Winston Churchill called it 'the most dangerous moment' of World
The moment when the Japanese Fleet was steaming towards Ceylon
for a surprise attack on the British Fleet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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.
were transferred to the flagship Akagi on which the Admiral
was travelling and it was on this aircraft carrier that we
journeyed to Japan."
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."
all the while, kept secret diaries and these were to become
vital evidence at the war crimes trials after the war ended.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."