Len Birchall

HCol Birchall visits 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S., in 2003.

Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall was piloting his Catalina flying boat with the Royal Canadian Air Force's (RCAF) 413 Squadron on April 4, 1942. After eight hours on patrol over the Indian Ocean, his crew spotted a large Japanese fleet approaching Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He radioed the information to the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet headquarters, which allowed British forces to prepare for and defend against the attack on Ceylon, but Birchall and his crew were shot down.

Winston Churchill called Birchall the “Saviour of Ceylon” because the warning allowed the Royal Navy to move valuable capital ships and merchant vessels out of harm’s way.

Birchall spent the remainder of the war in Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camps. As the ranking senior officer in each camp where he was interned, he resisted Japanese cruelty (he was beaten on several occasions), fought to improve the living standards of the other POWs and succeeded in reducing the overall fatality rate in his camps from 30 per cent to less than two per cent.

Following the war, Birchall remained in the RCAF, eventually reaching the rank of air commodore. His last post was as commandant of Royal Military College, and he later served as honorary colonel of 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron and 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron.

In 1997, he received the fifth clasp to his Canadian Forces’ Decoration (awarded for long service), representing 62 years of service. He was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.

Len Birchall’s speech on leadership is considered a timeless classic: “Your leadership is judged not by your rank but by whether your men feel you have the knowledge, training and character that they will obey you unquestioningly, and that they can trust you with their lives.

Men are shrewd judges of their leaders, especially when their own lives are at stake, and hence your knowledge, character and behaviour must be such that they are prepared to follow you, to trust your judgment and respect your decisions.”

Len Birchall