In his best-selling memoir, The Railway Man, late Berwick resident Eric Lomax recalled that, at the end of the Second World War when he returned to Britain having been a prisoner of war in the Far East, the fate of the soldiers held there had hardly registered with the majority of the British public.
Having been captured by the Japanese in February 1942, Lomax, a British Signals Officer, spent three and a half hellish years as a prisoner of war, followed by almost a lifetime of mental anguish.
After detailing his early years, and the stark and harrowing experience of the war in his powerful, beautifully-written book, Lomax described his return to Britain in November 1945.
He recalled the limited coverage in the months and years that followed of what had gone on in eastern Asia.
“The horrors of the European camps and the scale of the massacre of the Jews were beginning to sink into the minds of an unbelieving population – but that did not entirely explain the relegation of our experience to the bottom of the page,” Lomax wrote.
“The British public was not very interested in the Far Eastern war crimes trials, in general, and official policy was to downplay them for the sake of reconstructing Japan as an ally of the West.”
One day he came across a small paragraph in the Daily Telegraph, stating that two Japanese officers had been hanged for their part in the murder of two British POWs – Lomax’s comrades. He described the coverage as a “minor footnote” of the war. “But it was not minor and not a footnote, of course, to anyone concerned with the crimes which it judged,” he added.
Of all the harrowing, horrific and unthinkable moments detailed in the book – and there are many – this particular passage is one that is impossible to forget.
It’s difficult to comprehend that, even amid mass tragedy and hardship, the prolonged suffering of thousands of British soldiers captured in the Far East – an experience which killed many, and irreparably changed survivors’ lives – barely registered at home.
In the decades that followed, many were unaware of the particular hell faced by those held prisoner by the Japanese. Eyes were opened in the late 1950s with the release of the David Lean film, The Bridge On The River Kwai. Its is a great film in its own way, but an acknowledged work of fiction. Lomax himself commented that he had “never seen such well-fed prisoners of war”.
As time went on veterans were given a platform to speak, and the British public began to learn more about those involved in the war outside of Europe.
Lomax’s own account, written and published in 1995, informed readers of his personal story – placing his experiences in the context of his whole life; and the plight of hundreds of others who experienced the hell of the death railway or Outram Road prison. It quickly became a best seller, and went on to win two literary prizes.
Now, with Academy Award winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman playing Lomax and his wife Patti in a major new feature film adaptation of the book, due for general release across the UK next week, Lomax’s story is set reach a greater audience. And if the film packs half the punch of the book, the majority of that audience, will carry his story with them forever.
As a signals officer in Singapore, Lomax was just 23 when the Japanese overran the city and made him a prisoner of war. Churchill called the Fall of Singapore, on February 15 1942, “the greatest disaster ever to have befallen the British Empire”. Outnumbered, outgunned, 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.
Almost 26,000 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 415km section from Thailand into Burma, a route that would soon become the notorious “Death Railway”.
Both locals and the Allied prisoners of war were put to work on the railway. Conditions were horrific. 6,648 British and 2,710 Australian POWs who hacked out tracks in soil are known to have died of malnutrition, disease, heat and cruelty, with many more left traumatised by their experiences. The local Asian workers suffered too, with more than 80,000 deaths, representing around half the workforce.
Lomax survived, but only just. When the Japanese discovered he had helped build a crude radio and had drawn a detailed map of the terrain with a view to escape, he was subjected to exceptionally shocking punishment.
Each day he was forced to stand to attention in the blazing sun with four other officers. When night came, they were each beaten systematically. One particular voice that continued back and forth during the beatings and the torture – that of Japanese interpreter Nagase Takashi – lodged like shrapnel.
“He was centre-stage in my memories,” Lomax wrote years later in his book. “My private obsession. He stood for all the worst horrors.”
After days of beatings, Lomax and six other prisoners from the ‘radio party’ were taken to a cell, where they sat cross legged for 36 days, awaiting their “trial” for indulging in anti Japanese activities.
