How a small north Lancashire village has links to a Thai POW camp
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 June 2018
Two sisters who worked for the secret service during World War II recall their remarkable father whose memoir of life in a Japanese prisoner of war has come a best seller. Peter Adams met them.
Kanchanaburi in western Thailand is an unlikely place to have a link to a small north Lancashire village. But this popular tourist town, surrounded by glistening rice paddies and jungle-covered mountains, is infamous for one thing – it’s the home of the bridge on the river Kwai. And three miles downstream is where Dolphinholme – and one family in particular – has its link.
In 1941, Cary Owtram was a senior Major within the 137th Field Regiment. A mill owner, he lived in Newland Hall, Bay Horse, with his father Herbert, wife Dorothy, son Bob and daughters Jean and Pat. They also had a cook, Lily. ‘She was a Jewish Austrian refugee. Pat and I would often talk to Lily most evenings, and as a result we became fluent in German,’ says Jean.
In September, after a day fishing in Abbeystead reservoir, Owtram joined his regiment arriving in Singapore in November 1941. Days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and occupied Malaya before Britain’s unconditional surrender in Singapore on February 15, 1942.
Owtram, by then a Colonel, was one of around 80,000 prisoners in Singapore, and after several weeks was made British commander of Chungkai PoW camp. It was the largest of dozens along the 260-mile Siam-Burma (Thailand-Myanmar) railway, with work starting at both ends to eventually meet in the middle.
Back home, his family had no idea of his whereabouts. ‘We had to wait until April to know he had survived,’ says Pat. ‘It was a year until we received his first postcard.’ Jean, aged 14, was at boarding school in Warwickshire. ‘I was absolutely devastated and remember being so upset I couldn’t sleep,’ she says. ‘Our mother kept the family and the home running. All of this with the strain of never knowing if our father would come home. She was marvellous, and made a very good air raid warden. It was a terribly tense time.’
Thousands of miles away in Thailand, Owtram faced a camp of 8,000 of men, who were injured, desperate, starving, ill and facing brutal and cruel oppression. Jean said her father decided to tackle low morale among the prisoners. He established a police force, a hospital, a theatre and set up a system for sharing news sourced from a concealed wireless. A talented tenor who once sang alongside Lancashire comedian Thora Hird, Owtram often performed in the camp’s shows, which sometimes poked discreet fun at their captors.
‘These were the sorts of incident which made us all laugh and forget for the moment we were prisoners without a hope of freedom,’ he wrote. ‘We were able to forget for a couple of hours and let our minds pass through a veil into another world for a time, a world we remembered from happier days.’
But there was no escaping the cruelty. Any man able to walk was sent up the tracks to work. ‘Only those of us who witnessed it as I did, not once but scores of times, could possibly visualise to what point the human body can suffer and still survive,’ he said.
By the war’s end, 61,811 PoWs (30,131 of them British) and 177,900 Asian labourers had worked on the railway – around 20 per cent died from dysentery, beriberi, malaria, tropical ulcers and malnutrition. Others were murdered by their guards or died building the railway.
In England, Pat and Jean were keeping themselves busy. A year after her father left, Pat had joined the the Wrens. ‘I was an interceptor in secret naval listening stations,’ she said. ‘We listened to the German Enigma codes and sent them to Bletchley Park. We also reported German operational messages and sent them to the nearest Royal Navy base for action. I did that until the German fleet capitulated in 1944, and then did translation work at the headquarters with General Eisenhower.’
Jean signed up with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which had expanded into code and cipher work. ‘In my interview, I thought they’d run out of questions because they asked: “Do you do any crossword puzzles?” Yes, I replied crossly.
‘This was because they needed someone who could break broken ciphers. We had secret agents being dropped into northern Europe, who would send coded messages back to us.’
After being based at the secret headquarters on Baker Street, London, she jumped at the opportunity to go overseas, and was sent to Cairo and finally to the east coast of Italy. Despite their near-identical work, neither Pat nor Jean knew of each other’s job until 30 years later. Despite the war ending it took another three months before news came that their father was returning home.‘On the journey back my father was talking to a Red Cross nurse,’ said Jean. ‘She saw his name, and remembered mine, and said she had helped a Jean Owtram who fell off a cliff into the sea in Italy, and was she any relation? He said: “No, she’s in England, it must be a different person.”
‘Well it was me… and it was quite a shock when he found out.’
He brought back his diary, which he had hidden in a bamboo pole before burying it in a grave in Chungkai. ‘He realised he needed to do a bit of rewriting to make it into a book,’ said Jean. ‘He wrote it with two motives: as a record for people and officials back home, but also for all of the men who died and those who courageously survived.’
Owtram, eventually awarded the OBE, finished it in 1953 but publishers weren’t interested, telling him people didn’t want to read about the war. ‘I remember him standing at the top of the stairs with such intense disappointment,’ said Jean.
But Jean and Pat oversaw the publication of their father’s 1000 days on the River Kwai – and it has already become a best seller. It includes this letter sent to the Lancaster Guardian after Owtram’s death from one of the prisoners at Chungkai: ‘On many occasions I witnessed him receiving brutal beatings for his adamant and steadfast refusals to order sick men out to work on the railway.
‘This occurred on so many occasions that eventually even the Japanese accepted the fact that if Cary Owtram said so, then those men were indeed too sick for work. There are many ex-PoWs, including myself, who owe their survival to Colonel Owtram.’
What is left in Chungkai is a little bit of England. After the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the jungle reclaimed the 50 acres of camp, but the cemetery is impeccably maintained by locals through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is the resting place for more than 1,400 Commonwealth and 300 Dutch soldiers, their headstones lying in rows among the soft carpet of thick, rich green grass.
Peace reigns there. But through writing and publishing a book, one family from Dolphinholme has played its part in keeping the memory alive of those who would never leave that corner of a foreign field.
* 1000 days on the River Kwai, by Colonel Cary Owtram OBE, is published by Pen and Sword, and is available in local booksellers and online at www.pen-and-sword.co.uk, RRP £19.99