Canadian Hero – Leonard Birchall RCAF

Leonard Birchall

One of the things Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Air Commodore Leonard Birchall is most remembered for is being the “Savior of Ceylon.” He was the pilot who warned the Allied forces in Colombo of the Japanese surprise attack that was on its way, thus allowing them to prepare and preventing a repeat of Pearl Harbor.

However, he showed the true breadth of nobility and valor of his character in Japanese prisoner of war camps over a period of three years, in which he saved many men’s lives and took many prisoners’ beatings for them.

Leonard Birchall was born in July 1915 in St Catharines, Ontario, Canada. After graduating from school he worked a number of jobs in order to pay for flying lessons.  He eventually decided to embark on a military career, and enrolled in the Royal Military College of Canada in 1933, after which he was commissioned as a RCAF pilot in 1937.

Royal Air Force mechanics at Royal Air Force Station RAF Koggala, Ceylon

It wouldn’t be too long before he saw action: the Second World War broke out in 1939.   His first duties involved flying a Supermarine Stanraer with RCAF No. 5 Squadron over Nova Scotia on anti-submarine patrols.

In 1940, he managed to virtually single-handedly capture an Italian merchant ship in the Gulf of St Lawrence by making a low pass over it, feigning an attack, which caused the captain to panic and run his ship into a sandbank. Birchall landed nearby and waited patiently for the Royal Canadian Navy to get there, whereupon they arrested the Italian seamen.

In 1942 he joined No. 413 Squadron, and shortly thereafter was transferred to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka).  Less than 48 hours after touching down, he was flying his Catalina on a patrol mission when he caught sight of an Imperial Japanese Naval fleet which was clearly on its way to attack Ceylon.

Birchall didn’t have much time to act, for not only had he spotted the Japanese, but they had also spotted him. Despite the imminent danger, Birchall flew closer in order to gather details about how many ships and aircraft he could see.

He desperately relayed details to the Allied base even as anti-aircraft fire starting ripping past him, while Japanese fighters took off from the aircraft carriers to shoot him down.

He managed to get a few messages through to the base before anti-aircraft fire tore through his Catalina and disabled the radio. Further fire crippled the plane, and he went down, crash-landing into the ocean. He and the other surviving members of his crew were picked up by the Japanese and taken onto one of the ships. Thus began three years of imprisonment.

IJN destroyer “Isokaze”

As soon as Birchall was brought on board the Japanese destroyer Isokaza, he was singled out as the senior officer and brutally interrogated.

The Japanese eventually believed he had not radioed out, and went ahead with their attack – but they found the Allied defenders prepared for them, and their raid was a failure.

Birchall was then transferred to mainland Japan.  He was placed in an interrogation camp in Yokohama where he was subject to solitary confinement and daily beatings. In this camp – in which no speaking (except when answering questions) was allowed – Birchall spent 6 grueling months.

He was then transferred to a POW work camp that had been erected in a baseball stadium. The conditions were harsh; rations were scarce, and the prisoners were basically on a starvation diet. Beatings were commonplace, and everyone, regardless of their physical condition, was forced to work.

Birchall immediately began to earn the respect of the other prisoners by arranging a system in the camp whereby he and the officers displayed the food that had been dished out to them, and if any enlisted man thought that the officers had been given better food, or more food, he was free to exchange his rations with the officer’s.

Despite the risk of severe punishment, he also argued with the guards and demanded better treatment and rations for his men. If a guard was beating a particularly weak prisoner, Birchall and the other officers would step in and take a beating from the guards on that prisoner’s behalf.

Air Commodore Leonard Birchall Leadership Award, at Royal Military College of Canada; bas-relief bronze by Colonel (ret’d) Andre Gauthier Photo by Victoriaedwards CC BY-SA 3.0

Birchall kept detailed diaries of his time in the Japanese POW camps, and these were used as evidence in post-war trials. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in Ceylon, and made an officer of the Order of the British Empire for his actions in the POW camps.

Leonard Birchall, WWII Hero

Leonard Birchall retired from the RCAF in 1967, and then worked at York University, Ontario, until 1982. He passed away at the age of 89 in 2004.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Military Humor – 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

John Bullard – Stone GA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, HQ Co./188/11th Airborne Division

John Crouchley Jr. – Providence, RI; US Army Air Corps, WWII, pilot, KIA

Carl Gloor – Bolivar, PA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, 17th Airborne Division

Robert L. Miller Sr. – South Bend, IN; US Navy, WWII, PTO, Purple Heart / Korea / Judge / Veteran’s advocate

Domonica Mortellano – Tampa, FL; Civilian, MacDill Air Force Base

Alberta Nash – Saint John, CAN; Civilian, WWII, Canadian Red Cross

Alan Seidel – Montreal, CAN; RC Army, WWII, tank commander

Alan Smith – Fort William, CAN; RC Air Force, WWII, ETO, Flight Sgt.

Edsel Teal – Chicopee, MA; US Navy, WWII

Doris Whitton – Ft. Simpson, CAN; RC Air Force, WWII, radio/telephone

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on May 9, 2019, in Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 110 Comments.

