NWORA Remembrance Vol.4 - NE99

NE99

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Forget-me-not Remembrance Vol.4 4 W ith the death of Air Commodore Leonard J. Birchall, OBE, DFC, CM, O Ont, OC CD, at 89, on 10 September 2004, Kingston and Canada lost something rare, an authentic hero. We lost a man who truly lived up to his name, Leonard, which is from old German and means "lion-bold." But like all true heroes Len Birchall was humble. It was my privilege to have had the opportunity to talk to the Air Commodore on a couple of occasions. He was reluctant to discuss many of his wartime experiences. But he was eloquent – almost passionate – about what he saw as the neglect of Canada's armed forces by govern- ment after government over the years. He spoke of his early years as a career RCAF officer in the 1930s after graduating from the Royal Military College in Kingston. And he compared the neglect of that time, which left us unprepared for war, with the sad state of things as he found them in the early days of the 21st Century. He was not amused. A Dedicated family man himself, he lamented the speed with which highly-trained military personnel were becoming burned out through too many overseas missions and the toll it took on their family life. He foresaw that as military budgets shrink and costs rise, top people trained at such expense can never be replaced. He particularly lamented that the Reserve Force budget is constantly and improperly raided to supplement, and indeed substan- tiate, the regular forces' budget. Reservists must be properly paid, he insisted. His concerns were justified as we were to see later when the twelve years of operations in Afghanistan succeeded to the extent they did when 20% of Canada's strength on the ground was provided by splendidly- trained reservists. During the Second World War, the then-Squadron leader of RCAF 413 Squadron and his twin-engined Catalina flying boat 8-man crew on patrol over the Indian Ocean, were the men who spotted the mighty Japanese invasion force headed towards Ceylon – now Sri Lanka, and though attacked by six Zero fighters and shot down, managed to send off a message of warning to their base. Unlike Kota Baru, Malaya and Pearl Harbour, Ceylon was made ready for the sneak attack. A textbook example, the message gave precise numbers and types of ships – which included three aircraft carriers – the speed and course of the fleet and its air cover. The message saved some 118 merchant ships, allowed the out-gunned British Far East Fleet to hide out of harm's way to fight another day, and alerted the garrison so that a successful anti-aircraft barrage was able to beat off the 125 Japanese bombers that attacked the next morning, Easter Sunday 5 April, 1942. The 50 RAF Hurricane fighters that scrambled to welcome them gave them a nasty surprise. Birchall was lionized in the press, giving the Allies a much-needed boost to morale. He was dubbed the "Saviour of Ceylon," although he always gave credit to the other men in his crew. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). In 1946 Winston Churchill said that in foiling the Japaneses plans for the conquest of India, Air Commodore Birchall's deed was "one of the most important single contributions to the Allied victory." When his seaplane was shot down Birchall was wounded and he was strafed as he floated in the water. He survived and was captured only to embark upon a life in hell. Interrogated and beaten from the first day, he went on to be Senior Allied Officer in several prisoner-of-war camps. He became a role model for all those he commanded. He defended his men whenever he saw them abused. Once he punched a Japanese sergeant who was kicking a sick man. He broke the sergeant's jaw. Air Commodore Birchall was court-marshalled. He was beaten and hung by the thumbs all day. He was sentenced to death by beheading on three occasions. Once a mock execution complete with chopping block and samurai sword was staged. Then he was reprieved, beaten and tossed into a cell with nothing to eat for almost two weeks. The last time it happened he turned to the Japanese officer in charge and told him. "You have just THE SAVIOUR OF CEYLON By Terence Cottrell BA(Hons), MA, JD.

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