Imagine the exhaustion and fear of young Squadron Leader, Len Birchall, on April 4, 1942 when he and his crew of eight were shot down 300 miles off Sri Lanka’s coast, shortly after having sighted and reported the incoming Japanese fleet.
Birchall had arrived in Sri Lanka only two days earlier and was based at Royal Air Force Station Koggala at Koggala Lake near Galle. Squadron 413 (“the Tuskers”) were the first such Canadian unit to serve overseas, other than in Britain. Eight hours into their reconnaissance flight and about to return to base they had seen “a black speck on the horizon”. They investigated and managed to make a radio report detailing the extent of the major Japanese offensive heading to Sri Lanka. The port was cleared of shipping and defences were prepared. Another Pearl Harbour was averted. But the Japanese had seen the patrol and sent up Zeros to shoot them down.
Winston Churchill dubbed Birchall “the Saviour of Ceylon” as the defence of the British fleet had much strategic value, even beyond the preservation of Sri Lanka. None of this was known to Birchall at the time, however, for he was shot down without confirmation that his radio report had been heard.
As a prisoner of war, Birchall showed extraordinary courage, braving repeated beatings and near executions in defence of his men. As the senior Allied officer, he insisted that the Geneva Conventions be respected. His sheer physical courage and administrative and leadership skills earned him their loyalty. Under his remarkable leadership, death rates fell from 30% to two per cent, as survival was enhanced by collective solidarity, instead of every man for himself. His example of selflessness generated like behaviour in others. Medicine that was initially hoarded was given up for the greater good. He required unanimous approval of the entire POW camp before the few precious morphine pills could be used. Even after the camp voted to give a man a pill, it was sometimes the beneficiary himself who insisted on saving the pill for someone who might have greater need. Heroism spread.
The malnutrition from which the POWs suffered affected nerve endings. Feet became hot and sore very quickly. Birchall’s feet got hot and sore, when tired, to the end of his life, but that was the only apparent permanent ill effect. His son’s memorial address spoke of his father’s greatest gift to his three children being that, despite his wartime experiences, “he did not pass on any hatred to us. We have never had to carry that burden”.
Birchall led a remarkable life after the war as well. He was the longest serving member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (62 years) and worked as Canadian Air Attache in Washington and with NATO. He retired from the military as an Air Commodore and Commandant of the Royal Military College.
The former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Canada, Geetha De Silva, remembers her visit with Birchall to 413 Squadron’s base in Nova Scotia. “I was so touched to see souvenirs related to Sri Lanka displayed at the Squadron headquarters”. During her tenure in office, she worked closely with Birchall, who was honorary patron of the Canadian Friends of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka remained a constant in Birchall’s life. He made what he called his first “pilgrimage” soon after the war. There were to be many others, most notably to celebrate with other veterans the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the defence of Sri Lanka. In between, he was appointed as Canadian observer of the general elections held in 1994. That experience exposed him to shortages of supplies and equipment in some Sri Lankan hospitals and so he used his own resources to send a large sea container with over eight tons of supplies. He was a volunteer for 15 years at the Kingston General Hospital and so he was aware of hospital needs in both countries.
In 2002, he was accompanied on what would prove to be his last trip to Sri Lanka by his son Charles, an accomplished environmental lawyer. Birchall said during that visit, “I love the country and I’m happy to be here, especially when there’s such a wonderful hope of peace. I pray it will work. I sure would do anything I could to help make it work”. During that visit, he went to the Katunayake Air Force base to see the mural of his Catalina exploit in the officers’ mess. He did not live to see his dream of an end to the violent conflict, dying two years later at 89.
Birchall survived the war but today we can visit the graves, as Birchall did, of the many who did not. The Commonwealth alone has 1999 veterans buried in Sri Lanka. There are regular commemorations and Remembrance Day events, such as the one organized November 11, 2009 at the Jawatta Commonwealth cemetery down the road from Canada House in Colombo. For many Canadians attending, it was the first time they were aware that young Canadian servicemen were buried in Sri Lanka. There are Canadian graves in Kandy and Trincomalee, as well as the 17 Canadian graves (like Birchall, most of them pilots) in Jawatta.
The care with which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission works through their Sri Lanka agency under the Director General of the Department of National Botanic Gardens, is greatly appreciated. Director General Siril Wijesundara receives regular requests by families abroad to lay wreaths on the graves of servicemen buried in Sri Lanka to commemorate birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The meticulous attention paid to these requests is obvious to those who have visited the beautifully maintained grounds. It is a fitting reminder of Squadron Leader Birchall as well.