Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Love letters from the River Kwai

As Colin Firth stars as a Japanese POW, Brian Best tells the story of another captured British soldier - and how writing to his wife help him to survive the notorious Death Railway

When I was asked if I would edit the letters of a Japanese Prisoner of War, my initial reaction was that the subject matter would be both grim and depressing. But I am glad I did not turn down the project, for the letters of Charles Steel made for truly uplifting reading.

After all, as I write in my Introduction to them, ‘Charles Steel had a most unfortunate war. He was one of the unlucky few who participated in two of the greatest disasters to befall the British Army in the Second World War – Dunkirk and the fall of Singapore.’

When Charles left school in the 1930s, he had become a City stockbroker. One of the favoured social activities available to City workers of the time was to join the Territorial Army, so Charles joined a Field Artillery regiment, the Queen’s Own West Kent Yeomanry.

When war was declared, the Territorials were the first to be called up and Charles’s regiment was sent to France on 23 September 1939.

BurmaRailwayman-02-590From left: Charles and Louise were married on 18 January 1941; Charles Steel after his liberation in 1945; Louise received the official letter of Charles' capture in 1943

He was in love at the time. He had met Louise Crane at a local cycling club, but to his mild irritation had discovered that she was a sergeant in the Auxiallary Territorial Service (AT S) while he was a humble gunner. Throughout their respective service careers, she continued to outrank him.

The long retreat from France in the spring of 1940 had taken Charles to the mole at Dunkirk. He wrote, ‘HMS Express was on her seventh and last trip to Dunkirk. She made a magnificent sight as, with her guns blazing and German aircraft attacking her, she backed against the broken mole to allow us to jump aboard.’

When he arrived back in England he resolved to marry Louise. But first he was assigned to a new regiment, the 135 (North Herts Yeomanry) Field Regiment. He joined at the same time as its new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey, a man who would have a profound influence on all who served under him.

Granted compassionate leave, Charles and Louise were married on 18 January 1941, grabbing a few days’ honeymoon before returning to their units. The 135th was part of the 18th Division, which was ordered to the Middle East via a long, meandering voyage that took them to Canada, the West Indies, South Africa and up the coast of East Africa.

As Charles’s convoy of troop ships reached the Kenyan port of Mombasa, it was learned that the Japanese had invaded Malaya and sunk the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. The course was changed and the 18th Division sailed for Singapore. When they arrived on 13 January 1942, Charles had been at sea for nearly three months.

On arrival, the regiment immediately went into action in Johore in south Malaya, but it was already a lost cause as the Japanese swept all before them. Finally, Singapore fell, but not before Charles managed to write a final postcard to Louise telling her that he had been promoted to Warrant Officer Second Class, which she received four months later. By that time, Charles was among the 130,000 Allied troops captured by the Japanese.

Despite his grim plight, Charles resolved to write every week to Louise, even if she might never read his letters. He started to write from Changi Barracks in February 1942:


The Japanese were overwhelmed by the number of prisoners they had captured and, for several months, didn’t know what to do with them. But in October 1942, a decision had been made.

For decades, it had been a dream to build a railway linking Burma with Bangkok but the project had been deemed impossible because of the harsh jungle terrain. The Japanese, however, thought otherwise and so, with an almost limitless supply of labour in the form of prisoners, they set about constructing the notorious Burma-Siam railway.

Between October 1943 and October 1944, approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners and 300,000 Asian labourers slaved in some of the world’s densest jungle. Without the use of machinery, the prisoners had to build bridges, construct precarious trestles along dizzy ravines, hack through rockchoked passes and drive piles into malarial swamps. Along its 260-mile route, approximately 40 work camps were established at intervals of between fi ve and 10 miles.

Charles’s regiment was sent to No 1 Jungle Camp at Tamarkan. Here they were to build a steel bridge that had gained fame as the bridge over the River Kwai. Their commander, Colonel Toosey, came to an understanding with the Japanese authorities. This allowed him to organise a command structure, which meant the offi cers and senior NCOs did not labour but supervised their men.

He also made a point of being smartly turned out whenever he appeared before his men – something that gave him a psychological edge over their captors. It is generally accepted that Alec Guinness based his character on Toosey for The Bridge Over The River Kwai film.

And despite the hardships, Charles kept to his promise and continued to write an unsent letter each week. Filled with his experiences and observations, he wrote in a conversational way as if he was talking directly to Louise. He was also taking a great risk, as the Japanese forbade any writing.

Charles found ways of storing his letters, all written on fi ne airmail-type paper. Some he kept in the false bottom of his haversack, others he secreted beneath patches sewn on to his uniform. When he was fi nally liberated and returned home, he had completed some 200 letters, which he presented to Louise.

BurmaRailwayman-04-590Charles and Louise visit the notorious bridge in 1973 that he helped to build

Charles picked up his civilian life and together he and Louise had a daughter, Margaret. When he retired, Charles became a train driver on the local steam railway. In 1973, he and Louise visited Thailand, where Charles was able to show his wife the famous bridge he had helped to build. It was only after he died that Margaret was allowed to read his letters, which had been for Louise’s eyes only. Fortunately, they all have now been published and we can all marvel at this man’s ability to rise above despair and hopelessness to emerge with strength and dignity, finally to live out a happy and contented life.

Burma Railway Man, Secret Letters From A Japanese POW, by Charles Steel, edited by Brian Best, is published by Pen & Sword, priced £7.99.

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