Wednesday, December 30, 2009


On April 2, 1942 Flight Lieutenant Leonard Joseph Birchall, DFC, OBC from St Catharines, Ontario was assigned a posting to Columbo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Leonard and his air crew, were sent to Sri Lanka to hopefully help stem the recent tide of military disasters that had already befallen the Allies (SEAC - South East Asian Command), in the Pacific South East, since the Imperial Japanese Navy's recent attack on Pearl Harbour.

Remember, "Pearl Harbour" was less than five page flips on the calendar or, for linear thinkers… only five short months ago at this point.

The Japanese had been quite busy since.

Right after Pearl Harbour… Japan had attacked Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaya! Soon thereafter, while on the march again, they attacked Burma, the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

The Japanese war pace was swift. And successful. Honestly, the Allies were taking a beating.

British Navy ships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales had just been sunk by the Japanese.

Thailand had fallen, and then allied itself with Japan.

Malaya soon fell.

Hong Kong finally fell. But the Canadian forces, there at least, had held back the attacking Japanese for an unbelievable 17 days!

But now, even Northern Australia, was under siege! Yikes!

Folks, in the early 40s, Japanese victories were counted in days, not weeks.

That's why Birchall's unit, 413 Squadron RCAF, had been hurriedly dispatched to Sri Lanka; to immediately bolster area surveillance for any Japanese activity, or for any incursion attempts into the remaining, and precariously held, Allied territory.

The Allies just couldn't afford any more losses in the South Pacific to the Axis!

It would be only TWO DAYS after his arrival, that Birchall's new posting, would pay off for the Allies.

Late afternoon, April 4, F/L Birchall was on long patrol.

Wait! He thought he saw a a tiny smudge over on his southeast horizon.

Better have a look, he thought. The large PBY Catalina floatplane Leonard was flying was gently coaxed to its starboard side, and was now on an intercept course with this mysterious "smudge".

As Birchall and his crew flew closer, he and his crew were all alone, should they meet up with the enemy.

Worst fears were soon confirmed! It was the Japanese!

And not just a lone ship. A task force of the Imperial Japanese Navy!

They would have to get the hell outta' there… but not before they got closer, unbelievably! Yes, CLOSER!

NUMBERS, COURSE, and SPEED of the Japanese Imperial Fleet had to be accurately determined, and radioed back to base!

As more ships kept appearing over the horizon… Birchall finally counted five aircraft carriers, four newer class battleships, attendant cruisers, and destroyers. This was a large and threatening force, Leonard noted.

WAS THIS the very fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbour five months previous?

Their RCAF Catalina was soon spotted. Birchall could see in the distance Japanese Zeros rising up from the aircraft carriers. Flying at only 2,000 feet, soon those distant Zero fighter-planes were on the attack, and all over Leonard's lumbering Catalina. All 12 of them!

But it was too late for the Japanese. Too late!!

Leonard's crew HAD sent off two encoded messages straight back to their base at Columbo.

The presence of the Japanese Imperial Fleet was now known by the Allies! This action of discovery, by Birchall and his crew, would later be praised by the then larger-than-life prime minister of Great Britain, none other than Winston Churchill, himself!

The Canadian press would refer to Birchall as the "Saviour of Ceylon".

The Royal Navy's Indian Ocean Fleet had gotten the heads up. With plenty of time to prepare, and respond. They now knew the Japanese Navy was on the way. There would be no second Pearl Harbour, this time.

It didn't end as nicely for Birchall.

Wish we could say differently—

Leonard's Catalina, now badly shot up, damaged beyond imagination, and on fire, lurched downward. Birchall skillfully piloted the gravely wounded bird down, until it's flight controls no longer responded!

… and thus it finally crash landed on the seas below.

Once down the Catalina was quickly evacuated. The severely wounded of Birchall's crew were fitted with life jackets, and pushed out, and away, from the sinking floatplane.

UNBELIEVABLY, the Zeros continued their attack! The defenceless, and helpless wounded, were fired on, and murdered! Wearing their Mae Wests, they couldn't dive to escape the Zero's strafing runs!!

Birchall, and the men of his that escaped these merciless Zeros, were soon picked up by a Japanese destroyer.

Once on board they were treated brutally. They were violently interrogated. Had they dispatched a warning message back to their home base?

Yes or No?

During their torture, Birchall encouraged his crew.

These RCAF airmen never did reveal to their torturers that messages, had indeed, been sent.

In the meantime, these Canadian heroes were housed in a small paint locker where one person could stand, two could sit, and only one could lay down. They had to sleep in turns. They received no medical attention, and very little food.

Eventually, they were transferred out, to another ship, and sent back to Japan.

The Japanese military who, by edict of the Emperor were not allowed to surrender, looked down on captured Allied personnel who allowed themselves to be taken alive. And the Japanese PoW camps were well known to harshly treat their captured, who they deemed as ethically inferior.

In spite of this, Birchall who spent almost 40 months as a PoW, and was often the most senior officer present, protested the abuse of prisoners at his camp. He stood up to his Japanese captors. And he was routinely beaten as a reward.

When Birchall's camp was finally liberated by the Allies, his acts of courage were relayed back home.


Was Birchall really the "Saviour of Ceylon?"

The Sri Lankans at the time certainly thought so. But we now realize that this was not the case. The Japanese only intended to raid Ceylon's two main ports, Columbo and Trincomalee.

So what did Birchall really do?

He saved the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy's Indian Ocean Fleet, that is. Birchall allowed them to get away to their secret base in Addu Atoll, 1,121 kilometres away. Upon word of Birchall's sighting, the British High Command ordered the Indian Ocean Fleet, to preserve themselves, for future operations.

Canadian F/L Leonard Joseph Birchall was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his discovery, and subsequent reporting of the position of the Imperial Japanese Navy Fleet in the South Seas. This action caused his airplane to be shot down, and his crew to be taken prisoner. This correspondence saved the Royal Navy from surprise attack in the South Pacific. Mr. Birchall was also awarded the Order of the British Empire for his courageous actions, taken to protect his fellow prisoners, while he was a PoW.

In 1950, US President Harry Truman appointed Birchall an officer of the Legion of Merit, saying: "His exploits became legendary throughout Japan and brought renewed faith and strength to many hundreds of ill and disheartened prisoners."

Air Commodore Leonard Joseph Birchall, CM, OBE, DFC, O.Ont, CD, Order of Canada became the longest serving officer in the RCAF (Air Commodore) and received a fifth bar to his CD in 1996, for six decades of military service in times of both war and peace! He died on September 10, 2004.

(PICTURED ABOVE: Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's "Catalina". Birchall's SEAC Catalina was not likely painted in the same colour scheme as this, which is David Hornell's Catalina (really Canso) flying toward us. Birchall's Catalina was mostly olive green.)

©2009 Paul Cardin - Special Projects in Research


Anonymous said...

St. Catharines (sp)

Anonymous said...
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