The Death Railway - Background

Churchill called the Fall of Singapore, on February 15th 1942, “the greatest disaster ever to have befallen the British Empire”. Outnumbered, outgunned, with little air support and with virtually no knowledge of fighting in jungle terrain, the Allied forces stood little chance against an organised enemy, who confounded expectations by advancing down through the Malayan jungle instead of attacking from the sea.

25,800 British and 18,000 Australian servicemen were amongst the 200,000 men who found themselves prisoners of the Japanese.

The defeat of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 effectively shut off the sea route to the Indian Ocean and triggered a decision to complete a rail link from China to India, to supply the Japanese campaign in Burma. The missing piece of that line was the 415 km section from Thailand into Burma, a route that would soon become notorious as the “Death Railway.” The British had considered building this line forty years earlier but abandoned it due to the difficult terrain – carving through mountains and jungle - the climate, health conditions and the sheer difficulty of the logistics.

The Japanese Government was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention and deemed that anyone taken prisoner forfeited their rights and was considered to have changed sides. They therefore made the decision to put the Allied prisoners of war to work on the railway. Conditions were horrific. 6,648 British and 2,710 Australian POWs are known to have died, with many more left traumatised by their experiences. Many Allied survivors are keen to stress that the local Asian workers suffered the harshest treatment, with more than 80,000 deaths, representing around half the workforce.

Those veterans are equally likely to point out their dismay that the little most people know about the Death Railway comes from the David Lean film, The Bridge On The River Kwai - a great film in its own way, but an acknowledged work of fiction. Eric Lomax’s comment was that he had “never seen such well-fed prisoners of war.”

There was in fact no bridge over the River Kwai, because there was no river called the Kwai. The film itself was shot in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Much later, to satisfy a growing tourist demand to visit such a bridge, the Thai authorities changed the name of a river crossed by the only remaining prisoner of war built bridge, at Kanchanaburi, where some of The Railway Man was filmed.