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A/C L. J. BIRCHALL

HONORARY COLONEL - AIR COMMODORE L. J. BIRCHALL, CM, OBE, DFC, O.Ont., CD4
 

We were fortunate to have had A/C Birchall as our Honourary Colonel.  He knew everyone and everyone knew him.  He attended all of our functions and his infectious laughter could be heard around the room.  He was involved in our activities and turned up for many flying opportunities – he loved to fish.
 
Graduated from Royal Military College and was later the Commandant of RMC.

Born July 1915 – Passed 10 Sept. 2004 at age 89
 









Airmen and airwomen’s traditional Christmas dinner as the officers serve. Here Honourary Colonel A/C Len Birchall prepares a plate full - waiting are Capt. Dunc. MacIntyre, Maj. Carl Mills, and Capt. Ralph KromKamp - Downsview – circa 1972.
 

Not everyone got to participate in all of the formal parades.  A leisurely moment while waiting for events to unfold at one of our excellent parades are (left to right ) BGen. Barry Howard, A/C Len Birchall (Honourary Colonels at 400 Squadron), Honourary Col. Michael Sifton, and Honourary LCol. Douglas Scanlan, DFC (Honourary Colonels at 411 Squadron), LCols. Ed Singer (CMedO) and Carl Mills (CTechO) from Wing HQ – Downsview hangar – circa 1978.
 
CD4 PRESENTATION  24 June 1989

CD 4 Presentation

 
The Story of Air Commodore Birchall

Prologue by Carl Mills

No part of this document is historically pertinent to the history of 400 Squadron, however, A/C Birchall was the Honourary Colonel at 400 Squadron and this document relates to his short wartime career and his time as a POW with the Japanese.  It is included as a matter of general interest.
 
It is interesting to note that although Canadians were not involved in the Battles of Coral Sea or Midway, which followed soon after the failed attack on Ceylon.  However, the Japanese failure at Ceylon depleted their forces sufficiently enough that it had an impact on their performance at those two crucial battles.  The Americans would have won these famous battles, however, the domino effect started by S/L Birchall and his Canadian crew were in the mix. Way to go guys!!
 
Later, in the POW camp, S/L Birchall paid a high price while protecting ‘his men’ and he was determined not to let the viscious Japanese guards mistreat the sick and wounded.  Many of his daring and dangerous activities brought him close to execution on several occasions. There is no question that his brave determination saved many lives.
 
For his 3½ years of courage and leadership as the senior Allied officer in several brutal prisoner camps, S/L Birchall deserved to be recognized and remembered for his sustained heroism and was awarded a rare gallantry category of the OBE.  Well done Birch!!    - Mills – Aug 2011                                                                                         

 
No story about Coastal Command would be complete without the name of Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall of St. Catharines, ON, “The Saviour of Ceylon.”  He received the title in 1942.  Birchall, out on a patrol, sighted a Japanese invasion fleet and radioed a warning back to Ceylon.  When the Japanese attacked, the island was prepared.  The Japanese were repulsed with heavy losses and Ceylon was saved.  Birchall was shot down and captured immediately after sending his message.  He spent three and one-half years as a prisoner of war.
 
Birchall’s war effort had begun some years before. Number 5 Squadron, of which he was a member, began flying defensive patrols out of Dartmouth, NS, several months before Canada declared war.  At that time the squadron was flying Stranraer flying boats, one of the few biplanes to see action in the Second World War.  It was not until 1940 that the squadron converted to the more modern Catalina aircraft.
 
In May 1940, the intelligence word was that Italy would soon declare war on Canada.  Since a number of Italian merchant ships were still in Canadian waters, certain precautions were taken.  On 1 June 1940, Birchall took off from the Gaspe with orders to intercept and shadow the ship Capo Lena, which was churning down the St. Lawrence River near Anticosti Island.  Interception was made and the vessel was kept under surveillance until nightfall when Birchall and his crew returned to the Gaspe.  The next day the ship had reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence, much closer to the sanctuary of the high seas, when Birchall made contact once more.  No word was received about a declaration of war so at nightfall Birchall flew back to his base.  Responsibility for the Capo Lena was turned over to the Royal Canadian Navy.
 
