Malaysians Henry and Cyril Talalla were fighter pilots for the British Air Force in World War II
Brothers Henry Conrad Benjamin Talalla and Cyril Lionel Francis Talalla might have been expected to find their feet in the successful business started by their father Hewage Talalla in the first decades of the 20th century. But the brothers chose a different path.
As the Second World War broke and Nazi Germany quickly gained ground in mainland Europe, Britain called out for pilots from the Commonwealth. Barely out of school, the brothers answered the call, enrolling in the Malayan Volunteer Air Force in Singapore. The pair already had some flying experience, having joined the Kuala Lumpur Flying Club.
Newspaper reports from the time show that Cyril, the younger of the two, went on to become a cadet for the Royal Air Force in 1941, at the time a rare achievement for a non-European. His brother Henry followed a little later. They received further training in Canada before making their way to Britain at the height of the war. Both brothers were trained on Hurricane aircraft but soon graduated to the newest fighter jets of the time, the Spitfire and the Typhoon.
On 6 June 1944, Allied forces made up of American, British and Commonwealth troops began a combined naval, air and land assault on occupied France. The Allies landed on beaches on the Normandy coast, starting a long and eventually successful campaign to free Europe from German occupation.
Henry and Cyril were part of this assault, providing aerial cover for Allied troops on the ground and sea. While Allied forces made good progress, making inroads into occupied territory, their successes came at a cost and the number of Allied casualties were high.
Battling to make further ground on 25 July that year, Henry's Typhoon fighter plane was hit by fire from German tanks and went down over farmland between the towns of Airan and Moult in the Normandy region of northwestern France and was presumed lost.
Hearing the news, Cyril flew over the area to look for his brother, but it was a tough ask. In the landscape of war and destruction, finding the wreckage of a single aircraft was a forlorn hope.
Members of the French Resistance later found Henry's body and buried him close to the wreckage of the Typhoon. He was 24 years old.
Despite the loss of his brother, Cyril continued to fly and by Christmas of 1944 had completed his last sortie over occupied territory. He spent the rest of the war outside active duty as a flight instructor. Over the course of the war he had been in active duty over Britain, the English Channel and occupied Europe. Cyril was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service and bravery.
Back home in Malaya, the Talalla clan had little news of Henry and Cyril. A news blackout prevailed as the country fell to the Japanese Imperial Army and lasted until the end of the war in 1945. Shocked at the news of Henry's death, the resourceful Hewage Talalla set off to London to find out more about the whereabouts of his son’s body, eventually finding the spot where he was buried. Henry's remains were later moved to the Banneville-la-Campagne British Cemetery.
Cyril returned to Malaya in 1945, later becoming an air traffic controller before he joined his father's firm. He passed away in August 1973. He was 53. Henry and the 150 Typhoon pilots who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign are remembered in a memorial in the town of Noyers Bocage. In 1996, the motorway between the villages of Airan and Moult was officially named Route Henry Talalla in honour of the young man from Kuala Lumpur.
*Editor’s Note: Part of the facts in the article were sourced from Victoria Institution's webpage.