After 70 Years of Silence, ex-British POW Talks About the Horrors While Constructing the Death Bridge


70 years has passed since the “Death Railway” was completed. A 95 year old British POW speaks out about the horrific working conditions.

Sir Harold Atcherley recently published the diary he kept while he was held as a POW. During the three years he was imprisioned, he wrote on scraps of paper with a pencil his daily life within the camp.

This is the first time he has ever talked about the events he endured while working as a POW. He tells The Telegraph: “There are certain things I know that I have never talked about and never would. […] It was only a few years ago that my son suggested it would be a good idea to publish it.”

When Sir Harold joined the Army, he found it was in a state of chaos. He was told to defend Essex during an invasion of 1940. He recalls the mission and describes it as a “juvenile Dad’s Army.” The small army of 120 men was expected to defend seven miles of coastlines. The only equipment they had were 1917 rifles and vests which were poorly made. They were given London Passenger Transport Board drivers’ coats to keep warm, as there weren’t any Army greatcoats.

Acting as an intelligence officer for the 18th Infantry Division, he was supposed to go to Iraq in January 1942 to begin training in desert warfare. His orders were changed and instead he was sent to Singapore, a British colony, to help defend it from the Japanese. Needless to say, he did not feel prepared for the task.

Although the Allied forces had approximately 85,000 soldiers and they outnumbered the Japanese nearly 3:1. However the Japanese were prepared for the battle.


“The Japanese were constantly outflanking us and used bicycles [to get around the island nimbly] wherever they could. Of our whole Army, only 800 people actually had any training in jungle warfare.”

The Allies had to surrender min-February, This loss left Winston Churchill feeling the shame of the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

The British weren’t the only ones that were surprised. The Japanese were surprised by the surrender, and they quickly ran out of supplies for the POWs. Sur Harold and his division were taken to a prison camp in Changi, but they had to find their own food.

The conditions continued to get abysmal. They were sent to Thailand and begin working on the railway in 1943. Their captors told them to pack for a rest camp.

“They told us we should take one-third sick and that it would be much easier to feed us there. That was the last time we ever believed anything they said to us
The entries of Sir Harold’s diary talk about their harrowing train journey to Ban Pong in Thailand.

“Five days and nights, allowed to get out of train for 30 minutes a day,” he wrote. “No latrine arrangements; we had to urinate out of the wagon door, being held by others as we did so. Little or no sleep at night, very hot by day in all-metal box wagons, too many in each to allow all to lie down at the same time.”

When the train arrived in Ban Pong, the POWs had to march 200 miles through the jungle to Three Pagodas Pass. Here, they began to work.

“Monsoon rains had already started in earnest, 24 hours a day,” he wrote. “No roofing on huts where we lived in constant pouring rain.”

The men worked 18 hours a day. They had to cut a path through the jungle and then carry massive plans of wood to begin construction of a double decker bridge so cars could travel under the railway.

Their captors only allotted the men 250 grams of rice to eat plus any vegetation they could find. The men became weak and sick. They fell victims to tropical ulcers, beriberi (a vitamin B deficiency that caused wasting and paralysis) and dengue (a fever that was spread by mosquitoes).

“Cholera rife and men dying at the rate of 20 per day,” Sir Harold wrote. “Appalling state of tropical ulcers – cases seen myself of legs bared to the bone from ankle to knee. No sleep for the wretched patients, who moan all night long – their only hope for the morning to look forward to a repetition of all the previous day’s agonies. No man deserves such a death.”


1,700 men were sent to work on the bridge. The construction only took eight months to complete. During this time, 1,300 men had perished due to malnutrition, sickness, and exhaustion. The remaining 400 POWs who survived were sent back to Changi. Here, another 200 died due to the diseases the caught while being held in the camp for another year and a half. During this time, they were forced to construct an airfield.

August 5, 1945, Sir Harold had lost hope that salvation would come.

“All feel that things cannot go on much longer as they are,” he wrote. “Yet there is no sign of anything significant happening to bring about our freedom.”

A mere ten days after writing that entry, the second bomb was dropped on Japan. This marked the end of the war and Japan had surrendered.

Sir Harold wrote again. “The delight and shock of sudden incredible, wonderful news. 3 ½ years to the day and the war appears to be as good as over. It is difficult to believe that in a week or two we might be free.”
He sailed back to Britain with the remaining survivors of his division. He quickly got a job and traveled the world for Shell. He did his best to avoid talking about the war. He said that he was never someone who liked to look back.

Sir Harold and his wife, Sally.
Sir Harold and his wife, Sally.

Even after 70 years, Sir Harold is effected by the memories of his time in Burma. He attended a viewing of a new documentary last month, he admitted to spending “quite a lot of it with tears running down my cheeks”.

“It brought back the people I knew who didn’t make it,” he says. “At the back of my mind I have this guilty feeling: I survived, but others didn’t.”

Graves of the POWs who died during the construction of the death bridge.
Graves of the POWs who died during the construction of the death bridge.

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE