Saviour of Ceylon
For over two years Birchall had flown antisubmarine missions and escort patrols off the East coast of Canada which gave him the experience needed to be selected with other pilots in 1942, to join the 413 Squadron in the Shetland Islands, defending the coastline of Britain against a suspected German attack.
‘Birch’ Piloting a Catilina
The newly formed 413 was a Canadian Squadron made up mainly from British RAF personnel, but with Canadian officers with flying experience.
Japan had entered the War on the 8th December 1941 and the far East was desperately short of reconnaissance air patrols. The Allies, having suffered defeats in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Borneo, wanted to stop the Japanese advance towards India by sea, as they were already threatening to advance by land towards the Indian border from Burma, reinforcements were therefore being dispatched to the Far East.
In late February 1942 the 413 Squadron were ordered to ready themselves for a move to the Island of Ceylon to patrol the Indian Ocean against invasion. The squadron’s four Catalinas departed the Shetland Islands in mid-March, and its ground crews followed. The first 413 Squadron aircraft arrived on 28th March, three days later it flew it’s first reconnaissance mission with Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Rae Thomas, DFC.
On 4th April, just hours after reaching Ceylon, Birchall and his eight man crew were ordered out on their first reconnaissance flight, patrolling the sea to the South of Ceylon in their PBY Catalina flying boat (AJ155/QL-A).
Nine hours into the flight, with the plane about to return to base, ships were spotted. Squadron Leader Birchall decided to investigate and found it was a large Japanese fleet, the ‘Nagumo Task Force’. This force was involved in the attack on Pearl Harbour and had Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo in command. The force included five aircraft carriers, Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, the battleships Kongo, Haruna, Kirishima, and Hiei, the heavy cruisers Chikuma and Tone, a light cruiser, and eight destroyers. This very strong Japanese force with 300 very modern combat aircraft, which included the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, was now heading for Ceylon.
The Royal Navy's Eastern Fleet base in Ceylon was now under a considerable threat, which they certainly could not defend against if not warned of its arrival. Birchall's understood this and his crew managed to send out a radio message, warning of the Japanese approach, but the Catalina was soon attacked by six A6M2 Zero fighters from the carrier ‘Hiry’and shot down.
The Japanese continued to fire on the wreck in the sea and Sergeant John Henzell, in the front turret, was seriously wounded. The Catalina finally sank taking both Sergeant Henzell and Warrant Officer Lucien "Louis" Colarossi with it. The Japanese continued their attack on those crew members who had taken to the water and Sergeant Davidson was also killed. The Japanese destroyer ‘Isokaze’ picked up Birchall and the remaining crew members.
Birchall’s first action on being picked up was to cut off the uniforms of the injured men and dump them overboard. This was to hide Phillips identity as the wireless operator. They felt that insisting no message was sent would help preserve them. Brian dad had no clothes other than a pair of Japanese pants until the arrival in the stadium camp of the lads from Hong Kong . They gifted him everything he possessed for the rest of his imprisonment.
Called Operation ‘C’ by the Japanese, the object being to destroy the threat from the British Naval and Air Forces in the Indian Ocean. Also to encourage the Indian Independence movement gaining control and taking India out of the war.
Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo decided to wait until 5th April, as he hoped to catch the British in the port relaxed as it was Easter Sunday, hence the attack is known as ‘The Easter Sunday Raid’.
Existence as a PoW