The Passing of a True Canadian Hero: The Savior of Ceylon

September 12th, 2004  

Topic: The Passing of a True Canadian Hero: The Savior of Ceylon

Air Commodore Leonard J. Birchall, CM, OBE, DFC, CD, OofO died last night in Kingston at age 89. He fought a brave battle with cancer for many months.

A/C Birchall, a Life Member of the OPC had first become a Director in 1983. He was also an Air Cadet League of Canada Honorary Director.

A/C Birchall was born and raised in St Catharines. Growing up in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, he became interested in flying at an early age and joined the St. Catharines Flying Club. He attended Royal Military College, which he would later be the Commandant of, and upon graduation in 1937 was commissioned in the RCAF. In the early years of WWll he flew flying boats in Canada and the Shetland Islands. His squadron, 413, of which he was the Honorary Colonel at the time of his death, was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1942.

At the conclusion of his crew's very first patrol, Squadron Leader Birchall sighted the Japanese fleet steaming toward Ceylon, preparatory to launching a surprise attack similar to the one the same fleet had carried out on Pearl Harbour. Birchall and his crew desperately sent signals alerting Allied units as carrier-based Zeros attacked the Catalina. This action permitted weaker naval units to avoid detection and enabled forces on the island critical time to prepare a strong defense. He sent off a signal alerting of the fleet and continued to gather intelligence. His Canso aircraft was shot down by a Japanese fighter and ditched. After ditching in the ocean, Birchall and his crew were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and subsequently interrogated and beaten. Birchall was held as a Japanese prisoner of war for 3 years and 4 months.

The British Fleet avoided destruction and Ceylon defended itself well. For that action and results he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Churchill called him the Savior of Ceylon, saying he changed the course of the war.

As the senior Allied officer in the compound, Birchall displayed the utmost concern for the welfare of his fellow prisoners, often disregarding his own safety. While in captivity at the Yokohama Camp, he called a sit-down strike in protest against ill-treatment of his men. On another occasion, when the Japanese wanted to send sick prisoners of war to work, Birchall physically intervened. However, each time Birchall stood firm on behalf of his men, his captors made good on their promise to punish him.On his release he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry. The citation: "As senior Allied Officer in the camps in which he was located he continually displayed the utmost concern for the welfare of his fellow prisoners. A/C Birchall returned for the Far East War Trials after the war.

Post war, A/C Birchall's distinguished career saw him be the Air Attache in Washington, Commanding Officer in Goose Bay, Military Attache at NATO HQ, Paris, and Commanding Officer, North Bay, before ending his career in 1967 as Commandant RMC for four years. Post military he was very active in educational institutions and in the military community and military associations. He was notably Honorary Colonel of 400 Squadron in Toronto for over 17 years. He had five clasps to his Canadian Decoration.

A/C Birchall was very found of Air Cadets and was Reviewing Officer at numerous Annual Inspections and Reviews, most recently at 779 Black Knight Squadron, Mount Hope in 2001. At his own expense, he built a children's summer camp near Kingston, Ontario and sent eight tons of hospital relief supplies to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.
Canadians and the world will mourn A/C Birchall, a symbol of Canada and what it stands for.