Memories of the Burma railway
By Paul Coslett
Birkenhead’s Philip Toosey, a senior officer of prisoners of war on the Thailand Burma railway, features in an Imperial War Museum exhibition.
They experienced some of the worst conditions of prisoners of war, forced to work daily in searing heat and suffering frequent beatings, one in three prisoners in Japanese camps died during captivity.
The stories of the Far Eastern prisoners of war who worked on the Burma Thailand railway are included in a new exhibition dedicated to the experiences of prisoners of war in the World War II.
The exhibition, at the Imperial War Museum North, includes a report by Lieutenant Colonel, later Brigadier, Philip Toosey from Birkenhead who was the senior Allied officer at the Tha Maa Kham Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand during World War II.
The men under Toosey’s command worked on the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, but the real life story is very different to the film.
David Lean’s 1957 film showed a fictional Colonel Nicholson collaborating with the Japanese to build the bridge, Lieutenant Colonel Toosey in fact did much to sabotage and delay the building of the bridge his men were forced to work on.
Prisoners line up for food.
Toosey, who was born in Upton Road, Oxton worked for Baring Brothers merchant bank in Liverpool and was a member of the Territorial Army.
When war broke out in 1939 he immediately left his Merseyside home and saw action in Belgium before being evacuated at Dunkirk.
In 1941 he was sent with his unit to the Far East and fought in the defence of Singapore, he refused evacuation so he could remain with his men, and was held captive by the Japanese until the surrender in August 1945.
Toosey’s granddaughter Julie Summers has written a book, The Colonel of Tamarkan, about her grandfather and says originally he saw the film Bridge on the River Kwai as just a work of fiction but soon became concerned that the public saw it as the truth, "He wasn’t that bothered until he realised that people were beginning to believe that it was a depiction of historical reality", Julie says.
"Then he was really upset about it because he felt the prisoners were not well served by a fiction which was so very far from what had actually happened during the war."
When he returned from the war Toosey didn’t ever reveal much to his family about his experiences, "He of course never talked about it," Julie Summers explains.
"Very very few of the far eastern prisoners of war told their families what had happened to them during the war."
The Kwai bridge (C) Dick Van Zoonen
Toosey was highly respected by his men, for whom he courageously stood up to the Japanese, enduring regular beatings for his trouble.
He decided to make it his priority that as many as possible of his men would survive the war and to that end he worked to maintain hygiene, negotiated with the Japanese for concessions and organised the smuggling of medicine and food.
He also did everything in his power to delay construction of the railway collecting white ants to eat the wooden structures and making badly mixed concrete.
At the end of the war, Toosey weighed 105 pounds, in stark contrast to the 175 pounds he had been at the outbreak of hostilities, like many other prisoners of war he suffered long term health problems, "He had very severe rotting of the gums," Julie Summer says.
"The dentist wanted to take all his teeth out, but he refused, he said he wouldn’t give the Japanese the satisfaction."
Despite all he endured during captivity Julie Summer thinks her grandfather was never totally hostile to the Japanese.
After the war he had spoken up for one of the Japanese officers, Sergeant Major Saito, saying that he had been strict but fair in how he treated prisoners.
"I don’t think he did hold a grudge, however I do not think he was very comfortable with the Japanese," Julie Summers says.
Conditions were horrendous
However the memories of the camps never left Toosey, and when Saito made contact by telephone during a visit to England the experiences came flooding back, "He was very troubled by that telephone call when Saito tried to call him from London," says Julie.
"Saito began to jabber in Japanese and was profuse in his thanks for everything the old man had done for him and I think that brought back a lot of the horrors of what had happened in the prison camps.
"So I don’t think he ever completely came to terms with whether he’d chosen to forgive.
"He certainly was never going to forget what happened in the camps.”
His concern for his men continued after the war and back in Liverpool Philip Toosey worked closely with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to help ex-prisoners with their ailments, eventually becoming President of the school.
"He very quickly realised that the main problem for the prisoners of war were recurring tropical diseases and particularly for the gut related ones which were very debilitating," explains Julie.
"So he had a sort of informal agreement with the School of Tropical Medicine from the late 1940s and 50s onwards, and then that was put on to a formal footing in the 1960s.
"He became President in the 1960s and my grandfather realised that what the school needed more than anything else was money.
"He had the idea of bringing in vice presidents in, and he got some wealthy and important vice presidents whose job it was to open doors so the school could raise money and it did – it raised millions under his leadership."
Philip Toosey became High Sherrif of Lancashire and in 1974 was knighted, he died on 22 December 1975, the Territorial Army Barracks on Aigburth Road in south Liverpool is named The Brigadier Philip Toosey Barracks in his honour.
Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War is at the Imperial War Museum North until 3 January 2010, entry is free.
last updated: 07/07/2009 at 15:22