Leonard Birchall

Leonard Birchall

Infobox Military Person
name= Leonard Joseph Birchall

rank=Air Commodore
branch=air force|Canada-Canadian Forces Air Command-Canadian Forces
commands= 413 Squadron,
born= 1915
placeofbirth= St. Catharines, Ontario
placeofdeath= Kingston, Ontario
awards=CM, OBE, DFC, O.Ont, CD, Order of Canada

Air Commodore Leonard Joseph Birchall, CM, OBE, DFC, O.Ont, CD DMSc LLD. (July 6, 1915 - September 10, 2004 ), "The Saviour of Ceylon", was a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) officer who warned of a Japanese attack on the island of Ceylon during the Second World War.

Early life

Birchall was born in St. Catharines, Ontario and graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate. He was always interested in flying, and worked odd jobs around St. Catharines to pay for flying lessons. In 1933 Birchall graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, (student #2364).

Military service

After serving in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals he joined the RCAF in 1937 to train as a pilot. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Flying Officer Leonard J. Birchall flew convoy and anti-submarine patrols from Nova Scotia flying with No. 5 Squadron. In early 1942, he joined 413 Squadron, then based in the Shetland Islands and flew patrols over the North Sea. After the Japanese successes in southeast Asia, the squadron was sent to Ceylon to provide a reconnaissance force.

On April 4, 1942, only two days after arrival, Squadron Leader Birchall was flying a Catalina flying boat that was patrolling the ocean to the south of Ceylon. Eight hours into the mission, as the plane was about to return to base, ships were spotted on the horizon. Investigation revealed a large Japanese fleet, including five aircraft carriers, headed for Ceylon, which at that time was the base for the Royal Navy's Eastern Fleet. Birchall's crew managed to send out a radio message, but the Catalina was soon shot down. Three crewmen were killed and the others, including Birchall, spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war (POWs). For many captured soldiers, a trip to a Japanese camp meant death. [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html]

The attack went ahead despite Birchall’s signal, but because of him the British cleared the port of shipping and inflicted significant losses on the Japanese (five planes lost) who caused little damage on the port (sunk six ships). [Brereton Greenhous et al. "The Crucible of War 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Vol. III." p. 386. ISBN 978-0802005748] These losses later had repercussions both in the battle of the Coral Sea and again in the battle of Midway.

Birchall’s heroism did not end with that exploit. As the senior Allied officer in four successor Japanese prisoner of war camps, the resistance he led decreased the Allied death rate from an average of 30% to less than 2%. He saved many ill soldiers by taking their beatings. He was a prisoner for about four years. His diaries, written during his captivity and buried, formed the basis of a number of Allied wartime trials at which Birchall testified. Mrs. Dorothy Birchall, Leonard`s wife didn't know if he was dead or alive for two years. [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html] Writing after the war, Winston Churchill called Birchall the "Saviour of Ceylon" and said that if the British fleet had been defeated at Ceylon, then North Africa would have been lost to the Germans.

During his time in the Japanese POW camps, Birchall repeatedly stood up to the Japanese and demanded fair treatment of the prisoners, in compliance with the Geneva Convention. In his first camp, he struck a Japanese soldier who was forcing a wounded Australian to work. This earned Birchall a severe beating and solitary confinement, but won him the respect of the other POWs. While in the camps, Birchall kept a set of diaries that detailed deaths and mistreatment by the guards. In 1944, Birchall encountered a situation in which sick men were being forced to work on the docks. He ordered all of the men to stop working until the sick were excused. Birchall was beaten and sent to a special discipline camp, where he again was beaten. He was liberated on August 27, 1945 by American troops.

Birchall was a member of the prosecuting team at the Japanese war crime trials. His diaries were used in evidence. He served on the Canadian attaché staff in Washington, D.C., then was a member of the Canadian NATO delegation in Paris.

He commanded a fighter base and was commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada from 1963 until his retirement from the Canadian Forces in 1967. He retired from the RCAF rather than be associated with the unification of the Armed Forces. He later served as honorary colonel of 413 Squadron in the Air Reserve.

Birchall was an official observer during Sri Lanka's general election of 1994.

Birchall died in Kingston, Ontario at the age of 89.


Birchall was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1946, after his return to Canada for his work at prisoner of war camps. The citation, in part, read: "he continually displayed the utmost concern for the welfare of fellow prisoners with complete disregard for his own safety. His consistent gallantry and glowing devotion to his men were in keeping with the finest traditions of the service". He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in detecting the attack on Ceylon and for alerting the Allies during that 1942 flight. [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html] British prime minister Winston Churchill called Leonard Birchall "The Saviour of Ceylon." [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html]

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."

In 2000, he received the Order of Canada. In 2001, he was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. He was honorary colonel at the Royal Military College of Canada. [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html] Birchall was the only member of the Canadian military to have earned five clasps for his Canadian Forces Decoration (CD), representing 62 years of service with the air force. The only other person with five clasps was Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

As a recipient of the Vimy Award, Birchall was recognized as a Canadian who made a significant and outstanding contribution to the defence and security of Canada and the preservation of Canada's democratic values. [ [http://www.rmcclub.ca/everitaswp/?p=1430#more-1430 e-Veritas » Blog Archive » Misc ] ]


When citizens of St. Catharines, Ontario heard Len Birchall was missing in action, students of Connaught school planted a memorial tree. The Len Birchall Memorial Circle is in St. Catharines Ontario. [http://www.cdnabbrotherhood.ca/military-news/article-1644.html]



*4237 Dr. Adrian Preston & Peter Dennis (Edited) "Swords and Covenants" Rowman And Littlefield, London. Croom Helm. 1976.
*H16511 Dr. Richard Arthur Preston "To Serve Canada: A History of the Royal Military College of Canada" 1997 Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1969.
*H16511 Dr. Richard Arthur Preston "Canada's RMC - A History of Royal Military College" Second Edition 1982
*H16511 Dr. Richard Preston "R.M.C. and Kingston: The effect of imperial and military influences on a Canadian community" 1968
*H1877 R. Guy C. Smith (editor) "As You Were! Ex-Cadets Remember". In 2 Volumes. Volume I: 1876-1918. Volume II: 1919-1984. Royal Military College. [Kingston] . The R.M.C. Club of Canada. 1984

External links

* [http://www.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=6493 Order of Canada citation]
* [http://www.rmcclub.ca/eVeritas/2005/Issue019/200519.htm Air Commodore Leonard Birchall, CM, OBE, DFC, OO, CD, “The Saviour of Ceylon”. ]
* [http://www.rmcclub.ca/eVeritas/2005/Issue019/200519Birchall.htm A/C LEONARD BIRCHALL MEMORIAL CAIRN]
* [http://empireclubfoundation.com/details.asp?SpeechID=1025&FT=yes The Japanese Ceylon Attack and Afterwards - An Address By Wing Commander Leonard Birchall, D.F.C. to the Empire Club, Toronto, October 18th 1945]
* [http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1010810&auth=SAMANTHA+CRAGGS St Catharines establishes committee to honour Birchall - includes a picture of Birchall]
* [http://www.canadaveteranshallofvalour.com/BirchallLJ.htm Canadian Veterans of Valour - Air Commodore Leonard Birchall]

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