Monday, 5 November 2012

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Death Railway

We've had a fairly active, interesting and sobering weekend. On Saturday we did a cookery course at our hotel Apples Retreat in Kanchanaburi and on Sunday went on a tour which, in the morning took us to the Erewan National Park to walk up forest paths next to 7 waterfalls and in the afternoon to the 'Hellfire Pass' museum and memorial, a train trip along part of the 'Death Railway', along the Wampo Viaduct section and finally a visit to the Bridge over the river Kwai (actually our third visit as it is so close to where we are staying, but it was part of the trip, so we did it again).

We were both deeply moved by the stories of the Death Railway and some of the inaccuracies in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, so I want to write about this below. Jackie tells me that not everyone will be interested - and it is likely to be quite long, so I've done it in green type to separate it from the rest.

There will be more later, but just going out for a bite of lunch, so look forward to some more in green, and then a little from me in purple!

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Death Railway:

From 1937 the Japanese had been expanding their territory onto mainland China and had captured vast tracks of land there, including French Indochina and Taiwan. Britain, Holland and America were becoming increasingly alarmed at their expansionist ideals, so put an embargo on imports to Japan. As Japan imported 80% of its oil, this would have disastrous effects on them, so they formulated plans to invade the Dutch East Indies to exploit their oil reserves. This meant invading and occupying Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and The Philippines (then occupied by the USA), to secure land and sea connections. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbour to neutralise the USA pacific fleet, was accompanied by simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaya and Burma. The Thai's quickly sided with the Japanese, but it is generally considered that they were blackmailed by Japan and not seriously an enemy to the Allies. Burma was occupied primarily to remove the port of Rangoon and air bases from Allied control, making it difficult for the Allies to make a counter attack, it also opened their opportunity to invade India.

The sea route from Japan to Rangoon was a long 3000km route through treacherous waters around Singapore, patrolled by American submarines and shipping and they lost a lot of shipping. The solution was to use some of the 130,000 Allies captured in Singapore to build a railway from Thailand to Burma, cutting out the hazardous sea journey. Existing railway lines ran from Bangkok towards the Thai border and from Rangoon towards the border, a mere 412km of track remained to unite the two!

The British had investigated the building of a railway in the 1920's but discounted it as being too difficult in inhospitable mountainous terrain, but the Japanese (through necessity) decided to push ahead with the plan, employing 60,000 POW's (30,000 British, 28,000 Australian, about 900 Americans and some Dutch), plus between 130,000 and 250,000 (opinions vary!) Asians (Chinese, Thai's, Burmese, Malay's). The railway was built simultaneously in Burma and Thailand, the two linked together near the Three Pagoda's Pass on the border in February 1943, just 2 years after the start (the British had estimated it would take 5 years!). To the end of the war 220,000 Tons of equipment and troops passed along the railway, greatly aiding the Japanese war effort. During 1943 the Japanese introduced their 'Speedo' system to greatly increase the rate of build, due to the Allies (mainly America and Australia) starting a fight back in the south. This 'Speedo' system greatly increased the death rate of the POW's and it is estimated between 15,000 and 16,000 Allies died, along with 90,000 Asians during the entire construction of what became known as the Death Railway.

Hellfire Pass:
As well as construction of The Bridge over the River Kwai (known then as bridge 277), many other bridges were constructed of wood and many cuttings had to be made through solid rock to complete the railway. The most notorious cutting (also the longest and deepest) was the Konyu Cutting, dubbed the Hellfire Pass, after one POW looked down into the pass one night and seeing all the fire torches burning remarked that it was like looking into the jaws of hell! It took 6 weeks to build and many people died, including 69 who were beaten to death.
Hellfire Pass
Jackie walking a section of the Pass
No machines were available, only hand tools and dynamite. Two POW's would 'drill' holes for the dynamite, one holding a pick, the other striking the top with a sledgehammer. On each strike the pick would be turned, in all 8 times per revolution. The broken rock removed and started again until it was deep enough for dynamite to be inserted. All broken rock was carried away by the men.
They existed on two meals per day of rice with some vegetable and a little meat 'stew',which often was contaminated with maggots and dirt from the floor. During the 'Speedo' period each man would work up to 18 hours per day.

