Aimée  Jonklaas Williams: RAF Pilot in Wartime …. and a Remarkable Life

R.T. conveying a Vale from “City Dweller” …. [it is now revealed that “R.T.” is Roger Thiedeman of Melbourne

In July this year [2000], Aimée  Jonklaas Williams, a woman of Ceylonese birth, died in Spain, just short of her 81st birthday. Her ashes were interred in an English village on July 20. Early in August, in another Sri Lankan newspaper, a close friend using the pseudonym “City Dweller” wrote a moving tribute in celebration of the life of this remarkable woman.


Aimée Gholdstein Jonklaas, born on August 19, 1919, was the youngest child of E.G. Jonklaas, a proctor of Gampola, and his wife Amelia (nee Daniel). Her siblings were Ernest, Ninette and Cecil. After early schooling at a convent in South India, Aimee completed her formal education, then went to the United Kingdom. It was here, during World War II that Aimée joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), a move that would have a profound effect on her life.

“City Dweller” enumerated the many qualities that Aimée possessed. She was a clever and “fast” cook, always leaving behind a fastidiously clean kitchen. A graceful dancer, Ms. Jonklaas’s aim was to live life at the optimum. According to the anonymous writer, “Man, woman or child, Aimee made time for them, and if she met a person for the first time her enthusiasm for life left a stranger breathless. Intelligence, bounding energy, beauty and charm were Aime.”

One of Aime’s great loves was the Yala wild life sanctuary. During the Fifties and Sixties, she organised jungle trips for herself and her friends, attending to all the minute details with slick efficiency. They would camp in tents, usually beside a river, for days at a time. In the true spirit of outdoor adventure, Aime and her companions washed their clothes and bathed in the river, cooked meals over firewood, and sat patiently for hours in trees and hideouts waiting to observe the abundant wildlife.

Describing Aime’s vibrant, energetic character, “City Dweller” did not disclose, but only hinted at, her claim to fame: a career as arguably Ceylon’s only female military pilot during the Second World War.

It began when, as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in Britain, Aimée  met and married a Belgian Squadron Leader of the Netherlands Air Force named Gilles de Neve. Sadly, only a few days after their wedding, de Neve was shot down and killed, leaving Aimée a young war-widow.

Enlisting in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) of the WAAF, Aimée became a pilot herself. Although women were not permitted to fly combat missions, ATA pilots like Aimée played a vital role ferrying warplanes from factories and maintenance units to RAF squadrons all over the British Isles.

Remarkably, the women flew these aircraft all by themselves, and the types of aeroplanes they operated would vary from day to day.

Aimée Jonklaas de Neve learnt to fly in small planes, then graduated to the Harvard, an American trainer. She described it as “Very exciting! The Harvard felt so powerful after all the light aircraft and Marks (her instructor) liked to give me quite frightening shocks to make sure I was awake!”

Then, echoing the sentiments of thousands before and after, she was exhilarated when her turn came to fly a Spitfire solo for the first time: My first Spitfire flight was unbelievable! This beautiful aircraft was actually all mine for a brief time. I was rather worried when I had to do several circuits, as a RAF aircraft had done a belly landing, and I had all the red flares, etc. thrown at me”.

In 1945, Aimée de Neve left the air force and married again. Her second husband was a Norwegian naval officer, Jan Helen, a native of Bergen. Living in Norway, they had three children, Teeny, Erik and Jan Ernest, born in 1946, 1949 and 1953 respectively. Their children are now all married and domiciled in England, Norway and the United States.

Aimée kept her hand in as a flying instructor in Norway, much to the initial consternation of her students, to whom a female instructor was a rarity.

Much later, after her second marriage ended in divorce, Aime met Mark Williams in Sri Lanka. They were married in a small ceremony at South Kensington, London.

During her latter years, Aimée Jonklaas Williams lived a life of quiet retirement in Brighton, England. Despite failing health, she maintained regular contact with her many friends and relatives scattered all over the globe.

With her passing, the final chapter has closed on one of Sri Lanka’s unsung heroines. A woman who, contrary to the norms and conventions of her gender, made a sterling contribution to the Allied cause during the dark and dangerous days of World War Two.

Roger Thiedeman
Melbourne, Australia

****  *****


A Note from Anoma Abeyewardene, 5 January 2021: “According to Mr Kirinde, Aimée Jonklaas was in the Air Transport Auxiliary.  This is a link to the ATA museum in Maidenhead.  If you select ‘Singalese’ as Nationality and search you will find Earle Nicol and Clarence Perera listed but I couldn’t find Ms Jonklaas, not even under her married name Williams(?)”

RESPONSE from Kumar Kirinde, 7 January 2021

Just to recap: Aimée was a British citizen when she joined the ATA. So her name will  not appear in any search done on Sri Lankans under whatever category. Next is that her name is listed as Aimée  de Nerve with nationality as British, and she has joined ATA soon after the death of her first husband Gilles de Neve, a Squadron Leader of the Netherlands Air Force.   Then her name is also listed as Aimée Jonklaas Williams going by husband Mark Williams.  All these facts are  captured in the doc I have compiled with following web records shown as supporting evidence

A FURTHER NOTE from Anoma Abeyewardene, 6 January 2021

My class mate Ananda Samaraweera was the one who brought Aimée  Jonklaas to my attention and the person who undertook most of the research.

With respect I think you should elaborate a little on the  duties of a war time ferry pilot to ensure that readers realise that this was a world away from the garage mechanic who brings your Hyundai home after a service. Today you could be ferrying a Spitfire, tomorrow a four-engined Lancaster and the day after that a biplane Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber. It would have been like ferrying the aforementioned Hyundai today and a giant articulated Volvo HGV tomorrow. It was a demanding task  Even the flying skills of fighter pilots weren’t tested in that way….. 


In 1930 when a third of women worked in domestic service, and the choice for most others was between being a typist, a factory worker, or a homemaker, 18 year old Jean Lennox Bird got her pilot’s licence. Yet despite this, and her four years service with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) delivering aircraft in World War II, Pilot Officer Jean Lennox Bird of the WRAF Volunteer Reserve had to wait until 1952, aged 40, to gain her RAF wings at Redhill Aerodrome.

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January 6, 2021 · 3:05 pm

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