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Leonard Joseph Birchall
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Birth: Jul. 6, 1915
Ontario, Canada
Death: Sep. 10, 2004
Ontario, Canada

Decorated veteran of WWII
Squadron Leader, RCAF No. 413 Squadron

BIRCHALL, Leonard J. Air Commodore (Retired), CM, OBE, DFC, O Ont, CD, LL.D., D. Sc. M.

On Friday, September 10, 2004, at St. Mary's of the Lake Hospital, Kingston, ON, in his 90th year. Born in St. Catharines, "Birch" graduated from RMC in 1937 and was commissioned in the RCAF. On April 4th, 1942, while on patrol southeast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he and his crew gave the warning that prevented the Japanese fleet from surprising the Allies as they had done at Pearl Harbour. For this action, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and became known as the "Saviour of Ceylon". Shot down, he spent the remainder of the war in prisoner-of-war camps in Japan. His gallantry and constant concern for the welfare of his fellow prisoners led to his being made a member of the Order of the British Empire. Following the war, he held many posting culminating in the positions of Chief of Air Operations, RCAF and Commandant, RMC. At the time of his death, he had completed seventy years of military service; he was the first member of the Canadian Forces to receive the fifth clasp to the Canadian Forces Decoration. In February, 2000, he was made a member of the Order of Canada, and in 2001, was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. A member of the United States Legion of Merit, he was made an "American Eagle" in 2003.

Predeceased by his first wife Dorothy Logan Birchall, his second wife Betty Clapp Birchall and his sisters Elizabeth Sinnett and Ina Landale. Birch is survived and will be sorely missed by his wife Kathleen, by his daughters Sharon Logan Chandler (Downsview) and Judy Kadish (Vestal, NY) and sons-in-law John Chandler and Gerald Kadish, by his son Charles Birchall (Ottawa) and daughter-in-law Hilary Geller, by his stepson and daughter-in-law David Graham and Pamela Hodgson (St. John's), his stepdaughter and son-in-law Nancy and Leighton Reid (Toronto), by his grandsons David and Christopher Chandler and their wives Angela and Elizabeth, by his granddaughters Isabelle and Emma Birchall, and by his great-grandchildren Jonathan, Victoria, Alexandre and Olive Chandler.

Funeral service took place from Chalmers United Church, 212 Barrie Street (at Earl Street) Kingston, ON on Monday, September 13, 2004 at 3:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Air Commodore Leonard and Kathleen Birchall Award/Scholarship Fund, Air Cadet League of Canada, Constitution Building, 313 Rideau Street, Ottawa, ON K1N 5Y4

Citation on 2001 induction to
Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame

"His complete dedication, in unbroken military service of over six decades, has inspired untold thousands of Canadian youth. His tireless and unselfish contributions to his community, his country and his fellow man, in war and in peace, have been of outstanding benefit to Canada and Canadians."


It is [over] 62 years since a 27 year old Canadian Pilot and his crew lifted off from a makeshift air base in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to forestall what Winston Churchill said was the most perilous moment in the second world war.

In 1942 Leonard Birchall, who passed away Sept. 10, 2004, in Kingston, Ont. at age 89, and his crew, Bart Onyette, Brian Catlin, Ginger Cook, J. Henzell, Ian Davidson, P.O. Kennedy, L.A. Colarossi, and radio operator Fred Phillips, took off from their base at Koggala, Ceylon, at dawn on April 4, 1942 in Catalina AJ-155. They were furnished with hand drawn charts. In the late afternoon, after having been in the air for 12 hours they discovered that the inaccurate charts had probably caused them 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.

They had just finished a snack when they saw some specks which looked like a convoy and they went over to investigate. They identified the outer screen of the Japanese fleet and radioed back to base the position, course, speed, and composition of the fleet. On closer inspection they identified battleships, several aircraft carriers, and other war ships which Fred Phillips reported back to base.

Then all hell broke loose. 30 Zeros came at them from the carriers. The Catalina was hit in the fuel tank and erupted in flames. Birchall managed to ditch the aircraft but it sank immediately killing one of the crew. The remainder swam away from the burning gas that spread out over the water. However, the Japanese fighters machined gunned the crew in the water. Two more crewmembers were killed and Birchall was hit in the leg.

The remaining crew members were picked up by a Destroyer and interrogated. When asked if they got a message out to base they said no because their radio had been shot out. This seemed to satisfy their captors until the Japanese intercepted a radio signal from Colombo to the aircraft asking them to repeat their previous message. Birchall was severely beaten. It was his first taste of mistreatment. It wasn't until after release from PoW camp that they found out their first message did get through.

As a result of the sighting the Royal Navy sent its Ceylon fleet to sea and the RAF were in a position to repulse the enemy aircraft when the Japanese dropped their bombs on Colombo on April 5/42. The Japanese withdrew its large attack force from the Indian Ocean and abandoned plans to invade India by way of Ceylon.

Churchill, in 1945 said, "the sighting of the Japanese fleet had adverted the most dangerous and distressing moment of the entire conflict. Ceylon's capture, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a German conquest in Egypt would have closed the ring, and the future would have been bleak."

In the Japanese prisoner of war camp 150 kilometres West of Tokyo, Birchall became the advocate for and defender of the men, resulting in him being condemned to death three times. He kept secret documentation of the atrocities witnessed in the camp. In 1948 Birchall returned to Japan to testify in the subsequent war trials and witness the hanging of one of his former tormenters. Years later he used his diaries to in a campaign to win Federal compensation for PoW survivors. Some of his documents were used by Barry McIntosh in his book HELL ON EARTH.

Two days after Leonard Birchall passed away, Fred Phillips, the radio operator, and fellow camp survivor, died at his home in England. Of the AJ 155 crew, only Mr. Catlin is still living.
Cataraqui Cemetery
Frontenac County
Ontario, Canada
Created by: Milou
Record added: Oct 12, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 78243420
Leonard Joseph Birchall
Added by: Milou
Leonard Joseph Birchall
Added by: Milou
Leonard Joseph Birchall
Added by: Milou
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- Milou
 Added: Nov. 11, 2013

- Milou
 Added: Oct. 12, 2011

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