Eric Lomax: War hero whose experiences in the Far East became a bestselling memoir


Martin Childs
Tuesday 09 October 2012 23:41 BST
Truth and reconciliation: Lomax meets Osamu Komai, the son of his wartime interrogator, in 2007
Truth and reconciliation: Lomax meets Osamu Komai, the son of his wartime interrogator, in 2007

Eric Lomax was the author of the award-winning, bestselling memoir The Railway Man, which vividly depicted his life and harrowing experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war working on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway during the Second World War.

Lomax was born in Edinburgh in 1919 and was educated at the city's Royal High School. Aged 16, he successfully entered a civil service competition for a Post Office job. He moved up the grades rapidly, but with the outbreak of war joined the Supplementary Reserve of the Royal Corps of Signals which recruited men from the Post Office Telephones. After intensive training he became a Second Lieutenant with the Royal Signals and was posted to the Far East.

Captured in February 1942, following one of the worst defeats in the history of the British Army, the fall of Singapore, Lomax was one of 100,000 allied POWs sent to Changi, one of the most the notorious camps. Their treatment was harsh, fitting in with the belief held by the Japanese Imperial Army that those who had surrendered to it were guilty of dishonouring their country and family and deserved to be treated in no other way.

From there, Lomax was sent to the Thai town of Kanchanaburi, where he was set to work on the infamous railway, including the bridge, linking Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma. In all, about 61,000 Allied POWs (of which almost half were British) and 180,000 Asian labourers worked on the 258-mile stretch of line, but the harsh conditions and inhuman treatment took the lives of 16,000 Allied and 90,000 Asian workers.

The bridge was immortalised by Pierre Boulle in his book The Bridge over the River Kwai, and famously formed the basis for David Lean's 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, many claimed that the film was unrealistic and failed to show what the conditions and treatment of prisoners was actually like.

In the face of malnutrition, illness and regular beatings, Lomax and other POWs built a radio with the hope of keeping up morale and finding out how the war was progressing. He also drew a detailed map of the camp's surroundings which was to be used in an escape attempt. This, however, proved to be his downfall.

The discovery of the radio, on 29 August 1943, set off a sequence of terrible repercussions. Almost immediately two members of the radio group were arrested, nearly beaten to death, then transferred into the hands of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police. Less than a month later, four further members of the group, including Lomax, were arrested and again beaten to within an inch of their lives.

"We survived but only just," Lomax recalled. "I had both my arms broken." He was later told by another POW that the rest of the camp had lain awake all night listening to the cries for mercy but could only pray for their survival.

On 25 September a further four officers were seized and of those, Captain Hawley and Lieutenant Armitage were beaten to death and their bodies thrown into a latrine. Because of his map, Lomax was subjected to a week of intolerable torture, including waterboarding. He was then transferred to the notorious Outram Road prison, where he was kept in solitary confinement and was convinced he would go insane, starve to death or die of disease. He survived by deliberately throwing himself down a flight of iron stairs in order to sustain injuries and be transferred to hospital. He feigned paralysis and got his wish.

When liberation and VJ-Day came in August 1945, Lomax felt unready to return to civilian life and signed on for another two years, becoming a Captain. He then entered the Colonial Service and was posted to Ghana in preparation for its independence in March 1957.

Lomax left the army in 1955 and studied personnel management, working initially with the Scottish Gas Board before securing an academic position at Strathclyde University. He retired in 1982.

Not surprisingly, Lomax was haunted for the rest of his life by his wartime ordeal, which resulted in the breakdown of his first marriage. Encouraged by his second wife, Patti, Lomax sought treatment, eventually becoming the first Second World War ex-serviceman to be accepted as a patient of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

Following years of counselling, Lomax's intense hatred, particularly for the interpreter who had interrogated him while he was being tortured, became a remarkable journey of reconciliation outlined in The Railway Man, published in 1995. Unknown to Lomax, the interrogator, Takashi Nagase, had suffered agonies of guilt after the war and had dedicated his life to trying to make amends. He had also written a book about his experiences, Crosses and Tigers, and had financed a Buddhist temple at the bridge over the River Kwai by way of atonement.

In his book Lomax documents how he met Nagase on the bridge in 1993; the meeting was filmed for an award-winning documentary Enemy, My Friend? Lomax's book won the 1996 NCR Book Award and the JR Ackerley prize for autobiography and was adapted for TV in 1995 as Prisoners in Time, starring John Hurt as Lomax. The film adaptation, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is currently being shot with Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman playing Eric and Patti.

In 2007 Nagase's son came to England and met Lomax. "Continuing to hate gets you nowhere," Lomax said. "It just damages you as an individual. At some point, the hating has to stop."

Eric Lomax, soldier, author and academic: born Edinburgh 30 May 1919; married firstly (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 1983 Patricia Wallace (three stepsons and one stepdaughter); died Berwick-upon-Tweed 8 October 2012.

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