WORLD WAR II – THE BATTLE OF THE INDIAN OCEAN (5 April 1942 – over Colombo, Ceylon) Interview with Commodore Leonard Birchall, OBE, DFC, CD (Retd)“The Saviour of Ceylon”
Posted on October 24th, 2021

by Asoka Weerasinghe 

(Introduction)

I want to take you back 51 years to present to you an important vignette in Sri Lanka’s military history,  The year was 1942.  Sri Lanka was then known as Ceylon.

Sir. Winston Churchill, in his monumental work on the Second World War referred to an incident that took place somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

He said, Scarcely had the fleet reached Addu Atoll on April 4th when a Catalina aircraft on patrol sighted our enemy forces approaching Ceylon.  While reporting their position and strength, the Catalina was shot down.

And we all know that the young pilot of the aircraft was Leonard Birchall, the Deputy Commanding Officer of a Squadron that was stationed in Koggala, in the South of Ceylon, It was his brave action that enabled Ceylon to be ready for the air-raid that took place on Easter Sunday morning over the capital Colombo.

The aircraft was shot down some 400 miles south of Ceylon, and the young pilot was taken prisoner by the Japanese.

But the thousand dollar question is….how many of you knew that this brave young pilot was a Canadian from the Canadian Air Forces 413 Squadron?

Well…I have the great pleasure and honour to introduce to you this brave Canadian, Air Commodore Leonard Birchall.

A.W :  Air Commodore, what intrigues me is to find out, if Ceylon’s colonial  master was indeed the British, then how was it that a young Canadian was flying on guard over Ceylon?

Leonard Birchall (L.B.):  We were actually a marine squadron stationed in the Shetland Islands in the North of England, and we have been flying out of there.  And I gather according to history that the Allied forces, they needed long range aircraft down in Ceylon to try to find out where the Japanese navy was, and the radars were practically non-existent and they had to rely on long range aircraft.

So they asked Canada to assist in this and the Canadians agreed.   So our Squadron 413 were moved from Shetland Islands out to Ceylon.  That is how we happened to be there.

A.W. :  Why was Ceylon important in that part of the theatre of World War II?

L.B. :  Yes, it was very important.  Let me put it this way.  The loss of Ceylon would have been just tremendous. It would have had a tremendous effect.  It would have cut off all the oil supplies.  It would have broken the route for supplies getting through to India to support the Burma campaign. And it would have disrupted the line going through from the East from Bazra and so on with all the oil from the Gulf all the way to Australia.   

It would have disrupted the whole thing.

A.W. : What was the general purpose of your patrol when you were shot down?

L.B.  :  I had only arrived there on the 2nd.  So I was not familiar with what  was going on.  We arrived on the 2nd and on the 3rd of April we were getting ready for the rest of the Squadron coming in behind us.  There were only two Squadrons, the lead Squadron with two aircraft.  And we were trying to find out what was going on and suddenly that night they asked me whether I would take a patrol.  And I wondered what it was all about.  They told me just to go out and report all shipping, anything and everything because they didn’t know what was in the Indian Ocean.  They didn’t know where the British allied ships were and they asked us to go and do this patrol.  But also it was a patrol that would have been enough out of Ceylon or Sri Lanka that any invading force coming in would not be able to get close enough that they could steam in the night and then release aircraft  the next morning.  So that is why we were out in that exact position.

A.W. :  At what point did you see the Japanese steaming in?

L.B. :   We did our patrol all day long.  One more point about this was the lake we were in, Lake Koggola, was full of reefs and so on, which you are probably well aware of.  And we had no practice at night landings in that area at all.  However, we did have long range tanks.  So we could come back in the night and circle and land in the dawn.  That is what we were going to do. So we had lots of time to waste.  So we were out during the day doing the patrol and suddenly the navigator said to me, will I please do one more circuit so that we could get a shot of the moon to get the exact position.  We did. We got his exact position.  And then just as we were going to turn to come home at dusk, and that is when we saw the specs right down South.  Nothing but time to burn off, we said.  Let’s go and see what it is”.  So we turned and went down.  The closer we got, the more ships.  Then we realized that it was the Japanese navy that we were running into.

That’s what happened.

A.W. :  Were you able to send out coded messages at all of the sightings?

L.B .  :  Yes.  Well what you did for the first sighting report was that you had to code the message up very quickly  and you used the figures A’ and behind that the number of battleships and then ‘B’ the number of cruisers, and ‘C; the number of carriers and so on.  And then when you go down the alphabet you then give the position, the course and the speed. 

And we had just got a very accurate position, so we knew exactly where they were, we had seen them long enough.  We knew the speed, we knew the course, so we got a signal going.  You repeat the signal three times and then wait  for a confirmation that they received it.,   So we got the message out twice and then during the third transmission when they hit the radio compartment with explosive shells and blew everything up.  So we never did get confirmation and we did not finish the third transmission.

