Updated 30 July 2021
Wing Commander Birchall was called the Saviour of Ceylon by Canadian newspapers when the story was told. This is rightfully so. However it was his navigator Warrant Officer Granville Charles Onyette who had asked him to continue on with the search to give him time to find the plane’s exact position.
Excerpt from Chapter 2
The last chapter of the “Saviour of Ceylon” saga didn’t occur until Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967. Prime Minister Lester Pearson gave a formal dinner and reception for each head of state that came to Canada, and Birchall was invited to attend the dinner for the Ceylonese. At this dinner, Prime Minister Lester Pearson related one of his personal experiences with respect to the Ceylon battle. Pearson spoke of an event that occurred at a dinner at the British Embassy in Washington, either just before or after the end of the war. Someone asked Sir Winston Churchill what he felt to be the most dangerous and most distressing moment in the war. Pearson thought he would refer to the events of June and July 1940 and the imminence of invasion, or to the time when Rommel was heading toward Alexandria and Cairo at full speed or when Singapore fell. However, Churchill thought the most dangerous moment of the war was when he got the news that the Japanese fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a German conquest of Egypt would have “closed the ring” and the future would have been black.
Churchill went on to say that disaster was averted by an airman, on reconnaissance, who spotted the Japanese fleet and, though shot down, was able to get a message through to Ceylon. The message allowed the defence forces there to get ready for the approaching assault; otherwise they would have been taken completely by surprise. Churchill believed that the unknown airman, who lay deep in the waters of the Indian Ocean, made one of the most important single contributions to victory. He got quite emotional about it.
Pearson was pleased to tell Churchill that the “unknown airman” was not lying deep in the Indian Ocean but was still an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed down the street from the British Embassy where he was active in the Canadian military mission. Churchill was surprised and delighted to know that the end of the story was a happier one than envisioned.
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