Eagle Profile

Leonard J. Birchall, dubbed the “Savior of Ceylon” by none other than Sir Winston Churchill, has to his credit an amazing 55 years of uniformed military service, and in gaining the afore-mentioned title, helped prevent a surprise Japanese attack on Colombo, Ceylon. This attack, if successful, would have equaled a second Pearl Harbor. Growing up in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, he became interested in flying at an early age and joined the St. Catharines Flying Club. Commissioned in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1937, Birchall was assigned to fly the Consolidated PBY Catalina “flying boat.”

In the pre-dawn hours of 4 April 1942, Birchall and his eight-man flight crew embarked upon a day-long patrol southeast of Ceylon in search of Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean. Just at the end of the patrol, strong elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy were sighted steaming toward Ceylon with the intention of surprising heavy surface units of the Royal Navy. Birchall and his crew desperately sent signals alerting Allied units as carrier-based Zeros attacked the Catalina . This action permitted weaker naval units to avoid detection and enabled forces on the island critical time to prepare a strong defense. After ditching in the ocean, Birchall and his crew were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and subsequently interrogated and beaten. Birchall was held as a Japanese prisoner of war for 3 years and 4 months. As the senior Allied officer in the compound, Birchall displayed the utmost concern for the welfare of his fellow prisoners, often disregarding his own safety. While in captivity at the Yokohama Camp, he called a sit-down strike in protest against ill-treatment of his men. On another occasion, when the Japanese wanted to send sick prisoners of war to work, Birchall physically intervened. However, each time Birchall stood firm on behalf of his men, his captors made good on their promise to punish him.

Following the end of the war and his release, Birchall commanded Canadian units in Labrador and North Bay. He also held positions as Air Attaché to the United States, Military Attaché to NATO and the Chief of Air Operations, Royal Canadian Air Force Headquarters. Subsequent to his retirement in 1967 as an Air Commodore, Birchall held numerous honorary positions in the Royal Canadian Air Reserve while dedicating himself to public service. At his own expense, he built a children’s summer camp near Kingston, Ontario and sent eight tons of hospital relief supplies to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Birchall was awarded the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry for his selfless conduct during World War II, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross. He now resides in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife, Kathleen.

Years Honored:


2002 Lithograph

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"A single Canadian Catalina and its crew ...averted a second Pearl Harbor " - Leslie Roberts in There Shall Be Wings. In early 1942, the pilot and crew of a Catalina PBY "flying boat" spotted the advance of a Japanese fleet steaming toward Ceylon. Before being shot down and taken as prisoners of war, they were able to alert the British to the approaching fleet. For this action, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill named Birchall "The Savior of Ceylon," and declared it "one of the most important single contributions to the Allied victory."