Long prison sentences were dolled out, which felt like a reprieve as they had firmly believed they would be sentenced to death. But the elation didn’t last long. They were taken to Outram Road prison in Singapore, a place of such unimaginable horror that Lomax described notorious prisoner of war camp Changi, where he was later transferred on the verge of death, as “heaven” by comparison.
Lomax ultimately survived the ordeal, but like many victims of torture said nothing to anyone about the horrors he had suffered. The trauma continued to haunt him, and his silence lasted for decades, casting a long shadow over much of his life.
After the war, he stayed on in the army for two years and then joined the colonial service in what became Ghana. In 1955 he went into personnel management before taking up a post at Strathclyde University as a lecturer in industrial relations, retiring in 1982.
Although functioning, leading an outwardly ‘normal’ life, Lomax was plagued by his experience of the war. He had married and had children soon after his return, but was never fully present, and the marriage later broke down.
In 1980, aged 61, Lomax met his second wife Patti on a train. He later admitted in his book: “It failed to surprise me that my meeting of the woman that would play so great a part in changing my life should take place on a railway.”
Meeting Patti brought Lomax a semblance of peace, the like of which he had not experienced since before the war. He did not tell her at once of the years that had haunted him since, but slowly it came out.
As he talked a little about his experiences for the first time in his life, a long-harboured desire of Lomax’s, to trace his torturers, gathered apace. On his retirement, he embarked on a painstaking period of research, looking for the man who plagued his dreams – the Japanese interpreter. “There was no single dominant figure at Outram Road on whom I could focus my general hatred, but because of his command of my language, the interpreter was the link,” Lomax wrote.
The man turned out to be still alive and engaged in charitable work. It transpired that he had written a book, published in Japan, in which he vividly recalled Lomax’s torture. Soon after Lomax read the book, Patti wrote to Nagase, asking if he would correspond with her husband. “He has lived with many unanswered questions all these years,” she told him.
In 1987 Lomax sought support from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, now Freedom from Torture, which helped him come to terms with his memories and attain a kind of catharsis.
Encouraged by Patti, he went to Thailand a few years later to meet Nagase, the man whose voice had tormented him for years. They were both in their 70s when they met. Remarkably Lomax’s initial thirst for vengeance changed, and instead of revenge, he accepted reconciliation and forgiveness. They became friends. “Sometimes,” his book concluded, “the hating has to stop.”
A true story of survival and courage in the face of horror, Lomax’s epic tale has always had the potential to inspire a biopic box office hit.
When British writer/producer Andy Paterson first read the harrowing memoir, he knew it would make a great film. But translating it to the big screen was to prove complex. “I think we knew it was going to be tough to eclipse the book, which was so beautifully written” Paterson says.
Finding a way to crack the book cinematically was a quite a challenge, and took years. In the end, having met with Eric and Patti a number of times, Paterson and co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce decided to frame Lomax’s story with the importance that Patti played in helping him confront his demons.
“She refused to believe that her role in this story could amount to anything compared to what those men went through, which we understood,” Paterson explains, “but at the same time, she represents the millions of families that have to cope with the wreckage of war when these men come back, so we wanted to expand that story.”
Eric Lomax died in 2012, aged 93, before the filming was completed, but he had had numerous meetings with Firth, and was able to visit the on-location set when filming took place in Berwick.
Far from being forgotten as he felt it was in 1945, his story, and that of his comrades, will live for ever in the generations that have come after him, and those still to come.
With The Railway Man biopic set to be beamed around the world, Eric Lomax’s legacy will surely grow and grow. Some of the themes, particularly that of crippling post-war psychological trauma, are as relevant now as ever before.
Jo Grace, community fundraising manager at veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, says: “The Railway Man is a thought-provoking film that we hope will encourage the public to talk about the issue of service-related mental ill-health.
“Combat Stress is currently supporting more than 5,400 Veterans across the UK but we know there are thousands more suffering in silence..”
○Berwick Detachment Army cadets will be holding bucket collections in aid of Combat Stress after every showing of The Railway Man at The Maltings, which take place from January 3-10.