A.W.  :  I understand the Japanese fleet consisted of 5 aircraft carriers, each with 54 bombers and 18 fighters making it a total of 360 aircraft, 4 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light  cruiser, 11 destroyers and 7 submarines.  All of this to destroy the British sea power in the Indian Ocean?

L.B.  :   Yes, it was going to do that and also to go and take out the main major installations of which there were two.  There was the one on the east coast which was Trincomalee which was  a major one which the British navy had and, the second one was over Colombo on the complex over in that area,  So they were going to go over and do that.  That was the reason for the heavy strength they had and also the fact that they didn’t know what they were going to run into in the way of a British navy out that way.

A.W.  :  Was it the same Japanese fleet that struck Pearl Harbour under the Command of Admiral Nagumo that was sent to attack Ceylon?

L.B.  :  Yes, with the exception that there were two of their carriers which they did not have with them that they had at Pearl Harbour.

 Now what they did when they came back from Pearl Harbour, these carriers they used  their aircraft to supplement the ones from the other carrier which had been marked out, and so they then the carriers which

had stripped off some of their aircraft and went back to Japan to re-equip, whereas the rest stayed with the fleet and came on down through Singapore and into the Indian Ocean, (this explanation was a bit incoherent.)

A.W. :  How close were the Japanese to Ceylon shores before they released the fighters and bombers?

L.B.  :  They would have been about 200 miles off the south of Ceylon when they launched them at first.  They launched them just before first light in the morning.

A.W. :  I don’t think the majority of the Ceylonese ever knew that we were that close to being captured by the Japanese, and perhaps possibly changing the course of World War II.  Am I right in saying that?

L.B. :   I would think that….it wasn’t until after the end of the War that they were… well Churchill told them how close it was.

A.W. : We were obviously ready to meet the challenge of the Japanese air-raid. How well did we do?  Did we do well when they came in?

L.B. :  Yes. The Japanese launched a lot more than they had anticipated and in fact that was really the big turning point in that they, as a result of that they could not send all their carriers down to the coral sea and that is why they lost that battle down at the coral sea because they did not have sufficient airpower.

A.W.  :  Can you relate to us how you were taken Prisoner-of-War?

L.B.  :   How I was taken Prisoner-of-War?

A.W. :   Yes.

L.B.  :   We were shot down as you may know.  We got down on to the waters, as low to waters as we could get to stop them from coming, to stop the fighters coming underneath us.  But the tanks inside, they caught on fire, the tanks.  The waves started to catch on fire burning the gasoline coming down.  The aircraft started to break up.  We were too low to jump, so we bounced them off the water and two, one of the chaps had one of his legs blown right off and he didn’t get out of the airplane.  And there were two others who were very badly wounded and so we put Mae Wests on them and threw them into the water and we jumped in after them and we swam to get away from the burning gasoline and also the depth charges. We didn’t know whether they would go off.

And then the Japanese fighters, they kept strafing us, coming down strafing  us while we were swimming, and we had to  dive down under the water to get away from this,  But the two lads in Mae Wests, they couldn’t do that so they were blown right out of the water,

And then a destroyer came over and dropped a small boat and picked up the six of us which were still alive and swimming.

A.W. :   When did you come to know that you were tagged as ‘The Saviour of Ceylon?”

L.B.  :   Not until after the War,  We didn’t even know that the message had gotten through until the end of the War.  That was when I was recovering in Manila.

A.W. :  This was a fascinating story, Air Commodore.  And I want to thank you for joining us immensely and sharing your experience as ‘The Saviour of Ceylon’.

Thank You very much

                                         (end of the interview)

 for ‘Song of Sri Lanka’, an ongoing   MacLean-Hunter Cable TV programme, one of nine  produced by  expatriate Asoka Weerasinghe, Director of Communications of the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa whose appointment was questioned in Parliament by Minister 

C.V, Gunaratne  This interview was televised three times on Ottawa’s Cable TV in December 1993.

About 30 minutes before dawn on Easter Sunday,  April 5, 1942, when Japanese Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led his attack force of 36 fighters

54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers from the deck of the carriers Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu, he noticed from the plane’s cockpit his enemy target below, the city of Colombo glistening in the sun, still wet from a recent rain squall.  Fuchida hoped that he would demolish the British carriers, battleships and cruisers in Colombo’s harbour, the major British naval base in Ceylon, and the shore installation, to give his nation a free rein of the Indian Ocean

The control of Ceylon was important to both the Japanese and the British in early 1942.  The Japanese wanted to protect the western flank of their newly won territories and open sea supply lines to her forces fighting in Burma.  This would have placed them in a favourable position for a possible link up with Hitler’s armies in the Middle East, should the Germans continue to overrun the reeling Soviet Union’s armies.  And if the British wanted to have a counterattack in the Far East, then ships and materials would have likely been assembled at Colombo and Trincomalee, the two British naval bases in Ceylon.  Thus for the Japanese a pre-emptive strike was imperative.