In the early hours of 10 June 1940, Birchall and his crew were alerted for take off.  They were airborne when they received the expected message: Italy had declared war on Canada.  This turn of events increased the flier’s interest in Italian shipping generally and specifically to another Italian freighter, the Capo Nola.  The Capo Nola had left Quebec City and was making a run for the Atlantic. Birchall and his crew were assigned to stop it.  Near Big Bic Island the freighter was spotted.  The captain of the Capo Nola also spotted the Stranraer bearing down on his ship so, without further ado, he ran it aground and set fire to it.  Birchall landed nearby as a small RCN vessel arrived on the scene.  The Canadian sailors put a landing party on the Italian vessel to put out the fire.  Birchall took off and radioed back to base what had occurred.  The Air Force to Navy co-operation had netted the first Italian prisoners-of-war for Canada.
 
In December 1941, Birchall went overseas and joined No.413 Squadron, operating out of Scotland and the Shetland Islands.  For months, endurance escort patrols, ranging from12 to 24 hours were flown in unbelievably bad weather.  At the end of these exhausting patrols, Birchall was faced with the difficult task of landing his Catalina on stormy seas.  On one occasion, he and his crew had to stay at sea all night; the violence of the storm prevented them from getting to shore.  The routine patrols were interrupted for special occasions such as flying in support of Commando raids on Norway and assisting in the all-out search for the German heavy cruisers Scharnhorst  and the Gneisneau when they made their daring run through the English Channel to Norway.
 
Early in 1942, Japanese power was at its peak: Hong Kong was taken, Malaya was conquered, Singapore fell and Burma had been invaded.  British, India and Chinese troops urgently needed air support.  Number 413 Squadron was ordered to Ceylon as reinforcement.
 
Flying from England to Ceylon, skirting many hundreds of miles of enemy-held territory, was an achievement in itself.  S/L Birchall and another crew took off together. They flew from England to Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean to Cairo then over the Persian Gulf to Karachi, in present-day Pakistan. There the second aircraft could not continue because of mechanical trouble.  Birchall carried on with his crew, flying all night, and arrived at Kaggola Lake at noon the following day.  Kaggola Lake was not, by any standards, a good place from which to operate flying boats.  The lake was small, dotted with treacherous reefs and ringed by towering palm trees.  But it was all that was available in the vicinity of Galle, Ceylon.
 
After one day of rest in the new operational base, Birchall and his crew were asked to fly a dawn patrol.  It would be a long patrol.  Having been in Ceylon only a day and having had no chance to practice night landings, Birchall would not be able to land during the hours of darkness.  He would take off at daylight, patrol all day, then stay airborne all night until daylight lessened the hazards of landing on the small lake.
 
Birchall took off and headed out over the Indian Ocean.  The patrol had to sweep an area around Ceylon that was sufficiently large to prevent any surface craft from running in during the night and releasing aircraft for a strike at dawn.  The hours passed slowly as Birchall flew an aerial X over the sea about 300 miles south of Ceylon.  As Birchall started his final turn before heading back to base, the moon came out.  The navigator suggested one more patrol while he took advantage of the moon for a celestial fix.  Birchall started the patrol as requested and kept flying south.  He spotted some specks on the distant horizon and decided to investigate.  The closer he got the more ships he saw.  He put his binoculars to his eyes.  There was no doubt.  He had discouvered a Japanese invasion fleet.
 
No time was wasted getting out a first-sighting report.  Birchall’s radio operator tapped out the exact position, course and speed, the type and number of ships.  Japanese fighters, Zeros, had been launched from an aircraft carrier.  Bullets crashed into the Catalina.  Their attack was deadly.  Explosive shells demolished the radio compartment and badly injured the radio operator.  There would be no more messages sent, but no more were necessary, the report had been received in Ceylon.  All three gunners in the Catalina were badly wounded.  Fire broke out; the wing tanks were draining burning gasoline into the aircraft.  Then the bomber started to break up.  Birchall somehow managed to get the aircraft down on the ocean safely but the hull was so riddled with holes it quickly sank, taking one of the gunners with it.
 
