In February 1942, the city of Singapore, defended by 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops, surrenders to the Japanese. The loss of Singapore, coupled with the preceding loss of the British warships Repulse and Prince of Wales, is described by Churchill as the darkest British moments of the Second World War, whilst the capitulation of Singapore becomes the British Army's greatest defeat.
Amongst the tens of thousands of British soldiers rounded up and taken into captivity is Lt. Eric Lomax, a Royal Signals officer. Initially, the vast mass of British POWs hugely outnumbers their Japanese captors, leading to a relaxed atmosphere where the British prisoners mostly police themselves. Overconfident, many of the British prisoners began building home-made radios to keep a closer eye on the course of the war. However, as time passes the POWs begin to be dispersed, many being sent to be worked to death on the River Kwae railway as it slowly makes its way across Thailand and into Burma. In these smaller camps, much more aggressively policed by Japanese guards, the prisoners find their confidence and expectation of good treatment rapidly disabused. Lomax's involvement in the construction of clandestine radios leads him to being imprisoned, humiliated, tortured and condemned to a number of horrific prisons in and around Bangkok.
Eventually the war ends and Lomax returns home, but finds that his torture continues. His experiences lead to the breakdown of his first marriage, an estrangement from his father and decades of nightmares and broken sleep patterns. Only in the early 1990s does Lomax finally receive the counselling and psychiatric help he has needed, a process which eventually leads him back to Thailand and a meeting with one of his Japanese tormentors, an interpreter who rejected his nation's barbarous methods of torture and militarism and has spent the decades since working to ensure that the Japanese do not forget what they did in the war. In this meeting Lomax eventually finds a kind of peace, fifty years after the war ends.
The Railway Man is a memoir of one man's experiences in the Second World War. It opens with a summary of Lomax's childhood and background, his experiences as a railway and engineering enthusiast, his decision to enlist before WWII even starts and his eventual involvement in the debacle of Singapore's fall (the city's monstrous defences were oriented seaward, allowing the Japanese to simply walk in from the rear and take it almost completely unopposed). This is followed by the largest part of the book, as Lomax recalls his experiences in various POW camps and later prisons, in which he recounts his treatment at the hands of the Japanese. These sections are definitely not for those with weak stomachs. The cruelty of the Japanese to those who surrendered to them is well-documented, but even so the sheer, inhuman horror they inflicted on Lomax is shocking. However, even more startling is the lack of counselling or treatment Lomax received upon his eventual release, and the mild mistreatment inflicted on the former POWs by their liberators (such as former POWs, in many cases malnourished and weakened by four years of captivity, being expected to do the work of fully-healthy, fresh recruits on the return voyage to Britain).
The book ends with Lomax's experiences as a much older man, meeting one of his former tormentors face-to-face in Thailand, revisiting his old prison camp and then visiting Japan. This section of the book is the most powerful, as Lomax's utter hatred and loathing of the Japanese comes through the text vividly. He has no interest in forgiveness or reconciliation until he meets his former adversary and discovers the extreme lengths he has gone to to make amends for his actions in the war, including directly challenging Japan's culture of denial and disinterest in the war crimes committed by its soldiers during the war.
The Railway Man is one of the most powerful experiences of life in wartime I have ever read. Lomax illuminates the so-called 'forgotten war' by showing the rank foolishness that led to Singapore's capture, the overconfidence of the British POWs whose initial freedoms led them into a false sense of security, and the horrors of torture, in which no punches are pulled. Lomax describes his own mistreatment in a somewhat dispassionate tone for the most part, but occasionally his fury and anger at his mistreatment comes through, undimmed by fifty years of peace (the book was originally published in 1995). Lomax refuses to consider himself a hero, citing many of his fellow soldiers whose feats were more impressive (such as the Scottish officer who grabbed a rifle off a startled Japanese guard to put a bullet through one of his own men dying from cholera after the Japanese proved unable to shoot him accurately), but, as with many old soldiers, Lomax dismisses his own achievements too easily. Lomax refuses to give out any names or compromise the network that led to the construction of the radios, despite being put through treatments almost too horrendous to contemplate (including the Japanese practice of repeated waterboarding), saving the lives of his colleagues. The final section, dealing with the reconciliation, is quietly hopeful, with the reader left hoping that the author has indeed exorcised his demons through the process of the meeting and the writing of this book.
The Railway Man (*****) is a remarkable story, powerful, moving and intense, and again confirming that people can endure incredible hardships under extraordinary circumstances when the need is greatest. It is a book that everyone with an interest in the Second World War should read. It is available now in the UK and USA.