He narrowly missed being blown up and was tortured whilst a prisoner of the Japanese. More than 65 years on, Clifford Hartland, one of the few surviving soldiers who worked on the notorious Burma ‘death railway’, talks about his ordeal for the first time. Catherine Vonledebur reports.
On September 2, 1945 – the day the Japanese surrendered to the Allies – Clifford Hartland had been told to dig his own grave and was waiting to be shot.
A former prisoner of war, he was forced by the Japanese to build the Thailand-Burma “death railway”. The horrific conditions of the prisoners as they built the line, formed the basis of David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Clifford who now lives in St Martin’s Rest Home, Woodway Lane, Coventry, with his wife Marjorie, aged 96, is the last living POW survivor from his regiment.
Out of 700 in his regiment, the gunner had been one of only four to survive their ordeal, and after suffering the brutality and torture of the prison camps, he returned home weighing just five stone.
As he looks forward to celebrating his 100th birthday on Tuesday, he reveals he has never spoken about his ordeal until now.
When asked how it feels to be nearly 100, Clifford who has had three strokes, is registered blind and slightly deaf replies dryly, “No different – just a bit older”.
His only daughter Christine, aged 66, a retired nurse, says despite everything her father has been through in his life he has never lost his sense of humour.
“Seven hundred of them went out in his regiment – but only four came back from the prison camps.
“For years dad kept in touch with the other three until they died,” she explains.
“He used to tell the grandchildren he and another chap built the Bridge on the River Kwai.
“Despite everything that has happened, he has always had a good sense of humour.
“Someone once offered him a lot of money to tell his story but he said ‘no I’ve had enough’. This is the first time his story has been told.”
The youngest of 13 children Clifford Hartland was born in Gloucester and nearly died as a result of scarlet fever at 18 months. His father was a chef who made Lamprey pies for the King. He and his brother Jack were head choir boys at Gloucester Cathedral. He married Marjorie at St John’s church in Cardiff on July 30, 1939.
A gunner in the 7th Coast Regiment Royal Artillery, Clifford had only been married to Marjorie for two years when he left the docks at Liverpool on October 1, 1941 for Singapore, via Cape Town, South Africa.
Three months later on February 15, 1942 Clifford was one of thousands of British soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore. He was sent to 15 prison camps and forced to build the Thailand-Burma line. During its construction, around 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guinness plays a British colonel who oversees his men’s construction of a railway bridge for the Japanese – whilst oblivious to the Allies’ plan to destroy it. The largely fictional plot is based on the building in 1943 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong in Thailand.
Mother-of-two Christine says: “All the way through the war it was a case of luck for Dad.
“Dad was in the last carriage of a train which was blown up crossing the bridge during the war. It was the only carriage that was saved.
“Afterwards dad said there was bits of people everywhere – blown-up arms and legs.
“Once dad got caught smoking banana leaves in one of the prison camps and a Japanese officer got a poisoned bamboo shoot and pushed it through his leg. He still has the scar.
“Every day they had to trek miles and miles through swamps filled with leeches.
“His leg got so gangrenous they thought he would have to have it cut off. The leeches probably saved it.
“One night cholera swept through one of the prison camps. As there was not enough room for each prisoner to have their own bed – they had to take it in turns to sleep on the floor.
“All the prisoners who slept on the floor died in the night and the ones in the beds survived. It was dad’s turn to have a bed.”
Even now Clifford is still haunted by the brutality and torture he endured.
He says: “The worst thing was when we had to dig our own graves. We were due to be shot on the day the war ended. Then the ‘all-clear’ sounded. You can guess how I felt. It was a long time ago now.”
Christine says: “Dad was 11 stone when he left home to go to Singapore but when he came out of the prison camp he was five stone.