Birchall and his crew pulled the other two badly wounded gunners out of the burning aircraft, put them into life jackets and slid them into the water.  But the ordeal was not over yet.  The Japanese fighters slanted towards the water and started strafing runs.  Birchall and five other crew members swam under water to escape the gunfire but the two injured gunners were helpless.  Then sharks, attracted by the widening pool of blood, began to move in.  At that moment one of the Japanese destroyers hove to, lowered a boat and picked up the six survivors.  On board the destroyer Birchall and his crew were questioned about whether or not they had sent a warning to Ceylon.  They denied having done any such thing.  At that moment, the destroyer intercepted a message from Colombo asking Birchall to confirm his report of the invasion fleet.  The Japanese were furious and took out their anger on the helpless prisoners, three of whom were already wounded.  The six fliers were then confined to a small paint locker.
 
The Japanese decided to carry on with the attack.  On Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942, 50 bombers plus a fighter escort attacked Colombo.  Birchall’s message had given Ceylon time to prepare.  The British merchant vessels had left the harbour and sailed to safety.  The Japanese found the sky thick with British fighters and busting with shells.  They lost 16 aircraft to the Hurricanes of the RAF and the Fulmars of the RN Fleet Air Arm.  An  additional five Japanese were shot down by anti-aircraft fire.  The next day, the Japanese made two small raids on India and again they suffered defeat at the hands of the RAF and the RN.
 
Admiral Nagumo, the Japanese Commander, headed home, suffering more of a loss than he then realized.  Birchall’s timely action had started a chain of events which were to cost the Japanese dearly.  Not only was Ceylon not damaged as badly as they had hoped, but the Japanese had lost so many aircraft in the attack that only two of the five aircraft carriers could take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942 - Mills), the following month.  In addition, the three aircraft carriers which returned to Japan were given rookie pilots to replace the veteran pilots lost at Ceylon.  These newcomers did poorly when they flew in the Battle of Midway Island (4-7 June 1942 – Mills) exactly two months after Birchall’s radio warning.  For his action in saving Ceylon from invasion, Birchall was subsequently awarded the DFC.
 
But all of that was in the future.  At the time of their capture they were in peril from friend and foe alike.  Birchall and the five surviving crew members stayed cooped up in the paint locker during the attack on Ceylon.  After the battle they were transferred to the aircraft carrier Akagi, the flagship of the invasion fleet, for the trip to Japan.
 
On arrival, the three wounded crew members were taken to a hospital. Birchall and the two others went directly to a special interrogation camp in Ojuna.  For six months they survived on a starvation diet and constant beatings.  The Japanese transferred them to a POW work camp in Yokohama.  Birchall was the Senior Allied Officer in the camp, which meant that he had certain responsibilities toward the other prisoners.  The Japanese became infuriated at Birchall for concerning himself with the welfare of his fellow prisoners.  He was finally condemned to death.  Fortunately, the threat was not carried out.  The Yokohama camp contained some 350 prisoners; British from Hong Kong, Americans from the Philippines and a mixture of nationalities from Wake Island, Singapore and Allied ships.  Birchall and his observer, F/O G.O. Onyette, were the only two Canadians in the camp.  Again, it was a case of starvation diet, no medicine, 12 hours of duty labour in factories and beatings from the guards.
 
No record of F/O Onyette’s demise was found in the current Canadian Veterans Affairs  documentation – it is likely that he survived this ordeal.  The names  of the other crew members have not yet been found – Mills – Aug. 2011.
 
Each day, the camp commander, Lieutenant Hayashi, would demand a certain number of prisoners to be sent on work detail.  Since the desired number included all of the sick and injured, Birchall would intervene to say that the sick prisoners were not going to work.  Birchall would then be beaten for his defiance.  The next day the procedure would be repeated.  Birchall had some success; he always managed to have a few of the prisoners deleted from the work detail.
 