Since the British could not let Ceylon fall to the Japanese for the very reason that its naval bases ensured a continuous supply line (Particularly of Ceylon rubber) from vital British Far Easten sources to the home islands, and also kept communications open to Australia and the Persian Gulf.  Sir Winston Churchill dispatched five battleships and three carriers under the command of Sir James F. Somerville.  Somerville was the aggressive Admiral who had hunted down Hitler’s feared battleship Bismark.

Sixty British fighters and a handful of short range bombers were also hurriedly sent to Colombo.  Although this was a much weaker air force than what Churchill wanted, the expectations were that it would at least make sure that a Japanese air attack would be sharply resisted.” 

On March 28, 1942, British Intelligence informed Somerville that a potent Japanese force had entered  the Indian Ocean from Singapore and predicted a possible attack on the British naval bases in Colombo and Trincomalee by April 2 or 3.

The Nagumo Force”, the fleet commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo which had already devastated Pearl Harbour, raided Dawin, Australia, and created havoc throughout much of the Pacific had left the southeast Celebes on March 26, entering the Indian Ocean via Ombai Straits between Flores and Timor, and not from Singapore as the British intelligence thought they did, for a planned attack on Colombo on April 5.

At dusk on April 4, Deputy Commanding Officer of the  Squadron stationed at Koggala, Leonard Birchall, in a British Catalina, stumbled on the fleet about 500 nautical miles south of Ceylon, steaming toward Colombo, and radioed in on the sighting.

Admiral Ngumo steamed within 200 miles off Colombo and released 125 aircraft under the command of Mitsuo Fuchida who led the raid on Pearl Harbour.  Having climbed on course for the coast toward Colombo,the Japanese formations appeared overhead of Colombo at 7:50 AM, on 5 April.

Since the British were readily waiting for their enemy, the fight was short and furious,  Ferocious anti-aircraft bursts greeted Fuchida’s pilots as they  dove towards their targets.  The British Hurricanes quickly leaped into the fray, transforming the field day having run into the Japanese bombers until the Japanese fighters caught up with them,  Despite this, the British got a blistering attack from the Japanese.   Six Swordfish with torpedoes which arrived from Trincomalee at the middle of the battle were  shot down,  However, the British claimed 27 enemy aircraft destroyed that morning.  The British also lost 17 Hurricanes and  four Fulmers.

Meanwhile, Fuchida who led the raid had intercepted a message that two British cruisers had been sighted in the south which may be intended to attack the Negumo fleet.   Fuchida wanted to return quickly to offer aid.,  but a group of British fighters threatened to delay him.

Fuchida ordered Itaya’s Zeros to engage the British while he led his bombers home.  It was hard to leave the fighters to find their way back alone, but it had to be done.   Most of them returned safely, but several never made it,” lamented Fuchida.

The message that Fuchida had intercepted was in fact the sighting report of the DORSETSHIRE and the CORNWALL, which were trying to join the fleet.  The Japanese lost no time in sending out the bombers.  By 1:40 P.M. the planes struck and by 1:48 P.M.  DORSETSHIRE was sunk.

The CORNWALL followed very shortly later.  Of the 1,546 officers and sailors, 1,122 survivors were picked up after about 27 hours in the water.

Thus ended the battle between the British and the Japanese on Easter Sunday of 1942, over Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) capital Colombo and its surrounding waters in the Indian Ocean.

One Response to “WORLD WAR II – THE BATTLE OF THE INDIAN OCEAN (5 April 1942 – over Colombo, Ceylon) Interview with Commodore Leonard Birchall, OBE, DFC, CD (Retd)“The Saviour of Ceylon””

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    “Admiral Ngumo steamed within 200 miles off Colombo and released 125 aircraft under the command of Mitsuo Fuchida who led the raid on Pearl Harbour. Having climbed on course for the coast toward Colombo,the Japanese formations appeared overhead of Colombo at 7:50 AM, on 5 April.

    Since the British were readily waiting for their enemy, the fight was short and furious, Ferocious anti-aircraft bursts greeted Fuchida’s pilots as they dove towards their targets. The British Hurricanes quickly leaped into the fray, transforming the field day having run into the Japanese bombers until the Japanese fighters caught up with them, Despite this, the British got a blistering attack from the Japanese. Six Swordfish with torpedoes which arrived from Trincomalee at the middle of the battle were shot down, However, the British claimed 27 enemy aircraft destroyed that morning. The British also lost 17 Hurricanes and four Fulmers.”

    So it was April 5, 1942. I remember my dad telling me that story. There was a dog fight right over his father’s house in Dehiwala, Colombo. My dad and his brothers and sister along with Grandpa and grandma hid under the tables and bullet reigned over the tiled roof. That was the only family (on my father’s side) experience of World War 2 in Colombo. My uncle on my mother’s side fought in the war. This article is a saver

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