Bridge On The River Kwai - The True Story



The Famous Bridge on the River Kwai is located in Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province, at the City Of Kanchanaburi, which is 128 Klms West of the City of  Bangkok.


Many former POWs will scowl at the mere mention of the famous 1957 Hollywood Movie that starred William Holden and Alec Guiness. It is pure Hollywood, distorted, sanitised and tame. However if the movie only accomplished one single thing in its history it is that it kept the memory alive. The memory of one of the darkest chapters in the Allied history of World War II.


There is much more to the Death Railway than just the Bridge - The railway is 415 Klms long and was without question the most remarkable engineering feat, not just of world War Two, but perhaps since the construction of the Panama Canal!


The terrain was entirely inhospitable, unmapped and unexplored, yet the Allied POWs, along with their Native Labour counterparts suffered and died in such large numbers as to enable its completion in the unbelievable time of 16 months! It has always been said that there is one Allied POW dead that lies under every sleeper in its 415 Kilometre length.


For my country, Australia, the Death Railway has become the symbolic monument and heart of the War in the Pacific, December 1941 - August 1945. Whilst Gallipoli, in Turkey, is more symbolic of the Birth of Australia as a free nation and our sacrifice to the 1914-18 War in Europe, the Death Railway and particularly 'Hellfire Pass' ranks second to it as an Australian Pilgrimage and place to be at Dawn on the 25th April every year. - ANZAC DAY.

Ironically, 'The Bridge', which stands out as a world icon to the Death Railway, was located in the city of Kanchanaburi where there was much better conditions for the Allied POWs and therefore a lot less loss of life. In fact only 9 Allied POWs died in its construction. Not so with the Jungle Camps located along its entire 415 Klm length, where loss of life due to starvation and malnourishment, disease, exhaustion, torture, execution, beatings and ill treatment was commonplace and on a massive scale.

Philip John Denton Toosey C.B.E., D.S.O. (PICTURED LEFT) - built bridge number 277 on the Burma-Siam Railway line (aka: The Bridge on the River Kwai) born on 8th December -1904 in Birkenhead, England and died 22 December 1975.


Toosey was born at 8 South Bank, Oxton, Birkenhead. He was educated at home until the age of nine, then at Birkenhead School to the age of thirteen and then at Gresham's School, Norfolk. His father prevented him from going to Cambridge and so he was apprenticed to a firm of Liverpool cotton merchants. In 1927 he was commissioned in an artillery regiment (4th West Lancashire) of the Territorial Army. In 1929 his commanding officer appointed him his assistant at Baring Brothers, merchant bankers. He married Muriel Alexandra (Alex) Eccles on 27 July 1932 and they had two sons and a daughter.


In August 1939 he was mobilized and saw brief action in Belgium in May 1940 before retreating back into France. He was evacuated from Dunkirk. Following a course at the Senior Officers' School, he commanded and trained a home defence battery at Cambridge. In 1941, promoted lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed to command the 135th Hertfordshire Yeomanry regiment. In October 1941, his unit was shipped to the Far East. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for heroism during the defence of Singapore. Because of his qualities of leadership, his superiors ordered him on 12 February 1942 to join the evacuation of Singapore, but Toosey refused so that he could remain with his men during their captivity.


Toosey and his men were required (contrary to the Hague Convention) to build railway bridges over the Kwai Yai near where it joins the Kwai Noi to form the Mae Klong in Thailand. (The Mae Klong river above the confluence was renamed the Kwai Yai river in 1960.) This was part of a project to link existing Thai and Burmese railway lines to create a route from Bangkok to Rangoon to support the Japanese occupation of Burma. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 16,000 prisoners of war died on the whole project, which was named the 'Death Railway'.


A camp was established at Tamarkan, which is about five kilometres from Kanchanaburi. In the Tamarkan camp, Toosey worked courageously to ensure that as many as possible of the 2,000 Allied prisoners would survive. He endured regular beatings when he complained of ill-treatment of prisoners, but as a skilled negotiator he was able to win many concessions from the Japanese by convincing them that this would speed the completion of the work. Toosey also organised the smuggling in of food and medicine, working with Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu. Boon Pong was a Thai merchant who was also a captain in the Free Siamese Army. Boon Pong supplied camps at the southern end of the railway taking great risks and was awarded the George Medal.


He maintained discipline in the camp and, where possible, cleanliness and hygiene. His policy was of unity and equality and so refused to allow a separate officers' mess or officers' accommodation. He also ordered his officers to intervene if necessary to protect the men. For his conduct in the camp, he won the undying respect of his men. He was considered by many to be the outstanding British officer on the railway.