One day a Japanese medical NCO, Sergeant Ushioda, began beating a sick prisoner who was too weak to work.  Birchall grabbed the Japanese guard and started struggling.  The other guards were too dumbfounded to move.  The sergeant received a broken jaw from one of Birchall’s well-aimed punches.  “Once I started, I knew that I might just as well finish the job,”  Birchall said later.  He was put into solitary confinement and given a month of hard labour but he remained undaunted.  When the Japanese issued to the prisoners books to be used as diaries, Birchall collected all of the books, hid them, convinced the prison authorities that the books had been used as toilet paper.  In actual fact, Birchall used the books to record camp atrocities in detail.  Five years later these records, which Birchall secretly kept, were used as evidence at the war crimes trials held in Tokyo and were responsible for the conviction of several prison officials including Sgt. Ushioda.
 
Birchall the “trouble maker” was later sent to the Asano Dock Camp where prisoners, sick or healthy, were working in shipyards.  Birchall promptly organized a sit-down strike, and sick prisoners were excused from further labour.  But the next day Birchall was sent to a special disciplinary camp in Tokyo.  If life had been difficult before it was close to unbearable at the new camp.  Birchall had to work all day at various jobs, then work all night in the camp kitchen making food for the working parties next day.  At this special camp he met other Canadian prisoners who, like him, were considered in corrigible.
 
But the hour of liberation was approaching.  With immense satisfaction Birchall and the other prisoners watched American bombers roar overhead and turn Tokyo and Yokohama into wastes of flaming ruins.  The prisoner-of-war camp was located next to Haneda airfield, the location of a fighter squadron, the location of an anti-aircraft battery and a searchlight unit.  Consequently, the immediate area was a prime military target and was progressively reduced to rubble.  The POW camp escaped destruction.
 
Birchall and the other Allied prisoners were moved inland to a POW camp at an open-face mine and set to work.  They learned, from an Hawaiian-born Japanese, that the war was over.  Birchall and the other prisoners realized that, in their weakened condition, they would not be able to survive for long.  They took matters in their own hands, took over the POW camp and prepared for the worst.  Nothing happened, so Birchall, ever the organizer, marched his colleagues to the railway station and took the night train to Tokyo. Displaying more confidence than they felt, they marched through the streets of Tokyo to another railway station.  The Japanese multitudes stared at them unable to comprehend this incredible audacity.  Birchall and his troops then took the electric train to Yokohama.  Once there they went out on the street and unfurled a home-made flag which they waved proudly.  In due course an American military vehicle arrived on the scene.  The ordeal was over.
 
When details of Birchall’s exploits as a prisoner of war were made known he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.  The accompanying citation said in part, “On many occasions, with complete disregard for his own safety, S/L Birchall prevented as far as possible, Japanese officials from sadistically beating his men and denying prisoners the medical treatment which they so urgently needed.  Birchall forcibly intervened on behalf of his men in the full knowledge that he would receive brutal treatment.  The consistent gallantry and devotion to his fellow prisoners of war that this officer displayed throughout his lengthy period of imprisonment are in keeping with the finest traditions of the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
Just after the end of the Second World War, former Prime Minister Lester Pearson and the late Sir Winston Churchill were dinner guests of Lord Halifax at the British Embassy in Washington.  Someone asked Sir Winston what he felt to be the most dangerous and most distressing moment in the war.  Most of the gathering thought he would refer to the events of June and July 1940 and the imminence of invasion; or to the time when Rommel was heading towards Alexandria and Cairo at full speed; or when Singapore fell.  However, Churchill’s reply to the query was not concerned with any of these incidents.  He said he thought the most dangerous moment in the war and the one which caused him the greatest alarm was when he got the news that the Japanese fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there.  The capture of Ceylon, 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 black, he said.
 
However, he went on to say that they were saved from this disaster by an airman, on reconnaissance, who spotted the Japanese fleet and, though shot down, was able to get a message through to Ceylon which allowed the defence force there to get ready for the approaching assault; otherwise they would have been taken completely by surprise.  Sir Winston then said that this unknown airman, who lay deep in the waters of the Indian Ocean, made one of the most important single contributions to victory.
 
Mr. Pearson broke in to tell him that the “unknown airman” was not lying deep in the Indian Ocean but was an RCAF officer in Canada’s military mission, down the street from the British Embassy.  Mr. Churchill was surprised and delighted to know that the end of the story was a happier one than he had envisaged.
 
From the book “THE DANGEROUS SKY” by Tom Coughlin (1968)
Transcribed by Carl Mills - with permission - August 2011