WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


Ceylon's saviour

Winston Churchill called it 'the most dangerous moment' of World War II. The moment when the Japanese Fleet was steaming towards Ceylon for a surprise attack on the British Fleet.

But it was not to be another Pearl Harbour. For on April 4, 1942, a Catalina flying boat on a 'recce' mission off the Ceylonese coast had alerted the Allied Forces of the danger.

Mission accomplished

Squadron Leader Len Birchall arrived at Koggala Airbase on April 2, 1942, after serving in the Shetland Islands. He had only been in Koggala for 48 hours when he conducted his first and last surveillance mission in support of the South East Asian Fleet of the Royal Navy.

The 413 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, known as the "Tuskers", was in Ceylon to bolster the Allied Forces, on alert against an impending Japanese invasion. The Allies believed that Japan intended to invade India and Ceylon to gain control of the Indian Ocean, which was the Allies' lifeline to the forces in the Middle East. The 413 Squadron's presence in Ceylon marked the first overseas tour of duty for a Canadian unit other than in Britain.

Looking for the westward bound Japanese fleet, Birchall and his crew of eight flew their Catalina, working as the eyes of the Allied Fleet, for 24 hours before getting ready to return home. Just as the crew was conducting its last navigational fix on the rising sun, Birchall saw a black speck in the Indian Ocean. He thought it might have been the Allied Fleet and decided to investigate, only to realise instead that it was the Japanese armada.

Despite the obvious danger, given the defenceless nature of his Catalina flying boat, his crew investigated further to find the number of vessels in the fleet and its composition. Unfortunately, the Japanese spotted the Catalina and launched several Zero fighters with the hope of shooting it down before the crew could give away the co-ordinates of the fleet.

Although the Catalina was forced to crash land, the wireless operator still managed to transmit the coordinates, giving the Allied Forces the advantage they needed to prepare for the imminent attack. The result was that the British Fleet was able to avoid destruction and Ceylon defended itself, inflicting severe losses on the Japanese naval aircraft. This stopped the Japanese Fleet's westward sweep.


The youthful Commander of the Catalina, Squadron Leader Leonard J. Birchall and his eight-member crew went beyond the call of duty in pursuing a 'black speck on the horizon' at the risk of their lives. The speck in the distance turned out to be the full might of the Japanese fleet heading for Ceylon's south-east coast, though still 300 miles off our shores. When Birchall and Co. were shot down by the Japanese, what they didn't know was that their desperate warning message to the Allied Command had got through.

"It was only after the war ended that I knew it hadn't been in vain. That Ceylon had been saved," says Air Commodore Birchall, recalling the ordeal 60 years ago.
The dashing young airman is now a sprightly 86, full of joie de vivre, despite nursing a heavy cold. He is in Colombo on a different mission this time, to remember his comrades who gave their lives in World War II.

The memories are still fresh. "The sighting may have been a significant moment, but we didn't have time to think. The Catalina had been hit and three of our crew were badly hurt. One had his leg shot off and we managed to put the other two into lifejackets, but the Japanese strafing blew them right out of the water. The rest of us were picked up and set on the deck of the Japanese destroyer. A senior officer started interrogating me in perfect English. The vital question was, 'Did you send a message to Ceylon?"

Birchall remembers how he kept saying no, even as the Japanese continued beating him. Just as he had convinced them that there had been no message sent, Colombo came up on the air asking for a repeat.

Birchall and his remaining crew were prisoners of war and spent those momentous days confined to a tiny locker as the Japanese engaged in bombing raids on the Allied bases in Trincomalee and Colombo. The locker was so small only the three wounded could lie down, the rest had to take it in turns, sitting and standing alternately, existing on a POW diet of soup and rice.

"We were transferred to the flagship Akagi on which the Admiral was travelling and it was on this aircraft carrier that we journeyed to Japan."

Birchall spent the next three and a half years in various prison camps, undergoing severe mental trauma as he fought for the sick and the injured. "As a senior POW, I had to look after the sick." On many occasions, he crossed swords with the Japanese guards over the inhuman treatment meted out to the prisoners, including the sick. "The conditions were terrible. There was slave labour, starvation and we rarely ever had medical supplies. Once I beat up a Japanese guard and was sent to 'solitary'. On another occasion, I organised a sit down strike at the Yokohama camp. I don't know why they never killed me.I don't have any clue what kept me alive."

Birchall, all the while, kept secret diaries and these were to become vital evidence at the war crimes trials after the war ended.

Squadron Leader Birchall returned to active service in Canada and went on to become the longest serving member of the Canadian Forces. He received many awards, including, the Order of Canada, the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for Gallantry. "The consistent gallantry and glowing devotion to his fellow prisoners of war that this officer displayed throughout his lengthy period of imprisonment are in keeping with the finest tradition of the Royal Canadian Air Force," the OBE citation read.

Retired in 1967 and now an Honorary Colnel, Birchall continues to play a vigorous role as the Canadian 'legend', undertaking many public speaking assignments. The most enjoyable, he says, is talking to young cadets about his war days.

He also has the signal honour of wearing five bars (clasps) of the Canadian Forces Decoration which indicates the number of years of service. He now counts 62. "Only the Queen Mother and I had as many as five bars; now it seems, I'm the only one."
Birchall retains his sentimental links with the country he 'saved'. He first returned in 1946-47 and coincidentally met his engineer on the Catalina, Brian Catlin, who was back in Koggala flying in an RAF squadron. Since then, he has made many 'pilgrimages' as he calls it to Sri Lanka, including one in 1992 for the 50th anniversary of the Japanese raids over Ceylon.

This pilgrimage, 60 years after, is also special. "I love the country and I'm happy to be here especially when there's such a wonderful hope of peace. I pray it will work. I sure would do anything I could to help make it work."

This time around, Len Birchall is accompanied by his son, Charles, an environmental lawyer who says he took to a different career because his father's footsteps were too big to follow. Their schedule here, accompanied by some members of the 413 Squadron, includes several nostalgic moments. Last week, they visited the Katunayake Air Force base where a mural of the Catalina sighting the Japanese fleet is on display at the Officers' Mess, the Koggala airbase and the Canadian war graves at Jawatte 'Livramento' cemetery. On Tuesday, they will travel to Kandy cemetery, where six Canadian airmen's graves lie.

Dubbed the 'Saviour of Ceylon' by Winston Churchill, Birchall reflects that his sighting of the Japanese armada was the beginning of the end of Japanese successes in World War II. As Churchill famously said, " ...the Japanese capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black." (Sunday Times)

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