Behind the backs of the Japanese, Toosey did everything possible to delay and sabotage the construction without endangering his men. Refusal to work would have meant instant execution. White ants were collected in large numbers to eat the wooden structures and the concrete was badly mixed. Toosey also helped organise a daring escape, at considerable cost to himself. (In the film the fictional colonel forbids escapes.) The two escaping officers had been given a month's rations and Toosey concealed their escape for 48 hours. After a month the two escapees were recaptured and bayoneted. Toosey was punished for concealing the escape.


Two bridges were built: a temporary wooden bridge (picutred above) and a few months later a permanent steel and concrete bridge which was completed in 1943. At the end of the film the wooden bridge is destroyed by a commando raid. Actually, both bridges were used for two years until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing, the steel bridge first in June 1945. (There had been seven previous bombing missions.) The steel bridge has been repaired and is still in use today.


After completion of the steel bridge the majority of fit men were moved to camps further up the line. Toosey was ordered to organize Tamarkan as a hospital, which he did despite difficulties including minimal food and medical supplies. The Japanese considered it the best-run prisoner-of-war camp on the railway and gave him considerable autonomy. In December 1943 he was transferred to command Nong Pladuk camp, and in December 1944 he was moved to the allied officers' camp at Kanchanaburi where he was the liaison officer with the Japanese.


He and some other officers had been separated from his men at Nakhon Nayok camp and was being held there as a hostage when Japan surrendered in August 1945. At that time, Toosey weighed 105 pounds (47 kg). (Before the war he weighed 175 pounds.) Despite his weak state, Toosey insisted on traveling 300 miles (500 km) into the jungle to oversee the liberation of his men.


After the war, Toosey saved the life of Sergeant-Major Saito (not a colonel as in the film). Saito was second in command at the camp and was thought to be not as bad as many of the guards. Toosey spoke up for him and as a result Saito did not stand trial. Over 200 Japanese were hanged for their crimes and many more served long prison sentences. Saito respected Toosey greatly and they corresponded after the war. Saito said that "He showed me what a human being should be and he changed the philosophy of my life." After Toosey died, Saito travelled from Japan to visit the grave. Only after Saito died in 1990, did even his family know that Saito had become a Christian.


After the war Toosey resumed his service with the Territorial Army and was promoted brigadier. He retired from the TA in 1954, and was awarded a CBE in 1955. Toosey also returned to banking with Barings in Liverpool and expanded their services greatly.


He worked for the veterans all his life, and in 1966 became President of the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War. He refused repeated requests by the veterans to speak out against the film, being much too modest to seek any glory or recognition for himself. Eventually Toosey realised that the public perception was based on the film and so agreed to be interviewed by Professor Peter Davies, providing 48 hours of taped interviews on the understanding that they were not to be published until after Toosey's death. Eventually Davies documented Toosey's achievements in a 1991 book entitled The Man Behind the Bridge (ISBN 048511402X) and a BBC Timewatch programme.


A book by a granddaughter, Julie Summers, The Colonel of Tamarkan, was published in 2005 (ISBN 0743263502).When Alec Guinness won his Oscar for the role as Colonel Nicholson in the film Bridge on the River Kwai nothing could have been further from his mind than the feelings of the real life colonel who, as prisoner of the Japanese in the second world war, was forced to build a bridge over a major river in order to help the Japanese supply route from Thailand to Burma. After all, the role was entirely fictional. It was based on a film which itself was based on a novel by a then little known French writer called Pierre Boulle.


What few knew and fewer still understood was that the story of the bridge on the river kwai was loosely based on a notorious episode in the Second World War. The irony was that whereas in the film Colonel Nicholson had had to help the Japanese to build their bridge, in reality the Japanese were skilled engineers and the main role of the real life colonel, Phil Toosey, was to ensure that the men under his command suffered as little as possible at the hands of their unforgiving captors:


Toosey was a merchant banker in civilian life but had been an active officer in the Territorial Army since 1925. When he was caught up in Singapore, the worst military defeat in British history, he refused to take the easy way out and be evacuated to India but chose to remain with his men.


The Colonel of Tamarkan is 400 pp and has over 90 illustrations, many published for the first time including a photograph of Phil Toosey taken in October 1943 in captivity.


Left: Aftermath of Allied Bombing 1945

Toosey was a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of Lancashire, and raised funds for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. In 1974 he was awarded an honorary LLD by Liverpool University and was knighted.