Leonard Birchall grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, the only son of Joseph and Emma Elise Birchall. He had two sisters, Elizabeth and Ina. From a very early age Leonard was interested in flying, spending long hours working at odd jobs to pay for the occasional lesson at the local flying club. After a brief stint in the militia as part of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, he realized that the path to a flying career lay with the military.
In the summer of 1933, he went off to the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, as Gentleman Cadet No. 2364. Four years later he graduated and was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). After completing pilot training at RCAF Stations Borden and Trenton, he was posted to No. 5 (Bombing and Reconnaissance) Squadron in Nova Scotia. As a pilot on a Supermarine Stranraer maritime patrol aircraft, he flew some of the first RCAF anti-submarine combat patrols when Canada entered the Second World War on 10 September 1939.
Second World War
Over the next 27 months, Birchall flew anti-submarine and convoy escort patrols off the East coast of Canada. By this time a very experienced pilot, he as one of a handful of “veterans” selected to go overseas in early 1942 to serve as the nucleus for 413 Squadron, being created in Britain. Equipped with Consolidated Catalina long-range amphibious aircraft, the new RCAF squadron was formed to help counter the growing threat from German submarines. Operating out of the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Birchall’s time in Europe would be short.
Japan had entered the war on 7 December 1941, and hard-pressed Allied forces in the Pacific were in desperate need of maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In March 1942, 413 Squadron was deployed to the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Concerned about the possibility of a Japanese attack, the senior Allied commander quickly ordered the newly arrived Canadians into the air. On 4 April 1942, having only been on the ground in Ceylon for about 48 hours, Birchall and his eight-man crew took to the air in their Catalina. The group included one other Canadian, Warrant Officer G.C. Onyette.
Twelve hours into the patrol, the men spotted something on the horizon. As they flew closer, they realized they had spotted a Japanese naval fleet containing several aircraft carriers. Birchall flew closer to the enemy ships, intent on obtaining as much information as possible. At the same time, he ordered his radio officer to send a coded message, alerting Allied forces that a sizable Japanese fleet had been located about 560 kilometres southeast of Ceylon.
No sooner had the message been transmitted than a defensive screen of Japanese Zero fighters spotted the RCAF plane and attacked. The Catalina was severely damaged and on fire, but Birchall managed to put the stricken aircraft down in the ocean. The plane quickly sank, but all of the crew except one made it safely into the water. And then their ordeal began.
The Japanese fighters strafed the helpless men, killing another two members of the crew. The final six survivors, including Birchall and Onyette, were finally picked up by a Japanese destroyer, on which they were beaten by their captors in an attempt to find out if a message had been sent. Birchall and his crew told them they had been shot down before they could transmit a warning. As it turned out, their message contributed to a decision on Ceylon to disperse Allied shipping and place defensive forces on alert. The Japanese still carried out their attack, but the damage inflicted was not as severe as it could have been, and the enemy eventually withdrew its fleet.
Birchall was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for this action.
Prisoner of War
Leonard Birchall and his surviving crew would spend more than three years as prisoners of war in various Japanese camps. Often the senior officer present in a camp, Birchall tried to establish a sense of discipline and trust amongst the other prisoners. In this regard he distinguished himself, in that many Allied, non-officer prisoners complained of being abandoned by officers more concerned about their own welfare in the camps, than that of their men. At great risk to himself, Birchall often stepped in front of guards who were beating prisoners, either taking the blows himself or earning himself extra punishment, including long periods in solitary confinement.
Always leading by example, he continuously stood up to brutal guards and fought for basic human compassion and dignity. In 1944, at a camp where the sick were being forced to work, he organized and led a labour stoppage until the Japanese relented. For this he was transferred to a disciplinary prison camp where he was beaten and starved. From the moment of his capture until his liberation on 27 August 1945, he never stopped doing what he could to help his fellow prisoners. While in captivity he managed to compile of diary composed of 22 small books that later served as evidence in war crime trials against the Japanese.
In 1946, Birchall was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his efforts while a prisoner. In part, the citation stated that he “continually displayed the utmost concern for the welfare of his fellow prisoners…The consistent gallantry and glowing 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.”
After a lengthy period of recovery, Birchall returned to active duty. Through the late 1940s and 1950s, he held a number of senior staff positions in the RCAF, and he was involved in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and North American Air Defence Command (NORAD).
Promoted to air commodore, he was appointed commandant of the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, in 1963. For the next four years, he inspired a generation of future officers in the Canadian military. In 1967, not supportive of the federal government’s decision to unify the various arms of the Canadian Forces, he resigned from the RCAF. For the next 15 years, he worked as the chief executive and administrative officer of the Faculty of Administrative Studies at York University, Toronto.
Upon his retirement in 1982, Birchall moved to Kingston, where he was a regular attendee at RMC functions. He travelled on several occasions to Sri Lanka and served as Canadian observer during the 1994 general elections there. He also served as honorary colonel for various units including his beloved 413 Squadron. Before his death in Kingston, at the age of 89, Birchall had been awarded a fifth clasp to his Canadian Forces Decoration, denoting more than 62 years of loyal service.
Birchall is often referred to as the “Saviour of Ceylon” for his actions in 1942 — a phrase generated by the Canadian press and which caught on after the war. It was a description Birchall neither sought nor cared for.