  1. Wonderful story. There are so many common people among us who are not so common.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good to know that such heroes are not forgotten thank to the research of people like you.

    I’m currently trying to sort through the vast library of books on flight. flying and all those associated with these exploits that belonged to my late husband and am fast running out of space, despite have the walls of my small study in the new home fitted with floor to ceiling shelving. That’s the problem of downsizing as you get older. I think I’ll have to call in some help from local book dealers and charities.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A man of the same calibre as ‘Weary’ Dunlop., incredibly quiet heroic, who didn’t think of themselves as being heroic, just ‘soldiers’ doing their duty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Resilient and brave, I tip my hat, I have never been faced with any of that, but he took it in his stride.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great honour to you too, GP! We should never forget their service for our lives. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great story gp, particularly liked the part he played in capturing the Italian ship, his time in the concentration camp certainly displayed his exemplary character, well worth the title of Hero.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Stories like this need to be told. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. An amazing story of valor. • As I’ve commented in the past, I appreciate the way you round out the story of WWII by including those we Americans tend to forget – the British, Canadian and ANZAC efforts at defeating the Japanese.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We do need a nudge now and again, don’t we? June just nudged me about another Canadian I knew nothing about, John Robert Osborn!! I sure need to get even more on the ball it seems!

      Like

  9. So many hometown heroes we now nothing about..thanks for bringing this to Canadians and others. Speaking of which are you familiar with the memorial statue in Hong Kong of the Canadian soldier John Robert Osborn re: The Battle of Hong Kong?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow! GP, what an amazing story. It’s hard to comprehend that kind of true leadership. (Especially considering the kind of “leaders” I’ve known throughout my career.) Thanks for showing us how it can be.
    Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The stories of what these men did are always astounding to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It is nice to give tribute to our longtime neighbor and ally. Cheers!❤🍵

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Very nice . . . worthy of accolades and maybe even a movie and better notoriety.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Another great story about a brave individu a l that you have brought to light. Thanks GP.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Almost incredible true heroism, in the camps particularly

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great post. Good to see when the young heroes get to live out a good old age.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. And to think, we have statues to football “heroes” when men of this quality go largely unrecognised. Thanks for reminding us what true heroism is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My pleasure, John. True, we should recognize exactly what that word ‘Hero’ means and I don’t think it includes the ability to kick or hit a ball.

      Like

  18. I’m another Canadian who had not heard of Leonard Birchall. Thanks for posting this. And Canadian humour too!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. What a great Canadian hero. He was a leader that cared about his troops even in prisoner of war camps. His family should be proud of his bravery and leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I can’t imagine that kind of courage and bravery! It’s hard to imagine one person having so much of it. I can barely talk to people at parties lol. A great post (loved the Canadian Warfare military humor pic too!)

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Over the years I have appreciated the Candadian fighting force…from WW1’s incredible infantry fighting force being something the Germans dread to reckon with, to now learning about the RCAF and also to modern day Afghanistan, those guys up north have impressed me

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Thanks very much for the story on Air Commodore Leonard Birchall, a fine example of a true hero of WWII.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. The strength of and display of character is astounding.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. This guy deserves a movie – or two. But I bet most Canadians know nothing of him.
    Thank You.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. We Canadians did our part GP. How about doing a write up about my Uncle Bill. You can google him here : Wilf Banks – Aces of WW2

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Since you did not have a post on May 8th GP, I wanted to wish you a Happy V-E Day (Victory in Europe, WWII) 😃👍🇺🇸

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you type in V-E Day into the Search box in the top-right corner of each post, you’ll see I have done 5 V-E Day posts. I used to try and keep up with all the anniversaries, but it just got to be too much. I thank you very much for thinking of me!!

      Like

  27. What a hero and a very brave patriot! Thanks for sharing his story and photos, GP. How wonderful that he survived and lived a long life. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  28. williamrablan

    Now, there’s a man.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Excellent information on a brave man, GP. Loved the Canadian warfare meme.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Glad to see that he survived the prisoners’ camp and kept a diary. A great tribute to a true hero who served his country well!

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Have you ever heard about Jack Lucus?

    Liked by 1 person

  32. As a citizen of Canada I am embarrassed not to have known this great Canadian hero until now. Also it was interesting for me to learn that the Japanese realm of naval power reached as far as Ceylon. Thank you, GP!

    Liked by 2 people

  33. What a remarkable man. Courage, duty and compassion. Thanks for sharing this story, GP.

    PS, I love the footsteps.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Very pleased to read about this Canadian hero. It was a pleasure to find out he survived the war. Love your cartoons. The only thing missing in the me after a party was the knee prints.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. A very nice tribute to a brave man, GP. He is rightly honoured and remembered.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 4 people

  36. The “Canadian Warfare” meme made me smile.

    Liked by 2 people

  37. True hero. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Thank you for the Canadian content and the story of this selfless man.

    Liked by 2 people

  39. Thank you for bringing these stories to light, a true hero.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Thank you for sharing the article, Ian!

    Like

  1. Pingback: Featured Blogger Report: Canadian Hero – Leonard Birchall RCAF // Pacific Paratrooper #AceHistoryDe sk reports | ' Ace Worldwide History '

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