Canadians played a crucial role based in strategic Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the Second World War. They and fellow Commonwealth personnel were honored in a solemn ceremony in Colombo to mark Remembrance Day today.
A delegation from the Canadian branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was in Sri Lanka for a three-day visit, also joined and paid tribute in Colombo. The delegation was led by Ms. Yasmin Ratansi, MP. She is accompanied by Mr. Matthew Jeneroux, MP, Thomas Mulcair MP, Sen. Salma Ataullahjan and Sen. Marilou McPhedran.
Savior of Ceylon
On April 4, 1942, Squadron Leader Birchall embarked in a Catalina flying boat for a daylong patrol southeast of Ceylon in search of Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean. By this time, Japanese forces had overrun Southeast Asia following their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and conquest of Singapore, and strikes were expected against Britain’s Eastern Fleet and the strategic island of Ceylon.
Near the end of the patrol, a vast armada of Imperial Japanese Navy warships, including three carriers, was sighted steaming toward Ceylon, with the intention of surprising heavy surface units of the Royal Navy. Birchall and his crew sent signals giving the location, speed, course, and composition of the enemy fleet. The interception permitted weaker Allied naval units to avoid detection and enabled the island to defend itself.
This heroic effort came at a considerable price for Birchall and the survivors of his crew, when they were shot down, captured and imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Stories abound of his selfless devotion to his crew, ensuring their safety and well-being, while ignoring his own suffering at the hands of his torturers. Once when he was asked, “What gave you the strength to endure three years as a POW, the beatings, the torture, the starvation?” to which he replied humbly, ‘I didn’t have time to think about anything else but keeping my men alive and looking after them.’”