LEONARD BIRCHALL

LEONARD BIRCHALL

Most Canadians who served in Asia during WWII were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) or the Royal Air Force (RAF). Their duties were quite varied and certainly dangerous.

The Allied front stabilized along an area that reached from the southern Chinese province, Yunnan, along the Indo-Burmese border, across the Bay of Bengal to Ceylon, and then across the Indian Ocean to Papua-New Guinea. Not only did the Japanese demonstrate air superiority along the entire area, but they also demonstrated naval superiority over the maritime portions of the area.

Not surprisingly, British Admiral Sir James Sommerville was cautious, and accepted that Ceylon, “the key to the Indian Ocean”, would best be defended by land based air power.

A main requirement for this had to be sufficient air reconnaissance capability to give early warning of an attack. So No. 413 Squadron, RCAF, was ordered to Ceylon, the first Canadian unit to appear in the South East Asia theatre. This force had an immediate and decisive role in defending Ceylon against a Japanese attack. The first of No. 413’s Catalinas arrived at Koggala March 28, 1942; the second arrived on April 2nd, piloted by Squadron Leader, L.J. Birchall.

Just days after their arrival, Birchall and his crew were about 600 kilometers south of Ceylon when they spotted Japanese ships. They were attacked and shot down, but fortunately, they had radioed a warning back to base. The alert helped the Allies successfully defend the island from a surprise attack. As a result, Birchall was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross); as well, Sir Winston Churchill dubbed him “the Saviour of Ceylon”.

As fear of invasion eased, No. 413 was focused on anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts, and occasionally on long-range reconnaissance flights to the east. Sightings were unusual (only five genuine ones in nearly four years), and the Canadians had no success with their attacks. Most of their accolades for reporting or rescuing survivors of sunken merchant ships.

In November 1944, the RCAF requested the squadron be returned to the UK to be converted to a bomber unit. Two months later, all personnel embarked for England, leaving their aircraft and equipment behind in Ceylon.