WHO WAS LEONARD BIRCHALL?
Leonard Birchall was born in St. Catharines, Ontario on July 6, 1915, and graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate. Always interested in flying, he worked at various jobs to pay for flying lessons.
Following service with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Birchall enrolled as a cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario in 1933. Upon his graduation in 1937, he was commissioned in the RCAF and then trained as a pilot.
With the outbreak of WWII, Flying Officer Birchall flew convoy and anti-submarine patrols from Nova Scotia with No. 5 Squadron; the squadron was equipped with the Supermarine Stranraer.
In 1940, Birchall was responsible for the capture of the Italian merchant ship, the Capo Nola, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; this was hours after Canada declared war on Italy. Birchall was tasked with the location of any Italian vessels remaining in Canadian waters as the outbreak of war was imminent. On June 10th, he found the Capo Nola; Birchall, having been informed of the declaration of war by radio, made a low pass over the freighter, as if making an attack. The ship’s captain panicked and ran his vessel aground against a sandbank. Burchill touched down nearby and waited until the Royal Canadian Navy vessels reached the scene. The Capo Nola’s crew were the first Italian prisoners taken by the Allies during the war.
Birchall joined No. 413 Squadron in early 1942. At this time it was 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.
Two days after his arrival, on April 4, 1942, Squadron Leader Birchall was flying a PBY Catalina flying boat that was patrolling the ocean to the south of Ceylon. Nine hours into the mission, as the plane was about to return to base, ships were spotted on the horizon. A closer look showed a large Japanese fleet, including five aircraft carriers, heading for Ceylon, which at that time was the base for the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet. Birchall’s crew was able to send out a radio message, but the Catalina was soon shot down by six A6M2 Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu. The raid went ahead in spite of Birchall’s signal, but the warning put the defenders on alert and allowed the harbour to be partially cleared before the attack.
Three of his crewmen were killed in this action and others, including Birchall himself, spent the rest of the war as POWs. For many captured servicemen, a Japanese camp meant death. As the senior Allied officer in four successive Japanese prisoner of war camps, Birchall led the resistance that helped reduce the Allied death rate from an average of 30% to less than 2%. During his time in POW camps, Birchall repeatedly stood up to the Japanese, demanding fair treatment of prisoners, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. In his first camp, Birchall hit a Japanese soldier who was forcing a wounded Australian POW to work; this resulted in a severe beating for Birchall, along with solitary confinement. In 1944, he encountered a situation in which sick men were being forced to work on the docks; he ordered them to stop working until the sick were excused. Birchall was beaten and sent to a special discipline camp where he was beaten once more. He saved many ill soldiers by taking their beatings.
American troops liberated Birchall on August 27, 1945. His wife, Dorothy, hadn’t known whether he was alive or dead for two years. His diaries, written during his captivity and buried, formed the basis of a number of Allied wartime trials at which Birchall himself testified.
In the immediate years at war’s end, Birchall served on the Canadian attaché staff in Washington, DC, then was a member of the Canadian NATO delegation in Paris. Later, he commanded a fighter base and was commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada from 1963 until his retirement in 1967. He served later as honorary colonel of 400 Tactical Helicopter and Training Squadron and 413 Squadron in Air Reserve.
Birchall died in Kingston, Ontario at the age of 89.
A Few of His Significant Honours:
*Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) – 1946 – His citation read: “… 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.”
*Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) – 1946 – for his part in detecting the attack on Ceylon and for alerting the Allies during the 1942 flight
*Officer of the Legion of Merit – 1950 – appointed by Harry Truman, “His exploits became legendary throughout Japan and brought renewed faith and strength to many hundreds of ill and disheartened prisoners.”
*Order of Canada – 2000
*Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame – 2000 – he 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
*Vimy Award – 2001 – recognized as a Canadian who made a significant and outstanding contribution to the defence of Canada and the preservation of Canada’s democratic values.