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1000 Days on the River Kwai

The secret diary of a British Camp Commandant

 

Colonel Cary Owtram, OBE

Pen & Sword Military 2017

Hardback   151pp   RRP $38.77

 

Reviewer:  Neville Taylor, April 2021

 

Written soon after the end of the Second World War, the manuscript remained unpublished, and with Owtram’s diaries, reposed in the Imperial War Museum until resurrected by his two daughters. They have added a brief postscript pertaining to the effects of his incarceration on the family and converted some original terminology to currently ‘politically correct’ language.

Major Owtram sailed from Liverpool in September 1941 as Second in Command of the 137th Field Regiment (Artillery), arriving in Singapore in late November. By mid-December the Regiment was in action trying to delay the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula. The surrender of Singapore came on 15th February 1942 and initial internment for the British gunners was in Changi Prison.

Following several months in Singapore making themselves more comfortable, 3000 men travelled the 1300 miles by rail over five days through Malaya to Ban Pong in Thailand in late June. The ‘wonderful camps’ were virtually bereft of facilities and a nightmare when it came to caring for those ill or injured. Approximately 1800 prisoners were held in two acres. The camps were the bases that would supply prisoner labour for the construction of roads, then for the Burma/Siam railway.

The ingenuity of the prisoners was virtually boundless as they struggled and scrounged for food and medicine to maintain their morale and improve their chances of survival. Every effort was made to preserve dignity with religious services held regularly, and camp entertainment events eagerly anticipated. In May 1943 the first mail arrived from Britain, and in June Owtram was appointed Camp Commandant. October saw a 50 km move to Chungkai Camp– a mere clearing in the jungle expected to hold 6000 men. On Remembrance Day both the Japanese colonel and Owtram were each wearing the World War 1 Victory Medal!

Boon Pong, a local Thai merchant, facilitated agreement with local merchants and personally loaned vital cash on understanding of repayment after the war. This meant vital medicines were able to be purchased. The Camp ran its own very profitable canteen. A clandestine radio (codenamed ‘canary’) provided a much-needed boost to morale, and its concealment and the procurement of batteries for its operation were quite ingenious. In 1944 Australia’s own Colonel E E ‘Weary’ Dunlop arrived to command the hospital for most of the year.

It was in a large glass bottle buried in a grave in the camp cemetery that Owtram hid his writings. As liberation arrived, he was able to recover them before sailing back to Britain. His writing is far more readable in narrative form rather than a series of weekly entries, The chapters are short and concentrate on a single aspect of camp life. Several direct quotes have been included from his diary which was written in the form of letters to his wife.

A collection of photographs cover pre-war, internment and post-war periods. This outstanding soldier and humanitarian, despite experiencing several severe illnesses as a prisoner, lived to the grand age of 93.

 

The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.