly mobilised squadrons of RAF fighter ‘planes in readiness for aerial combat - some lying in wait at a ‘secret' airfield on the Colombo Racecourse - Japan would have inflicted greater destruction and damage on Ceylon than the country suffered on those two dangerous days in April 1942.


The following year, Koggala Lake and Catalina flying boats combined to play another significant role in the drama that was the Second World War. Singapore's fall to the Japanese on February 15, 1942 caused a sudden stoppage of the ‘Horseshoe Route', a commercial multi-stop airline service between Great Britain and Australia operated jointly by Qantas Empire Airways (QEA) of Australia and Britain's Imperial Airways (which later became BOAC) using Short S.23 Empire flying boats. QEA airplanes flew the ‘leg' from Australia to Singapore, linking with Imperial/BOAC for the longer haul to the UK - and back.

The inaugural service took off from Koggala Lake, eastbound for Nedlands 
on the Swan River in Perth, on Saturday July 10, 1943: 
75 years ago.


With former transit and change-over point Singapore in Japanese hands, an alternative route was sought to maintain this important line of communication between Britain and some of its colonies, not least Australia which was geographically isolated from much of the British Empire. A senior Qantas flying boat commander, Capt. W.H. Crowther, suggested a nonstop service to be flown by QEA Catalinas across the Indian Ocean, bypassing Singapore, between Perth, Western Australia and Koggala Lake in Ceylon. Capt. Crowther's proposed flights would carry only three or four passengers - mainly VIPs - plus freight and mail from Western Australia to Ceylon, and continue onward from Koggala to Karachi (in present-day Pakistan, then still a part of pre-Partition India). At Karachi Harbour, a BOAC flying boat was slated to take over for the remainder of the service to England. This scenario would be played out in reverse for the return trip.


Koggala was already home to Catalina and Short Sunderland flying boats of the RAF. Given the technical and logistical support this afforded, it made Koggala an ideal western terminus for the Catalinas that Capt. Crowther envisaged for the transoceanic route, even if it would test the outer limits of the airplanes' range and endurance. Until then, no aerial sector existed which even approached the nonstop duration of 28 hours estimated for the Indian Ocean crossing between Australia and Ceylon.


However, with Capt. Crowther's plan duly adopted, and a few-proving flights successfully accomplished, Qantas purchased five Catalina flying boats from the RAF. To maximise their capability over the long-haul, over-water journey, the airplanes were stripped of all non-essential equipment, and a few rudimentary passenger seats and auxiliary fuel tanks were installed. In a whimsical touch redolent of nautical tradition, the quintet of ‘Cats' were each named after stars in the Milky Way: Antares, Rigel, Spica, Vega and Altair.

In fact, the Catalinas’ Koggala to Perth nonstop ‘Double Sunrise’ flights which began in 1943 remain the longest in terms of flying time for airline operations.


The inaugural service took off from Koggala Lake, eastbound for Nedlands on the Swan River in Perth, on Saturday July 10, 1943: 75 years ago. (This is contrary to the incorrect date of June 29 inscribed on a commemorative plaque on the bank of the Swan River.) Despite all but two crew members suffering food poisoning, and the added inconvenience of unfavourable headwinds, the Catalina alighted on the Swan a little over 28 hours later.


So began a regular air service that was not only unusual but dangerous too. The ever-present threat of detection by Japanese warplanes demanded that flights operated in strict radio silence throughout almost the entire duration of the long Indian Ocean crossing. The crew could only listen out for any weather reports they might be fortunate to intercept.


For eastbound passengers, the most curious aspect of the 28-hour flight was to see the sun rising twice between takeoff and touchdown. To commemorate this rare encounter, Qantas presented them with a certificate proclaiming their membership of ‘The Secret Order of the Double Sunrise'.


In 1944, the Catalina flying boats on the Indian Ocean nonstop service were augmented with - and subsequently replaced by - Consolidated Liberator landplanes (converted B-24 bombers). Ratmalana aerodrome was the Ceylonese terminus for the latter, but with some limitations. While Liberators inbound from Australia could land at Ratmalana without difficulty, insufficient runway length prevented Perth-bound flights from taking off with a full load of fuel for the long trip eastward.


To overcome this, upon leaving Ratmalana the Liberators first headed for the RAF base at Minneriya. There, their fuel tanks were filled to capacity before lifting off from the longer runway at Minneriya on their marathon journey to Australia. Not until 1945, when runway extensions were carried out (aided by a team of elephants), did Ratmalana become the departure point for Qantas services to Australia. Later still, RAF Negombo (now Katunayake Airport) supplanted Ratmalana as the landplane terminal.


Toward the closing stages of QEA's wartime Indian Ocean operations another landplane type, the Avro Lancastrian (derived from the legendary Lancaster bomber), was used on the route. But on August 6, 1945, when a Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima to effectively end the Pacific War, the writing was on the wall for those nonstop long-distance flights. Singapore, once more under British control, re-established its value and convenience as a staging point on the Britain-Australia aerial route.


On April 5, 1946, the departure from Perth of a QEA Liberator bound for Colombo rang down the curtain on what was the world's longest regular airline sector. In fact, the Catalinas' Koggala to Perth nonstop ‘Double Sunrise' flights, which began in 1943, remain the longest in terms of flying time for airline operations. It is a record that will probably stand unbroken until regular inter-planetary travel becomes a reality!


Today, if you are a passenger on a SriLankan Airlines Airbus A330 jetliner between Colombo and Melbourne or vice versa, spare a thought for the Indian Ocean far beneath your wings. Consider, if only for a moment, how 75 years ago that expanse of sea was ‘conquered' by the intrepid crews and rugged Catalina flying boats (and other airplane types) of Qantas Empire Airways along more or less the same flightpath as you are on today, if at all a considerably lower altitude than your airliner. Importantly, let us not underestimate or forget how the tiny island of Sri Lanka, by virtue of its geographically strategic location, ensured the success of that crucial air route during World War II.


(With acknowledgment to Barry Pattison & Geoff Goodall, co-authors of "Qantas Empire Airways Indian Ocean Service, 1943-1946", published 1979; and thanks to Geoff Goodall and Phil Vabre for supplying illustrations for this article.)

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    Catalina takeoff from Koggala

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    The Secret Order of the Double Sunrise cerficate

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    QEA Catalina at Perth

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    Crew of the first Catalina service to fly from Ceylon to Western Australia. (L–R): Capt R B Tapp, First Officer R C Senior, Radio Officer G W Mumford, Second Officer F S Furniss, Capt W H Crowther, Navigating Officer and Manager Western Operations

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