65th Anniversary of the First Air Raid on Colombo

In March 1942, the British knew that the Japanese would make a bid to take Sri Lanka – then Ceylon, following their successes in South East Asia. Indeed a Japanese armada comprising 305 aircraft on six carriers, under Adm Mitsuo Fuchida was heading for Ceylon from Indonesia. On April 4, a Catalina aircraft piloted by Sq Ldr Leonard Birchall of 413 squadron Royal Air Force, had spotted the armada 400 miles from Galle.

Birchall was shot down, but not before he alerted Colombo about the imminent invasion.

April 5th 2007 marks the 65th anniversary of the first air raid bombs falling on Colombo and Trincomalee on Easter Sunday, April 5th, 1942.

Marking the historic moment is most importantly a time to pay tribute to St. Catharines, Ontario born Leonard Birchall, whom UK’s wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchil declared as the “saviour of Ceylon.”

Frank Tibbo wrote in the Gander Beacon in his Aviation column, a newspaper published in Newfoundland recently, saluting the hero who alerted Colombo in 1942. He passed away in 2004.

Here is Frank Tibbo’s article, paying tribute and saluting the heroism of Sq Ldr Leonard Birchall:

The saviour of Ceylon

By Frank Tibbo

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill said the sighting of the Japanese fleet headed for Ceylon had averted the most dangerous and distressing moment of the entire six-year conflict. The island country is known today as Sri Lanka.

“Its capture, 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 bleak,” Mr. Churchill said in August 1945.

The wartime prime minister of Great Britain declared, “Leonard Birchall is the saviour of Ceylon.”

Sri Lanka, just a little more than half the size of the island of Newfoundland, has a population of more than 20 million. It gained its independence from the UK Feb. 4, 1948.

In1942, Leonard Birchall, DFC, OBE (1915-2004), a 27-year-old Canadian pilot lifted off from a makeshift air base in Ceylon to forestall what Mr. Churchill said was the most perilous moment in the Second World War.

Mr. Birchall’s job that day was to search the Indian Ocean in a long-range Catalina flying boat in search of the same Japanese naval fleet that had devastated Pearl Harbor. Hours later, almost at the point of turning back for what was then Ceylon, he found the armada and very nearly lost his life.

Mr. Birchall always had yearned to fly. He was born in July 1915, in St. Catharines, Ont., where he could see fighter pilots practise dogfights and longed to get in the air.

By the age of 16, he had saved enough money to take his first flying lessons. Two years later, he was accepted in the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., graduated in 1937 and received his commission.

When the Second World War erupted, Mr. Birchall was one of the few experienced pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and in 1941 he was stationed in the Shetland Islands patrolling the North Sea hunting submarines and protecting convoys.

In March 1942, Mr. Birchall was promoted to squadron leader and ordered to lead eight Catalinas to Ceylon. The squadron’s job was to try to locate Japan’s mighty Pacific attack fleet which was suspected to be in the Indian Ocean.

On April 4, he and his crew, which was made up of fellow Canadian Bart Onyette and RAF airmen Brian Catlin, Ginger Cook, I. Henzell, lan Davidson, P.O. Kenny, L.A. Colarossi and radio operator Fred Phillips, took off at dawn in Catalina AJ-155. They were furnished with hand-drawn charts, and their first patrol was destined to be their last.

Late afternoon, after flying for 12 hours, Mr. Birchall discovered the inaccurate charts had probably caused him to fly 450 kilometres off course. It was an extraordinary stroke of serendipity for, almost at the end of the last leg of the patrol, the crew saw something far to the south.

“We saw some specks which looked like a convoy and went over to investigate. We ran into the outer screen of the Japanese fleet. We identified the ships and sent back their position, course, speed and composition.”

As he approached for a closer look, more vessels came into sight. He identified battleships, several aircraft carriers and other warships. Mr. Phillips radioed that, too, but by then all hell had broken loose.

“There were 30 Zeros buzzing about and we got as low as we could to prevent them from coining up at us, but they punctured a gas tank and flaming gas poured out.”

The Catalina was forced to ditch in flames and quickly sank. All but one man got out. “We swam hard to get away from the burning gas in the water, but the Japanese came after us.”

Again and again, the fighters machine-gunned the water and he was hit in the leg. “We kept repeatedly diving under the water to evade them. When they were finished, two more of our lads were gone and there were six of us left.”

They were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and interrogated.

“They were anxious to find out if we had got our wireless message off and we told them we hadn’t; that the first shell hit our radio.”

They were transferred to the aircraft carrier Akagi for more questioning.

“We got our story over to them pretty well, but the Japanese heard Colombo radio asking us to repeat the position.” As a result, Mr. Birchall was soundly beaten. It was his first taste of mistreatment.

His brief report had been enough to warn the island. Unlike the U.S. forces only months earlier at Pearl Harbor, the British had spent long weeks preparing defences.

The Japanese dropped their first bombs on Colombo and the port of Trincomalee at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, but the British forces were as ready as they would ever be. The RAF had only 20 planes against 120 Japanese planes, but, with the support of anti-aircraft guns, they proved sufficient.

Because of Mr. Birchall’s warning, the Royal Navy had sent its Ceylon fleet to sea to evade the much larger and superior Japanese force. Japan withdrew its large attack forces from the Indian Ocean and abandoned plans to invade India by way of Ceylon.

The war was over the before Mr. Birchall learned the warning had reached Colombo. He and the other five members of his crew were presumed to have perished.They spent the next 3 1/2 years in prison camps where they were starved, beaten and tortured.

Squadron Leader Birchall was a slender man who became even thinner in captivity. He gained a fierce reputation, however, and as the highest-ranking officer in at least two camps. He called for sit-down strikes to protest against ill treatment and starvation.

Squadron Leader Birchall was determined that if he even got out he would ensure a Japanese medical sergeant named Ushioda, who systematically victimized prisoners, would pay for his crimes. One day, Squadron Leader Birchall spotted the sergeant forcing sick prisoners into work parties and then savagely kicked a crippled American soldier.

Squadron Leader Birchall promptly stepped forward and, after a brief exchange of blows, drove his fist into the sergeant’s face. Sgt. Ushioda, he learned later, suffered a broken nose, a fractured jaw and lost several teeth.

Retribution was swift. Squadron Leader Birchall was suspended by his thumbs for hours and then sentenced to death by a military court. He was taken outside, blindfolded and made to kneel. Silence descended, followed by a rustle of air as a sword passed over his neck. Nothing happened. Three times he was sentenced to death. After the third time, he turned to Sgt. Acedia and said, “You have just made a terrible mistake. We will win this war and I will live to see you hanged.”

Squadron Leader Birchall kept a secret account of what had happened and this written account helped seal the fate of Sgt. Ushioda. At the war crimes trial, Squadron Leader Birchall testified and produced his notes.

He was right — he witnessed Sgt. Ushioda being hanged. [Courtesy: ganderbeacon.ca]

Related: Air Commodore Len Birchall to be honoured with memorial cairn

Honouring the passing of 413 Squadron Honorary Colonel
Air Commodore Len Birchall
[Department of National Defence, Canada]

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