The Railway Men

Posted on Tuesday 7th January 2014

The plight of Far Eastern Prisoners during the Second World War has been a feature of Pen and Sword's list for many years and we have over 20 books which cover the topic.


With the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster The Railway Man now bringing the subject to a wider audience, Pen and Sword has an extensive list for those wishing to explore this harrowing subject further.                

In a new paperback edition of Burma Railway Man, Charles Steel constructs the story of the 'slaves' who worked on the Burma - Siam railway, using 180 letters which he illegally wrote and then hid from his captors.

In the newly published Life on the Death Railway, Stuart Young recounts how he survived despite the back-breaking work, the brutal, merciless treatment by his guards and near starvation rations amid the constant threat of disease.

Another new title, Len Baynes' The Will to Live, is an extraordinary account of 1,000 days as a Japanese POW, which includes his descriptions of life and death working on the Railway.

Peter Jackson not only survived working on The Railway, but he also managed to escape before being recaptured and treated harshly by the 'sadistic psychopaths' who guarded him. He tells his story in Sacrifice, Captivity and Escape.

In Railway of Hell, Reggie Burton tells of how he and his dwindling band of colleagues were put to work building the notorious Burma Railway. Somehow he survived to also tell his moving and shocking story.

No Mercy from the Japanese is John Wyatt's tale of survival against the odds. Here he recounts how, unlike the majority of his comrades, he made it through. Twenty-six per cent of British soldiers working on the Burma Railway perished.

Lost Souls of the River Kwai is Bill Read's version of events on the Railway and, as with many of the other authors on this list, he goes on to describe how events in the Far East affected him for the rest of his life.

Despite the many harrowing tales, there are also many inspirational stories from this difficult period, and we have two biographies of soldiers who provided medical relief to their comrades:

In the Shadow of Death is the autobiography of Taff James who was put to work as a medic by his company commander. His account of the conditions and suffering endured by his fellow prisoners and himself makes for the most extraordinary and disturbing reading.

Healing in Hell is Ken Adams' description of the terrible conditions endured at the hands of the Japanese and Korean guards and, worst of all, the Kempetai secret police. He found himself faced with cases far beyond his medical expertise. Diseases such as dysentery, malaria, avitaminosis, cholera and smallpox were prevalent and had to be treated with minimal or no medicines.


Another captive who worked on The Railway, Gus Anckorn, was able to provide some relief through humour and, being a magician, was able to entertain fellow soldiers, whilst tricking his captors into providing extra food rations. He tells his story vividly in Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW.

Pen and Sword have three more touching autobiographies of individuals who were Japanese POWs, although they did not specifically work on the Railway:

Out of the Depths of Hell is one of our best selling autobiographies and tells the story of John McEwan, a Japanese POW who was forced to work in the brutal conditions of the Kinkasaki copper mine. His story is immensely moving and dedicated to those who did not make it.

In Prisoner of the Rising Sun, Stanley Wort describes his experiences as a POW right at the heart of the Japanese Empire, working as a 'slave' in various factories. His story is every bit as moving as those who served on The Railway and his treatment was ever bit as harsh.

John Fletcher-Cooke was an officer and POW in Japan during WW2. His book, The Emperor's Guest, based on the diaries that he kept at the time yet again provides horrific insight in the torture that he and his comrades suffered. There is also a chapter describing events after the war, when he returned to Japan and confronted some of his captors.

Mark Felton provides and intriguing study of what happened to the top brass Japanese POWs in The Coolie Generals. Whilst kept separate from all the other POWs, their treatment was every bit as harsh an,d after the war, they were the first to expose this at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Mark is a specialist historian in the Far Eastern conflict and has also written Never Surrender, which looks at dramatic escapes made from Japanese POW camps during WW2.

Further Reading

Burma Railway Man
(Paperback - 182 pages)
ISBN: 9781783400676

by Charles Steel
Only £7.99

Charles Steel took part in two military disasters - the Fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, and the Fall of Singapore. Shortly before the latter, he married Louise. Within days of being captured by the Japanese, he began writing a weekly letter to his new bride as means of keeping in touch with her in his mind, for the Japanese forbade all writing of letters and diaries. By the time he was liberated 3 1/2 years later, he had written and hidden some 180 letters, to which were added…
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Further Reading

Conjuror on the Kwai
(Hardback - 256 pages)
ISBN: 9781848846227

by Peter Fyans
Only £19.99

The Conjuror on the Kwai is the incredibly moving story of Gus Anckorn, a British soldier who was captured by the Japanese and held for over three and a half years. Before the war, Gus was a magician and throughout the war, entertained both fellow soldiers and Japanese guards with his tricks.

Gus has a brilliant sense of humour and a \'tell it as it is\' attitude which got him into a number of scrapes with both the Japanese and his own side. He has a remarkable…
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Further Reading

The Will to Live
(Hardback - 210 pages)
ISBN: 9781781593004

by Len Baynes
Only £19.99

The Author kept a diary recording his 1,000 days of captivity at the hands of the Japanese army. The difficulties and risks involved in this task were immense, yet he persevered although it meant deliberately defacing and cutting up the small pieces of paper. As a result, his memoir is both contemporaneous and entirely reliable.

Reading this account of life and death during the fruitless fighting and his subsequent captivity in numerous camps in Singapore and on the Death Railway in Thailand is a humbling and moving…
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