The moment which Sir Winston Churchill was to later call the “most dangerous moment” of World War Two happened in early April, 1942. This was when the Japanese Fleet, under Admiral Nagumo, approached Sri Lanka with the intent of destroying the British ships present in the Colombo and Trincomalee Harbours.
The attacks took place over several days; Colombo was bombed on the 5th April (The Easter Sunday Raid) and Trincomalee on the 7th, and, if the British forces had been taken completely by surprise, the island probably would have been invaded.
How the Japanese managed to launch the attack without being detected was this- the fleet sneaked up on the island (as literally as 5 aircraft carriers, 4 battleships, 3 cruisers and 11 destroyers can sneak) on a course much further south than could be expected. So, although a Japanese fleet was known to be in the area, reconnaissance patrols were sent out along the usual routes and so completely missed the fleet. Except for one thing, the Japanese would have taken the Allied forces completely by surprise.
That thing was the order sent out to Squadron Leader Birchall (Royal Canadian Air Force). Birchall and other members of 413 Squadron were flying a Catalina from the Koggala airstrip on a routine reconnaissance flight when they received an order to turn further South.
Just before they turned to return to base, the crew discovered a tiny speck on the horizon, which they took to be a Royal Navy ship. Flying towards just to be sure, they discovered that this was in fact the forerunner of the huge Japanese fleet.
Birchall turned the Catalina back and flew for home with maximum speed while the
wireless operator, Sergeant Phillips, sent off warning messages to their base. The Japanese Zeros caught up with the Catalina and shot it down, killing two of the crew members. Once the other seven crew members were in the water, the Zeros returned, killing one more. The others, including Birchall and Phillips, were picked up by one of the destroyers and remained prisoners of the Japanese until the end of the war.
However, they had done their job, and although the attack came the next day, the Allied
forces were partly prepared for it.
When Winston Churchill made the surprising statement that this was the moment of the war that caused him the greatest alarm, he spoke of the bravery of the pilot of the Catalina, an unknown airman who now, he said, lay beneath the Indian Ocean. His emotional moment was ruined when the Prime Minister of Canada informed him that the ‘Unknown airman” was in fact alive and well.
Birchall was appointed OBE after the war for his work for other prisoners’ welfare in the Japanese POW camps. He also visited Sri Lanka several times before his death in 2004.