Obituary: Brigadier William Anderson

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM ANDERSON'S wartime career as a sapper was cut short when he was captured outside Dunkirk in May 1940. He was already the holder of a Military Cross and an MBE. A fluent German speaker, he was suspected of organising several escape tunnels from Oflag VIIC and on orders from the German High Command in Berlin was sent to the bleak and seemingly escape-proof Colditz Castle, where he was to remain until April 1945. Shortly after arriving he heard he had been awarded a bar to his MC.

For part of the time he shared a room with Wing Cdr Douglas Bader, the ace pilot, who had lost his legs in 1931, and with David Stirling, the founder of the SAS. Skilled in metalwork and leather, along with the local blacksmith whom he visited with Bader under escort, Anderson helped keep the pilot's artificial legs "up to scratch". He painted throughout his time at Colditz; his skills were enhanced by a fellow POW artist, a French officer, Neven. Anderson managed to send his work via the Red Cross back to England where his canvases were widely exhibited to raise awareness of the needs of POWs.

Born in Ramsgate in 1905 and educated at Rugby, he attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1923 and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1925. He graduated with first class honours in Mechanical Sciences from Cambridge in 1927. He was to learn his trade as a sapper in the North-West frontier of India, mainly building roads and bridges in the mountainous terrain.

Back home in the UK, he was stationed at Catterick in 1935. He described his time there, under increasing menace from the Germans, as "playing soldiers with horses and flags representing Lewis machine guns". In 1936 he was sent to Egypt as part of the force manning the Western Desert against the Italians in case the British wanted to call Mussolini's bluff over Abyssinia. From there his division was moved to Palestine to prevent the Arabs from sabotaging the oil pipeline.

Returning to India in 1937, he recalled: "I found myself embroiled in another small war and quite a bit of earth-road building." He not only had to contend with the climate, but the uncertain temper of the local labour as well as being continuously subject to enemy action while constructing a 15-mile length of road through a hostile area. For his conspicuous devotion to duty he was awarded an MC.

On 10 May 1940 the long-awaited German attack on the Low Countries began. Anderson with 61 Chemical Warfare Company, Royal Engineers, operating under the Welsh Guards, were involved in the intense fighting for the defence of Arras. His company were extremely active demolishing bridges and laying mines to slow down the advancing enemy and allow the BEF to make its way back to Dunkirk. His unit was then ordered to defend Mont des Cats near the Franco-Belgian border and from there to make their own way back on foot. The majority of his company made it to the beach, but Anderson's party had a wounded man with them and made slower progress. They were eventually forced to surrender only 10 miles from Dunkirk.

During his time in Colditz he was involved in several escape attempts and was one of a team of officers who put their artistic skills to use forging documents and making items which could be used to assist escapes. Parts of linoleum on some of the floors were removed to make stamps for false documents, incisively cut by fragments of a razor. When the Escape Committee lost their camera in a search Anderson made one out of someone's old spectacles and bits of wood. An Australian photographer, a peacetime professional, said it worked better than the manufactured one.

His great source of solace during his long internment was his painting. There is now a permanent display in the guardhouse of Colditz. Shortly before his death Anderson's son put a selection of his paintings on the Internet (http:www.cimttz.

After the Second World War he returned to India as a planning officer at Army HQ. He was then seconded as Deputy Chief Engineer to the Overseas Food Corporation in Kongwa, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), in East Africa. A number of staff appointments followed and he retired from the army as Chief Engineer (Northern Command) in 1959. He became manager and chief engineer of Ground Surveys Ltd and his final position was with Richard Costain Ltd.

After retirement in 1971 he continued to paint. His last major project, and one which brought him much delight, was organising and motivating the volunteers who carried out much of the work on the conversion of the Farnham Maltings in Surrey, which had been derelict for years, into a fine arts centre. The centre was also very dear to his wife Kathleen, a celebrated cellist.

Max Arthur

William Faithfull Anderson, engineer and artist: born Ramsgate, Kent 17 June 1905; MBE 1937, CBE 1956; MC 1938, and bar 1940; married 1938 Kathleen Hunt (died 1995; three sons, two daughters); died London 27 August 1999.