WORLD War 2 was more than just a chapter in the history books for the Talalla family.
The two eldest sons of business tycoon Hewage Benjamin Talalla played an important role in providing air support for the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
Henry and Cyril Talalla, with the encouragement of their father, joined the British Royal Air Force (RAF) without a second thought when the call for pilots went out to countries in the British Commonwealth.
The brothers enrolled in the Malayan Volunteer Air Force in Singapore in 1940. Cyril became the first Asian and non-European to pass the rigid RAF entrance test and enrol as a cadet at the government flying school the year after.
Cyril survived the war, but Henry was killed when his fighter-bomber was shot down in France on July 25, 1944.
Retired High Court judge Richard Talalla, 84, remembers the day his brothers left home.
“They left when I was 11. I was old enough to remember that day.”
Richard said Henry was so busy bidding his friends goodbye that he was late for his flight.
“The aircraft had to wait for him. My father told him off for being late.”
The brothers were excited about joining the RAF and thought it was a great adventure.
He said the family gave them their full support and were proud that the brothers were fighting in the war.
“My parents did not realise the carnage. They thought it would be for a short time. They didn’t expect it to go on for five years and cause the whole world to turn upside down. They were never prepared for that.”
He said Henry and Cyril were equally proud of each other.
“Cyril was a commissioned officer and Henry was a warrant officer. Cyril, who was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Queen (Mary), used to visit Henry at his mess. Henry was very proud of Cyril and used to show him off to other warrant officers.”
Cyril, in turn, reckoned Henry was the better pilot because the latter had carried out more dangerous missions.
“They were the best of friends. Can you imagine, with all the war and enemy aircraft everywhere, Cyril went out alone with no fighter support to look for Henry when he heard that his plane had been downed? It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. It takes lots of courage to do that,” Richard said with pride.
In Malaya, the fact that two Talalla family members were serving the RAF was not taken lightly by the Japanese.
In early 1942, the Talalla family, including their extended family and friends, were caught and locked up by the Japanese for alleged camaraderie with the British.
“My (other) brothers were tortured badly and they were not very kind to my mother. It broke my father completely. He never recovered.”
At that time, he said, the family had also completely lost touch with Cyril and Henry.
“They (the brothers), too, did not know what happened here. They did not know whether we were dead or alive. They thought the worst had happened to us. It was very frightening.”
Richard said the family found out about Henry through Force 136, a British-led resistance group.
“Force 136 sent us two messages: - one saying that Henry was missing in action, and the second one that Cyril was doing well. We were all very concerned and my mother refused to accept that anything could have happened to Henry.”
However, Richard said, when it was confirmed that Henry was killed, the news broke his mother’s heart.
Their father, who never took “no” for an answer, went to England and to France to find out what had happened.
“He went to the Air Ministry in London and got all the information he needed from them. He then went to France to track Henry’s remains. He dragged them all out and got whatever he wanted.”
Their father, said Richard, managed to track down Louis Bree, the farmer who found Henry’s grave by the side of his Typhoon plane on his farm in Airan, France.
Henry’s remains were exhumed a few years later and reburied at the Banneville-la-Campagne British War Cemetery at Calvados, France.
Cyril, upon his return to Malaya in 1945, changed his name to Jimmy.
Richard said Cyril was terribly affected by the war but never showed it.
He said Cyril never wanted to talk about the war and it was a taboo subject in the family.
“Many of his comrades and his brother were killed in the war. These people who survived felt that they had no right to live.”
Cyril died in 1973 at the age of 53 in Wales.
In 1996, the route between Airan and Moult in France was officially named Route Henry Talalla.
Last month, Cyril was commemorated in a ceremony in a village near Airan. Thirty-two Talalla family members from as far as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Malaysia, attended the ceremony.