After the war the railway was handed over to the British, who removed 3.9km of track at the Thailand/Burma border to prevent illegal traffic. The railway on the Thailand side was sold to the Thai's who, after examining it, decided most of it was of such a poor standard it should not be used and was closed. Only the section to Nam Tok was retained, upgraded and is still in use today. 

The Hellfire Pass and all other bridges and cuttings lay forgotten and overgrown until an Australian veteran of the Hellfire Pass, Mr. J.G. (Tom) Morris revisited the area 40 years later and found the pass beneath undergrowth. He persuaded the Australian Government to fund a museum and memorial and today it has 80,000 visitors per year. A visit is very sobering!
On our trip we had a short journey on part of the track near Nam Tok. It was over a viaduct called the Wampo Viaduct and was the site of many deaths. It is still constructed of wood and some original timbers remain. The site of the POW camp is now a holiday resort on the opposite bank.
The Wampo Viaduct

The Bridge on the River Kwai:
The first inaccuracy is the river name, which is actually the Khwae Yai. In fact, in 1942-3 it was called the Mae Klong that runs in the valley of the Khwae Noi, but was renamed the Khwae Yai in 1960 to avoid confusion!

Two bridges were built, the first was a temporary wooden construction, finished in February 1943, the second a concrete and steel construction finished in June 1943. The wooden bridge, sited about 300m south of the steel bridge has totally gone and no evidence remains, but the concrete and steel bridge is still in use today. It was built by about 2000 Allied POW's, led by lieutenant-colonel (later Brigadier Sir) Philip Toosey, who maintained discipline, cleanliness and hygiene in the camp, organised the smuggling in of food and medicines from sympathetic local Thai's (known at the 'V' Organisation). He won the undying respect of his men and did not collaborate with the Japanese, as the film implied. As a result of his actions it is reported only 9 people lost their lives during its construction. At the end of the war he spoke up for Sergeant-Major Saito, second in command at the camp, who he said was not as bad as many of the guards and, as a result he did not stand trial. They remained friends after the war and Saito traveled to the UK after Sir Toosey's death to visit the grave. After Saito's death his family discovered he had converted to Christianity.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Jackie walking on 'The Bridge'

The two bridges were bombed and put out of action a number of times by the Allies, not by a commando raid as depicted in the film. The most successful (according to the Hellfire Museum) was by the RAF in February 1945, where the two centre spans were destroyed. They were rebuilt after the war by the Japanese and Thai's in a square box section, unlike the original round sections (see picture above).

In fact, the whole bridge sections were imported by the Japanese from Java, after their capture of the Dutch East Indies, where they dismantled an existing bridge there (steel was in very short supply at that time). Their bridge building was very good and impressed the British (unlike in the film).

The bombing of the two centre spans had a different explanation in the Jeath Museum in Kanchanaburi (Jeath was coined to denote the countries involved: Japan England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland). They described the bombing as being by the American's and they stated that the Japanese ordered Allied POW's onto the bridge to discourage the bombing. The bombs were still dropped, destroying the bridge and killing hundreds of POW's in the process. The museum describes the river as 'running with blood', making it non-potable for weeks due to putrified corpses. I can't find any other reference to this anywhere, so not sure how true it is. Here's a picture I took of a painting in the museum:
The Thais version of the bombing of the bridge showing Allied POW's being killed


  1. A really interesting read Brian. I've read the book by Pierre Boulle on which the film was based. It's good to read the real story though. Thanks!

  2. This was interesting. I recently visited the museum at Hellfire Pass and walked along the railway track. It was very moving to think what had happened there. I am re-watching the film tonight (complete with inaccuracies) with my daughter who although 21 had no knowledge of this part of history!